For some people networking is easy. They love talking to anyone–and everyone–they meet. For others, it’s not so simple. Attending networking events can be a challenge if you’re not comfortable talking to strangers, but it’s always worth giving it a try. In-person networking remains one of the best ways to keep your career moving forward and to get hired. People are more likely to offer assistance to someone they know personally, and with a little preparation you can make and cement relationships with contacts who can help you out.
There are many different types of career networking programs, and it’s easy to find networking events that are worth attending. Even though it can be hard to start a conversation when you’re one of those not-so-extroverted people, there are strategies you can employ to engage the person you’re talking with and to keep the conversation moving forward.
Get Ready for a Conversation (or Two)
Take time to create a brief elevator speech, so you’re ready to describe the professional you and what you do.
Review the attendee list if it’s available. If there’s anyone special you’d like to meet, review their LinkedIn profile and learn about the company they work for. Jot down a few notes so you remember who will be there, the company they work for, and their role at the company, when you’re at the program.
When you’re at the event, remember to check name tags to see where the other participants work. The tag may also have their job title listed. Asking about someone’s job and employer are always good ways to get a conversation started. Also, be on the lookout for the people you flagged when you reviewed the attendee list.
What can you say? What interesting similarities might you explore? How can you turn a quick introduction into an engaging discussion? Once you’ve got over the hurdle of making an introduction to start the conversation, one of the easiest ways to continue the conversation is to make it about the person you’re talking to, rather than about yourself.
Asking questions saves you from thinking about what to say, and gives you an opportunity to ask follow-up questions that will keep the discussion going.
It’s also fine to say that you’re new to this, you’re a bit nervous, and you’d be happy to have someone to talk to or to give you some advice.
16 Career Networking Conversation Starters
Here are some one-liners and some more in-depth conversation starters that will help to keep you on track and get the most out of all the networking programs and events you go to:
Questions About the Event
- What brings you to this program/event/meeting?
- What do you think about the events so far?
- Have you attended before? What was the best part of the program?
- What do think of this venue/location?
- Do you know any of the speakers? Which would you recommend?
- What are you looking to get from this event/conference/program? What do you think you’ll take away from it?
- This is my first time at this event. Is there a session I shouldn’t miss going to?
Questions Asking for Advice or Information
- Mention that recommendation when you meet the next person: “Hi, [first person you met] suggested I talk with you.”
- I see that you work for ABC company; what do you do? What does the company do? If you know someone else who is employed at the company, now is a good time to mention the person you have in common.
- How did you get started in your career/industry? What do you love about what you do? Is there anything you’re not a big fan of?
- When you’re familiar with the company or have read about it when you were doing research for the program, ask about the news you’ve read, new products that have been released, or anything else that’s timely and relevant.
- You can always get a little personal and if the person is wearing an interesting piece of clothing or accessory, you can comment on it. For example, “I love your scarf, it’s a really nice color.” Or “That’s a terrific bag, where did you get it?” Do be careful though, and don’t overdo it or get so personal that it could be construed as offensive. Follow up your compliment by introducing yourself. For example: “I’m [your name] and I’m glad to meet you.
- If the program has food and drinks, asking whether the person you’re talking to would like to grab a coffee or water, or some food or a snack, is another way to keep the conversation moving.
- I’m here from out of town; do you have any recommendations for places to go or things to do while I’m at the conference?
Questions for When You Need Help
- "I’m [your name] and I don’t know anyone here. Could I chat with you?" As a follow-up, you could ask if the person has any recommendations for other people you should talk to.
- "I’m new at this and not very good at networking, but I’d love to talk to you if you have the time." Remember that you’re not the only one who doesn’t like networking, and even if the person is a pro at it, you’ve given them an opportunity to respond either way.
What to Avoid Asking
It’s always a good idea to avoid politics because you don’t know which side of the political spectrum the person you’re chatting with is on. The last thing you need to start is a negative conversation about the state of the union.
The weather may seem like a neutral topic, but if someone had flight delays or cancellations on the way to the event, or a storm was coming up that would impede their travel home, it may not be a pleasant conversation.
When Networking Feels Like It’s Really Hard
When you feel like you’re fumbling for words, even “Hi, I’m [your name] and I’m pleased to meet you” works.
Remember, the person you’re talking to may be feeling awkward as well, and you could be doing them a favor just by saying hello.
Another strategy to try––often recommended for public speaking, but which works for networking too––is to pretend you’re someone else: a master networker who likes doing these events. You’re like an actor performing in the role of someone who loves making conversation.
If you’re really stressed about networking, there are ways you can feel more comfortable working the room. You might not end up loving the experience, but you may actually like it a little and you’ll be better prepared for the next time around.