15 Better (and Painless) Networking Questions
When you’re working a room, the absolute worst question you can ask to kickstart a conversation is:
How are you?
It’s boring, and it sounds like a panicked stalling tactic used by an intimidated placeholder who doesn’t have anything better to say. You want to say something that will get you noticed, make you appear interested, competent, or even in possession of good humor. Don’t be a placeholder. Here’s what to say instead of the usual stuff.
1. Hi, I’m [Name]. I work as a [Position Title] at [Company].
This is a great way for them to reciprocate with the same information. Once you put yourself out there, they know what industry you work in (by your title) and what company you work for. Now, they’ll likely tell you the same information. This provides a basis for you to ask further questions and add context to your conversation.
2. What did you learn from the presentation/workshop?
If you’re at an event where someone gave a presentation or a panel presented on a nuanced topic, use it as a diving board!
3. What is the biggest focus in your department right now considering the [major news event]?
While they may not have a good answer to your question, your interest will show: 1) that you are curious; 2) that you are current events/news savvy; and 3) that you can adapt your interests to theirs. This will usually either ensue in a conversation about the news event or about their job.
4. What are you most excited about in terms of your job this year?
This can come off as awkward. So preface it with #1, figure out what they do on the daily, and ask them about specific projects or their job generally. Pay attention to the company they work for, and bring up newsworthy, related points.
5. How bout them A’s?
Non-serious questions about sports, arts, movies, or other entertainment news are a great way to go as long as the person you’re speaking to is receptive and not in the middle of an intense intellectual conversation. Feel out their personality and demeanor, but don’t be intimidated by their position. Chances are, they either get schmoozed by the over-eager or shunned by the overly-intimidated. They’re human, and they appreciate being treated like it.
6. What are your primary job responsibilities?
This is good if you’re generally interested in what they do, and/or what they do is obscure. If you can’t get a drift of what they do by their job title, dig deeper. They’ll be flattered that you’re intrigued. Just make sure you’re genuine and not going through the motions.
7. Have you taken a good vacation recently?
Again, this is a great way to get away from the highly serious nature of many networking events. Professionals can dread networking events just as much as you. Often, professionals appreciate an event that doesn’t involve them being drilled on their day-to-day or being approached by drooling job-seekers. Mix up the questions, and don’t make them feel like ants under a magnifying glass.
8. What made you decide to go into [industry they work in]?
Genuine interest in their background and where they came from is not only a great place to get them to put their guard down, but also a great backdoor for you to figure out how you can breach the industry as well.
9. What advice would you give someone just starting in your [business/industry/position]?
This is a more direct question, and you should try to frame it around their experience as well. For instance, if they tell you that they’re from suburban Illinois and meandered into a high-ranking job in San Francisco, use those details. Relate your question to someone who’s moving from a place with zero connections to a place with an intimidating and highly-qualified employee market.
10. What do you love most about what you do?
They might be taken aback by this question. Not many people are asked this outside of an interview setting. Get them cozy, and push them a bit if they don’t answer genuinely.
11. What is the biggest change or challenge that you’ve seen transpire in your profession or area in the past few years?
Current events help here. Bring up unique technological transitions in the field, or even, something that was spoken about at the particular networking event (if applicable). This shows you’re on top of the constantly moving industry.
12. Are you involved in any volunteer or charity work?
Not only is this a great way to gauge their interests, but it’s an opening to offer something. The best thing you can do to gain the respect of a professional at a networking event is to offer them something. If they are involved, find out how you can get involved. They’ll appreciate your interest in their cause, and it’ll be a way to get in touch in the future (without directly asking them for a job). If they aren’t involved in a charity, they will usually express dismay that they “should be involved.” This is where you suggest a charity that you’ve been volunteering with, discuss it with them, and then offer to send them information about it later. Again, this puts you two in contact later on in a non-intimidating way.
13. What did you struggle with the most when you first started working in [area of work]?
Similar to #9. Figure out what was difficult. Then ask them how they overcame that, how long it took, how many jobs or positions it took, and who mentored them. This type of question can bring a Professional down to earth and make them remember what it was like when they were in your position.
14. What did you study in school?
A good way to bring them back to the “good old days.” Or a great way to start a discussion about where they ended up. People usually remember their college years fondly, so it’s also a great way to build up a comfort level and connect with them on a more informal basis.
15. What inspired you to become a [their position]?
Who was their mentor? Who are their role models? Did they become who they wanted to be? These are implied in the question, but their answer may surprise you. I’ve had great conversations about inspirations that have ranged from Law and Order: SVU to Rambo.
Have a career question you’d like answered? Ask me anything. Pose it to @unfold_careers or here.