You're at a conference, a  cocktail party, or even an airport departure area. You see someone across the room who could be a potential employer, customer, mentor, connection to other opportunities, or source of valuable information. You need to find a way to talk to whomever it is. What do you do?

Starting a conversation from scratch is never easy, but it can be done, according to Morag Barrett, an HR consultant, leadership coach, and the author of Cultivate: The Power of Winning Relationships. "Relationships are built one conversation at a time," she says. "You can't afford to be a wallflower. Take a deep breath. Your success depends on your ability to start the conversation."

Once you've taken that deep breath, what do you say? Here are some of Barrett's guaranteed openers to get you talking with anyone you want:

1. Say hello.

"I know it sounds obvious, but we spend so much time worrying about what comes after the 'hello' that we forget to say it," Barrett notes. So, she says, just try saying "Hello, my name is..." and letting the rest of the conversation proceed from there. If you're not sure what to say next, consider simply telling the other person why you wanted to chat. For instance: "I hear your company is looking to fill a position, and I think it might be a good fit for me."

2. Ask why the other person is there.

"If you're at a company event, that might not be the best opening line," Barrett concedes. "But at a conference, it can be a great way to find out why someone chose to come and what he or she is hoping to learn." It can be especially useful if you see someone you're acquainted with in an unexpected place, such as an airport. "Imagine meeting you here! Where are you flying to?" is a dependable conversation starter.

3. Comment on the weather.

"I may live in Colorado, where the sun shines more than 300 days a year, but growing up in England, (where it doesn't rain all the time) this is one habit that will never leave me," Barrett says. The weather is a dependably safe conversation starter. If you live somewhere like Southern California where the weather doesn't vary much, you can try commenting on the traffic instead.

4. Share your feelings.

No, I don't mean you should tell your new acquaintance that you're mad at your boyfriend or girlfriend for coming home late last night. But sharing a genuine sentiment about the event or place where you are is a great way to create a bond. "Whether it's how much you enjoyed the opening keynote or how much you are looking forward to the afternoon session, share your experience of the event you are at," Barrett advises. It's probably smartest to share a positive sentiment, though. If you say you hated the keynote and the other person loved it--or worse, is friends with the speaker--that could be awkward.

5. Ask for advice.

People love to be asked for their advice, so use this to your advantage. "Ask for suggestions on which breakout session to attend," Barrett says. "Ask for a recommendation for a restaurant. Ask about travel time back to the airport."

Even if you've already got dinner reservations and have already decided which session you'll go to, ask anyway, she advises. "Be curious, listen, and thank people for their suggestions. And lo! Your conversation is under way."

6. Ask if the other person knows anyone else at the event.

"There are many variants of this question that are useful," Barrett says. If the other person answers "no," you have an opportunity to invite him or her to coffee or lunch, or to join you at the social event. "Very few of us like the feeling of being the only person who doesn't know anyone else," she says.

What if they answer "yes"? Follow up by asking who they recommend for you to meet, and then ask for an introduction. And then you'll be having a conversation with two interesting new contacts instead of just one.

Tomorrow: Now that you know how to start a conversation, here are 11 ways to gracefully end one.

Published on: Apr 28, 2016
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