Starting a conversation is difficult even when your only goal is to make small talk. Add networking goals to the mix, and it can be downright daunting. You can't just go around passing out business cards without giving anyone any context. Thankfully, there is a handful of great ways to start conversations off on the right foot.
Fall Back on These Networking Icebreakers
The traditional rules still apply. Don't bring up religion or politics unless it's directly applicable to the connection you're making. If all else fails, the weather is a pleasant topic. In addition to the traditional guidelines, these tips will make your networking attempts a resounding success.
1. Ask a Question
Many people love to talk. They enjoy telling stories about themselves or past adventures they've taken. Introduce yourself briefly and then ask them who they are and what they do. As the conversation rolls along, simple questions like "What's the coolest trip you've ever taken?" can spark a great conversation. You could also inquire about the last book someone has read, the current project they're working on, or anything else that you think might engage them based off of the information you gather. An organic conversation will stem from there.
2. Give a Compliment
Everyone loves a sincere compliment. If possible, make it about the other person's professional accomplishments rather than appearance. This approach is an excellent way to begin a networking conversation if they've just given a presentation or a demonstration. You might compliment their presentation style, speaking ability, the event itself, or any other relevant detail.
3. Request Help
Are you networking for a particular skill? Maybe someone has just given a unique presentation, and you'd love to be able to give one that's half as good. Just ask for pointers. If they have time, most people don't mind helping. It also makes it clear what you're looking for—a mentoring relationship. If they have no desire to mentor, then you'll find out right off the bat.
4. Share Something About Yourself
If you find the other person shy or uneasy, you might have more success if you begin this way. You might try something like, "Hi, I'm Bob, and I enjoy photography and videography." It sounds like something you would say in a classroom for forced introductions, but those introductions are there for a reason. Some people are simply shy, and networking with anxiety can be difficult, so you need to meet them more than halfway to make them comfortable.
Exchange Business Cards
Once you see their business card, you'll be significantly better informed about who they are and what they do for a living. Use that information to continue talking about whatever you believe might interest both of you based on the information you just discovered. This approach requires some thinking on your feet. If that's uncomfortable for you, tell them you're interested in connecting with them and that you'll contact them via email or phone. Then, be sure to follow up within a week after the meeting.
No matter how you start the conversation, be sure to follow up. Exchanging business cards and asking for help are great ways to network in traditional business settings. Asking a question or providing a complement is something more commonly used in less formal situations. All four techniques are useful in all circumstances. First impressions are critical and starting a conversation off right goes a long way towards achieving a great first impression. Give one—or all—of these techniques a try at your next networking opportunity.