Small talk starters: how to break the ice at business events

If you want to grow your business, you are going to have to make connections. And all the better if those connections are face to face. Real relationships are infinitely more powerful than virtual.

The research is clear that growing businesses network more than those in decline. Getting out there and meeting a wider range of people opens up more prospects and tunes you into spotting and acting on opportunities.

So far, so good. For most businesses, getting out there to a business event, conference or trade fair will be good for business.

But getting out from behind your screen can feel terrifying. In a room full of strangers, where do you start, what do you say? How do you make small talk?

First up, a great networking mindset is to focus on what you can give, not what you can get. Business events are rarely the place for the hard sell, they’re about building relationships. That means being curious, learning and being helpful. If you have a meaningful conversation, then make sure you find a way of keeping in touch, such as exchanging business cards or connecting on LinkedIn. Those kind of connections are more likely to lead to opportunities over time.

So with that in mind, here are some tips for breaking the ice.

Making the approach

Talk to the event organisers and ask them to make some introductions for you. Either contact them in advance or arrive early so that you get a chance to talk to them before things get too busy. After that, or if that’s not an option, you’ll need to make direct approaches. Look around and see if there is anyone else on their own, they will be delighted to have someone to talk to. Other good options are groups of three or more (avoid people talking in twos, you are more likely to be interrupting them). The food table or queue is also a great haunt for striking up a casual conversation.

How to make small talk?

If you’re making a cold approach, then the classic ‘Can I join you?’ works in most cases. Or you could make it a little more light-hearted, like ‘Can I gatecrash?’.

But that’s it for closed questions, those are the ones where a one word answer will do. After that you need to get conversation flowing, so whatever you say try and end with an open question (one that needs more that a one word response)! Be curious. For example:

About the event

What do you think of the venue?

Which presentation stood out for you today? What was your main takeaway from it?

What brought you to this event? What would make it a success for you?

Do you attend any other events like this that you could recommend?

About their work

It’s too banal just to ask them what they do. Small talk doesn’t need to be boring. You can make it much more thought provoking with some of the following questions.

What do you like best about what you do?

What are the main trends in your industry at the moment?

What attracted you to your area of work?

About the person

Take the opportunity to find something non-business related that you have in common. If you have sporting interests that can be a winner, or children of a similar age. Then if you meet this person again you’ll have something to continue talking about! Here are some ways of opening up that kind of conversation:

If you weren’t here this evening, what would you be doing?

Where have you travelled from to get here?

What keeps you busy?

Be prepared to talk about yourself

Before you go to the event make a note of what would make it a success for you? Put your aspirations out there, you never know you might meet someone who can help you directly or make an introduction to someone who can.

While you are taking the time to get to know about all of these new people, what do you want them to learn about you?  Prepare a couple of sentences about your business, and what you offer, that you can slot into the conversation. But most of all, be friendly, be helpful and be yourself. If you can get past the initial small talk, you might just make some great contacts and help your business to more forward.

For more on this topic see How to Network: 8 Steps to Success.