Do you find it difficult to start a conversation at networking events? Never been one good at small talk? No matter how difficult you find networking, it is a crucial strategy for your career prospects as networking helps you communicate your brand to contacts within your company and industry.

So what are you to do if you find yourself with cottonmouth as you enter the networking mixer at a conference, a reception at your alumni association meeting, or a lunch meeting with a client? First, know that you are not an outlier, the vast majority of individuals experience the same trepidation when initiating a conversation with strangers. Knowing that, the following tips can help you break the ice.

Be the Initiator: Knowing that most people experience a level of discomfort in networking situations, why not be the initiator of conversation? This will endear yourself to others and will help you drive the conversation toward topics that you are very comfortable in asking questions. By initiating a conversation, you will be branded as the one who engages others and who can build connections.

Focus on Helping Others: At many networking events, individuals are so focused on meeting connections, advancing careers, and sharing their stories that they ignore the needs of others. By focusing on others, you are more likely to generate honest and productive conversation and you will communicate that you are the kind of person who is not just looking out for himself.

“What brings you here tonight?”; “What are you hoping to get out of this event?”; “What field are you in?”; “Have you attended many of these events, any tips for someone who is new?”

Focus on Common Themes: Does the networking event have a theme/topic? This can help you craft conversation starters as you can reasonably anticipate all members having some interest in the topic. For example, in January I attended an event in Boston that focused on the talent shortage in the engineering field and the resulting difficulty in hiring for technical positions that many companies face. Knowing the theme allowed me to approach fellow networking event attendees:

  • Interesting topic, has your organization been hiring much over the past quarter?
  • Are you experiencing a talent shortage for technical openings?
  • Insights as to why the shortage? or what is your firm doing to find talent?
  • Do you know if the talent shortage phenomenon is at all levels of hiring, or specific to one group (entry-level, mid-career, senior, etc.)?

The Big Three: No, I am not referring to Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors – I mean Healthcare, Politics, and Religion. Avoid these topics at general networking events as they can turn off even the most willing networker. Also, stay away from generic openings: “How about those Mets?”; “Weather has been crazy lately.”; “How much does a polar bear weigh? Enough to break the ice. Hi, I’m Kevin.”

Two Ears, One Mouth: There is a saying that we are born with two ears and one mouth, and thus we should listen twice as much as we talk. This is good advice in networking circles – people appreciate when they feel they have been heard. In addition, by focusing on listening instead of talking, you are more likely to have additional questions to ask to keep the conversation going through questions that arise from the other person’s comments.

Broad is Better: When initiating a conversation, broad topics tend to generate better conversation than more specific themes. By offering a broad topic for discussion, others can help direct the conversation to more specific areas of personal interest. As you are giving up some control of where the conversation could lead, you will want to propose broad topics where you have a strong knowledge base.

Safety in Numbers: If you dread the idea of trying to hold a conversation by yourself, build a group at the event. Start with one other person and as you see others, pull them in by introducing yourself and your conversation partner. People will appreciate the introductions you are providing and you benefit from additional contributors who can carry the conversation.

Time Limits: Networking events are designed for you to meet others – spending your entire time speaking with one or two others may be more comfortable for you, but this approach defeats the purpose of the event. Additionally, keeping a conversation going too long can leave the other person looking for a way to get out. After 5-10 minutes, make a clean break and if appropriate, propose a follow-up. ”Mike, you provided a lot to think about with regards to talent shortage issues, I don’t want to take up too much of your time tonight. Do you have a card as I would like to follow-up with you, maybe grab coffee before work/…card as I want to get you the name of the partner at Mega Corp. I mentioned earlier.”

Knowing that networking is uncomfortable for the majority of participants, go into the event determined to make it a good experience for you and others by taking the lead. You will communicate and build your brand with others when you employ the steps outlined above.


Kevin Monahan is the Associate Director of the Notre Dame Career Center. In this role, he leads the center’s employer relations efforts in addition to coaching young professionals in career management and career change capacities. He combines career consulting services with employer outreach to help find opportunities for both constituencies. He is the author of the Career Seeker’s Guide blog.

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