Opening with a good quality starter question

by | Dec 12, 2020 | Business conversations, Networking

Better ways to ask about someone’s work

When meeting a new contact over coffee, I dislike the question, ‘Tell me about your work.’ Actually, that’s a command, not a question – and that’s why I dislike it, and I suspect many others feel the same way.

I certainly appreciate the opportunity to talk about my work, and since many people ask in this way, and I have had many conversations, I am used to responding to it. But I think if you want to open a conversation with a new contact, there are better ways to ask about their work.

Asking about someone’s work in a 1-1 conversation

‘I noticed you’ve worked with the medical industry. Has this always been a focus?’

‘I read that you are on a committee for supporting finance professionals. What do you enjoy about this role?’

‘I believe you moved here from Singapore for work. What was the experience like for you?’

You will notice that in order to ask these questions, you have to actually do some research on the person you are meeting with. But what better way is there to personalise the conversation, demonstrate interest… and quickly build rapport?

Asking about someone’s work in a social situation

If you have just bumped into a new acquaintance at a cocktail party, you likely won’t be prepared with background information about them! Beyond the classic, ‘What brings you here to day?’… how can you invite conversation about their work?

First impressions are the lasting impressions, so ideally you want to surprise and engage. Better than the blunt and boring ‘What do you do?’, try:

‘What line of work are you in?’  (a more elegant turn of phrase)

‘Are you involved with the … industry?’  (if an industry event)

‘Do you attend many events like this one for work?’  (less direct but more natural)

‘I’m unfamiliar with Company Y. Can you tell me a bit about it?’ (reading off their nametag, if you don’t mind the slightly awkward!)

A thoughtful, personalised question doesn’t put people on the spot the way ‘Tell me about your work’ does. It doesn’t invite a rote-learned sales pitch, but a meaningful conversation instead. Neither will it underwhelm people with your first impression by mumbling, ‘So what do you do?’