Make New Friends and Business Connections With These 7 Networking Icebreakers

Sweaty palms, dry mouth, and a light case of the shakes. Is it the onset of the flu? Nope. It’s networking time. Networking can be a nerve-wracking experience, especially when you don’t know anyone at the event. But it’s a necessary part of an entrepreneur’s work

Polishing your networking skills is easy to let fall by the wayside in favor of other items in your burgeoning workload. But take the time, because networking does more than just build your business. It can also be a way to bounce back from burnout if you’re feeling discouraged and reinvigorate your creativity if you’re feeling tapped.

The thing about networking is that we’re all there to widen our professional circles. We rely on each other for sales and referrals. And the number one factor in sales is relationships. That’s why the best questions to ask are the ones that help you get to know the other person. Even though I am naturally shy, networking has helped me make new friends, close amazing deals, and learn new skills.

Here’s a list of my favorite questions that break the icy awkwardness of solo networking events.

1. What brought you to this event?

The answer might reveal if your potential new friend came with a colleague, to support a friend, or to represent a company. This question can help you see what you common interests you share and ease you into the conversation.

2. Do you know anyone else here tonight?

This is good way to see if your fellow networker is alone and in need an event buddy. Often, when people learn that I’m flying solo, they’ll take me under their wing even if they’re attending with friends.  

3.How long have you lived in [whatever city you’re in]?

This helps you get to know other attendees a little more personally. Some follow up questions might include what they like about their city or how they decided to move there (if they are not native to that city).

4. I’m headed to the bar, what should I get?

You can’t do all that talking without something to wet your whistle. Make a graceful transition to the bar with a lighthearted question about what drinks they recommend.

5. What are you working on right now?

Infinitely better than “what do you do?” is asking what they’re currently doing. We tend to prioritize our time based on what we most enjoy doing. So asking about the project of the moment almost guarantees they’ll be talking about something they’re passionate about.

6. Do you have any fun weekend plans?

This is a great question for events taking place Wednesday to Friday. Weekend plans can get you chatting about common interests. Who knows, you might even find a new hiking buddy or friend to add to your weekly poker matches.

7. I’m tired, what number coffee are you on today?

Chances are 9 out of 10 people at your event are also tired. Make a joke about caffeine intake and get them talking.

It’s natural for people to ask the same question they’ve just answered in conversation. So don’t ask any questions you don’t want to answer!

Being a good networker takes practice so don’t get discouraged if your first few events feel a bit rocky. Ask open-ended questions that help keep the conversation going and invite a little personality into the responses. You’ll get to know more about their work and what they might be like to work with, too. See what events are happening near you and get to an event this week!

How to Make New Connections in a City Where You Don’t Know a Soul

“Wow, I won’t know anyone in the entire city.” I was preparing for my move to New York City from Seattle and felt uneasy about my upcoming life change. The opportunity to pursue new business was exciting, but the idea of starting with no network was overwhelming. 

Six months later, I had a network of friends and colleagues. New York City was starting to feel like home. Three years later, I left New York City in search of a new home. I tested out Madrid, Romania, Tokyo, and Tel Aviv before moving to Seoul, each time not knowing a soul in the vicinity — or oftentimes, continent.

It can be scary to move to a new city. A move doesn’t just mean a new apartment, but also a new job, and even new friends. It’s no wonder many people consider a move to be one of their most stressful life events. Whether you’re making a permanent move or traveling for business, here’s how you can network and start over in a new city.

1. Ask friends to introduce you to their colleagues and network.

You might not have friends in a new city, but chances are someone on your social media channels does. Whenever I’m headed to a new city, I post a status to Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter reading “I’m moving to [city] and don’t know many people. Does anyone have any friends or colleagues interested in [industry] you could introduce me to?” This message has helped me make friends and contacts all over the globe.

Your existing network and friends likely have other like-minded friends who you’ll hit it off with and can help you settle in a new place. A warm introduction to a potential contact usually works much better than a cold email to someone you don’t know.  Posting on Facebook took me five minutes but the payoff has been invaluable friends and colleagues.

