Conversation Starters

October 4, 2021 by Cheryl Viola, Executive Director

Do you struggle with how to start a conversation? Meeting people isn’t always easy and can be uncomfortable. When it comes to attending networking, events people fall into two categories. Those who are excited to meet others, build relationships, and make connections. These people walk out of a networking event happy they attended because they had the goal to find out how they can help others. Then some felt it was a waste of their time. True networking is about listening and figuring what they need and how you can help them.

Like any skill, being a good conversationalist needs to be cultivated and practiced. Networking is relationship building, it is building trusting relationships and friendships with other business people. Building relationships is not only about seeking potential clients but is also about future referrals.

The chamber is a business-building vehicle and one of the ways it does that is to provide networking opportunities. The best networkers, relationship builders are connectors who help others by referring customers, providing testimonials, promote events and businesses along the way. If you are not taking the time to meet and interact with others you are missing valuable opportunities to find new partnerships, clients, and future positions.

To capitalize on these networking opportunities, you not only need to attend them but you need to talk to people. Too often when you go to an event for the first time, you tend to be shy and not talk to anyone or you desperately search the room for a familiar face. Don’t worry, I have done it too. It is not easy for most people to go up to a stranger and introduce themselves and start a conversation. The hardest part of a conversation is the opener. Even an introvert can utilize a good ice breaker to get people to open up.

The first question everyone seems to ask is “what do you do?” Our job title does not define us and doesn’t explain who we are as a person. For example, my title is Executive Director, to be honest, most people do not know what that means or entails, the title just sounds big. On the surface, I work with volunteers, run the day-to-day operations of a non-profit, meet with businesses, and so forth. My job is only a small part of who I am. I am a mother, a sister, a friend. I fought an extreme weight loss challenged and have maintained it for ten years. I have run in 5k’s, 10 k’s, and even completed an ironman triathlon. I have lived in 5 States and 2 Canadian Provinces. I am a Christian; I enjoy live theatre and I dabble in painting and so much more. To discover who someone is, we should stop putting them in the box of what they are doing. Talking about your work can create a common bond, dig deeper to find what other bonds you share.

1.            Ask a numbers-based question.

When you are stuck and do not know where to start ask a numbers-based question like how long have you been with your company? I did this recently and found out an employee of a local grocery store has worked there for eight years. We discussed how each day is different and how the variety is what makes it interesting. Then we discussed how we couldn’t imagine doing the same task over and over, day in and day out like they did during the industrial revolution.  The conversation naturally progressed after I asked how long she worked for the company.

2.            What is the highlight of your week?

This allows them to share a success they have had.

3.            What personal passion project are you working on right now?

You never know what secret side hustle someone has.  This allows you to get to know more about them personally.

4.            Have you been to an event like this before?

When I first moved to North Dakota, just before the 2018 oil boom, people were arriving in droves. I remember one Sunday there was another new family and I turned around and started speaking to the woman. I quickly learned that she had children of similar ages to mine. We visited a bit more and then went our separate ways. Over time we became friends. Truth be told, I recall that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be the one to say hello first.  I was fairly new myself and was still trying to remember the people’s names who had lived there longer and I did. The easiest thing in the world is to say smile, say hello and go from there.

5.            What are your favorite restaurants around here?

Having lived in five states and two Canadian provinces I have experienced communities from small towns to large metropolises. Food is a commonality among almost everyone. Let’s face we all like good food. And I have found that each community has some great hidden gems. I recall one time while traveling I was in Shreveport Louisiana; I asked the hotel employee an authentic Louisiana restaurant close by. The employee was happy to share what they thought was a good place where I could experience the local cuisine. Upon my return we discussed what I thought of the restaurant.

6.            What is one thing you have always wanted to do?

7.            What is the best piece of advice you have ever heard?

This question is great because over time it changes. I recall at the time I was pondering graduate school. Someone said whether I started now or later, two years will have passed and what would I have accomplished? At the time that was the catalyst I needed to stop the excuses and not delay starting.

8.            What is the most interesting thing you have learned lately?

9.            What is one thing on your bucket list?

10.          What has been your proudest moment?

Every good conversation starts with asking one good question and then followed by good listening.