How to Connect with People


As part of my job many times, I have to walk into situations where I don’t know a soul. I’ve got no wingmen in the room and no “friendlies” hanging out in the corner waiting to advance and warmly welcome me into a meeting or conference.

Sometimes it’s just me. So I’ve had to develop some fast tactics on how to establish a connection with folks I don’t know but either want or need to know. And it ain’t easy. And it doesn’t work 100% of the time; I’m not gonna be so bold as to say that “I can connect with anyone anywhere anytime.” What I will say is these techniques – while not being groundbreaking or revolutionary…or even all that unique – work. They’ve worked for me, and I stand by them. I have no choice. I go into situations with new individuals constantly as part of my job, so you do what you have to to get the play made.

Let me also add that these tips work at work and the bar.

Connecting is connecting, and either you make an effort to do it or hope you’re just so excellent that people will want to communicate with you.

Right…dodon’t think so. You’d better read on.

But first – a story: So when I was working with the US Air Force as a customer, I walked into a 2-star General’s office with whom I had an appointment. I went to see her because I’m a believer – as a sales guy – to meet as many executives as possible even if what I sell doesn’t relate to what they do. Why? Because sometimes that executive will come to your aid if they see something in you or your “pitch” that they can use to make their job easier. I was selling software, the General I saw fixes airplanes. No relation, right? What am I going to talk about? She barely looks up as I entered; I’m sure she was thinking, “What in G-d’s name are we going to talk about for 60 minutes with this guy?”

First, think I notice when I walk in is tons of Redskins stuff all around the office – photos on the wall and the Doug Williams Wheaties box (that I also have) on her desk next to a Darrell Green bobblehead. EXCEPT WE’RE IN ST. LOUIS! We’re not in DC where you’d expect to see this stuff! So to warm up the discussion, I mention that I’m a Skins season ticket holder and what do we think of our quarterback situation (awful as always). We go on for 10 minutes on the Skins. No mention of work at all. As that conversation winds down, she says, “OK, let’s get down to business, but that was fun. How can I help you?”

How can she help me?!

For starters, I realized we had connected. From there, we had a great discussion and planned out a pilot project we could start. And this was when I walked in wondering how we would ever connect. She turned out to be a big advocate for me a year later when a big software purchase was being considered. Finally, the Redskins did something right for me for a change!!

The “interpersonal” connections are where relationships start. Learning from the story above notice how I always try to find something we can latch on to that makes the person I’m meeting with WANT to keep talking with me. I can talk about most anything – sports or where someone lived and grew up or about kids or about places we’ve traveled to – it doesn’t matter. What matters is that most people don’t know HOW to make that first connection. It’s the interpersonal link that gets you in the game. It’s what you do next that keeps you in the game.

Focus and be in the moment.

The best way to lose someone after you just made that initial connection is to let your eyes or your mind wander around the room or the office or the bar looking for the next person to whom you want to move on. No way. When people do that to me, I shut down and turn them off. People will do that to you too if you don’t stay “present” in the conversation. Great eye contact is key; look into a person’s iris and try to determine the color of it. That keeps you focused on the face and not prone to drift.

People are more interested in talking about themselves than hearing about you. OK so everyone knows this. But how do you DO something about it? Try this – so when you meet someone at his or her office, say you start out asking, “So how long have you been in this position?” When the person answers you can ask “What role were you performing before?” then “What encouraged you to move?” or “How do you like this position?” or “Do you have a more direct line to senior management?” or I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU ASK! The point is to start the conversation and then keep it going by asking logical questions that enable you to learn about the person. Ask more questions than you ever thought possible once you do that you can….

Bring up something in a conversation that was mentioned earlier. Doing this shows you were paying attention and shows that you’re a thoughtful individual by connecting together something the person mentioned earlier to something relevant at the current point of discussion. So mention later about something that came up earlier about where the person lived or make a joke about the Steelers. Just use the info you’ve been given to keep the connection moving along.

People love to hear their names.

Don’t do a “So Joe when you first came to the job Joe did you have an immediate impact Joe or did it take some time for you to get comfortable in the position Joe?” That’s overdoing it and it’s creepy. Just use the person’s name maybe every paragraph or two of discussion. Every now and then. People appreciate it, and it helps you remember them in the future when you spot them in 10 months at a conference and don’t become overcome with the “now who the hell IS that again?”

Don’t be afraid to be funny. That is if you have the capacity to be funny. I don’t mean reciting a line from “The Hangover” funny. I mean being self-deprecating in a situation or a meeting where you poke fun at yourself instead of at the other person. Witty remarks are great. For example, I was at a party last night, and a colleague said: “So how’s your year going?” My response, “You know it’s going good. Not as good as Kobe Bryant’s year but also not as bad as the CEO from British Petroleum!” The woman cracked up. And I don’t even think that’s my best schtick! But the point is it’s within context. Let yourself be funny when meeting people because it warms them up to you. Laughing softens the formality and “hardness” of business meetings or any meetings for that matter. Ease the tension and – within the context of the situation – say something funny. You’d be surprised how immediately that can warm things up.

Here’s a tip I learned years ago by a Master Connector – when you’re meeting someone in another city whom you’ve never previously met, pick up a copy of the local newspaper and scan it over breakfast. See something interesting? Say the town’s high school football team is going to States or there’s been record heat in the city for 2 weeks, or there’s an upcoming election for mayor. Mention it. Just a quick point to drop into the conversation early and get things moving. I use this all the time, and it works.

Why does making a connection matter? Because most people stink at it. Yep, I said it. Most people do not know how to improvise in a situation to make a connection stick. If you apply some or all of these road-tested techniques, you can separate yourself from all the other dingdongs out there that can’t get beyond “Hello, my name is…Putz.”