2. Attend networking events within your industry alone.

I’ve made a number of great friends and contacts by flying solo at networking events in my new city. Heading to an event where you don’t know anyone can feel intimidating, but it’s a great way to put yourself out there and meet other interesting people in your zip code.

Though it can be challenging, you can break the ice by walking up to someone and saying “Hi, my name is [name] and I’m new to [city]. What brought you to this event?” Often times, when you go to an event with friends or colleagues, you end up talking to them the majority of the night, missing out on new connections.

And don’t give up. It takes time to make friends. Sometimes you’ll have to go through 50 people before you really hit it off with one.

3. Look for people in your new city, from your old city. 

When I moved to New York City, there were many Seattleites who had relocated to the Big Apple as well. A friend created a group called “The Emerald Apple.” I attended an event not knowing anyone, but that’s where I ended up meeting some of my closest New York City friends. Having something in common with the other attendees gave us something to talk about and build a friendship upon. Finding common ground can help you establish new contacts and make new friendships.

4. If all else fails, tell everyone you don’t have friends. 

When I go to a new city I’m very transparent that I have very few friends. After I’ve come forward with my honesty, I’ve experienced many people kindly taking me under their wing and introducing me to their friends.

When I was apartment hunting in New York City I met a number of people who were great, but their apartment wasn’t the right fit. I told them that I didn’t know anyone in the city yet and asked them if they knew of any fun events happening. From this initial interaction, I then got invited to parties and city happenings.

No one can read your mind or can tell you’re new. Ask for help and you’ll be shocked to see how many people are willing to point you in the right direction of events, contacts, and even new friends.

Many people can relate to starting over in a new city with no friends and many are  eager to help you. And when you meet someone new to your city, repay the favor by introducing to them to your friend group and network. Starting over can feel overwhelming, but having a few contacts to show you the ropes of your new locale can make the move all the more enjoyable.

How to Become a ‘Superconnector’ (It Has Nothing to Do with LinkedIn)

Thanks to social media, meeting new people and renewing old contacts has never been easier. But how often have you taken your online contacts into the real world to build mutually beneficial relationships that last? We call that being a superconnector. It’s a skill that you should learn, because networking as you know it is dead

Superconnectors know that you can’t “like” and “share” your way to true social capital — you earn it by building trust and by having conversations that lead to valuable interactions with the right people — people who you’ll be able to help and who will naturally want to help you. So how do you do that?

1. Know yourself.

Are you an extrovert who feels energized at big, crowded events, or an introvert who is emotionally drained in large groups? You may think that extroverts are natural superconnectors, but let’s face it: extroverts can suck the air out of a room by dominating every conversation. Introverts may hang back, listening but rarely contributing. Both personality types must play to their strengths and learn from one another. 

For instance, while I (Scott Gerber) am a classic extrovert, my co-founder at Community Company, Ryan Paugh, is much more of an introvert. Extroverts like me need to learn how to lead conversations without owning them. Introverts like Ryan are often more effective superconnectors when they operate in their comfort zones — small groups and one-on-one relationships. For instance, at our annual ski retreat for entrepreneurs, he rides the chairlift with each member who attends. On the way up the mountain, he learns much more about each person than he would at our group gatherings. 

2. Figure out what kind of connector you are.

Erica Dhawan, consultant and author of Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence, says there are three types of connectors: thinkers, enablers, and connection executors. Thinkers are rapid-fire idea generators; enablers bring people together to share ideas and thrive on introducing people; connection executors take other people’s ideas and turn them into action. 

Know what type of connector you are so you can be aware of strengths and weaknesses, and fill in the gaps accordingly. If you’re a thinker, for instance, an executor will help you make your big ideas actionable. Can’t find an executor? An enabler can probably make an introduction. 

3. Pick your pond. 

Every city, every company, and every industry is as big or as small you want it to be. You may feel comfortable navigating a big pond like New York or L.A., but you may benefit from making that big pond smaller. That could mean joining a local group for women in tech, connecting with other soloists through a co-working space, or reaching out to entrepreneurs with specific cultural backgrounds. And if there’s not an existing group that resonates with you? Start one. It may be a simple online or offline group where like-minded people gather, or a more ambitious venture, like our own YEC, first founded to connect young entrepreneurs. 

