In the classic self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie told his readers that they should become genuinely interested in other people. Nearly 100 years after the publication of that book, the rules of relationship building have not changed and this still holds true. If you want to make a lasting impression on someone, show that you are interested in them.
What has changed since the 1930’s is that the internet has made researching other people easier than ever. Today, there is no excuse for failing to research someone before you meet them for coffee. LinkedIn, website bios and general google searches can tell you a lot about someone’s history. It can also give you real clues about their interests and their personal backgrounds.
But even if you only know a little about the person (e.g. if you are meeting someone for the first time at a networking function), asking good open ended questions is a great way to get the other person talking about themselves. So when you are out networking, show some real interest in the other person. Find out what they do, who are their clients and what they are working on at the moment. Try to extend the conversation beyond business. Find out where they are from, what they like to do on vacation, what movies or music they enjoy or anything that seems appropriate to discuss. For more on that, listen to my podcast on Using Affinity to Build Your Business Network.
But being “interested” is only half the equation when you are out networking. You also want to be “interesting”. And this takes some preparation. When someone asks you “What’s new?” You don’t want to respond with trite answers like “not much”, or “things are busy”. Take the time to think about what you want the world to know about you.
I always try to think of at least one personal and one professional thing to talk about before I go to a networking function or meet someone for coffee. Lately, I’ve been telling people that my last child went off to college (that usually triggers a series of follow up questions). I also talk about some of volunteer work I am doing, the podcast I started and of course, a recent search I have worked on.
People do like to talk about themselves and we are all well served by following Dale Carnegie’s advice. But taking the time to think about how to answer the question “what’s new?” will increase the likelihood that you will get a conversation going. It will also help you find ways to connect with people with whom you are trying to network.
Update February 2023:
When sharing what is “new”, try to focus on the positive.
Recently, I got together with a business contact who I hadn’t seen in a while. I asked her what’s new. And the first thing she talked about was her new diabetes medication and how it was affecting her mood.
I’m an empathic person and naturally, I was happy to give her the space to vent. But this was a business meeting and it took us a while to move on to another topic.
The bottom line is that you are part of the conversation and while it is great to be interested in others, come to the table with conversation starters.
And try to be a little positive. It’s not that you can’t get into personal problems (people do bond around adversity and venting is very important to one’s mental health). Just don’t lead with this.