“No executive is going to a cocktail party to hear you talk vaguely about your career goals. That’s for your uncle,” says Ken Morse, who teaches networking skills as part of a course on high-tech entrepreneurship at the Sloan School of Management.
In a world where deals are often discussed over shrimp and pâté, the strategy session helps graduate students develop the social skills to attract customers and woo venture capitalists. Social skills give high-tech entrepreneurs a big advantage in today’s fast-paced world, where you may have only a minute to make a good impression. Each semester 120 young people take the class, which also covers marketing and sales.
Mingling skills like spontaneity and sincerity can be learned, says Morse, who offers students a long list of tips, including don’t plant yourself at the bar; stand under the lights; and never begin a conversation with “hi, how you doin’?”
The class, which Morse teaches with entrepreneur John Preston, former head of the MIT Technology Licensing Office, also trains students to develop an “elevator speech,” a pitch that can be delivered to an executive in the time it takes for an elevator to travel a few floors.
“To refine your business idea down to 30 seconds is a lot of work,” says grad student Theron Dodson, “but it’s an absolutely crucial part of a good business strategy. It’s very powerful to present yourself in a way that is clear, short, and compelling.”
Morse, who has helped launch six high-tech ventures and is now managing director of MIT’s Entrepreneurship Center, arranges parties during the semester with venture capitalists and startup company executives so students can make new contacts.
He instructs students to research the names and backgrounds of the guests. “Identify and target the people you want to meet,” he says. “It’s perfectly okay to spend four to six hours preparing for a two-minute meeting with a big decision-maker.” Students are advised to stand by the food, not the bar because people want only to get a drink and then move on.
“I used to stand by the bar,” says grad student David Coutts. “But now I’ve learned that as people eat, they relax. Their endorphin levels go up, so they’re much more likely to listen to you. It’s great to know tips like that.”
Although society arrives late at parties, Morse tells students to go early. “You can check out the name tags to see who’s coming. Or, you can leave a note that says, “I’m really looking forward to meeting you tonight.”
Grad student Adrian Perica says that for him the hardest part about mingling was “ending one conversation and moving on to someone new.” Morse offers this advice: “The most gracious thing to do is say, “I’d like you to meet some of my friends.” Then introduce them and make your graceful getaway.”
NEED A PLAN
Students learn to keep their “elevator speech” brief but tantalizing, and to approach a CEO in the context of his needs, not theirs. “Now I’m much more likely to say something like, “I’ve got a product that will return you $5 million in one year for an investment of $500,000,” says Dodson, adding that with this kind of approach, “who doesn’t have a minute to listen?”
“I used to go to a cocktail party and just wing it,” Coutts says. “I just said whatever came naturally. I never thought to plan anything to get my goals accomplished.” Morse tells students whenever they meet someone new to say the person’s name and to lead with a question, rather than a statement. “People are usually much more interested in their business and life than yours, so draw them out,” he says. (Morse once planted five Sloan students in a crowd at a networking event and told them to ask only questions, not make statements. The next day, he asked 120 people what they remembered most about the party. Everybody remembered the Sloan students and wanted to recruit them.)
“Asking questions really gets people talking. It makes them feel important, and you can quickly learn so much about them,” says grad student Kim Wegbreit, who last year had the chance to meet the Prime Minister of Lebanon — and yup — got him talking by asking him a question.
“Socializing used to be very hard for me,” Perica says. “But developing good social skills really gives you confidence.” And confidence, Morse says, is part of what it ‘s all about. Then, when you get invited to the big events, you can say to your key prospects: “Are you going to the Intel party?I ‘ll meet you next to the shrimp.”