Since someone pointed out that this week has been about how-to's (how to get a narcissus drunk and have your way with it, how to fill out the ass part of your pants this winter) allow me to cast aside my usual blather and tell you something useful, for once.
If you want to make just about anything happen, I have five magic words for you (and you're not going to like them):
Let's back it up. Maybe you want to change careers. Sell your products or services. Raise money for a cause. Learn more about something you're interested in. Join forces with someone you admire. Get someone to pay attention to what you're doing, writing, advocating.
Make no mistake - cold calling sucks. No one likes it, but it gets easier. After the first few calls, you develop your own style, a sense of empowerment, and a renewed faith in humanity.
These are some of the most valuable things I've learned in life:
- Cold-calling is not just the domain of cheesy telemarketers. There is not a single person on earth who couldn't benefit from advice, information or access. Everyone - regardless of industry or aspiration - should know how to make a cold call or two. The trick is to find a voice that sounds like you - genuine, curious, well spoken and polite - and use it to your advantage.
- Stop hiding behind email and social networking tools (this includes people trying to get into social networking-heavy fields). If you want to send an introductory email before you call, that's fine (and probably a good idea, depending on how well you write). Get to the point quickly, establish your cred, and then follow up with a call, assuming (correctly) that people don't have time to read and answer your punk-ass emails. If you rely on email alone, you could be waiting a long time for a response. And by "a long time" I mean forever. Not because you're not awesome, but because inertia is a powerful force. Do you have forever to get your shit accomplished? No, you don't.
- Discipline can compensate for cowardice. Make a list of people you want to call and put their names, contact info, and brief biographical information in your calendar (or wherever) so you have no excuse not to make the connection. Treat it like anything else you dread doing - making a gyno appointment, scheduling your teeth to get cleaned. Write it down and make yourself accountable. If that shits stays on your to-do list for a week untouched, it will gnaw away at your soul. Every day you don't make the call, another helpless kitten dies. Inertia kills.
- Most people are decent and want to help if you give them a chance. Don't eff up their good will by being long-winded and unprepared when you call. Know what you want to say and what you want to accomplish. What's your pitch? Figure it out, write it down, and practice it. (I'm not kidding - practice.) Make it easy for the person to understand how they can be helpful and you'll be surprised by how much people are willing to do for you.
- Most people are highly susceptible to flattery and like to think that they have something to offer. This is your way in. When you ask something from someone, you have to offer something back. What you're offering is a humble acknowledgement that they have the hard won information or access that you need. Go crazy - say things like, "I wondered if I could ask your advice about..." or "I really admire your work/what your organization does..." or "I'm trying to learn more about XYZ and thought you might be able to shed some light on 123" or "I'm working on something that ties in really well with what you/your organization/your shop is doing, and I wondered if you had a few minutes to chat." If you have a connection to the person or someone has referred you, even better - instant cred you can flaunt: "So-and-so speaks really highly of you and thought you'd be a great person to talk to about..."
- Some people are not as helpful as you may think. Maybe they are douchey or not terribly forthcoming or simply don't know as much as you thought they would. That's absolutely fine. Thank them for their time and - strap one on here - ask them if there is someone else they could refer you to who might also be of help. Even douches like to show off how connected they are - so let them connect you to someone who isn't a douche. I had a job for two years that involved calling a daily list of 30 to 40 people I didn't know and asking them for information and time they had no real incentive to give me. That's a lot of people, and only once was someone actively rude to me. It smarted a little, but it was nothing bath time for baby sloths couldn't cure.
- Respect boundaries - but push a little. Treat everyone like their Barack Obama, no matter who they are. Introduce yourself briefly and follow with "I'm not sure if I've caught you at a good time, but I wondered if I could confer with you at some point about..." to demonstrate that you are, in effect, taking up their space. But remember, they picked up the phone, so it's up to them to maintain their own boundaries. If they tell you it's not a good time, don't be cowed. Ask them when they might have 15 minutes to spare and get on their calendar. And keep it to fifteen minutes, telling them that you want to be mindful of their time. If the conversation goes well and you have more to talk about, don't be shy about asking for an in-person meeting, scheduled at a time and place at their convenience. If someone can see your earnest, shining face, they will be more likely to hook you up. Don't leave that meeting without asking if they know anyone else you should talk to - again, let them flex their network for you.
- If you're not getting any love, keep it up. Send an email, follow up with a call. If the person has an assistant, ask the assistant what time might be best to call and leave a brief message. You won't get a call back, so it's your job to call again. Remember: inertia. Don't leave more than two messages, but it's OK to call a few times to see if you can get the person directly. There is a fine line between stalking and being persistant - use your judgment but don't puss out without giving it the old college try.
- If someone has been a brick, write them a note of thanks. Let them know how their information, advice or access helped you out. It's the polite thing to do and it's extremely gratifying for the person on the other end. I recently gave someone advice about salary negotiation and the handwritten card she sent me made me feel like a million bucks. I'll probably keep it forever, next to my signed headshot of Chris Farley.
- You are someone worth talking to. If you're feeling freaked out by the prospect of asking for what you need, it's time to develop a little sense of entitlement. People help each other out - that's how the world goes round. Why shouldn't they help you? Who knows when you might be in a position to return the favor?
Image: From The Mary Tyler Moore Show. God, I love that gal.