5 Ways to Start a Conversation with a Stranger

There is a hierarchy of cringe-worthy activities, and high on the list is networking. If you peel back networking, few things are worse for many people (like my fellow socially reluctant) than approaching and speaking with a stranger.

The problem is that you have little or no “frame of reference” with this other person. Where do you begin when starting a conversation? Even if you can muster up the courage to go near the stranger, it makes you feel like a deer in the headlights.

Do you run away as fast as possible or hope the fire alarm goes off?

I have found that rather than stop in your tracks; it’s good to have some conversation tactics that I have found to work well. With some planning, you can seriously reduce the fear and loathing of networking.

1. What do you have in common RIGHT NOW?

There is something you do have in common with this stranger: whatever event you are attending. If it is a party you were invited to, you have that person in common. If it is a group associated with a profession or interest, you have the group’s focus as a place to start.

Possible openers:

How do you and Jane know each other?

How long have you been part of the project management group?

What is your profession that brings you to this group?

2. Look for a “Point of Entry.”

“Point of entry” is my little term for a conversation starter. It could be something the person is snacking on, an article of clothing. It may not become the topic for a full-blown 15-minute conversation, but it’s a place to start. Your questions will have to fill in the rest of the conversation.

Possible openers:

I see you’re munching on the egg rolls. Do you recommend them?

I noticed your lapel pin; what is the pin associated with?

3. Ask for an Introduction

An often overlooked way is to ask someone, like the event organizer or someone you know, to introduce you to someone you don’t know. Usually, this person will have some knowledge about the person they are introducing you to and will mention the insight during the introduction. Pay attention, as this can help you initiate a conversation with a stranger.

4. Be Transparent

So often, we think we have to be the perfect, glossy version of a human when we meet someone new. It’s ok to admit you are there to get acquainted with new people and would like to chat with them. People love people who are open and friendly. Go ahead and admit you have no cleaver way of knowing where to start the conversation and introduce yourself.

Possible openers:

I’m new to this group and don’t know anyone. Is it ok for me to join you and your friends? (I’ve done this several times, and people are remarkably hospitable)

Hi, I don’t think you and I have met before. I’m Dorothy, and you are? (Response) What brings you here today?

5. The Classic

We are all very accustomed to the question: “What kind of work do you do?” Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself and ask that classic question. Once we know the kind of work someone does helps frame the next part of the conversation.

One of the things you rarely hear discussed when it comes to networking is the idea of preparing for it. I’m a big advocate of doing just that. Not all of us are big social butterflies who can quickly enter a setting and begin a gabfest with anyone they encounter. I have discovered that you can think through various parts of the process and develop good tactics to help you get the most out of the next event. Isn’t that worth the cringe reduction?