Talking to Strangers

This pleasant chap pictured here has it easy when he cold calls—who’d turn down coffee or a quick lunch with him? For me though, it’s a little more nerve racking. The question that resonates for me is, “What do I have to offer that people would want to meet with me sight unseen?” Cold-calling isn’t my favorite thing when it’s sales or job related, but what if you don’t even have that as a conversation starter, and you’re calling out of the blue… just because?

I’ve come to understand that time is valuable. My business partner could spend all week in meetings with people who want to grab coffee. But ultimately she has to be a little choosy, otherwise nothing else would get done. Plus, she’d be way too over-caffinated. Naturally then I’m worried about taking someone else’s time without at least a specific agenda in mind with some thought to what’s in it for them. (Well, that and getting rejected with a flat out “no.”) So contacting someone just to get acquainted or shoot the shit feels a bit demanding and out of my comfort zone. If we were introduced or had a few mutual friends in common, that might take a bit of the edge off. But this was about making myself stretch, so I found a few things that helped:

1 – A little flattery: I wound up contacting one person mostly based on the fact that I loved his company’s brand and identity. I had no compunctions about mentioning that in my introduction email. But I think this only works well if one is coming from a genuine place of respect. So flattery needs to include…

2 – A little homework: For everyone I contacted, I did a little bit of research, like reading a few blog posts, Twitter feeds, and seeing if there were any articles they had written or were about them. This is great because it helps with the introduction. “I’m writing you because you said _______ about _______ in _______ and I thought that was interesting because  ________.” For one person I reached out to, I mentioned how I liked that their company provided training programs that helped support a community I was part of. Research also helps if you’re worried about the conversation stalling or getting awkward. Have a few things ready in your back pocket to reboot the conversation if necessary.

3 – A little honesty: I work in a small company where we often work remotely, and sometimes I feel I work in a vacuum. I mentioned this in my introductions and just put it out there that I was looking to find more kindred spirits. I think people got that, and I think most of us are always interested in meeting new people with a few things in common. Not only that but:

4 – A little learning: By asking for advice and mentorship, you send a message that what the other person thinks is important. It also makes it easier to keep a conversation going because you don’t have to ask much other that “how” and “why” questions. Our experience with contextual inquiry definitely helped me here.

Over the past week, I called and emailed six people that I really wanted to meet. I only got a couple of responses, but I knew a few were unlikely going into it (and I’m going to hold out hope that they’re busy right now and might still come through). And if not, oh well—if rejection was a concern for me going into this, it’s not anymore. The two meetings that did come through were great: we had lots to talk about, and they felt like balanced conversations. I learned a few things too, and I expect to meet these people again in the future.

All in all, not as difficult as I thought. I still feel the need to do the prep work before calling or emailing, but after that it’s been smooth sailing. I could definitely do more of this. Now if only the anteater would call back….