THE BLOG
07/21/2014 07:28 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2014

You Had Me at Hello: 10 Ways to Start a Conversation

Let's face it, the hardest part of meeting someone is your opening line. Some people have an innate gift to go up to anyone and introduce themselves. I call them "wall talkers" and my friend, Craig Delsack, is among the best. When you're with him, he introduces you, too, which makes him a great business wingman.

As I watch Craig in action, I see the elements that make him a successful connector. He smiles, he listens and is truly engaged with each person. Within a minute or two, he knows more about them than I might in an entire conversation, identifying commonalities and further talking points.

Part of his comfort level is his outgoing personality, the other is his broad base of knowledge. Craig is so well-rounded, he can speak on just about anything. Does he know these subjects in-depth? In the context of breaking the ice, it doesn't matter. He knows enough to engage the other person to interact.

As a guy, I'm more comfortable starting a conversation with a woman. Why? Because I was born without the "sports gene" and I'm pretty sure she's not going to ask if I watched the game last night.

My dad and grandfather were both businessmen and although I did go to some baseball games as a kid, it was more as a family outing than for the love of the sport. I didn't grow up with talk of game highlights, statistics or recollections of famous sporting events.

I have another friend, Seth Kamens, who I've learned a lot from, since he's one of those sports guys. Seth has a sports website and can walk up to any group of guys at a bar and make connections instantly. What was great about first meeting Seth, is that he had a backup question after the sports intro fell flat with me. We've had subsequent conversations about not having sports in common and we're never at a loss for words.

Out of all the connectors and business people I know, one of the most giving individuals has the most impressive sports history. Her name is Lynn Chiavaro and you may already know of her. From Wikipedia, "Lynn is one of the best athletes to ever attend Northeastern University." She went on to be the head coach of the United States Military Academy at West Point (Army) women's basketball team for 11 years, the longest tenured women's basketball coach in Army's history.

The funny thing is, although I know Lynn's background and her successful career in her job -- she never talks about herself. She is always inquisitive about other people and makes incredibly appropriate introductions.

My point is, don't get caught up thinking you're not a good conversationalist. Be prepared and comfortable with different conversation starters, so you're never stumped or faced with an awkward silence. In fact, now I've embraced my insecurity and ask for help when someone opens with a sports question.

I recently met Darren Theodore for an early coffee meeting the morning after Germany beat Brazil in the World Cup semi-finals. Naturally, he asked if I saw the game. I apologized and said I don't follow sports. He told me "he's all about sports" and I saw an opportunity. Darren is conversationally well-rounded and I asked what he'd suggest for me to get a better handle of some sports "talking points."

He told me about an app called Zite and how you can choose your daily topics, staying up-to-date on many subjects with sports mixed in. Being the tech-centric guy that I am, it was a great suggestion for me -- a new app to use with a customized mix of sports highlights.

There's another side of sports and that's participation. When I was young, I was good at two things -- swimming and running. Being a nerdy kid, I was a fast runner out of self-preservation in order not to get beat up -- not out of natural aptitude.

Since golf is the "go to" sport for connecting in business, I'm frequently asked if I play. Currently, I don't. Am I willing to learn? Certainly, and that's the key. Be willing to try new things, to be open-minded in conversations, activities and meeting people who may not be a likely match to your knowledge and skill set. Becoming a gracious conversationalist, regardless of gender, makes you warmer, more caring and sought after -- which never hurt anyone.

The old adage of avoiding the topics of politics, religion and sex still applies -- especially with strangers. Bringing up your thoughts on Obama, DeBlasio, Israel, Palestine or any other polarizing subject can quickly torpedo a potential relationship. Off-color jokes in mixed company, as old-fashioned as it sounds, are something to avoid as well.

Here are 10 opening lines that are easy icebreakers. Start with, "Hi, I wanted to say hello and introduce myself." After they reciprocate (concentrate to remember their name), ask one of the following:

1 - What kind of work do you do?
2 - There are so many events, why did you choose this one?
3 - Do you do a lot of networking?
4 - I'm curious, how much time per week do you allocate for networking?
5 - Is there anyone here you'd like to meet? If I don't know them, we can meet them together.
6 - Are you a member or a guest of this group?
7 - What did you think of the presentation?
8 - This is a great location. Have you been here before?
9 - Do you work in this part of town?
10 - It seems everyone is going on vacation now, are you going away this year?

So, what's your opening question when meeting someone and how do you overcome awkward introductions? Post your answers below, I'm always willing to try something new.