10 Networking Tips for Breaking the Ice

What is networking, and why is it important?

One of the most important — and difficult — skills in business English is knowing how to network: how to speak with new people and build new relationships with them. Every time you add a new person to your professional network of business contacts, you’re getting access to their network too. So even if your new contact is never going to be a big client or your next employer, there’s a good chance that they’ll know somebody else who can help your business or your career.

That’s one reason why conferences and trade fairs have become so popular in recent years — they are great for networking. But how on earth do you start a conversation with a complete stranger? In other words, how can you break the ice?

What does “breaking the ice” mean?

Imagine a frozen river between two towns. The ice is stopping boats from crossing the river, but it isn’t strong enough to walk on. Somebody has to break the ice between them to allow boats to cross. It’s hard work, but after the ice is broken, and boats start crossing freely, the river probably won’t freeze again. The channel of water between the towns will stay open, and they’ll be able to do business together.

It’s the same when you meet a stranger: breaking the ice (i.e. starting the first conversation) is the hardest part, but once you’ve opened a channel of communication, it’s usually much easier to continue.

Ten tips for breaking the ice at a conference or trade show

1. Go for it. Most people feel embarrassed starting conversations with strangers: What if the other person doesn’t want to talk to me? What if I have nothing to say? The thing to remember is that 90% of the other people at the conference are there to network too, so they’ll be happy to speak to you. Also, networking gets much easier with practice. Even if it goes badly once or twice, you’ll learn from the experience and it’ll be better next time.

2. Look for people who are alone. When you see a person standing or sitting alone, they’re probably hoping for somebody to talk to. (If they aren’t, perhaps they should go home!) So go up to them and break the ice. Ask, “Do you mind if I join you?” or “Is it OK if I sit here?”

3. Find something in common. People like other people when they feel a connection with them — when they have something in common. What have you got in common with a stranger at a conference? Well, for a start, you’re both at the same conference. So you can break the ice by asking, “Are you enjoying the conference?”; “Have you been to any interesting presentations?”; “Are you giving a presentation yourself?”

4. Stay positive. We all like complaining, but we generally hate it when strangers start complaining to us. You’ll have a chance to express your true feelings about the conference later. But while you’re breaking the ice, stick with phrases like, “It’s a great conference, isn’t it?” and “These sandwiches are lovely, aren’t they?” If you really feel the need to criticize, check the other person’s opinion first: “I wasn’t sure about the first speaker this morning. What did you think of his talk?”

5. Don’t just talk about yourself. Everyone loves talking about themselves, so if you want to make a good first impression, try to keep at least two thirds of the ice-breaking conversation focused on the other person. Every time you hear yourself talking about “I” or “me,” try to bring the conversation round to include “you”: “But what about you?”; “What do you think?” If you’re lucky, they’ll do the same, and you’ll end up with a healthy 50/50 split. If you’re unlucky, well, at least you won’t have to talk too much!

6. Ask wh- questions. Questions are, of course, a great way of breaking the ice and getting the other person to talk. But questions with wh- words (Who? Where? What? When? etc.) are a lot better than yes/no questions. Yes/no questions give the other person a chance to answer with a single word. Wh- questions force them to explain. And what’s the best question of all? “Why?” It’s almost impossible to answer a why-question without telling a full story.

7. Don’t overdo it. The danger with too many questions is that the other person might feel like they’re in a job interview — or a police interview. Remember, you’re aiming for two thirds of the ice-breaking conversation to be about the other person. If you notice you’re going over that, give the other person a break and let them ask you a few questions.

8. Show interest. Sounds like “Oh?” and “Uh-huh” are a simple way to show you’re interested. Even better, you can use short phrases to react to what the other person says: “Really?”; “Oh dear!”; “Congratulations!”; “Good luck!” You can also use body language to show interest: keep good eye contact; avoid fidgeting; and nod your head from time to time. Just don’t nod too fast all the time — it might look like you’re saying “Hurry up!”

9. Pay attention. There’s no point simply pretending to listen. Networking is all about building good relationships, so you need to give the other person your full attention. Use checking questions (e.g. “What do you mean?”) not just to show interest, but also to help you follow and remember what they say. People love it when you come back to a point they made earlier in the conversation: “You mentioned earlier that you …”

10. Introduce yourself. It may seem strange to leave this until last in the list, but it’s also best not to do it too soon. The best time for introductions is often after a few minutes of good ice-breaking. By this stage, they’ll want to know your name, and they’re more likely to remember it. So you could offer your hand for a handshake and say, “My name’s …, by the way, but most people call me …” Just make sure you hear the other person’s name clearly, and repeat it so that you’ll remember it later. If in doubt, ask “Sorry, I didn’t catch your name” or “What did you say your name was?” Remember, you’re not really networking until you know each other’s names!

Try these tips for breaking the ice next time you’re in a room full of strangers. You’ll be surprised how easy — and enjoyable — networking can be. Why not share your tips for how to network in the comments below? Good luck!

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Originally published at www.GetNewsmart.com

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