[03.08.10]
134 great comments!

How To Start, Maintain And End A Conversation With A Stranger

career networking, human interest, conversation starter, job search, career strategies, career networks, talk, stranger, conversation, start Need help with a conversation starter? I spent an hour on the phone last week. Getting my teeth kicked in. So I could write this post.

And I have to tell you that I stumbled a bit. Something I’m not used to doing. I was out of my element. Speaking to a radio audience that doesn’t care how much time I spend working with and helping people with job search and career strategy in my free time. They just wanted answers about a conversation starter. Rightly so.

And if you listened to my appearance on the Recruiting Animal Radio Show you may have an interesting view of my personality and strengths.  Animal has a well-honed way of sweeping your feet out from under you.

But the places I stumbled were not his fault.  They were mine.  I was not able to answer some pretty basic questions he asked.  Ones that, I think, seem pretty straight-forward.  Not intentionally deceptive at all.

So now I’m here to answer the big one.  In full detail.  For the world to evaluate and comment on.  Yes: You.

His question to me:

How do you start, maintain and end a conversation with a stranger?

Why couldn’t I answer that question with specifics?  How do you talk with a stranger?  Well, I think that career networking is something I no longer do on a conscious level.  I just do it.  It has become second nature.  But as someone providing advice to new job seekers and other folks out there networking, it probably seemed suspect that my answer felt forced and vague.  It is a great question that many struggle with heading into a career networking event.  Especially if it is not a job search-focused event where many arrive with a common interest.

First Some General Ideas

  • @BillBoorman shared a good idea to connect with people via a social networking site like LinkedIn and arrange a meeting at the event.
  • Bring a friend with you.  And if you have someone, that’s great.  As long as you don’t use them as a crutch the whole night.
  • You can contact the group owner in advance and try to arrange a meeting time.  Once you meet the group owner, he/she can help you navigate the room or introduce you to others.
  • Offer to volunteer for an upcoming career networking meeting.  Be the sign-in person.  You’ll meet everyone.
  • Get there early.  It is much easier to find and meet new people in a less crowded room.  And you can get comfortable/in a rhythm before the big crowd arrives.
  • Ryon Harms @thesocialexec suggests that leading with an offer to help is a great way to grab attention “and as the conversation develops the other person naturally  starts to focus on how to help back”.
  • Finally, as I’ve shared before, look for other people who are obviously new (standing on the edge of the conversation) and go introduce yourself.  They will be glad you did . . .

But here is my newly thought-out answer to this question.  For @Animal, his demanding audience and all of you.  Written in the most basic form and in detail for beginners at career networking.  But honestly, I think even the most veteran folks can use a few reminders now and again!

How To Start It – What’s A Good Conversation Starter?

You find and connect with people when your eyes meet theirs. You make a connection with your eyes, smile and approach with confidence.  And then you kick things off with a question.  A conversation starter or introductory question needs to be open ended so that the other person is given a wide berth in which to answer.  To put their own spin on things.  Everyone likes to give their ideas and opinions.  The conversation starter also needs to be genuine.

Some specific examples if you are new to the group:

“Good morning!  I’m a first-time visitor here and I’m looking to meet a few new people today.  OK if I start with you?”

“Good morning.  My name is Tim and this is my first meeting here.  I was hoping to find someone who could tell me more about this group.  Could I ask you a few questions?”

“Hi.  I’m Tim.  Looks like a great turnout this morning.  Is this typical for the group?”

“Hey Mike, You look like you might know a few things about this group.  What advice do you have for a new member?”

If you are not new to the group:

“Hi.  I don’t think we’ve met before.  My name is Tim.

“Good morning.  First time here?  How can I help you?

If you approach a group in the middle of a conversation:

“Hi everyone.  Do you mind if I squeeze in?  I’m Tim.”

“Hi.  Room for one more?”

How To Maintain It – What Keeps Each Person Engaged?

In order for a conversation to continue, there has to be some depth to it.  Meaning that you need to learn something important about the other person or share something personal about yourself.  Without it, a conversation skips the surface like a flat rock over a pond.  Eventually sinking.

“What are you looking to accomplish over the next few years?

