17 Questions To Break The Ice When You Network

Frankie Kemp

5 March 2024

Networking can be exciting and rewarding, or it can be anxiety-riddled and ‘cringey’.

I’ve previously shared blog articles such as 28 reasons for meeting people and 13 unexpected places to turn networking into a pleasure, but I wanted to get to the crux of what makes networking successful.

A key element of networking skills and conversational skills, is getting a conversation off the ground in the first place and the main way you do this is by asking questions.

What do you say to get a conversation started without feeling awkward? Do you shove your business card at them and stammer, “Hello, my name’s on the card. What do you do?” Do you offer them a biscuit thereby giving them something to chew on while you talk about yourself?

You’ll be pleased to know that sometimes, you don’t have to say very much at all, or anything – because someone else will start a conversation. For instance, I was coaching a Chief Technical Officer in Networking Techniques.  He had to prepare for the hellish experience of a networking weekend. It was one of those events where they stick you on a massive boat and keep you there for two days to build relationships.  He’d been doing this year in and year out with no return on his investment.

Think Guantanamo with business cards.

One piece of advice I gave him was to stand by the food or the bar, because people will naturally gravitate towards him. There were many other techniques in that session about turning contacts into business, but he picked up on where to stand as one of the easiest ways to get a conversation going. Very often, other delegates at an event will initiate the conversation from the bar or buffet table: they’re taking ‘a break’ from ‘working the room’, so they’re more relaxed. Using tips such as this, he didn’t just get his return on the investment, he made more deals than he’d ever done at this event. On top of this, he actually enjoyed it.

Communication skills techniques to master before asking ice-breaker questions

  • Is your face putting people off?

The first thing you want to do is smile, the second is ask a question. Smiling, because no-one’s going to approach you if you look like a dog chewing lemons, but they will if you look friendly. Hence, my Spotify ‘Motivation’ playlist to get me into the mood. No ‘Eye of the Tiger’ here folks. I promise – or apologise, if that’s your thing.

  • Are you the Uber Driver or the Private Chauffeur?

Networking events are not always about quantity. One or two meaningful conversations at a conference could be all you need. Whether you prefer to be selective with your exchanges or, like an Uber driver, enjoy the range and essentially want to talk to everyone, remember, the rewards are in the one-to-one follow ups. If your filter didn’t kick-in on that first encounter, it may do on the next one. That way, you’ll keep in touch with the people that are good for you and good to you.

  • Find it difficult to approach people?

This is something I cover in networking skills training and coaching but here’s a quick tip: stand by the bar or the food.  You can use a conversation starter such as number 9 in the list below.  At the bar, a simple comment remarking on how crowded or easy it is to get to the bar. Versions of Questions 3 or 6, might be useful.

Why the focus on questions?

  • Talking at people versus getting people to talk

When you ask a question, you’re making people think about themselves and then talk about themselves. In networking, that’s the key. Jenny Jerome,  had the opportunity of dining with William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli. Gladstone was known for his wit and intellect but Disraeli’s charisma was based on his ability to listen and show interest. When a journalist asked Jenny of her impression of the two men, she responded:

“When I left the dining room after sitting next to Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But when I sat next to Disraeli, I left feeling that I was the cleverest woman.”

Disraeli had mastered the art of making others feel important and it won him the election as well as the respect and loyalty of Queen Victoria. By asking questions and showing interest, you actually need to do very little but listen. The irony is that you’re not only seen as having good conversational skills, but according to this Harvard study, you are more likeable too.

What type of questions should you ask?

  • Open questions versus closed questions

You’ll see that many questions in the list below such as “what did you get out of this talk?” are open questions. People tend to avoid these and opt for closed ones instead, such as: “Did you get anything out of this talk?”

That’s because, usually, with a closed question, the answer is more instant. However, there’s less mileage in the dialogue.  Dumping closed questions isn’t practical as you will probably want to know their name and what they do but an open question will then widen the discussion and be less effort.

In contrast, with the open question, don’t be thrown by a wide PAAAAUUSE. You’ve asked an interesting question.  It’s making the other person think and they’re crawling into their heads. Give them time and the answer will prompt a more interesting exchange.

17 ice-breaking questions you could be asking at networking events

  1. So what brought you here today?
  2. What do you hope to gain from today?
  3. What did you get out of that talk?
  4. How did you hear about this event?
  5. Is there one nugget of brilliance that’s really resonating with you?
  6. What a beautiful venue. Have you been here before? (Then you can follow up with another open question)
  7. As we’re both at the buffet bar, I feel I should introduce myself. Especially as I may end up fighting you over the sushi.
  8. Note appearance. Obviously, be careful here but a CEO I met says she always wears interesting shoes, or a badge on which people comment, thereby initiating conversation.
  9. At the table, everything looks so good. I don’t know where to start.  Anything you’d recommend here?  (If you’re vegetarian add “…that didn’t previously have a pulse ?”)
  10. These networking events sometimes feel a little crazy. Mind if I join you over here? (Nice one for fellow introverts, unless the other person is rocking in the corner.)
  11. Is this the first time you’ve been to xxxxx’s events?
  12. This is my first time at this event. Is there a session I shouldn’t miss going to?
  13. I’m here from London. Do you have any recommendations for what I can do while I’m here?

No doubt, at some point, you’ll get to:

  1. What do you do?

You can follow this up with

  1. How did you get into that… industry / role?
  2. How well do you think it prepped you for what you actually do now?
  3. What would you say is the most rewarding / challenging part of the job?

Your action:

  1. In preparation for your next event make a note of one closed and two open questions
  2. Glance at them before you go into the event, keeping them in your back pocket during the event. You’ll probably not even refer to them after the first glance but knowing they’re there will add to your confidence.

Even this makes a significant difference to your networking experience. I’ve had a room of 300 very reserved and cynical IT Managers and Engineers buzzing within minutes. If they can do it, so can you.

Thinking back to an event you’ve attended, what ice-breaking questions were you asked that got the conversation going?

Get the conversation started by making some comments below, or contact me, Frankie Kemp, and let’s have a quick 15-minute conversation about my networking skills, communication skills and interpersonal skills training and what might be the most way to help you.

If you’re looking to turn those relationships into something profitable (and I don’t just mean money but I mean that as well), then get in touch here.

This article was originally published in 2019 and was completely updated in March 2024.

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