Don’t Sweat It: 8 Strategies for Meeting and Connecting with VIPs

by A Manly Guest Contributor on January 9, 2014 · 19 comments

in Money & Career

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Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from John Corcoran.

Imagine for a second that you’re in an elevator. The doors have just opened and the CEO of your large multi-national company steps in. It’s just you and him.

One of you flies in his own plane…the other brings his own sack lunch to work. You’ve never met your CEO before, and this is your big chance.

What happens next? Does your heart race? Do your palms start to sweat? Do you stammer out a few words of introduction?

As Brett and Kate wrote last year, stress can have a dramatic affect on a man’s ability to perform under high-risk scenarios. That great post demonstrated how psychologically stressful situations can lead to a dramatic decline in mental and physical abilities.

The usual types of scenarios where this phenomenon occurs is in high-risk, life or death situations. However, you don’t need to be staring down the barrel of a gun or cornered by a grizzly for your heart to start racing and your mental and physical faculties to break down.  This phenomenon can and does frequently occur when your life may not be on the line but your career or professional future may be, such as the hypothetical elevator encounter described above.

You may have experienced some of these symptoms if you’ve gone through something like the elevator encounter. Or perhaps you’ve had a chance to be in the presence of, or to speak with, very powerful or famous individuals, such as a movie star, a CEO, a Senator, or even a President. In that case, you may have experienced what it’s like to feel your palms get sweaty or your heartbeat race as a result of being in the presence of others whose achievements distinguish them. You may have even developed the “tunnel vision” which occurs in condition gray of the warrior color code.

If you have experienced a few of these symptoms, then you know they can be a major barrier for your career or your business. If you are a career-motivated individual who wants to move up the ladder, it is going to be a problem if you start sweating profusely and stammer answers to basic questions every time you are around your company’s owner or high-level supervisors, or important clients. If you have your own business, you’re not going to be in business for long if you start mixing up your words each time you speak with potential clients or strategic partners.

In this post, I am going to discuss how to suppress this type of stress so that you can actually make a more human and more personal connection with almost any VIP, rather than coming off as a sweaty, blubbering idiot. I will also suggest a few creative, low-pressure ways you can meet VIPs, whether it’s someone in your local community or industry, a celebrity, an executive in your own company, or a CEO of a large company.

Of course, how you approach any individual VIP will depend largely on the circumstances, but these creative tips should give you some general ideas for how to reach out to important people who can help your career or business move forward.

The 3 Principles of Suppressing Stress Induced by Encounters with VIPs

vip2It is important to understand that stress induced by encounters with VIPs is very different from the psychological stress produced because of fear of death or injury. VIP-motivated stress is motivated by your own knowledge of a person’s fame, power, influence, or success. Although a CEO of your own company or your own boss could have you fired, there is usually no physical threat to you. (Assuming you are not a personal assistant to a supermodel — then you’re on your own.)

For this reason, the key to suppressing this stress is to trick the mind into treating your encounter as if it is just an ordinary personal interaction with a person who doesn’t have great fame, power, or influence. Here are three principles which should help you to manage stress around any VIP:

Act like you belong. VIPs and celebrities are used to having people around them that act nervous, uncomfortable, or fidgety due to the VIPs’ status and/or fame. If you can suppress that instinct and just act like nothing is out of the ordinary, it will be noticed. Easier said than done, right? But it actually can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you act like it is totally normal for you to be in the VIP’s presence, you are more likely to fit in, which means they will treat you in a more normal and human way, rather than like an outsider.

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One particular way of doing this is to suppress or slow down your smile instinct, particularly if you are the kind of person who tends to smile quickly. In his book, How to Talk to Anyone, author Leil Lowndes shared his research on what techniques help outsiders to fit in with new groups.

Lowndes says if you want to nurture an impression that you belong, you should actually smile slower.  First, “Look at the other person’s face for a second. Pause. Soak in their persona,” he writes. “Then let a big, warm, responsive smile flood over your face and overflow into your eyes.” The delay actually gives one’s personality a richer, deeper, more sincere cachet, says Lowndes.  Those who smile immediately are more likely to be perceived as a little too eager, and therefore, not belonging.