4. Perfect the art of asking questions.

Ever had a conversation and then walked away realizing that your companion didn’t ask you a single question? Don’t be that person. Both introverts and extroverts must learn how to ask the kinds of questions that elicit answers that in turn lead to more questions. Before you know it, you’ve peeled away the layers of the onion to reveal what matters most. 

For instance, instead of “what do you do?” you might ask, “what do you like most about your job?” or “what are you working on that excites you most?” Dig deep; if you’re not a naturally curious person, train yourself to be more inquisitive. 

5. Be habitually generous.

There’s a happy byproduct that comes from deep conversations: they often reveal needs that people will not explicitly state. And when you know what people need, you can be more deliberate about helping them. You may be able to introduce them to a potential investor, connect them to other entrepreneurs in similar industries, or help them find a new job.

Superconnectors are always looking for ways to help others, and not because they expect  reciprocity. In fact, being viewed as a transactional player is the kiss of death for any aspiring superconnector. You may never get help from the people you help, and you should be okay with that. Far more important is establishing yourself as someone with an abundance of social capital. It’s a subtle way of showing others that knowing you provides value. And that will come back to you, tenfold. 

Why You Have to Stop Networking If You Want to Succeed

Business relationships are critical for top-performing growth. These relationships don’t just launch your career to new heights, though. Relationships are a means of cultivating ideas, encouraging collaboration, and contributing to the community in your industry.

But if you want to see true success in your business relationships, you need to stop networking.

The traditional idea of “networking” is transactional. Networking assumes that you are meeting fellow peers and industry players in order to get something in return–whether you’re hoping to gain a client, a partner, a vendor, or a job. Networking denotes an idea of taking. The network relationship is only as strong as the amount of value you can provide to one another.

Young Entrepreneur Council founders Scott Gerber and Ryan Paugh have tackled this notion of networking to be more inclusive. What would happen if we looked at business relationships through the lens of “connection” instead? Connection creates a deeper relationship based on an exchange of information and ideas.

The goal of connection is not to further your own business or career but to provide ongoing value to the other person without expecting anything in return. When you provide value, you receive value in return.

In their new book Superconnector: Stop Networking And Start Building Business Relationships That Matter, Gerber and Paugh discuss what it means to be a superconnector like some of the greatest leaders, businesspeople, and communicators.

I learned you need to have these four traits to build successful relationships in your industry and beyond:

1. Emotional Intelligence

If you want to build a genuine relationship with another person, you have to first understand where they’re coming from. What are they looking for? Where are they in their business and in their personal life?

You have to be a human talking to and interacting with another human, not a computer trying to transact with another computer.

I’m an extrovert, so I love talking to people and connecting quickly–but sometimes it can come on strong. I had to learn to acknowledge and react to introverts in a subtler way so we could connect. In reverse, if an introvert doesn’t approach a conversation with the passion of an extrovert, an extrovert like me might have trouble connecting. 

Everyone is different and approaches connection differently. But if you want to foster an association with another person, you have to meet them where they are, understand their perspective, and respond with the same tone.

2. Self-Awareness

You need to know and understand your own psychology before you can truly be emotionally intelligent. This helps you understand how you operate and how you manage your interpersonal relationships. You’ll be able to find your groove or flow when you embrace your strengths and weaknesses.

Understand in which kinds of environments you thrive, like big conferences or intimate meetings. Find your favorite openers or topics to start the conversation.

When you better understand your own authentic value, you place yourself in a better position to provide that value to others. When you provide value, you start to build deeper and more valuable connections.

The belief that only extroverts can be connectors is a myth. While extroverts get their energy from others, introverts are equally strong connectors. It’s simply about building a sense of confidence and self-awareness to play on your own strengths.

