Networking. You have to do it if you want to get anywhere. But it can be painful.

Many of us all are too familiar with this scenario: having made the effort to attend a networking event or party, you find yourself standing around by yourself, clinging to your second drink and stuffing bread and cheese into your mouth while you watch others chatter away and hope someone strikes up a conversation with you. Time ticks by, you get another drink, and you start to wonder how many people are noticing you standing by yourself. It’s uncomfortable. And it’s enough to turn anyone off leaving the house.

But there’s actually no need for this to ever happen again – if you follow these tips

First, realize you’re probably not the only one standing around alone. Look around for another lone wolf and approach that person. In the unlikely event that you really are the only person standing by yourself, approach a group, and join in on what they’re talking about.

A simple, “I don’t know anyone here. Do you mind if I join you?” will always work. Nobody ever says “Yes, we mind. Go away.”

Starting conversations is easy. You just need an opener that leaves room for things to go somewhere. So, you want to ask a question, but – and this is a big but – you don’t want to place a burden on the other person. I find people are always recommending overly clever, or whimsical, icebreakers that look good on paper, but are actually terrible.

“Tell me three unlikely things you did today,” might sound like a fun icebreaker, but it’s the sort of question that makes people want to punch you in the nose. Why? Because it’s work. I don’t know about you but I didn’t do three unlikely things today. Or yesterday. And I resent being put in a situation where I either have to pretend I did or admit that I didn’t.

Also, an introduction is not a conversation starter. People will tell you just to walk up to someone and say “Hi! I’m Elizabeth. What’s your name?” Yes. You should totally do this. But you need somewhere to go after he says, “I’m Bert. Nice to meet you!”

The conversation starter comes after they tell you their name.

Here are some suggestions that are fairly foolproof:

“What brings you here? Do you know the host of this party?”

It’s a classic. From there, whether they know or don’t know the host, you can talk about what did bring you both there, who you know or don’t know, and how you know them.

“I love your jacket/tie/bracelet. Where did you get it?”

Opening with a compliment is always an excellent move. Who doesn’t like a compliment? From there you can discuss shopping, clothing, brands, bargains…

Another tip is to wear a conversation piece, like a piece of jewellery given to you by the chief of a reclusive tribe you encountered while on a mission to collect unknown indigenous plantlife in the Brazilian rainforest (or whatever). So, if anyone mentions it, you have a story to tell.

“I’m trying to remember who starred in “Witness for the Prosecution”/sang that song about the stars being yellow…can you help me out?”

Pop cultural references open the door to discuss movies, music, literature, plays, and all sorts of things. Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton starred in “Witness for the Prosecution.” If the other person knows this, you can talk about what an interesting face he had and how terrible her English accent was.

“I just saw the new X-Men/Spiderman/Avengers related flick. Have you seen it?”

If they have seen it, you can compare notes. If they haven’t, you can talk about what sort of movies they do see, why they haven’t seen it, and how life is too busy for leisure time these days.

“The food here is great! Have you tried the sea urchin?”

Food is always a good standby, especially if there’s anything weird or interesting on the menu. Talk can lead to ethnic foods, restaurants, weird cuisines, favourite cheeses…

Note: do not say anything negative about the food unless you are certain that you’re not talking to the host, the caterer, or any of the event organizers. Or anyone who is friends with any of these people. In other words, don’t say anything negative about the food.

“What do you do?”

This one gets a bad rap but I like it. I like what I do and I like to talk about it, and there are many people who feel the same about their jobs. If it fails to spark a good back and forth, switch gears to, “Is that what you studied in school?” or “Is that what you always wanted to do?” Then you can talk about how you studied comparative literature and film and now you’re a marketing analyst, and isn’t the world a funny place?

“Do you have any big plans for [insert upcoming holiday]”

The risk here is that they say “no,” and you’re stuck with nowhere to go, so reserve this one for when you have plans yourself that you can share, and conversation can turn to travel, parties, events, etc.

“I just went running/skiing/skydiving/rock climbing/salsa dancing for the first time. Have you ever been?”

Possible branches: what you each do for fun, why you would or would not try certain things, where to go, the most exciting thing you’ve ever done, fitness, travel.

“How’s the wine/beer/burger? Would you recommend it?”

You can talk about your favourite wines and wineries, beers, burgers, around the city or the world.

“You look familiar. Do I follow you on Twitter?”

Whether the person is or is not on Twitter, this can lead to talk about the pervasiveness of social media and its pros and cons. Pretty much everyone has an opinion about that.

“What’s your favourite conversation starter?”

This is bound to get a laugh, then you can chat about how awkward these events are and what a relief it is to find someone to talk with.

Not everyone is going to want to engage. If a person doesn’t seem interested or a group continues to ignore you after you approach, move on. Go talk to someone else. It’s their loss. This happens to me quite frequently, and it’s no big deal.

More likely, everyone will be happy to interact with you. Most people want to connect just as much as you do. All you have to do is get the ball rolling.

Do you have a favourite conversation starter? What is it?