Provide value first. VIPs, celebrities, rock star CEOs, high-level politicians, and even popular bloggers all have something in common: a huge number of the people they meet want to get something out of them. Imagine if your life was like that – you’d be constantly on edge and alert to the first sign of a gold-digger. As a result, VIPs tend to surround themselves with people who specifically do not ask for anything in return.

One of the worst things people do is ask a VIP if they can “pick their brain.” Even the description sounds horrible, like you’re going in for a lobotomy. Asking if you can pick the brain of someone who isn’t a close friend of yours is clearly signaling you are only trying to extract value, rather than give it.

You can stand out even further by offering something of value to a VIP, especially if it’s something simple like a restaurant recommendation, a workout tip, vacation advice, or a suggestion of something to watch on Netflix. The suggestion will be appreciated, and it will show you are human, considerate, and not totally self-motivated.

Do your research in advance. If you know in advance that you are going to have the opportunity to speak with a VIP, you should take the opportunity to do research. LinkedIn’s blog has great advice for how to research VIPs using their website:

Before reaching out to anyone, but particularly to a VIP, thoroughly review the person’s LinkedIn profile. Take note of anything you have in common with this person, any recent changes in his or her employment or any recent status updates that might give you something to mention in your outreach. Doing your homework will increase your confidence and will ensure that you don’t make any big mistakes (such as asking the person what it’s like to work at a company he just left).

By doing research in advance, you will increase the chances that you will have a meaningful and more natural conversation about a subject you both care about, because you will be able to pick out interests in common or shared connections. The more natural the conversation, the less likely you are to experience cognitive or motor deterioration.

Methods of Approach: 8 Creative Tips for Meeting VIPs

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Even if you are able to suppress your stress arousal while in the presence of a VIP, a secondary barrier which frequently keeps non-VIPs (like you and me) from connecting is the difficulty of actually meeting. Of course, the higher the status of the VIP and the more busy that person is, the more difficult it will be to grab a slice of their time.

But even if you personally have little to no fame or stature, you can still find opportunities to meet almost any VIP. I say this because I have lived it: in my lifetime, I’ve managed to meet two Presidents and numerous high-level CEOs and celebrities, even though I didn’t go to an Ivy League school, am not famous, and don’t come from a well-connected family.

I have witnessed people who were cool as a cucumber around Presidents, acting as if there was nothing unusual about chatting up the leader of the free world. I have also seen people melt like a stick of butter, experiencing the vasoconstriction Brett described in Condition Black. (I’d like to say I was always in the former category, but the truth is I often fall somewhere in the middle.)

Here’s the good news. The greater openness and transparency of the web and social media has meant there are more opportunities than ever to meet a celebrity, powerful politician, movie star, or anyone else.  There are also time-tested techniques for meeting important people that may seem old-fashioned, but which work nevertheless.

Here are eight creative tips for getting to meet almost any VIP:

1. Interview Them

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Here’s a simple trick — ask for an interview. You can interview VIPs for an article in a newsletter, for a guest blog post, for a podcast, or for a post on your own blog.

If you do want to try this strategy, then the larger the publication or website you will publish in, the better.  If you want to interview a really high-level VIP, try to publish the article in the largest publication possible.

I have used this strategy to interview a number of authors and entrepreneurs I admire, by simply finding a relevant and timely topic to write about and approaching them to be included in the article.

Here’s a pro tip: when you ask for an interview, offer to do it over the phone or Skype, keep it short, and transcribe it. This will take less of your interviewee’s time, which they will appreciate. If you do need to interview in person, offer to travel to them.

2. Write a Heartfelt Letter

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You can never go wrong with writing a heartfelt and complimentary letter asking for a meeting or a short response. At a minimum, it won’t take much of your time to try.

Christine Comaford was a young CEO of her own startup in the early 1990s when she sent a heartfelt letter to Steve Jobs requesting a five minute in-person meeting. She didn’t get a response, so she followed up. Not just once, but over and over again. Ultimately, she made 12 phone calls to Jobs’ assistant and sent 7 letters via FedEx before she finally got her opportunity. Finally, Comaford was granted a 5-minute one-on-one meeting with Jobs, which turned into 45 minutes. Jobs was swayed by the heartfelt letter, though the persistence didn’t hurt.

3. Meet at a Conference

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Nearly every well-known VIP will speak publicly from time to time, often at different conferences and group meetings throughout the year. Unless the particular VIP you want to meet is a recluse, then traveling to one of these speaking engagements is a great way to meet them.

