Breaking the Ice: Things Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Jay Leno

This is the season of holiday parties, get-togethers, casual drinks with colleagues, and networking events galore. It is highly likely, nay inevitable, that you will find yourself at some event, chatting with somebody who you may not know well or may not even know at all. This is where your networking prowess should kick in, right? Where your charm, your business acumen, and your conversational skills should shine, right?

Well the truth is that many entrepreneurs and small business people are simply not that comfortable in social contexts and have no appreciation for the value that can be extracted at a holiday party or business networking event. The simple fact is the value of those events lie in the people there: the other entrepreneurs, business-folk, financiers, professors, and, most importantly, potential customers or partners. To fully leverage the human capital arrayed in front of you when you walk into one of these events, you need to be willing to socialize. This means, yes, talking to people and this is where Jay Leno comes in. Mr. Leno is a master at interviewing people, putting them at ease, and helping them to sell whatever it is they came on his show to pitch. Whether their latest movie or book or product, Jay finds a way to make them look good and make their pitch shine. How does he do it and how can you extract value from social and networking events? Here’s five things Jay does when his guests settle into his sofa:

1. Start with a joke.
How does Jay make his guests feel comfortable? He starts with a joke or a snarky comment or a clever aside. This serves to set the tone for the conversation to come and to lighten the atmosphere; by keeping the stakes low in this way, Jay can make the conversation that follows lighter and less risky for the guest. By keeping it light with your conversation partner at your next networking event, you message that you are not a mercenary looking for their business, nor are you a threat to them personally or professionally. Keep it light and you’ll enjoy the conversation more, too.

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2. Interview actively.
When breaking the ice, especially with a new acquaintance, it is critical that you show interest in them. How? Be active, ask questions, listen to what they say and respond. When Jay interviews a guest he already knows about them and he can guide the conversation using questions. When you meet someone at an event you’ll need to use the first few minutes to gather some basic info: who are they, what is their connection here, and what do they do in life. Build on this by asking about their personal as well as professional  life history and you can quickly construct a basic outline of the person. Remember, some people need to warm up a bit so start off slowly and let your interview ladder upwards from there.

3. Get down to business.
As you move from “interview” to “conversation” you’ll have the opportunity to learn about the person you’re chatting with and start to understand how they might be valuable to you or your business. If you perceive an opportunity, or the potential for working together in any manner, be sure to articulate to them what that might be and make clear you want to follow up. When Jay interviews his guests he is building a relationship, and this is your goal, too. Start then and there to lay the foundation for a lasting connection with the person you are chatting with.

4. Give ’em their plug.
Always keep in mind, that any conversation is a 2-way street. Your partner in the dialogue is also learning about you and considering how you might be helpful to them. So let them make their pitch; just like on Jay’s show when a guest is hawking their latest movie or TV show, give your new friend some space to pitch their own wares. Always consider ways that you might help them with their own goals and how you can provide value to them. To whom can you introduce them, or how can a partnership benefit you both are good things to think about as the conversation unfolds.

5. Leave them feeling valued.
Building relationships are dependent on mutual trust, common understanding between the people involved, and the respect that comes from these. When Jay plays host, his guests come away feeling that he values them, and truly appreciates having them visit the show. When you meet someone in a social situation, you should work to make that person feel valued, too. Valued for who they are, valued for sharing some things about themselves with you, and valued for what a potential relationship can bring.

Photo: Agustin Rafael Reyes 

Coach Nathaniel Cartmell and the 1910–11 University of North Carolina men’s basketball team

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