Fortunately for the extroverted half of startup founders – the natural-born marketers, and unfortunately for the introverted half – the natural-born builders, as a startup founder you would spend most of your time communicating with people.
First, you’ll need to talk to potential clients to see if your idea matches their needs and desires. Then, you’ll need to pitch your idea to potential co-founders and business partners, as well as your early employees and other stakeholders in your project. Аt some point you are also likely to start pitching to investors.
The more your business grows, the more you would have to communicate. You’ll have to do it internally to get everyone on the same page as well as externally to let the world know what you are doing.
Of course, communication is one of the most complex topics out there. Arguably, being able to deal with people is the most important startup skill, and it is a domain that takes a lifetime to master.
Because of this, this guide doesn’t claim any level of exhaustion on the topic. The approach we would take is to list tips derived from our own professional experience as well as inspired by some of the best works on the topic like Dale Carnegie’s classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and more modern works like “Never Split The Difference” by FBI negotiator Chris Voss.
Table of Contents:
1. Employ active listening and tactical empathy
We’ve all been in conversations where it seems people aren’t listening, but are simply waiting for their turn to talk. This is a bad social habit, but it is one you can easily slip into when you are pitching your ideas and products as a startup founder.
In most situations in which you are communicating with external stakeholders, it seems like you as the founder are the one that has information and a message to get across. Naturally, this implies that you would do most of the talking.
This is a big mistake – while it is important that you get your message across, doing it in the wrong manner could backfire.
People have a deep need to be understood, accepted, and to have a sense of control of their lives. Because of this, if you seem like you are intrusive and forceful with your message, you wouldn’t reach the required results (more on that below).
Instead, you want to make your conversational partners feel like your main goal is to understand their point of view, needs, and wants. If you did your research well enough, these needs and wants would fit well with your project, so establishing an organic connection and incentivizing an action shouldn’t be hard.
Remember that what matters most is not what you want, but what the person you are talking to wants. Every message you want to communicate should be framed in this context, and only by actively listening to what your counterpart has to say you would be able to build a good understanding of the situation.
“If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.” – Dale Carnegie
This is why when you are communicating you should employ what Chris Voss calls tactical empathy. Showing a sincere desire to understand the other side rationally and emotionally would improve the likelihood of a positive outcome of any interaction a great deal.
It would also help you build productive relationships, which is crucial not only for your current project but for your overall professional success.
2. Uncover the black swans
Besides building a positive relationship, actively listening to your counterpart has the benefit of allowing you to absorb more information.
When you are communicating with outside stakeholders as a founder you should keep in mind that you are not only broadcasting a message but also looking to receive sincere feedback. User feedback is the most important north star in your search for product-market fit, which is in turn your most important job in the discovery and validation phases of your business.
It’s a mistake to assume that you are aware of all the relevant circumstances of your counterpart. People are different. If you probe to learn more, you might be surprised. Often, an unexpected piece of information springs up and changes how you view the interaction.
In the context of negotiation, this could be any piece of information that helps you close a favorable deal – e.g. your counterpart is pressed by circumstances to make a fast decision, etc. However, as a founder, you are not only a sales agent. You should have a more broad perspective and integrate information into the overall context of your project.
For example, you might find a particular piece of information that you were not aware of that helps you understand better your target market. This is always very useful in the search for a product-market fit.
Alternatively, you might uncover information that helps you think about your counterpart in a different light. Maybe the person you are talking to has professional and personal experience that can be of value to your project, etc.
Last but not least, listening could save you time. This is counterintuitive, as asking questions takes more time than a straightforward elevator pitch. However, the time it takes you to finish a conversation isn’t a meaningful metric – the actions that result from it are.
Besides giving you a better chance to be convincing, actively listening can help you uncover one reason or another you are telling something to the wrong person. This way you would not waste the time of both parties in the conversation.
A one-on-one conversation is not a scalable tactic for communication. Because of this, you shouldn’t sacrifice quality in favor of quantity. If you want quantity, you can employ any of the more scalable communication and marketing channels – e.g. content marketing & social media. If you are talking to a person directly – use the opportunity to go deeper and uncover relevant black swans.
3. Beware of a fake “Yes”
In his book, Chris Voss argues there are three types of “yes”: confirmation, commitment, and counterfeit.
A confirmation yes is simply one that affirms a statement. You encounter many of those during a normal conversation.
The other two kinds, however, are much more interesting in the context of negotiations or any conversation in which you want to nudge a counterpart to action (which is often the case for startup founders).
The commitment yes is the one you are usually looking for in a lot of the interactions relevant to your project. You want the people you are talking to take one or many actions.
However, since we’ve been flooded with messages that require us to do one thing or another, a lot of people have built a defense mechanism – a counterfeit yes. They don’t plan to go through with the requested action (at least whole-heartedly), but they say yes because it’s an easier exit out of the conversation or because they don’t want to hurt your feelings.
This is especially dangerous for founders because it might leave you with expectations that don’t map well to reality. This is a big problem if the stakeholders you are talking to are co-founders, business partners, or employees for obvious reasons.
However, it could be a big problem when you are talking to clients as well. Remember, you are not just trying to sell. You are trying to grasp how your message and offering are being received by clients. If there is a problem with either, uncovering this information is crucial for the success of your project, and a fake yes leaves this information hidden.
To avoid a counterfeit “yes”, ask your counterpart to be honest and tell them you are truly interested in their point of view and opinion. Don’t be afraid to hear “no” – a truthful “no” is much better than a fake “yes.
4. Use an accusation audit in hard conversations
As a founder, you would inevitably have hard conversations with some of your stakeholders. You would have to negotiate pay with employees and business partners when you don’t have as much money as you’d like to have. You’d have to let employees go. You’d have to hash out any differences between you and your cofounders. You’d have to deal with disappointed customers and with investors for whom you’ve under-delivered.
This is inevitable, so learning to deal with such situations effectively is crucial for the long-term success of your project as well as for your own professional reputation. How you handle such conversations would be the main thing that makes a difference in your professional relationships. If you handle them well, people would love to work with you – people show their true colors when the going gets tough.
Chris Voss, who as a professional hostage negotiator is more than an expert on tense situations, recommends starting such conversations with what he calls an accusation audit.
You enter the conversation by listing all the worse things your counterpart can think or say about you: “I am an asshole for asking…”, “We must seem like we are totally incompetent for doing…”.
Clearing the negative right away would help you establish a positive trajectory for the whole conversation. It’s not smart to start with meaningless niceties when you plan to drop a bomb later on in the conversation. Starting with the negative allows you to focus the interaction on repairing the relationship and building mutual understanding and trust.
Taking blame also diffuses the situation. Most people don’t want to offend others. By starting with an accusation audit on yourself you’ll most likely trigger in your counterpart an innate desire to help you feel better rather than blame you, which could help your relationship and the outcome of such conversations.
Developing your communication skills is important in any professional domain, including the startup realm.
Learning to convince people of the value of your ideas is only half the battle, though. You need to learn to understand people, their motivations, wants, and needs. Moreover, you need to learn to get valuable information and honest feedback from them in order to have the required knowledge to take the right management decisions.
If you don’t, you risk running your startup oblivious to how it actually interacts with reality.