Creative Thinking Techniques: Invite Your Inner Artist To The Next Business Meeting

You know what stand-up comedians love? When they get off stage and some bloke from the audience working on his fourth gin and tonic pulls them aside to tell them how they should have told one of their jokes.

Actually, that’s a bald-faced lie. Comedians hate that, but they get it every time they perform. Why? Because people are naturally drawn to creative individuals—even if it’s to annoy them with unsolicited advice on how to carry out their ideas.

Creativity: The Driving Force Behind Everything Good That Has Ever Happened

Whether it’s Steve Jobs imagining a mobile phone that doubles as a personal computer or Michelangelo chipping away the unnecessary rock to reveal a flawless statue of David, creativity is the driving force behind innovation and success. Creativity can draw skepticism, ridicule and derision, but in the end, creative people are visionaries and natural opportunists who steer art, politics, culture and business.

The Building Blocks of Creativity

Is creativity a gift, or can it be taught and learned? The guy at the comedy club is probably a lost cause, but the rest of us can use creative thinking techniques to enhance the four key ingredients needed for creative thinking:

  • The ability to observe
  • The ability to listen
  • Reflection
  • Communication

Creative Thinking Techniques and the Question “Why?”

When a client shows me a new product, the first thing I do is ask them why they created it. When they answer, I ask another ‘why?’ question, then another and another. When they can no longer provide an answer, that’s when the product’s true purpose is revealed.

Like the iPhone and the David statue, creativity is about boiling ideas down to their most simplistic form through the creative process. Although that process is different for everyone, it usually involves quiet reflection and internal focus.

My best creative thinking happens when I’m in the shower—which might not be the most conventional place, but it works for me.

You should focus on this process when you do your best and clearest thinking. Maybe that’s at night before bed or in the morning before you’re bombarded by the day. For others, this may be during the car ride to work or during an early morning walk.

Work on honing your ability to be creative every day and take an honest inventory about what and when works best for your own creative thinking. When people start asking questions that you think have simple, obvious answers, congratulations! It means you’re seeing things from a different point of view that the layperson needs explained. Stoking creativity requires work and consistency, but when you tap into your creative side, your business will become your masterpiece.

How An Imaginary Taxi And The Law Of Attraction Can Help You Leverage Your Network

They say that everyone is plus or minus 10 per cent of the five people they spend the most time with. Kind of makes you rethink where you spend your time, doesn’t it?

Leisure time is one thing—but what about business?

If you could have a few minutes in a taxi with any five people who you think are most able to propel your business forward, who would they be?

Um, if Time is Money, Why Waste it Pretending to Be In a Make-Believe Taxi?

OK. Fair enough. For starters, because of the law of attraction, which says that you can achieve any goal if you envision it, focus on it and immerse yourself in it constantly, which is exactly what you will with this taxi exercise. So hold the questions for now, OK?

The exercise takes place in a taxi because that scenario lets you imagine yourself in a closed, quiet, intimate setting with the five people who have the most power to help your business. Think about the two most important questions:

  • Who are these five people?
  • How can you leverage your network to get an actual audience with them in real life?

It doesn’t matter where these people rank, one could be a doorman and one could be a CEO. If they can help you achieve a goal, they should get a seat in your taxi.

Let’s start with the first question.

The Top 5: Picking Your Passenger List

Everyone’s five passengers will be different. In fact, your five passengers should be different six months from now than they are at this moment.

Let’s say you’re an entrepreneur who launched an IT startup in the East end of Darby, and now you’re ready to branch out to North America. Whose help do you need to get there?

You’d better get someone with experience taking a local IT business international. Unless you have a rich mate whose life you saved, a tech-savvy investor should take up another seat. Since people are judged by the company they keep, how about filling the last three seats with the CEOs of the top three companies you want to work with? Aim high or go home!

These are the five people who are most likely to save you money, time and resources by shortening your learning curve and helping you avoid critical mistakes.

OK, But Imagination Doesn’t Get Me in Front of These People. No—Your Network Does

So you’ve answered the Who, but the second question remains: if you had 90 days to get in front of just one of those five people, how would you do it?

