Hey, let’s network. I read an article the other day listing the 5 biggest networking mistakes that hurt your career. One of them was “Only talking about work.”

networking“People are more likely to help and hire people they like and relate to,” according to Money & Career Cheat Sheet. “And letting your personality shine through will allow you to build real relationships with your contacts.”

Okay, makes sense. But then … if you’re not talking about work, what do you talk about?

I admit, I default to discussing business when I go to networking events. That’s partly because I’m genuinely interested in someone’s business – how they see it, how they grow it, and especially how they speak about it.

Other go-to topics for me: their eye-popping jewelry, fabulous shoes, or beautiful bag. If I can spot something that merits a sincere compliment, that’s almost always a good way to open a conversation. It can’t be phony though. When somebody makes a big fuss over a very ordinary necklace or earrings, it’s just awkward.

The weather usually works, especially here in Chicago. It seems trite, doesn’t it, talking about what a lovely day it is. Or, more likely, how hot, cold, snowy, humid, windy or rainy it is. But if nothing else, the weather is something we have in common with everyone else in the room. And finding common ground is part of the point when we’re networking.

I’ve tried asking off-beat questions, just to mix things up. But they seem to make people uncomfortable instead of engaging them – and that’s not what I had in mind. Apparently most folks aren’t inclined to talk with a total stranger about what they were like in 4th grade or how they met their husband/wife or what’s their favorite way to spend a Saturday night.

The venue or the food can be a conversation-starter, as long as it doesn’t devolve into “Come here often?”

And I sometimes open a conversation by asking about the event host. “What’s the best thing about being a NAWBO member?” or “What are your favorite Chamber events?” or “I’m thinking about joining EPWNG; what do I need to know?”

It pays to stay away from questions that can launch a tirade. It might be much more fascinating to hear the worst thing about joining a group, or the events I should avoid at all costs. And it’s funny – you’re likely to get some of that even when you frame your question more positively.

But in general, a conversation that starts down the path of carping and criticism isn’t going to be much fun for either one of us. And if I invite negativity, I’m likely to feel slimed by the time I’m ready to move on and talk to someone else. So I usually go for the upbeat.

I’m not much of a sports fan, although I know talking about the home team can be a great way to get into a networking interaction.

I can get as far as “How about those Bears?” But then what? Once I get past the story about how to keep a bear out of your front yard, I’m at a loss.

How about you? Do you stick to business when you’re at a networking event? Or do you venture into more social conversation? What kinds of topics have worked for you? And – at the risk of inviting negativity – what have you tried that didn’t work at all?

No judgment here. I’ve experimented with a lot of different approaches. I actually walked up to three men at a Skokie Chamber breakfast one time and said, “I wanted to talk to the best-looking guys in the room … and here you are.”

One advantage of being “of a certain age” is that nobody thinks I’m seriously flirting with them, so that kind of playful comment can work. (It can also fall really flat when someone has no idea how to respond to it.)

So, post a comment and tell us about your approach at networking events. Strictly business? Light and social? And how do you decide what works when?

About keeping that bear out of your front yard …
Put up a goal post.