The Beginner’s Guide to Networking Part 3
What to Talk About
Let’s talk about it, shall we!
In Part 1 , you learned how to find and reach out to people. In Part 2 , you learned some strategies for building up your nerve to talk to people. Now, you probably have coffee chats scheduled! That’s exciting! But what are you going to talk about? What if you hate small talk? What if the conversation stalls out? What do you even have to offer? Let’s get out of this downward spiral and get to some strategies that will help you have effective conversations with your new networking friends!
I know people hate small talk. Nobody actually cares about the topic they are talking about. It seems fake and insincere. Some people can have a hard time processing it. However, small talk is a common social ritual, and it’s not going anywhere. In fact, you can come across as rude if you dive right into a conversation without exchanging pleasantries first. There does come a point when you can talk to someone and skip the small talk. Unfortunately, you have to get to know that person well enough first, and to do that…well, we are back at the beginning with small talk again! Let’s look at some ways you can take advantage of small talk in a conversation.
Use the time constraints to your advantage. If you sent out messages based on any of the scripts in Part 1 , you asked for 15-20 minutes of someone’s time. You can use this strategy for meetups and mixers, too. Let people know that you will only be able to attend for a certain amount of time. Fifteen minutes really isn’t that long. So when you start the conversation, you can politely ask to forego the small talk to make the most of your time together!
Example script: “Hi Andy! Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today! I want to be respectful of your time, so is it OK with you if I ask you some questions right off the bat?”
Example script: “Nice to meet you, Ann! I’m only going to be here for about 30 minutes, could you tell me what you do in your position at Super Software Company?”
You just let them know you value their time and cut out five minutes of talking about the weather and road construction from your conversation. They aren’t going to notice you are skipping the small talk just because you don’t want to do it!
Learn how to small talk. You don’t have to like it, but you might have to use it, so you might as well learn how to make it work for you! Have a list of questions and canned responses memorized so you don’t have to think too hard on the spot and feel even more awkward! You could even gamify it if you are talking to multiple people. How often can you recycle the same questions and answers to mundane topics! And just like you aren’t trying to read anything into small talk outside of that it is a ritual, don’t try to read into someone else’s answers. For example, a friend of mine had recently moved to Nebraska after being in Okinawa, Japan, for several years. She was upset that people were complaining about the humidity when it’s so much more humid in Okinawa. It’s just something people say!
Here are some go-to small talk questions/statements and responses:
- Is it nice out where you’re at? Stormy but it should be clearing up this afternoon.
- It wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the humidity! Right? It’s making me wish it was winter!
- It wouldn’t be so cold if it wasn’t for the wind. Right? I’m about ready to move to Florida!
- Man, that road construction on [whatever street] added 15 minutes to my commute. They still aren’t done with that? I feel like they’ve been working on it forever.
- Did you try the [whatever hors d'oeuvres are being served]? I did! The bacon-wrapped scallops were amazing!
- Have you been to this event before? It’s my first time, but I’ve heard good things.
- Wow, [the event host] really set this up nice, didn’t they! Yes, they really did a nice job.
- Did you catch the [sporting event] last night? I didn’t. How was it?
- Do you have any plans for the weekend? Might take the kids fishing if the weather holds up.
Come up with your own and practice them with a friend so it feels natural when they come up. You can also watch yourself in a mirror or record yourself talking, so you can practice hand gestures, smiling, etc., until you feel more comfortable.
Controlling the Conversation
We like to be in situations where we are in control because it’s stressful when things are out of our hands! How do you stay in control when you are talking to someone else, especially a person you don’t know? There is a “secret sauce” for setting the pace and tone of a conversation: asking questions! If you are asking the questions, they have to answer. Not only that, but people love to talk about themselves. This is not a bad thing. You are talking to them to learn about their experiences and careers, so ask away!
Are you wondering what to even ask? Here is a great amalgamation of possible questions from the 100Devs Discord :
- How did you get your foot in the door at _?
- What education, experience, or training do you find the most useful in your current role? (i.e. did the stuff you learned in college/self-taught help you most or job experience over time)
- How does your job affect your general lifestyle?
- What are the typical challenges you face in the tech industry?
- Do employers care if you don’t have a degree in CS?
- As a __, what steps would you recommend I take to prepare to enter this field?
- What tips can you give to make someone stand out, especially in competitive places?
- Looking back at your careers so far, are there things you wish you would have done differently?
- Could you suggest a few names of people I could contact for additional info?
- What is a project you’re excited about working on?
- What is one thing that you have always wanted to try but never have?
- What is something that you have always wanted to learn?
- What has been the highlight of your year so far?
