How many times have you been in a pub, seen a nervous bloke out on a first date, and cringed after overhearing him open up the conversation with something like “do you come here often?”

What a blown opportunity to leave a lasting impression.

I used to be that guy. I’ve since learned that fluffy surface talk isn’t only the bane of bad first dates. It can also ruin networking opportunities. Innovative and unique conversations are what spur deep, meaningful connections—not the traditional ‘Standardised’, clichéd questions like “so, what do you do?” or “how’s business?”

I mean, if you started a new job and introduced yourself to your colleagues by asking how they circumvent corporate policy, word would quickly get around the office that the new guy does not excel at exchanging value through mutually beneficial relationships.

Good Conversations Lead to Good Relationships

Asking someone what they do is a safe question—and a useless one. Good conversation starts by removing both yourself and the other person from your respective comfort zones. You want to challenge their thinking and make them feel a bit uncomfortable by forcing them to think on their feet. Only then can you break the networking mould that traps most people at most events.

Your questions should all lead back to the one, true, central question—how can you help them? One of the best networking tips is that the pay-it-forward methodology will earn you dividends in the long run.

At your next networking event, ask a few of the following questions, and as you’re listening to the responses of the people you meet, consider how you can help them achieve the goals they state as answers.

  • If I could introduce you to one person, who would it be? Why?
  • If you could speak for 30 minutes to any audience, who would they be and what would you discuss?
  • If you were running this event, who are the first five people you would invite and why?
  • What is it that you don’t like about networking?
  • How did you feel walking in the door to this event today? Why?
  • Why are you here? What are you hoping to achieve from this event?
  • What’s the one thing you’re thinking about now, rather than being in this room?
  • What’s the biggest referral opportunity you’ve ever had and why?

If You Don’t Care, Don’t Ask

Resist the urge to ask about who has influenced them the most, who their best connection has been or who has had the biggest impact on their life. Just like “do you come here often?” those questions are easy to ask, easy to answer—and they have no value. You’re trying to find out what the person needs, and then spinning the wheels in your brain to figure out how to make it happen.

  • Your questions reveal that the woman you’re speaking with needs an accountant. You know an accountant who is not looking forward to moving to Northampton when his company relocates in April.
  • The next man you talk to is in desperate need of more office space, but can’t afford to expand. You remember meeting someone at a previous event who is looking for a way out of a commercial lease.

We’re not all born with the gift of gab. Some of us are shy; some of us are introverts, and some of us are self-conscious because we’re having an abysmally bad hair day. That’s fine. Just remember that good conversation starts with real questions and stokes real ideas. The reason you don’t ask someone if they come here often is because you don’t care—or at least you shouldn’t.

If you don’t care to know the answer, don’t ask the question. Real relationships start with real conversations.