Could six degrees (actually, more like 4.2 degrees) of separation between all the people you know be enough to get you a meeting? Who do you know—and who do they know—who could transform this mental exercise into a real taxi ride—or face-to-face meeting—with an actual person? Now that you’ve identified the five most important people, the game becomes getting a real conversation with them.

If you’re the IT entrepreneur with global aspirations, to whom can you reach in Silicon Valley? Perhaps your sister lives in California and her roommate’s boyfriend works for a consulting firm that counts Apple as a client. Right away, a flag should go up. Getting in front of the right person may require you to be innovative, creative and daring, but if you’re willing to do that, it’s all but certain that you’ll actually get in front of one or two of your five taxi companions.

There is always an opportunity. It’s your job to hail it before it drives right past you.

Networking Skills Don’t Come From Luck Or Talent, They Come From Preparation

You’ve heard the old cliche that luck favours the prepared? Well, it’s a cliche for a reason—it’s true.

If you’ve committed to an upcoming networking event, you’ve got to take it seriously by putting in the work beforehand. What is the purpose of the event? Who is the host? Who will be in attendance? Know these things, and you’ll walk in confident—driven by a plan and a purpose. Know them not, and you’ll be just another wallflower staring at your shoes while you fumble for your words and mess up peoples’ names.

Say no to the event if you don’t think it will be worth your time, but if you commit, commit to the required preliminary preparation, as well.

Maximizing Your Networking ROI: Make it Count by Doing Your Homework

Preparation for an upcoming event should always come back to two questions on which all networking skills are focused:

    • What does success look like for this event?
    • Where do I have the opportunity to extract value?

Try to get a list of attendees beforehand. When you know who your company will be, you can identify targets and prepare custom-tailored questions for specific individuals. If not specific individuals, at least find out the job titles of the people who RSVP’d. This will help you avoid the drain of idle chit-chat, which serves no purpose and diminishes the event’s ROI.

Plan to Look Out for Number 1

Make sure you leave room for flexibility in your strategy. Plan to meet people who you didn’t know were coming, and plan to make connections and have chemistry with people that you didn’t anticipate. Also, prepare for exit strategies when you encounter the duds who are networking for networking’s sake. You have to avoid taking on any dead weight. If someone opens up with a tired old “what do you do?” or “is business going well?” respond with a real question, such as “what is your biggest challenge at the moment?”

If it is clear that the conversation is going nowhere, abandon ship. Make an excuse to go speak with someone across the room, or bring someone else into the conversation and then slip away.

Remember, what does success look like, and how can you extract value? Conversation for conversation’s sake with the awkward person you pity for standing alone is not the answer to either of those questions.

You should walk into every room with an objective, and that objective will be formed by doing meticulous preparation. Know where you’re going and know who you’ll be meeting, but most importantly, know what success looks like and how to achieve it.

The Most Common Selling Mistakes And How To Avoid Them

There are two types of salespeople: the effective ones and all the others. What separates the good from the bad? A few things, actually. When I meet the people who are coming close, but not quite hitting the mark, they’re usually making at least one of these mistakes.

