This post was published earlier on LinkedIn

After learning from the first two articles in this series (see below), we have arrived at this last article to help strengthen your networking skills.

Approaching people at networking events is usually easier, because it is assumes you are at the event to network. Approaching someone on the street, supermarket, or random place is different and can be intimidating. You are in good company; we all have a natural resistance to talking with strangers in public.

In this article I outline proven methods that helped me overcome my natural shyness of talking to strangers in public. The secret is to not come across as threatening and remain relaxed, as mentioned in “5 Steps to Approaching a Stranger at a Networking Event”

“Networking is really about relaxing and being able to make others feel you are relaxed. It is about demonstrating that you are ok with who you are. That you like people and don’t mind spending time with others.”

Below is the previous process where we learned the 5 steps:

  1. Visualize a positive outcome
  2. SMILE
  3. Make eye contact
  4. Extend your hand
  5. Introduce yourself.

What needs to change?

Not much, but there are some subtle nuances to be aware of when approaching a stranger in public. When you come across a stranger you would like to meet keep in mind that people are generally wary of strangers in public places and they may be thinking:

  • “Who is this person?”
  • “Is he/she trying to sell me something?”
  • “Is it someone religious, wanting to talk about God?”

That means:

  • You need to think before you act.
  • You need to create a relaxed atmosphere.
  • You need to make the other person establish you as being in the ‘friendly’ category.

No matter what approach you take, be sensitive to the other person’s body language and mood.

Here are some basics of body language:

  • Crossing your arms in front of your chest is not a welcoming gesture. Keeping your arms open and hands in front of your body is more welcoming.
  • A person pointing feet and body towards you, instead of away, signals interest in you.
  • People avoiding pro-longed eye contact are often shy or insecure.
  • Smiling will attract 97% of all the people you meet.

In others, you are looking for what I call a “relaxed” or “stiff/hardened” state.

A relaxed state is when a person seems warm, smiles a lot, feels non-threatening. A stiff/hardened state is when a person that doesn’t smile, seems rigid and comes off a little intimidating.

The way you approach a person who is in a relaxed state is just being yourself, since they are already inclined to want to talk to you. ‘Being yourself’ means it does not matter if you are afraid, shy or an introvert, try for a moment to plough though it and trust that no one means you harm. Act natural as you would when you are with your family or friends. For reference, see the 5 steps above.

The way you approach a person in a stiff/hardened state is to smile more, be extra warm, non-intimidating and non-confrontational, and allow them to steer the conversation. These people often need to feel they are in control. They are use to having their way and for the purposes of creating a good conversation it is usually better to allow them to lead most of the time.

As you progress in the conversation they will relax. Keep in mind, non-intimidating doesn’t mean submissive. You can stay firm but work on making the other person feel you are not a threat to them in any way. Over time you will develop the skills necessary to be able to talk to any person in their stiff/hardened state.

Like everything else, it is time and experience that will help you learn. A Google search can reveal many basic body-language guidelines if you want to know more.

We all wake up every day in a different mood. You can refer to the moon or time of the month, your astrology sign or a hangover. The fact is, as humans we are moody creatures and we carry this with us as luggage. Consciously or sub-consciously we are broadcasting this to those around us. That means sometimes people are attracted to us because of the mood we emit and other times they are repelled.

Not only do you need to pay attention to what mood you may be broadcasting, but as you approach a stranger that you want to engage, quickly gauge the mood they are in. Do they look like they are:

  • Pensive?
  • Happy?
  • Sad?
  • Sleepy?
  • Stressed out?

Once you feel you have read their body language and mood, start a conversation and look for signs that your conversation is positive, lively, and connecting or just going stale.

You will recognize a lack of connection when you get very short answers like “hey”, “hi”, or “ah”, or get a response like, "Not much" when you ask, “what's going on?”

They could be having a bad day or are pre-occupied with something. If you sense this, excuse yourself, wish them the very best and carry on with your day.

The better you're able to hone in on their body language and mood, the more likely it will be that you'll succeed in striking up a good conversation.

This is key. Smiling helps a lot. Respect the other person’s private space. Find a way to bring in the inner-peaceful-you and leave any kind of alpha-male persona at home. Compliments are always welcomed.

We all enjoy compliments, so consider starting the conversation using one. E.g.:

  • “Nice shoes, I haven’t seen that style in that color before”
  • “That is some very nice make-up you have on. Very subtle”
  • “I noticed your watch. Quite classy, I like it”

Always remember if the other person is not responsive to you, don’t be pushy, let go and walk away. Never take it personally. Most likely it has nothing to do with you

Try to make eye contact, without being too obvious, and smile. This will make your friendly intentions clear and diffuse any possible tension that could arise.

Say something light, humorous, or topical to first break the ice. Ask leading questions. Remember, a leading question is one that cannot be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Here are some examples:

  • “Hi, my name's Francis. I work around the corner. How about you?”
  • “Hi, I’m Jane. How’s the coffee at this place?”
  • “You are sporting a neat T-shirt, where did you get it?”

You should always say something to get a response and keep it:

  • Simple
  • Direct
  • Open-ended

Sometimes I find myself using ‘help questions’. You basically play ‘dumb.’ Next time you’re at the store, you can ask anyone near you the innocent question:

“Would you know where to find soap?”

You may already know where the soap is, but that’s ok. Your purpose is just to get a conversation started.

Help questions work well because they are safe, easy to answer, and give you permission to pop the bubble that exists between strangers. The other person won’t feel weird responding to something so innocent. More importantly, you won’t feel awkward asking.

Another approach is simple ‘spoken out-loud comments’. The next time you are in a public place, say something like:

  • “It’s really freezing cold in here…”
  • “I’ve been looking for this book everywhere!”
  • “Now, that’s what I call great coffee!”

Just like the help question, these comments are innocent and they let others know that you are open to conversation. If someone else feels like talking, they will respond to your comment.

In conclusion, when approaching a stranger in public you need to:

  • Strive to be put in the ‘friendly’ category by the other person
  • Pay attention to the mood and body language of the other person
  • Be simple and direct with open ended questions
  • Ask leading questions
  • Ask ‘help questions’
  • Use ‘spoken out-loud comments’

By using the above methods, you will be able to overcome any natural resistance of talking to strangers in public. Happy Networking!

This concludes the article series on Networking. Hopefully it has given you ideas on how to improve your networking skills. As always, practice makes perfect so give these tips a whirl and I’m sure you’ll soon be a champ!