The easiest way to start a conversation with a stranger, after the standard exchange of names, is to ask a question — preferably something less bland than, “How are you doing?” or, “What do you do?”. There are better questions that create better conversations that can lead easily and naturally to an offer to talk again.
Great opening questions have 4 characteristics:
1. They’re relevant. In many situations, there’s an obvious relevant opening question.
Recently my wife, Anne, and I went to a wedding. At the reception, we were seated at a table with 8 people we didn’t know. The obvious first question was, “Are you a friend of the bride or the groom?” In other social situations, you could ask, “How do you know our host/hostess/the honoree?” If you’re at a fundraiser or charity event, you could ask, “How did you get involved in supporting this cause?” At a conference, convention, or business-networking event, you could ask, “What do you hope to learn at this conference and how will that help you?”
2. Great opening questions get and keep people talking about themselves.
Therefore, questions should be open-ended and require more than a one-word answer. In the wedding example, after I asked, “Are you a friend of the bride or groom?” I followed up with, “And how do you know him/her?” That question requires a much more detailed answer.
3. Your questions should get people to focus on the positive.
Old-school, “sales-y” financial advisors would ask questions focusing on problems and fears. However, trusted advisors inspire people about the future, not scare them. One of my favorite positive questions is, “Tell me something good that’s happening in your life today.” If you just ask, “How’s it going?” there’s no telling what kind of response you might get. But when you ask, “Tell me something good,” even if someone has had a bad day, it moves him or her into a more positive emotional state.
4. Ask questions about topics that are likely to lead to more extended and meaningful conversations.
There are 7 reliable topics that will get and keep people talking on subjects that are meaningful to them. I call them the 7 “F’s” (yes, I know that the last starts with a P, but it sounds like an F):
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