A VIP who has just concluded a speech may be most likely to engage with audience members, as their adrenaline will be flowing and they’ll be craving feedback.

4. Buy Their Time

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Services like Clarity.Fm actually allow you to buy time by the minute to speak with VIPs over the phone. For example, you can pay to talk to AppSumo founder Noah Kagan ($16.67/minute), venture capitalist Brad Feld ($8.33/minute), or Udemy.com co-founder Gagan Biyani (a more reasonable $1.67/minute).

Dallas Mavericks owner and Shark Tank star Mark Cuban is even on there, although at $166.67 per minute, or $10,000 per hour, you better be a fast talker. It would probably be cheaper to buy courtside seats at a Mavericks game.

5. Look for Mutual Friends

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You’d be surprised how few degrees of separation you may have between you and a big-name VIP. For example, according to my LinkedIn profile, Shaquille O’Neal is a 3rd degree connection. Great — maybe I’ll invite him to my next Halloween party.

LinkedIn allows you to ask your connections to introduce you to their connections, and so on, so you could connect with a high-level VIP that way, in theory at least. You definitely don’t want to abuse this strategy, though, by asking too much of your connections.

6. Honor Them with an Award

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Another great way to meet and get to know VIPs is by honoring them with an award or other recognition for their service or an achievement. Joe Sweeney used this approach when he was living in Wisconsin in the early 1990s. A young Brett Favre was then the new quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, and Sweeney’s organization, the Wisconsin Sports Authority, decided to give Favre its Wisconsin Sportsman of the Year award.

As he wrote in his memoir, Networking Is a Contact Sport, Sweeney convinced Favre to attend the banquet and used it as an opportunity to get to know Favre better. They hit it off. A few months later, Sweeney and Favre decided to team up and form a new jointly-owned sports marketing company. Imagine that — one minute you are convincing an organization you belong to to bestow an award on someone you want to meet, and the next you are going into business with that person. Not a bad result.

7. Find Out Where They Hang Out

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If you want to meet the world’s richest man, you can. It is well known that Warren Buffett’s favorite steakhouse is Gorat’s Steak House in his hometown of Omaha. If you live in Omaha, you could probably eat lunch there from time to time and bump into him.

Other VIPs may also have favorite places where they hang out. You could do worse than showing up from time to time in the hopes of a chance meeting.

8. Record a Video of Something They Care About

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Finally, a great way to meet VIPs and for them to get to know you is by creating a video dedicated to a topic they care about. For example, you could record a video review of their new book, or a video testimonial for a product they sell which you have appreciated.

The process is simple: record a short (less than two minutes) video of something that person cares about, and then share it with them via an email, social media, or other short message.

Most humans spend some amount of time surfing the web, no matter how important or busy they are, and therefore they are bound to come across it one way or another.

Although, I hear Warren Buffett is a bit of a luddite when it comes to technology, so if you want to try this trick with him, you may have to put it on a VHS tape and stick it in the snail mail.

Or better yet — stick with the steakhouse.

What ideas do you have for connecting with VIPs? I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

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John Corcoran is an attorney and former Clinton White House Writer. If you are interested in more tips about how to connect with VIPs, you can download his free, 52+ page guide, How to Build a Network Filled with VIPs and Top Performers in 14 Days.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tom Macko January 9, 2014 at 7:35 pm

If I may be so bold I’d like to call John Corcoran the king of modern networking. I subscribed to your newsletter back in early October and I have to say you always have loads of useful information especially for myself, a junior in college, to take advantage of.

2 Mike January 9, 2014 at 9:42 pm

“How to Talk to Anyone” is a great book and I’d recommend it to anyone, but to correct you, the author Leil Lowndes is a woman. Great article though.

3 LongLostFriend January 9, 2014 at 10:00 pm

I’d be interested in John’s take on the use of social media sites like Twitter to gain access to important individuals. While all of the other caveats regarding “providing value” ring just as true, I have found that re-tweeting and commenting on their tweets, as well as providing commentary and content of my own, frequently has helped to established myself as an authority to “superstars” in my field. It’s also helped me to build relationships locally with those I might rarely or never have encountered in my day-to-day routine.

4 John Corcoran January 9, 2014 at 11:32 pm

@Tom – hey, I’ll take that nickname… anything with “King” in it sounds good in my book.

