How to Talk Business

There’s an interesting article speaking to European businesspeople, giving them advice on how to present their business plan in the United States.  It gives an interesting insight into the American business psyche, and can provide some insights for librarians (or other non-profit folk) who are uncomfortable or unsure about how to communicate with business folk.

We need to know this, because the people that are elected to our City Councils and County Boards are usually business people.  Knowing how to speak the language means you’ll be able to let them know why the library is important.

The author talks about the fundamental differences in approach:

In the past 2 months I’ve listened to over 40 pitches from French, Belgian, British, and Eastern European companies. About 1 in 15 presented their company in a way that would stick. This is because Europeans tend to build their case in a highly academic way–stating the conditions under which their offering makes sense and building their argument from there.

Hmm.  Not too different from the way librarians tend to approach these things.  Of course books and reading and information are important.  Now fund us.  Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t work very well.

She continues:

American audiences, on the other hand, are used to seeing “the bottom line first” and they do things very fast by European standards. “They’re like cowboys,” a Belgian CEO told me. “First they shoot then they look.” This is a fundamental difference in how people present and perceive information. And it can mean the difference that gets you to that second meeting, someone writing about your startup, and even getting funding.

It’s been my experience that not all business people think this way, but enough do that it’s advantageous to at least be able to get to the point.  Quickly.

Let’s go over a few key points that can help you present your company in a way that makes more sense here:

1. First impression is (almost) everything.

Americans know this very well. That’s why they work on their “elevator pitch.” You have 30-60 seconds to create an impression. Want to spruce it up even more? Have a 1-2 minute demo ready on your iPhone that plays while you speak. Think: Why are you different? What makes you stand out? How do you stick in someone’s mind? Why should an investor want to see you again? These are questions that should always be on your mind and guide what you say— all in 60 seconds or less.

Oh, man, how cool would an iPhone library demo be?  We’ve been told about elevator pitches for a while now.  Substitute “legislator” for “investor” and you can see where this would be a good thing.

2. Speak in benefits. Customer benefits, that is.

Europeans tend to be highly accomplished on the technology side. In the US, you also need to think about, and communicate, what your prospective customers will be able to do thanks to your technology. How will it address a true customer need? Why will a customer use it? Better yet—why will they pay for it? Every time you speak about a feature or capability of your technology, immediately follow with “and that means that customers will be able to…” (fill in the blank).

Again, substitute patron for customer, and you’ve got it.  How are we addressing the needs of our patrons?  Why are we a good deal? Why is the fact that we have a swell collection a good thing?  How will it benefit the community?

3. Start with the end first.

It may sound counter intuitive but business communication in the US is often non-linear and starts with the conclusion first.

I’m from the library and we’re here to help.

4. Know your numbers. In Silicon Valley numbers speak louder than anything else.

It’s not just Silicon Valley.  If you aren’t intimately acquainted with your budget and how you benefit the community, you have homework to do.

5. Focus.

The American idiom is “put a stake in the ground.” It’s when of all the many things your technology can be, you choose one (or two) things for now and go with them. This is a tough one, I know, because you want to show all the great things your idea can become. But where you see options, VCs see lack of direction. So let’s keep things in order: Decide on a focus for now, and put the framing, benefits, and numbers around that choice. You will later have plenty of time to develop your roadmap.

Hoo, boy, can we learn from this one.  Of late libraries have been running off in twelve different directions to be all things to all people.  Stop.  Focus.

6. Investors are not your friends.

They are meeting with you because you might represent a good investing opportunity. As such, come prepared with all your materials and if possible, with a beautifully executed demo and present your case. If you need advice, ask your friends, other CEOs, or advisors if you have them.

Neither are legislators.  They have a job to do, and if it’s politically expedient for them to back the library, they will.  Make it expedient.

7. Networking is key.

Many European CEOs think networking and mingling is “cocktail hour saved for those who don’t do real work.” But in the US—and especially in the Silicon Valley—this is an important catalyst to getting business done.

Yes.  Go to meetings.  Attend Rotary, or the Elks, or Jaycees, or whatever group hosts the movers and shakers in your community.  Get out there.  It’s much harder to cut the library’s budget if they personally know the librarian.

8. Keep it short.

Repeatedly I hear that CEOs talk about their companies for too long. Yes- you want to make sure people understand the breadth of your offering, but more talk doesn’t necessarily get you results.

Bottom line it for them, folks.  These guys work in bullet points all day long.  They really don’t want to hear you wax rhapsodic.

9. Don’t be argumentative.

In most European countries, debating a topic is just part of daily conversations. To most Americans—unless they were on their college debate team—the practice of debate can be unnerving.

It’s very easy to become defensive.  Resist the urge.

10. Tap into the existing infrastructure.

WebJunction.  Your state library agency.  Other libraries and librarians.  Friends of the library.

Some interesting food for thought.  Don’t be afraid to get out there and try.

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