Ep. 105 – Quick Conversation Starters & Exits

A few weeks ago, I was emceeing a conference with 600 people attending and more than 40 speakers across two days. I’d often chat with the speakers and panelists while we were backstage. 

I would ask them: “Tell me something about you that isn’t about the work you do?” And, wow, did I get some great insights! 

One guy had been in Will Smith’s very first rap band, and another person drank three iced coffees a day and was still a black belt in taekwondo, one woman had won an Emmy before she was 30, someone else spoke four languages, and one guy had an 80-pound pet pig that he carried up and down three flights of stairs each day to take on a walk. 

These goodies were far more interesting than anything on the printed bio sheets I was given about these people, so I started sharing these news nuggets in the introductions from the stage and it was a lot of fun. 

So at the end of the first day, I was about to go back onstage to make closing comments and the event leader pulled me aside. They asked me to share some ideas with the group on how to start up conversations because we were about to go into a very large networking event. 

Ah, okay, first there is no template to how to talk to a room full of people you don’t know. 

And there is this common, human reluctance to initiate a conversation with people you don’t know – especially a room full of hundreds of people you don’t know. I have been there myself and I have chosen to sneak off to the elevators versus going to the networking room – and I do this for a living. So it’s human for all of us to hesitate.

As I came up with guidance for the group and then I wandered later throughout the networking event, I took note of what made the act of conversation a bit more casual and a little less awkward.  This episode shares a few social shortcuts that might help with starting some conversations, and even a couple ways you can exit a conversation when needed. 

The Bottom Line on Top of this episode is that it takes practice to turn a conversation into a connection – but first it takes the courage to show up and speak up. 

Let’s start with a level set. When going into a situation where you’ll be meeting new-to-you people, think of it as a conversational cocktail party (or mocktail party). So more appetizers versus buffet. Try a few pieces and move on, if needed. 

A lot of times, conversation becomes awkward when we’re trying to think of what to say. So do yourself and the other person a favor and start with the short and simple. 

“Hi, I’m Kristin, and I’m from Seattle.” “Where are you from?”

Or, “Hi, I’m Kristin and I know the bride from our college days in Illinois.”

It gives people the opening to repeat the quick categories you just set forth. Name, location, and/or relation to the event. 

Then pull out those quick conversational appetizers. I typically have about three go-to areas:

First is to look for a chance for a compliment. Opening with something about the other person makes a cold intro a little warmer. The currency of compliments lies in being genuine and making it specific to that person, such as a piece of jewelry they’re wearing, a bow-tie, colorful socks, etc. Of course, keep it HR appropriate and something observable. You can even comment on something you heard them say or contribute during the event, such as “I really loved that question you asked the speaker earlier.” If something quickly doesn’t come to mind, you can try a more general statement said with sincerity like:

“I’m trying to meet three new people tonight and you look interesting.”
Still a compliment and let’s see how it goes.

Second is common ground. For me, I grew up in Arizona, so anytime I hear someone say they have lived or currently live there, it’s an instant topic for me. Same as the other two cities I lived in for multiple years.

Beyond geography, common grounding topics can include family, food, pets (remember the guy with the pig?), and travel. I worked in the travel industry for years and I used to always ask, what was your best trip you’ve ever taken or where would you love to go some day? You’d be surprised what you can find out.

Third is curiosity. I have a friend who has what she calls “curiosity conversations.” She will strike up a chat on the bus, in the grocery store, or any place where there are natural pauses that allow for conversations. Sometimes the word itself is the introduction, such as saying, “I’m curious, what do you think of the event so far” or “What was a key takeaway you got out of today?”

Other times, you can use curiosity to explore their curiosity like “What is something you love to learn about?”

I used this on someone in the last month and learned that he makes amazing craft cocktails on the weekends, never would have come up in conversation otherwise.

Or you could say to somebody “What is something you could easily talk about for 30 minutes straight?” And in our digital days, I also like to ask: “What’s a recent book, movie, podcast, or app that you really enjoy?” I end up getting a long list of things I want to check out as well.

Recapping quick conversation starters: There’s the self-introduction, the compliment, finding common ground, and curiosity. 

Now moving to quickly exits. The first tip here is don’t over explain. Offer a polite comment with a smile and then move on.  Like: 

“Thanks for the chat. I’m going to roam the room to meet some other folks.” 

“Excuse me, I need to go refresh my food or drink.”

“It’s been lovely talking to you. I’m about to head out for the night.”

Quick and to the point. And if you find yourself stuck with a talker, you may need to start to initiate physical movement or ask them a question to indicate you plan to leave such as “I’m going to head out soon. Do you know where the elevators are?” It’s just a good signal that you’re already on your way somewhere else.

Whatever social situation you find yourself in, a few moments of feeling awkward could potentially lead to a real connection. So try to try. Being the first to break the ice goes a long way. While not every conversation may lead to a new bestie in your life, courtesy counts, and that’s how you want to be remembered. 

Sometimes it takes courage to jump into the conversational waters. It’s less about the outcome than it is about the social muscle that you’ll be making from the effort.

And you might just collect a few interesting stories along the way.

Your brain is hungry. Give it some intellectual snacks in the
Unlock Video Library.

Unlock helps you skip the line and save time with smart, simple steps that get results. Come visit the free video library to get keys to real-life ways to unlock your brain.

Share this post

I'm Kristin

I left my corporate work and dove further into how to navigate this noisy, digital, exhausted world. The result is a methodology centered on communications, productivity, and culture that blends theory with practice and helps people better enjoy the life they worked so hard to get.