The magic of a good opener
The start of that phone call or Zoom is really important.
When you’re writing, it’s not worth stressing about your opener. Just start writing. You can figure out your intro later, before you click Send.
But when you’re launching a phone call or opening a Zoom, you only get one shot to start it. The opener can define the meeting. (Your email subject line and opener are really important, too. We’ll get to that some other time.)
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Your approach should be different if it’s a cold call, or a first-time meeting. Obviously if you have a longstanding friendship/relationship with the person or people on the other side of the call, you do you; your history and rapport is an asset, and you shouldn’t shy away from it.
When you’re meeting someone for the first time, though, you need an approach that’s warm, confident, and inviting. You need to be likable, of course, but you also need to establish from the outset that you can be trusted, that this will be a good meeting, and that you’re in control. (Not as a power dynamic in the relationship, but rather — this meeting has a point, a flow, and will progress in a way that’s meaningful.)
I’m all for shooting the breeze at the start, but keep an eye on the clock. In a half-hour meeting, two minutes of breeze-shooting at the start is about 7% of the meeting. Three minutes is 10%, and if I don’t know you yet, it can start to feel one of two bad ways: Either you’re wasting my time (or don’t have enough material stuff to talk about), or you’re faking a rapport that we haven’t built yet.
This sounds draconian and I don’t mean it to. If the breeze-shooting gets to 2 minutes and 12 seconds, you haven’t ruined the meeting. But I think it’s important to read the room endlessly, on repeat, and make sure you’re showing from the get-go that this is a meeting that values other people’s time.
And then when it’s time to start the meeting proper, your job is to set the stage succinctly. Here’s who I am, and here’s why we’re meeting. Neither should be a book report.
You don’t need to share your full curriculum vitae. You’re establishing your role at the company you’re representing, and what you’re hoping to get from this call. Hi, I’m Lex. I head up our widget quality assurance team, and I’ve been with the company for two years. I know you sell widget cases, and I’d love to learn more about your business, and whether there are ways we can work together.
I never love a meeting that opens with “Do you want to kick this off, or should I?” This is true even in internal meetings. You’re not throwing your weight around if you own a meeting that you called or requested; you’re leading. You’re owning. That’s a good thing.
(And remember, if it’s a Zoom, don’t forget my strategies for better video calls.)
Particularly if it’s a cold call or a first-time meeting, know your spiel, and work to deliver it without sounding like a robot who’s memorized a script. I handle X, I’m looking to do Y, and I’d love to learn more from you about whether that’s possible. Even when you’re selling — which again, isn’t a bad thing — your frame needn’t be “here’s a thing I want to sell you.” All meetings and negotiations and sales involve listening, and listening is a way to learn, and we all love to be seen as having something worth sharing. So if instead your frame is “teach me; I’d like to learn more about what you do / offer / need” — you’re setting up your conversation for success, because the other person feels valued. They feel important. That’s a good thing.
Ultimately, it’s important to remember — just like with a big presentation, or an improv show, or a wedding toast — the audience wants you to succeed. They’re rooting for you. Starting the meeting off with confidence and control takes so much pressure off, because now the other party doesn’t have to worry if the call will be chaotic or worse, a waste of time. So open strong. You can worry about closing later.
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