By Andy Lopata

As you may know, one of my pet hates at networking events is the way we open conversations when we meet someone for the first time. Almost without exception, when two strangers first shake hands and introduce themselves to each other, one will ask, “So, what do you do?”

This is the networking equivalent of 'do you come here often?'! In most cases, the party asking doesn’t truly care and listens politely to the ensuing ‘elevator pitch’, making the right sounds to display interest, while biding their time and waiting to be asked the same question in return.

Once the two people have exchanged elevator pitches they’ll shake hands, exchange business cards (if they haven’t done so already) and move on. So goes the Networkng Dance.

An ice-breaker should be designed to stimulate conversation, not kill it. To do that, you need to find something in common. “What do you do?” simply doesn't achieve that. There’s no guarantee that the person you're speaking to is in a line of business of interest to you and, if they are, that they are the person you want to meet.

You would, in fact, be much better off asking “Do you come here often?” If the question gets you talking about the group you're in, the people who invited you or your reasons for being there you will find it much easier to find common ground with people who are, after all, in the same situation.

Last year, I asked a number of people in my network for their favourite conversation starters. What is immediately apparent from their responses is that there’s no great science to approaching people, no magic words that are guaranteed to propel you into the conversation of your life.

What does work is very simple and very natural. Here’s what they had to say:

You had me at 'Hello'

There is a danger that we can spend too much time worrying about how to open a conversation and practising great icebreakers, overcomplicating a very simple process.

Fellow Twitter user David C Nicoll says "'Hello' works very well for me'" and often it is as straightforward as approaching someone and introducing yourself.

Newsletter subscriber John MacMillan agrees. "I've always found "Hello, I'm John McMillan" works as an introduction for me. (Remember 'The name's Bond, James Bond'?) I've had advice to make small talk first. Personally I'm bad at small talk. I guess what really matters is what YOU find comfortable."

Small talk shouldn't be too difficult if you can follow up that 'hello' with some interesting questions and build the conversation from there. As a simple technique to start a conversation, however, a simple 'hello' and introduction is hard to beat.

People don't network for solitude

It often pays to look for people who are standing on their own, after all it's unlikely that they've chosen to attend a networking event because they want their own space. Using the ‘say hello’ approach from above, go up to them and ask if you can join them, they're probably nervous about approaching strangers and you will be doing them a big favour.

There are always exceptions to prove the rule, however. Another contributor on my Facebook page, Jacey Lamerton, got an unexpected response when she tried this at one event. "I once went up to the only other lone person at an event and said: 'Hi, I'm Jacey and I don't know anyone here either.' He turned to me and said 'Oh I know everyone in the room. I just don't want to speak to anyone.'

"What a killer. What makes it even funnier (looking back) is that it was Rodney Bewes from The Likely Lads!"

Pay them a compliment

Both Elaine Hanzak and Jacey Lamerton wrote about the benefits of complimenting someone's choice of clothing or accessory. Elaine said, "From a female point of view one of the easiest ways to initiate conversation with another woman is to compliment her on an item of clothing, bag, etc (maybe not a necklace!!). It creates instant warmth and a smile."

The name game

Speaker and Author Mindy Gibbbins-Klein, who used to be an Area Director for BNI, suggested that the familiarity of hearing their own name will make people more open to your approach.

"Find someone wearing a name badge and say their name out loud. "Christina, is it?" This simple approach has so many advantages.

1) They will say 'yes', which is a good way to start a conversation;
2) They will feel good because people like hearing their own name (unless you've mispronounced it, in which case they will correct you and you can try again);
3) You probably need to say their name a few times to remember it, so you have one under your belt already!"

Dale Carnegie said 'The sweetest sound to any man is the sound of his own name'. Repeating people's names when you first meet them helps to create warmth and, as Mindy says, makes it easier for you to remember later on.

It's all we English talk about!

We Brits seem to have a reputation for talking about the weather or the traffic and I think there's a good reason for that. We know that we share them in common.

One of the main reasons I urge people not to ask 'What do you do?' is because you can't guarantee that the response will be something you can relate to. However, disastrous journey stories and discussions about the weather seem to have a knack of opening new conversations.

Speak about the journey and you can find where someone has come from and the conversation can take a range of directions from there.

Newsletter subscriber Katrina Dixon seems to be intent on creating horror journey stories for when she finally reaches her destination. "I went to the London Chambers Lunch Event yesterday”, she told me, “and my opening concerned the venue, as I foolishly decided to drive to the Novotel Excel and couldn't find the place! With no SatNav, I almost gave up and went home!

"This morning I went to BNI and my opening was again about my journey as I discovered as I got on the tube that I had forgotten my phone!

"These openings perhaps don't reflect well on my organisational skills, but I guess I'm leaning towards a circumstantial opening about the journey/venue etc these days. They seemed to break the ice anyway."

Do you come here often?

Finally, believe it or not, this is my favourite, as Tweeter Emma Fryer puts it "the old classic 'Do you come here often?'"

It may not be that effective as a chat up line in bars (maybe that's why I'm single!) but it's a great question to ask at networking events.

You may not use those exact words but asking people if they are a member of the network, if they are a first time guest, who invited them or why they have come along can create a very positive conversation. You are likely to find out things in common, such as reasons for being there, people you both know, similar experiences of other networks.

After all, isn't that what you're trying to achieve? Building relationships means finding rapport and finding things in common. Asking people what they do doesn't guarantee that, but asking about something you know you have in common, such as the event you are at, will at least get you off to the right start.

From there on in, it's down to you. Once you have broken the ice carrying on with the conversation means listening carefully, asking questions and showing a genuine interest in the other person. It's good to give yourself a positive start though.

Andy Lopata

Labelled 'One of Europe's leading business networking strategists' by the Financial Times, Andy Lopata helps businesses develop successful networking and referral generation strategies. www.lopata.co.uk

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