Published: 01 February 2023
Networking is key to recruitment success, and now that the world has reopened and conferences and events are back up and running, opportunities to meet people face to face abound.
If you’re nervous about starting conversations or don’t know how to approach people, networking can be a bit daunting. Fear not. It’s actually easy to start and continue conversations if you don’t overthink it and have a little confidence in yourself and others.
One of the reasons people might get nervous is because of the backlash against small talk in some circles and the fear of looking or sounding stupid. There’s this idea circulating in recent years that asking someone what they do for a living or commenting on the weather is trite or cliché. But this is misguided and counterproductive. Small talk serves a purpose as an ice breaker and to smooth the way to bigger talk.
You might have seen these articles or social media posts suggesting you ask deeper, more probing questions when meeting new people, like “What gets you fired up?” “What has been the highlight of your day so far?” or “What personal passion project are you working on right now?”
Don’t do this to people.
The problem with these questions is that they make you look like you read an article on how to start a conversation -- and they require work from the other person and put them on the spot. Maybe they don’t have a passion project and maybe their day has been mundane, which means your questions are as likely to annoy them as to charm them.
Skip the attempts to appear interesting and take a genuine interest in other people instead.
Here are some conversation starters you can use in networking situations and at events, and tips to keep the talk flowing. If you notice one thing about these opening lines it’s that they are simple and not trying too hard. Anything else can seem forced and silly.
Hello, my name is…what’s yours?
Simple is often best. Don’t overthink it. Once they tell you their name try not to forget it.
Can I join you/your group?
Perfectly reasonable question. Most people want to make new friends and connections as badly as you do and will welcome the overture.
I don’t know anyone here. Can I introduce myself?
Same concept as above, just with preamble.
What are we talking about?
Just walk up to a group and insert yourself. Gauge the group first and make sure they’re not all besties celebrating something or talking about something private.
Have you tried the signature cocktail/cheese dip/VR experience?
Use what’s right there in front of you. If you’re in line waiting your turn for something, it makes sense to ask someone else if they’ve tried it first.
Have we met before/Don’t I know you?
Usually best used on people who actually look familiar.
I don’t know anyone here. Do you?
Simple ice breaker.
Are you enjoying yourself?
Self-explanatory. If not, ask why.
Once you’ve said hello, you need something to follow up with. Try these...
How do you know the host/someone else?
You might get an interesting story and an introduction to someone new.
What do you do?
Again, there’s a lot of backlash against this question in some circles, but many people love what they do, are proud of it, and love to talk about it. Sometimes this is all you need. It can lead to career histories, projects they’re excited about, and so much more.
What does that entail?
You can get a lot of mileage out of asking people to describe their jobs if you don’t know what it is they actually entail. And you learn something every single time.
Do you enjoy it?
Obvious follow up to previous questions. Why? Why not? What would they rather be doing? What did they want to be as a kid?
Did you see the keynote speaker/documentary that was screening? What did you think?
Open up the floor to sharing opinions on what’s happening at the event. If you share your own opinion, always keep it kind. You never know who knows who. Never say anything negative about anyone else or the event itself. They might know the organizer, speaker, or someone else.
Do you live in the city/town/area?
This can lead to all kinds of follow up questions and conversations about neighborhoods, travel, commutes, local restaurants and scenes, where they grew up, when they moved to their new community, and more.
Have you checked out the local museum/landmark/restaurant scene?
If they traveled to get there, what have they seen and done?
Have you attended this conference/event before? - Do you attend a lot of these things?
Can then ask what they get out of them or usually take away, what other events they enjoy, how much they travel and where.
How did you get interested in your career/hobby/whatever?
Can also lead to all kinds of other topics like career and life paths, other interests, life stories and more.
Note that conversations with new people, and with anyone, are best when you take a “yes, and…” approach. This means not shutting down anyone’s comments or ideas or arguing. Different opinions are better presented with a “yes, and…” rather than a “no.” In other words, saying, “Interesting. I think that….” is more compelling than, “I disagree” or “you’re wrong.”
Ask questions, focus on the other person, but don’t interrogate.
Avoid the topics of politics and religion. It’s a cliché but that’s because many clichés are based on profound truths, and these subjects can cause arguments and get people’s backs up.
Avoid talking about yourself too much. Show a genuine interest in the other person/people and ask good questions. Don’t interrogate and do know when to stop. Don’t interrupt and do actually listen, rather than just make listening faces and wait for your turn to talk.
Eventually you’re going to have to leave the conversation, or you wind up standing there awkwardly looking for an escape but not wanting to be rude.
You can just say, “It’s been nice meeting you. I’m going to go look around,” and be done with it. People aren’t usually so easily offended that this will upset them. You can also say you have to go to the bathroom, or to get something to eat. Or, if your conversation is 1-1, find another person or group of people, introduce yourself and/or your companion, and leave them there.
You’re not expected to spend the entire time talking to one person, so don’t worry too much about it.
Get their contact information
Before you leave them, get their contact information. This is easiest done by connecting on social media right then and there, which feels less intrusive than asking for phone numbers. And, while people do still hand out business cards, these are likely to get lost or tossed.
Follow up later with a simple “it was nice to meet you” message.
The more you practice having conversations and making connections, the easier it will become.