Imagine you walk into a networking event. You register, grab a drink and start wandering around. You've learnt that you have to put your shyness aside and approach people, so you walk up to the solitary guy nursing his drink and introduce yourself. Inevitably one of the first questions exchanged is "what do you do?". He replies "I'm an accountant." You put a brave face on it but you're already looking for a way out, maybe another visit to the bar if it's going to be one of those events...
Now imagine walking up to the same guy and he says "I help people cheat the tax man legally." How do you react? At the very least a smile, but chances are you're going to ask "how do you do that?". And there you have it — a conversation has started and he has your attention.
The two biggest barriers to getting their attention
Whether we're networking or pitching to clients or investors, one of the biggest problems we have is getting their attention. Not just polite attention, but interested and questioning attention. Because as soon as we have their interest (not just attention) we know that we're making an impression.
But we fail to do that for two reasons:
1. We're boring. We're boring when we try to tell them everything. I grew up as a software developer and I thought the way to get someone's attention was to tell them everything about the software I was developing. In excruciating detail. Nothing about the problems it may solve for them mind you—just endless, boring detail. The only people who really took an interest were other geeks.
And we're boring when it's all about us. The accountant at the beginning of this story didn't get your attention by telling you how great he was at accounting; he got it because he told you about a problem you have.
2. We're not clear. Back to the accountant again. He was so clear about what he does that we didn't even have to think about it. We knew immediately that he solved a problem we have and we wanted to know more. And even if you did not have the problem you would still understand what he meant and you could decide whether to extricate yourself from the conversation or just talk to him because he seemed like such a nice guy.
So how do we get their attention?
The first thing you have to do is hit their problem on the head. If you're trying to attract new clients the worst thing you can do is tell them about how great you are at what you do. They're not interested.
What they are interested in is a potential solution for their problem. So if you tell them "I help (these people) solve (this problem)", and they are one of those people with that kind of problem, you have a conversation that can go somewhere.
Action instead of noun. It's great when we can put a label on someone—we immediately know what they do and we can put them in a pigeonhole we understand. So when someone says "I am an accountant" we can conveniently put them in a box. But when they say "I help people cheat the tax man legally" we're not concerned with what they are—we're interested in the problem they can help us solve.
Keep it short. There's nothing quite as boring as someone who drones on about something that you're a) not really interested in or b) don't have time for right now. By keeping it short you're forcing a two-way conversation, not a one-sided pitch.
Make it memorable. The accountant in this story made his pitch both humorous and memorable (because it was at least a little bit funny and because it was a problem you have). There are tons of ways to do this; from alliteration (I recently suggested "from dust bowl to delight" to an interior design client) to drama (I sometimes say "I'm the Tornado guy").
Look for a response. The best response to an opening line is one of "oh, tell me more" or "how does that work?" or "what does that mean?". All of these open a two-way conversation—and that's a lot more engaging for everyone concerned.
One size does not fit all
One of the questions I get from entrepreneurs is whether your opening line should always be the same—in other words, do you need to memorize it.
And the answer is definitely not. First of all it has to come naturally, from your heart. If you memorize it, it will sound like you're delivering a speech rather than having a conversation.
You should also be able to vary your pitch to suit the occasion. One of the startups I work with says "I help young professionals navigate a fucked-up financial system". But he would never use that expletive in a speech—or in front of his mother. But in front of the right audience it gets the right people to sit up and take notice.
How to get their attention
Even if you ignore everything else above, there's one thing you must do to get their attention:
Hit their problem on the head.
This is the quickest way to get their attention. You don't have to tell them how you do it or how good you are at it. You just have to get them to ask you something about it. Then you have a conversation.