By Michael Jimney, Financial Leadership Program (FLP) Correspondent
Generally speaking, soft skills refer to your ability to interact with others. Think about that. How you address someone, what subjects you raise, and how you smile or nod during a conversation are considered skills. These nuances feed into someone’s impression of you. In Finance, it is critical to be aware of the impression you are making on others. Because you will only have one chance to make a first impression, try to develop your soft skills before that first handshake. Knowing how to create a good impression is important. Luckily, there is one weapon that can be the key to your networking arsenal, and it will be the topic of this post – specifically: How to Ask a Question.
Networking is an essential component of your finance internship/job search. To effectively build your network, you need to create a connection with your contact. This means doing more than listening to them speak at a company presentation and collecting their business cards. One way you can build a rapport that will establish a real connection is to ask questions. In addition to creating a connection, it also allows you to gain insights and information into a particular career. Before I explain how to craft a question effectively, it is important to know there really are such things as good and bad questions. In order to better understand how your thought process works, professionals look at the kinds of questions you ask as a reflection of your judgment. Asking a bad question may not do you any irreversible harm, but a good question can make a big impact in making an impression.
Consider the four kinds of questions students generally ask when meeting with professionals (listed below in order of importance):
- The insightful question
- The attentive question
- The typical question
- The wrong question
Starting from the bottom, there are some questions which are just wrong. How much leeway you have with asking a wrong question is directly dependent upon the person with whom you are speaking. If you are talking to a Managing Director, you do not want to ask him what an investment banker does. That will make you seem lazy and gives off a bad impression, because you could easily have read about it on your own time,. However, asking that question to a current student who interned at an investment bank or a recent graduate is reasonable (albeit typical). Another wrong question would be “How much do you earn?” This is a question that makes most people feel uncomfortable. Asking about something they just explained is another no-no, as it shows you were not paying attention.
Typical questions are those you will frequently hear being asked. Those old standards include:
- “What does a typical day look like?”
- “How do you like working at company XYZ?”
- “What do you do for fun?”
- “Do you recommend any books or reading materials?”
Truthfully, these questions are an effective way to get information about the company and/or a position. Questions about what their typical responsibilities are or what skills they view as the most important are a good way to understand if the role fits your interests. When you first start networking, these will likely be the types of questions you will frequently ask. Just keep in mind that these questions will not get you noticed or remembered. Over time, try to shift from these typical questions to the insightful and attentive questions, otherwise known as the “good” questions.
The attentive question is where you take something the speaker has said and dig deeper. For example, “Earlier, you mentioned your involvement in the ABC transaction; could you tell me a little more about it?” The benefits of such a question are: 1) the speaker will know you are actively listening, and 2) you will get additional information about a subject where you might be lacking knowledge. A good rule of thumb: people like to talk about themselves. If you show a bit of interest in something they have done or mentioned, they will be more than happy to talk about it.
The final and most important of the aforementioned categories are the insightful questions. These questions connect outside learning to the subject at hand. For example, asking a banker “Considering the recent growth of the ABC sector, do you see the focus of your group shifting over the next few years?” shows that you are paying attention (like an attentive question) and you are also looping in outside information. Here, you get all the benefits of the attentive question with one key difference: you demonstrate that you are learning about the finance industry on your own time. The more detailed or complex the outside info, the higher the return will be when it comes to making a positive impression. Make sure you understand what you are bringing up because it is easy for a professional, who probably knows more about the topic than you do, to tell if you are just trying to sound smart.
In Step 1, I discussed the significance of researching the finance industry. Asking questions while networking is one way you could use that knowledge. It is also very important to stay up on current events. The Wall Street Journal is the standard (students get a discount price: http://student.wsj.com), but there are plenty of other periodicals or news sites like the Financial Times, Bloomberg, Reuters, Barron’s, and The Economist that are worth reading. The more time you spend reading, the better your questions will be.
When it comes to speaking to professionals, you want to spend most of your time asking insightful and attentive questions. That way, you get meaningful information from your networking contacts while leaving a positive impact. Questions are a great way to make a great first impression, but it is not the only skill you need to cultivate. In the next post, I will be going over how to develop your own personal pitch.