Networking Conversation Starters

by Cathie Ericson

Conversation Starters

Ever been to a networking event where you got stuck discussing the weather with someone? Ugh. What a boring discussion -- not to mention a waste of time and, more importantly, a wasted opportunity to make an important connection.

Don't squander the opportunities inherent at networking events by not being prepared with some savvy conversation starters. It can make all the difference between having a productive event -- or a waste of time.

The advice you hear all the time is to ask "open-ended questions," as in, those that require more than a yes or no answer.

For example, asking "what do you do?" can be a dead-end in the hands of a lazy conversationalist. They might say "I'm a systems analyst at Green Tech." Hmmm..ok, what next? "Wow that sounds interesting?" Maybe. But ask too many of those yes or no questions, and pretty soon, you get the sense that you are interrogating someone, rather than having a conversation.

An open-ended question encourages people to talk more fully about themselves. But not everyone picks up the conversation volley. So a better technique than just asking a question is to share some information about yourself first, and then ask a related question.

As in: “I can't believe what a great turnout there is! This is my first time at x event. Are they always like this?” See how this is not only a question but also gives some information that the other participant can build on. "It's my first time too" Or, "Yes, this has been a really valuable group for me."

Or, "I see you work at Green Tech. I work at Mark & Stewart Public Relations. One of my former colleagues used to work there. Do you ever work with the communications department?" Asking a question like that allows them to build on the information you provided, and also will elicit more information than if you had just asked "Do you know Mark Roberts?" because if the other person doesn’t, it can become a dead-end conversation.

Or, I just recently moved here from Philadelphia, where I worked at A to Z Graphic Design. I'm really looking forward to meeting local design professionals. Where do you work? See how this is such a better conversation starter than "Where do you work?" Giving context allows for a conversation that's much more useful to your goal.

Here are a few statement/question pairs we developed, illustrated by some different lines of conversation they could take to show you how this technique works.

  • I just finished a term on the programs board for the Manufacturers Association. How long have you been part of this group? (Establishes that you aren't new, but allows them to say they are, or that they hope to get more involved, or how much they've enjoyed the program.)

  • I can't wait to hear the speaker's views on organizational dynamics. Have you ever heard her speak? (Gives the opportunity for the other person to say that they used to work with her or have read a book by her, or didn't even know who the speaker was, or that they'd love to hear what you know about her.)

  • I see you work for (company on nametag). I hear they just got a great new account. Are you involved with that? (They can talk about whether or not they were involved; how it's made changes for the company; what sort of industry news you follow.)

  • I've been at (big company) for six years. I see you work for (small company). I've always wondered what it would be like to be in an entrepreneurial environment. Have you worked for large companies before? What was the transition like? (They can talk about loving the new company environment, what their day is like, what sorts of work you do at your company.)

  • My department has been really slow this month because all our clients seem to be on vacation. It's actually been really nice to do some mid-year planning. How has your company been this summer? (They can say they've been slow too and they do or don't like it; express jealousy over your ability to plan; or remark on their own summer plans.)

  • I just got back from a week at the lake. I can't believe it's already almost the end of summer. What do you hope to still do before the weather turns? (They can ask about which lake you went to; what they did this summer or what they hope to do.)

  • What a great scarf that is! I love to collect interesting accessories on my travels. What do you think of the bright colors that are in style now? (They can ask where you like to travel, comment on where they like to shop; talk about the strict or last dress code at their place of work.)

  • I know that the whole world is crazy for soccer but I just don't get the World Cup! Have you been watching? (This lets them know what you think but also doesn't go out on a limb to say that you think soccer is dumb when they might be the biggest FIFA fan in, well, the world. They can talk about their similar confusion over the big deal; or talk about how they took days off to watch World Cup or how they can't wait for basketball season to start.)

The key is to give enough information that you have made a polite remark, but not too much so that if they don’t agree with you ("Soccer is the dumbest sport in the world!" "I actually took all last week off to watch the matches.") , it doesn't make for an awkward silence.

Take care to express an opinion, but leave yourself open to having conversation about it too.

Finally, remember that whatever you talk about -- whether it's a movie, your summer plans, or the food -- the goal is to establish a connection. Hopefully it will turn into a work conversation, if that's what you are hoping for, but if not, you have established a connection you can reference when you follow up with them on LinkedIn the next day. "Enjoyed our conversation about FIFA. I never thought about comparing it to the Super Bowl! Glad to have met you yesterday; in fact, I'd love to buy you a cup of coffee at your convenience and talk a little more about what Green Tech does!"

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