One of the hardest things that I find about walking into a networking event is that, usually, I don’t know many people there.

Heightening that challenge is that I’ve generally tried to do a bit of pre-work to identify a couple of key attendees at the event that I want to try and connect with, to start a conversation with, to start to build a relationship.

This means that I’m walking into the event with some objectives that I’ve set myself to achieve, but unless I can find a way to track my targets down then the networking event is pretty much a waste of time.

Here’s the techniques that I use to try and start a conversation with people that I don’t know, and the people that I want to get to know.

Look like you want to start a conversation

When you walk into a room full of unfamiliar faces and you’re feeling a bit vulnerable and uncomfortable, it’s very easy to pull out your phone and start looking at your emails – or at least pretend to look at your emails.

This is sending a clear sign to everyone that you aren’t interested in speaking, and that you’d prefer to be left alone.

Put your phone away and don’t shy away from eye-contact.

Look for situations to create conversations

Often when you walk into a business networking event, everyone already seems to be engrossed in conversations –  small groups have formed, and everyone’s back seems to be towards you.

Head to the bar or the buffet – try and connect with other people waiting to get a drink or food. Thinking about food or drink is a point when people are in transition from one conversation to the next, so it’s a good opportunity to connect with them or at least try to initiate a conversation.

Try being up-front and honest

It’s okay to introduce yourself and say something like –  “Hi there, I don’t really know many people here,  can I join your conversation?”

Everyone is there to network, no one is going to say no – they’ll respond positively to your initiative.

Ask open-ended questions

You’ll get more value out of your conversations if you create opportunities for the discussion to flow. Closed questions can be answered with a simple yes or no.

Examples of closed questions include:

  • Is this your first time at this event?
  • Is this venue close to your office?
  • That’s a nice jacket — is red your favourite colour?

They’re all good questions, but they’re the type of questions that can allow the person that you’re speaking with to close down the conversation.

Examples of good open-ended questions include:

  • Tell me why you’ve chosen to attend this networking event?
  • Where are you planning on spending your summer vacation?
  • I wasn’t sure if I’d got the dress-code right, does this jacket work for business-casual?

Open-ended questions require the person that you’re speaking with to invest a bit more energy in their response, and to share more information with you. This then gives you more options for a follow-up question to continue to expand the conversation.

Be a good listener

Try and avoid talking too much about yourself. Listen attentively to what the person you’re speaking with is saying. Ask follow-up questions, and use body language that demonstrates that you’re interested in what they’re saying.

You’re there to connect with other people and learn about them. You already know all about you.