There is perhaps no more paralyzing fear than standing alone in a crowded room of strangers at a networking event or during a break between sessions. But there are a few things to consider that make this scenario less stressful.
First, other people at the event are in the same boat as you and are too busy worrying themselves to notice that you are also nervous. Second, the hardest part is breaking the ice. Conversation will, for the most part, flow naturally after that first painstaking ‘hello.’ Third, breaking the ice will get easier over time, either because you start to see more familiar faces at industry-specific events or because you’ve had enough practice meeting strangers that it will begin to come naturally.
When you’re at a conference or event, other attendees expect to network, so you’re not going to find people turned off by your attempts to chat. First you should consider what your goals are for the event and networking. Are you new to the industry and looking to learn the ins and outs of the business? Are you aiming to spread awareness about your company? Does your company have a new product you hope to share with attendees? Setting a goal will help you to structure your conversation. (And if there is no clear goal, you’re likely looking to engage in small talk).
Some icebreakers sound easy enough on paper, until you hear the words come out of your mouth and realize how cheesy or unnatural they are. “Great weather we’re having, huh?” might work if you really mean it, but otherwise, stick with what is natural to you. Here are some comfortable suggestions:
1. The almost-too-easy hello and handshake
A smile, confident handshake, eye contact and friendly introduction is the simplest fool-proof way of starting a conversation.
“Hi, I’m Tom. Nice to meet you.” Now the trick is figuring out your next line.
2. Come here often?
If this is an inaugural event, an easy icebreaker is to find out what motivated someone else to attend. If it’s an annual event, a common question to ask is if they’ve attended before. This gives you the opportunity to share insight or advice with newcomers, or reflect on a previous year’s memorable moment. If it is your first time at the event, it’s a great opportunity to seek out someone who looks like they’ve been here before to gain some insight and even introduce you to more attendees.
“Is this your first time at one of these events, or have you been before?”
“Oh, I’ve lost count at this point—I’ve been to plenty.”
“You’re just the person I’m looking for! Can you tell me which tracks you recommend attending?”
3. Location, location, location
Asking someone if they are from the city the event is located in provides you both with a couple of opportunities. If you are both from the host city, you’ve found something in common. If neither of you are from the host city, you’ve also found something in common. And you likely have something to offer about your home city or state—whether the other person has been there or not.
“Are you from Chicago or are you visiting for this event?”
“No, this is my first time to Chicago, actually. I’m from Montana originally, but my business is in Iowa.”
4. Food friends
What better topic to connect on than food? Whether it’s deciphering dishes or asking someone who’s already grabbed a plate where to get the same course they’re eating, the conversation flows easily when it’s around the topic of food.
“Ooh, is that ziti? Can you point me in the direction you found that?”
“There’s a pasta bar to the far left—it’s delicious!”
5. Looking for feedback
If you recognize someone who was in the same education track or watching the same keynote as you, ask them for their thoughts on the presentation. People often like to give their feedback—but it’s important that you listen. You did ask, after all.
“You saw Dr. Ellman’s keynote, right? What did you think of his presentation?”
“Very interesting! He has a great presentation style, and I love that he had everyone up out of their seats.”
6. Start with a compliment
You can’t go wrong with a quick ego boost. Whether you’re commenting on an item of clothing or perhaps a product owned the company of the person you’re speaking with; it’s a great way to kick things off.
“You’re earrings are gorgeous!”
“Oh, thank you, that is so sweet. I got them on a work trip in Italy, actually.”
“I noticed your badge says SquareTech—we’ve actually used your services before, and your customer service team is fantastic.”
“Oh, I love to hear that! I will let them know you said so. May I ask what you used them for?”
7. Avoid latching on
Remember that your newfound acquaintance is also here to network—and that typically means they’re hoping to connect with several people, so if you’ve hit it off from the start, exchange contact information to continue the conversation at a later date so you’re not taking up too much of their time. Likewise, to get the most from the event, you’ll want to connect with multiple people. And now that you’ve found a icebreaker that worked the first time, you’re ready to try it again, right?
Once you’ve become a regular at recurring events and know you’ll spot familiar faces instantly–remember there will always be new and timid attendees. If you’re chatting with a group of colleagues and see someone standing alone, introduce yourself and your group. It’s a gesture they’ll appreciate and won’t soon forget.