"Companies have got to learn to eat change for breakfast." Tom Peters
Stephanie Palmer coaches business leaders, senior executives, and established creative professionals from a wide variety of industries to help them get their ideas the attention and financing they deserve. Her previous experience is in the film industry, where she started as an intern on the movie Titanic. She worked in development at Jerry Bruckheimer Films and as the Director of Creative Affairs at MGM. Since going solo, Palmer has presented workshops and seminars for many organizations, companies, and universities, including Merrill Lynch Business Development Programs, University of Southern California, the Asia Media Festival, National Speaker's Association Graduate School, and the International Creativity Conference. Additionally, she has been featured on NBC's Today, CBS's Early Show, National Public Radio, and in the Los Angeles Times. Her book, under discussion with Erik, is Good in a Room: How to Sell Yourself (and Your Ideas) and Win Over Any Audience.
tompeters.com asks ...
Stephanie, what's the big idea here?
SP: "Good in a room" describes anyone who presents themselves and their ideas effectively. The phrase originated in Hollywood and it's used by agents and producers to describe people who pitch ideas well. I teach people to use, in their own industry, the tactics that work in Hollywood.
What's your background?
SP: I was the Director of Creative Affairs at MGM Pictures. I had more than 3,000 meetings where writers, directors, and stars would try to persuade me to buy their ideas. I was on the executive team that purchased and supervised all of the studio films with budgets that ranged from 15 million to about 150 million dollars. In my 3,000 meetings with the top idea-sellers in Hollywood, I learned what works and what doesn't, and I developed a system for helping people with good ideas get the attention and financing they deserve.
You've left Hollywood and what sounds like a glamorous job. Why would you give that up to do this?
SP: Well, it is a dream job, but I think it's someone else's dream job. For me, the part of my job as a studio executive that I loved was working with creative people, and helping them to sell their ideas. However, I didn't like the cutthroat politics and got very frustrated with the quality of movies that were being made. I knew that there were good ideas out there that weren't being purchased because they weren't being pitched well enough. I believe that when the quality ideas succeed, we all benefit, whether it's movies or anything else. So I decided that I wanted to help people who have good ideas pitch them more effectively.
Right. Are you working with people outside Hollywood now?
SP: Yes. I still work in Hollywood, but also with people in a wide variety of industries: financial services, insurance, marketing, and retail.
Early on in the book, you write, "Business is like high school." What do you mean?
SP: This may upset some people, but the same sort of clique mentality that applies in high school—fair or not—applies in the business world. Simply, people work with people they like and they want to hire people they like. Unfortunately, a lot of people like people who are just like themselves.
Is that a definite delimiter? If you're not like the people you're pitching to, is that going to prevent you from getting your ideas across?
SP: Absolutely not. But if you ignore it as a baseline reality, then it could. What's most important is being able to establish a personal relationship with the person you're meeting. You can establish rapport even if you're the polar opposite of that person, it's just harder to do.
Rapport is obviously an important concept, as it shows up frequently in your book. Can you give us a few hot tips on how you can gain rapport with somebody who doesn't seem to have anything in common with you?
SP: Definitely. The rapport section of the meeting is the most important, whether you're meeting someone for the first time or the fifth. This is what other people call the "small talk." And it's where most people make mistakes.
The most common mistake that people make is talking business too soon. What I recommend asking the person you're meeting some questions that demonstrate that you have done your research about them and that you understand where they're coming from. Make the questions specific—not generic, broad questions that they've been asked a million times before. Also, don't ask them anything that you could find out on the Internet, in the newspaper, or corporate papers.
Let them know you've done your homework.
Should you talk about the weather? It seems like the lower depths of small talk.
SP: I think it's fine to start with the weather, but then, ideally, you want to move onto something that is personal, but not too revealing. If you have a genuine interest in the other person, they will be able to feel that. It's something that can't be faked. If you do have a genuine curiosity about them, they can't help but warm up to you.
So, approach the conversation in a way that shows you genuinely care about the other person. If you're curious about who they are, what makes them tick, what their day is like, what projects they're most interested in seeing happen this year, they are naturally going to be more interested in you.
