Having a networking toolbox filled with starter sentences is critical.
Avoid talking about work when you first meet someone.
Connect with something you and your conversation partner have in common.
The Covid pandemic, working from home, and the shut down of conferences and workplace gatherings mean our social skills might be a bit rusty. While we can certainly chat with old friends and acquaintances, starting a conversation with a stranger might be more challenging than it used to be, especially as we return to in-person engagements. Nevertheless, networking and connecting with new people are critical as you work to develop and cement relationships and advance in your career.
To remove the stress about meeting new people, come prepared with sentence starters for any situation. These are kick-off words and phrases that will break the ice and make you memorable without sounding like you are coming on to your conversation partner. Here are a few you may wish to try with some related follow-up to avert awkward silences. The key is to make the conversation about something personal, not work, and avoid making it transactional.
What cool socks!
Look for some small detail about they are wearing and make a mention of it. It can be anything, a lapel pin, socks, or purse. Maybe they have a ring from a military academy. It may be overlooked by others, but you show you took the time to notice.
Where are you based?
Another option is, where is home for you? This question is a quick and appropriate way to find out the geography of your conversation partner. You can follow up with what you know about their state or your connection to it.
Is that the new iPhone?
Who doesn’t want to show off their new technology? The great part is that if they love it, they can show you features you might not have been aware of before.
Where did you get that…?
If someone is wearing something bold, they want to be noticed, and it is always welcome to show that you are paying attention. There is a story there, especially if it is something on their person. They will quickly tell you where they got it, a related story, how comfortable their bright red shoes are, and how many colors they come in.
Did you have to travel far to get here?
You can follow up by asking whether there are direct flights, how long the flight is, which airlines serve their town, and how busy the airport is. Everyone has a favorite and least-liked airport, so this conversation has many directions to go in.
Are you getting good wifi?
Even though it is considered rude by some to take out your phone in a group setting, everyone is always looking for a good signal and will gladly give you tips on how to improve your reception.
I’m new here. What should I know that no one is telling me?
People like to take new people under their wings and teach them the hidden curriculum, the unwritten rules, and traditions of a group.
What is one thing I shouldn’t miss while I am here?
If you are new to the town or conference, ask for tips on tourist destinations, restaurants, or conference speakers you should not miss.
What’s the best thing about this group?
There is a reason people come back year after year to a conference. Ask them to put words to it. Follow up on anything they say that makes their faces light up.
The key is to discuss commonalities and get the person talking about themselves. Try to connect on something other than work, and make a human connection. Those conversations will happen later after the person gets to know, like, and trust you. Connecting on a personal level is fundamental to developing a lasting professional relationship.