We've all been there. You walk in to a business networking event, walk around a few minutes, glance at nametags to see who is there, and wait for a chance to jump in on a conversation as if you were entering onto a highway and waiting for traffic to slow down to let you in.
Recognize from the start that you are not there to sell any services. You are there to purposefully get to know others and explore potential opportunities for mutual gain. Take a deep breath, and try some of these ideas.
Be prepared to answer the question "What do you do?" Your response should be 10-15 seconds long, should NOT include any technical jargon, and should invite the person you are speaking with to ask you more questions. Write down your introduction. Practice it in front of a mirror. Record it and listen to what you sound like. And monitor people's reactions to your introduction - if they seem bored or disinterested, try a different introduction.
Take the initiative to introduce others. Everyone else is looking for the same entry into the conversation that you were. Even if you just met someone, introduce them to others and offer some piece of information about them that gives them the opening to elaborate.
Small talk doesn't need to be awkward. Conversation is a skill that can be learned, practiced and perfected. Be prepared to talk about at least five things outside of your technical competency area that you are interested in. This could be a movie that you recently saw, a car buying experience, coaching Little League, or a recent trip to New York. But be sure that the conversation isn't all about you. Ask questions of others and get them talking - challenge yourself to see how long you can go without talking about you. The more other people talk, the more they will think that you are a brilliant conversationalist!
Here are some questions to get you started. Practice them, use the ones that work for you, and be genuinely interested in the answers:
- "What is the major benefit you realize by belonging to this organization?"
- "How did you happen to get into that line of work?"
- "What do you like best about what you do?"
- "Who's the most interesting person you've met this year?"
- "Why did you decide to come (or come back) to this event?"
- "If I were to find you a lead, what sort of person would I be looking for?"
- "What can you tell me about _________ (the event, the break-out sessions, the speaker)."
Most importantly, relax and enjoy what you are doing. You'll have plenty of opportunities to inject "business" into these discussions, but conversation starters are all about no-risk introductions, getting to know others, and exploring what you might have in common. Enjoy!