As the leader of a business, especially a startup, your job is to connect with audiences ranging from potential or current investors, employees, corporate partners, customers, regulatory bodies, or boards. This is a skill that many first time CEOs need to develop. Even if you are gregarious by nature, or, in my case, were a lector at Sunday Mass since you were 10 years old, understanding how best to connect with an audience in business is critical for your success. Here are five strategies that I learned over the years:
1. Truly want to connect with your audience. I was once asked by the CEO "How do you do it; how do you keep it fresh?" We were raising money, telling the story to investor after investor and he noticed that my energy and enthusiasm never faded and that I told the story a different way every time. The key for me is that I genuinely wanted to connect with the audience--I enjoyed telling the story and I defined myself by whether the target received the message and stayed engaged. A mentor of mine once said that it is more about what is going on in their shop than your shop. Nonsense--that's for rationalization later when I fail; in the moment, my whole being and self-worth is wrapped-up in connecting with my audience.
2. Research your audience and engage them, early and often. I learned from a CEO who honestly knew more about the companies we were visiting than the people running them--that's preparation. When I am met at the elevator by the people with whom I am meeting, I don't talk about how Google Maps sent me four blocks away. Instead, I aim to get as much information from them as I can before the presentation starts. I want to learn things about the people and their most recent experiences so that I can best use that material to make my message relevant. Remember--we are all victims of our most recent experiences. For investors, I often find out whether they were in the last deal of a company with a similar platform or product that just made the news. Then, I know how to play slide six of my presentation. I often ask them about their experiences with specific issues that I am discussing or about to discuss. They appreciate my eagerness to learn from them, and it gives them an opportunity to talk. It's all business, all the time--knowledge is power, so I do as much reconnaissance before the meeting and get as much intelligence during the meeting as I can.
3. Dress the part and mind your manners. I don't let anything get in the way of my message. This often means playing the appropriate role at the appropriate time. When I go to the FDA, I wear beige pants, matte loafers, blue blazer, button-down washed-out blue shirt, muted tie and everyday watch. For investors, power blue suit, spankin' tie, cool socks, and shiny shoes. For employee meetings, rolled-up sleeves and open top button and casual on Fridays. I never wear cologne. Seriously, the non-verbal communication can squelch the best slides and presentation; don't let it.
4. View and adapt, and don't go alone. When I enter a room, I clone myself and place invisible me on a perch where I can see physical me and my audience. I constantly peer for signs of engagement and interest and either keep going with the plan and cadence if all is well, or adapt quickly if I am losing my audience. On an IPO roadshow there were two individuals in different meetings who were not buying what I was selling--the harder I tried, the more I adapted, the less engaged they were. Invisible me noticed that they literally turned their chairs away from me and to one of the scientific founders. What did I do? I made a mental note to understand how I screwed up later, but at the moment, I motioned to the founder to complete the entire presentation, even my slides.
5. Decide on three things that you want to communicate. For me, this is not about the data I am presenting or the marketing or development plans, or the use of proceeds, per se. This is about the very few over-arching messages that I want all of the facts I am delivering to serve. For example--we know the market, we are intense, and we have made tremendous progress since the last meeting. I once told the scientific founder who liked to employ the Socratic Method with VC's the three messages that we are going to communicate in the meeting. None of the statements were on any of his slides or mine. I also told him that we are not going to lead them to the water and hope that they drink; instead, we are going to bottle-feed these three messages to them. At the end of the meeting, one of the VC's summarized the session with the exact three over-arching messages that we set out to communicate. I'll never forget the look on the face of my partner.