Beat the biggest problem people have with networking events.


Honest networking

Some ideas on how to break the ice at your next local business or job networking event or just on the street.

After a recent all-day conference, I was about to head home when a friend there, Natasha Shine of Rounds, said she was on her way down the street for the evening networking event at another all-day conference.

“Well… I'm pretty tired,” I told her.

“Come on, you'll meet a lot of entrepreneurs,” she pushed back, and that was all it took.

Good thing I went.

I did meet a lot of entrepreneurs, including some in the job search and recruiting industries, plus others who were able to give me business feedback or even contact information for other people or companies that might be useful for me.

How did I do it?

  1. Look for people who were standing alone so I wouldn't need to interrupt any conversations
  2. Start the conversation by asking how the conference had been, since I had been up the street at the first all-day conference

That's it. It was an easy question to answer, and for the few people who had also missed the first part of the day like myself, they would just reply by asking how my own conference had been.

conversation starters tweet

How to start a conversation at networking events

For some people, reaching out to strangers comes naturally. For others like myself, it took practice and time to build up confidence to the point where I now enjoy it instead of getting anxious about it.

Things get a lot easier when you have an opening question that works, and once you realize that often the stranger in front of you is also looking for a way to reach out to you too, and is hesitating for the same reasons you are.

That alone is an interesting conversation starter: “Isn't it funny how we're both trying to think of something to say first?”

Here are 14 other good conversation starters to use when the time is right:

1) Keep it simple, introduce yourself and offer a handshake. “Hi. My name is … . What's yours?”

2) If they're wearing a nametag, ask them about their name.

3) If they're wearing a nametag, say “Hi … . What do you do?” This isn't my favorite opening line, but you'll always get an answer.

4) Look for something you have in common with the person, and ask a related question. At the very least, ask what they think of the event you're both attending, whether you're referring to the speakers, the topics, or even just the room you're in.

5) If the person has something very different about them, such as being a member of the opposite sex, much older/younger, etc., ask them for their specific point of view on an issue at the event i.e. “as a woman, how do you feel about the …?”

6) Ask what inspired them to come to the event.

7) If you recognize the person from the brochure for the current event, say so and ask them about their role in the event.

8) If you recognize the person from somewhere else such as a previous seminar, tell them so, and ask them if they liked that other event.

9) If you're at an event with many foreigners, ask where they're from.

10) If you're at an event with many foreigners, ask what they think of the location.

11) If you're at an event for a professional association, ask what made them become a member when they did.

12) Compliment them, but only if you really mean it. Women love this, and love doing it e.g. “I love your hair/watch/purse/etc.”

13) If they have a personal brand accessory, ask the first question that pops into your mind when you see it.

14) If you have a personal brand accessory, ask them what they think about it.

Bonus suggestions

15) If there's food or refreshments, offer to get them something.

From another friend of mine, career strategist Tim Tyrell-Smith:

“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 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 question also needs to be genuine.”

16) Just ask “How's your day?”

Try these ideas as soon as you can, and you'll start to get comfortable with which ones work best for you.

You'll know things have changed when other people start asking how it's so easy for you to start a conversation.

5 Conversation Starters for Introverts: Networking and Meeting New People

Question of the article

Which conversation starter has worked well for you? Tell us in the comments.

Get more networking tips with 7 Quick Rules for Networking To Your Next Job.

I originally published a version of this article on the terrific Personal Branding Blog.

Subscribe to JobMob via RSS or email and follow me on Twitter for more conversation starters for work functions.

Jacob Share

Job Search Expert, Professional Blogger, Creative Thinker, Community Builder with a sense of humor. I like to help people.

This Post Has 19 Comments

  1. Barbara

    Great ideas, minus one, that is so not a good opening for a conversation – number 5).
    “As a woman, how do you feel about global warming?” “As a teenager, how do you feel about dark matter?” “As a black person, how do you feel about stereotyping in the workplace?” “As an Asian, how do you feel about the sushi at the buffet?”
    If you ask that kind of question, you stereotype a person in the rudest way possible. If one is (momentarily) part of a minority, they know. Usually, they are quite painfully aware of it. (“Yes, thank you for reminding me of the fact that I am the only man in a room full of women.” “Funny, now that you mention it, I am actually the only person over the age of 18 here.”)

    People want to be on the inside, they want to belong to the group –
    if you want to connect with someone, stress similarities, not differences.

    Just my 2 cents.

  2. Jacob Share

    Barbara- that’s not what I meant. The last thing a networker wants to do is leave a bad impression by asking an empty question or making an offensive comment.

    Different kinds of people will have different points of view. An older attendee may remember how things were different in the past, for example.

  3. Melanie

    I often ask people what they are reading.

  4. Tim Tyrell-Smith

    Great summary on such an important issue – love the cartoon (scary but too true for many employed people). Thanks for the shout and hope the year has been great for you so far!

  5. Jacob Share

    Melanie- good tip

    Tim- thanks. It’s a great cartoon and I’ve been waiting for the right post to use it.

  6. Keith Rozario

    Thanks for the comment on my blog, this is some good information, I always end up in conferences talking to the same people in my ‘comfort’ zone and rarely take the risk to people I know nothing about.


  7. Megan

    I agree with Barbara… never ask #5! Unless it has something to do with their particular career or something; “…as an astronaut how do you feel about last month’s conference run by NASA?” or something. Don’t bring the persons race/sex/sexual preference into it… duh.

  8. Steve Borgman

    When it comes to any kind of conversation starter, I like to recall a saying I read recently from a Jewish rabbi. In order to become rich, become obsessively concerned with the needs of others. If we can really care about the people we are connecting with, these conversation starters will be communicated with genuine sincerity, which will go a long way to increasing the odds of a good relationship after the conversation has started.

  9. Jacob Share

    Steve- hear hear.

    Jerome- bravo ! Bonne idée ! Thanks for sharing.

  10. Pingback: What I Bring to Networking Events and Conferences | Personal Branding Blog - Dan Schawbel

  11. tuffier

    be yourself and smile
    it opens a lot of door an show you are ready to engage in a conversation
    now to break the ice you need small chat first, and yes why not ask the person
    what do you do? It is straight to the point.

  12. alisa

    from my experience people do like to talk about themselves and they will answer any question you ask them if they can talk about their life/experiences/work and, especially, opinions….unless they have something to hide. But then I guess it is better not to get too close to people who are hiding something.

  13. Tara Bachtel

    Instead of “What do you do?” try “What is your role in your organization?” or “Do you work outside the home?”…I personally like the compliment route…”cute shoes”

    1. Jacob Share

      The compliment route is a good one, starts things off smoothly and positively. Thanks for the suggestion, Tara

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