@Mike – whoops – my mistake. Thanks for pointing that out.

@LongLostFriend – I personally love Twitter. I think it’s an excellent way to get important people to notice you, if you use it in the right way. It’s a great tool for reaching out and connecting with important people (as long as they are active on Twitter to begin with).

5 Adison Quin Petti January 10, 2014 at 12:00 am

One of the ways to connect to the future VIP’s in your life is revisiting pivotal VIP’s from your past. Its common to lose touch with a well respected mentor or friend from our teenage years when we go to college or begin new careers. Sometimes, we even forget what an impact so many have had on us. After turning 25 last year, I find myself looking back on people who’ve had the greatest impact on me for the past 10 years, as I look ahead to my next quarter century. Its been a pleasure checking in with old friends to see how they’re doing now and thank them for the influence they’ve had on me. Because our values and goals still align, or at least intersect, those mentors are typically more than happy to help broker new relationships. The most exciting part is learning to trust that you aren’t simply being given a “leg up” or favor from friends if you’re dealing with leadership you respect. Good leaders tend to foster new leaders and the willingness of a former– or hoped for– mentor to trust you based on the new connections you’re able to make within the community is a sign of budding maturity. Granted, it may also feel awkward or a bit precarious as you’re trying it out, but there’s where controlling the nerves comes in with the excellent tips from this article.

6 Peter January 10, 2014 at 2:11 am

Great post! Mr. Corcoran hits on a timeless and, in my experience, effective method for interacting with VIPs – simply remember that they are real people! They get sick, fart, loose their cool, have a favorite band, and have hopes and dreams (no matter how successful they already are). If you are in the habit of treating everyone with respect, courtesy, and genuine interest, interactions with VIPs will be a breeze.

In regard to connecting with VIPs, point number 5, “look for mutual friends”, is one of the most reliable approaches to securing a meeting.

Just think about it from your own perspective; would you be more likely to meet with someone who contacted you ‘out of the blue’ or who was introduced to you by someone you know? The person who introduces you need not be the VIPs best friend (though it certainly helps), even a casual or third hand acquaintance is often sufficient. This is especially true in relationally oriented cultures.

The effectiveness of networking cannot be overstated. It is important to note that networking will yield much better results if you are truly interested in the people with whom you network. Can you be a self-centered jerk and still network? Sure you can. But as is so often articulated by Brett and other writers on this blog, if you’ll allow me some artistic license in my paraphrasing, people aren’t stupid and can tell when you’re being a self-seeking slimeball. If they don’t rebuff attempts to network it is likely because a) they are being polite but have no intention of ever helping you out or b) collect acquaintances like poker chips to be played when it best suits them.

Integrity and dignity cannot be bought, traded, or gained through any means other than walking your talk; and if you have them, VIPs will want to be around you. Remember, they are people, too, and are drawn to the same attributes in others that you are drawn to.

7 Mike January 10, 2014 at 7:47 am

@John – no problem. I had actually done the same thing. I read the entire book, imagining the author as a man in the situations described, only to find out after it was a woman. Was interesting. Again, great read.

8 Shabaka ture January 10, 2014 at 8:54 am

Thanks, so much, for this post. Your keen insight is very helpful. This post is yet another example that things are not difficult, if you know how to do them! Thanks, again!

9 Jay January 10, 2014 at 9:41 am

I work on Capitol Hill and frequently run into Members of Congress, celebrities, and high ranking military members. Rather than trying convincing myself they aren’t famous and/or powerful, I try to envision myself as one of their senior advisers, someone they know and trust. It makes it a lot easier to walk up, shake a hand with confidence, and say “Good morning Mr. Speaker” without sounding or looking like a scared kid.

10 John Corcoran January 10, 2014 at 11:16 am

@Jay – That’s a good philosophy. If you hold yourself with confidence, that will go a long way towards earning others’ respect.

@Peter – thank you for giving me a mental image of Warren Buffet farting. That’s going to haunt me for the rest of the day. ; )

11 Darwin Carlisle January 10, 2014 at 1:04 pm

I love this advice, very direct and substantive. I wish I had that kind of confidence to just walk up to a VIP and give them advice, but maybe I’ll start practicing.

