Choose the Right Kind of Conversation Starters

conversation starters

“So, what do you do?”

By Yvonne Milosevic

If your attempts at networking aren’t making serious inroads, you may need to reconsider the conversation starters you’re using. Research led by Professor Sean Martin of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business looked at how specific topics might affect whether a new connection would want to stay in touch later. It turns out, people who centered the conversation on their careers were more likely to create a lukewarm first impression. Meanwhile, people who shared details about their lives outside of work had a much better reception.

For their study, the researchers recorded conversations in a lab experiment and in the field at a technology firm. Afterward, they analyzed those exchanges using language processing software. They say their findings on conversational reactions held across the two settings.

The differences detected by Martin and his colleagues related more to the way people speak about their work. Our voices and word choices change when we discuss more personal topics. When people talked about work, the researchers found they used more “achievement-oriented, transactional words” like “excel,” “win,” “gain,” and “success.” This vocabulary sends an unconscious signal that the speaker may not have a warm personality or be a good listener.

conversation starters

“Increased use of these words coincides with being seen as a less supportive conversation partner, which, understandably, makes people less likely to want to keep in touch,” Martin says.

It’s not that shoptalk is inherently evil. When people avoided those words when talking about work, “we didn’t observe the same penalty in terms of how their partners rated them,” Martin notes.

“In other words, it may be less about the topic of work itself, and more about how the topic of work can trigger a vocabulary that makes people see us as being less interested in them.”

Better Conversation Starters to Consider

Now that you know a crucial networking mistake to avoid, let’s turn to better conversation starters when meeting new people. The true goal of networking is to cultivate authentic connections over time. Harvard Business School research has shown that the more questions you ask, the more your conversation partner will like you—especially if you ask follow-up questions. People gravitate to those who ask thoughtful questions and listen to the replies. Also, conversations centered on getting to know something about the person outside of work signal genuine warmth. For example, you might ask:

  • What do you do when you’re not working?
  • Have you read any interesting books or articles lately?
  • Do you have any fun travel plans for the summer?
  • What would you be doing instead if you didn’t have the job you have now?
  • What’s one thing you wished people would ask you about?
  • What’s your favorite question to ask when you’re trying to get to know someone?

These questions spark an engaging conversation that offers a glimpse of the personality of the person with whom you’re chatting.

Tapping into the “Lizard Brain”

We’ve got one final tip to share: Look for ways to establish common ground. Relationship-building expert Patrick Ewers says, “Whenever you interact with someone, you want to end up in their ‘us’ bucket. You want to be part of their tribe.” This could be something as simple as listening to the same podcast or following the same sports team.

“When someone hears this, their reptile brain makes a calculation that says this person is like me,” Ewers explains. “And research has shown that thinking ‘I am like you’ instantly translates to ‘I like you.’ It’s how we process likability.”

Use both of these tactics to boost the odds that people you meet will walk away with a positive first impression that lays the foundation for a deeper relationship in the future.


Have you ever made a bad first impression? Check out this advice for managing the situation when an initial impression doesn’t go well: So, You Made a Bad First Impression