So, we’re assuming you’re on time and you know why you’re there and you know exactly what you want from the people in the room and you’ve Googled them and found out where they went to school and that according to LinkedIn they made a couple of questionable professional moves in the early ’90s and at least two of them tweet. What we’re interested in is that pregnant series of moments that lasts for around a minute and is ostensibly about introductions and handshakes and the offering of beverages and, if you’re lucky, a Danish or something, but is really about the beginning of potentially important relationships.
The main problem with entering an unfamiliar meeting room is that it’s like leaving a bar when it’s still light outside. Things seem a little too bright, a little overwhelming, a little disconcerting. Yet no matter how thrown off you feel, the guiding principle is: It’s your room. For the next, oh, 30 seconds to a minute, you’re in charge. Even if it’s their room, you’re in charge. Even if your earnings are a 10th of the salary of that guy you’re about to shake hands with, you’re in charge. You’re not the only one determining the mood of the room, but you have to take responsibility for it.
Consider a lesson from the forest. “Pretend everyone’s a bear in the woods,” says Robbie Pickard, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based comedian who spends his career entering rooms full of people he needs to impress. “If you look scared, the bear is going to attack you.” Which we always thought involved yelling and waving your arms and stomping the earth and throwing a Coleman lantern. But what he’s saying is, offer no apologies or expressions of trepidation or false humility. Protect yourself with confidence. Confidence makes you look comfortable.
It should seem like there’s no other place in the world you’d rather be.
At this moment, more than any other moment in the meeting, you’re your own agent. You’re saying, “I’d like you to meet myself.” (Note: Do not under any circumstances actually say, “I’d like you to meet myself.”)
Bill Clinton is a useful example. The man knows how to enter a room. He might not know how to leave, but he knows how to enter. Two out of the two former press secretaries we called for help with this column (we figured they might know something about the subject of entering meetings, since they’ve seen people enter the most important rooms in the world) mentioned Clinton as the best room-enterer they’ve ever seen. Which is pretty easy to do when you’re the president of the United States, but still, there are lessons in his approach.
“When Bill Clinton entered a room, he owned the room from the second he walked in,” says Dee Dee Myers, Clinton’s first press secretary and now a managing director at The Glover Park Group, a D.C. communications firm. “Because he was curious, he wanted to talk to people and would totally engage them. And pretty soon all the energy in the room was running in one direction.”
Marlin Fitzwater, press secretary for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, says, “Bill Clinton was probably the best I’ve ever seen. He walked in and demanded the attention of everyone. The lessons of Clinton are: Don’t be aimless, don’t be casual, don’t be flippant. Let your audience know they’re important and that you’re there because you have a message to give them.”
So, it’s an act, yes. But it’s not entirely an act. The act is supported by an important psychological underpinning: actual curiosity. “You have to be curious,” says Thomas Huseby, managing partner at Seattle VC firm SeaPoint Ventures. “Most entrepreneurs are thinking about what they want to teach or what they want to convey, and everybody would much rather talk to someone who is curious. It’s amazing what that attitude does.”
That’s how to enter a room. With curiosity. But not necessarily about the business at hand. Meetings at Esquire often start off with questions about the view from our conference room on the 21st floor of the Hearst Corporation tower in Midtown Manhattan. If the person we’re meeting with asks anything at all about the city, we take them over to the window and give them a quick tour: the Empire State Building, the exact location in the Hudson where Captain Sully landed the plane, that statue of Ronald McDonald that somehow ended up on the roof of a four-floor walk-up on Eighth Avenue, how New Jersey looks vaguely bucolic if you squint. It’s a rich, interesting conversation.
Who wouldn’t want to be in a room with you now? You’re amiable and confident and pleased with the way things are going. You’re ready to talk and to listen. You haven’t given them any reason why they couldn’t see themselves giving you a lot of money or offering you a contract or partnering with you in some way. You’re someone they could see themselves doing business with, is what we’re trying to say.
All that, and you haven’t even sat down yet.