If you listen closely after someone asks, “So what do you do?” you can almost hear the other person’s eyes roll as they recite their 30-second elevator pitch.
But talking to new people doesn’t have to be such a drag.
There are ways to get the conversation going without resorting to irritating clichés.
Check out these 17 icebreakers that will help ease you into an engaging conversation with people you’ve never met before.
“What kind of volunteer work do you do?”
Asking people about their volunteer work will open up “a world of wonderful conversation,” writes strategy consultant Alice Korngold on Fast Company.
Korngold says she especially enjoys meeting people who work on nonprofit boards because she gets to learn about how an organization was founded, how the person got involved with it, and about the “fascinating group dynamics of boards.”
“Are you originally from [wherever the event is], or did your business bring you here?”
- Flickr/Wendy Cope
This question will help you jumpstart an engaging conversation with ease because “it doesn’t feel like you are asking for a stiff elevator speech,” Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas, tells U.S. News & World Report.
The conversation will allow both parties to talk about themselves, which is the ultimate goal of career-savvy people attending a networking event, Gottsman says.
“Man, these networking events can be so crazy. Mind if I join you over here where it’s a little quieter?”
- Flickr / Tom Woodward
Find someone on the outskirts of the ongoing conversations and introduce yourself, says Ariella Coombs, content manager for Careerealism.com.
Since they are alone and possibly looking miserable, they are probably uncomfortable with the social situation, Coombs says. By initiating the interaction, you can help to put them at ease and get them in the flow of a conversation.
“Hmmm, I’m not quite sure what that dish is. Do you know?”
Rather than silently standing in line for food, take the opportunity to start a conversation about the topic on everyone’s mind: food.
Ask about the dish they think looks good or the mystery dish, Coombs writes on Careerealism.com. “Who knows, you might leave the buffet with a better plate of food AND a new contact!”
“What motivated you to come to this event?”
Rather than asking the classics like “What’s your name?” or “What do you do?” Darrah Brustein of Network Under 40/Finance Whiz Kids tells Inc. that she likes to ask what motivated an attendee to come to the event.
The answer to this question will give you insight into your conversation partner’s career goals, and you may even find that you can help them to achieve those goals, Brustein says.
If you genuinely like something someone is wearing, compliment them, Tillis Lederman, CEO of the professional-development firm Executive Essentials, tells U.S. News & World Report.
Not only will they be flattered, but you can also ask a follow-up question about where they got the item that could lead to a fun conversation. One caveat: Don’t fake it, Lederman warns. People can easily sniff out disingenuousness.
“I’ll be honest, the only person I know here is the bartender, and I just met him two minutes ago. Mind if I introduce myself?”
While a networking event is not the best place to try out your latest comedic routine, The Daily Muse says humor is a good method to put another attendee at ease and jumpstart a lighthearted conversation.
Other suggestions include, “So, on a scale of 1 to undrinkable, how terrible is the Chardonnay?”
“Would you have any insight or advice on …”
- Flickr/Vancouver Film School
Letting people use their expertise to help you will make them feel good and be more open to connecting with you, Lederman tells CareerBliss.
You can ask about anything from a work project to their opinion on which new car you should buy. But just be sure to genuinely listen and reflect on their advice, Lederman says. As the old saying goes, we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.
‘What did you think of the speaker?’
- Steve Jurvetson/flickr
Conversations flow around common experiences, so bring up the one thing you know you both have in common: What’s going on around you, Lederman tells U.S. News & World Report.
Asking about the speaker, the group discussion, or even the restaurants around the area will give you both a chance to contribute to the conversation, Lederman says.
‘What’s your reality-TV guilty pleasure?’
- Brian Bowen Smith/E!
Almost everyone watches at least one show that they’re at least a little embarrassed about, ZinePak cofounder Brittany Hodak tells Inc., and she says sharing those guilty pleasures with a stranger is fun.
“It’s funny how quickly you can bond with someone who admits to sharing your secret obsession,” Hodak says.
“Hi, I’ve never been to this event before. You look like a regular — any tips you could give me on what to expect? What are the best sessions here?”
- University of Exeter/flickr
If you’re attending a conference for the first time, look for someone who looks like a “regular” and ask them for the scoop on the event, suggests Jessica Taylor of The Daily Muse.
“Did you hear about [insert big news event]?”
Be sure to scan the headlines the day of the networking event so you can ask for opinions on it, especially if it affects someone’s line of work, says Meredith Lepore, editor at large for Levo League.
This topic will get a discussion going, and it will show that you keep up-to-date with current events. That’s a win-win, Leopre says.
“Did you catch the game yesterday?”
Many people love to talk about sports.
If you spy a Red Sox cap in the crowd, go up the person and say, “Red Sox fan, huh? Did you catch the game yesterday?” writes Coombs on Careerealism.com.
Or if you are a sports fan and overhear a sports conversation, step in and say, “Are you talking about …?” and voice your own opinion on the big game.
“What do you do for fun when you’re not working?”
- Flickr / Laura Hadden
Asking personal questions about people’s activities outside of work can help solidify a connection, Shan White, owner of Women’s Peak Performance Coaching, tells Refinery29.
Asking about someone’s after-work hobbies is “semi-personal, yet still professionally acceptable to ask,” she says.
“This can bring some levity and humor into the conversation while also letting you see what lights them up, what brings them real joy,” White says.
“Hey, aren’t you friends with [fill in random name]?”
- Flickr / Marco Arment
If you are desperate for a conversation starter, you can walk up to anyone and ask if they are friends with someone else who is at the event, writes Jessica Gordon of The Daily Muse.
If they say no, feign a mild surprised reaction and conversation will commence.
- Flickr/ Jessica Hamilton
A smile, a name, and a confident handshake can sometimes go a long way, writes Coombs on Careerealism.com.
“Sometimes, the easiest way to meet someone is to offer a handshake and say, ‘Hi, I’m Peter.'”
“Well, you guys are certainly having more fun than the last group I was talking to.”
- Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Comedy Central
If all else fails, try something totally random that just might work, writes The Daily Muse, like inserting yourself into an engaging conversation by commenting on how fun their group looks from the outside.