Small Talk Starters: How to Break the Ice at Business Events

If you want to get on in your career or to grow your business you are going to have to learn the art of small talk.

The research is clear that successful people and 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.

And all the better if those connections are face-to-face. Real relationships are infinitely more powerful than virtual ones.

So far, so good. Getting out there to a business event, conference or trade fair will be good for your career and your 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 business 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 kinds 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 business 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 the conversation flowing, so whatever you say try and end with an open question (one that needs more than a one-word response)! Be curious. You never know what you will learn.

Business small talk examples

Here are some conversation starters for business events. You can use these examples of open questions to get a conversation started in any work or business situation.

About the event

What do you think of the venue?

Who do you know here? How do you know the hosts?

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

Ask them what they do by all means, but don’t stop there. It’s a closed question after all. You can make it a conversation starter by following on with some of these 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?

What not to say in small talk?

It’s always wise to avoid contentious issues in small talk. That’s probably why it’s called small talk!

Making friends might be a bonus after a while, but first off try to stick to topics that are not going to immediately risk alienating your new contact. So avoid talk of religion and politics. Don’t swear or tell smutty jokes. Avoid negativity and overt criticism of individuals or other businesses. People generally want to do business with can-do opportunity spotters: radiators rather than drains!

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 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. Some people call this an elevator pitch, on the reasoning that you might have just 30 seconds in an elevator to make your case to a potential customer or investor. So make that 30 seconds count. Always be prepared.

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, even some friends. And you will help your career or your business to move forward.

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