Attending networking events and talking to strangers is a way of life for many accountants, lawyers and consultants. Being able to keep a conversation going with a stranger is an art form. In this extract from an interview with Errol Williamson in Spring 2015, I answer the question about how to respond to an impromptu question as well as keep the conversation going. 

How to respond to impromptu questions at networking events

EW:     Thank you, brilliant. In your book ‘Financial Times Guide to Business Networking’, you talked about online and offline networking but in particular face to face networking.

In a formal presentation as we discussed a moment ago you’ve got ample time to prepare, get your notes and thoughts together and know exactly what you’re going to say, and how you’re going to say it. In a networking situation where you’re asked a question, a random question, you’re expected to give an intentioned articulated response more or less immediately. Can you provide a tip or two on how to respond to that impromptu question in a networking situation?

HT:      Yes, these things are always sent to try us aren’t they? You’re sitting there and suddenly a leftfield question comes out of nowhere. The first thing you do is take the pressure off, you don’t need to answer it, no, and you can smile sweetly and go ha-ha-ha.

You don’t need to answer every single question, there is nothing stopping you thinking and saying ‘That’s a good question, do you mind if I just take a moment?’ However, typically those aren’t the sort of questions you’re going to get in a networking event, typically the sorts of questions you’re going to get in a networking event is ‘How’s your day been?’ ‘How did you get here?’ ‘What are you enjoying at the moment?’ It’s going to be what I would call fairly safe small talk. ‘How’s the weather round by you?’ So one of the things you can do is anticipate some of those questions.

One of the questions you’ve asked is what preparation can you do, the best thing you can do is actually anticipate some of what you’re going to be asked. You are going to be asked ‘How’s your day going?’ You are going to be asked ‘What are you doing at the weekend?’ And my recommendation is always add a little bit extra into the answer, so don’t just go ‘Great’, ‘Fine’, ‘Looking forward to it’, actually put a little bit of information in to help the person start to create a conversation out of it.

So, ‘Oh are you planning anything this weekend?’ instead of saying ‘Yes’, say in your own words, but ‘Oh I’m really excited because we’re going to see Wicked at the theatre’. That leads what I call a relationship hook to go ‘Oh do you often go to the theatre?’ or, ‘What musicals do you like?’ or, ‘I’ve seen that too, what are you really looking forward to?’ So when you’re getting those impromptu questions don’t feel as though you’ve got to hurry to give an answer.

The reality is that at that kind of networking event, you’re going to know most of the questions that they’re going to ask you.

Another bit of preparation that you can do which you may not have thought about is just before you go out, have a quick flick through the news, have a quick flick through what’s trending on twitter, have a quick through your trade associations bits and pieces so that you are prepared. It’s one of those things that you can anticipate much of what’s going to happen.