When it comes to small talk, we’re often told to ask open-ended questions, and grammatically, that’s pretty easy to do. Asking questions that start with “Do you” or “Would you” are yes/no questions that will result in a dead–end typically rather than a full blown conversation. But open-ended questions can be dangerous too. Everyone’s biggest fear seems to be offending someone or doing something to make themselves uncomfortable, even awkward pauses and silence patches can be disconcerting. I read once that if you are going to a social event you should prepare for it by listening to the news or reading the newspaper so that you have a lot of talk about at the event if there is a small talk portion. There’s nothing worse than standing around not talking with strangers and trying to avoid eye contact so you don’t have to say anything.
I like questions that probe deeper on a “safe” topic that person mentioned or that seems to logically come to mind. If you are at a training event for program management, for example, you might make a comment and ask a question, like: “I heard this was a great event. What do you know about the program management strategies they usually talk about here?” I generally stick with questions that allow people to talk “beyond themselves” about anything related to the topic. It’s also a little too direct to say to someone, “Are you a program manager; what kind of work do you do?” Both because the person may not be one and could feel put on the spot, and also because the person may not want to disclose a lot of personal details about their life to you on a first pass. You can, of course, lead by talking a bit about what you do, but it’s usually best to get buy-in and interest first.
If you look at it as a game and compete with yourself to come up with good open-ended questions to ask, you could end up having a lot of fun at networking events.