A good conversation starter can transform an awkward, stilted conversation into an interesting, enjoyable discussion. That’s important in sales, as having several conversation starters up your sleeve will help you form connections with prospects, referrals, and potential partners.
In other words, the ability to start a conversation translates to real business.
What makes a good conversation starter?
- Open-ended: A broad question typically generates a far more engaging answer than a close-ended one.
- Non-routine: Breaking out of the standard weather and job-related questions will jolt the person you’re talking to out of autopilot. You’ll also make yourself more memorable.
- Professional: Some topics are more suited for your friends and family than strangers or near-strangers. Your questions should never make your conversational partner uncomfortable.
- Relevant: If you can, start a conversation about something timely or specific, such as your location, event, industry, jobs, or current interests. The other person will find it easier to contribute.
To start great conversations, borrow from this list of 125 conversation starters.
Conversation Starters to Use at a Conference
Conferences are chock-full of opportunities to ask thought-provoking, relevant, and engaging questions. You can discuss the specific event, its location, your industry, the other person’s objectives, what they’ve learned, and more.
- Which [speaker/panel] are you most excited for?
- Which [speaker/panel] did you most enjoy? Which did you find the most useful?
- If you could meet one speaker from this event, who would it be?
- If you could have your entire company watch a single session from this event, which would it be?
- If you were giving a presentation, what would the topic be?
- How does this conference compare to others you’ve attended?
- If you were running this conference, what would you do differently?
- What did you think of the talk [length, structure, style]?
- Have you gone to this conference before? What’s changed?
- What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned? (If the conference isn’t over, add “so far?”)
- Why did you decide to attend?
- Are you planning on coming back next year?
- Are you here with other people? Do you prefer going to conferences solo or with a group?
- Are you doing any non-conference activities while you’re here? Alternatively: “Did you fit in any non-conference activities?”)
- Is this your first time in [city]? What do you think of it?
- Are you from the area? (If yes: “Do you have any [food, museum, shopping, music] recommendations?" If no: “Where are you from?”)
- Do you think the conference could benefit from being a day [shorter, longer]? Why?
- I wonder how many people would have attended this conference eight years ago -- what do you think?
- I wonder how many people will attend this conference in eight years -- what do you think?
- Do you go to a lot of conferences?
- What’s the first conference you ever attended?
- Would your company ever host a conference? (Or if they’re from a large organization: “Does your company host conferences?”)
- What conference -- real or imaginary -- would you absolutely hate to miss?
- Do you think [industry] needs more conferences? Less?
- What’s the primary reason you chose to attend [conference name]?
Conversation Starters to Use at an Industry Event
Attending a highly specific event like a forum comes with some advantages. For one, you usually have a pretty good sense of which roles and interests the other attendees hold. When you’re blanking on topics, use this information.
- Have you been to any events hosted by [organizer] before?
- Why’d you decide to come to this forum?
- Is [theme of event] a major professional focus of yours?
- Why do you think they chose this specific theme?
- By any chance, have you read anything good about [theme of event]?
- Do you attend any other forums?
- Are there any upcoming events you’re planning on going to?
- Had you heard of [speaker] before this?
- Why do you think they chose [speaker]?
- Have you ever organized an event like this? What surprised you about running the scenes?
- If you could only remember one fact or insight from this [morning, afternoon, evening], what would it be?
- What were your thoughts on [specific point speaker made]?
- Do you have any predictions for how the discussion will go? (Or if the event is wrapping up: “Did the discussion meet your expectations?”)
- You look so familiar! Did you go to [previous event]?
- What are your favorite and least favorite things about working in [industry]?
- How long have you been in [industry]? Have there been any significant changes since you entered this space?
- If you could spend an entire day talking to any expert in our industry, who would it be?
- If you were in charge of this forum, and you had an unlimited budget, what would you do differently?
- Did you disagree with any of the points made?
- Did this event change how you think about [industry] and/or your role in [industry]?
- Do you frequently go to these types of events?
- How’d you learn about this forum?
- I’m in the market for a new [phone, computer, notebook, etc.], and I noticed you’re using an [iPhone 6, Lenovo Yoga, Moleskine notebook, etc.] -- would you recommend it?
- If you had to sum up this event in three words, which would they be?
Conversation Starters to Use at a Networking Happy Hour
Socializing with strangers is always a little easier -- or at least, more relaxed -- at the end of the day. And in the case that the majority of attendees are local, you’ve got a ton of built-in questions about the city, how long they’ve lived here, what they like to do in the area, and so on at your disposal.
As a general rule, your questions should be a little lighter than the ones you’d use at a conference or speaker event. Happy hours are for mixing work and play, so match your tone accordingly.
- What’s keeping you busy lately?
- Did you come here from work?
- What’s your favorite part about living in [city]? Least favorite?
- What do you think of this venue?
- If you could only attend one type of networking function for the rest of your life, would you choose breakfasts or happy hours?
- Have you tried any of the food? What’s good?
- What did you get done today?
- Why did you come tonight?
- How long have you lived in [city]?
- Why did you move to [city]?
- Do you think [city] is a place most people move to, or from?
