The 7 Best Conversation Starters

Meeting new people and striking up a conversation isn't always the easiest thing to do, especially if you tend to be shy in new surroundings. Still, if you want to make new friends or business contacts, you've got to put yourself out there. Of course, you can break the ice with the old go-to: "What do you do?", but surely you're more original than that. To keep things interesting, and to make a great first impression, ask something a bit more unexpected. Here are a few suggestions. (See also: Spice Up the Conversation by Skipping "What Do You Do?")

1. "What Brings You Here Today?"

"What brings you here today?" might not be the most ideal opening in all business situations — like a networking happy hour, since everybody is there for essentially the same reason — but it can work if you're at a multifaceted event, like a conference or convention. This conversation starter also has personal-life applications too, like if you're waiting in line or an office, running into an acquaintance, or making small talk at the bar.

"This question opens up for an opportunity to talk about yourself, your career, or your business, so you can start finding out what's important for the person you want to find out more about," says money relationship expert Monica Salazar.

2. "Isn't It Interesting/Fascinating/Funny That….?"

I always enjoy getting other people's take on things, especially current events. Certainly you should steer clear of conversations about religion and politics in most settings — if you know what's good for you — but you can strike up a chat by asking, "Isn't it interesting/fascinating/funny that…?" based on plenty of other topics, like social media, celebrity or business news, or what's happening in your town/city if you're both from the same area. Whatever you do, keep it fresh and upbeat.

"Make sure you're always talking about something positive, as you don't want to go into disempowering conversations about what's wrong," Salazar says. "Ask and value the other person's opinion, and the conversation will probably follow smoothly."

3. "I've Heard So Much About You."

If you're in an interview setting or another kind of meeting where you need to mind your manners and make a lasting (and excellent) first impression, beginning the conversation with appreciation for the opportunity and just a touch of flattery will kick it off to a good start.

Roy Cohen, career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide, says, "When you have arranged to meet someone to network, let them know that you value their time. Most of us are over extended and over committed. When you express your gratitude for the conversation, they are more likely to listen, process what you tell them, and follow through."

4. "I Love What You're Wearing!"

One of the icebreakers that I tend to keep in my back pocket for all occasions is complimenting the person on their outfit or a particular accessory like their glasses, or watch. You'll need to tread with caution, however, especially if you're male. Men complimenting women on their dresses doesn't always go over well, so it's best to steer clear of that.

Relationship expert April Masini also reminds us to make sure whatever you're complimenting is worth singling out — lest you run the risk of looking insincere.

"Of course, make sure he or she is wearing something interesting when you [admire their clothing]," she says. "Otherwise, you might have to apologize for your outdated prescription contact lenses. When it works, this line is a compliment and a conversation generator."

5. "Did You Try the Cheesecake? It's Amazing!"

Two of the greatest things that bring people together are music and food. If you're at an event that's serving light bites or even a full meal, you can use a particularly delicious dish, like dessert — because who doesn't like dessert? — to chat someone up.

6. "How Do You Know the Host?" or "Have You Been Here Before?"

Like you, I've been in a social situation where I didn't know many or any people. It's difficult at first, especially if everyone else seems to be connecting, but I assure you, you're not alone. There's another person there who's in the same boat as you — probably near the bar or keeping a low profile in an inconspicuous area — and you can make fast friends if you identify him or her. Asking "How do you know the host?" or "Have you been here before?" will establish the common denominator, and you can go from there.

"[These phrases] are always an easy way to connect – especially if it's your first time there," says dating coach and matchmaker Suzanna Mathews. "Say something kind about the host — it shows that you're a positive person — or admit that you're a newbie; it's endearing and if the other person is a first-timer, too, maybe you can stick together."

7. "Where's the Best Place You've Traveled?"

Like music and food, people also love to talk about the places to which they've traveled because it drums up fond memories. Personally, I like this question because my favorite places (Phoenix, Arizona and Iceland) aren't the common and generic answers that a lot of other people give, like Europe, or the beach. And people are often surprised, which helps increase the level of engagement.

"Who wants to hear about someone's job?" asks Sherri Murphy, CEO of Elite Connections, a private dating agency. "Asking where someone's favorite place they've traveled to is a great question to get the conversation flowing."

Just make sure to have your reply ready for when they turn the question back to you. And think of a few solid reasons why you love your favorite place.

Do you have any conversation starters that are a bit out of the ordinary? I'd love to hear how you strike up small talk in the comments below.

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