326: Making a first impression in public affairs
The initial contact with any stakeholder is critical and it can come in many different forms. But however it happens you need to prepare for making a good first impression. Otherwise you risk failing to develop a trusted relationship with them.
The opportunity to make a first impression can come from a chance meeting or something that you are look to arrange after having identified them as a key stakeholder.
The chance encounter means being able to explain who you are, your organisation, issue and proposed next steps all in the space of a minute or two. That is quite an art form which needs to be practiced. So the first step should always be to have an ‘elevator pitch’ ready to do. Nothing too technical. Something that captures the imagination and is clear and precise in its language. That is tailored as much as possible. An introduction than means you earn the right to follow-up.
You may, of course, have identified a stakeholder as being important and then try to engage with them in written form – email or letter. Alongside that will often be a briefing paper. I have blogged about what makes a good briefing paper before but it is critical to understand what the stakeholder needs. Ministers will struggle to deal with anything longer than one side; MP’s are often happy with two sides; peers and officials maybe something a little longer (but not too much longer!). But this is only a rough guide. The more you understand the needs of the stakeholder, the better able you are to make such judgements.
A first impression in-person (or online) requires a different set of skills again. Consider:
- who should attend the meeting? This will depend on the aim of the meeting but also the type of information you are trying to convey. It should also reflect the seniority and position of the person you are meeting.
- how to conduct the meeting – everything from who speaks first and who does the introduction through to the agenda.
- what you want to convey – think carefully about what is you want to get across to the stakeholder and how best to do that.
- how best you can demonstrate your expertise – that could be facts and figures, it could be advice based on experience. A constituency angle is always good for elected politicians.
- how to stand out from others – securing the attention of stakeholders, especially politicians, is a competitive space. You are not the only ones seeking to establish a relationship. So you need to be better at it than others.
- how best to listen and react – always listen to any audience but especially politicians. Appreciate the need to be deferential and pay attention to what they want to know, not just what you want to say.
- asking for their views – what their view on how an issue may develop is and who else they think you should talk to can be really useful information and insight for your work. But it is also a clear demonstration that you value the relationship.
- how best to respond and follow-up – a meeting should not be focused solely on what you want but how you can think about the interaction as stage one of a, hopefully, long term process.
The impression you make needs to be positive and lasting. In that way you can develop relationships with stakeholders.