Networking and social events fill the business world. From enormous industry trade shows to smaller, more casual work parties or meetings, they’re hard to avoid. And avoiding them is just what many people would rather do. But take it from a former wallflower: With a little practice and a bit of bravery, you can become comfortable starting conversations with strangers. In fact, you may even start liking it.
For me the most challenging kind of networking has always been walking into a room full of strangers. Where do you start? There are little groups chatting and laughing—did they know each other before they got there? Maybe someone will look up and make eye contact with you? But alas, no one does. You fight the urge to do a 180 and head right back out the door. You drift casually toward the coffee (even though you don’t drink coffee) ….
Admittedly, networking and starting conversations with strangers don’t always go smoothly. You can end up talking with people who don’t stop long enough to take a breath. Or sometimes things can get very one-sided the other way where you’re doing all the talking. But mostly, breaking the ice leads to interesting conversations and new connections.
Here are some tips for meeting new people and starting conversations:
- Smile and be approachable. Looking friendly is a great start when you come into a room where you don’t know anyone. Smile. Keep your head up. If you’re not a naturally smiley person, at least wipe away the grimace and try just the hint of a smile. (This Big Bang clip is the wrong way to smile.) You want an expression that puts people at ease and lets them know that it’s “safe” to start a conversation with you.
- Start a conversation. If there’s a check-in table and you’re there at the same time as someone else, introduce yourself. “Hi, I’m Tricia and I work for Sprint. I’m in their PR department.” The person will usually reciprocate with their information. (If they don’t, you can get information from their name tag … “I see you work for HP. What do you do for them?”) Keep things moving with questions or encouragement. “Have you been here before?” or a question about their work or company is also good. After a couple minutes it’ll be time to break away and you can say that you’re heading off to check out the reports table or some such, suggests forbes.com. You can ask them to come too or make your exit. Other conversation starters: Find someone who is comfortable and seems to know their way around and say hi. Mention that you’ve never been to the event and ask them if they have. Ask a couple more questions from there. Look for an individual standing alone or with another person with whom they aren’t deeply engaged in conversation and introduce yourself.
- Have a prepared professional introduction. Who are you? Keep your elevator pitch brief and upbeat. Describe your work succinctly,10 seconds is a good starting point—and it leaves you with plenty of material to add when/if you’re asked as a conversation develops.
- Speak slowly. People understand you better when you talk slowly.
- Be brief. No one wants to be trapped in a conversation with someone who doesn’t stop talking. Don’t speak longer than 30 seconds at a time.
- Be confident, but avoid bragging. You’re not trying to convince anyone you’re awesome. You’re just trying to learn more about the other person.
- Ask questions. Questions are a great way to get other people talking. Keep the questions light. Questions about their city work well. Ask about their company, their work, their trip to the event, the traffic, memories from previous events ….
- End the conversation. Exiting a conversation with a stranger (unless you’ve found your soul mate) after 5 or 10 minutes is appropriate. You can do this gracefully, by simply repeating the person’s name and telling them how nice it was to talk with them. You are headed off to check out some of the exhibits or the awards table, need to say hello to a few other folks here, etc., and you’ll hope to run into them later or simply wish them a good day.
- Exchange contact information or business cards. Give the person your business card and ask for one in return, suggests faso.com. If they don’t have a business card, ask them to write their information on one of yours. “Meg, I really enjoyed speaking with you. Maybe we could finish our conversation sometime. Here’s my card. Could I get your contact information as well?”
Related reading: First Impressions and Why Small Talk Is Such a Big Deal
For many of us, starting conversations with strangers doesn’t happen naturally. But once you master it, you’ll find it’s incredibly interesting. People are mostly diverse, witty and interesting … and totally worth the effort.