Starting conversations with strangers at a networking event is perhaps not for everyone, you might think. I get that problem: a well-meant initiative for a conversation with a stranger on public transport, at the doctor’s waiting room or while waiting in line at the supermarket could turn awkward. You don’t want to bother someone with random comments about the weather, or be put up in a conversation that you have to ‘sit-through’ out of politeness.
In daily life, we are almost encouraged not to talk to strangers, and we see the ‘good example’ of staying silent all around us: when on public transport, in the elevator, waiting for coffee, at a foodcourt for lunch. People seem to be in their own mental zone and they don’t show the signs they would appreciate an interruption. Additionally, people often wear earplugs and look on their phone, as if they are saying: hey can’t you see, I am too busy right now, please don’t bother me!
Then you enter a networking event and suddenly you are supposed to do the opposite. Here the unwritten social-silence norms completely flip around: now you are expected to talk with strangers en-masse. Perhaps even with the same person you sat quietly on the bus with earlier that day.
No wonder people dread the idea of going to a networking event. It just clashes with our usual routine of our social professional life, no matter whether you view yourself as an extravert or introvert.
Three tips on how to start a conversation with a stranger at a networking event:
1. You can safely assume your initiative for a chat is appreciated.
You may feel uncomfortable about talking with strangers at a networking event, for all the logical reasons. But guess what? The other people showing up feel exactly the same! Just breaking the awkwardness by having someone to chat with is a relief already, no matter how strong your elevator pitch may be (more on that in the next posts). In everyday life we are conditioned not to talk to strangers and run the ‘risk’ of the chat not being appreciated or even ignored, but at a networking event every attempt at a chat with a stranger is appreciated! It is like playing poker with an ace up your sleeve: you always have a winning move at hand. Just keeping this insight in mind makes you feel confident at a networking event too. You can’t fail.
I’ve made terrible mistakes during chats, losing the opportunity at hand before my very eyes, so I started this blog to help you avoid those pitfalls and make networking pain-free. A key insight that I’d like to offer you is that you will always succeed if you start a conversation. To date, I have never experienced or witnessed a situation wherein starting a conversation at a networking event was not appreciated. Your approach will be welcomed 100%.
2. Start a simple conversation to find interesting conversation.
Once you said ‘hi’ people often think they need to have a perfect elevator pitch ready to recite or impress with a high-up professional title. However, the best-appreciated chat is often something simple and relatable at first. Don’t worry about how to be impressive yet, just focus on showing interest. We will delve into what to say and how to progress a conversation in other posts and my free email course in networking skills. Initially just chat about the event, what you thought about the speaker (if there was one), how the other person ties in with this network (just like you would ask a stranger on a birthday how they are related to the person celebrating their birthday) or just how their day was. From there you may find out what they do for work or what their professional interests are.
3. Stand in a central spot. Even if it is not your comfort-zone.
When you feel uncomfortable at a networking event, your natural tendency is probably to stand safely on the side, or in the corner checking your phone. Some people even display a shyness they haven’t shown since their high-school prom. And now I am asking you to do the opposite: to stand in the middle of the room if you don’t have anyone to talk to. The reason is that it is easier to strike a conversation with someone walking by from the centre than from the corner. Make eye contact and just say: ‘Hey how do you like the event?’ or ‘How was your day’. This is not meant as a flirt by the way.
If there are no other people also standing alone or walking by, you might just hang out at the bar area or food station area (if there is one) or stand outside with the smokers (even if you don’t smoke) because there is more movement in these places.
Avoid your phone. Your messages and social media updates can wait for an hour or two. People look at their phone arguably to see if they missed anything, but subconsciously to just seek comfort and mentally leave the scene. Once you lead your mind away from where you are at, a networking event, it is harder to bring it back into the room and get into the mood.
To sum it up:
Whether you are a self-proclaimed introvert or social butterfly, it is understandable that going to a networking event is not your favourite activity – and that is the case for a lot of professionals. This is nothing personal but has something to do with the tendency that in daily life we are just not used to, or encouraged, to start conversations with strangers.
Whilst in the real world there is a chance that the other person may not appreciate your attempt for a chat and the fear of rejection is something we all experience sometimes, at a networking event it is always appreciated to start a chat with a stranger, regardless of your status or what you may have to say. (you may find that in everyday life, people also appreciate you starting a chat more often than not). Talk about simple things first, no need to impress or tell your professional life story at this stage. The rest will follow later (and I will cover that too). And if you don’t see someone to start a conversation with, seek the place where people are moving, do not wait in the corner in the hopes that someone else will break the ice.
Time at networking events is precious. There are often lots of people in the room to talk with and there are techniques to work the entire room – and I will cover that in a later post. First, just get comfortable with starting a few conversations, and you will see that it gets appreciated and becomes easier the more you do it.