3. Curiosity

You have to be curious about people, ideas, and business if you want to truly connect. Asking genuine questions provides you insight into the other person and their experience. When you’re curious about that person, you can better understand what they need and where they are.

When you acknowledge the other person on this deeper level, you can better respond to them. You understand how to provide them with relevant and significant value that initiates a mutually beneficial relationship.

4. Productivity Systems

The best connectors in the world have a system of remembering, recalling, and interacting with others. The more people you meet, the harder it becomes to keep up with all of your connections. But you want to connect with as many people as you can to continuously give value and build your community.

So you need to build systems that allow you to remember each individual and their context. For example, Gerber and Paugh have their own set of notes that they jot down after meeting a new person. Gerber might write in his notes: “Ryan Paugh – co-wrote Superconnector, loves dogs, Penn State football fan.” This is about Paugh, not about his work or what Paugh can provide to Gerber. 

I personally like to send a follow-up email after meeting someone to reiterate our conversation and save it for later.

Only through a personal, intimate relationship can you exchange true value and build an ongoing, fruitful relationship. 

6 Common Mistakes Even the Most Professional People Make at Networking Events

If you have attended a tech event or any event in which people are networking, you have most definitely encountered some of these mistakes, you may even be guilty of a few of them. I know I am.

Over the years, like many entrepreneurs, I have attended hundreds of tech events and conferences. Only in the past 24-48 months, can I say that I have truly leveraged these networking opportunities to build and amplify my business. Prior to that, I was doing it all wrong, with many of the points below sounding a bit too familiar.

Let’s just jump right in.

1. Talking Someone’s Ear Off

If someone calls you over to make an introduction at an event, let’s say to an investor, that is an opportunity to connect, not an opportunity to chew off the ear of that investor for 30 minutes. Say hi, connect, state your elevator pitch, exchange business cards perhaps, and ask if it would be ok to send over more info.

If you stand there talking for 30 minutes, a few things will happen.

First of all you will bore the person.

Second, you will make things awkward because they want to go on to the next person. Or eat lunch. Or go home. Or get a drink. But they can’t because you won’t stop talking.

Third, the person who introduced you is literally just standing there. Bored. Awkward. And worst of all, they are instantly regretting introducing you. You stole their spotlight. You made them look bad. You missed the opportunity and ruined your chances not only with the investor or whoever you were being introduced to, but also the chances of the person who connected you, ever doing so again.

Be concise, straight to the point, and move on.

2. Pitching Like a Robot

Speaking of pitching, don’t be robotic and rehearsed. Don’t recite your pitch as if you’re reading it off a paper. “We are revolutionizing X.” “We are disrupting Y.”

It is transparent when you just repeat your pitch over and over. Be personal. Be authentic. Mix it up. Be spontaneous.

People are better at picking up on this kind of thing than you might think and repeating the same sentence over and over is ineffective and even insulting.

3. Beating Around the Bush

If you want something from the person you are speaking to, state it. In the beginning. Be transparent and straight forward. Same is true for email. If you stand there pitching, and at the end of your monologue, the individual is not sure what to do with all the information you just gave them, that is both awkward and ineffective.

“I have an idea. I’d love your feedback.”
“I have a startup. I want you to write about us” (Not a recommended sentence.)
“I have a question. I’d love to grab a cup of coffee. “

State up front what the ask is and you might just get what you want.

4. Failing on the Follow-Up

If you pitched someone at an event, chances are you are not the only one who pitched that person. Remember that. When following up the next day, say something for context. “I’m the guy who made the joke about the WiFi.” “I’m the person you met by the entrance who grew up with your cousin.” 

When you do send a follow up email, give the context of your meeting at the event. Give the context of your email. I have gotten a follow up to an event that was an email with 500 words and no ask; no context, and no explanation of why I was getting it. I had no idea what to do with it. I literally replied “Is there something specific I can help with or was that for an FYI?”

Want something? Say it. Up front. Be concise and transparent. Don’t send a long email without giving the recipient a reason to read it.

“Hi Michael, we spoke yesterday about you giving me some advice about x. Here is more info.”