  1. Let’s start with the first, worst and most-common mistake: not listening to the customer. So many otherwise good salespeople are so focused on the end goal, so focused on the process, so focused on closing the deal that they tune out what the customer is saying. When customers tell you what they want, they’re doing you a huge favour. When you listen to them, you gain an understanding of their needs and problems. Only then can you position yourself as the solution.
  2. Overselling: When you come on too strong, you run the risk of scaring off a potential customer.
  3. Number three is a first cousin of number two: It is good to be persistent. It is not good to be annoying. When you pester someone or bombard them or demand an answer when they’ve asked for time to think, you become the person who triggers the “oh no, not you again” reaction every time you call. There is a fine line between being persistent and being annoying. Try to deliver the message right the first time.
  4. Lack of preparation: Prepare to the point that you know every intricate detail of your customer’s overall industry, as well as of their specific business. You have to be able to speak authoritatively and present real solutions. Trying to sell to someone without understanding the processes and problems of their industry comes off as amateurish. Don’t bluff. If you don’t know the answer to something, say you don’t know. If you have to get back to them, say you’ll get back to them. People can spot a phony.
  5. Relying on the infallibility of the process: Use the process as a guide, not an absolute. If your process doesn’t work with a specific person, ditch it and try another method until you get a good response.
  6. Failure to understand the customer’s constraints and buying behaviour: When you know what is holding a customer back, you can adjust your strategy to make them comfortable with buying.
  7. Failing to qualify a customer in or out of each different stage of the cycle: This one is difficult, but it might be the single defining characteristic that separates good salespeople from bad ones. In North America, specifically in the U.S., the process moves much more quickly than it does in the U.K., where customers spend far more time determining the ROI of anything that costs more than 40 pounds. In the U.S., people tend to be much more direct when it comes to saying no, where a salesperson is far more likely to be left dangling in the U.K.
  8. Finally, know your audience and take the time to learn the cultural nuances that separate different buyers in different markets. In the U.K., for example, “no” often means “not now”—but if you don’t settle on a definite follow-up time, you can kiss the deal goodbye.

Trust your instincts, don’t annoy people, be prepared, know your audience, listen. The elements that make great salespeople shine sound like common sense, but you’d be surprised how often the most basic elements are overlooked. Figure out what to do by knowing what not to do.

Finding A Reciprocal Business Relationship In The Unlikeliest Of Places

When you identify the organization you want to work with, you want to cultivate a relationship with the head honcho who calls the shots, right?

Not so fast.

Logic says that you want to make a connection with whoever has the most seniority, but sometimes kingmakers don’t sit on the throne. In every organization, there are trusted advisers who have the ears and the hearts of the people in charge. Forging a symbiotic, mutually beneficial bond with these people could hand you the keys to the kingdom—and these relationships are often the ones you don’t realize you’ve made until after you make them.

What A Reciprocal Business Relationship Looks Like in the Real World

Let’s say you’re a sales manager who represents a company that manufactures steel rebar, which builders use to reinforce concrete. You’ve finally landed a meeting with the senior buyer at a construction supplies company that provides steel rebar to builders throughout Western Europe. It’s taken weeks of cold calling, following up, requesting a meeting—even just a bloody response—only to wake up, day after day, just to jump out of bed, run over to the computer and discover an empty email inbox.

Then, it finally happened—her office left a message asking you to come in for an interview. This one deal could ignite your career and position your spirited little company as the next big industry player.

You meet with the buyer only briefly. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have a lot of time and she seems to be concerned mostly with cost, which isn’t your strongest selling point. You leave feeling deflated, but cautiously optimistic.

You left plenty of time and got to the meeting early. While you were waiting, you struck up a conversation with the receptionist who, it turns out, obsesses over Manchester United almost as much as you. Like you, he also has a brother in The Andrew, which you discovered after you asked about the Royal Navy sticker on his desk.

You tell him you’re part of a great organization that supports sailors stationed overseas, and that you’d be glad to put him in contact with the group’s leader, who has become your mate over the years. He tells you to look him up on Facebook, which you do. Over the next few weeks, you and the receptionist exchange a few friendly messages and he likes your business page.

A few weeks later, when the senior buyer mentions in a meeting that their current supplier has made her unhappy yet again by delaying a big shipment of steel rebar, the receptionist reminds her of you—he even shows her your Facebook business page.

She decides her current supplier is complacent and, even though your price is slightly higher, calls you in and informs you she wants to place an order for three months worth of supplies, and see how it goes from there.

Giving to Get and the Value of Symbiotic Relationships

OK. Let’s examine what just happened. Although your big meeting was lukewarm at best, you connected with someone who was able to offer a reciprocal business relationship. The receptionist works closely with the senior buyer, schedules her meetings, takes her notes, knows her itinerary. The spark that struck between you was genuine. The chemistry was real, your shared experiences were emotional and your philosophical similarities ran deep.

But that’s not what turned a nice chat into a life-changing relationship.

