19 icebreakers to use at uncomfortable networking events

Good morning, Highlanders! I can’t believe it’s already September! Many hiring or networking events begin again in September after the summer hiatus. This article provides great ways on how to start a conversation at a networking event. If you’re an introvert naturally, this will take some practice and getting used to. This was originally posted by Jacquelyn Smith in Business Insider on August 7, 2016, but this is an update of an article originally written by Natalie Walters. See my comments in italics.

If your go-to conversation topics revolve around work and weather, then you probably don’t enjoy going to networking events. But talking to new people doesn’t have to be such a drag. There are ways to get the conversation going without resorting to irritating clichés. Check out these 19 icebreakers that will help ease you into an engaging conversation with people you’ve never met before.



A smile, a name, and a confident handshake can sometimes go a long way, says Ariella Coombs, content manager for Careerealism.com: “Sometimes, the easiest way to meet someone is to offer a handshake and say, ‘Hi, I’m Peter.'”

‘Are you originally from [whatever city the event is in], or did your business bring you here?’

'Are you originally from [whatever city the event is in], or did your business bring you here?'

This question will help you jump-start an engaging conversation with ease because “it doesn’t feel like you are asking for a stiff elevator speech,” Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas, tells U.S. News & World Report.

The conversation will allow both parties to talk about themselves, which is the ultimate goal of career-savvy people attending a networking event, Gottsman says. *Be sure to use a genuine tone when you ask this question because it could be looked at as a pick up line or may come off creepy to some people. Judge the situation and tailor the question accordingly.

‘What motivated you to come to this event?’

'What motivated you to come to this event?'

Rather than asking the classics like “What’s your name?” or “What do you do?” Darrah Brustein of Network Under 40/Finance Whiz Kids tells Inc. that she likes to ask what motivated an attendee to come to the event.

The answer to this question will give you insight into your conversation partner’s career goals, and you may even find that you can help them to achieve those goals, Brustein says. *In a way, this may be a closed ended question if the person doesn’t elaborate about why they wanted to attend. Have a couple of follow up questions and share your motivation if the person isn’t as open and willing to chat with you.

‘Hmm, I’m not quite sure what that dish is. Do you know?’

'Hmm, I'm not quite sure what that dish is. Do you know?'

Rather than silently standing in line for food, take the opportunity to start a conversation about the topic on everyone’s mind: food.

Ask about the dish they think looks good or the mystery dish, Coombs writes onCareerealism.com: “Who knows, you might leave the buffet with a better plate of food AND a new contact!” *I had someone do this to me at an amusement park once and it was really intense, but then my friend told me that the way the girl talked to me, was exactly the way that I would talk to a stranger if I thought their food looked good. I agree that it’s better to talk about something that looks really appetizing to you or something that looks questionable or unfamiliar to you. You might find yourself learning something new about food. 

‘I overheard you talking about volunteer work — what kind of work do you do?’

'I overheard you talking about volunteer work — what kind of work do you do?'

Asking people about their volunteer work will open up “a world of wonderful conversation,” writes strategy consultant Alice Korngold on Fast Company.

Korngold says that she especially enjoys meeting people who work on nonprofit boards because she gets to learn about how an organization was founded, how the person got involved with it, and about the “fascinating group dynamics of boards.” *Volunteering is often a good way to get involved as you’re looking for full time work or if you’re interested in a cause or in changing career paths. Any time you can join a board or meet new people with similar interests is a valuable opportunity. People also really like to talk about themselves so if you open up and ask them about an organization that they care about, they’re going to tend to like you and open up more, especially when you act really interested in the conversation.

‘These networking events can be so crazy. Mind if I join you over here where it’s a little quieter?’

'These networking events can be so crazy. Mind if I join you over here where it's a little quieter?'

Find someone on the outskirts of the ongoing conversations and introduce yourself, says Coombs.

Since they are alone and possibly looking miserable, they are probably uncomfortable with the social situation, Coombs says. By initiating the interaction, you can help to put them at ease and get them in the flow of a conversation. *I don’t necessarily like this question, it can sound creepy. It might be better to lead into this by starting the conversation and then asking to move somewhere else rather than starting the conversation like that. 

‘Great shoes!’

'Great shoes!'

If you genuinely like something someone is wearing, compliment them — without being inappropriate — Michelle Tillis Lederman, CEO of the professional-development firm Executive Essentials, tells U.S. News & World Report.

Not only will they be flattered, but you can also ask a follow-up question about where they got the item that could lead to a fun conversation. One caveat: Don’t fake it, Lederman warns. People can easily sniff out disingenuousness.

‘I’ll be honest, the only person I know here is the bartender, and I just met him two minutes ago. Mind if I introduce myself?’

'I'll be honest, the only person I know here is the bartender, and I just met him two minutes ago. Mind if I introduce myself?'

While a networking event is not the best place to try out your latest comedic routine, The Daily Muse says that humor is a good method to put another attendee at ease and jump-start a lighthearted conversation. *This is a funny and interesting way to break into a conversation with complete strangers. 

‘Would you have any insight or advice on … ?’

'Would you have any insight or advice on ... ?'

Letting people use their expertise to help you will make them feel good and be more open to connecting with you, Lederman tells CareerBliss.

You can ask about anything from a work project to their opinion on which new car you should buy. But just be sure to genuinely listen and reflect on their advice, Lederman says. As the old saying goes, we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak. *Listening for understanding and comprehension is exponentially more important than listening to respond. Listening to respond is when you say something and the person you’re talking with right away says something else or you can tell that while you’re talking the person just wants to insert their two cents rather than listen to your whole thought. This could only be worse when the person interrupts you to say their piece. 

