There’s no doubt that starting a conversation with a complete stranger can be a little intimidating, even frightening—especially if you’ve only done it a handful of times! Like anything though, networking gets easier with practice and preparation. And as any science of food professional will tell you, building new relationships is absolutely essential to advancing your career.
Luckily, the food industry is rife with networking events, conferences, and receptions that can really bolster your professional network. But it’s up to you to attend them and make your best first impression.
So, where do you begin?
Try out these nine conversation-starters and turn your next networking event into a win:
1) Find an event to attend.
It’s difficult to get a professional conversation going if you’re not in the right place. Events like supplier nights or Section events are great ways to meet professional peers. But the ultimate networking experience for science of food professionals is IFT’s annual event and food expo.
The annual event and food expo is the place. It’s easily the largest of its kind in the world—and is expected to draw more than 17,000 passionate food professionals from over 90 countries all there to learn, share, meet new people. This is a prime-time networking opportunity.
2) Ask an open-ended question.
Some of us spend all our time thinking about the flow of the actual conversation, getting contact information, following up, etc., and often overlook the most important piece: Starting the conversation.
Think of a few open-ended questions you can lead in with that don’t sound overplayed. Commenting on the weather is cliché small-talk that probably won’t carry your conversation very far. Stick to things that are relevant, such as “Did you just hear that speech? It was incredible!” or “The food here has been fantastic. What’s your favorite dish so far?”
3) Prepare your elevator pitch.
You only get one shot at giving others a clear picture of who you are, what you do, and why you do it. And it should only take you about 30 seconds to deliver—so you’ll want to keep it as short and sweet as possible.
Although your elevator pitch isn’t quite a conversation starter, it should closely follow up your introduction and sometimes you’ll even find ways to weave it into your introduction. Just make sure you know it like the back of your hand!
4) Dress to impress.
This one goes without saying, but we’re going to say it anyway. Wearing something that looks good makes you feel good. And in turn, you exude an aura of confidence that attracts others to you.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to play it safe. Feel free to experiment with colors, shoes, or accessories that stand out without being a faux pas.
5) Ditch your comfort zone.
It’s easy to get in your own way at a networking event. For instance, you might know a few people and think it’d be easier to tag along with them. But being in a group actually makes it harder for others to approach you. So does staring at your phone. Continuously sipping a drink. Or keeping your head down.
The key is to put yourself out there and approach others. Be yourself!
6) Make eye contact.
If you catch someone’s gaze, don’t look away too quickly or stare for too long. Crack a smile and keep eye contact for about two seconds. Then approach the person and introduce yourself.
It’s also important to maintain eye contact once the conversation begins—as this shows you’re confident and interested.
7) Hone your body language.
The main idea here is to avoid crossing your arms and legs at all costs. You’re not a pretzel! Stand with your arms by your side and your feet about shoulder-width apart. This subtle difference is much more inviting to others.
Once you’re engaged in a conversation, lean slightly toward the person with whom you’re speaking. Be cognizant of your reactions, expressions, and gestures to really show that you’re listening.
8) Lead with a handshake.
Your opening handshake speaks volumes about you and your intentions. When you approach someone new, make eye contact, flash a smile, extend your hand and introduce yourself with a firm (but not overpowering) handshake.
This nonverbal form of communication will help you build rapport before the conversation even begins.
9) Give someone a compliment.
No matter what planet you’re from, a compliment is always a good way to break the ice. But only give one if it’s sincere—or you could come off as ingenuine and hurt your chances of making a new strategic connection. Say something nice about another person’s business, product, outfit, hair, presentation, etc.
It’ll make them feel good and open to talking more—the recipe for a good conversation.
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A conversation with IFT's senior food safety and traceability scientist Sara Bratager