One of the best networking strategies is to show genuine interest during conversations. The people you’re talking to should not be viewed through a ‘more business cards and LinkedIn invitations!’ lens. Networking is about making a meaningful connection, and this is usually established through chatting together.
Subsequently, the kind of icebreaker you use makes a huge first impression. You’re not showing genuine interest if your icebreakers are irrelevant questions or default to generic ‘so, tell me about yourself’ openers. What should you say, or ask, instead? Keep a few of these suggested icebreakers at the ready the next time you head out for a networking event. These conversation starters will allow you — and the people you speak with — to shine.
Don’t worry, you don’t sound superficial when you use this as a networking icebreaker. Wendy Toth, editor-in-chief of the career blog PowerSuiting, calls complimenting someone’s clothing “my never-fail icebreaker strategy.”
What makes this tactic work? Toth calls it a compliment-to-conversation technique.
“People tend to like or identify with what they choose to wear,” Toth says. “You’re complimenting their taste right off the bat. This boosts their confidence, and is just a nice thing to do.”
Toth recommends making the compliment very specific. Genuinely compliment an accessory like shoes or a handbag, which can easily expand into a deeper topic. Where did you get it? Did someone give it to that person as a gift? The person you’re speaking with likely has a little detail about it that they will share with you. Then, it’s up to you to take that nugget of information and ask relevant follow-up questions.
If you’re networking in a space where food and drinks are being served, make an icebreaker out of the eats.
Dana Hundley and Jenna Richardson, Co-Founders of Career Cooperative, are recruiters turned career consultants. The pair recommend getting the conversation started by commenting on food or drinks served at networking events. It’s a simple prompt, and it doesn’t contain the pressure of putting your elevator pitch out there right off the bat.
Want to keep the conversation going past “Is that the signature cocktail?” Ask what others think of the food, or if they have any recommendations on what to try out. Add in an antidote about a recent experience you had with good food and neatly tie yourself in at the end.
Try an icebreaker like this on for size: “I was tabling at a college fair recently, and they had the best spread of Mediterranean food. It was such an expected surprise, I had to back for seconds — good food helps make networking more fun! I’m Deborah, by the way.”
Jen Oleniczak Brown, owner of Fearless Winston Salem and The Engaging Educator, knows that small talk is harder to make than it sounds. The initial introduction opener, like "Hi, I’m Jen, I don’t think we’ve met!" often leads into the question: "What brings you here?"
Going beyond this entry point, Oleniczak Brown recommends asking an open-ended question. This question should be rooted in curiosity and something that you’d be willing to answer. It should also allow people to talk about themselves, and be fun.
Try asking what this person would do with five million dollars and see how they respond.
“You’re going off the beaten path with this question, but it works because it opens up passions,” Oleniczak Brown explains. “Are they interested in starting a big business or living on an island? Psychology shows that people like talking about themselves, so those feel-good parts of your brain that light up when you talk about yourself will be associated with that person you’re talking to.”
What should you do while everyone is feeling good and enjoying responding to the question? Listen!
“Become an active listener,” Oleniczak Brown says. “Ask questions that get more information and keep showing your curiosity in that person.”
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