“What do I say to a 99-year-old woman?”
“What do I say to a famous person?”
“What do I say to someone who could help my career without seeming selfish?”
All I could think to ask was what it’s like to be 99, which seemed irrelevant and the same question people have asked her for a decade. I don’t like when people find out I don’t eat meat and ask me where I get my protein. Again? How unimaginative and boring. Do they not realize how many people ask the same question? I’m sure people ask you similar annoying questions.
I don’t want her thinking that of me.
How do you prepare to talk to someone important that you hardly know?
Who hasn’t frozen at talking to someone important? Felt intimidated? Missed an opportunity?
You want to make a good impression. You don’t want to sound like everyone else, but not too different either.
Clients and students often ask when preparing for interviews.
What doesn’t work
Most people default to researching the person online, or their company. Then when the interviewer asks “Do you have any questions for me?” they plan to impress them with a question that shows off their knowledge.
Many people try the advice to get the other person talking about themselves. Sounds useful, but what if the other person has nothing interesting to say? Or talks too much about irrelevant stuff? And how exactly do you do that? Do you just say “Tell me about yourself?” I haven’t found it works that well.
These tactics can sometimes work, but they don’t connect or engage people. They’re factual. No amount of research will give you more knowledge about their life than they have. People don’t hire people for facts, they hire them for their abilities to solve problems. If you want facts, you can use Wikipedia. Besides, how many people do you like because of how many facts they knew when you met?
We like people for the feelings they evoke in us. Did we enjoy meeting them? Did they make us laugh?
“Wait a minute. I teach this stuff!” The thought struck me as I walked to her office. I felt silly for forgetting one of my core exercise. I’m human, though. Status distracts and blinds me too.
“If I want to connect with her meaningfully, I should use my Meaningful Connection exercise,” I thought.
I’m glad I thought of it. When I got to her office, she sat me on her office couch, sat on the chair next to me, leaned forward so we were face to face, and said “So what would you like to talk about?”
She put me on the spot. That’s intense.
If I didn’t know what to say, or asked “So what’s it like to be 99?” or “Can you tell me about yourself?” Things wouldn’t have gone as well.
Instead, I used my exercise. I said, “Well, we’re here about leadership. It’s a passion of yours, right?”
She said it was.
I continued, “Marshall’s focus is mainly about coaching. He does it to help people one-on-one and loves the feeling of helping someone make long-term positive change. My focus is on teaching, which is one-to-many, and helping give people the skill to create meaning and value for themselves and others. It’s the best way I know to make the world a better place. When you lead, what is it for you?”
Without missing a beat she said, “To serve is to live.” Two of the five words were meaningful words so my next step was simple. I confirmed them and our conversation was meaningful and engaging for both of us within a minute. I wrote about how meaningful I found her philosophy a couple days ago.
Two hours later, when her Executive Assistant broke up our conversation for Frances’s next appointment, she said “I don’t remember the last time I had such a delightful conversation.”
Wow! Very kind words. Does she tell everyone that?
In those two hours we talked about leadership, relationships, value, meaning, work, and such things from many directions. We shared stories. She invited me to write for the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute’s journal Leader To Leader and she invited me to join her at West Point.
We wouldn’t have had as delightful a conversation if I showed off how I researched her or got her talking about whatever she happened to think of at the moment.
That’s the value of technique. You can fall back on it when you don’t know what else to say or do.