A casual chat with the right person can give you that networking edge.

Successful people know the importance of having good relationships, and keeping up with new ways to market themselves and their business or role.

A big part of that success comes down to making and maintaining contacts. People like to buy from and work with people they know and trust - someone they feel a connection with.

But in our time-starved society, we are in danger of losing the art of starting casual conversation.

It is true that technology, particularly smartphones, has been a huge communication tool in business but it is also reducing old-fashioned small talk and the ability to say hello to strangers.


Linda Coles, New Zealand-based networking expert and author of Start With Hello, says: "Other generations before us took the time to chat to others - over the garden fence, in the pub - and we just don't make the effort anymore.

"Think about how you met your best client or your life partner; someone had to start with hello somewhere."

She says mobile phones have "stolen the moment, or have certainly given us an excuse to keep ourselves to ourselves when we find a moment alone.

"Last time I was in a departure lounge in Wellington, six people to my right and four to my left all had their heads down catching up on emails. And, really, Wellington Airport is a great place to meet and chat to other business people flying back to Auckland.

"I started a conversation with the lady who sat next to me after she yawned, having just put her phone down. I simply said, 'tough day?' by way of enquiry and then the conversation got going."

Her book runs through the practicalities of networking and starting conversations (online and offline), and also shares the old-fashioned art of chatting to connect with people and build relationships.

She says chatting is not a new skill, just a forgotten one. "We rely too much on the marketing department to bring people to our doors, which works fine with consumer products, but once again B2B (business-to-business) is usually based on people relations."

It's all about making contact. "Everyone knows that people buy from people and not companies ... so it makes sense to get to know more people.

"It's far easier to ring a CEO and say, 'It was nice to chat on the plane yesterday, can I grab 20 minutes of your time over coffee to follow up on our conversation?' than ring him cold."

But how do you capitalise on that casual conversation to turn it into a business contact without overstepping the mark?

"Never be pushy," Coles says. "That's an instant turn-off for most people. But you can ask and get agreement to follow up after your initial conversation. If the answer is no, leave it at that - but if they are happy to, the rest is up to you."

Good places to meet business people are airport departure lounges, baggage carousels, conferences, coffee shops in the CBD and, of course, the person sitting next to you on the airplane or commuter train.

"Serendipity events come from all places - you are simply acting on the signs you are given and saying hello."

The trick to engaging with strangers without being awkward is to keep it natural. "Can you find something subtle in common, such as you have both just gotten off the red eye and having quite woken up yet? Are you carrying the same overnight bag, using the same smartphone?

"If you see someone nearby that you particularly want to say hello to, you can't just stride up and tap them on their shoulder - that would be creepy. But putting yourself in their vicinity, and picking up on commonality to pass your comment, should be received in the manner you wish, relaxed, polite and natural, particularly if this person is well known. If they do not respond in a friendly manner, don't push it.

"And certainly don't go passing out your business card or else you will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. Respect their privacy and time."

•Start With Hello by Linda Coles (published by Wiley, for sale at booksellers for $28.99 and as an e-book).
Saying hello
1.Have a plan in your head.
2.Make the first move.
3.Pass a comment.
4.Say hello.
5.Discover their occupation.
6.Steer the conversation.
7.Obtain their contact details.
8.Agree to follow up.