By Eric Titner

USA TODAY, April 21, 2018 —

Gone are the days that you just punch a clock from 9 to 5 on Monday through Friday and forget about work when you’re not there. These days, if you’re serious about your career — regardless of what field you’re in — it should always be something you’re working on. This includes managing your professional social media like LinkedIn, joining professional associations in your field and attending events, and working to build your network of colleagues and contacts to help you achieve your goals and climb your career ladder to the very top.

Whether you’re currently employed or on the job hunt, networking has become an absolutely essential part of a career toolkit. There’s just too much fierce competition from qualified and capable individuals at all levels who have realized that no one is an island and if they want to set themselves up for success, they need to network and maintain career contacts and leverage them to improve their positions — and you can either join in or get left behind.

The Balance  published an article that included some compelling stats that highlight the value of networking:

  • 70% of people in 2016 were hired at a company where they had a connection.
  • 80% of professionals consider professional networking to be important to career success.
  • 35% of surveyed professional say that a casual conversation on LinkedIn Messaging has led to a new opportunity.
  • 61% of professionals agree that regular online interaction with their professional network can lead to the way into possible job opportunities.

Okay, so hopefully by now you recognize the value of networking in order to enhance your career trajectory. But are you any good at it? The truth is, some folks are natural schmoozers and seem to be able to network wherever they find themselves, while others find it a bit more of a challenge and struggle at times to network effectively. Which camp are you in?

Whether you’re a world champion networker, a total networking newbie, or somewhere in-between, we can all benefit from a little help and some fresh ideas for meeting new people in our industry and making meaningful and lasting connections. It all comes down to how you handle the initial contact — the moment you approach or are approached by a potential contact and unleash your conversation starter. Will you shine or shrink?

Consider taking advantage of one of the following 10 starters when you find yourself in a potential networking situation.

1. Hi, what brings you here today? Here’s a simple, friendly, and direct question that you can comfortably bring up to any potential contact without throwing them off guard via a difficult curveball question. Although this starter works best at industry-focused events, you can feasibly modify it for nearly any situation.

2. What do you do for a living? Another simple and straightforward conversation starter that can really get the ball rolling if you follow up with genuine interest in what the other person has to say. Plus, getting to know what the other person does can help you quickly determine how this individual could potentially fit in your networking orbit, which has its obvious benefits.

3. Where are you from originally? It’s almost a universal truism that most people are comfortable with and enjoy talking about their hometowns. It can really open up lots of interesting avenues for continued conversation. You’ll also score some bonus points if you have a common background.

4. Hey, do you happen to have any recommendations for restaurants [or bars, or coffee shops] in this neighborhood? If you’re new in town, or just new to the area in which you’re in, consider asking for a recommendation for something nearby. If the conversation goes well, you can always invite the person along to wherever they recommended.

5. How did you hear about this event? Most people enjoy debriefing about an event they’ve attended, even while they’re still there. Reach out to someone to get their perspective on the event you’re attending, whether it’s a professional event or a social activity, and be ready for a floodgate of conversation.

6. How are you enjoying this [insert event]? This is a slight variation of the previous conversation starter, and once again a friendly way to engage a new potential contact and initiate a possibly fruitful conversation. Again, the key is to be genuinely interested in the response; people usually know when they’re dealing with someone sincere or not, and the reaction you get will likely be based on how you’re perceived during the early stages of the conversation.

7. Hi, I really like your [article of clothing]. What better way to break the ice than with a well-placed compliment? If handled correctly, you can count on the flattered recipient to go into some detail about the item being discussed, and you can take it from there.

8. What do you think of this [venue/space/etc.]? This one works especially well if you’re in an interesting or historical event space, or if there’s some memorable or unusual aspect to the place you’re in. This one’s a pure conversation starter. Use it just to break the ice and then move on to other topics.

9. I’ve been so absorbed with the latest story about [insert current news event], how about you? This is a little bit of a tricky one — although engaging someone in a conversation about a topical story in the news can lead to an engaging back and forth, be careful about choosing a “hot-button” or polarizing issue. If you espouse a strong opinion that the other person doesn’t agree with, you may be dooming your chances of making a long-lasting contact. Bottom line: Choose your news event carefully.

10. I’m always a little nervous at the beginning of the networking events, especially if I don’t know anyone. Most people appreciate a little honesty when talking to someone new. The truth is, if they’re feeling nervous, then your mentioning this might help put them at ease and earn you some points with a new potential contact. The humble approach can work wonders, provided you come across as being sincere.

There you have it — 10 surefire networking conversation starters that you can use to your advantage when the opportunity arises. After you break the ice, where you take the conversation from there is up to you. Good luck!