That reminds me of a quote from Jim Collins. One of his mentors said to him, "Jim, I think you would be better off being interested in people rather than trying too hard to be interesting." I think anyone can do that.
SP: Yes, absolutely. Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon, said one of his mentors took him aside when he was a young manager. The mentor basically said, "It's unfortunate that people are misperceiving you as someone who has so many ideas, but doesn't care about them. And I know that that's not true." He said it much more eloquently than I'm saying it. But it was so impactful for Randy to realize that people were misperceiving his intentions, simply because he wasn't asking them questions. Or the way that he was interacting with them was impeding his ability to make a positive impression.
Which is why we all need a mentor, or good, honest friends, because most of us misperceive at least some of the situations we're in.
SP: That's true, particularly when people have an idea that they're trying to sell, or a project that they've been working on for a long time. Those people are honestly the least prepared to be able to talk about their work in a way that is clear, simply because they have lost the ability to be objective about it.
Exactly. They're so involved in their own thing, that's all they know.
You talk about confidence. And you allow that sometimes you have to fake it. One of your stories reminded me of our Cool Friend Steve Shapiro and his book, Goal-Free Living. Your story focused on what you learned about confidence from a fortune cookie that read, "If you're willing to die, it is easier to live." You interpret it to mean that if you're detached from the outcome of a meeting, you're much more likely to succeed.
SP: I don't know about you, but I think there is wisdom in the place where philosophy and sugar come together. The point is to emphasize the value of detachment from outcomes. If you focus primarily on building the relationship and learning from your experience, more than on getting a particular result, you are much more likely to achieve what you want in the long run. That's as opposed to someone who's only concerned with quick-response outcomes.
Why is that? It seems counter-intuitive, but maybe only in a society that's massively focused on goals.
SP: I think you might be right. I wish I had the magical, metaphysical, spiritual answer for why that is true.
You tell clients to detach themselves from the outcomes of meetings. Is that something that they can absorb and deal with? Or is that a difficult concept for them?
SP: It's more about deciding what a reasonable goal is for the meeting. Often, the goal for the meeting may simply be, "I want to learn as much as I can about this person." Or, "I would like to learn three things about this company," instead of saying, "I want to sell this project for 10 million dollars." It's simply adjusting the way that you approach the meeting. It's in that small adjustment and how you approach the meeting that the world can open up.
Tom Peters has espoused the elevator pitch as one of the supporting columns of Wow Projects. The goal of the elevator pitch being, if you get into an elevator on the first floor with your boss and you're trying to sell an idea, you want to sell it by the time you get to the 35th floor. You say the elevator pitch is a myth. Why is that?
SP: I think the term "elevator pitch" incorrectly implies that it's appropriate to pitch in an elevator. Communicating quickly and concisely is important, but you should never pitch when you don't have time to continue the conversation. A moment's access with someone who doesn't know you is not an opportunity. Your first interaction with someone sets the stage for the relationship to come. You shouldn't start pitching your idea to someone before they know who you are enough to care about what you're saying in the first place.
High-level buyers are pitched all the time. They know when they are hearing something that's been repeated to dozens of other people. If you haven't taken the time to build rapport and customize your pitch to that person's specific needs, it's a sign that you're an amateur. Every buyer is unique, and your pitch should reflect that.
Excellent. So you would say that if you're in the elevator and you happen to get an audience with this person that you want to pitch, that's the perfect time to just get a friendly conversation going.
SP: Yes. Don't bring up your pitch at all in that situation. If you care about your project and you've been working hard on it, you would be foolish to share your great idea in a situation where they don't have the chance to carry on the conversation, or be able to say yes to you. It's not the right situation.
I think a lot of people need to hear your message, Stephanie. I see people hustling a sale all the time, at Starbucks, or just walking down the street. The other person always looks like they're thinking, "What are you doing?"
SP: Yes. I may be particularly sensitive to this, living and working in Hollywood. As a studio buyer, I was pitched in yoga class, at the dentist's office. A woman followed me into the ladies restroom. Those are all completely inappropriate situations!
Did you just say, "Enough already!"
