You might wonder why on earth you should speak to strangers in the first place. I mean after all, we’re taught by our parents never to speak to strangers and the only folks that do seem to be the village idiot and local yokels. I guess the reason I speak to strangers is to network, by going to and running events you get to know very useful and interesting people – and the only way to do this is by talking to them.
In business, the ability to small talk with (and get on with) anyone is very useful. If you want to be seen as an all-rounder that can get on with multinational and cross-sector teams, you’d have to have the ability to speak to strangers. Here are the stranger-talking tips that I have come up with:
Get introduced if possible
This is the simplest way of speaking to strangers and it will work when you’re at a well-organized event. Ask the host of the event you are at who you should speak to and get an introduction – this is of course much more powerful and cuts through the chit chat. It saves you having to think about an icebreaker as well. The host should know what people are happy to chat with someone like you and vice versa.
The big city question that always works
In London, you can get away with the easiest question of them all: Where are you from? Very few people are actually from London and most folks have a great story about how they got there. I would think this one applies to any major city which has an influx/outflux of people.
Talking points allow strangers to speak
Whenever something unexpected (especially something less-than-great) happens, people get talking. If you get stuck in the elevator, if the service is really slow at the bar, someone stinks on the train, if the weather suddenly shifts – it’s ok to speak to strangers all of a sudden. This is because you now have a talking point and you have the experience to discuss.
Got a joke? Deliver it!
Humor always works, crack a clever joke and it’s now acceptable to laugh and comment on your wit. You have to be a little bit careful with jokes when dealing with strangers, you don’t want to slate a restaurant and then find out that the owner is the stranger’s brother.
Learn from pick up artists
If you look at the world of chat-ups, it usually starts with a genuine question like ‘do you have a light’ or ‘do you know what DJ is on tonight?’ – and take it from there. You’ll know whether someone wants to have a conversation with you or if they quickly answer your question and turns away. Don’t forget to smile when using this approach by the way!
Fancy dressing up a bit?
Another observation I’ve made is that fancy dress tends to encourage people talking, if you’re wearing a chicken suit people think it’s normal to have a chat for some reason. If that’s too extreme for you, try wearing a peacock item like a hat, a scarf, or a loud shirt – all of which are great conversation starters.
Bring an icebreaker
People in parks don’t tend to speak to strangers. People on buses don’t speak to strangers. There is an exception however, this is when someone has brought their baby or dog, suddenly it’s ok to smile and ask ‘how old is she’ or ‘what’s his name’? So if you want people to speak to you, bring an icebreaker of some kind.
Have a drink
Alcohol is another obvious icebreaker, people that work in the same office and never speak will suddenly be best pals at the Christmas do thanks to a few drinks. Trouble is they go back to not speaking in January again… Alcohol works but it’s not a great strategy in my book, I know I’m not the best networker when I’ve had a few drinks!
When you do speak, find out what they are passionate about
Find out what people are passionate about if you want to stand out. Everyone asks what’s your name, what do you do, what company etc – you have the same conversation with everyone. Instead ask what they did on the weekend, what holidays they have planned etc, and get them talking – everyone wants to speak about their passions. The following day this person will definitely remember speaking to you and you can take it from there – now that you know each other a little bit it’s time to see how you could possibly help each other.
When attempting to talk to strangers you have to accept that the first few moments will be awkward sometimes, that some people will blank you – that’s just life. My experience tells me most people are very happy to have a chat and nobody will bite you! Your only challenge is breaking the ice and the conversation will flow from there.
Do you have any hot tips for talking to strangers? Or how to avoid strangers talking to you? Or how not to be strange? Please let us know in the comments!
Related: The Psychology of Networking: How Some Appear Natural While Others Stutter.