How to Start a Conversation

Do you wish you knew how to break the ice and start a conversation?

Lisa B. Marshall
4-minute read
Episode #1

When I was young, I remember being embarrassed by my mother --particularly when we were standing in long grocery store lines. No, she wasn't making spit balls with her coupons or chewing tobacco, she was making conversation. (Horrors!) She was talking with strangers!

As an adult I know the world is full of interesting strangers—every day potential new friends are all around us--if we just knew how to break the ice and start conversations. So today's tips are the valuable lessons I learned from my mom and other great communicators about how to start an in-person conversation.

Every time I deliver a professional networking seminar I am surprised by the number of people that ask me, "Lisa, how do you start a conversation?" So I thought, what better way to start OUR conversation than with an episode that is about starting conversations. (Aren't I clever?)

So how exactly do you start a conversation? For in-person conversations I think it all boils down to three things. First, you need to cultivate a zen-like attitude towards conversation making. Second, you need to pay attention, and third, you need to be genuinely curious. That’s it. Really. Cultivate a zen-like attitude, pay attention, and be curious.

1. Cultivate a Zen-Like Attitude Toward Conversation Making

What do I mean by zen-like? You need to let go of self-conscious and judgmental thinking. Introverts--listen carefully--you don't need to be an extrovert! Really, it's more important that you are comfortable with yourself and genuinely interested in getting to know other people--like you were when you were a kid. I remember when I was eight, a new girl moved in three houses away. The day she arrived, I marched over there, knocked, and asked "Can the little girl come out and play?” She ended up being my first "best friend." (Hmmm, I wonder if my mom encouraged me to do that?)

For me, it helps to remember that most people are happy to engage in a conversation and appreciate when someone else takes the lead.

For me, it helps to remember that most people are happy to engage in a conversation and appreciate when someone else takes the lead.

Besides being comfortable, it’s also important not to dismiss anyone or prejudge a person by their appearance. You never know what the future will bring. Chris Yeh, a VP at PBwiki, Inc. recently shared this story with me. He said, "At one event, I saw a slight, pimply-faced kid and struck up a conversation...his company was doing $100 million/year in revenues. And as it turned out, I made one of my most successful angel investments because I met the entrepreneur at my acne-afflicted friend's 25th birthday party."

An important lesson...don't dismiss anyone.

2. Pay Attention to Everyone and Everything Around You

OK, so once you have cultivated your inner zen, the next step is to pay attention to everyone and everything around you.

Pay attention to people--Google them ahead of time. Does somebody have an interesting story? Is someone at the event who can introduce you to the person you *really* want to meet?

Pay attention to your immediate environment. Do you see something unusual? Is someone wearing an interesting watch or tie?

Pay attention to the news. What’s going on in the local news? In your industry? What’s going on in the pop culture? (You be surprised how lively "Lost" discussions can get!)


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.