Use these questions to talk less, listen more, and make yourself stand out in a crowd of networkers.

The following excerpt is from Ivan Misner, Ph.D. and Brian Hilliard’s book Networking Like a Pro.

What’s the easiest way to be seen as a bore? Talk about yourself.

So why would anyone think that successful networking means cornering as many people as possible and telling them all about your business? To the contrary, the best way to entertain a new contact and potential future referral partner is to get him to talk about himself and his business.

Your goal at a networking event is to make yourself memorable without talking about yourself. It sounds paradoxical, doesn’t it? But, if you know how to do it, you will stand out in people’s minds when they look back on the event. The secret is simply to ask people about themselves and their businesses.

A lot of people you run into at networking events are so busy talking about themselves, their products and all the great things they can do for you that they never take a breath and ask about you. Instead of competing with these folks, imagine the result of asking questions that encourage them to freely share that information. You can create a networking environment in which they’re talking, you’re listening and everyone is feeling heard. Not only will this technique help you stand out from the crowd, but it will also get you a ton of referrals.

This all begins with your first conversation. If you lead off by asking the right questions — questions that demonstrate a genuine interest in the other person’s business — you cultivate an attitude of trust and rapport from the start. Following are five good questions to ask that will make you a standout.

  1. What do you like best about what you do?

If you’ve been out networking before, you already know that “What do you do?” is one of the first questions people ask you. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t leave you much room to maneuver after both you and your fellow networker have answered the question for each other. A typical conversation might go like this:

“So, what do you do?”

“I’m a public relations consultant. How about you?”

“I see. Well, I own a print shop.”

(Awkward four-second pause that seems to go on forever.)

Look how much better it works if you follow up with our question:

“Oh, a print shop. That’s interesting. What do you like best about the printing business?”

This leads to more interesting conversation about the other person’s business, his likes and dislikes, her experience, and so forth. It makes the conversation flow and lets you relax while you learn about his/her trade or profession.

What’s more, if they are like most of us, they will eventually decide they’ve talked enough and will ask you the same question: what do you like best about your business? Be ready with a response that answers the question, addresses key points, and explains how you’re different from others in the industry. If the person is thinking about using a PR firm or knows someone else who might need one, then you’ve gone a long way toward setting the stage for a possible referral.

  1. You mentioned that you were in [industry]. What got you started in that direction?

This question is much like the previous one in that it gives the other person a chance to talk about personal goals and desires and to look favorably on you for asking it. It also provides some insight into how dedicated they are to their profession and how proficient they may be at it. When you learn what their previous experience has been, you will begin to see ways that you might refer other people to them for specialized products or services.

  1. Where else do you usually network?

Not only does this question help break the ice during that sometimes-awkward period just after you’ve introduced yourself, but it also gives you a chance to talk about something you both know a little bit about. Another reason we like this question is because it gives you the opportunity to make an instant connection, and we all know a great step toward creating a solid referral partner is to first make a connection with that person.

This is why asking the right questions can help you stand out from the crowd. A conversation might start with, “Where else do you normally network?” and then dovetails into an extended conversation about the other person’s business. Within the first few minutes, the person you are speaking with will likely be listening with interest and thinking of ways to help. This is all you can ask for when meeting someone for the first time.

  1. What are some of your biggest challenges?

This is a great question that can be used toward the end of the conversation. Of the four questions we’ve mentioned, this usually elicits the longest response. Why? Because you’re asking about their reasons, their passion, and their motivation for being in their specific business in the first place. We’ve had people tell us all sorts of things when we’ve asked this question.

  1. How can I help you?

If you’ve asked a new acquaintance some or all of the previous questions, the conversation has gone well and you’ve decided this person is someone you’d like to have in your business network, this is a good question to ask. Their answer may tell you something that will enable you to help them, and being helpful is the best way to start building a solid relationship. To a networker who is living the principle of Givers Gain, it’s a question that comes naturally because that networker is one who has adopted the mindset of giving value and service to others without any thought of immediate return. It demonstrates that you have the other person’s interests uppermost in your mind, and it’s an excellent way to build the credibility and trust you’ll want to share with a valuable networking partner. Remember, everyone has a story. Make it your job to find out what it is ?