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Understanding your sector
Understanding your sector

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3.2 Introductions and getting a conversation going

Let’s think about introductions and getting a conversation going. How do you go about starting to talk to someone you don’t already know or have only just been introduced to, say at a conference or business meeting, or even at a party or other social event?

As mentioned in Section 2, networking is not just about finding out information from other people but about offering something in exchange, so the best way to begin is probably by providing some information about yourself:

‘Hi, I’m Yasmina. I’ve travelled down from Leicester today. How far have you come?’

This short opening is not very original, certainly, but it combines information about you with interest in the other person. It also invites them to offer up information about themselves in a non-threatening context and gets the conversation going, possibly as follows:

‘It’s nice to meet you. My name’s Pamela. I’ve come down from Glasgow so I had to stay over last night. I couldn’t get a wink of sleep as the hotel was so noisy.’

Once the conversation has started, you need to think about how you will keep it going, at least until areas of mutual interest emerge and the process becomes more natural and less self-conscious. This is where the concept of small talk comes in. Oxford Dictionaries defines this as ‘polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters, especially as engaged in on social occasions’ (Oxford Dictionaries, 2021).

Small talk gets a bad press because it is associated with mindless and inane chatter but it need not be so. Importantly, it allows you to get to know the other person and for you both to establish a relationship based on some mutual trust. It doesn’t have to be tedious by any means and can focus on the news, interests, travel or anything that makes sense in that context.

Moreover, there are skills to small talk that you can learn. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Use open questions that invite a longer answer rather than merely ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, for example:
    • ‘What are you working on at the moment?’

      ‘Why did you decide to come to the conference today?’

  • Practise active listening to show that you are engaged; for example, by nodding, smiling appreciatively, standing openly rather than shrinking or backing away, and giving small verbal cues such as ‘Aha’, ‘Uhuh’, etc. that demonstrate you are listening and that will prompt people to say more.
  • Reflect back what the person says using their own words. This acknowledges that you have heard them but also implicitly encourages them to continue talking. For example:
    • Them: ‘I have been with the company for about five years following a few years at Smith and Co.’

      You: ‘Smith and Co.?’

      Them: ‘Yes, I was a junior manager there working in sales.’

  • Listen for the meaning and emotion in what people say, rather than just the words, so that you can pick up on topics that are more important to them. People will often reflect how important a subject is to them by the emotion in their voice or animation in their face. In this way, you can steer the conversation into areas that interest them and about which they will say more.

These are just a few tactics to practise in order to get the conversation going. Clearly these need to be used with some care so that it is not obvious what you are doing, but it is surprising exactly how much of this you are probably already doing without really thinking about it!

Once you have begun talking with someone and feel that you have made some progress in establishing a relationship, then you can move the conversation into particular areas of interest or, perhaps, agree to exchange contact details and talk further later.

Activity 4 Preparing for an event

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Think ahead to an event that you are planning to attend where you might be able to do some networking. Remember that social events and chance meetings with others can also provide opportunities to network. This is particularly important if you are not currently working, and therefore have fewer work events to go to.

Use either your notebook or the Toolkit [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   to note any preparation that you might want to do in order to get the most out of networking. If you can, think about the people you want to meet and why. An example has been provided to guide you.

Table 1 Preparing to network at an event
Event Preparation required People to talk to Why
Regional training day
  • Find out the agenda.
  • Who is speaking/leading the training?
  • Who else will be there?
  • Aleksander Petrov – training manager
  • Rachel Perkins – regional sales manager
  • Ask about possible training courses open to me.
  • Find out about the key factors affecting future sales.
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This may seem very contrived but it need not be so. It is merely a way of making the most of the opportunities that occur when you meet people who might be able to provide you with useful information about your organisation or sector, or helpful ideas about the future. Some of this information may not be immediately valuable to you but store it away anyway.