For some people striking up a conversation with a stranger is no big deal, for others, it can feel like an almost insurmountable task. When it comes to networking, being able to initiate conversation with those around you is the first step to success and, usually, the whole thing becomes a lot less daunting once you’re over that initial hurdle.

Interestingly, few ice breakers actually start with “Hi, How are you?” or “Hello. My name is…” unless you’re walking up to someone who’s standing on their own – actually quite a good tactic. Exchange of names often comes later when you’ve clicked.

Most often people start talking to each other because they’re standing near each other or are in a queue for food or drink, because someone else introduces them or because they’re walking past and overhear something interesting. Wherever you find yourself physically in a networking situation, questions are usually the best way to start a conversation. Here’s our cheat sheet of conversation starters:

1. Their journey

If it’s at the start of a networking event before anything has really happened, a perfectly good place to start, while you’re both grabbing a pastry or coffee, is how they got there. It might open up a conversation about a place you both know, the trials of public transport, the weather etc.

• ‘How was your journey here this morning?’
• ‘So, where have you traveled from?’
• ‘Did you get caught in that downpour?’
• ‘So how was your journey in this heat?’

2.The event
Before the event starts you could ask them about it:

• ‘So why did you come here today?’
• ‘What are you hoping to get out of this event?’
• ‘What are you most looking forward to?’

If the event has already kicked off, you could use the chat to genuinely gauge their opinion or find out more.

• ‘Are you enjoying the event so far?’
• ‘Which was your favorite presentation?’
• ‘I missed the talk on… earlier, how was it?’
• ‘What do you think of this venue?’ – if there’s something noteworthy (good or bad) to comment on.

3. Lighter topics
Talking about sports, news stories (industry-specific or otherwise), your favorite book or even the food that’s on offer can be a great way to kickstart a conversation and build rapport before moving on to ‘heavier’ topics.

• ‘Did you see the game last night?’ – or talk about a recent big sporting event
• ‘I was watching the news this morning and…’
• ‘Have you read this book/article…?
• ‘Have you tried the food yet? I loved the…’

4. Business
Don’t be afraid to ‘get down to business’ by asking someone about their career. After all, you came to the event in the hopes of meeting valuable professional contacts, and finding out what your discussion partner does for a living is the first step in discovering what you could mean to each other.

• ‘What do you do?’
• ‘Is your business based here?’
• ‘What project are you currently working on?’ – you can make this question more specific if the networking event you’re attending is for a certain group, industry or technology, for example.
• ‘I read on the company website that you’re doing such-and-such, how is that going? Has it made a big difference?’

5. Something more personal
Complimenting someone, whether that’s on a piece of work they’ve done or something they’re wearing, can be a great way to start a meaningful conversation – as long as you are sincere! Of course, you’ll need to recognize them to compliment them on something they’ve done.

• ‘I love your jacket, that color is great!’- have something to follow this up with when they say “Oh. Thank you”, like ‘why is there always so much grey and navy?’ or ‘It really brightens your day when you wear a color, doesn’t it?’
• ‘Hello. Are you so-and so? I read your LinkedIn article on… I loved what you said about…’ Then they might ask you why – so have your answer ready as well as a question to ask them.

6. Help/ opinions/ advice
Asking someone for advice is not only a great way to get them talking, they’re likely to open up to you more when you show them you’re genuinely interested in their opinion and experiences.

• ‘It seems nice around here – do you happen to know of any good restaurants in this area?’
• ‘I overheard you recently ran a successful fundraiser – do you have any advice about organizing an event like that?’

Networking may not come easily to you, but actually it doesn’t come easily to many people at all. For everyone, except a very, very few, it’s an effort and nearly always uncomfortable for the first half an hour or so. So take a deep breath, smile and throw yourself into it as quickly as possible.

Remember everyone at your next networking event is just a human being, like you, and you are just as worthy and have just as many important things to say. The first hurdle of approaching people is often the hardest and getting over it is just practice.

Managing Partner
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Thomas Wharton is President of LIFOCUS CAREER SERVICES an Executive Coaching and Career Coaching firm in Rhode Island, providing Career & Transition CoachingOutplacementExecutive Coaching, and Assessments. Tom can be reached at 401.884.7959 • • •@careercoachTW
Tom Wharton