The Art of “Small Talk” at Networking Events (Part 2: Starting a Conversation)

Written by Paige Dawson Rodriguez on Wednesday, July 6th, 2016

Last week’s post shared how to prep and arrive at an event. Today, we focus on the meatiest and most valuable area: what to ask and say during the event.

How to Get Started

REMEMBER: You already have one thing in common with every person in the room. You are all attending the same event, so use this as a safe starting point.

Walk up confidently with a soft, pleasant smile; look the person in the eye; offer out your right-hand to shake (if you and the other person both have a hand free); and introduce yourself.  “Hi there, I’m Paige Rodriguez with MPD Ventures. So nice to meet you.” The other person will do the same, really. Then…

You only need to ask a couple of these questions to break the ice and get the conversation to flow. Plus, you don’t want to be able to move from person to person easily.

Depending on the type of event, you may even ask a version or even several of these questions:

  • How do you know the host or hostess (or sponsoring organization)?
  • How did you hear/learn about this event?
  • What sparked your interest to attend this event?
  • What do you hope to learn or gain here today?

If it’s a regular or recurring event:

  • Is this the first time you’ve attended this event or are you a regular attendee?
  • If a regular, what have been some of your favorite events, topics, books, speakers, etc. from past? And why?
  • If a first timer, what prompted you to attend this session?
  • If a first timer or regular, what other similar type of events or groups have you attended?

If it’s a keynote speaker-focused event:

  • Have you heard Joe Smith speak before?
  • Have you read Joe Smith’s book/blog/show/etc.?

If the person has a plate of food you could use that as an easy starting question and then move into introductions and other questions:

  • How is the pizza/chicken satay/spring roll/etc.?
  • Which dessert option should I try (or which dessert is best)?

This one sounds odd, I know. This strategy led to a 30-minute business development conversation and, ultimately, new client for us.

To move beyond the event, a few ideas to learn more about the person’s work:

  • What’s your role in the company?
  • What’s the most interesting project you are working on these days? (Could lead then to the converse of the most challenging.)
  • I’m curious; how did you become interested in the “supply chain, accounting, legal, marketing” profession or function?
  • I’ve not heard of ABC Company before, might you share a bit about what you all do?

If you want to move beyond work questions, ask:

  • Outside of working hours, what keeps you occupied?
    • This is broad enough to allow for kids, volunteer, sports, hobbies, etc.
  • If there is a major sporting event going on you could inquire:
    • Are you watching the Olympics? Which sport is your favorite?
    • Are you following the Sweet 16 bracket, Super Bowl, etc.?
  • Is it near a holiday time period that you could ask:
    • Do you have any summer travel plans?
    • How are you spending the holidays?
    • Any big plans for 4th of July or Labor Day?

Overall, I suggest you stay away from politics, religion, dating, etc. topics at networking events. The goal is to make a personal feel welcome and safe in conversation and to build rapport so avoid any controversial topics.

REMEMBER: These questions can go both ways so ensure you have thought about your answers as well.

Our final post for this series will be out next week and cover what to do after the event. The real power of a networking event is how to grow and build that relationship beyond one exchange.

About Paige Dawson Rodriguez

Paige Dawson RodriguezWith expertise in marketing, business strategy and public relations, as well as ‘in the trenches’ experience as a business owner, Paige Dawson Rodriguez brings a unique blend of talent to clients. As president and founder of MPD Ventures Company, Paige works with executives and entrepreneurs throughout the country to develop key messages, marketing strategies and measurable campaigns, driven by client business goals. She has extensive experience providing counsel for professional service firms, technology companies, associations and nonprofits.