Business Development

The core skill of networking- start conversations with strangers

I do a lot of work to help professional people, in very large firms, to become more comfortable with ‘networking’. They talk to me about the difficulties they find in cultivating new ‘prospects’.  Times are tough, and they have tough targets to achieve for new business, and business development.  And what they used to do, in the good times, is no longer good enough.  So they have to work harder and differently to succeed.

The difficult moments they need help with tend to be those early moments when first you meet someone new at a conference, on the train or at a new business meeting.  They tend to have one question that they want answered-

What do I say when I meet someone for the first time?

And, luckily for me, it’s a really simple question to answer.  You say as little as possible.  Your only job is to  start the conversation, then encourage the other person to speak about themselves, listen, ask more questions and only when they ask about you and what you do, do you say anything about yourself.  Here’s an example, based on a recent encounter that I had on a train.

I’m sitting in the restaurant car, having a rather good breakfast, and I’m opposite a young woman, who’s asleep. I suppose that she got the 6am train a few hundred miles north of me, and is just waking up in time to arrive in London for who knows what purpose.  She wakes up, realises I’m sat opposite her and smiles, embarrassed at her unconsciousness.  I offer her a spare croissant with a smile.

‘Would you like one of these? theres plenty to spare.’

‘No thanks’, she says, ‘it’s a bit early for me’.

‘OK, but feel free to help yourself.’  She smiles.

A few minutes pass, and she seems more awake, goes to the WC and returns to her seat.  I ask,

‘An early start?’

‘Yes, I left Glasgow at 5.30 this morning.’

‘Poor you.  Is it a regular trip?’

‘About twice a month’.

‘Sure you don’t want that croissant?’

‘Well if you’re sure, I’m starving.’

I pass her the croissant, Jam and a knife, and we eat in silence for a few minutes.  Then I ask her,

‘What takes you to London?’ She thinks, and decides to answer,

‘I’m a lawyer, for Rolls Royce, and we have regular contract meetings with our Solicitors.’

Sounds interesting?  Rolls Royce Cars? Aero?

‘Aero, I’m surprised you knew.  Most people think Cars.’

And there we have it.  A conversation started, continued, and ended as we arrived in London St. Pancras.  As we left, she asked me for a business card and gave me one of hers in return.  We’d talked about Glasgow, Derby, Rolls Royce, families, children and our work.  When she asked me what I did, I just said- ‘I’m in marketing’ and left it at that.  She asked for more information and I told her a bit at a time.  When I mentioned that I was a speech writer, she got really interested and asked me for tips for a speech she’d to make in the next few weeks.  But my answers were driven by her questions, and my agenda was only to have a pleasant conversation with a young professional, to pass the time.

As soon as I got back to the office that evening, I sent her an email with a short article (not by me) on how to make the perfect introduction speech at a dinner (her challenge), and sent me a lovely reply in return.  Then she asked me to ‘connect with her on ‘Linked-in”.  Job done.  There’s another person in my list of people who thinks well of me, whom I will keep in gentle contact with, once in a while, and who may develop into a client.

For a step-by-step dissection of ‘how’. Click here.



  1. Pingback: Step by step to starting conversations with strangers | World class presentation skills- Jim Harvey

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