“What would you do next if you found a million dollars in a paper sack in the corner of the room with your name on it?”

“Why are you here tonight? Who are you looking to meet?”

“How can I help you?”

“What is the single biggest issue you are facing in your industry?”

“Are you like me?  My weekends are swamped with kids sports!”

“I do a lot of volunteering.  I’m currently building homes for Habitat.  Have you ever done any volunteering?”

How To End It – How Do I Move On Gracefully?

There has to be an ending.  And it will either happen naturally or one of the two people will have two initiate it.  And I think the latter is better because ideally you are meeting more than just a few people during each event you attend.  So you have to be able to move on after 5-10 minutes.  In a way that does not feel abrupt or rude.  So what words do you use?  My suggested phrases:

“It’s been great talking with you.  Can you introduce me to anyone else here who might make a good connection for me?

“Thanks for answering all my questions.  You’ve been great!  Would you be open to a follow-up meeting over coffee?

“I appreciate your time.  I’d love to meet a few more people tonight.  Is there anything I can do for you before we move on?”

“Thanks for the time.  Seems like we have a lot in common.  Can I send you a LinkedIn invitation?”

Now it is your turn. What Conversation Starter Works For You?

You tell me how you do it.  And be as detailed as you can.  Give specific phrases for each part.

And I promise I won’t kick you in the teeth.

For other great career networking tips, also look to Neal Schaffer, Kevin Liebl, and one of my favorite “Go-To” guys on networking, Thom Singer.

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Written by: Tim Tyrell-Smith
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Categories: Career Networking
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  • Tim, – great post. I run networking events for SU grads and this is very helpful information that I can pass along to them. One addition I would like to make. I get a lot of feedback about how new grads are networking with alumni. The biggest complaint I hear is that there is no follow-up. That makes the networking you just did almost worthless. Make sure to follow up with a phone call, e-mail, LinkedIn invitation – something. Remind the person where they met you and thank them for any assistance/advice they have already given. Request a follow-up conversation, or meeting. One interaction with a networking contact is generally not going to lead to a broader relationship, but subsequent interactions will lead to better results. Aim for quality, then quantity.

  • Tim, – great post. I run networking events for SU grads and this is very helpful information that I can pass along to them. One addition I would like to make. I get a lot of feedback about how new grads are networking with alumni. The biggest complaint I hear is that there is no follow-up. That makes the networking you just did almost worthless. Make sure to follow up with a phone call, e-mail, LinkedIn invitation – something. Remind the person where they met you and thank them for any assistance/advice they have already given. Request a follow-up conversation, or meeting. One interaction with a networking contact is generally not going to lead to a broader relationship, but subsequent interactions will lead to better results. Aim for quality, then quantity.

  • Tim

    Absolutely,Kelly. Thanks for that great reminder! And, yes, I see that even with the accomplished networkers. Because follow-up takes time.

  • Tim

    Absolutely,Kelly. Thanks for that great reminder! And, yes, I see that even with the accomplished networkers. Because follow-up takes time.

  • Tim,

    Another “ice breaker” that I like is to try to figure out how you are connected to the person. In other words, we are all familiar with the LinkedIn phenomenon. So, figure out how many degrees of separation you have from the person. It starts some very interesting dialog when you try to connect yourselves. You realize that you may have worked with similar people or even at the same company. This also creates great opportunities to leverage connections and help each other in your networking.

    Great article!

    – Kevin

  • Tim,

    Another “ice breaker” that I like is to try to figure out how you are connected to the person. In other words, we are all familiar with the LinkedIn phenomenon. So, figure out how many degrees of separation you have from the person. It starts some very interesting dialog when you try to connect yourselves. You realize that you may have worked with similar people or even at the same company. This also creates great opportunities to leverage connections and help each other in your networking.

    Great article!

