IT CAN be uncomfortable to walk up to someone - especially a stranger - and begin a conversation.

A reluctance to initiate a conversation often stems from a lack of confidence. This is easy to remedy.

The key to confidence is preparation. Once you know the techniques for opening a conversation, you can do so with complete confidence.

Here are some techniques to help you:

Initiating a conversation

First, you need a topic. Most people who are reluctant to approach others simply do not think they have anything interesting to say.

Have a few safe topics in mind before making your overture. A glance at the newspaper headlines should provide you with several topics.

Another great source of topics for discussion is your immediate situation. You may have heard a million of these before: "Do you come here often?" or "So how do you know Richard?"

There is also the all-purpose standby: "Nice weather we've been having."

These openers are not witty or interesting, but they do not have to be. No one expects to build a conversation around them. They are simply a way to open the door to a conversation.

Chances are the person on the receiving end of these mundane lines will appreciate your making the first move and will respond with sincerity.

One of the best opening approaches is a simple "Hi" or "Hello".

When paired with a smile and spoken in a sincere and enthusiastic tone, this is all you need to make contact.

Of course, you will want the conversation to move forward, so have a few opening topics in mind.

The best conversation openers are:

General.

An opener that is too narrowly focused is unlikely to be effective. For example, suppose you are at an art exhibition and decide to approach a fellow visitor.

You could open with: "I really admire the artist's use of colour and perspective. It gives an ethereal quality to his work."

But this may intimidate the person you wish to converse with. Unless he is an expert, the conversation will not go very far.

A more general approach will succeed. You could say: "This is an interesting exhibition, don't you think so?" or "I'm not sure I understand what this piece is all about - do you have any idea?"

These questions are general enough to elicit a response without alienating your target.

Safe.

"Safe" means not threatening, risky, judgmental or strongly opinionated.

The old notion about avoiding sex, religion and politics is valid. Your target may love to debate controversial issues, but you do not know that yet.

Stick with safe and mainstream views in the early stages of communication.

Positive.

There are plenty of things to complain about. For many people, complaining is a guilty pleasure. But complaints and negative comments can bring people down.

For every negative statement you could make, there is also at least one positive statement.

Choose the positive statement and be regarded as upbeat and optimistic.

Emphasise similarity.

People like people who are like themselves. It follows that the best way to initiate a conversation is to make a statement that draws attention to something you have in common.

As suggested above, one area of similarity is your environment. The fact that you are both present in the same place at the same time means you have something in common.

The area of commonality may seem trivial but it provides a starting point for conversation.

Instead of offering your opinion, ask your new contact for his opinion. He will be flattered that you are interested and will be all the more eager to talk with you.

But if you do offer an opinion, keep it in the mainstream until you can safely determine that a more adventurous position will be entertained.

To sum it up, a conversation opener need not be interesting or original - its purpose is simply to make contact.

And remember the old expression that a stranger is just a friend you haven't met yet!