The Best Conversation Starters For When You're Stranded At A Networking Event

Illustrated by Ariel Davis.
Have you ever put on your Professional Pants and hauled yourself to a networking event, hoping to meet some movers and shakers in your field and maybe even get some job leads, only to wind up awkwardly sipping coffee in a corner — alone? Me, too.

Being an introvert is tough enough in day-to-day life, what with all the required human interaction of, say, grocery shopping and public transportation and most jobs. But when you're stuck at an event where your entire purpose is to initiate conversation with strangers (ugh), it can be tempting to throw in the towel and go home. But guess what: You can start up a networking chat with just about anyone — provided you have the right script for the situation.

We spoke to career experts Amanda Augustine of TopResume and Jenny Foss of Job Jenny to get their takes on avoiding awkward silences at industry gatherings. Ahead are their best bets for getting the discussion started. Bonus: These pointers are even valuable for the extroverts among us. Because you may be an expert at making friends or asking out a date, but those skills don't necessary apply when you're rocking a Sharpie-scrawled name tag on your blazer.

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Illustrated by Ariel Davis.
Foss makes a great point about what she calls "the 'ol networking conversation opening line" — conversations are tough, but silence can be tougher.

"This is so challenging for so many of us," she explains. "Yet, it's often even harder to amble around aimlessly not talking to anyone." One surefire way to get your foot in the discussion door? If the event has a speaker, strike up a conversation about that person.

Foss suggests saying, "I've heard great things about ______, but I've never heard her speak. Is this your first time hearing her as well?" This immediately gives you and that person a conversation topic in common — and, if they're more familiar with the speaker's work, it gives them an opportunity to share their knowledge.
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Illustrated by Ariel Davis.
Overcoming the discomfort of literally wearing your name on your sleeve can be half the battle. So why not lean into the awkwardness?

"If you're wearing name tags (and not afraid to try a bit of humor), try taking a playful approach," Foss suggests. "Say, 'I've made it my mission to introduce myself to everyone else here whose name also starts with 'J'. I'm Jenny." Yes, this will put you in some pretty alliterative conversation groups, but chances are good all those Janes and Joshuas can intro you to others, too.
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Illustrated by Ariel Davis.
If you're standing near someone who's wearing something noteworthy, flattery never hurts — provided it's appropriate and innuendo-free. Foss suggests complimenting someone's jazzy glasses or fashionable purse (rather than, say, their skirt or their eyes, which could get creepy fast). Augustine agrees and recommends following up the compliment with a question. ("I love your bag! Where did you get it?")

"Who doesn’t like to receive a compliment? Maybe you’ve noticed someone wearing a unique piece of jewelry or rocking another awesome accessory," Augustine says. "Don’t be afraid to let them know. The key is to follow up with a question to get the conversation going and learn more about their interests. If you can get people talking about something they’re passionate about, you’re sure to kick off a healthy conversation."

"Use care with this one, though," Foss warns. "You don't want to look like you're hitting on the person."

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Illustrated by Ariel Davis.
Honesty can really be the best policy. If you're stressing out over this entire situation, chances are there's someone else in the room looking similarly stressed. Make like every awkward kid's middle school dance dream: Saunter up to a wallflower, and ask, "Do you find these events nerve-wracking, too?"

"Seek out fellow introverts," Augustine advises. "If you’re a self-proclaimed wallflower thrown into a crowd of enthusiastic networkers, it can be overwhelming. Look for the folks standing at the edges of the group and approach one of them. You’re guaranteed to find another person with whom you can bond over the awkwardness of these situations — and make a new networking connection in the process."

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Illustrated by Ariel Davis.
This one works great because it taps into people's natural desire to share their experience. Augustine suggests asking your new acquaintance, "Any pointers for making the most of a big event like this?"

"People love to share their pearls of wisdom," Augustine explains. "Whether you’re a first-timer at a big conference and you’re seeking pointers on maximizing the event’s benefits, or you’re chatting with someone at an industry happy hour who just happens to have your dream job, ask the person for their sage advice. It’s a great way to keep the focus on your new connection, while helping you gain valuable insight."

Caveat: This works best when you're approaching someone who's older or more experienced in their career. Asking an event's lone college intern for networking advice may not get you much but a blank stare in response.
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Illustrated by Ariel Davis.
"What brings you to an event like this?" It's the (way less obnoxious) networking version of the old bar-pickup standby, "Do you come here often?" But instead of getting an eye roll or a "yes, and you asked me that last week, too" in response, you'll likely get an explanation as to why the person is looking to meet people in this industry. Maybe they're on a job hunt, maybe they're looking to hire, maybe it's something else entirely.

"When you have a better idea of the person’s motivation for attending the event, it becomes easier to think of follow-up questions or mention relevant information you’ve gleaned since arriving at the event," Augustine adds.
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Illustrated by Ariel Davis.
"Another great strategy for starting conversations — and this is an especially good one for introverts — is to volunteer to work at the check-in / name badge table," Foss explains. "This allows you to meet every single person coming in, have friendly banter as they look for their name tags, and it gives you the opportunity to 'pre-screen' people and determine with whom you might want to follow up and have more conversations once the event begins."

A conversation-starter trick that involves a) volunteering, b) other people approaching me rather than vice versa, and c) also sitting down? I will now be volunteering at all future networking events, thanks.
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