You offered to help him by putting him in touch with your chum at the military support organization, and that’s the key—reciprocity. This isn’t a something-for-nothing type of universe. In order to receive the benefit of this connection, you had to pony up first.

That’s exactly what you have to think about with every connection you make. What can you give in order to get what you need? Your knowledge? Your expertise? Your time? Each situation will be different, but one thing will never change: you have to give in order to get.

Ask not what your connection can do for you, until you’ve done something for your connection.

It’s Not A Unique Networking Style, It’s A Bad Personality — Avoid These People At All Costs

People avoid networking events for one reason—they can be stressful. Why are they stressful? Because of all the absolutely awful people you have to meet. There is hidden value in every event, but to find it, you have to navigate a minefield of personalities that can make you want to become a recluse. Everybody has a different networking style—and some are absolutely toxic. Identify and avoid the following people at all costs—they will never be worth the investment in time and energy.

The Bragger: Been There, Done That

There is a person at every event who is his or her own number one fan. Forget about your accomplishments or experiences—let’s talk about me! After all, my life is so much more interesting and exciting than yours! Oh, you visited Paris for the first time this summer? I’ve been going since I was a kid. Your business is expanding to China? Mine has been in Asia for years. Sometimes The Bragger is a narcissist, sometimes he or she is just insecure. Either way, The Bragger will never help you along. In fact, he probably won’t even notice you—unless you’re a mirror.

The Eternal Pessimist: Oh, Why Even Bother?

If The Bragger had an opposite, it would be The Eternal Pessimist. Like people who play the victim throughout their lives, The Eternal Pessimist is on a perpetual quest to find validation and gain sympathy. You’re not a business contact, you’re just another person who exists to reassure them and tell them everything is going to be OK. Everything is not going to be OK. The Eternal Pessimist is never going to be someone who brings constructive ideas and solutions to the table.

The Serial Business Card Giver: Take This Card—Since I’ve Given You Nothing Real to Remember

Business cards are great—unless they’re a substitute for a relationship. When The Serial Business Card Giver walks away, you won’t remember a thing about him. He didn’t engage, he didn’t inquire and he didn’t inspire—in fact, he barely made eye contact. The person who shoves a business card in your face as part of his or her introduction doesn’t have the time or the interest to build relationships. The Serial Business Card Giver is only interested in cold contacts, which you could get at home on your email.

The Life Story: So it Wasn’t Until After Your Roommate Moved Out That You … Zzzzzzzz

Some people just can’t resist the urge to lay it all on you. From family drama to medical issues, there is no subject on which the The Life Story won’t elaborate without solicitation. It’s not networking for them, it’s therapy. When you find yourself saying “uh-huh” once every few minutes during a never-ending anecdote that covers The Life Story’s divorce, car accident and religious epiphany, eject and pull your parachute. Consider the handoff—that’s when you pull someone else into the conversation and delicately walk away as The Life Story begins to make his new victim’s ears bleed.

The Serial Networker: Haven’t I Seen You Before?

Networking should be a tool—a means to an end. You’re supposed to go in with a goal and a plan that make the event worth the investment in time and energy. For The Serial Networker, however, the event is the end. They go from event to event. Their experience makes them appear to be polished and connected, but for The Serial Networker, events aren’t business tools, they are a substitute for a social life.

Go into every event with a goal and a plan, and try not to let either be sidetracked by these dangerous personalities. There is a fine line between protecting yourself and being rude, but if you trust your instincts and rely on the law of attraction, these people will be someone else’s problem.

Networking Success Isn’t About Knowing People, It’s About Knowing Yourself

The most famous aphorism to come out of Ancient Greece is “know thyself”—and the Greeks were so confident, they networked while wearing togas. There are a million secrets to networking success, but in the end, it all comes down to self-awareness.

  • Why are you at a specific event?
  • What do you hope to achieve?
  • With whom can you connect to advance your goals?

Once you answer these crucial questions, you’ll be much more aware of the right time to talk, the right time to listen and the right time to walk away from a conversation. Self-examination is the foundation of successful networking.

