Don't talk -- ask.
If your goal as a great networker is always to find ways to help the other person, then the only way you are going to find out their needs is to ask. More importantly, it's the best way to find out about them as a person. Believe it or not, by seeking to discover more about them, they will begin to see you as the most interesting person they've met.
The trick is to ask open-ended follow up questions. Try these suggestions:
- "What do you do for a living?" is a common (boring) question that most people will ask. A good time to use this is right after they've asked you and you've responded. After they've shared this, though, you can then follow up with "How long have you been doing that?", "How did you get started?", "What led you to want to do this?". If they've been doing it for a while, then "How has the industry changed in the time you've been in it?" lets them be an expert. "What sort of exciting things are going on in the industry right now?"
- "What do you like to do for fun?" I often like to ask this in one-on-one meetings over coffee. A lot of the follow-up questions from #1 apply here, too. This gives them an opportunity to be a person and not just a job. You might even find a common point of interest.
- "What are your plans for the upcoming year/season/month?" Whether they share personal or business information, you will find out about their goals and aspirations. These may be areas in which you can lend a hand.
- A good one if you are attending a recurring event is to ask "Have you been to this event before?" If they haven't, you can offer to help (if you are experienced). "What do you like about this event?" might give you some information that will make your own networking more productive.
- "What other events do you attend in the area? Why?" This can point out other events that you might want to consider for yourself. It might also let you know what other groups your conversation partner belongs to and even what his target market might be (which might lead you to being able to refer him at some later date).
Now, you don't have to use every one of these questions on every person you meet. For networking events, I recommend that you keep three or four of them available as conversation starters. Any more than that and you will be monopolizing too much of that other persons time. After all, they should be trying to meet people they don't know, too.
So, what other questions do you use when you are at a networking event?