Two years ago, presentation coach Deborah Grayson Riegel attended a crowded networking event in New York. Wearing a unique necklace she had bought while teaching executive communications in Beijing, she decided to meet someone new by finding someone else with a bold piece of jewelry.
"I found a woman wearing a gorgeous green glass and gold wire necklace and walked up to her to compliment her on her jewelry," she says. "It turned out she was a recruiter and she happened to be looking for a presentation skills instructor with a specialty in working with Chinese MBA students. Because I talked to a stranger, I ended up landing one of the best gigs of my life."
Riegel’s story is a good example of the adage, "It's not what you know; it’s who you know." But when it comes to succeeding in business and in life, most of us talk to strangers just 2% to 3% of the time, says Judy Robinett, author of How to Be a Power Connector (McGraw Hill, April 2014).
"It’s sad because the secrets to the majority of your future successes are waiting outside your immediate network," she says. "It’s where the gold is."
Robinett used to consider herself shy. Working in management for a Fortune 300 company, she says she hid in corners during big events. Ambitious and wanting to move ahead, she realized that making connections would be the key to her success.
"It had boiled down to fear," she says. "I was never a connector or extrovert. I eventually found out the majority of others are wonderful and if you focus on them, it numbs your fear."
Thirty years later, Robinett, who is known for her "titanium Rolodex," is founder and president of JRobinett Enterprises, and she matches venture capitalists with early-stage companies. She says whether it’s in a face-to-face meeting, on the phone or online, you have a short window of time to connect with someone before you become another forgotten face.
She offers six tips for turning a stranger into an acquaintances or friend:
We’ve all seen people walking down a hall with their head down or sitting at a table engrossed with their phone. Body language speaks volumes, and they’re sending signals that they don’t want to be bothered. Instead, get interested in the people around you, says Robinett. "A smile shows that you’re open to a conversation," she says.
It sounds simple, but a quick "hello" will break the ice. Marriott Hotels has a "15-5 rule" for its employees. Whenever an employee comes within 15 feet of anyone in the hotel, they must acknowledge the guest with eye contact or a friendly nod. If the person comes within five feet, then the employee must smile and say hello. Robinett suggests that you take on the Marriott rule for yourself.
"Try it with people in the grocery line or wherever you have a captive audience," she says.
Seventy percent of people proclaim they’re shy, says Robinett. Knowing this puts you in the same boat.
"You don’t have to be an extrovert to talk to a stranger," she says. "We’re all so worried what other people might think about us. The truth is that no one cares because they’re worried about themselves."
Instead, take the focus off of you and put it onto the other person. "The best connectors I know will tell you they’re shy, but that doesn’t stop them from creating powerful networks," says Robinett. "They simply know that it takes other people to get to their goals and they come out of their comfort zone."
Whether it’s a mutual friend, location, experience, or point of view, find something in common with another person and start a conversation. While the weather is always a safe topic, you can also ask the person if they have children or pets. Or pay attention to your environment. Robinett, who grew up in Idaho, says she once made a new acquaintance because she noticed he had an Idaho license plate.
"It’s really easy to find common ground," says Robinett. "I can strike up great conversations with people on airplanes or in airports simply because we’re both in transit."
Give the people you are meeting with the courtesy of your full attention when you are with them, says Robinett.
"Bill Clinton is known for his ability to be fully present even when he is with someone for a few seconds," says Robinett. "The average attention span is eight seconds. Paying attention makes you more memorable and your communication richer."
If you’re striking up a conversation with someone in a parking lot, you probably won’t meet them again, says Robinett, but if there was something of interest in your exchange, then it’s perfectly fine to ask for the person’s business card.
"Follow up within 24 hours by sending an email to simply say thank you," she says. "Within a week, send something of value, such as an article you think the person might enjoy reading. The focus is ongoing from being strangers to building a relationship."