At any point in your professional career, you may attend a networking event or conference where you don’t know anyone in the crowd. While these situations can be nerve-wrecking for most people who don’t feel comfortable talking to strangers, these gatherings don’t always need to be as stressful if you have a few conversation starters you can rely on. Remember, major goals of networking events include expanding your network, connecting with like-minded professionals, or at the very least, having an engaging conversation with someone new.
The key to making a great first impression is to focus on the commonalities you share with the other person. To ensure you can hold a good conversation, regardless of whether or not you know someone, try thinking about conversation starters in the following categories:
- Current events
While it’s easy to start most conversations with the hope that your partner is talkative, people will be more inclined to engage in conversation if the topic is something general they can comment on. Some topics you bring up can focus on current events or what’s “trending” in the news (i.e., sports, financial market, current season/weather, technology, etc.). Asking open-ended questions can also create better dialogue between you and a stranger. These conversations could range anywhere from “How do you like that Apple Watch?” to “The weather this summer’s been great, I’ve been…” For general topics like these, making eye contact, actively listening, and smiling are all positive gestures that will put your new connection at ease.
- General surroundings / current location
Another topic that’s easy to talk about with someone you don’t know can be about your general surroundings or current location (i.e., city, region, country, etc.). For example, commenting on the venue where the event is being held, the state/country where the conference is, or the food/drink selection are all light topics you can bring up to avoid awkward silences. On the other hand, if the event is in a location you’ve never been to before, commenting on your unfamiliarity with the area could lead to interesting conversation if the other person is either in the same boat or has knowledge of the area. The goal of these conversations is to focus on making observations both you and your partner can talk about rather than finite topics (i.e., news, sports, etc.) they might not know a lot about.
- Alma mater / background
One area in which many professionals tend to find commonality with strangers is their alma mater(s). While you might not always be able to bond with someone over the same alma mater, most professionals get excited to talk about their years in college or grad school. For example, you could discuss anything from rivalries between certain schools to how your alma mater has changed over the years. Similarly, if you grew up in a certain part of the country, recalling memories can be another way to keep casual conversation going. Depending on where you’re from, you might even find some similarities to talk about that you didn’t know existed.
- Hobbies & interests
Most people tend to lose interest in a conversation when the other person only talks about themselves, so it’s important to ask questions to learn about another person’s hobbies or interests. For example, hobbies they enjoy, countries they’ve traveled to, or a beloved pet they might own, are just a few topics that can get conversation going.
- Professional background
Although it’s encouraged to keep conversation light and friendly during networking events, there’s nothing wrong with engaging in a professional conversation with someone who is in your line of business or an industry you’re interested in. If you’re looking to gain some professional insight, use some general topics to slowly shift the conversation towards specific topics around your interests. A networking event might be one of the best times to give your elevator pitch, and if you play your cards right, you could walk away with a new professional connection or a new understanding of something within your industry.