If you survey a room and ask if they would rather spend the evening with a group of close friends or a group of strangers, you can almost guarantee that they would unequivocally choose to spend time with friends. Your perception of attending a networking event may be wearing a name tag, struggling to start or maintain a conversation, making mindless small talk and receiving business cards from people you may not have the intention of emailing or seeing again. I get it. I used to feel the same way until I learned to network authentically. I started asking questions that made the conversation insightful and interesting and left me feeling inspired and motivated to connect. I’ve met people who have become close friends, mentors, employers and clients. I reached out to a few successful women to find out the best questions to ask at networking events.
The Best Questions to Ask at Networking Events
1. Where do you recommend I go while I’m here?
Jane Mosbacher Morris, the founder and CEO of To The Market, a social enterprise that sells goods made by survivors of conflict, abuse and disease, travels often. She enjoys asking local businesswomen and artisans about “their life experiences and the challenges that they have overcome as well as their insights on food and highlights that are off the beaten path.” As a result, Jane gains insights for her business and her travels.
2. How did you hear about this event?
Lauren McGoodwin, the founder and CEO of the career advice resource, Career Contessa, asks people how they heard about the event or know the host. As she says, “This question gives us some common ground and allows the other person to ask me a question back. I find that after we both get chatting we’re able to find other topics to keep the conversation going.” Rhonesha Byng, the founder of Her Agenda, a digital media platform for millennials asks the same question because it tells her something about the person. “If the person knows the speaker, you can ask about the connection. If they found out about it on social media, you can talk to them about social media. If they attended the event for inspiration or knowledge, you can ask about that,” she says.
3. What is on your reading list?
Courtney Grace Peterson, the founder of Logic and Grace, a digital communications consultancy asks people for book recommendations. She finds that this question leads to a conversation about a new business strategy book or a great novel and “provides common ground to chat about something you’re passionate about or something want to learn or explore.”
4. What is your favorite thing to do?
Kate Gremillion, the founder of Mavenly and Co., a resource for young women designing a career and lifestyle with purpose likes to ask people about their favorite things. “People not only love talking about themselves, but love talking about what lights them up,” she says.
5. Where are you from?
Emily Merrell is the founder of Six Degrees Society, a networking organization that provides curated matches during each event. Emily asks people where they are from and where they went to college. “These questions help me get a better sense of who they are and what to talk about. I try to see if we have a friend in common. It usually helps break the ice if we do,” she says.
6. What did you think about the event?
Jaime Petkanics, the founder of the job search consultancy, The Prepary, likes to attend networking events with a speaker, panel or educational component. Jaime asks people about their main takeaways from the event.
7. What is your story?
Nur-E Farhana Rahman, the co-founder of Knotty Gal, a jewelry company that raises funds for the Bhandari Girls’ School in Bangladesh, asks people about their story. She previously asked people what they do, but then the children’s book “The Little Prince” made her rethink her approach. Nur-E was inspired by the drawing of the boa constrictor eating the elephant. She says that the question is the equivalent of being one of the adults who sees the hat, not the boa constrictor eating the elephant. Now she asks people to tell her their story. ”Everyone has a story and it lets people share whatever they’d like to share, whether that includes their work or not,” she says.
8. How did you decide to do what you do?
Deena Baikowitz, co-founder and chief networking officer of the networking coaching company, Fireball Network, asks people how they chose their career path because “they usually reveal a pivotal life experience, talk about their passions and talents or describe someone special who inspired them.” “Asking why someone does what they do is a wonderful way to learn, share and connect in a meaningful way,” she says.
9. What are some of your go-to resources for getting guidance in your field of work?
Dr. Domniki Demetriadou, a partner and director of recruitment and assessment services at The WorkPlace Group, asks people about their go-to resources for their industry. “You may learn sources that are relevant to your own work or gain insights to industries you are unfamiliar with,” she says.
10. How can I be helpful to you right now?
Danielle Harlan, Ph.D., the founder and CEO of The Center for Advancing Leadership and Human Potential, asks people how she can be most helpful to them. She found she would have great conversations with people and wonder if there was something she could have done to help them personally or professionally. Instead of wondering, she asks and has found that people are pleasantly surprised and respond with their answer. She never asks people what they do because she thinks it, ”signals that the asker is really only interested in assessing the respondent’s power and status so that they can determine whether they’ll be ‘useful’ to speak with.” Instead she makes herself useful to other people which leads to more enjoyable, interesting and authentic networking experiences.
I ask people what they like to do instead of what they do. The question identifies what clinical psychologist Meg Jay calls identity capital: “How we build ourselves — bit by bit, over time.” It uncovers what they care about and what makes them unique and leads to a more insightful and exciting conversation.
Next time you’re at a networking event, you’ll be equipped to start conversations that will forge genuine relationships.