by Heather White

The art of creating a stimulating conversation

The quality of your questions will determine the quality of your results.

Jay Abraham

When I first started to network, my biggest fears were ‘what was I going to say’ and ‘they will think I am stupid.’

Then I met a magician called Michael Vincent, who I watched chat with CEOs, CFOs and many other senior executives. This man had few qualifications, not very much schooling and is a self-taught magician, but he just breezed about the room creating amazing connections.

Michael drove himself to learn because he had a burning desire to earn a living and improve himself. He worked out that his market was unlikely to find him tucked away indoors – so he went out to his market. And this is the hurdle that many of us face.

What right do you have to be at an event when you are not one of them? You are a salesperson and they are a CEO; you are a tax advisor and they are a CFO; you are an HR manager and they are a Marketing Director, and so the list goes on.

But no matter what your job title, everyone loves a good conversation with a good conversationalist, which is exactly where we are going with this – so let’s get going.

Remember this...

The art of creating a good chat is like doing the waltz. Instead of saying to yourself 1, 2, 3 and 1, 2, 3... repeat this:

watch, ask, listen and watch, ask, listen and so on.

It is through observation and asking that any change you want to bring about will happen. You see, life really is that simple!

Why is asking questions important?

  • Watch any decent networker/communicator and they all have a honed sense of curiosity.
  • How will you learn anything if you don’t ask questions?
  • How can you engage with anyone if you don’t ask questions?

Can anything go wrong when asking questions?

Yes it can, but it is not so much what you ask as

  • How you ask – in other words, your tone of voice is important
  • How many questions you ask – in the past, as I was learning to develop this skill, I went overboard and started to sound like an interrogator...
  • The timing of your question – as my mum always said ‘think before you speak’; these are still very wise words, to which I would add, however, that you must still speak up
  • The words you use. Yes, yes – I know this is exactly what you are worried about, but below are a number of ways in which you can get out of difficult situations and these work most of the time.

Summary of what to practise

  • Tone of voice – learn humour, playfulness, seriousness and curiosity.
  • Volume of questions – this is about asking and sharing, asking and sharing. It is a two-way conversation, not an interrogation.
  • Timing – show thoughtfulness when asking your questions; if you are in a crowd, let others ask their questions.
  • Words used – practise open questions and probing questions (see Questioning Skills).

The natural rise and fall of most conversations

Listen to any conversation and you will notice

  • Most have a beginning, a middle and an end
  • Some have only a beginning and end
  • Often, particularly if it is between strangers, the beginning can be clumsy or vague
  • Often, the middle can be focused and intense (there are degrees of intensity, however)
  • Often, the end may have an action, goodbye or closure, and perhaps a showing of appreciation or humour.

These are normal

  • It takes a few minutes to get going.
  • The conversation doesn’t go anywhere useful.
  • It’s going great at first, but then it peters out.
  • It comes to natural end.

All of the above are perfectly normal and OK.

Rules that will always keep you safe

  • Remember it is a conversation, a chat, a discovery about the other person; it is about sharing and learning.
  • Don’t just talk about yourself.
  • Talk about what you do only if invited; don’t force your information on others.
  • People only listen to you when they are ready to, so enjoy hearing about them.
  • It is OK for a conversation to finish without you contributing information about yourself.
  • Memorise at least five or six good generic questions (see Emotional hooks and Finding the common ground, below).
  • Be genuine and fresh each time you ask a question.
  • Listen carefully and frame another question out of the response.
  • Quality questions should have a strong ‘emotional hook’ (see below for more information) to stimulate the conversation.
  • Your face, voice, eyes and body language should express real interest not ‘this is a technique’.

Emotional hooks – what are they?

To explain what I mean, below are a few examples. Your job, when next having a chat with anyone, is to practice emotional hooks and observe how the conversation changes.

When I am chatting with someone, I am watching the pace of conversation, the level of engagement, the degree of eye contact, the level of interest and questions or story telling. I am monitoring to see whether it is fairly informal - perhaps the other person is ‘revealing’ their issues. Mostly, I am looking for a line of conversation that the other person will thoroughly enjoy... as will I.

An emotional hook conjures up a picture for the other person and takes them into an emotional memory.

  • When was the last time you went swimming?
  • Do you have any role models?
  • Has the dust settled now the builders have left?
  • How did you celebrate your promotion?
  • Have you created your first 100-day plan now you are in post?
  • Brilliant choice of the HR person – how did you find them?
  • What happened to Joe?
  • Hear your project went very well. What’s next – relaxing or straight in with next one?
  • How did you celebrate your birthday?
  • What about that goal? Amazing!


This next bit of intelligence is not for the faint hearted, only those who are really interested in the secrets of communication.

Now I am not being rude here – just realistic. Many people don’t want to know or learn what makes a conversation really work and why it fails. Many just say ‘tell me what to do’. So if you are one of those, skip this part.

But if you are interested, I will give you a few pointers.

