If you’re not a natural extravert, networking can be a bit awkward. Here are some networking questions that will help get you started.
All networking is not created equal. The first thing you need to consider is whether this is a networking event (where you randomly go up to strangers and meet them) or if this is a networking meeting. Each requires a different approach.
Let’s start with the networking event first and then talk about networking meetings.
Networking Questions for Events
The annoying thing about networking events is unless you’ve done a great deal of homework you probably don’t know who is there, and looking at people’s name tags usually doesn’t give you much insight.
Plus, many of us have had the experience where someone looks at your name tag and walks off immediately because you don’t have the title, company name or whatever they were looking for.
-Don’t be that guy.
The best thing you can be is sincerely present and interested in whoever happens to be in front of you, even if that person has no chance of advancing your career.
So, how do you kick off the conversation?
The best networking question I’ve heard went like this:
What’s the one topic someone at an event like this could ask you about that would get you excited and energized about the conversation?
Then just sit back and enjoy. You’ll hear about things like sailing and kids and mergers & acquisitions and all sorts of interesting topics. Then you simply follow up by asking something like:
- How long have you been doing that?
- What got you interested in it?
- What if I wanted to do that, where would I start?
You can also shift into, “What brought you to this networking event?”
Just be genuinely interested and you will be doing great. Remember that the networking meeting is about building relationships first, doing business (or promoting your career) second.
Imagine you have this long conversation with someone who is passionate about flying airplanes. It’s probably safe to say that you didn’t drive to a networking event to learn about the differences between a Cessna 172 and a Piper Cherokee.
No problem, you can simply say something like,
“It’s been really great meeting you and learning about airplanes. Tell me something, I have a background in _____ (fill in the blank) and am really interested in meeting someone who can help me ____ (fill in the blank). Do you know anyone here or elsewhere who I should meet?
Now in your best case scenario the person you are talking to is that person. Now you’ve just made a fantastic contact who really likes you. Worst case scenario you’ve still made a friend who will want help you be successful.
The idea is that a more personal, deeper connection pays dividends.
Here are a few more networking questions to help get you started in an event situation:
- If I were the perfect person to meet at this event, how would I help you?
- What brought you out to this event?
- In your career experience what has given you a sense of meaning?
- What does it feel like to be in the role you are in? What do you like/dislike?
Note that all these questions are about the person you are talking to, not about you (i.e. remember the key rules from How to Win Friends and Influence People). Also, keep in mind that these events are awkward for nearly everyone, so when you see that person standing alone, go up an make things easy for them. If you want to really dig into the details on how to master this type of meeting check out “Never Eat Alone.”
Networking Questions for Meetings
A meeting is a different situation because presumably you are meeting with someone for a specific reason (e.g. as part of a job search) and you are taking time out of his or her day.
This is important to recognize, in that a networking meeting requires a much higher degree of preparation than a networking event does.
So, what kind of networking questions should you ask?
First, do not ask anything that you could know by doing a bit of homework in advance. For example, what the company does, what this individual does, what is going on in the industry, etc are all things you should already know.
What you want to do is ask questions that show you have done your homework and then ask the person for an opinion or their perspective on that type of issue.
For example, I noticed in your LinkedIn profile that you went to law school and you now teach at a business school. I’d love to hear your perspective on the value of law school vs. business school for someone like me.
Note that it shows I’ve done my homework and asks a question I couldn’t possibly know the answer to.
Imagine it is more of a peer level meeting with someone in a different industry. What sort of networking questions would you ask then?
How about: I know from your LinkedIn profile that you’ve worked in both the pharmaceutical and financial services industries. As I contemplate making a move to financial services, what should I be aware of? How might I best go about it?
The format is the same in either case: you set a bit of context and then ask the related question.
If things are going well, you can also ask the “How does it feel to be you?” networking question. Say something along the lines of:
“You’ve experienced a lot of success in your career, and I hope my career takes me there as well. Tell me, what does it feel like to be in your position.”
The most influential networking meeting of my life came from asking this question. It is flattering, it is humble, and it is different than what almost anyone else would ask…
Regardless of whether you try that approach or not, here are two networking questions you should be sure to ask at the end of each meeting:
- Who do you know that I should reach out to for help in my journey? (Note that you can phrase this a lot of ways but the idea is the same: get them to open their network.)
- How can I help you?
The reason for asking the first question is self-explanatory.
Now you may be thinking, if I ask that question am I not putting them on the spot? Not really. Most people are expecting it, plus for the person you are meeting with it can feel like an opportunity to be helpful even if you can’t offer a job or something more tangible.
I’ve been asked this sort of networking question many times and have always tried to help the individual out.
The “how can I help you?” question is one that is always appreciated. Most of the time, the person will thank you and decline any help.
Other times you may get asked to make a connection or perhaps for some other small favor. The key thing is to ask. The person meeting with you has done you a favor. See if you can reciprocate.
In the end, the right networking questions come down to research and preparation first, and the willingness to ask something that builds a more intimate personal relationship second.
Networking Questions and the Meaning of Life
For certain there are topics that aren’t appropriate to ask about, but in the end we are all looking for meaningful human connections with whom to share the mysteries of life.
Business small talk gets boring. I remember once having dinner with a casual acquaintance and opening our conversation by asking him his feelings on religion.
I hadn’t planned on it. It was just something I happened to be thinking about it on my drive to the restaurant. The result was a wonderful conversation on religion, philosophy and the meaning of life.
At the end of our conversation he commented that our discussion was an unexpectedly pleasant surprise that he really enjoyed. I felt the same way about a dinner that otherwise might have been a bit superficial.
I’m not advocating for talk of religion at your next business networking lunch, but I am suggesting that sometimes, in some settings, a meaningful conversation can lay the foundation for a great relationship.
Think about the networking questions you wish that others would ask you: The ones that would result in meaningful answers with insight. Have the courage to ask those questions when you think you have found a receptive audience.