Talking to Strangers

“Fear makes strangers of people who would be friends.” – Shirley MacLaine

Tom could have remained silent. He could have given a polite nod or busied himself with reviewing the work he’d brought with him. But he didn’t. And now, he’s got a brand-new client that brings him $40,000 a year in extra revenue.

You see, Tom is a Web designer. He attended a seminar last fall and ended up sitting next to an art director from one of the largest Web design agencies in the country. When he sat down next to the man, Tom didn’t know who he was. In fact, Tom assumed he was a “starving artist” because of the way he was dressed.

What Tom did know is that it’s important to break the ice with strangers – because you never know who could offer you the next big break in your career. So instead of quietly sitting in his own seat, Tom turned to the man, held out his hand, and said a friendly “hello.” Just doing that – offering a simple greeting – let the art director know that Tom was open to talking. And that little “hello” turned into a lengthy conversation.

Tom exchanged contact info with his new acquaintance and the two kept in touch after the seminar. They exchanged e-mails … Tom sent samples of his work … and now the art director’s agency is Tom’s biggest client.

Of course, it’s not always easy to open up the pathways of communication. Take my friend, Jack, for example. He often eats lunch out – and when he does, he sits at the counter instead of a table in the hopes of striking up a conversation. And he’s noticed something fascinating about the first few seconds with a stranger: If Jack doesn’t say something right away, it’s nearly impossible to initiate a conversation later on. “If you sit down in silence and miss that tiny window of opportunity,” Jack told me, “the whole thing seems to get 50 times harder, because then you have to break a pre-existing silence with some kind of opening line. And that triggers a whole useless monologue in my head (‘He doesn’t want to talk to me. He’s got things on his mind.’) instead of a conversation with this other person. Even worse, it feeds into the voice that says, ‘I’m so bad at this,’ and puts the focus on something that is totally unimportant.”

I love Tom’s and Jack’s stories, because they demonstrate a very small networking action that every one of us has the potential to use. You see, the first moment with a stranger – at a party, on an airplane, at a networking event – is a very important one. Will you ignore each other? Or will you talk?

We all know that a first impression takes hold in those first few seconds. And that’s also when the stage is set for initiating a conversation. A conversation that could lead to a new project … a new job … a new friend … a new idea … a new relationship or partnership. Indeed, this conversation could go anywhere. But not if you stay silent. The window of opportunity closes quickly. And if you miss it, you can’t get it back.

But that doesn’t have to mean the opportunity is gone. You can still initiate a conversation; it’s just more difficult. Jack says it’s like first-strike battle tactics. If you don’t hit hard right at the beginning, it will be a longer slog later.

So from now on, be ready to seize that first moment with a stranger by saying something to break the ice. Don’t use the excuse that you “just don’t know what to say.” The truth is that almost anything qualifies as an icebreaker. You can: … simply say, “How are you today?” … comment on something you observe. If they’re reading, ask about the reading material. If they’re eating, ask about the food. … offer to share something you have, whether it’s food (I always carry good dark chocolate just for this purpose) or a newspaper.

If the thought of initiating a conversation still makes you uncomfortable, keep these two things in mind:

1. The content of your opening line is irrelevant. It simply serves the purpose of saying “I am available to talk if you are.” A simple acknowledgment and “hello” can do the trick. It’s like sticking a wedge in the door so it won’t close.

2. The other person may be self-conscious too. So be sensitive to his openness and proceed accordingly. He may appreciate your effort or may not be in the mood to talk. If the response you get is a perfunctory one, don’t push. But you should absolutely not take it as a personal rejection. It has nothing to do with you.

Talking to other people is one of the best ways to learn things you don’t know and set down the foundation for a relationship that could go anywhere. You don’t need to know right away where it’s going or what is possible. People’s needs are constantly changing, so even if you can’t envision any potential in that first conversation, you should still exchange contact information and stay in touch. Plenty of amazing contacts can arise out of meeting a stranger.

Take me, for example. Last year, while waiting for a client in a hotel lobby, I struck up conversation with a man who worked for a major accounting firm. It turned out he was in the market for someone to teach a networking workshop at his company’s upcoming training conference. I also know a copywriter who attended last fall’s AWAI Fast Track to Success Bootcamp. She approached a complete stranger – who turned out to be the publisher of a financial service. Three months later, that publishing company offered her a project – her very first paying job as a copywriter!

Just think – a chance meeting like one of these could have a profound effect on your future success. It could mean a new mentor, an extra $40,000 a year, or a brand-new job.

(Ed Note: Ilise Benun is a frequent contributor to ETR. Check out her new program, “Effective Networking: The Fastest Way to Win Clients and Grow Your Business”