Edited excerpt from an email I sent to a founder:
The most common mistake I’ve seen founders make in external meetings is to use up most of the meeting telling the other person about your idea, your product, or your company. I’ve done this countless times. You arranged to meet with the other person because you wanted to get their input. But then you found that you did most of the talking, and by the time the meeting ended, you hadn’t got what you wanted from them.
There are two reasons this happens. First, as founders, we’re passionate about our idea, so once we start talking we often don’t stop. Second, we want feedback, and to get that we feel we have to describe our product and company in detail. However, this often leaves little time for the other person to give us feedback we want.
Here are five tips for how to ensure you leave enough time in a meeting for the other person to give you the input or feedback you want. Before you read them, let me say that it’s far easier to give this advice than to live it (I’m actually bad at this stuff). Having said that, I wish that someone had given me this advice early on:
1. Make your key goal for the meeting to get input from the other person. Keep that goal in mind during the meeting and as you’re preparing for it. You might find it changes your behavior in unusual ways.
2. Send background information in advance. You’d be surprised at how willingly people will read material in advance. This increases the time efficiency of your meeting with them, since you no longer need to convey that info in the meeting. A tip: Don’t send generic marketing material, or your standard slide deck for investors. Write a brief overview of your company specifically for the person you’re meeting with, and do it in the body of an email to them, not as an attachment. You’ll find it will be more relevant, will sound more genuine, and shows that you care enough to put effort into the meeting. Rewriting a description of your startup periodically also helps to hone your message and clarify your thinking.
3. Before the meeting, write down questions to ask the person. Many founders tell the person they’re meeting with about their product and company, and then think that a great question is “So, what do you think?”. But it’s actually a lousy question. It invites an overall evaluation of your startup, and that’s not helpful to you because it’s not granular enough or actionable, and can create a confrontational dynamic in the meeting. Instead, come up with a list of specific questions before the meeting. Topics can include user need for your product, your market, your business model, sales, distribution, marketing. In which area does the person you’re meeting with have the most experience? Consider sending them the questions in advance, so they can think about them.
4. Ask at least one great, open-ended question. See How to ask great questions, and the other entries in the section on Asking Questions and Listening here. Asking great questions is an invaluable skill which will not only help you in this meeting, but can be transformative for your startup.
5. Set a target for what % of the conversation you want the other person to be talking. Remind yourself of that target during the meeting, and it will focus you on getting as much information out of them as possible.
(1) See also Why you should demand an agenda for meetings, and how to do it — nicely.
(2) Cf. the sections “Be explicit about what you need from people” and “Tips for writing emails to get things done” in How to get stuff done.