Schmoozing has a bad connotation to it, but let's face it--it's a reality of doing business. It doesn't make sense to go up to a random stranger and immediately tell them your business idea, nor does it make sense to avoid conversations with strangers entirely. You have to meet people in order to expand your professional network, and you can't robotically launch into your ultimate goals for those strangers. Schmoozing is the middle ground: the friendly conversation that bridges the gap between total stranger-ness to casual acquaintanceship that allows you to segue into more serious topics.
Still, schmoozing isn't always easy, and starting the conversation is one of the most difficult parts of the process. One of these introductory lines should be able to help you:
1. What brings you here? This is a simple question that can be used in almost any situation, from a networking event to a public speaking event to a random bar. Even if you know nothing about the person you're approaching, you at least know their physical location, and it's a reasonable assumption that they have some kind of reason for being there. It's a perfectly natural, unassuming thing to ask, and it can segue into much more meaningful conversation. For example, if your target answers "I'm a big fan of this venue," you can start talking about the venue itself.
2. I like your _____. Fill in the blank with whatever the person is wearing. Compliments are perfect conversation starters as long as they fill two conditions: they must be honest and they must be specific. General compliments don't provide enough material to launch the conversation into a new direction, while specific compliments do. It's also easy to tell when someone is sincere with a compliment versus when they are insincere. Sincere, specific compliments make people feel good about themselves, which sets a positive tone for the conversation and potential relationship to come. Barring any clothing or stylistic compliments you can give, you can compliment a person's choice in drink or choice in seating.
3. Can you believe this weather? Most people groan internally when they think about talking about the weather. It's evolved to become the poster-boy clich of small talk, and it's perhaps the least meaningful form of conversation that exists. Still, it's evolved to this position for a reason--it's a good conversation starter. It's innocuous, so you can never burn a bridge right off the bat, it's applicable to anyone, because we all experience the effects of the weather, and it's always changing, so there's something interesting about it. You don't have to talk about the weather for long--usually a couple of brief exchanges is all it takes before the conversation naturally evolves into something a little more sophisticated.
4. What do you think about the food/drink? People love food and drink. It's half the reason people show up for networking and other social events. We are creatures who love to eat and drink, and we take pride in the food and drink we consume. If you see someone with an appetizer in hand, ask them what they think about the menu. It's a present, relevant detail, and chances are, you can get someone talking a great deal about their culinary opinions. You can also combine this with point 2 above, serving to compliment their choice in drink.
5. Did you hear the news? Newsworthy events can be divisive ground, so be careful in your choice of specific events. For example, you may want to lead in with something politically neutral, like new roadway construction or a new restaurant opening downtown. You could go a little darker with something like a natural disaster that hit, but definitely stay away from any politically contentious issues. For example, you wouldn't want to open a conversation with something like "did you hear that scumbag is running for president?" but something like "did you hear about that new development downtown?" Generally, the more local you can be with this news, the better.
6. I can't believe they didn't bring enough chairs. Complaints have a bad reputation, especially in a professional setting. Complaining too often in the workplace can illustrate you as a destructive, negative person, and pessimism is generally not appreciated in any social circle. However, one offhand complaint or negative comment about the event can immediately win sympathies. Because it's a little off-color, it makes you seem more personable and more honest. Because it addresses something the person was probably thinking but didn't want to say, it forms an instant bond. Immediately, you're left with a potential conversation and a warm connection.
7. Any appropriate joke. People love to laugh, and even if they don't laugh, they'll appreciate the effort. Tell almost any appropriate joke, and you'll instantly form a connection with someone. If you can make that joke specific to the venue or event, even better. Just be sure to reserve your more questionable material for people you know a little better.
Try using one or more of these opening schmoozing lines the next time you attend a networking event, but don't try and use any of them verbatim. Over-rehearsing can make you seem robotic and impersonal; instead, try out natural variations of these lines based on your own personality and the circumstances surrounding your introduction. Eventually, you'll develop your own natural schmoozing rhythm, and you won't even have to think about it.