Conversation Starters for Networking Events (Even for Introverts)

Networking meetings

For most of my life, networking meetings were torture for me.

I could never get comfortable with them. I’d either hide in the corner, or desperately cling to the person I came with. I didn’t know who to meet or what to say.

Don’t Go !

The good news is that if you absolutely hate networking events you don’t have to go to them!

Networking does not need to be, and should not be miserable, even for introverts.

I’ve learned lots of of very do-able and NOT-uncomfortable things to do instead. I share these ideas in my Executive Playbook on Authentic Networking.

But today I want to specifically focus on making conversation at networking events.

Because even if networking events are not your thing, sometimes there is a mandatory work event or a conference you need to be at, and

…you will find yourself in a crowd of strangers with a glass of wine in your hand plotting your escape route

So in this article, I want to share some specific things you can say and do to make the best of a networking meeting, to take the stress and agony out of it, and maybe even enjoy it a little.

The Introvert’s Dilemma

One of the reasons that introverts do not like networking meetings is that they DETEST small talk.

It’s not that introverts don’t like people. They do. It’s just that for an introvert, every interaction depletes energy. Extroverts GET energy from interacting with others, where introverts LOSE energy.

So for an introvert to enjoy an interaction it has to be worth it–and small talk is never worth it.

Small talk is an energy drain with no payoff. So it’s exhausting.

The other issue introverts have is approaching strangers.

Because they can’t already see a meaningful reason to engage, having never met the person, it seems very awkward and pointless to even start.

Or when an extrovert stranger comes up to you unexpectedly, gets in your space and starts up with small talk, you find that interaction so off-putting that you would never want to do that to someone else!

So all these things build up and it becomes impossible to even start.

The goal

So the goal here is to have an approach to networking meetings that makes it possible because it:

1. Gives you something to say and
2. Creates a level of conversation more satisfying than small talk.

Things to say:

1. “Hello”

I once asked a colleague of mine, who was a super-extrovert and a master at networking, for advice on networking events. I told him, “I never know what to say when I meet a stranger”.

He said, “Patty, here’s what you do… At your next networking event, go up to as many people as you can, smile…and say… “hello”.

“Then what?”

He, said, “That’s it. See what happens”

Another thing introverts do is we have a tendency to feel like we have to manage both sides of the conversation. I’ll say this then they’ll say that, then I’ll respond, and then they’ll probably say …

This was a good reminder that I only have to manage my end of the conversation and there is another whole person who will contribute their part!

So at my next networking meeting, the scientist in me decided to put my discomfort to the side and do an experiment.

I went up to as many people as possible and simply smiled and said “hello”. Nothing else. Just hello –then waited.

So what happened?

In every single instance, the other person started talking! THEY started the conversation.

I didn’t need to have any brilliant opening line, because there was another person in the conversation.

I actually had some fun at this event.

This experience gave me great confidence. So I have now graduated to some other conversation starters beyond, “hello”.

“What brings you here?”

This is a wonderful line of conversation because it gives you a chance to learn from each other.

Variations on this question are:

  • What are you seeking to learn at this conference?
  • What are you exploring right now in your work? Or outside of work?
  • What are you most interested in right now?

As they describe what they learning about, it will give you ideas to ask additional questions so you can learn too, or perhaps even give you an opportunity to be helpful.

Either way it’s an opportunity for a meaningful conversation beyond small talk.

“How did you first get into that?”

This is probably my favorite question because when someone tells you what they do for work or about a hobby they have, if you say, “That’s interesting, how did you first get into that?” you can just lean back, drink your wine and listen for 20 minutes.

They will tell you a long story!

This line of conversation also opens up many ideas to further question, or learn from, and again, is not small talk.

Love or hate?

Another fun question I will use from time to time is to walk up to someone who is alone and looking uncomfortable (on a kind of rescue mission) and say,

“Do you enjoy events like these or do you hate them?”

This almost always gets a good laugh and starts a good conversation.

I still don’t love networking meetings, but I’m not afraid of them any more. And I have met some people at these meetings who I really like and we have stayed in touch.

So if you hate networking meetings, don’t force yourself to go to extra ones. There are other techniques you can use instead.

But when it is required attendance, hopefully some of these conversation starters will make it less painful for you!

More Networking Ideas

If you want more help with a do-able and comfortable approach to building your nework (without going to lots of networking events), I have an Executive Playbook on Authentic Networking that is part of my Executive Mentoring Group.

Patty Azzarello

Patty is available to speak at your company, annual meeting, or customer event. She can also deliver a custom workshop on Leadership or Strategy Execution for your leadership team. Contact Patty.

Or if you would like some personal help on your own professional development, check out her Executive Mentoring Group. It’s filled with insights, resources and support to build your executive confidence, advance your career, and includes direct mentoring from Patty.


patty blog image crop

Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)

You can find Patty at, follow her on twitter or Facebook, or read her books RISE and MOVE.

Schedule Time for Yourself ... and Hide!
Surviving a Chaotic Boss