By Andy Lopata, Business Networking Strategist

Some time ago, I gave a brief talk at Business Scene's Herts Connections networking event. Some two hundred local businesses attended to meet representatives from a range of local business networks and to listen to a number of speakers.

My task was to get everyone networking, and to help them do so effectively. I frequently rage against people who treat business cards like confetti, but twice recently I have seen extreme behaviour by people whose sole reason for attending networking events seems to be to see how many business cards they can hand out. On one occasion, one person simply stood by the door giving every guest one of his cards as they came in!

I also wanted to help people have conversations they could enjoy, enabling them to get past stilted elevator pitches into genuine rapport-building.

So I made two rules for the rest of the evening and set people a task. I told the group that they should only exchange business cards once a genuine interaction had taken place and there were grounds for following-up on each other. And I banned the phrase 'what do you do?' as the ice-breaker for conversation.

As you may know, I call 'what do you do?' the networking equivalent of 'do you come here often?'! So, instead of 'what do you do?' I told the businesses present to ask each other 'do you come here often?' A few people seemed to like the idea!

An ice-breaker should be designed to stimulate conversation, not kill it. To do that, you need to find something in common. 'What do you do?' doesn't achieve that, there's no guarantee that the person you're speaking to is in the same line of business as you and, if they are, that they are the person you want to meet.

In a networking context, 'Do you come here often?' gets you talking about the group you're in, the people who invited you and your reasons for being there. You may not phrase it quite like that but the idea is key. Either way, it is much easier to find common ground.

As Business-Scene events offer the opportunity for local networks to showcase themselves, I suggested that people introduce themselves and discuss which local groups they attend and their merits or drawbacks.

Faced with this challenge, the room started buzzing again with more networking. This time people seemed more relaxed and conversation was flowing.

Just before the speeches were about to start again, one businessman came up to me, tapped me on the shoulder and said...

"It works!"

It does, I just wish that more people knew.

Labelled ‘One of Europe’s leading business networking strategists’ by the Financial Times, Andy Lopata helps businesses develop successful networking and referral generation strategies. www.lopata.co.uk

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