“A mighty flame followeth a tiny spark.” – Dante (“Paradiso,” The Divine Comedy, c. 1300-21)

There are two things almost all people like to do:

1. talk about themselves

2. talk about something they know a lot about

You can put these facts of life to work for you in a big and powerful way. The trick is to identify people you want to meet and ask them questions.

You can do it in person, by phone, or by mail. But whatever medium of communication you choose, do it with a smile. A smile lets your target know that you like him and mean him well. A smile buys you enough time to ask the question. If the question is the right one, the rest will be easy.

(You convey a smile on the phone simply by smiling. You smile in writing by using a simple, cheerful opening sentence and ending it with an exclamation point.)

The other day, I was sitting in my office working on some disagreeable problem when the door cracked open and the head of a man I’d never seen before popped through. My first reaction was alarm and annoyance. Then he gave me a big smile, and I felt compelled to smile back.

“I’ve come to ask you a question,” he said, and stepped inside.

I suspected he was up to something, but I couldn’t resist. “What is that?” I responded.

He said that he had heard I was a marketing genius and was hoping I could give him some quick advice on a marketing decision he was trying to make.

“I’m kind of busy right now,” I said.

“A minute of your time is all I’m asking,” he replied. He looked at his watch and added, “I’ll time it.”

How could I say no?

“Go ahead,” I consented. “Ask your question.”

He sat down. “How does a person know if he has any talent for marketing?” he asked.

It was, in retrospect, a devilishly clever question. On the one hand, it was too big to answer in an hour, let alone a minute. On the other hand, it was indirectly flattering (the assumption that I would know), and so I was seduced into carrying on.

We ended up spending an hour together, at the end of which he left with:

* a list of three potential employers he could contact

* specific recommendations for improving his marketing skills

* the right to call me back and address me by my first name

Not a bad accomplishment for someone I normally wouldn’t have given the time of day.

You might remember the story I told you in Message #264 about how a chance encounter with three unlikely-looking men at the airport in Nicaragua — initiated by asking a few simple questions — led to a potentially lucrative business connection. MP tells a similar story about a friend of his in California. While playing golf one day with someone he’d never met before, he asked the guy what he did for a living and learned that he ran a large moving company with offices around the country. Since MP’s friend had been working in that same business, he asked a few more questions — and by the end of the day, he was on his way to Nevada to interview for a position  managing this “stranger’s” Las Vegas operation. About a month later, he had a great new job.

So, do this:

* Make a list of six people you’d like to get to know. (Not President Bush or Madonna — be realistic.)

* Go to speak with them personally, phone them, or write them.

* Remember to lead with a smiling salutation.

* Then ask a question that allows them to talk about (1) themselves and (2) something they know.

And the next time you are standing next to someone in line or on an airplane, or are introduced to someone by phone, take the time to ask a flattering question. Make this a habit.