Some people are born socially adept, they make friends easily, deal well with crowds and generally like to talk to other people. I am not one of those individuals. I’m the type of guy who’d rather work then go to a party, who purposefully vacations in places that don’t speak English, and seeks out solitary hobbies. Which is fine, it works for me, it probably explains why I’m a technical founder, but recently it’s become a problem. When you become a founder 50% or more of your job is interfacing with the public, and your ability to forge relations with random strangers can be a make or break skill. At first I would just get drunk, awkwardly injecting myself into conversations, and forcing my pitch onto anyone who would listen. But, over the past couple months, though a mixture of observation and help from my co-founder I’ve gradually gotten better.
Start out easy. Find the other socially inept person in the crowd. You can spot them by their panicked look and the clutching of a drink like a shield. Just stick out your hand, smile slightly, and say “Hi I’m <blah>, what do you do?”. If you screw something up, remember they’re socially inept too, they won’t notice. Work up to groups. Just walk up, listen to the conversation, occasionally nod, interject a small points, don’t take over the conversation.
Everyone’s Favorite Topic
Since you’re reading this guide I’m guessing you know almost nothing about pop culture, or sports which eliminates 90% of conversational topics. But you have a trump card, you know the one topic that everybody loves to talk about: themselves. After introductions lead directly into questions about what they do, who they work for, do they have kids, what’s their favorite color, etc.. It doesn’t matter what the topic is, just keep them talking, they’ll eventually bring the conversation around to something that is dear to them. If you don’t know anything about the topic say so, but follow up in a manner such that they must explain something to you. People love to teach, it makes the feel interesting and intelligent, it makes them feel good, and those feelings transfer to how they feel about you.
Eventually the conversation will turn around to what you do, who you work for etc.. Give the elevator pitch, if they bite you can keep talking but do not jump into hard core sales mode. STAY CASUAL! After the pitch, if you can engage in more small-talk without seeming creepy go ahead, but the conversation typically begins to wind down at this point and we transition to the next phase.
If you talk to people who talk for a living they’ll often say that the hard part isn’t the conversation, it’s ending the conversation. If there’s a natural pause after your pitch ask them for a card, it’s a natural signal that the conversation is ending and will facilitate an easy exit. You can be upfront and say “hey this was great, but I gotta do the rounds, do you mind if I send you an email on XYZ thing you talked about?” If you’re really desperate use the bathroom excuse. If the conversation drags on too long it just gets weird.
ALWAYS FOLLOW UP! This is the easiest part to overlook, and is my biggest crime. Send the person an email or a Linked-in request, the earlier the better. If they get to you first, respond promptly, no more than one or two sentences. Just do it, no excuses.
So that’s it. It’s both incredibly simple and incredibly hard at the same time. The good news is that like any skill with practice and a willingness to fail you will get better. If you’re going to be a founder it’s a prerequisite for success. The people you meet at cocktail parties and meet-ups will be your first users, mentors, co-founders, partners, investors and friends; it’s up to you to go find them.