12 Josh January 10, 2014 at 2:39 pm

Also, I love the site. Always’ something poignant on here. I also like how manliness is characterized as being of honor and having a resolution to better oneself. Not just macho trite. Furthermore, keep the Creek articles coming.

13 J January 13, 2014 at 6:33 pm

John,

I have always been pretty good at (most of) these things, and I rarely have an issue of feeling overwhelmed when meeting someone of importance. However, I have a genetic defect called Hyperhydrosis, basically, my hands are sweaty 95% of the time, regardless of how confident I am or the temperature in the room. I have tried some very weird things to correct this, but to no avail. I have accepted that I have to live with constantly clammy hands, but how do I address this in public situations? Though I am a good public speaker (and a damn good interviewee) shaking hands with someone makes me nervous and I always see them notice they are sweaty. It seems inappropriate, or just plain bullshit, when I tell them I have naturally clammy hands. I keep a handkerchief in my back pocket and try to wipe my hands before shaking but its still noticeable.

Any suggestions or am I just shit out of luck?

14 Mark G January 15, 2014 at 11:27 am

If you do try and speak to Warren Buffet, you’ll need to get past the employees of Clark Internation first.

http://feraljundi.com/5850/executive-protection-so-who-does-warren-buffet-use-for-security/

15 Peter January 16, 2014 at 1:28 am

@John – I’m here for you. Anyway, I wouldn’t worry about it too much; I’m sure his farts don’t stink…

16 John Corcoran January 17, 2014 at 12:21 pm

@J: I heard about a guy named Sean Stephenson who I think you should read about. Check out this video profile on him: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-HBB9CL2TK0. As you can see, Sean doesn’t let his condition get in the way of his success… if I were you, I would focus on your strengths. You are a great speaker. You are a great interviewee. Focus on those things. If you must, you can try to avoid shaking hands. Former Senator Bob Dole was paralyzed in his right hand and because he was a politician, people were always trying to shake his hand. He carried a pen in it to avoid that awkwardness.

Another example is an article recently by Scott Stossel in The Atlantic about the author’s paralyzing anxiety. (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/01/surviving_anxiety/355741/). You are fortunate you do not have that situation. Obviously I don’t know what it’s like to be you, but I would just try to focus on your strengths and worry less about that one issue.

@Peter: LOL. I’m sure Warren Buffet’s farts smell like gold bullion.

@Mark G: I LOVE that show on Buffet’s security… fascinating! Thanks for sharing it.

17 Shane Martin January 17, 2014 at 10:53 pm

Hey John, first of all, great post.

Question, in regards to the “Act Like You Belong” strategy, I love the smile slower trick, but might it be beneficial for one to “feel like they belong” first and then the “acting” will come naturally?

For instance, I teach younger guys how to assimilate to the big city lifestyle and I recently had a student who was having a lot of anxiety about mingling with VIPs that he continued to find himself around (particularly bar owners and “mixologists”). Problem was, he didn’t really have many friends in general so it was particularly nerve racking to approach and chit chat with these types of people. So in order to change the paradigm, we went to work building him a buffer zone of acquaintances (not necessarily the coolest or most valuable people, but they did the trick). This seemed to really help relieve a ton of the pressure for him. Like just knowing that he had other options to fall back on made him come off way less needy and it really allowed the VIPs to actually open up to him instead of shut him down.

What are your thoughts on this type of strategy. Essentially taking social baby steps to build up your social confidence.

Thanks,

Shane

@Peter: see, I’d go the opposite route. I bet they’re like beef bouillon.

18 Shane Martin January 17, 2014 at 11:01 pm

@J:

Just a suggestion, but in my experience the best thing to do is to pretend like it’s not an issue to you. Call it out, make a joke and move on. In social situations 99% of the time people react the way you signal them to. If they can tell you feel awkward about it, they’re going to think it’s awkward or odd. But if you go, “Hey i’m J, I’m gonna give you a fist bump because my hands are sweaty,” then fist bump them and move on, they won’t have a chance to linger on it and it’ll become a thing of the past. The tone of the conversation is up to you and if it doesn’t bother you, it won’t bother them.

-Shane

19 Jacob Kaczmarowski March 11, 2014 at 9:18 pm

Not a week after reading this I was up at my state capitol dropping off resumes to different offices, when suddenly I was in the elevator with my state senator. I used these tactics and got a job with him. Thanks, Art of Manliness. I don’t know how to repay you.

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