As someone who goes to 100+ networking events a year, I’ve heard (and tried) all of the networking lines. The great thing about events is that most of the time, people are there to connect and are open to some conversation in a way that people in a coffee shop or in a line at a movie theater are not. In combination with open body language (i.e., a smile, uncrossed arms, stance angled toward the room), the right opening line can be the start of some incredible connections.
5 Networking Conversation Starters
This is a breakdown of five of my favorite conversation starters, and an explanation of why and how they work. Plus, read through to learn three lines that work to gracefully exit a conversation when you are ready to leave a networking event.
“I’m starving – have you had a chance to try the sandwiches yet? Are they any good?”
When to try this conversation starter: Any live event – you can offer up a comment or ask a simple opinion on the food, drinks, temperature, feature of the space, etc. It’s the easiest and most innocuous of conversation starters and requires very minimal observations on your part.
Why it works: Just making the first move puts a lot of people at ease and breaks the ice quickly and in a low-risk way. Also, a simple question allows you to ask a more interesting follow-up question, or to keep it breezy and focused on the drink options. Just make sure you’re focusing on the positive – no one likes to start a conversation with someone who is complaining about the quality of the event.
“How did you hear about the event?”
When to try this conversation starter: At a programmed event, where there’s a theme or a specific topic to be discussed. Everyone at the event should be interested in the topic, or have a reason to be there, so that’s a great place to start the conversation.
Why it works: Most people feel more comfortable talking about an external subject (versus getting personal right away) with a stranger, so it’s nice to start on common ground when you’re at an event. It’s a safe bet to assume that the other attendees care – or at least know something – about the event. So either ask folks something related to what’s being discussed, or start with what you’re hoping to get out of the discussion. Once you’ve established some interest about the topic, you’ve got lots of options to deepen the conversation: ask them to elaborate on their area of interest, tell them more about what you hope to learn and why, or bring it towards more personal territory by asking whether the topic relates to their work.
“I love your shoes! I’ve been looking for a pair just like that.”
When to try this conversation starter: When you’re standing by yourself, feeling awkward, or don’t know what else to say. This line allows you to seek someone out without being pushy or seeming awkward, as long as you deliver it with a smile and keep it low-key.
Why it works: This one is great when you’re feeling unsure. Everyone likes a compliment (as long as it’s authentic!), and a compliment doesn’t require you to know anything about your new contact, or the event. Plus, you might end up with a recommendation for a pair of shoes that are comfortable to wear.
“This looks like a fun group! Do you mind if I join?”
When to try this conversation starter: When you see a group you want to join, but don’t know anyone in the group personally. Typically, people at networking events have fairly loose connections, so it’s not as if you’re breaking into a private moment. And, everyone likes to be called fun – how can they say no to that?
Why it works: Although you’re technically giving them an out, being polite means you’ll more than likely see the circle physically open up to you. You can smooth out the pause by telling them to continue the conversation or using one of the other lines, like a compliment to one of the group members or asking generally why they’re at the event. It can take a little bit of practice, but a smile and willingness to listen goes a long way.
“I’m a little anxious. I don’t go to events like this very often – do you know how they usually go?”
When to try this conversation starter: Anywhere! Being (or at least seeming) a little vulnerable works well in many situations, because, chances are, the other person could be feeling anxious, happy, stressed, tired, or excited too.
Why it works: People want to be heard and understood. They’re also scared of being rejected or embarrassed or worried about being taken advantage of. Putting yourself out there first makes it much easier for the other person to open up a little more. There is a lot out there about being vulnerable at events, and some of it might be true, but putting yourself out there is a powerful way to make a strong and interesting connection with someone.
3 Lines to Make a Graceful Exit
And, once you’ve reached a natural ending point, here are three lines to gracefully end a conversation:
“I’m parched – I’m going to grab another drink – enjoy the rest of your evening!”
When to try it: If you’re talking to someone who is draining your energy, it’s fine to wrap up politely and walk way.
Why it works: Taking care of a need – food, drink, bathroom, phone call – are all external to the person. So, you’re not walking away because they are boring, or talking too much, or smell bad, etc. You’re walking away because you have to do something else. It’s a nice way of ending the conversation firmly and quickly.
“You should meet Katie! Katie, Joe was just telling me about this great marketing project they wrapped up last week. Joe, Katie is my favorite marketing person – I think she’d be interested to hear about what you were up to.”
When to try it: When you have other people to talk to, but want to leave your conversational partner in good hands. You can pull this move in a larger group, by getting someone to replace you and filling them in on the topic of conversation.
Why it works: This move frees you up while building goodwill between two more people. You’ve given them a conversation starter and some context, and can feel confident in moving on. Although this works when you know both people, it also works with strangers! You can make a bit of an excuse – “I’m going to grab another drink” – and then introduce your conversation partner to a stranger saying something like, “Justin was just telling me about this really interesting project he’s working on – it’s worth hearing about!” Then you can slip away.
“I don’t want to take up all of your time! It was such a pleasure to meet you – I’d love to keep in touch.”
When to try it: You’re leaving, or planning on talking to someone in particular, or have to run to the restroom.
Why it works: The classic “it’s not you, it’s me!” You’ve let them know that you’ve enjoyed their company, and want to follow up, but have to leave. It ends the conversation effectively, but also allows you to continue you it online later. It works best if you jot a little note on your phone or in a handy notebook with the person’s name and any details you need to remember about them, and follow up in a timely manner.
Hopefully these lines will help you feel like a networking master at your next event. But remember! – you don’t need to follow a script to connect with someone. No matter how you strike up a conversation, if you listen to your new connection, and always, always, always ask more questions, you’re going to have a good time.