“Hi Michelle, as mentioned, I’d love to meet some investors. Here is additional info about my venture.”


5. Non-Stop Name-Dropping

We all name drop. It’s a thing. It creates common ground, it establishes credibility.

If you spend most of the meeting name-dropping or listing your accomplishments when really, all you want to do is ask for some help, that help will never come. The person is thinking “Why are you telling me how great you are if you want my help? You seem to be doing just fine without me.”

Validate yourself for a few seconds, then move on.

6. Enough About You

Start every meeting with “Tell me about you.” Or “What are your bottlenecks?” Or “Tell me some more about your focus nowadays.”

If you absolutely must start the meeting talking about yourself, then make sure to ask one of those questions a few minutes in.

People have a short attention span for others who only talk about themselves. On the flip side, just like you like talking about yourself, the person you are speaking to also wants to tell you about themselves. Allow them to do that, Draw them in.

Those are some guidelines for networking during and following the event. 

Networking is an art. Following up is a science. Do it right or don’t do it at all.

I Felt Like an Imposter at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Until I Didn’t.

This week the annual gathering of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, takes place. Last year the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship invited my husband to attend, all expenses paid, which meant that I, as his spouse, was also invited.

I nearly said no, certain that I would only feel out of place among the heads of state, corporate leaders, policy wonks, and celebrities who typically attend.

As a fairly unknown writer and the spouse of the real attendee, I was prepared to feel shunned and looked down upon by those I encountered. Surely they would know that I didn’t belong there.

No one was more surprised, then, when my week at the World Economic Forum turned out to be a complete delight. Despite my lack of prominence or wealth, I was accepted and engaged on a level I’ve rarely experienced.

By the end, I had learned several valuable lessons about how to make the most of spending a week with hundreds of people who seemed far out of my professional league.

1. Be free of preconceptions and assumptions.

Just as I didn’t want people to write me off, it wasn’t fair of me to make assumptions about others before talking to them. When I prejudge someone, I am less likely to approach them or try to engage them in meaningful conversation–which makes it that much more likely that I will miss out on a good connection.

Several of my best conversations at WEF came about because I decided to introduce myself to someone despite my hesitations.

That gruff man riding the trolley with me? The executive director of an international newspaper, who had fascinating observations about the state of American politics.

That quiet man bundled up under layers of coats and scarves? The president of a prestigious university in Asia, who shared his thoughts on the rising costs of education.

That reserved woman in the stylish pink dress in my breakout group? She turned out to be the queen of Belgium (seriously!)–and her contributions to the discussion were thoughtful and authentic.

2. Be curious about everyone you meet.

The vast majority of people I met at WEF had no obvious overlap with me. We were from different countries, cultures, industries, and socioeconomic backgrounds. And many were fairly regular people who, like me, considered themselves fortunate to be there.

But they all had fascinating perspectives to share, as long as I was willing to approach the conversation in a posture of listening and learning. Oftentimes just a few thoughtful questions about their work, their country of origin, or their experience at WEF were enough to open up a wide-ranging conversation that challenged my assumptions and broadened my understanding about how the world worked.

Everyone likes being asked about themselves and their opinions, whether they are well known or not. My interest in others created a bridge for us to connect in a mutually beneficial way.

3. Be confident that you have something to offer, even if it’s no more than your personal story.

I was prepared to draw from my professional experience in the nonprofit, social enterprise, and public sectors to contribute discussions, and I did that when appropriate.

But the most meaningful exchange I had during the entire week–and one I remember vividly a year later–was when a British engineer and I shared how we had both lost a parent in childhood.

We debated whether technology should be used to bring back our lost loved ones (virtually or physically). The discussion delved into our personal pain and sorrow, as well as profound moral and ethical questions.

The conversation had almost nothing to do with our professional credentials and everything to do with our personal stories. Based on the weighty silence in the rest of the room, I’m pretty sure the conversation was memorable for everyone else as well.

If you approach others with an open and curious mind, and a willingness to share about yourself, chances are they will reciprocate in kind. And those personal connections are what will ultimately lead to positive and productive professional relationships.