Get What You Came For: Self Analysis Leads to Networking Discipline

Let’s say you sell digital keyboards at wholesale prices to musicians who can’t afford the big-box retail stores. Your marketing campaigns are working, your targeted ads are reaching the right people and you have a high click-through rate. But people just aren’t pulling the trigger when they get to your site. Is it your landing pages? Your site copy? The overall user experience?

You sign up for an e-commerce networking event, and when you get there, you find that it’s filled with the most interesting people. Great web designers, great copywriters and great social-media strategists are all ready to eat up your time by allowing you to engage them in conversation. However, you resist the urge to dive into discussions that are exciting, but that you know won’t provide any value in the long run.

Instead, you show discipline and gravitate toward the handful of people who understand the point in the sales cycle that you’re currently struggling with. The conversation isn’t nearly as interesting and you envy the people who are chatting up the guy who mastered Twitter, but you came with a purpose. You knew what you needed, you knew who could get you there and you resisted the urge to treat a networking event like a social party.

A few weeks later, you’re selling so many keyboards your accountant assumes that Yes is getting back together.

The 5-Minute Taxi concept forces you to become self aware, to analyze what you want and to envision who can help you achieve those goals. Networking is about connections, about who you know and who those connections know. Realistically, any networking success depends on how well you know the person in the mirror.

Lead vs. Referral: Get Your Terminology Straight Before You Build Relationships

If you want to transform a pile of business cards into real relationships, then you have to understand the difference between chasing a lead, following a referral or being blessed with an introduction.

Basically, the best leads turn into referrals, and the best referrals turn into introductions. Here’s the breakdown:

Leads: The Cold Calls of Networking

If you mention to your cousin that you’re starting a business making surfboards, and she says, “You should check out this website that sells handmade surfboards,” that’s a lead. Leads are unqualified, unannounced, unsolicited, and unrequested. One person points another in the right direction. No bridge is created between the two parties. The recipient is not expecting to hear from the initiator. A lead can be as simple as a name on a website, but if you work your network, a good lead can become something even better: a referral.

How a Lead is Likely to Go Down

At a dinner party, you meet a guest who tells you that Company X needs the service you provide. You’ve just been given a lead.

Best case scenario: You email the company and introduce yourself and your services. A company representative writes back and you strike up a conversation.

Worst case scenario:

You have no idea that you just got a lead. You continue eating and drinking, dab your gin and tonic on a stain you got on your tie, and never give another moment’s thought to the dinner guest.

Referrals: Getting Warmer …

The basis of a referral is that one person expects to hear from another because a mutual contact has made both parties aware of the other. Someone who wants to work in sales at a big tech firm gets a tip that Google is hiring salespeople. That person then asks their friend who works at Google to let the hiring manager know that their qualified friend is interested and will be sending a resume.

That’s a referral.

With referrals, the mutual contact builds a bridge between the recipient and the initiator. The call or email or message won’t come out of the blue and the name won’t be totally foreign. Although they’re more intimate than leads, referrals take place remotely through mechanical communication, and are still fairly one-dimensional.

A Likely Scenario for a Referral

You’re back at the dinner party, only this time the guest says that his friend Jane works at Company X, which is in need of the service you provide. He’ll be glad to pass your info along to her and give her a heads up that you’ll be in touch.

Best case scenario: You call, you talk to Jane. Jane immediately realizes you’re the solution to all her problems. Jane calls you in to meet the steering committee. You send a fruitcake to the dinner guest to show your appreciation, not realizing that a fruitcake is actually a horrible gift.

Worst-case scenario: You call, Jane is kind of busy, it’s a little awkward and it’s not quite a match. Jane is dismissive and curt when she tells you that she’ll call you if anything comes up. You send a fruitcake to the dinner guest so he can feel the same level disappointment as you.

Introductions: Nice to Meet You

An introduction is a physical meeting between two parties, prearranged by a mutual contact or contacts. The Introducer will often have laid the groundwork and provided context for everyone involved through a brief varying in the degree of formality. Less frequently an introducer may set up a sort of “blind date” where he or she is present to connect two or more individuals.