‘What did you think of the speaker?’

'What did you think of the speaker?'

Conversations flow around common experiences, so bring up the one thing you know you both have in common: What’s going on around you, Lederman tells U.S. News & World Report.

Asking about the speaker, the group discussion, or even the restaurants around the area will give you both a chance to contribute to the conversation, Lederman says. *If you’re out of town at a conference, asking people about the food or after conference activities is a good way to strike up a conversation and maybe even a friendship. Finding something in common with the activity you’re participating in is a great way to start that connection.

‘I’ve never been to this event before. You look like a regular — any tips you could give me on what to expect? What are the best sessions here?’

'I've never been to this event before. You look like a regular — any tips you could give me on what to expect? What are the best sessions here?'

If you’re attending a conference for the first time, look for someone who looks like a “regular” and ask them for the scoop on the event, suggests Jessica Taylor of The Daily Muse.

‘Did you hear about [insert big news event]?’

'Did you hear about [insert big news event]?'

Be sure to scan the headlines the day of the networking event so you can ask for opinions on it, especially if it affects someone’s line of work, says Meredith Lepore, editor at large for Levo League.

This topic will get a discussion going, and it will show that you keep up-to-date with current events. That’s a win-win, Lepore says. *Staying on top of the news within your organization and industry is key to success even when you’re on the job. If this is something that you struggle with, see if your organization does a daily or weekly newsletter of what’s going on within the organization, especially if it’s a larger organization. Or if you’re at an event and not currently working or you’re in school, find out something about the common topic of interest being discussed at the event.

‘Has anyone here seen [a new popular show] on Netflix/HBO/etc.?’

'Has anyone here seen [a new popular show] on Netflix/HBO/etc.?'

If you want to talk about current events, but prefer to keep the conversation lighter, you could ask if anyone has seen the new show everyone is talking about. It’s a fun and easy way to connect.

‘Is this your first time at this event? I know they have one every year, but I’ve never been before!’

'Is this your first time at this event? I know they have one every year, but I've never been before!'

If this is an annual or monthly event, ask someone if they’ve been before. This can lead to a bigger conversation about why they decided to come this time (or return, if they’re not a newbie). *This is another situation that you have the opportunity to find out why these individuals are motivated to be at this event. 

‘Did you catch the game yesterday?’

'Did you catch the game yesterday?'

Many people love to talk about sports.

If you spy a Red Sox cap in the crowd, go up to the person and say, “Red Sox fan, huh? Did you catch the game yesterday?” writes Coombs on Careerealism.com.

Or if you are a sports fan and overhear a sports conversation, step in and say, “Are you talking about … ?” and voice your own opinion on the big game. *This also could get a little awkward if you’re wearing a cap or shirt because you’re a fan, but maybe not an active fan. I only have Netflix and Hulu, strayed away from cable recently and it gets a little touchy when people ask me if I’ve watched the latest TV show or game. 

‘The drinks are great/food smells amazing/music is fantastic!’

'The drinks are great/food smells amazing/music is fantastic!'

Comment on the food, wine selection, playlist, venue, or view. But be positive! Don’t complain about the music being too loud or the food being soggy. You never know if the person you’re talking to played a part in planning the event — and insulting them would be a pretty awful way to start any conversation. *Just a general rule, if you’re out and about trying to make a good impression on strangers, it’s probably to your benefit to be more than positive about everything. If you don’t like something about the event or about what other guests are talking about, remove yourself from the conversation gracefully. You don’t want the other attendees to be fleeing from your side because you’re “that negative guest” at the event.

‘What do you do for fun when you’re not working?’

'What do you do for fun when you're not working?'

Asking personal questions about people’s activities outside of work can help solidify a connection, Shan White, owner of Women’s Peak Performance Coaching, tells Refinery29.

Asking about someone’s after-work hobbies is “semi-personal, yet still professionally acceptable to ask,” she says.

“This can bring some levity and humor into the conversation while also letting you see what lights them up, what brings them real joy,” White says. *As an attendee of an event, make sure you have a good answer to this question. Try to take up a hobby when you start a new job whether it’s working out, walking your dog, or going to Disneyland on the weekends, make sure you have some kind of a personal life hobby so you don’t seem like a work-a-holic at networking events. Having a hobby makes you more interesting and it will make you more productive at work when you know you have something to look forward to after work hours.

‘Hey, aren’t you friends with [fill in random name]?’

'Hey, aren't you friends with [fill in random name]?'

If you are desperate for a conversation starter, you can walk up to anyone and ask if they are friends with someone else who is at the event, writes Jessica Gordon of The Muse.

If they say no, feign a mild surprised reaction and conversation will commence. *I personally would stay away from name dropping when you’re at a networking event because you never know who knows who or who doesn’t like who. You don’t want to unnecessarily pigeon hole yourself by bringing up a name. 

‘Well, you guys look like you’re having fun!’

'Well, you guys look like you're having fun!'

If all else fails, try something totally random that just might work, writes The Muse, like inserting yourself into an engaging conversation by commenting on how fun their group looks from the outside. *This is something I think you can do when you want to break into a group of people as well as when you would like to attract people over to your group. If you and your friends or colleagues, look like you’re having a great time, other attendees are going to naturally gravitate toward your group. If you’re somewhere by yourself, and you like to have fun, why not go up to the group of people who look like they’re having the most fun? 

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