We talk a lot about financial capital, but do you ever stop and think about your social capital?

Social capital is the international currency of networking, especially business networking. Social capital is accumulated by providing help, advice, information, referrals and other benefits to fellow networkers, with no thought of quid pro quo. Like financial capital, social capital is accumulated by individuals and used in the production of wealth.

Throughout history, networking—and the social capital it created, both socially and professionally—happened naturally, especially in smaller communities. But as villages grew into towns, towns into cities, and cities into megalopolises, the sense of community and the close, personal business relationships that went with it gradually diminished.

Now, a wide array of business networking groups—both online and offline—fill the vacuum created by the disappearance of community-based networking and the rise of non-face-to-face communication, allowing businesspeople once again to develop the strong contact networks need to offer, earn and accumulate social capital.

My newest book, Networking Like a Pro: Turning Contacts into Connections, teaches business owners the true value in helping others through networking so that they can become valuable resources whom others wish to help whenever an opportunity to do so presents itself.

One of the chapters focuses on what to say once you are face-to-face with a new contact at a networking event and, more importantly, how to stand out among the other thirty-two people this person will meet within the same hour. The secret lies in focusing your attention on the person in front of you and asking interesting questions.

Asking Standout Questions

Networking is simple, but it’s not easy. Contrary to popular belief, it takes more than an elevator pitch and a business card. Successful networking is about cultivating and maintaining strong relationships, and the courting begins the first time you meet a potential business partner.

What’s the surest way to be seen as a bore at a party or any other social event? That’s right: 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 new referral partner is to get him to talk about himself and his business. Your goal in a networking event is to make yourself memorable without talking about yourself. Sounds paradoxical, doesn’t it? But if you know how to do it, you will stand out from the crowd and people will be so intrigued they will automatically want to know who you are and what you do.

When facing a new contact, avoid prospecting or qualifying questions that size up the other person’s potential for business. 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 right from the start.

Following are five good questions that will make you stand out:

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

The most obvious and predictable question networkers ask is, “What do you do?” This isn’t necessarily a bad question, but it doesn’t leave much room to maneuver after each person has answered it.

The question “What do you like best about what you do?” is much more expansive, and it inevitably raises the mood of the person who answers it, because it asks her to tap into a positive emotion.

This question also opens the door for more interesting conversation about the other person’s business, likes and dislikes, professional experience, and so forth. It makes the conversation flow and your new contact will eventually decide she’s talked enough, and will naturally want to ask you the same question. Be ready with a good response.

2. 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 his goals and desires and to look favorably upon the asker. It also gives insight into how dedicated he is to his profession and how proficient he may be at it.

When you learn what his previous experience has been, you will begin to see ways that you might refer other people to him for specialized products or services.

3. Where else do you usually network?

This question not only helps break the ice during that sometimes awkward period just after introductions, it also offers the chance to talk about something common to both parties. It also provides the opportunity to make an instant connection by giving the other person new information on a topic that’s relevant to her.

4. What are some of your biggest challenges?

This is a great question that can be used toward the end of the conversation. It allows the opportunity to learn about the other party’s passion and motivation for being in his specific business, as well as the unique contribution he is making in his profession.

5. How can I help you?

If you decide the person you’re talking with is someone you’d like to have in your business network, this is the perfect question to ask. To networkers who are living the principle of Givers Gain™, it’s a question that comes naturally, because they have adopted the mindset of giving value and service to others without any thought of immediate return.

Everyone has a story. Make it your job to find out what it is. Asking the right questions is about earning trust and gaining rapport with your new contact. It’s about making the other person feel comfortable telling you about his business without competing with you for airtime.

Learning to ask standout questions will increase your social capital by developing solid relationships with future referral partners who will be more than happy to reciprocate any time a referral comes their way.

Called the “father of modern networking”
by CNN, Dr. IVAN MISNER is a New
York Times bestselling author and the 
Founder and Chairman of BNI, the world’s
largest business networking organization.