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We all know how important networking is for landing a job, and exploring other careers. But one big stumbling block is: how am I supposed to network as in: what do I say?? – when I’m trying to break into a new field or industry?

It’s a circuitous problem. Your purpose in going to a networking thing is to connect with people in a company or industry that you’d like to be in and learn more about. But since you don’t work in it yet, it’s awkward to know how to respond to questions like “what do you do?” or “how long have you worked in X?”

It is tricky, and awkward, to walk into an industry or networking event having no clue how to talk about yourself. You don’t want to sound too pushy (“I’m here looking for a job in this field” is too over-the-top for walking up to someone and introducing yourself!) but you also don’t want to stand in a corner and shrink into the walls or make small talk about the weather, either.

So rather than stewing over how to talk about yourself, my best advice is for you to take control of the conversation and come prepared to ask other people answer questions. That will ease up on your stress and nerves, because you’re not the one on the hot seat. It will demonstrate your confidence by being the one to walk up to a stranger and start a conversation. And by preparing smart questions in advance that you can ask anyone, at any event, you’ll be more ready to listen to their answers. Because you’re there to learn!

Here are 5 good conversation openers that are industry- and event-agnostic to help you get conversations going, rather than waiting for them to come up to you at your next networking event!

  1. Where did you grow up? This gets you learning about their background, and sets you up for a potential follow-up of how they got here and what they’re doing now.
  2. What do you do for fun? Again, a question that helps you get to know someone beyond their work role. Listen for ways to bridge a connection around something you share – a love of cold brew coffee, pop culture podcasts, hiking with the dog, whatever it is.
  3. What are you looking forward to this year? This open-ended question allows them to talk about work OR personal life, and it’s interesting to hear if they’ve set personal or professional goals.
  4. What’s the coolest thing you’ve learned for work recently? This gives them a chance to share a book, a technique, something that you may already know a bit about…or want to know more about! (Hint: ask follow-up questions for more detail!)
  5. What do you like best about your job? Listen attentively. Is it their specific role? The variety of their day-to-day work? Helping clients? Their boss? The company benefits? You can learn a lot about what you’re really there to learn about.

I’m sure there’s tons more examples out there (google it!).

One final note, though. You also have to figure out how to answer questions they’ll ask you. Especially the dreaded “Tell me about yourself.” or “How long have you worked in X?” Once you’ve got your generic questions in your head, think through how you will answer. Those are the go-to questions you should anticipate.

So how can you answer those? With confidence and reassurance. Rather than be “ashamed” of not having experience or dreading having to pitch someone on why you’re taking an “abrupt” career change, this is actually your time to shine. First, you’re ALREADY at the networking event, which puts you ahead of anyone else who chickened out. Pat yourself on the back for committing to going! Second, you can have answers prepared and ready to roll for this, too.

Have a 3-4 sentence explanation of the moment that led you to attend the event:

  • I was working in Y for a couple of years but
  • did this project or learned something that made me really curious about [THIS industry, THIS company] and
  • now I’m here to learn all that I can about [This industry, company].

Psst: you’re going to have to answer those kinds of questions anyway once you get job interviews, so this is a low-stakes way to practice what kinds of information you share that “lands” with others.