Networking: 7 tips for striking up a conversation

Heading to a networking event where you don’t know anyone? Don’t sweat it. Here’s some practical advice for breaking the ice.

There’s no way around it. Networking events can be intimidating environments for young professionals.

It’s easy to be overly aware of being much younger than those around you and feeling self-conscious about a lack of professional experience in some conversations.

Believe me, I’ve been there.

In this setting, it can be difficult to approach people and maintain meaningful discussions. If things aren’t going well, it can be even more difficult to leave a conversation.

Adopting a few simple habits can make meeting people easier and events full of strangers more survivable.

A few things you can try for striking up conversation:

Do some research

If you have access to the guest list for an event, look through it to see whom you know, whom you want to meet and whom you might be able to connect with prior to the event via social networks. At a minimum, read through some recent tweets or blog posts to find a conversation starting point. It will make the initial approach a bit less awkward.

Ask for an introduction

It’s much easier to meet new people through a mutual connection. Ask someone you know or have been talking to for a few minutes to introduce you to someone else. If you’re both still strangers to others, try inviting someone nearby into your discussion. There can be comfort in numbers.

Offer to buy drinks

If you find yourself near the bar with someone else standing alone, offer to buy a drink when you’re getting your next round. Your offer won’t always be accepted, but it’s usually a nice ice breaker and will lead to conversation.

Carry a camera

For me, this is natural, because I’m a freelance photographer and carry a camera everywhere I go. But even if you’re not, snap a few photos if it’s appropriate. People will often ask to use your photos later for a blog post or ask you to take a photo of them with a friend. You’d be amazed how many people want to talk to the photographer at an event. Offer to send the photos along after the event and exchange cards.

Stand near the food

For some reason, many people feel more comfortable making casual conversation over food. If you’re struggling to meet people or strike up conversations, hang out near the food. It helps.

Wear something interesting

Something as simple as an interesting piece of jewelry or a sticker on a water bottle can be enough to strike up conversation. I have a Nalgene water bottle covered in stickers representing my life and interests, and I can’t tell you how many times someone commented on one.

Stay off your phone

This is tough, and I’m definitely guilty of breaking this rule sometimes. But try to keep your phone put away to avoid the temptation to check email or social network notifications, or to text your friends about how bored you are that you’re not talking with anyone. People will avoid interrupting others who look busy and don’t want to be stuck in a conversation with someone constantly checking their phone for an out. Try not to be that person.

Of course, every event will be different, and you won’t always find yourself totally alone in a sea of strangers. But when you do, try to be prepared to branch out. Just remember: Though it’s awkward to approach someone to say hello, many people are probably in the same boat, hoping someone else will strike up conversation.

What else have you found makes meeting new people easier?

This story first appeared on PR Daily in May 2011.

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