Avoid the boring "So, what do you do?" icebreaker and give these brilliant conversation starters a try!

Does the idea of a holiday networking party make you want to curl up in a corner with a blanket?

If your honest answer is “yes,” you are not alone. Humans are social creatures, and the need to fit into a tribe is wired deeply into our brains. Being an outsider no longer spells a lonely death in the woods, and yet our sweaty palms show that the fear of making a social misstep is still very real. Nerves or no nerves, skipping holiday networking functions is not going to help you advance your career.

So, how can you make the most out of being in a room with dozens of strangers?

Your best strategy is to come prepared to talk it up. Most people would agree that starting the conversation with someone you don’t know is the hardest part. Once that is done, the rest of the interaction tends to flow naturally. Here is your blueprint for what to say and how to work that room like a pro!

Pick a strategic location to break the ice

Survey the room as you step inside. Are small groups of people congregating in specific locations? Chances are, there is a crowd by the “watering hole” (either the coffee table or bar) and next to the food spread. Position yourself close to a popular spot, take a deep breath, and spend a few minutes observing the people around you.

What are you looking for? In most cases, you want to find solo professionals who are open to conversation. Small groups can also work well, especially if they have some fluidity to them (i.e. people naturally stepping in and out of conversation).

Have you found your target? Great. Time to go and meet a new person.

Prepare your conversation starters in advance

Some people have a knack for saying the right thing at the right time. If you do not belong to that lucky group (and even if you do), it is best to think of a few universal conversation starters ahead of time. That way, you can let inspiration find you on the networking floor — or fake it by using your homework.

How do you start the conversation?

“So, what do you do?” is a common enough opener, but it is also one of the least effective ways to inspire interest and human connection. A person’s job description is rarely the most exciting thing about him. Even if you get an answer (“I am an accounting manager”), there is not a lot of room to make the exchange lively. You each share your title, then proceed to stare at your drinks until your new acquaintance excuses himself to get a bite to eat. Missed connection, indeed!

A perfect conversation starter is fresh, memorable, and tailored to get a real answer beyond a curt “Yes” or “No.” With the holiday season in full swing, there are plenty of seasonal conversation starters you can utilize. Here are a few ideas to get you thinking. Read them, memorize the ones you like, and add your own. Your goal is to create your personal recipe for standing out, approaching strangers with confidence, and making real human connections.

“The classics” icebreakers

  •       “Hi! I’m new to the company and don’t know many people here. Mind if I introduce myself?”

  •       “These holiday events can be so intimidating. Is it OK if I introduce myself to have a friendly face in the crowd?”

  •       “That is a fantastic [article of clothing or piece of jewelry]!”

  •       “Where are you from?”

In the right circumstances, a classic conversation opener can work well. The key is pick one that is honest. If you are a bit uncomfortable at networking events, own your discomfort — you might find that a little vulnerability can create instant rapport. Remember that compliments in a professional setting work best when they are appropriate and sincere. Be polite, courteous, and friendly.

Notice that “Where are you from?” is a good alternative to the tired old ‘What do you do?” opener. “Where are you from?” allows the listener to take the response in a variety of directions. Sure, she might talk about the company or the department she works in. A recent graduate may bring up his college or university. Another person might mention her hometown, or even a different country if you are talking to someone with an international background. People’s connections to schools, companies, and places contain great cues to their personal stories, which is why this short question can provide fertile ground for a real conversation.

Related: 5 Tips for Surviving Your Office Holiday Party

“Location, location, location” conversation starters

  •      “I’ve never been to this [hotel, bar, event space, etc.] before. How about you?”

  •      “On a scale of 1 to 10, how is the Chardonnay?”

  •     “What is your favorite appetizer so far?”

  •      “Wow, it’s freezing in this room!”

Openers that are specific to the location, temperature, weather, or event are easy to create on the spot. The key is not to overthink it. Your comment about the freezing temperature in the room may not be the most brilliant thing the other person has heard today, but it doesn’t have to be. Remember that your goal is to open the door to an exchange, make the other person feel comfortable, and connect.

“The unexpected” icebreakers

  •       “What do you do for fun during the holidays?”

  •       “Who do you think is the luckiest person in this room?”

  •       “What are you most excited about this holiday season?”

  •       “If you could put a billboard anywhere in the world, what would it say?”

Unexpected conversation openers come with a measure of risk. In exchange, they have a way of making the other person pause, raise his eyebrows, and pay attention. Professional networking functions can get a little stuffy with everyone talking about the same things, so an out-of-the-ordinary question is sure to stand out. Of course, it is always a good idea to use your best judgment and match the question to the person you are addressing.  

Be patient

The ultimate goal of networking isn’t to beat your personal record in collecting the most business cards per hour, especially at a holiday party. You are at the event to make meaningful connections. Long-term career growth is built on a foundation of human relationships, not 30-second elevator pitches.

Be patient. Treat every person as if they could offer you the opportunity of a lifetime. If you meet someone that you would love to add to your professional network (or simply find interesting), make a plan to have a lunch or coffee date the following week.

Networking conversation starters for your next holiday party

As the date of your next holiday party approaches, you will probably give some thought to what you will wear, how you will get there, and who you would like to speak with. As you select the perfect suit or dress, reflect on what conversation starters you would want to tuck away in your back pocket. Feel free to borrow ideas from this article or create your own. Having the perfect snappy, funny, or self-deprecating opener might just give you the confidence to reach out, make someone feel welcome, and maybe even make that career-changing professional connection.

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