5 Tips to Avoid Alienating the Audience in Business Meetings

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The heightened heart rates, heavy breathing and exasperation-induced sweat were palpable, even through the screens of the virtual meeting. One hour became two, then three, and the hostage-wielding villain proceeded to hijack the collaborative session. My assistant texted me furiously, sending inches of aggravated pleas to cut in and cut him off. When I did, I realized I was far too late; the damage was done, and both the perpetrator and the audience had suffered the results of his socially unaware actions.

In case you’re wondering, no, he didn’t raise funding on that call. And no, he didn’t gain any customers or leads, either. He did, however, make some enemies, though I’m sure he’s blissfully unaware — and thankfully, it isn’t my job to tell him. At the end of the day, he was most likely the smartest, by some measures most “accomplished” person in the room. Nonetheless, being smart or accomplished doesn’t make a person immune from alienating their audience in one fell swoop. Here are the five cardinal rules he broke and how we can avoid a similar tragic fate:

Related: Virtual Meeting Etiquette Guide for Hosts and Attendees

1. Build up, don’t talk down

There’s a tempting trap that too many young, new, or can fall into in the plight of building credibility and getting taken seriously. That trap: conflating arrogance with wisdom or credibility. In this case, the culprit was a young, talented aspiring technical founder who was en route to building an unequivocally impressive product. Unfortunately, the way he positioned himself and the product instantly elevated his competencies planes above the audience, and his listeners were swiftly put off by his style of talking down to them.

Rule broken? He didn’t build his audience up or act in the name of service or benevolent education; instead, he talked down to them and burned bridges in the first few minutes.

2. Qualifications matter

We’ve all probably heard the euphemism about selling ice to Eskimos, but is that really the marker of a great salesperson or successful entrepreneur? So many entrepreneurs jump straight to the pitch or attempt to convince an audience or lead they’ve yet to fully qualify. In this case, the genius could talk until he was blue in the face, but his audience still wouldn’t really know or care what he was saying, simply because he was selling to the wrong crowd. Qualify first, pitch later.

Related: 4 Meeting Mistakes You’re Probably Making and How to Fix Them

3. Impressing the wrong person

Ironically, this isn’t the first entrepreneur I’ve heard this week refer to himself as the best [you name the title] in the world. There was the “hardest working content creator” in the world, then the “best blockchain coder of his generation” and a few other self-proclaimed titles of which I’ll spare you the details. This speaker aimed his pitch at impressing one person, in fact, his favorite person: himself. That might be okay if he were his own best customer or his own well-funded venture capitalist, but he isn’t. His positioning impressed the wrong person, neglecting the right people who were in the room. In fact, the self-aggrandizing statements and narcissistic tone instead repulsed the few qualified listeners who might otherwise have requested a follow-up chat. Spoiler alert: They didn’t.

4. Manners matter

I’m not going to assert that all successful entrepreneurs, marketers and salespeople are nice; I will, however, posit that those who are blatantly mean or inconsiderate — especially in a public forum — are polarizing enough that they’re bound to lose some (many) prospective customers. This interjector dismissed other meeting attendees’ points, questions and requests, while also publicly disrespecting the host and moderator. As someone with behind-the-scenes access to the attendees’ follow-up communications, I guarantee it wasn’t lost on them, either.

Related: 7 Tips for Minding Your Manners During Conference Calls

5. Know your place

To be clear, this meeting was a collaborative and educational forum, not a place dedicated to one attendee’s business nor a place to pitch or poach fellow entrepreneurial peers. This novice founder didn’t seem to realize just how out of place his actions were, and that isn’t because he’s mean; it’s because he was narrowly focused on promoting his venture. While understandable, that socially unaware perspective is exactly what lost him potential customers, partners and investors. Perhaps he thought taking charge was an impressive power play that would exude authority; sadly, it instead came off awkwardly aggressive.

The missing piece

You can be the greatest inventor, coder or innovator in the world, but no level of subject matter expertise will offset the one missing piece needed to solidify the relationships on which business is built: Like. If customers, investors and prospective partners don’t like you, you’re going to be hard-pressed to convert a single one of them over to your team or product. As for this technical genius with an innovative and advanced new product? Based on his in the meeting (his first true foray into entrepreneurial networking), nobody liked him, plain and simple. Next time you go to pitch your product, write email copy or hop on a sales call, don’t neglect those first few moments of building rapport and connection. Like comes first, sales come later.

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