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Better Conversations

A play-by-play game plan

Have a networking event or two on your calendar? Heading out to a marketing conference or digital summit this spring? Perhaps you’ve stocked up on business cards and are ready to pitch your product or service over the buffet lunch or appetizer selection.

Whoa! Back away from the complementary snacks, and listen up. Networking events are a time to catch up with colleagues and acquaintances, and maybe meet some new folks to add to your network. They’re about people, not products (or services, or whatever you’re selling). Networking is building and maintaining relationships which may—or may not—lead to business, friendships.

Ask any successful sales person and they’ll tell you their success comes from the solid relationships they’ve built with their customers. Not from pitching strangers at networking events.

The opportunity of conversation

  • Stand apart – other people appreciate (and remember) a good conversationalist
  • Connect and build a relationship – conversation leads to shared knowledge and maybe even insights into problems you can solve.
  • Learn something new – listen to understand to prolong meaningful conversation

The game plan

The beginning - small talk.

It doesn’t have to be about the weather, but it’s the same conversation starter whether it’s in an elevator or waiting in the coat check line. It’s not trivial banter—it’s a warm-up exercise, to break the ice, and read the other person’s cues if they’re open to a conversation.

“I can’t believe it’s raining again.” Say it if you must, but why not have a couple original conversation starters at the ready? Stand out and be memorable, but not over the top. Try simple: “Hi, I’m Bob. This is the first time I’ve been out one of these events.” Or connecting: “Love your umbrella! Where did you get it?”  Keep your questions open-ended, and use the answers to keep moving the conversation forward.

The middle.

Found someone interesting, who also seems interested in a conversation with you? Great! You’ve entered the conversation zone. Two-way, push-pull, back and forth. There’s no room for a monologue in conversation. Think of a volleyball game:

Serve the ball = ask a question

Receive the ball = answer the question

Set up the ball = add more information

Volleys the ball back over the net = asks a question

The game, or the conversation, must continue back and forth. If only one person is trying, it really isn’t any fun. And if one person keeps serving, and other catches the ball instead of sending it back, well, that’s just painful. Excuse yourself politely to get that wild mushroom crostini that you eyed up earlier.

Be a good sport. If you’re on the receiving end of the first serve—don’t let the ball drop. If the question is closed, offer more than the yes or no answer. “No, I haven’t read the book. I did read an article about the author, who sounds like quite the character. Which of his other books have you read?”

Be interested and interesting. Networking superstars stay current in local and world events, popular thought leaders’ latest musings, world leader philosophies and pop culture news. If you’ve been buried under paperwork for the last month, make a point to scroll through Twitter, listen to a podcast, or skim the newspaper before you head out to the event. Know your audience to help choose some newsy items which would be of interest to others and keep that two-way conversation flowing.

The end.

Unlike volleyball, the conversation isn’t a win-lose proposition. Maintain the back and forth, give and take throughout, and you can end it when it makes sense. For effective networking, know how you want to end a conversation. If this is someone you want to continue to build a relationship with, let them know: “I’d love to continue this conversation—can I connect with you to meet for a coffee?” If it was a fun chat, but you’re good to move on, don’t overthink it: “It’s been so nice talking with you. I’m going to mingle some more.”

Game on!

Ready, set... Get yourself in the spirit of networking with nothing more than the goal of meeting new people and enjoying some conversation. You never know where it will lead. Practice doesn’t make perfect (none of us are), but it sure helps to walk in with conversation confidence.


If you remember nothing else, memorize these tips to keep your conversation meaningful and maybe even productive:

The 5 Laws of Conversation

  1. Take a risk: start a conversation.
  2. Have self-awareness: know your conversation strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Listen to understand, not to respond.
  4. Be genuine and curious: everyone has a story.
  5. Discover shared experiences / commonalities (nothing fuels a conversation more).

Catherine.jpgCatherine Ducharme is Director of Client Services with Smart, Savvy + Associates’ Smart Savvy Academy. We find high-calibre marketing, communications, creative and sales professionals with proven track records and in-demand skills for companies who need them, across the Pacific Northwest and in Toronto. We also provide leadership and training development programs for workplace programs, corporate retreats and individual growth opportunities. Contact Catherine to discuss your organization's training needs.

Catherine Ducharme

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