    – Kevin

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  • Richard Blackburn

    Tim – great advice all around (as always). I have one cautionary tale about being the ‘sign-up’ person at an event. You will ‘meet’ everyone that walks in the door, but that’s not going to be enough to have them remember you when you call them asking for a coffee meeting or send them a LinkedIn invite.
    I’ve helped at events several times – and each time, I’ve found you need to wrap up the ‘welcome’ phase of your attendance at the meeting and move into the ‘meet people’ phase – following all the good advice Tim’s given. Sitting at the door all night is not going to be very effective for you. And watch out – many meeting organizers will be happy for you to sit there all night – that way they can do their networking! Make sure you have a clear understanding of their expectations at the outset.
    – Richard

  • Michelle J. Iseman

    I heard Animal tearoing into Tim and was astonished. Not only did Tim take it with grace, he still managed to come out ahead by really laying down the rules of converstaion, networking, listening (which Animal did NOT do) and udnerstanding that it is not about you but THEM. The rule of thumb is if you want to seem interesting then be interested. Ask questions about them (everyone wants to talk about themselves) and needs to know that you are really listening. Tim gives GREAT advice which I follow daily. A networking or radio blog talk show is not the place to get into a debate, but if you show that you are genuinely interested in the other person, then make an offline date to talk or better yet, go for a coffee and talk about their ideas. Everyone wants to know that someone is listening. Networking in person, on blogs, via LinkedIn, Facebook, BlogTalkRadio and whole host of other venues are good ways to talk to people, get them interested by showing interest and continuing to dialogue until they are no longer strangers. Great tips Tim – keep it up!

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  • Suzy Ubry

    Hi Tim,

    How did you know that I was going to reserve one of the “commute times” to delve deeper into your advice on this! Great post and very helpful … but I think I may still reserve a spot. 🙂

    I also listened to the Animal interview. “Stepping into the cage” pretty much summed it up! It was your story about the Laguna Niguel Connectors that prompted me to connect with you to learn more. Email coming soon …

    Also, a personal thought re: Animal interview. You say you “stumbled.” I disagree. In fact, I thought you did a great job of holding your own and letting your kind and generous spirit shine throughout the interview.

    And then here you are following up on what you thought you didn’t answer well in the interview. 🙂

    As for the post, I most appreciated the “how to end it” suggestions. Those were definitely the most helpful to me.

    Keep ’em coming Tim! Suzy =)

  • Suzy Ubry

    Hi Tim,

    How did you know that I was going to reserve one of the “commute times” to delve deeper into your advice on this! Great post and very helpful … but I think I may still reserve a spot. 🙂

    I also listened to the Animal interview. “Stepping into the cage” pretty much summed it up! It was your story about the Laguna Niguel Connectors that prompted me to connect with you to learn more. Email coming soon …

    Also, a personal thought re: Animal interview. You say you “stumbled.” I disagree. In fact, I thought you did a great job of holding your own and letting your kind and generous spirit shine throughout the interview.

    And then here you are following up on what you thought you didn’t answer well in the interview. 🙂

    As for the post, I most appreciated the “how to end it” suggestions. Those were definitely the most helpful to me.

    Keep ’em coming Tim! Suzy =)

  • Richard Blackburn

    Tim – great advice all around (as always). I have one cautionary tale about being the ‘sign-up’ person at an event. You will ‘meet’ everyone that walks in the door, but that’s not going to be enough to have them remember you when you call them asking for a coffee meeting or send them a LinkedIn invite.
    I’ve helped at events several times – and each time, I’ve found you need to wrap up the ‘welcome’ phase of your attendance at the meeting and move into the ‘meet people’ phase – following all the good advice Tim’s given. Sitting at the door all night is not going to be very effective for you. And watch out – many meeting organizers will be happy for you to sit there all night – that way they can do their networking! Make sure you have a clear understanding of their expectations at the outset.
    – Richard

  • Sylvie

    Hi Tim,

    Thank you for your post. I work as a career coach in The Netherlands and I am defintely going to use your ideas. People here in Holland tend to be a bit more shy than you guys in the US.

    I have a few suggestions as well. When new to a meeting give yourself some time to warm up a bit. You don’t have to plunge right in. And bear in mind that it gets easier when you à second, third etc time. Because then there are some familiar faces. I like to bring someone along, preferrably two or more that would benefit from connecting. In this way, you have the chance to talk to them but are also free to go and talk to someone else whenever you like.

