Voices

I Used Embarrassing Icebreakers at a Marketing Conference. You Should Too

Making connections at a networking event is awkward. They’re so forced, like bad blind dates. The internet understands; that’s why there are almost 400,000 Google results for “conference icebreakers” with suggestions for how to make a great first impression. But how can you know which one-liners will actually spark an interesting, memorable conversation?

I decided to find out. Last month, I went to Dreamforce, an event—nay, extravaganza—hosted by Salesforce. There were 170,000 attendees, hundreds of panels, and almost as many open bars. Since I was going by myself to cover the conference and promote my freelance work, I knew this was the perfect place to test my networking skills. Since I love comedy, I also decided to turn my task into a game. Things were about to get weird, in the most professional way possible.

Pre-conference

As someone who’s written about networking before, I know it’s important to make a digital announcement—especially if you’re flying solo. So I posted this on Twitter:

I was hoping to make my name recognizable within the conference community, and also help others associate my name with business and comedy.

To keep the self-promotion train moving, I wrote the same thing on Partyforce, an app where Dreamforce attendees could casually communicate. And by casually, I mean Partyforce also let users rate their drinks, post pictures of themselves dancing on tables, and find someone to hook up with. Seriously.

marketing conference

Names and job titles omitted to protect the potentially innocent.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure if my posts would be received well. After all, this was a business conference. What if I was being too silly?

Thankfully, I soon had people following me on the app and commenting on my posts.

The conference

Once I arrived at Dreamforce, it was time to start asking people questions in person. At first, I was nervous. I was in a new town, didn’t know anyone, and my blazer made me sweaty. Thankfully, some people remembered my posts and brought up the icebreakers themselves. Pro tip: The Hunger Games prompt was the most popular. In fact, a really long conversation took place in the press room about which journalist would win in a fight to the death. The kill shot would be a pen straight to the neck, in case you’re wondering.

But I couldn’t rely on internet prompts for all of my networking. That meant I had to start some IRL conversations without the assistance of technology. While I’m usually very social, being at a conference that’s 62 percent middle-aged dudes was intimidating. After all, it’s hard to be confident when you feel like you’re the youngest person in a room by at least 20 years.

After a few awkward laps around the display booths—some Dutch techies offered me a huge wooden horse—I finally worked up the courage to sidle up to a circle of suits. “Hey,” I said. “I’m trying out a new conversation starter. Would you rather have baby carrot arms or a baked ham body?”

Sure, I might have cheated a little bit. Ideally, I should have gone straight into the would-you-rather without any introduction, but telling people that you’re writing an article about conversation starters is a great way to do exactly that. I highly recommend it, even if you’re not actually writing that type of piece. Seriously. People love sharing information when they think it might be published. In fact, I asked my friends on Facebook and received more than 20 replies. My favorite comes from my friend Heather: “If our spirit animals were in a cage fight, which one would win?”

I also learned that talking about your embarrassing writing assignment is a fantastic way to make conference friends. Attendees handed me their cards just so I could tell them what happened when I asked a group of people to make dolphin noises. (Follow-up: No one did.)

Post-conference

Despite some embarrassment throughout the week, namely asking men dressed in Brooks Brothers to sound like aquatic creatures, I actually made some great connections over the course of the week. I even got a job offer. Granted, I’d been talking with the contact on LinkedIn before Dreamforce, but I can thank my bizarre conversation starters for keeping the dialogue flowing.

marketing conference

After Dreamforce, I lined up phone calls with five companies to talk about my freelance work. I also had six conversations on LinkedIn about potential projects and connected with 26 Partyforce followers via direct message on Twitter. None of these connections would have been possible if I wasn’t asking silly questions. Since people followed me, I had access to their contact information and could reach out. Boom, leads.

So, what are the takeaways here? Don’t be boring. Starting thinking about networking before you get to the conference. Make an effort to stand out once you’re there. Avoid aggressive journalists armed with pens. Sure, you don’t have to ask if someone wants baby carrot arms, but having a strategy makes networking a little less intimidating.

Additionally, it’s important to set a goal for yourself before you attend an event and figure out how you’re going to achieve it. For me, I wanted to find new clients and help others remember me as “that business comedian.” That’s why I decided to ask funny icebreakers. Who knew asking about dolphin sounds could be so lucrative?

Image by Marina Massel / Getty
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