SP: I tried to be polite, but honestly, did they think that was the time I was going to be able to say, "Wow! Let me just write you a check"?
Desperation. You also say that networking is a waste of time. Why?
SP: I think most people who think they're successful as a result of using traditional networking techniques succeed in spite of those techniques, not because of them. Traditional networking is generally a quantity-based approach. The idea is that if you meet enough people, accumulate enough names, you will eventually find people who are a good fit. On the surface this makes sense; you'd need a large pipeline of people because statistically only a few of them would be a right fit for your business. It's a bulk mail strategy, sending out a lot of letters and seeing what comes back. But bulk mail is expandable, whereas we are not. The bulk mail approach doesn't work so well in establishing genuine relationships because we only have so much time.
Therefore, instead of spending small amounts of time with lots of people, I suggest spending more time with fewer, carefully chosen people. Use a quality based approach. Upgrade from bulk mail to a handwritten letter with a first class stamp.
Tom Peters has been speaking for years about sending physical thank you notes and I see this more and more in tips around the web. Do you think it's a reaction to email and to this digital age that a physical letter now carries more weight than it ever did?
SP: I completely agree. It is because we're bombarded by so many different messages. The deluge of email communication, and even voicemail, can sometimes be so overwhelming that the fact that someone actually wrote you a handwritten letter stands out. I only get one or two handwritten notes, maximum, per day, but I get hundreds of emails. I imagine that's the same for many other people.
And there's no way to replicate a handwritten note. That person took the time to write that note and sign it and send it to you. Whereas anyone on their staff, of course, could be sending emails or—
That's an important idea, the time-taking. In writing it by hand, you're honoring the person you're sending it to, because we all realize how valuable time is these days.
SP: It's such a sign of respect. It says, "You are worthy enough" or "I want to thank you for the time that you've taken to spend with me that I'm going to honor you by taking the time to write you this personal note."
This had never occurred to me, but you mention using a non-business-sized envelope for your note. It will be put at the top of the mail pile by the heavyweight's assistant.
SP: Exactly. Simply by having a handwritten note in a non-business envelope, it's going to be prioritized on the top. You also have the benefit of the assistant's perhaps not knowing your relationship with the person, whether you're their best friend or a family member or something. So they're automatically going to put you at the top of the list, because you've already taken the time to write the note.
And then if you then call in to that assistant, he or she may well then remember your name from the return address as well. Cool, I love that.
But in as much as you don't believe in the standard group theory of networking, you do still have a network. You categorize people a little differently than most people's A, B, and C lists. Could you describe your system?
SP: I don't like using the terminology of A, B, and C groups, simply because I know that I don't want to be on anyone's C list, and I don't think that anyone else does, either. I start with Good People to Know, which is anybody who I think for any reason might be someone I would like to know in the future. It may be someone whom I've met at a conference or a barbecue. If I think that person is really interesting for whatever reason, business or personal, I'm going to include them in my Good People to Know.
If I meet someone, and I know that I have no interest in them, I'm not going to include them in my rolodex or keep tabs on them. Doing so is like being a relationship pack rat. I'm not looking to have the world's largest network so that I can brag, "Oh, I have 10,000 people in my list." I want to be more focused.
My next group I call the VIPs. Those are people whom I would like to have a business relationship with, but maybe I don't know them. They're my target list. Twenty people is the maximum that you should have on your VIP list.
My last group, and most important, is the Inner Circle. Those are the people that are closest to you, who support you professionally and personally. Those are the relationships that I spend the most time nurturing. Their support has been the most valuable for me, personally and professionally.
You have your family in your inner circle. Why?
SP: Everyone's families are different, certainly. So, by no means would everyone include their family in their inner circle. The standard is quite high for this group. They should know the real you, you should care about them, the feeling should be mutual, you shouldn't be in competition with each other, and you should be able to trust them to keep your confidence. I'm lucky enough that my immediate family lives up to those categories. Not everyone in my extended family does. I know people for whom their family wouldn't, unfortunately, live up to that high bar. Relationships are complicated.
But generally, blood is thicker than water, as they say.
SP: Yes, I agree.
SP: Not 100 percent of the time.