    What I also like to do is to go to an event that calls for some kind of interaction. For example a workshop or training where networking isn’t the purpose. I find I can be more natural in those situations because I don’t think about it as much and my focus is more on meeting nice people who I have something in common with.

    Then a last suggestion that I learned at such a workshop about networking is to use all your senses. This mag sound a bit weird, but make sure the next time you talk to someone new give it a try. Just be open to te other person and it will be much easier to really listen and make a connection. Try to forget about your goals. Instead create a connection. If you like someone arrange to meet for coffee later and then talk business.

    Oh one last thing, I think you are better of talking to one or two people in such away that you both look forward to meet again and establish a relationship, then to scan the whole room, come home with a lot of cards and don’t really remember who you talked to.

    Good luck to everyone with your networking!

    Sylvie

  • Sylvie

    Hi Tim,

    Thank you for your post. I work as a career coach in The Netherlands and I am defintely going to use your ideas. People here in Holland tend to be a bit more shy than you guys in the US.

    I have a few suggestions as well. When new to a meeting give yourself some time to warm up a bit. You don’t have to plunge right in. And bear in mind that it gets easier when you à second, third etc time. Because then there are some familiar faces. I like to bring someone along, preferrably two or more that would benefit from connecting. In this way, you have the chance to talk to them but are also free to go and talk to someone else whenever you like.

    What I also like to do is to go to an event that calls for some kind of interaction. For example a workshop or training where networking isn’t the purpose. I find I can be more natural in those situations because I don’t think about it as much and my focus is more on meeting nice people who I have something in common with.

    Then a last suggestion that I learned at such a workshop about networking is to use all your senses. This mag sound a bit weird, but make sure the next time you talk to someone new give it a try. Just be open to te other person and it will be much easier to really listen and make a connection. Try to forget about your goals. Instead create a connection. If you like someone arrange to meet for coffee later and then talk business.

    Oh one last thing, I think you are better of talking to one or two people in such away that you both look forward to meet again and establish a relationship, then to scan the whole room, come home with a lot of cards and don’t really remember who you talked to.

    Good luck to everyone with your networking!

    Sylvie

  • Tim

    Thanks Sylvie – And glad the post gave you some new ideas! I like the idea of the warm-up and your point about the second and third time is so true. I appreciate your comment because it really added some great new thought to the original post. Cheers to you and everyone there in Holland!!

  • Tim

    Thanks Sylvie – And glad the post gave you some new ideas! I like the idea of the warm-up and your point about the second and third time is so true. I appreciate your comment because it really added some great new thought to the original post. Cheers to you and everyone there in Holland!!

  • Tim

    Hey Suzy – Your spot is ready and waiting. You just have to call!!! I felt I stumbled because I have high expectations of myself and I always try to deliver value each and every time I put myself out there. And this time I felt like my answers came up somewhat empty . . . I write. Everyday. For People. Just. Like. You!

  • Tim

    Hey Suzy – Your spot is ready and waiting. You just have to call!!! I felt I stumbled because I have high expectations of myself and I always try to deliver value each and every time I put myself out there. And this time I felt like my answers came up somewhat empty . . . I write. Everyday. For People. Just. Like. You!

  • Tim

    Hey Michelle – Thanks again for your comment. And also appreciate your participation on Facebook! “If you want to seem interesting then be interested” is a great line. Appreciate your contributions!!

  • Tim

    Hey Michelle – Thanks again for your comment. And also appreciate your participation on Facebook! “If you want to seem interesting then be interested” is a great line. Appreciate your contributions!!

  • Tim

    Hey Richard – I had not thought of the negatives of being the sign-up person. Great warning not to get stuck there. Good suggestion to move from “welcome” to “meet people”. Well said!

  • Tim

    Hey Richard – I had not thought of the negatives of being the sign-up person. Great warning not to get stuck there. Good suggestion to move from “welcome” to “meet people”. Well said!

  • Tim

    Kevin – That suggestion is very practical. I can see people implementing that one tomorrow. Very easy. And brilliant.

  • Tim

    Kevin – That suggestion is very practical. I can see people implementing that one tomorrow. Very easy. And brilliant.

