March 29, 2011 fm

How Do You Break The Ice At Cocktail Parties?

The networker’s heaven is not a congress. The networker’s heaven is not a trade show. The networker’s heaven is the cocktail party. Cocktail parties are great networking platforms because many of the attendants go alone or in couples. They lack of the protective shield provided by colleagues or friends which you face on other occasions.

Most of these receptions have a business or cultural objective, hence you tend to meet people with mutual interests. Apart from the free champagne and oysters, a cocktail party is a great success if you manage to make a number of top contacts. Obviously, in a first step you have to start talking to these people.

The crucial question is:  how do you break the ice with strangers at a cocktail party?

The first sentence, the grabber, the opening line – just like in the flirting game – is your moment of thumbs up or thumbs down. You want to create curiosity and tension, you want to surprise the other person.

Now – with standard small talk openers like, “What’s you name,” or  “What do you do for a living,” or “Isn’t this a wonderful party,” you will not reach far on the scale of first impression.

Here I have some ideas for you of how to break the ice with strangers in a more sophisticated and suspenseful way.


The $1,000,000 jackpot is when you happen to have a good friend in common with that person. Then your opener will be,

“We have a friend in common…”

I said exactly this line to the now CEO of Germany’s largest construction comglomerate at a cocktail party in Barcelona. Mr Koch frowned at me, paused and then said, “Ah yes? Who is it?” Boom – that’s it, conversation in the making.


Imagine there is this one person you really want to talk to, but there is this other guy who bombards your target with meaningless words. Like a leopard you are circling around your prey. Then you attack. Since their conversation finds no end you approach the two of them and say,

“I don’t want to interrupt…”

You borrow Cicero’s paralipsis, a rhetorical device wherein the speaker invokes a subject by denying that it should be invoked. Once you say this phrase accompanied by a cheeky smile the two of them will say, “But you ARE interrupting.” They also smile, the ice is broken, you apologize and drop a side comment that you would be delighted to talk to this one person later on.


What always works well is cause a logical disruption. This happens when you say something opposed to what is common sense, habit or knowledge.

If it’s true that 80% of all conversations at cocktail parties start with some question about the business background of the dialog partner, then you could say instead,

“Can you please NOT tell me about your job?”

Everytime you unleash smartass jargon, make sure you smile big-time. The common reaction will be a surprised look. Use that pause and continue to say, “Why are you here, would be an interesting question, I guess…”

All first sentences have one goal only – to capture the full attention.


People love to talk about what they love. If you manage to find out some information about your networking target’s hobbies, then you can hit the bull’s eye straight away by saying,

“We share the same hobby…”

Like with The Jackpot you will see a frown on the other face followed by the standard question, “Ah yes? What is it?” Boom – that’s it, conversation in the making.


Once I attended an art opening in Düsseldorf, Germany. I’ve witnessed many crowds in my life. Yet, the people from Düsseldorf belong to a different tribe. Certainly not all of them, but in general they are pretty cold, closed and not really friendly. A networker’s nightmare. No smile worked, no “I don’t want to interrupt” worked, no mutual friends in sight, no mutual hobbies, …

Overwhelmed by frustration I gave it a last shot. That one guy was standing there alone at a beer bar. I went over and without introducing myself I said,

“Man, I’ve been at many cocktail parties in my almost short life, but this is by far and without the slightest trace of a doubt the toughest crowd to start a conversation with…”

His name was Paolo, a celebrity photographer. We chatted for almost an hour…

Whether you are lucky and hit the jackpot or you are the kind smartass – the trick is to break with communicational standards. Logical disruption works perfectly in advertising, logical disruption works perfectly at cocktail parties.

Do YOU have great opening lines? Share them with us! Thank you, Mr. Networker, and by the way, we have a friend in common…

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