How do I start a conversation?

Last month I hosted what is now an annual event in my department: an alumni/student networking event where 20-25 of our alumni who live and work in the area come back to campus to talk with current students about their careers and their experiences with the job search. This year, several of my students came up to me when they arrived and asked me, “How do I start a conversation with these strangers?” I confess I was a bit taken by surprise as I’ve been hosting these events for several years, and no one has ever asked that before. But perhaps the articles I’ve been reading recently about current students’ fear of (or, at least, inexperience with) telephone conversations is carrying over into face-to-face conversations: they’re so used to communicating by text, that they’ve never learned how to start (and stop) oral conversations.

Fortunately, I found a resource that can help. “18 Easy Conversation Starts for Networking Events,” by Ariella Coombs for Careerealism.com, is a mix of what I think are good ideas and bad ones, but I’ll sort them out for you here. For the most part, her categories are fine, it’s the specifics that strike me as ineffective. Also, they aren’t numbered in the article, and no matter how I count, I can’t arrive at 18, so I’ll just tell you about her six categories (and one bonus category).

1. “Go Fishing at the Food Table.” This assumes that you are at an event where there is a food table. In my experience, not all networking events provide food, so read this in case there is food available. Personally, I think it’s pretty lame to start a conversation by talking about the food, and I think you’d look a bit foolish to use these, but Ms. Coombs suggestions are to say:

  • “Oh man, everything looks so good… I’m not sure what to get! What are you thinking?”
  • “Yummy, they have ___! Have you ever tried it?”
  • “Hmm, I’m not quite sure what that dish is… do you know?”

2. Moving right along, we get to “Find a loner.” I actually think this is an excellent idea, and it’s one that I have used myself. If you see someone standing by him- or herself, odds are he or she feels as uncomfortable as you and will be grateful to you for starting a conversation. On the off chance that they are standing and waiting for a friend, it’s unlikely that they will be offended in any way by you talking to them when they are alone. . .as long as you don’t say anything creepy. Ms. Coombs’ specific suggestions for starting a conversation don’t strike me as particular useful, but you could say something like “Have you been to many of the events sponsored by [this group]?” or “I don’t know anyone here. Can I talk with you for a few minutes?”

3. “Compliment them.” This is an other good idea—again, as long as it’s not too personal (or at all creepy). Compliment someone’s shoes or tie or hairstyle, but not their physique or other personal attributes.

4. “Talk about sports.” If you are up to date on current sports news, and especially if you overhear someone talking about sports, it’s usually easy to join the conversation. Just be careful that you don’t get off on the wrong foot by criticizing (or praising) a particular team too much before you find out which teams they root for.

5. “Just say hello.” While this sounds simple, for many people it is actually the most difficult. And you probably need to say more than “hello.” “Hi, my name is. . . “ will be a lot more effective.

6. “Keep the conversation going.” Well, this isn’t really a way to start a conversation, but Ms. Coombs does give you some tips for keeping it going once you’ve broken the ice (or said hello). And the best advice here is to ask them about themselves: What brought them to this event? Have they always lived in [this city?] Where did they go to school? What type of work do they do now or hope to do in the future? What do they like about that type of work? Each piece of information can help you find ways to connect with them and can lead to additional questions.

“Bonus: Exit strategy.” As hard as it may be to start a conversation, sometimes it’s harder to break away, especially if you’ve been talking with one person and feel that you’ll be leaving them alone if you walk away. The article suggests saying that you are going to get something to eat or drink, introduce them to someone else (assuming you’ve met someone else) or say that you’re about to leave. The problem with that last idea is that if you don’t leave, and you run into them later, it will look like you were trying to ditch them. While that may be true, you are at the event to build your network, not burn bridges. You can always try honesty: “While it’s been great talking with you, I’m here to network towards finding a job, so I’d better circulate. Thanks for your time.”