  • Michelle J. Iseman

    I heard Animal tearoing into Tim and was astonished. Not only did Tim take it with grace, he still managed to come out ahead by really laying down the rules of converstaion, networking, listening (which Animal did NOT do) and udnerstanding that it is not about you but THEM. The rule of thumb is if you want to seem interesting then be interested. Ask questions about them (everyone wants to talk about themselves) and needs to know that you are really listening. Tim gives GREAT advice which I follow daily. A networking or radio blog talk show is not the place to get into a debate, but if you show that you are genuinely interested in the other person, then make an offline date to talk or better yet, go for a coffee and talk about their ideas. Everyone wants to know that someone is listening. Networking in person, on blogs, via LinkedIn, Facebook, BlogTalkRadio and whole host of other venues are good ways to talk to people, get them interested by showing interest and continuing to dialogue until they are no longer strangers. Great tips Tim – keep it up!

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  • Tonya VanOrder

    I really like Daniel Porot’s advice on networking, and his PIE method (Pleasure/leisure, Informational, Employment) for those who are job-seeking. http://www.porot.com/network/intro He does a great job of helping people set up a progression where you can practice in “safe” networking venues first, like liesure activities where less is at stake if you ‘stumble’, and increasingly moving on to more serious networking after you get really comfortable dialoging with strangers. There is also a presentation on my linkedin profile page (originally developed for MBA students interested in networking with alumni) that includes more detail about Daniel Porot’s networking suggestions.

    For openers, I like to ask about what the person’s career or career aspirations are, what they like about this particular group, and how they came to join it. As a career consultant, I really like hearing about how people got into the career or industry they are in. I find it fascinating to learn what motivates people to choose the path they’ve taken over other options they might have had.

  • Tonya VanOrder

    I really like Daniel Porot’s advice on networking, and his PIE method (Pleasure/leisure, Informational, Employment) for those who are job-seeking. http://www.porot.com/network/intro He does a great job of helping people set up a progression where you can practice in “safe” networking venues first, like liesure activities where less is at stake if you ‘stumble’, and increasingly moving on to more serious networking after you get really comfortable dialoging with strangers. There is also a presentation on my linkedin profile page (originally developed for MBA students interested in networking with alumni) that includes more detail about Daniel Porot’s networking suggestions.

    For openers, I like to ask about what the person’s career or career aspirations are, what they like about this particular group, and how they came to join it. As a career consultant, I really like hearing about how people got into the career or industry they are in. I find it fascinating to learn what motivates people to choose the path they’ve taken over other options they might have had.

  • Tim,

    Don’t fret about Animal. His online and radio persona is to be an ass. The key is that you learned from the situation and have a fantastic blog post to show for it. I have enjoyed reading your blog and would love to have you on my job search webshow, “Job Search Secrets” anytime to talk about this topic. Shoot me an email at jessica(at)xceptionalhr(dot)com.

    Thanks for the great information.

    Jessica

    @blogging4jobs

  • Tim,

    Don’t fret about Animal. His online and radio persona is to be an ass. The key is that you learned from the situation and have a fantastic blog post to show for it. I have enjoyed reading your blog and would love to have you on my job search webshow, “Job Search Secrets” anytime to talk about this topic. Shoot me an email at jessica(at)xceptionalhr(dot)com.

    Thanks for the great information.

    Jessica

    @blogging4jobs

  • Tim

    vanorde2 . . . thanks for the link to Porot’s suggestions. I like the stair-stepping idea – especially for new networkers or anyone feeling less up to the task.

  • Tim

    vanorde2 . . . thanks for the link to Porot’s suggestions. I like the stair-stepping idea – especially for new networkers or anyone feeling less up to the task.

  • Tim

    Hey Jessica – Thanks for that encouragement. I knew what I was signing up for and, overall, am glad I went on Animal’s show. You just always wish to have said a few things differently, right? Would love to participate in your show – thanks for the opportunity and I will send you a note via email . . .

  • Tim

    Hey Jessica – Thanks for that encouragement. I knew what I was signing up for and, overall, am glad I went on Animal’s show. You just always wish to have said a few things differently, right? Would love to participate in your show – thanks for the opportunity and I will send you a note via email . . .

