Good questions? Good answers?

This blog is about how to talk to people at networking events

If people tell me what they do at networking events, I rarely remember for any length of time.  (That is, after all, why we hand out business cards that say what we do.)  If I do remember, I have may well have misunderstood.  The exchange is largely a waste of time for most people, given that most people aren’t trained to ask questions (your original point, I assume) or to listen to the answers.

(The place to learn about what they do is the follow up one to meeting I am continually advocating.)

Further, nine times out of ten, after the first few words of the answer, the questioner loses interest because, let’s face it, most people at networking events aren’t really interested in what other people do:  they’re only interested in whether the other person might give them some work.

(Don’t mistake the veneer of British politeness for interest.)

So, when I talk about networking to clients, I suggest that, when asked “what do you do?”, they should reply, “let me answer that with a story”.  And then they tell a story.  As a representation of what they “do”, the story is incomplete, partial and possibly out of date.  But, if told reasonably well, the story can be (a) interesting and (b) memorable.  Which “I am an accountant” isn’t.

Telling a story at a networking event marks out the teller as different from the crowd (in itself a good thing); and provides plenty of hooks for the other person to ask supplementary questions (particularly if the hooks have been deliberately placed there).  The hooks generate enough conversation for one or both parties to determine whether they would like a followup meeting with the other, which is presumably the point of going to a networking meeting.

So a marketing person might say:

“May I answer that with a story?  I was working with a client recently and their problem was X.  Well, that’s what they thought, but actually we worked out it was Y.  This proved a bit tricky to address, because of P, Q and R.  In the end I/they decided to do A, B and C.  And, as a result, E and F happened for the client.”

When asked “what do you do?”, you should reply, “let me answer that with a story”.

Note, nothing about the person talking.  It’s all about the client, what their problem was and what they did to sort it.  Talking about clients helps the listener identify with the subject of the story and prompts them to think of people they know who might be in a similar position (including themselves, obviously).  At a deeper level, not only do people like stories (provided reasonably well told), but stories get them into their feelings which is where you need them to be if you want them to learn something (ie, get an idea of what you do), and if you want them to make a decision (ie, to have that followup meeting).

Telling stories is one way of being entertaining.  And I try to make mine amusing, too.  Getting the other person to laugh is really important.  People—particularly women who are often less at ease in networking events than are men–really like people who are funny.  And I practise telling my stories.  I practise making the pauses and the asides seem natural, and I practise making the jokes seem spontaneous.  One of my stories starts, “I had a client.  He was an ex-policeman.  Actually, I suppose he still is an ex-policeman.”  And that still gets a laugh, years after I first thought of it.

I was sitting next to someone at a chamber dinner last week.  I had never met him before.  He looked at my badge which said, “emotional intelligence at work“, and asked me something like “what’s that about?”  I said, mock-hesitatingly, “well, it’s about, er, using emotional intelligence in the, er… at work”.  He laughed, and he initiated a conversation about how he likes to use emotional intelligence in his workplace.  Bingo.  The conversation moved smoothly on to him (not me:  I know he’ll find out what I do, in detail, when I think it is most helpful to him to find out).

And he opened up.  He gave me all sorts of material directly relevant to what I do which led me to believe that he could, in fact, become a client.  Meanwhile, because I carefully only said things which amplified and flattered what he said (decorated with a few stories about past clients of mine), he was (I assume) getting the message that I knew what I was talking about.  Thoughts were forming in his mind that I might be of use to his business (I know that because he said so).

The next morning, he got his LinkedIn contact request in pretty quickly (before I had even got up), with thanks for the conversation.

He did tell me early on that his firm was an accountants’ practice.  A piece of information I tactfully didn’t pursue.

So, how about your newsletter next time has a piece, “Ten Whacky Answers That Really Work”?

Meanwhile, the next time I am asked at a networking event what I do, I promise I’ll reply, “Well, let me illustrate that with a story.  Last week, I was having an interesting email correspondence with Rob Brown – he’s an expert on networking;  you should check his website.  Anyway, he was saying how it is important to vary the questions you ask, and I said blah blah blah”, and so on.

Why go down that path?  Simply because I have a belief that it is 99% likely that that person (whoever he or she is) has a belief that they aren’t as good at networking as they would like to be.  I have given them a choice should they want to purse that belief (you or me), but I have the upper hand because I am standing in front of them at that moment.  I will then see how much I can get them to open up about their fears around networking, and will endeavour to make constructive responses, at no time telling them what I do.  It is a certainty that they will ask me if I am involved in networking professionally, thereby relieving me of the necessity of having to tell them.

This is all about pulling rather than pushing, a rather larger subject than formulating questions.

This article is based on Network betterby Jeremy Marchant
© 2018 Jeremy Marchant Limited . image

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