In this setting the introducer facilitates the conversation with an understanding of what each party hopes to achieve through the interaction. Introductions require movement, the anxiety associated with high-pressure meetings, and a longer time commitment than mere phone calls or emails, which is why people often pass them up, but don’t throw away opportunities! Introductions are the most powerful weapon in a networker’s arsenal.

An Introduction to How Introductions Work

You’re back at the dinner party, only this time, the mystery guest is there with Jane. He introduces you and informs you that he and Jane have discussed your service. He begins to point out all ways that your service is exactly what Jane’s department has been looking for.

Best case scenario: It just happened! The mystery guest has put his reputation and relationship on the line to give you a leg up. He respects you and believes in you so much that he facilitated an initial conversation, which can be so hard to wrestle out of a lead, or even a referral. The deal is on the plate—go close it!

Worst case scenario: Jane loves fruitcake. When you go to meet her higher ups, she offers you some and you have to eat a piece out of obligation.

You can’t play the game if you don’t know the language. Leads, referrals, introductions: many people use these terms interchangeably, but they are not synonymous. Leads aren’t as valuable as referrals, and the best referrals are the ones that become introductions.

Networking Tips Don’t Mean A Thing If The Conversation Never Scratches The Surface

How many times have you been in a pub, seen a nervous bloke out on a first date, and cringed after overhearing him open up the conversation with something like “do you come here often?”

What a blown opportunity to leave a lasting impression.

I used to be that guy. I’ve since learned that fluffy surface talk isn’t only the bane of bad first dates. It can also ruin networking opportunities. Innovative and unique conversations are what spur deep, meaningful connections—not the traditional ‘Standardised’, clichéd questions like “so, what do you do?” or “how’s business?”

I mean, if you started a new job and introduced yourself to your colleagues by asking how they circumvent corporate policy, word would quickly get around the office that the new guy does not excel at exchanging value through mutually beneficial relationships.

Good Conversations Lead to Good Relationships

Asking someone what they do is a safe question—and a useless one. Good conversation starts by removing both yourself and the other person from your respective comfort zones. You want to challenge their thinking and make them feel a bit uncomfortable by forcing them to think on their feet. Only then can you break the networking mould that traps most people at most events.

Your questions should all lead back to the one, true, central question—how can you help them? One of the best networking tips is that the pay-it-forward methodology will earn you dividends in the long run.

At your next networking event, ask a few of the following questions, and as you’re listening to the responses of the people you meet, consider how you can help them achieve the goals they state as answers.

  • If I could introduce you to one person, who would it be? Why?
  • If you could speak for 30 minutes to any audience, who would they be and what would you discuss?
  • If you were running this event, who are the first five people you would invite and why?
  • What is it that you don’t like about networking?
  • How did you feel walking in the door to this event today? Why?
  • Why are you here? What are you hoping to achieve from this event?
  • What’s the one thing you’re thinking about now, rather than being in this room?
  • What’s the biggest referral opportunity you’ve ever had and why?

If You Don’t Care, Don’t Ask

Resist the urge to ask about who has influenced them the most, who their best connection has been or who has had the biggest impact on their life. Just like “do you come here often?” those questions are easy to ask, easy to answer—and they have no value. You’re trying to find out what the person needs, and then spinning the wheels in your brain to figure out how to make it happen.

  • Your questions reveal that the woman you’re speaking with needs an accountant. You know an accountant who is not looking forward to moving to Northampton when his company relocates in April.
  • The next man you talk to is in desperate need of more office space, but can’t afford to expand. You remember meeting someone at a previous event who is looking for a way out of a commercial lease.

We’re not all born with the gift of gab. Some of us are shy; some of us are introverts, and some of us are self-conscious because we’re having an abysmally bad hair day. That’s fine. Just remember that good conversation starts with real questions and stokes real ideas. The reason you don’t ask someone if they come here often is because you don’t care—or at least you shouldn’t.

If you don’t care to know the answer, don’t ask the question. Real relationships start with real conversations.