[03.08.10]
126 great comments!

How To Start, Maintain And End A Conversation With A Stranger

career networking, human interest, conversation opener, helpful tip, job search, career strategies, career networks, talk, stranger, strange, conversation, start, tips, maintain I spent an hour on the phone last week.  Getting my teeth kicked in.

And I have to tell you that I stumbled a bit.  Something I’m not used to doing.  I was out of my element.  Speaking to a radio audience that doesn’t care how much time I spend working with and helping people with job search and career strategy in my free time.  They just wanted answers.  Rightly so.

And if you listened to my appearance on the Recruiting Animal Radio Show you may have an interesting view of my personality and strengths.  Animal has a well-honed way of sweeping your feet out from under you.

But the places I stumbled were not his fault.  They were mine.  I was not able to answer some pretty basic questions he asked.  Ones that, I think, seem pretty straight-forward.  Not intentionally deceptive at all.

So now I’m here to answer the big one.  In full detail.  For the world to evaluate and comment on.  Yes: You.

His question to me:

How do you start, maintain and end a conversation with a stranger?

Why couldn’t I answer that question with specifics?  How do you talk with a stranger?  Well, I think that career networking is something I no longer do on a conscious level.  I just do it.  It has become second nature.  But as someone providing advice to new job seekers and other folks out there networking, it probably seemed suspect that my answer felt forced and vague.  It is a great question that many struggle with heading into a career networking event.  Especially if it is not a job search-focused event where many arrive with a common interest.

First Some General Ideas

  • @BillBoorman shared a good idea to connect with people via a social networking site like LinkedIn and arrange a meeting at the event.
  • Bring a friend with you.  And if you have someone, that’s great.  As long as you don’t use them as a crutch the whole night.
  • You can contact the group owner in advance and try to arrange a meeting time.  Once you meet the group owner, he/she can help you navigate the room or introduce you to others.
  • Offer to volunteer for an upcoming career networking meeting.  Be the sign-in person.  You’ll meet everyone.
  • Get there early.  It is much easier to find and meet new people in a less crowded room.  And you can get comfortable/in a rhythm before the big crowd arrives.
  • Ryon Harms @thesocialexec suggests that leading with an offer to help is a great way to grab attention “and as the conversation develops the other person naturally  starts to focus on how to help back”.
  • Finally, as I’ve shared before, look for other people who are obviously new (standing on the edge of the conversation) and go introduce yourself.  They will be glad you did . . .

But here is my newly thought-out answer to this question.  For @Animal, his demanding audience and all of you.  Written in the most basic form and in detail for beginners at career networking.  But honestly, I think even the most veteran folks can use a few reminders now and again!

How To Start It

You find and connect with people when your eyes meet theirs.  You make a connection with your eyes, smile and approach with confidence.  And then you kick things off with a question.  A starter or introductory question needs to be open ended so that the other person is given a wide berth in which to answer.  To put their own spin on things.  Everyone likes to give their ideas and opinions.  The question also needs to be genuine.

Some specific examples if you are new to the group:

“Good morning!  I’m a first-time visitor here and I’m looking to meet a few new people today.  OK if I start with you?”

“Good morning.  My name is Tim and this is my first meeting here.  I was hoping to find someone who could tell me more about this group.  Could I ask you a few questions?”

“Hi.  I’m Tim.  Looks like a great turnout this morning.  Is this typical for the group?”

“Hey Mike, You look like you might know a few things about this group.  What advice do you have for a new member?”

If you are not new to the group:

“Hi.  I don’t think we’ve met before.  My name is Tim.

“Good morning.  First time here?  How can I help you?

If you approach a group in the middle of a conversation:

“Hi everyone.  Do you mind if I squeeze in?  I’m Tim.”

“Hi.  Room for one more?”

How To Maintain It

In order for a conversation to continue, there has to be some depth to it.  Meaning that you need to learn something important about the other person or share something personal about yourself.  Without it, a conversation skips the surface like a flat rock over a pond.  Eventually sinking.

“What are you looking to accomplish over the next few years?

“What would you do next if you found a million dollars in a paper sack in the corner of the room with your name on it?”

“Why are you here tonight? Who are you looking to meet?”

“How can I help you?”

“What is the single biggest issue you are facing in your industry?”

“Are you like me?  My weekends are swamped with kids sports!”

“I do a lot of volunteering.  I’m currently building homes for Habitat.  Have you ever done any volunteering?”

How To End It

There has to be an ending.  And it will either happen naturally or one of the two people will have two initiate it.  And I think the latter is better because ideally you are meeting more than just a few people during each event you attend.  So you have to be able to move on after 5-10 minutes.  In a way that does not feel abrupt or rude.  So what words do you use?  My suggested phrases:

“It’s been great talking with you.  Can you introduce me to anyone else here who might make a good connection for me?

“Thanks for answering all my questions.  You’ve been great!  Would you be open to a follow-up meeting over coffee?

“I appreciate your time.  I’d love to meet a few more people tonight.  Is there anything I can do for you before we move on?”

“Thanks for the time.  Seems like we have a lot in common.  Can I send you a LinkedIn invitation?”

Now it is your turn.

You tell me how you do it.  And be as detailed as you can.  Give specific phrases for each part.

And I promise I won’t kick you in the teeth.

Want to get some live feedback?  Consider a “power hour” with me:

career, coaching, brainstorming, ideas, strategy, positive, confident, action, power hour

For other great career networking tips, also look to Neal Schaffer, Kevin Liebl, and one of my favorite “Go-To” guys on networking, Thom Singer.

Tim Tyrell-Smith is the creator of Tim’s Strategy. As a blogger, Tim has been a regular contributor to U.S. News and World Report, interviewed twice on NPR and is the author of two career books (“30 Ideas” and “HeadStrong”). Become a fan at http://facebook.com/TimsStrategy and follow on Twitter (@TimsStrategy). He lives with his wife and three kids in Mission Viejo, California.

Tim Tyrell-Smith – who has written posts on Tim's Strategy®.



Written by: Tim Tyrell-Smith
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