  • Cindy Pickens

    Hi Tim…as always – right on the target. I might add that networking tandem is an effective way to spread each other’s brand, might as well get double for the money. I also think that having your elevator speech ready gives you bits and piece you can pull out to incorporate into the conversation. And of course, the famous, “tell me about yourself”. Most people like to talk about themselves so if you are ever stuck…try that.
    Thanks for all that you do, Tim.
    CP

  • Cindy Pickens

    Hi Tim…as always – right on the target. I might add that networking tandem is an effective way to spread each other’s brand, might as well get double for the money. I also think that having your elevator speech ready gives you bits and piece you can pull out to incorporate into the conversation. And of course, the famous, “tell me about yourself”. Most people like to talk about themselves so if you are ever stuck…try that.
    Thanks for all that you do, Tim.
    CP

  • Tim

    Thank you, Cindy. Really enjoyed talking with you this morning and, as you know, love being a member of CafeNet in Orange County. Appreciate your expert advice on networking. Each of your points are great and practical additions that anyone can implement right away . . .

  • Tim

    Thank you, Cindy. Really enjoyed talking with you this morning and, as you know, love being a member of CafeNet in Orange County. Appreciate your expert advice on networking. Each of your points are great and practical additions that anyone can implement right away . . .

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  • Hey Tim – really liked this post. Always good to revisit a question where you feel you didn’t answer to your potential!

    The area of this post that I concentrated on was how to join a discussion with a group that has already began a conversation. This is a troublesome area. I think as humans, we all want to feel we fit in. No matter what people feel about us (popular, nerdy, whatever) when we are at an event and a group of people are talking, we are still seen as the outsider trying to break in. They have established momentum with each other. Sure, most people will easily let someone else into their group conversation, but it is certainly hard to find a way to break in.

    I struggle with this, and most times will just wait till that particular conversation ends to grab someone, or I’ll start up a chat with someone else. You make good points on it, but it sure is tough to just jump in on a group, especially a big one.

  • Hey Tim – really liked this post. Always good to revisit a question where you feel you didn’t answer to your potential!

    The area of this post that I concentrated on was how to join a discussion with a group that has already began a conversation. This is a troublesome area. I think as humans, we all want to feel we fit in. No matter what people feel about us (popular, nerdy, whatever) when we are at an event and a group of people are talking, we are still seen as the outsider trying to break in. They have established momentum with each other. Sure, most people will easily let someone else into their group conversation, but it is certainly hard to find a way to break in.

    I struggle with this, and most times will just wait till that particular conversation ends to grab someone, or I’ll start up a chat with someone else. You make good points on it, but it sure is tough to just jump in on a group, especially a big one.

  • Tim

    Thanks Rich – It is not easy. You are right. And dancing around doesn’t work. You need to go in with confidence or you will be ignored. And find yourself slinking away back in a corner.

    One idea? Look for groups with a natural (physical) opening. That way you can approach without feeling like you are playing “Red Rover, Red Rover”. Busting through the locked arms.

  • Tim

    Thanks Rich – It is not easy. You are right. And dancing around doesn’t work. You need to go in with confidence or you will be ignored. And find yourself slinking away back in a corner.

    One idea? Look for groups with a natural (physical) opening. That way you can approach without feeling like you are playing “Red Rover, Red Rover”. Busting through the locked arms.

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  • Tim,
    Thanks for making is less intimidating. I hear people tell me they don’t know what to say when they meet someone new or how to leave a conversation.  You so nicely provided options in this post! 

    Your genuine approach makes this more “do-able”. 

    Might I add that Keith Ferrazzi’s “Never Eat Alone” has super suggestions too.

    Networking is a mindset, not an activity! 

    When you meet someone new, it could be the beginning of a beeeeeeautiful relationship- nurture it over time!

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  • Thank you, Hannah.  I know it’s not easy, but it is one of those skills that, once found, makes everything in life so much easier.  🙂  Yes, Ferrazzi’s book is a great resource!

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  • zaza

    hai tim..can u tell me what the difference between starting, maintaining and ending a conversation?

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