by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
As a community, I think it’s fair to say that meetings and incentives professionals are better than average at networking. By and large we’re a jolly lot, particularly those of us in a “client-facing” role who are let out of the office to attend launches, functions and educational events. The Ops guys are totally different, as we all know, and many would prefer to eat shards of glass in a dark office corner than smile at strangers in a hotel ballroom! But how good are we really? Do we truly manage to turn our networking opportunities into meaningful encounters that bring benefits to ourselves, to those with whom we network and to the companies on whose dime we’re eating the shrimp and drinking the mojitos?
These thoughts were stimulated by a recent article in Harvard Business Review that suggests our chat-up line at functions should avoid the typical “So, what do you do Chuck?”. By focusing exclusively on what the other person does, Harvard says, we “set a boundary around the conversation that the other person is now a ‘work’ contact”. This, research shows, decreases the “multiplex ties” we have with that person and means the connection is less likely to flourish into a trusting, long lasting relationship.
But what are these “multiplex ties”? According to Harvard these are connections with other people where there is an “overlap of roles or affiliations from a different social context”. So when I discover that the other person supports the same football team as I do, or likes the same kind of music, or went to the same high school or grew up in the same neighbourhood then we share a tie or connection beyond the work context and our rapport is much more likely to deepen and flourish. It’s as simple as that.
Thus the Harvard article suggests that we initiate and develop conversations with questions NOT related to work. That way we establish the potential multiplex ties and expand the context of our connections so that they become more lasting, more trusting, more authentic. So what kind of questions do they suggest? Here’s the list of questions that Harvard suggests we include in order to take our networking to a higher level:
What excites you right now? This is a question that has a wide range of possible answers. It gives others the ability to give with a work-related answer, or talk about their kids, or their new boat, or basically anything that excites them.
What are you looking forward to? This question works for the same reason, but is more forward-looking than backward-looking, allowing others to choose from a bigger set of possible answers.
What’s the best thing that happened to you this year? Similar to the previous two, but reversed: more backward-looking than forward-looking. Regardless, it’s an open-ended question that gives others a wealth of answers to choose from.
Where did you grow up? This question dives into others’ backgrounds (but in a much less assertive and loaded way than “Where are you from?”) and allows them to answer with simple details from childhood or to engage in their story of how they got to where they are right now and what they’re doing.
What do you do for fun? This question steers the conversation away from work, unless of course they are lucky enough to do for work what they’d be doing for fun anyway. Even then, it’s understood as a non-work question and the most likely answers will probably establish non-work ties.
Who is your favorite superhero? This might seem random, but it’s one of my favorites. Occasionally, asking this question has led me to bond over the shared love of a character, but more often you’ll find a shared connection or two in the reason for why the other person chose that particular character…or why they’re not really into superheroes.
Is there a charitable cause you support? Another big, open-ended question (assuming they support at least one charitable cause). It’s important to define support as broader than financial donations, as support might be in the form of volunteering or just working to raise awareness. You’re also really likely to either find shared ground or find out about a cause you didn’t know about.
What’s the most important thing I should know about you? This one is effective for similar reasons as many of the above, plus it gives the broadest possible range from which they can choose. It can come off as a little forthright, so when to use it depends on a lot of contextual clues.
I asked networker-supreme @Supergreybeard for his own favourite chat-up lines and he reminded me, for starters, of the golden rule of networking:
Be interested, not interesting
Like the Harvard questions, this approach focuses attention on the person you’re meeting, not on yourself. This has to be the starting point. Once that’s been established, @Supergreybeard suggests the following to keep the conversation flowing outside of the usual cliched channels:
David / River / Adele / Martha / Storm [insert person’s name] – what a great name! How did you come to get such a nice name? Let’s face it, when given the opportunity and an attentive audience, most of us will happily gab on about our name and its origin. It’s a topic where we’re definitely on home ground, in the driver’s seat, well within our comfort zone.
So [insert name] what keeps you awake at night – this is an excellent question as it can be interpreted either personally or professionally. It might lead into a very deep chat about about personal anxieties and fear or it might focus on how the other person is going to break into that new account. Either way you’ve affording the person the opportunity to choose how much or how little to share with you.
Can I introduce myself? I’ve challenged myself to go out and meet new people – this is a great conversation starter that hints at the awkwardness we all feel in networking situations. Asked in this way it becomes an invitation to share in the awkwardness and that, in turn, takes the awkwardness out of the situation.
Pádraic Gilligan (aka @Padraicino), Patrick Delaney (aka @Supergreybeard) and Aoife McCrum (aka @Aoifemccrum) run SoolNua (aka @SoolNua). They work with destinations, hotels and venues on strategy, marketing and training for the Business Events industry.
Photos of the SoolNua team courtesy of our great buddy, Roger Kenny