- Where did you move to [city] from? What do you miss about your last town -- and what were you happy to leave behind?
- If you could only go to one [restaurant, coffee shop, bar] in [city], which one would you choose?
- As [day of the week]s go, how was yours? (For example, “Did you have a good Monday, as Mondays go?”)
- At this time on a typical [day of the week], what would you be doing?
- I have a semi-important decision to make, and I’d love your input: Should I have [appetizer #1] or [appetizer #2]?
- I just learned “happy hours” were invented in the 1920s on naval ships -- to make sea life a little less boring, sailors got daily breaks for wrestling and boxing matches. Do you prefer the modern or original version?
- If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would you choose?
- What’s the last new skill you learned?
- Are there any skills you thought would be crucial to your job that turned out to be unimportant?
- Are there any common misconceptions about your job?
- I read an article claiming nowadays everyone has a side project (or four). Do you agree? Are you working on anything on the side?
- Wow, I see a lot of phones out -- the email addiction is real! Do you think your company could survive if your CEO banned internal email?
- Do you think you’re the only [title] in the room?
- If someone was making a movie about your current job, what genre would it be? What would they call it?
Conversation Starters to Use at a Social Event
You might not think of your friend’s BBQ or neighbor’s block party as prime networking events -- but as the most successful reps know, great sales opportunities can appear in unlikely places.
However, steer away from job, career, or industry-related questions. Since you’re at a social event, less serious subjects are far more appropriate (and fun). Building rapport is your primary mission -- after the party, you can figure out which new connections might benefit from your product.
- If you were in charge of the playlist, which song would you play next?
- You look like you could be in [random occupation]. Am I anywhere close?
- If there was $200 at stake, would you be willing to prepare the food using only lunch meat, the contents of the freezer, and basic kitchen staples?
- Have you tried any of the [appetizers, drinks, sides, etc.]? Any recommendations?
- Do you have a signature drink? (Gesture to their glass.)
- Is your [day/night] going like you expected?
- Do you prefer hosting events or attending them?
- Games at parties: Yay, or nay? Why?
- If you had to switch outfits with one person here, who would it be?
- Do you know most of the people here?
- If you could invite anyone to this party and they were guaranteed to show up, who would you ask?
- I’m trying to plan my next trip -- have you traveled anywhere interesting lately?
- What do you think are the top three ingredients for a successful party?
- Would you rather only host fancy dinner parties or theme parties for the rest of your life?
- Great [shoes/haircut/shirt]! Where’d you get it?
- What are you reading?
- If you were stuck on a desert island with four items of your choice from this room, what would you bring?
- What’s the last movie you saw in theatres? Was it worth the trip?
- What do you not do? (Smile while you ask to show you’re being humorous.)
- Have you been to any great restaurants lately?
- Got any fun plans for the weekend? I need some inspiration so I don’t end up on the couch with some Netflix and Ben & Jerry’s.
- Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, or Slytherin?
- Did you fulfill your childhood dream?
- What’s the best gift you’ve ever gotten? My friend’s birthday is coming up and I’d love some ideas.
- Are you looking forward to anything in the next few weeks?
Open-Ended Question Conversation Starters
- What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read lately?
- How many days do you think it takes you to scroll a mile on your phone? One day? One week?
- What’s a fact about you that’s not on the internet?
- If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
- Do you have a go-to conversation starter for these types of events? What is it?
- Which blogs do you read?
- Do you listen to any podcasts? Which ones?
- You remind me of a celebrity, but I’m having trouble remembering their name … Whom are you normally compared to?
- Did you hear about the trend of dinner party hosts banning small talk? http://www.wired.co.uk/article/banning-small-talk Would you ever try that?
- Would you recommend the last documentary you watched? Why or why not?
- What’s something in your industry you consider underrated?
- What are your company’s unique traditions?
- If you could only [read, watch, listen to] one genre of [books, shows, music] for the rest of your life, which would it be?
- On what topic do people always come to you with questions?
- If you could spend one month at any period in the past -- and you were guaranteed not to suffer any harm or change the course of history -- when would it be?
- If you weren’t in [X profession], which one would you be in?
- Who was your childhood hero?
- What’s the best event freebie you’ve ever gotten?
- If you could publish a book on any subject, what would it be?
- Let’s say you could invite any three people in [industry, role, organization] to dinner. Who would you ask?
- What’s the last thing you learned outside of work?
- How do you feel about unlimited vacation policies? Do you think they work as intended?
- What’s one company perk you’d love to have?
- Have you taken any professional development courses lately?
- Would you rather work four 10-hour days, five 8-hour days, or six 6.5-hour days?
The Ultimate Conversation Starter
Last but not least, the ultimate networking question that you can ask anyone, anywhere, anytime:
What do you love about what you do?
This question gives people the chance to dig into their passions -- automatically putting them in a good mood and making them more likely to enjoy your conversation. Plus, it’s a fresh twist on an old standby. You’ll instantly stand out from the hordes of other people making small talk.
Which of these conversation starters are you mentally bookmarking for future use? Do you have any conversational silver bullets? Let us know in the comments.