We all admire people who are good conversationalists, those who can melt into a crowd and emerge with friendships and contact numbers. But there are some techniques all of us can use – yes, even the shy ones – to develop skills that can make us good networkers. In this article, we give you ten of these.

Networking is the name of the game in today’s business world. You ask anyone and they say that the most important skill to possess for success is knowing the right people at the right time. That is possible only if you’re able to make friends easily, for every friend was once upon a time a stranger after all.

Even though all of us know how important it is to be a good conversationalist, very few of us are comfortable starting conversations, especially at events where we know no one. Here are a few things you can try at your next networking event or conference where you wish to mingle and make some contacts.

1. What kind of volunteer work do you do?
Asking a person about the kind of volunteer and charity work they do can open up a world of conversation. People generally like to talk about the stuff they do outside of their work that has a social responsibility attached to it, so if you ask them about it, most likely they will be more than happy to oblige you with details, and a conversation can develop. Just be sure that you have a Plan B in case the person you choose this line with does not volunteer.

2. Are you originally from here or did you come here on business?
Asking someone where they’re from is often considered offensive, but in a place where everyone has gathered for a conference, it is a perfectly legitimate question to ask. To soften the perceived offence of the question, you could ask whether they’re from that place or whether their business brought them there. When it goes well, you could well be treated to a conversation which tells you a lot about the person you approached.

3. Approach someone who is alone
At any session you visit, you will most likely see someone else who is in the same boat as you and doesn’t know anyone. Generally they will be skirting around the edges of the room, holding their drink or food, and looking around in awkward silence. Find one of these people and introduce yourself with a line such as: ‘These networking events can be so crazy. Mind if I join you here where it’s a little quieter?’

4. Use food as a common topic
Most people, like you, are interested in food. Instead of picking up your food and having it quietly by yourself, use the topic to spark a conversation with the person in front of you or behind you in the line. Go for humour if the conference is in an exotic location and the food belongs to an exotic cuisine. ‘Hmm,’ you can say, ‘I’m not quite sure what this is. Do you know?’

5. Give compliments on clothes
This may work better depending on your gender and the gender of the person you’re giving the compliment to. Often, the air in conferences can be thick with serious business chat, and with a well-timed, honest compliment, you can break the ice. Just make sure that you’re genuine with this, because can smell insincerity from a mile away. This can lead to a conversation about where they got the item of clothing, so you will be well on your way.

6. Fall back on the hi-hello
If all else fails, remember that sometimes, a straight approach works best. Going up to someone and introducing yourself with a confident handshake can make all the difference between a lonely few hours and a sparkling conversation. You will be surprised at how many people respond to a ‘Hi, I am so-and-so’ with enthusiasm as long as you do it confidently and with an upright smile.

7. Doff your hat to their expertise
If you know for a certainty that the person you’re talking to is an expert in a certain field, open the conversation by asking some help or advice in their field. You can begin such conversations with phrases such as, ‘Would you have an advice on this?’ or ‘I’m trying to do this and but finding it difficult. Would you be able to point out what I’m doing wrong?’ This way, you encourage the person to talk about their field, so the field is fertile for conversation.

8. Talk about common experiences
Food is one common experience at a conference. The other common experiences are the speeches and the sessions. You can form great conversations with people who attend the conference by venturing opinions of your own about what you thought about a particular speaker or session, or even inviting others to share their opinions. Just wait for an opportunity and say, ‘What did you think of that session/speaker?’

9. Bond over something non-serious
Remember that people have different sides to them. Many people love sports, and many watch reality television in their free time. If you’d like to take this approach, look for some clue. For example, you may spot a person who is wearing a Red Sox hat, or maybe you overheard them speak of a TV show that you know of in another conversation. Approach with this angle and you’re more likely to bring out the informal side of the other person.

10. Try and find a regular
While it is a good tactic to find a first-timer to strike up a conversation, you can also get good results by spotting someone who appears to be a regular and quite at ease at the gathering. Look for signs in a person’s body language that suggest he has been there before and done it. Then look for an opportunity to catch him alone and ask a sincere question such as: ‘I am new here, and it looks like you’ve been here before. Can you give me some tips on how to get started?’

Indrasish Banerjee

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