Starting a conversation with a new acquaintance can be awkward and difficult.
“Maybe you’re shy, private, or reserved — or you feel you have nothing in common with the other person. Perhaps you lack the knowledge or confidence to initiate a conversation, or you just don’t enjoy meeting new people,” says Darlene Price, president of Well Said, Inc. and author of “Well Said! Presentations and Conversations That Get Results.” “Though each is a perfectly valid reason, there are times — especially in business — when striking up a conversation with someone new is necessary and even required.”
And what you say when you meet or approach someone new is extremely important because those opening words set the tone for the conversation and create a lasting first impression.
“Investing a few moments in preparing how you want to present yourself to new people before a networking event, business meeting, or social occasion pays big dividends: You avoid common mistakes and embarrassing mishaps, and you ensure that the first impression is a positive one,” Price says. “Having a few effective conversation starters will help you put your best foot forward and create rapport from the get-go.”
She says we all know talking about the weather is a standard starter. It may be predictable if not boring, but it’s always a safe way to get started. “Strive, however, to kick off the conversation with a more germane and less generic topic — one that will lead into a more engaging and meaningful dialogue.”
Following the initial response of, “Hi [Name], it’s nice to meet you,” use one of the following topics to break the ice, then mix and match to keep the dialogue rolling, Price suggests. “But whatever you do, focus on professional commonalities and avoid controversial topics.”
“What do you think of the conference so far? … Have the sessions been helpful?”
“How long have you been a member of XYZ organisation?”
“What inspired you to become a member?”
“How long have you worked for this firm?”
“What’s the scope of your responsibilities for the company?”
“Bob said you recently transferred from the sales department. How’s the transition going for you?”
“How did you get into accounting?”
“How are the recent changes in government regulations affecting your business?”
“Have you always been in healthcare, or have you worked in other industries?”
“I live in Atlanta. Where are you from?”
“This is my first visit to San Francisco. What do you recommend I see while I’m here?”
“How do you like living in New York?”
“You mentioned you’re from Boston. Congratulations on the Red Sox winning the World Series last year. Are you a baseball fan?”
“College football has certainly been in the news this week. Are you following any teams?”
“I hear you’re an avid golfer. Did you happen to see the Ryder Cup this year?”
“I’m doing well, thanks for asking. I just returned from a long weekend at the beach. Have you had any fun trips this summer?”
“Does your job entail a lot of travel? … What are some of your favourite cities?”
“Sue said you just returned from Germany. How was your visit? Do enjoy travelling?”
“What are your hobbies or interests outside of work?”
“I noticed you volunteered for the company’s blood drive. How did the event go?
“Mary tells me you’re a master gardener. What do you enjoy growing? How did you develop an interest in it?”
Price says the most effective and appropriate conversation starters may vary by occasion and circumstance. “For example, if you’re at a business function meeting your company’s CEO for the first time, you wouldn’t say, ‘Hi Pat, it’s nice to meet you. So what types of books do you enjoy reading?’ Or, ‘Who are some of your favourite authors?’ Pat may give you a strange look and think it’s none of your business. However, if you’re attending your monthly book club meeting, these questions would be great conversation starters when you meet a new member.”
Generally speaking, though, when you meet new people, you can be sure they all have one thing in common: self-interest. “One subject in which they’re interested and know a lot about is themselves,” she explains. “When you approach another person with this point in mind, it makes it easier to start a conversation. The skill is to immediately show sincere interest in them.”
Conversely, one of the biggest mistakes in starting a conversation is when you try to think of something interesting, clever, or even impressive to say about yourself, rather than drawing that out in the other person.
“So the key to starting and sustaining a good conversation with new people is a four-part approach,” Price says. “One: Ask them appropriate, relevant questions about themselves — known as ‘conversation starters.’ Two: Practice active, appreciative listening. Three: Share brief, reflective relevant comments about yourself. And four: Repeat the process.”
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