What about LinkedIn or the various social networks? Any thoughts?
SP: I have mixed feelings. Generally, I think it can be fun if someone is interested in communicating that way, and they like keeping their network that way. Certainly, I have friends who I only communicate with on MySpace, because that's the way they like to communicate. So, it's more a way of making it easy on the other person and communicating in their style. There are some effective ways to use social networking sites, but I'm a bigger fan of having the person-to-person, face-to-face, phone call-to-phone call interactions.
Speaking of phone calls, you have this notion of mini-meetings. You're such an anthropologist of the meeting. I think in your world, you're always in a meeting, which I mean as a compliment—you're always thinking about what it means. When you're communicating with people or trying to get something or helping somebody else get something, you call it a mini-meeting. Any time you take a phone call or any email, whenever you're communicating, it's important to think of that as a meeting.
SP: So often we dismiss those small interactions with people. But these are sometimes some of the most impactful ways that decision makers determine whether they're interested in us, want to continue a relationship, or recommend us to someone else. These pieces of communication are just as important as the actual, in-person meeting.
Because there are a gazillion different kinds of mini-meetings, I've narrowed it down to four main categories, which are: making requests, keeping in touch, following up, and saying "no." Most mini-meetings fall into those areas. And they are things I personally needed to learn. Using these techniques dramatically improved the responses that I've received to my own requests, and my clients have been able to use these techniques with much greater chances of success.
Speaking of no—I hate to admit this, but I have Esquire magazine here. One of the articles this month is about saying "No." The author tried to learn how to really say "No," without any apologies. It sounds like the author spent a week of his life saying "No" whenever anyone asked him for anything. There's something kind of liberating in being able to do this. When did you realize you had to learn to say "No"?
SP: It has been the most important thing that I have learned since I became an entrepreneur. When I worked at the Studio, I didn't do this enough. When I started my own business, I had to learn how to say "No," otherwise I saw that I wouldn't be able to have a successful business. At the Studio, I did such crazy things. One time I drove a script to a strip club at 3 a.m. because my boss had called in the middle of the night. I didn't think I could say "No" to tasks like that. I felt that I had to say "Yes," otherwise I would lose my job. I had all these notions of why I couldn't possibly say "No". And the reality is, there were many ways I could have said "No."
Saying "No" has opened up so much more space in my day and in my professional life. I'm able to focus on areas that I want to focus on, instead of being weighed down by tasks that other people should be doing, that aren't appropriate, or that I feel, out of guilt, I should be doing.
I think everybody has a tough time with that. In a way, by learning to say "No," you learn what it is you want to do most.
SP: True. You're saying "No," but it's because you're saying "Yes" to yourself. I'm saying "No, I don't want to go to my friend's event. I want to have a night to spend with my husband or by myself." It's very empowering when you can decide what it is that you want, and then create that for yourself.
Chapter 39 is titled "Read this Chapter When You Get Stuck." Why is this chapter in your book?
SP: This chapter is for all of the artists and creative people who struggle to get their ideas heard. It's from my experience, particularly in the last three years. I've had the incredible privilege to work with a number of Academy Award winning and Emmy Award winning writers and directors. These are people who we might think are at the very top of their profession, and wouldn't struggle with any of these issues because they've produced ten movies that we've seen and loved. They must be so confident and not struggle with writer's block or any of these issues. But they still do.
So this is my message, to all people, at whatever level, who are struggling with a project. Recognize that being stuck is actually a great part of the creative process. It's not a negative, but an opportunity to really get more of an understanding of where the stuck-ness is coming from. It is there for a reason. So often the best ideas come out of trying to crack through that period of stuck-ness.
Does this chapter then become the basis of your next book?
SP: What a good idea, Erik!
Just trying to stay ahead of the curve here.
SP: I'm not sure, but that would be a lot of fun, I think.
SP: Sure thing.
Email: Stephanie (at) – stephaniepalmer.com
Book website: www.GoodinaRoom.com
To learn more of what Stepanie had to say in 2004 as Director of Creative Affairs at MGM about succeeding as a scriptwriter, you can read this interview with her on Scriptologist.com.