Congratulations you have approached someone new and introduced yourself. Now what? It's time to start a conversation! Well how terrifying is that? So let's start with something to put the whole thing in perspective:
Engaging in a meaningful dialog is the responsibility of BOTH parties.
Okay - so it's not all about you! Relax a little. If the other person is not actively engaging you in conversation it is because they are even less comfortable with networking than you are! It is therefore a great opportunity for you to take the lead, break the ice and get this dialog happening!
So let's first cover off the initial question which you will ask right after exchanging names.
"So what do you do when you are not attending events such as these?"
"How is it that you ended up here tonight?"
"What are you looking forward to learning about or taking away from this event?"
Key Point: Questions are a lot more likely to engage people than statements or telling them your life story. Most people like to talk about themselves.
The idea here is to put people at ease by giving them an opportunity to talk about something on which they have undeniable expertise - themselves. Some people will be a little reluctant at first and may give you one word answers. If that is the case and you still feel there is enough "chemistry" to continue the dialog, feel free to say: "That sounds interesting, please tell me more."
If you are really struggling, offer them one of your business cards. Business cards often provide an opportunity for great questions.
"What is the nature of your work at ABC company?"
"What are some of the challenges you are facing right now?"
"What does a typical day at the office look like for you?"
"What do you like the most about your role or where you work?"
Try to use "What" and "How" questions rather than "Why" or "Did/Do You".
The key to conversation is open ended and polite questions followed by equal amounts of sharing. Questions that start with "What" or "How" usually end up in much more interesting answers than "Why" or "Did you/Do you". For some reason when people hear the word "Why", they can feel threatened and defensive. Hardly what we are looking for!
"Did you/Do you" and other closed, fact finding questions often provide no "hooks" for future conversation. For example: "Did you drive here tonight?" Yes. "Do you enjoy these events?" Yes. "Have you ever had a more awkward conversation?" No.
In contrast, "What was your experience like in getting here tonight", may provide insight as to where they are from, the nature of traffic in the city or the fact that they took public transit and are looking for a ride home, all of which is much more interesting than: Yes, or No.
The key to any successful conversation is to be appropriately curious. As a coach I have developed this skill to the point where I usually have to rein my curiosity in quite a bit, but for most people, even to be asked a question that they feel able to answer in a comfortable way is a great and welcome experience. And - keep in mind, the more you learn, the better you will be able to help them in some way thus making a real connection.
Stay away from obviously controversial topics.
It may just be me, but when I am out for a social drink and networking, I really don't want to debate: abortion, war, religion or human rights. This is like sitting in a pool of gasoline and playing with matches. Just don't do it. Once you know the person reasonably well - by all means express your views (and entertain theirs) but at an initial gathering - don't bring up topics that are likely to inflame the passions. Quite frankly at that point they will be so wrapped up in their own rhetoric that they will have forgotten about you anyway.
Read the newspaper before you go.
Keeping in mind the tip above, the newspaper can be a great source of easy conversation starters. The obvious way of approaching this is: "Did you hear about the guy who...., what do you think?" Safe bets are usually (and I say usually) sports, entertainment, business and current events of a trivial nature. They key here is to engage the other person and make them feel comfortable - not to win some debate or sway their opinion. Be interested and confident enough in your own beliefs to tolerate the beliefs of others.
Finally, keep in mind that you are not likely to be marrying this person so keep things light and interesting while engaging them at a personal level. If you learn something that you think warrants a follow up - then by all means follow up with them at a later date. In any case, you have just started the networking event off with a great conversation - one of many that evening I trust!