- How did you land your first job?
- What’s your current company like, and what’s your role there?
- How will I know when I’m ready to start looking for a job?
- After hearing about what I'm up to, do you know anybody who you think I should meet?
Come up with some of your own go-to questions and re-word these to make them feel more natural. And don’t feel as if this is a checklist of questions you need to get through in a conversation—just some ideas for reference. If you have any suggestions I should add to the list, please let me know!
There’s no point in asking people a bunch of questions about themselves if you aren’t going to listen to the answers. Like everything else, good listening skills in a conversation takes practice. If you are going into the conversation nervous and afraid of asking the right questions, it is going to be stressful to listen to the answers, as well. Your brain might not even want to cooperate, and instead of hearing what the other person has to say, it’s pinging ahead with which question to ask next!
Take notes. You can do this in person, and you can do this during virtual calls. I am old-school when it comes to this. Back in my outside sales days, I always carried a padfolio with a notepad, business cards, and any marketing materials I needed. These days I hardly leave the house, but I still have a dedicated notebook for coffee chats. You can use notes on your phone, Notion , or anything else that helps you. As the other person is talking, write down a few things about what they are saying. This helps you remember who they are later, keeps a record of what you talked about, and gives you reference points during the conversation. If they say something you are curious about, instead of interrupting, you can wait for them to finish talking and then ask a question about that note.
Example script: "I made a note from when you were talking earlier, and you said you found a tech job just a few weeks after your bootcamp ended. How did you go about finding that first job?"
You can even reference your notes to have a follow-up conversation!
Example script: "I made a note that you volunteer for Wonderful Community Tech. I would love to talk to you again and hear more about it!"
Listen for clues. People like when you remember things about them. It’s a thoughtful thing to do, and it makes you a more likeable person. Oftentimes people will tell you more than just the answers to your questions. For example, maybe your new connection mentions they are leaving for Florida tomorrow. Or that they are going to be on a diversity panel at an upcoming conference. Maybe they mention they have two kids under three years old, so they really appreciate their company’s hybrid office setup. Now you have the opportunity to tell them to have fun on vacation, send a follow-up message asking how their panel went, or empathize because you have kids and would love the opportunity to be home with them or escape to a quiet office! If you don’t feel comfortable referencing this information during this particular chat, you could also use it for small talk the next time you talk with them!
Ease into it. Just like 15-minute workouts can help you get in shape, 15-minute coffee chats can help you build your networking skills! I suggest asking for 15-20 minutes for initial chats and to respect that time frame. First of all, 15 minutes is a time most people are willing to share. So you are not asking for a major meeting that is going to suck up a big chunk of their day. Plus, now with virtual calls, people don’t even have to leave their house or office. Secondly, this takes the pressure off you to come up with long chunks of conversation! You will only have time for a few questions, especially if they give detailed answers. If it goes well, congratulations you did it, and you can schedule another longer chat with them! If it went poorly, congratulations, you did it, send them a thank you message for their time, and move on.
Ending conversations with grace is a pro move and definitely puts you in control of the conversation. Once again, use that time frame to your advantage. You agreed to 15-20 minutes, so if it has been 14 minutes, you can start wrapping up the call.
Example script: "Well, Leslie, I want to be respectful of your time, but I would love to hear more of your advice. Could we schedule a follow-up chat next week?"
If you don’t really want to talk to them again, you can just thank them and end the call.
Example script: "It was nice meeting you, Ron, and I appreciate learning more about your experience at Super Software. Have a great rest of your day!"
If you are meeting in person, and are a handshaker, you can say the same thing and give them a handshake to signal close of conversation. I’ve been giving non-handshakers a little wave. Only do what you are comfortable with. The pandemic made it weird for everyone, so if it gets awkward, blame covid!
If they end the conversation first, you can answer by thanking them for their time and telling them it was nice to meet them.
Example script: "Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, Chris. It was nice meeting you, too!"
Let’s get this out in the open: it is hard to shake feelings of inadequacy. Who would even want to talk to a newbie developer who just learned to code a few months ago? A lot of people, actually! If you asked someone for a coffee chat, and they agreed, and you have it on the schedule, that person thinks that you are worth talking to. If you have been following the networking tips so far, you were straightforward, they know your reason for the chat, and they are taking time out of their day to answer your questions. If they didn’t want to talk to you, they either would not have answered or told you no. Helpful people are everywhere, and there are hundreds of people with years of tech experience who want to help newcomers. You are worth it!
Please take these tips and talk to people! I would love to hear how your coffee chats are going. Next up, we will talk about how to keep conversations with our connections going and our networks growing.