  • Techniques can only take you so far; you need to be genuinely interested in the other person, otherwise they will sniff you out as a fake and dismiss you. That is bad news.
  • Trust is a big, indeed a massive factor in networking. Some people build trust by testing you – you may do that yourself to others. If you meet someone like that, they may ask you lots of questions but reveal little about themselves. Tread carefully and slowly. These people are often worth waiting for.
  • Staying with trust, some people may find it intrusive if you ask too many questions and may prefer you to talk about yourself. Once I have picked this up, I share stuff about me that I am happy to talk about and keep my questions to the other person more formal and businesslike.
  • Listen carefully to everyone you meet. You will soon notice that some people like business chats, while others like to know about you and are more social.

I haven’t got a clue what they are talking about...

Everyone dreads the situation where you haven’t a clue what the other person is talking about. Sometimes this can happen when you are standing in a group (better scenario), but it can also happen in a one-to-one chat. People either use their own internal language (understandably) or get carried away about a project they are working on. Ask yourself a question first: do you really want to learn about their experiences, knowledge and so on? If yes, then try out some of the questions suggested below. If no, move on out! I say this because you will get bored stiff, which will show and, to be fair, who wants someone in their group who is not engaging with the conversation? I promise you they won’t mind if you move on.

So if you are staying, try some of these:

  • Just so that I can keep up with you, can you quickly explain... thanks
  • When you say xyz, could you elaborate a bit more so I can understand the connection between this and that... oh right, now I understand
  • Obviously, not being specialists like yourselves, can you fill in this gap for me... thanks
  • So does this and that relate to him/her/it/them/and so on, and if so what is the impact, and if not, why not?
  • Sorry, you have just used a really technical word there, what does that mean?

Sometimes, if I can’t keep up with the conversation but nevertheless want to stay and learn something, I will keep quiet and listen very intently. If you do this, most people will be OK with your silence because they can see it as a sign of respect. But you must show you are listening by making gestures, such as nodding, laughing, frowning and so on. These are not techniques – they are genuine ‘I want to learn’ movements. Don’t be false – ever.

What to say when you first join a group

If they carry on chatting when you join them – just do active listening (there is more about good listening in the topic on Listening Skills) and, when you are ready and up to speed, ask a question to carry on the current topic.

If they stop talking when you join them – shake people’s hands and introduce yourself, using only your first name and company name. ‘Hi, I’m Heather from The Magic Of Networking, and you are?’

Finding the common ground

You can find some common ground by asking questions...

About the event; try

  • What brings you here tonight?
  • Do you attend these forums regularly? Why do you like them?
  • As I am new here, any tips on how to join in and gain benefit from them?
  • What did you think of the speaker?
  • What did you learn from the speaker/the open question forum?
  • The question you asked tonight of the speaker, did you think... ?

About the person, title/trade and so on; try, so you are xxx,

  • How did you get started as a... ?/in your trade?
  • What was your biggest challenge?
  • What gave you the idea to... ?
  • Where did you study?
  • How long did you have to study for?
  • If you could start again, what would you do differently?

About their issues; try

  • What projects are you working on at the moment?
  • How it is going?
  • What sort of challenges are you facing at the moment, such as skills shortages, for instance?

If they are in sales or marketing; try

  • Who do you tend to work with?
  • Are you internally or externally facing?
  • What is your biggest challenge when trying to bring in new business?
  • What new markets are you looking for?

Observational comments or questions

About what they are wearing; try

  • Lovely colour – so nice to see colour in the middle of a room of navy suits!
  • Where did you buy your suit (or shoes and so on)? Very nice!
  • What is the name of your tailor?

About their name; try

  • Does your surname have a history behind it?
  • Does your first name have a meaning?
  • I can imagine people mispronounce your name? I struggle with unusual names too, so how do I get it right?

About holidays, hobbies, sports and so on; try

  • So when you are not working your socks off, what are your hobbies?
  • How did you get started on (your hobbies)?
  • How difficult was it to get started?
  • What is your ‘passion’ in life?
  • What is your favourite sport?
  • What football team do you support?
  • What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you?
  • What is the scariest thing that has ever happened to you?
  • What is your unfulfilled dream?
  • What did you want to be when you grew up?
  • Where in the world would you like to travel?
  • Who would you like to have dinner with?
  • What is your favourite film/theatre/opera and so on?
  • What’s your idea of a great day/night out?
  • If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
  • What would be the first thing you would buy if you won the lottery?

Sniffy, stiffy and plain difficult people – ugh!

Yes, these people are out there. In my experience, you only meet a few people who are downright rude. If you meet one of them, it is nothing to do with you, so don’t take it personally. Oh all right then, go and have a quick moan to your mates just to get it out of your system, because these people do hurt others. But the thing is this: it isn’t about you.

Then you have the other group of people, the ones who aren’t trying to offend you, but may lack interpersonal skills. They might be very shy and come across as aloof or intimidating. They may have had a bad day, but felt obliged to turn up. The thing is, you have choices. You can move on or find a way of making a connection with this person. Your choice...