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How to Gracefully Begin (and End) Networking Conversations

Networking gets a bad rap.

Most of us imagine standing around in a sea of name tags, awkwardly explaining to the third person in a row what it is you do, or checking your watch while someone bores you to tears with the finer points of their seriously boring job. But networking can actually be a fantastic way to meet new people and build real relationships that can help you with future projects.

Last week, we hosted a webinar called Become a Networking Ninja: Tips to Better Networking. We had a great turnout and some awesome questions were asked – but we didn’t have time to get to them all.

For those of you who were wondering how to start up a conversation at an event – or how to extricate yourself gracefully from an overlong one – here are some ideas.

What is the easiest and best way to strike up a conversation with a stranger at a networking event?

For years, I’d hide by myself out in the corner rather than going up and talking to new people, positive that I wouldn’t know what to say.

I finally (this year) figured out a secret: It’s nearly impossible to get rejected at a networking event, because the whole point is for people to talk to strangers. You needn’t feel awkward approaching someone to chat – it’s what you’re both there for.

That said, there are definitely some conversation starters that put you both at ease right off the bat.

“Hi, I’m Jessie and I’m a writer. What do you do?” certainly works, but it feels more natural to build a rapport with smalltalk before getting into the “what do you do” question. Otherwise, you run the risk of just getting a canned elevator speech that leaves no room to build a connection.

Here are some of my favorite conversation starters:

  • “Isn’t this dip fantastic? It reminds me of one my grandma used to make.” No matter what else you have in common, you’re all in the same place, eating the same snacks, and listening to the same speakers. Use that to your advantage, and break the ice with a comment about whatever is going on at the exact moment you’re approaching someone.
  • “Is this your first time at this event?” This is a good gateway to providing context on why you’re both here, and it can lead more quickly to good professional conversation than some more random approaches.
  • “Your earrings are amazing! Is there a story behind them?” Try complimenting someone on their attire. Nothing sparks feelings of friendliness like an honest compliment, and if someone’s wearing a truly unique accessory, there might also be a fun story to go along with it that they like to tell. Even if there’s no story behind the accessory, you’ve at least broken the ice.
  • “What did you think about the last speaker? [Tidbit] really resonated with me.” Talking about the speaker you both just heard can be a great way to break the ice, since the topic is fresh in both of your minds.
  • “What are you excited about right now?” This open-ended question can lead to all sorts of fascinating topics, whether it’s a big work project, a personal life event, a trip, or even the season finale of their favorite TV show. Learning what gets someone excited can teach you a lot about them really quickly.
  • “Isn’t it beautiful/freezing/stormy outside?” Talking about the weather is the mosts maligned of smalltalk conversations, but it works because it’s incredibly universal. We all had to brave the elements to get here, and commenting on the weather can lead to fun conversations about weekend plans, roof repair projects, kids’ sporting events…. You name it, you can get there with a comment on the weather.

How do you gracefully extract yourself from a conversation that has gone on too long?

The beautiful thing about a networking event is that everyone’s there to talk with new people. This simple fact can help you get out of a conversation with no hard feelings – after a certain amount of time, you both should be moving on.

If you get stuck with someone monopolizing your time, find a natural break in the conversation and say, “Well, it’s been great talking with you! We should probably keep mingling. Good luck with [whatever you were talking about], and maybe I’ll see you around at another one of these events.”

If you’re wanting to connect later, ask to exchange business cards.

As another strategy, you could keep an eye out for others who look like they’re wanting to join in a conversation (helping lurkers join your group’s conversation is good manners at a networking event, anyway). Once you’ve included the second person and the conversation is going strong, excuse yourself.

What are your favorite conversation starters/enders? Leave them in the comments!

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Dennis Crow

Those are good conversation starters. In DC, “what do you do” is ususally the second question. Often it is difficult to explain what YOU do, or, in fact, you must not tell anyone. This is especially true of IT jobs. I…”give grants,” “review loans,” “do research,” “work on the Hill,” or even “write policy and regulations,” are generally understood. Being in IT is likely to stick you with a “nerd” label. I tell peope that I do “IT strategic planning,” not Enterprise Architecture, to indicated that I am not a programmer. THAT does not mean that I don’t highly respect programmers. I can’t do it. As said in the piece, try not to talk about what you do. I think this is harder for men, except regarding sports. But that is another story. Naturally, in Kanas, we talk about the weather.