What is it I do again? How to talk to strangers about our work.

As Charlie used to say, you should “never go anywhere with men and ladies that you don’t know” and that’s good advice. But sometimes we do have to talk to strangers about our work, often at short notice and even answer the dreaded question “so what’s your project all about?”. What’s the wise thing to do in those situations?

I recently ran a workshop with some of the lovely folk at the British Library for Development Studies where we shared our experiences of talking about what we do or want to do, to people who we want to get to know better (donors, potential partners, people who might be able to help us with our work).

We quickly ditched the idea of developing an “elevator pitch”, those short speeches we’re meant to deliver to a captive audience. Of course it’s handy to have a standard statement or two and there’s lots of advice out there on how to develop them. But it’s not very considerate of the person riding in the elevator with you (or stuck in the queue for the coffee or loo). We were looking for some good advice on how to get conversations going with people, who we don’t know well, and get them interested in our work while still being ourselves.

Learning a pitch parrot-fashion is not going to make you any friends.

Learning a pitch parrot-fashion is not going to make you any friends.

Turns out that between us we had quite a few ideas including:

Ask questions – the anti-elevator pitch approach is to get to know the person as quickly as possible, and then explain your idea or project or odd-sounding job title in a way that speaks to what you’ve found out about them.

Have something in common – look for a connection between the two of you, where you are, who you know, what you’re wearing.

Use examples and stories – especially if your work involves a lot of jargon or theory, remember to bring in real people and situations to make it accessible.

Be rigorous – you don’t need a prepared speech, but it is worth learning some facts that support what you’re saying; maybe something an expert has said in a recent publication, or some firm numbers from evaluations that back up your case.

Be a lovely person – you’re talking to another person, who might be tired, away from home, fed up with being pitched at. If it’s your style, by all means be charming, or cheeky, or funny, but try to make them feel better for having spent time talking to you.

Have no more than three messages – those core points to get across which could be your values, objectives, what you’re doing that’s different. If you work in a team then you need to establish these together. They’re the things you’d like the other person to go away associating with you and your work but how you communicate them is up to you.

Make sure you can contact them – ask for their card, or their email and send them something useful and relevant afterwards (maybe a link to that expert’s paper you were talking about or the name of a great B&B in NYC).

Knowing all this is great, and pinning down the facts and messages in advance is better, but best of all is practising it. For which I have two recommendations: get into the habit of practising scenarios with your colleagues (with another team member around to give feedback and support if needed), and go speed-dating.

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2 thoughts on “What is it I do again? How to talk to strangers about our work.

  1. Thanks Cheryl. What I learnt here is that talking to strangers is all about being friendly, kind, in short, a human. Because whatever professional difference/similarities may exist between you and the others, you are after all, all humans! So, putting a dose of humanity in the way you speak to strangers is essential.

    • Thanks Moussa, I’m so glad you found my blog. I absolutely agree that it’s important to remember that communication (of all kinds) is about humans connecting with humans. It’s worth putting effort in so you’re prepared to talk about your work or project or research clearly and succinctly (to respect another person’s time and get your point across), but if you speak to them as a person, then you’re more likely to get a second chance to continue the conversation another time.

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