People like to talk about themselves – if only someone would ask
Networking – By Steve Woodruff
But what if you are not a natural networker? What if, like me, you are an introvert with an aversion to schmoozing in social settings?
Not a problem. You can become the best networker in the room by practicing one thing.
I call it storyasking.
One of the more powerful means of human communication is storytelling. The human brain is hard-wired for stories – stories spark interest and make memories. And, it turns out, most people are really hungry to talk about themselves.
If only someone would ask.
So … ask. The quickest way to build a bond with someone else is to get them to talk about their stories. Stories are the doorways into the heart.
Sometimes I’ll open up a conversation with a new person by asking an open-ended question like this: “So, Andrea, in 60 seconds, tell me your story.” Once they recover from the surprise (they’re expecting the usual close-ended openers, like “Where do you work? What’s your job title? Do you know so-and-so?”), they’ll typically stammer a bit, and in light of the 60-second limit I’ve suggested, they’ll tell a few highlights.
That’s all you need to get the conversational ball rolling. A few facts that the individual finds important to mention.
Fill in the Blanks
You see, once you get somebody to start telling their stories, all you have to do is keep asking other relevant questions to fill out the narrative. How do news reporters obtain stories? They ask the crucial questions:
Who? What? How? Why? When? Where?
Let’s say Andrea mentions that she graduated from the University of Michigan in the early 2000s. I can take that one factoid and make the conversation flow with questions like this:
- Where are you originally from? Michigan, or someplace else?
- Who was your most memorable professor? (And follow-up: Why?)
- Were you in the football stadium any of the years when Michigan and Ohio State did battle?
- Where has been your favorite place to live since leaving college?
- Tell me about the person in college (or after) who provoked your interest in this field.
Each branch of the unfolding story leads to an opportunity for more questions. By digging deeper, and drawing out details, you give that person something priceless – attention and interest. And, since you’re listening to their experiences and their heart, you may also be able to provide something of enduring value – insight.
One of the greatest privileges of networking is making an impact by simply being an outside observer who cares. Because no one can read the label of the jar they’re in.
Your perspective may be exactly what this person needs now.
Making Real Connections
The storyasking networker isn’t primarily concerned with spreading business cards around and accumulating random LinkedIn connections. The point is to make areal, personal connection, and to provide whatever support and encouragement you can.
Here’s a short list of some of the common questions I ask people:
- I’ll bet you didn’t put in your high school yearbook the goal of working in (this role). Tell me how your career arc evolved to what you’re doing now?
- If you could change any direction in your career up to now, what would you do differently?
- What do you love about what you’re doing now? What would you change?
- What do others tell you are your greatest strengths and skills? Are they right?
- Tell me your greatest success story.
- Where do you feel most comfortable – big company? Small entrepreneurial environment? Would you want to start a company someday, or go solo? What would you do?
- What are the biggest differences you see between (past situation, company, role, location) and your current place?
- What’s your biggest professional challenge right now?
In advance of your next networking opportunity (one-on-one or a group setting), I suggest developing a few questions that you can have top-of-mind to ask people. Nothing profound – very simple inquiries are all you need. Secretly take on the persona of a curious questioner.
As people give out their stories, you can tell them about your similar ideas, struggles, experiences and hopes. This builds the human connection and can create high levels of trust in a short period of time. I’ve had new acquaintances tell me deep personal and professional secrets over coffee simply because I was interested and listened.
One of my favorite ways to end a conversation is when someone says, “Hey, next time we talk I want to hear about you!” Mission accomplished – the focus was on them. Great networking isn’t about superficial blabbing or handing out the most cards. It’s about building enduring bridges.
Those who have spent time with me know that I ask a lot of questions. Yes, I am a genuinely curious individual. I’m also a consultant, and consultants ask tons of questions! But most of the questions I ask people while networking are very simple. And they’re based on what I really want to know: “What makes you tick? And how can I help?”
Motivational sales guru Zig Ziglar famously summed up the right approach to networking when he said, “You can have everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want.”
What do they want? Well … ask!
Steve Woodruff is president of Impactiviti/ClarityFuel and one of the 2022 LTEN Members of the Year. Email Steve at email@example.com.