Conversation Starters for Event Organizers

I was at a networking event last week. I started talking to a woman who turned out to be the organizer of the evening. As our conversation ended she said “Well go and mingle.” And with a sigh she continued “No one seems to want to talk to anyone else, they all just sit down and look at their phones until the presentation begins.”

It can be intimidating to start a conversation in a group setting like this where you may not know anyone.  Those who are comfortable or skilled at it need little help breaking the ice. But what about the rest of us?

As an organizer, you want your event to be welcoming to people.  You want them to enjoy themselves, have a positive experience and come back next month.

Nothing is more unwelcoming than walking in and seeing a room full of people with their heads down, staring at their smartphones.  It makes everyone seem so unapproachable. Are they nervous to strike up a conversation like I am? Are they busy? What do I say first, if at all?

So what’s an event organizer to do?

I have a couple suggestions that my colleague Anjali and I used when we were co-Ambassadors for InterNations Toronto Chapter, an expat group. We grew this chapter from 300 to 3000+ members. You bet we helped start a lot of conversations. Here’s how we did it.

We were faced with the same problem; how do we get people to feel comfortable starting a conversation with those they don’t know?

The beginning of a networking event is a key time to get your attendees talking and feeling comfortable with each other.  For us the problem was that Anjali and I were at the front door greeting people, confirming registration and collecting the event fee.  It was hard for us to try to mingle at the same time.  You might run into this same issue.

To encourage people to start conversations when you can’t be the one to break the ice is a challenge. We had to come up with a way to have this happen without Anjali or I initiating every conversation.

Name tags and colours

We decided to give something a try. What if people were given different coloured dots on their name tags and were instructed to find someone with the same coloured dot and say hello?

So simple, it just might work.

We prepared everyone to expect this change. We explained it in detail on the email invitation announcing the event. We included the reasons why we were trying out this new concept.

Sure, it might sound a little silly, but this little dot was enough to get people talking to each other.

Starting that night, we heard a lot of our event conversations started with “ummmm….blue dot – hi, I’m Jim.” And once they get past declaring the colour of their dot and telling each other their name, many people naturally started asking each other where they were from, what they did, and what brought them out to the event. Voila – a real conversation!

Of course, we got some eye rolls and some jabs about our coloured dots and the whole idea of an icebreaker conversation. But the point was to get the crowd warmed up and enjoying the event, and our little dots did just that.

A little silly?  Yes.  Effective? YES. Most of your attendees (even the ones who don’t admit it) will welcome a little silliness.  And your introverts will really appreciate having a ready-made way to launch a conversation.

Another way to get people interacting at your event is to ask some of your more outgoing members to help out.  Ask them to come early with the sole purpose of introducing people to each other during the first warm up part of the event.  Consider them your “icebreaker ambassadors”.  You’d be surprised how many connectors will jump at this.  The chance to meet new people?  Yay!

Of course there will still be some people who come to your event, sit down and stare at their smartphone.  You’ll never get everyone involved.  However, you might find out that some of those people are live tweeting about how fantastic your event is!

Conversation Starter Action Plan for Event Organizers

  1. Decide to use the conversation starter concept with your event name tags. If our coloured dots don’t work for you, try these ideas.
  2. Let your attendees know in advance what to do and why you need them to participate with the conversation starter concept.
  3. Ask for feedback on how your attendees felt about the conversation starter name tags. Adjust and repeat at your next event.

Do you have any simple conversation starters that have worked for you?  It doesn’t matter if they are a bit odd (hello? Blue dots) – we’d love to hear about them in the comments section!

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