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Whether it’s sharing an elevator with your boss or confronting a crowd of strangers at a conference mixer, trying to figure out how to start a conversation can leave you feeling tongue-tied.
But it’s these brief moments that can propel you from nameless face in a crowd to go-to person for the next project or promotion. Being able to confidently and easily engage someone in conversation can be one of the greatest tools in your career toolbox.
So how do you start a conversation that will leave a positive impression? Here are 10 pointers.
1. Find common ground
When two people have something in common, striking up a conversation is easy. But how do you know that in advance? Do your homework. If you know you’d like to connect with the conference keynote speaker, Google his name, check his LinkedIn profile or just read his conference bio and see if your experiences have any overlap. Did you once work for the same company? Live in the same city? Maybe you follow the same sports or enjoy the same hobbies, foods and so forth. Or maybe you read a book he wrote and can compliment him on that.
Armed with this information, you can start a conversation by introducing yourself and following it up with a personal compliment: “I really agreed with the management approach you recommend in your book” or “I wonder if we’re the only two native Oklahomans in the room tonight.” By finding common ground you should be in an easygoing conversation within 15 seconds, according to Nicholas Boothman, author of Convince Them in 90 Seconds or Less: Make Instant Connections that Pay Off in Business and in Life.
2. Dress to impress
Consider adding a tiny bit of splash to your outfit that will create an easy way for others to engage with you. Boothman often wears red, yet classy, shoes and has unique eyeglass frames, both of which people often comment on. And remember that how you dress is a form of nonverbal communication that people will use to size you up before you even open your mouth. “Clothing speaks to your approachability and your authority,” Boothman says. “You should look like you know what you’re doing. I don’t want my bank manager in a baseball cap. I want him or her to look like a bank manager.”
3. Position yourself appropriately
If you’re at an office party or a networking mixer, aim for the food or drink lines where you can strike up conversations about the offerings with the people ahead of or behind you, or head to where the experienced schmoozers gather: the middle of the room. Zero in on one person and head his or her way. And then you have to figure out what to say. Boothman recommends you open with a statement, followed by a question that relies on the techniques described above.
A few examples of this are, “This conference has been eye-opening. Do you have a favorite speaker?”, “I love your necklace. Can I ask where you got it?” or “Congratulations on your new big client. How did that come about?”
4. Say ‘Hello’
It sounds basic, but in truth, a greeting such as “hello” or “good morning” can be enough to break the ice, especially with an authority figure. But when you say it, do it with vigor, says Leil Lowndes, author of How to Talk to Anyone: 96 Little Tricks for Big Success in Relationships. Follow it with eye contact and a smile. And don’t shy away from introducing yourself in a succinct way.
“Just look at the CEO and say ‘Hi. By the way, my name is Marvin and I work in the accounting department.’ What’s wrong with that?” says Marvin Brown, author of How to Meet and Talk to Anyone. “I would urge everybody to do this with any authority figure because it helps your career. The immediate first impression that people have of you is you’re a confident person because nobody else does it.”
When you’re in closed quarters with someone they can pick up on whether you’re relaxed or anxious by the way you breathe. So inhale deeply from your stomach, as opposed to rapidly from your chest. And if you’re going to say something, do it immediately. “Don’t wait for 15 seconds and then pipe up with something,” says Lowndes. “That would just sound so fake.”
The best way to learn how to start a conversation is by starting lots of them. Practice your ice-breaking skills in places where you’re not intimidated. The grocery checkout line, the buffet line at a family wedding and the seat next to you on a plane or bus are prime practice opportunities.
“It’s like dancing or playing the piano,” says Brown. “If you work at it, you’ll get it. When you do it about three or five times and you see five people respond, you’ll do it forever.”
7. Search for props
When approaching a complete stranger, use a prop as an icebreaker. “The hors d’oeuvre table is the best place to meet people because it has more props than anything else,” says Brown. “I always look down, there’s always something floating around in a dish that I never know what the heck it is. I’ll say to the person next to me, ‘Gee, that looks great but I don’t know what it is. Do you know?’ Most of the time they’ll say no. Then I’ll say, ‘Oh, okay. Well, anyway, my name is Marvin.’”
8. Talk about the weather
Yes, it’s cliché, but it works. It’s especially good in awkward spaces or situations such as an elevator or waiting in line for the bathroom. “I’ll say, ‘Gee, we’ve been having great weather lately,’” says Brown. “And everybody will say, ‘Oh, yeah. Oh, but the winter’s coming.’ It’s the corniest line in America. And yet, everybody will respond to the weather.”
9. Be prepared
Someday, you might find yourself riding the elevator with your boss or sharing a lunch table with her. So stay on top of company news. Be aware of successes from other departments. Read the office newsletter and corporate blog. All of that info creates fodder for conversation, says Lowndes.
10. Sound confident
When you say hello, use the person’s name (if you know it). And make your voice sound upbeat, not demure. “People are confident when they use someone else’s name,” says Lowndes. “And make sure your voice goes down at the end of a sentence, instead of up.” A confident voice is a lower pitch and doesn’t have a question-like rhythm.
Cynthia Ramnarace is an independent journalist based in Rockaway Beach, N.Y. She specializes in personal finance, health and older adult issues. Find out more at cynthiaramnarace.com.