It's an awkward moment we've all experienced. You arrive at an industry event, holiday party, or conference. You've come to network with peers, experts, or potential customers. You know who you want to meet but you're not sure how to get them talking to you.
Starting a conversation is easier than you may think. Here are some tried-and-true methods that work especially well during a networking event. Use one of them the next time you aren't sure what to say:
1. Ask their opinion.
"What did you think of the presentation?" I've used this question to start conversations with complete strangers at events hundreds of times. It's a foolproof icebreaker because most people love being asked for their opinion and will be happy to share it. The few who don't will turn the question around and ask what you thought of it. Either way, it will get the two of you talking.
One caveat: Whatever you thought of the presentation, don't be too negative when you give your opinion. The person you're talking to may be friends with the speaker, or may have helped put together the program.
2. Say something about the event.
Here again, you can't be too negative. But even if the presentation was lackluster, it likely contained an interesting tidbit of information worth commenting on, or a fascinating fact you may want to research further. Chances are it's fresh in the other person's memory as well, so saying something like "I thought that statistic was really interesting. Had you heard that before?" has a good chance of starting an interesting conversation.
3. Ask a question.
Almost any question will do, even if you already know the answer. "Excuse me, do you know if that's chicken salad or tuna salad?" might be enough to break the ice. When you ask for information, it's human nature to try and answer, so there's a good chance the other person will try to provide you an answer. The conversation can proceed from there.
4. Comment on the weather.
Thank goodness for weather! It's a safe conversation starter and almost always worthy of discussion. From, "What a beautiful few days we've had," to "I don't think I can take any more rain," it's a shared experience you can talk about with virtually anyone.
5. Offer a compliment.
"I thought that question you asked was really insightful," or "I really like your watch. Is that a smartwatch?" or "I enjoyed reading the blog post you published last week." Most people love receiving compliments, and almost no one is immune to flattery. It's a great way to get someone to take an interest in you.
6. Ask for help.
Again, it's human nature to try to help someone who asks. Whether the assistance you request is for someone to pass you a plate of olives, recommend a nearby restaurant, or share industry tips, they will likely want to help you. It's natural to feel connected to the people we've helped, as well as the people who've helped us. So by asking for help, you'll have already created a bond.
7. Make a connection based on people's name tags.
Name tags can be great conversation starters, as they will usually tell you where other people work, and may tell you their titles and where they live as well. Each of these is a potential conversation starter. If you happen to know someone who works at the same company or lives in the same (small) town, then asking if they know that person too is a great way to both start a conversation and perhaps establish an existing bond.
If not, you can still make name tags work for you by asking what it's like to work at their company, or to do the kind of work they do, or where their hometown is and whether they like living there. If you've never heard of the company, you can always start a conversation by asking what it does.
8. Tell them you've been wanting to meet them and why.
If this is an important networking event for you, you've already done your homework about the people you might meet there. One simple way to start a conversation with someone you've been hoping to meet is to say just that: "I was hoping I'd get to meet you here today." Then tell them why.
Be careful not to turn this into a sales pitch, which would be inappropriate and off-putting. Bad: "I was hoping to get to meet you because I know how much our product could benefit your company." Good: "I was hoping to get to meet you so I could learn more about what you do and what your priorities are."
9. Just introduce yourself.
If you can't come up with any conversational opener that feels natural, one effective approach is to simply introduce yourself, telling the other person your name and the name of your company. You can follow that up with a sentence about why you're there, such as, "I thought this might be a great opportunity to meet other people in this industry. How about you?"
Most people respond favorably to a conversation starter that's open and straightforward. They will likely answer with their own information and why they're there, which can lead naturally to a conversation about the event itself. Or it may lead to another topic. Either way, you'll be talking.