THE BLOG

The Holiday Collection: How to Start a Conversation at a Cocktail Party

12/09/2013 09:45 pm ET | Updated Feb 08, 2014

I'm going to a cocktail party at The White House next week. Yes, Debra Fine will be drinking champagne at the White House. Do I sound like I am bragging? I'm not. Well, maybe a smidge. But I am, in a word, thrilled. I have a feeling that Mrs. Obama and I will become lifelong friends and share workout tips, but I digress.

Back to business. While I am elated to be attending two VIP cocktail receptions in the nation's capital (yes, I will also be at a little soiree with Vice President Joe Biden but didn't want to rub it in), I know that the holiday cocktail party, whether at the White House or at your neighbor's house, can cause distress for many of you. How do I know? From you! You've told me on Facebook, in Q&A sessions following a keynote speech, in personal emails, even in line at the grocery store! Not to fret, fellow small-talkers, navigating a cocktail reception is not as tough as you think.

Like everything else, there is a beginning, middle, and end. It makes sense to start with the beginning, and get to the middle and end of a good cocktail party conversation in parts two and three of this series, respectively.

Let's assume that you've got your icebreakers and three or four topics in mind for when a conversation starts happening. You've practiced your most winning smile in the privacy of your bathroom mirror, you don't have any food in your teeth and you still remember your own name. All good things. So you arrive at an event where you know nobody and you wait for someone to approach you, right?

No, no, no. Remember, the holidays are all about giving -- so give yourself and someone else the gift of conversation. When you enter a room, look around for others that are standing on their own. You can usually find these folks hovering around the buffet or obsessively checking their phone or standing much too close to a potted plant. These people are nervous and feeling awkward and, because of that, will be your very best listeners because you, savvy small talker that you are, are about to relieve them from feeling completely panicked and self-conscious. Go you.

Be the first to make eye contact and smile at a stranger. And if they don't smile back, I will send you a paperweight from the president's desk. Don't ask me how I got it.

Once you've established eye contact, introduce yourself and offer a handshake.

Hello, I'm Debra Fine.

If the other person speaks your language, and you don't receive a handshake and a name in return, I will send you a paperweight from Mrs. Obama's desk (I believe she uses hers for bicep curls because wow, those arms, but I digress -- again.).

Once you receive a name and a handshake, use the other person's name and one of your icebreakers to get the conversation going. I find a statement/question combination to be the best bet:

It's a pleasure to meet you, Ken. This is my first visit to the White House inner sanctum and it's more than I imagined! What's your history with visiting the White House?

Notice I did not pose a yes or no question, because then Ken and I might hit a roadblock. Instead Ken has the chance to either tell me he has never been to the White House, and then we can talk about being newbies to the whole experience; or Ken can tell me he has attended several functions, and then I can ask him about some of the highlights; or Ken can tell me he took his children on the standard White House tour and now I have some insight that Ken is a father and I can take the conversation in that direction. No matter what Ken's response, the conversational path is lit for me. Let's pretend that Ken is new, like me:

Isn't this exciting, Ken? What surprises you most about being here?

The statement/question pattern is effective for starting and continuing conversation, especially if you keep the question open-ended (not a yes/no question). Now Ken and I are on our way to a meaningful exchange and Ken and I are not both standing alone in the middle of what might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be wined and dined at the White House.

See? It's as easy as that.

It is.

At the end of the day, there are really four short steps to starting a conversation:
• Find an approachable person
• Make eye contact
• Smile
• Offer your name to them and use their name in conversation

Giving the gift of conversation is worthwhile to everyone. True success comes from taking the first step and saying hello. The topic is not nearly as important as the effort. So exercise your conversational muscle and do some heavy lifting when it comes to making small talk, because connecting with another person is even more important than sporting rock-hard biceps. I promise.