Archive for December 5th, 2008

Even if you’re an extrovert, meeting new people takes energy. To reduce the required energy, whenever I’m networking or at a business meeting, I like to come equipped with at least one conversational hook – a detail about me that make people curious and give them something to talk about when they approach me.

The term is borrowed from the writer’s idea of a hook, or first sentence that makes people want to read more. For example, when Charles Dickens started A Christmas Carol with, “Marley was dead to begin with,” he hoped that readers would be intrigued about why he would mention the fact. More subtly, when Jane Austen began Pride and Prejudice with “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” she is announcing that her subject is courtship, hoping that it will interest them (and also, as you soon find out, being ironic, since the last thing that either Bingley or Darcy are thinking of at the start of the novel is getting married).

A conversational hook works the same way. Just as a literary hook lures you into reading, a conversational hook is designed to make others think that you are worth spending time with. It’s not as extreme as an eccentricity. Nor is it a pose, because, to be successful, a conversational hook needs to be backed up by the ability to talk about it. Rather, it is an expression of your individuality that attracts attention.

A conversational hook can be as simple as a T-shirt. When I am at a developers’ conference – and, sometimes, just on the street – My Linux Journal T-shirt, with the slogan, “In a world without fences, who needs gates?” (a reference, of course, to Bill Gates and Windows) is sure to evoke a laugh. And, once you have shared a laugh, talking with each other becomes easier.

More recently, I have found my three inch copper bracelet by Tsimshian artist Henry Green to be another conversational hook. Larger than usual, made of a metal that you rarely seen in jewelry, and featuring a stunning design, the bracelet offers all sorts of topics that people can use to approach me. First Nations people, especially artists, are especially interested in it, but the interest cuts across all sorts of demographics. One friendly acquaintance who has watched too much Doctor Who calls it my chronoplate, while others ask if I am wearing it because I believe that copper helps relieve arthritis. It helps that the bracelet is more suitable for formal occasions than a T-shirt, too.

You can use the same idea to make yourself stand out on a resume. Although I maintain several different resumes, I always include two or three lines under the heading of “Interests.” Currently, the section reads, “Running; parrots; punk folk music; Northwest Coast art; history, science fiction, and 19th century novels; Linux.” This summary not only says a lot about me and positions me – I hope – as a well-rounded individual who is worth interviewing.

In addition, when I am called into a job interview or consulting session, it gives other people a starting point. I have lost track of the number of times people have begun by asking me what punk folk music is, and many other meetings begin with an exchange of stories about running or science fiction. And I still remember the forty-five minute interview that consisted of five minutes of talk about the contract, and forty exchanging cute stories about our parrots.

Conversational hooks work because most people are nervous meeting new people. By giving them something to talk about, you set them at ease. In doing so, you generally create a favorable first impression – and first impressions, as you probably know, are frequently the basis for the impression that people take away from a meeting. Not only can you help yourself by creating hooks that draw other people in, but you can be on the lookout for hooks that others may be consciously or unconsciously offering.

Either way, you’ll find that conversational hooks are a great way to take the nervousness out of meeting people for everyone.

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