How to Start a Conversation at a Networking Event

Networking conversation
••• Stígur Már Karlsson /Heimsmyndir / Getty Images

Until you’ve done it at least a few times, attending a networking event can be stressful. What’s the best way to introduce yourself? Who should you talk to? How can you get a conversation started – and keep it going? These are just some of the questions you may have about how to make networking events work well for you.

The more people you talk to, the more opportunities you’ll have to progress on your career path. There are things you can do to make networking at business events simple and straightforward. Taking a little time to prepare and practice in advance will soon have you networking like a pro.

Types of Networking Events

There are many different types of programs in which you can participate. Options including job fairs (designed to help employers find candidates to hire), professional association meetings and programs (which provide continuing education and networking opportunities for members), local business meeting mixers and workshops, college student and alumni events, diversity events, trade shows, and professional conferences all provide opportunities for in-person networking.

How to Find Networking Events

What’s the easiest way to find events to go to? Finding an event can be as easy as responding to an email from a professional association or your college alumni office, seeing a social media post advertising a program, or asking your connections for recommendations. Most networking events are listed online, and there are a variety of ways to find events that match your networking goals.

How to Prepare

The most important thing to do before every networking event you attend is to perfect your elevator pitch, a brief recap of the professional you, and to be ready to share it with everyone you meet.

Along with your elevator speech, bring some business cards and copies of your resume if you’re attending a career-focused event or program.

Review the meeting agenda and workshops (if applicable), that you’d like to attend. If it’s a career fair, review the list of attending companies so you can plan who you’d like to talk to. You’ll be more comfortable attending if you have an action plan in place.

When You Arrive at the Event

One simple way to get started is to offer to help with registration (if it looks like they need volunteers) or to sign-up in advance to be a greeter. That’s a terrific way to meet participants, as is mingling around the registration table as people arrive.

Another good way to begin your networking efforts is to start by introducing yourself to people who are alone (be brave – they may be feeling shy and in need of some company), then work up to introducing yourself to a couple of people and then a group.

Don’t forget to wear your name tag. It’s hard to remember names when you’re meeting people in a group setting, and your name tag will be an easy reminder of who you are for the people you’re talking with.

How to Introduce Yourself

Introduce yourself with a smile and offer to shake hands as you’re introducing yourself:

  • “Hi, I’m Elizabeth Jennings and I’m glad to meet you.”
  • “Hello, I’m Jonathan Brightman and it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

As you’re introducing yourself, make eye contact without staring at the other person. Take a moment to look at the person’s name tag – it may mention the company they work for or their role at an organization, which will give you the opportunity to break the ice and have something to talk about.

When someone introduces themselves to you, be prepared to respond with a few phrases to get the conversation started:

  • “Hi Elizabeth, I’m Andrew Cairns and it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
  • “Nice to meet you, Jon, I’m Katherine Kildeen.”

How to Shake Hands

Be prepared to use what’s known as a business handshake – a formal handshake to use in professional settings. Extend your right hand (if you’re carrying anything, keep it in your left) and shake the other person’s hand firmly for a couple of seconds but don’t grip their hand too hard or too loosely. If you’re unable to use your right hand due to an injury or illness, use your left.

If you’re nervous and have sweaty palms, stop in the restroom and wash and dry your hands or use a little hand sanitizer (once it evaporates, it will dry out your hands) before you make the rounds. If you don’t have time, use the side of your pants or skirt quickly to wipe your hand dry.

These tips for proper handshake etiquette will help you to master the art of professional handshaking.

Getting the Conversation Started

After introductions, the next step is to get a conversation going. An easy conversation starter is to mention the event venue. You could say that this is a great location, then discuss its proximity to your office or home. Mention the organization that is holding the event and how you found out about it, to get a two-way conversation going.

Another option is to mention similar events you have attended. Perhaps you and the person you’re talking with work or live nearby each other or have participated in other networking events sponsored by the organization. You both may know people in common through work, college, professional associations, and other connections.

If it’s an industry event, it’s always appropriate to discuss news and developments in your industry or career field. If you’re a speaker or participating in a workshop, then mention that. Add that you’d be interested in hearing feedback after the program.

Keep the Conversation Going

When you’re attending a conference, talk about some of the programs or workshops you have attended and what you liked about them. Asking a question or two will help to keep the conversation going. For example:

  • “Have you been to this event before?”
  • “What did you think about the speaker?”
  • “Have you attended many of these events?”
  • “What do you like best about attending these types of programs?”
  • “What do you think of the program so far?”
  • “What did you like best about the talk/speaker/workshop?” (if you saw the person in a workshop or presentation that you attended).

More Ways to Introduce Yourself

Networking events aren’t the only situations in which your introduction can impact the outcome of your meetings. During job fairs and job interviews, and even when you’re emailing or sending a LinkedIn message, that first impression needs to be a solid one. Here’s how to make a perfect introduction at a job interview, at a job fair, when you start a new job, and how to introduce yourself in an email message.

Networking Practice Makes Perfect

Even though introducing yourself can feel awkward and a bit uncomfortable, the more you do it, the more practiced you’ll become. It’s always a good idea to network, even if you don’t need to. If you’re participating because you want to, rather than because you have to, there will less pressure to perform and more opportunities to practice. The more networking events you attend, the easier it will become.

If you’re an introvert and the thought of networking still puts you into panic mode, these tips will help you feel much more comfortable as you work the room.