At a networking event, once you have exchanged names, conversation will likely ensue. Engage In It.
In so doing, do not start the conversation directly focused on business or professional aspects. That can be off-putting and serve to create an uncomfortable situation. Rather, engage in some small talk. Inquire as to the origin of their name. Ask them about their impressions on the event itself. Get them talking on anything other than business. This will serve to make the connection comfortable.
After a few minutes (or even several minutes of small talk), segue over to more professional topics. Ask about their business. How long have they done it? What did they do before? How did they get started?
Once the professional discussion has run its course, segue back to small talk. You can reflect on something professional they said, and tie it back to something within small talk.
As you engage in conversation, be sure to listen to what they have to say. Focus on them, and not your watch, or who is coming through the door, or anything going on around you.
You should express a genuine interest in what they have to say, especially if it is a topic that you set in motion with one of your questions. To do this, face up to them, make eye contact, and:
• Make sounds and comments to indicate understanding (or simply nod your head) … “Oh, interesting.”
• Ask questions to clarify things … “Now, when you [blank], do you mean?
• Echo back what they have said in summary fashion … “So you basically got into business because …”
As they talk look for things you have in common, whether they are shared backgrounds, similar experiences, or ways to relate to them. You can use these to interject or ask questions, as a means of keeping the conversation going.