Okay. I don’t hate humanity – nowhere close – but I get bored with most conversations quickly.
I’m not good at small talk, especially in noisy places where there is loud music, for example, or if one or both of us have to raise our voices to be heard.
That’s not the case with my wife, Lory. She can do small talk, even with complete strangers, even with people who don’t interest her that much, and in noisy places. When we were first dating, I was pretty good at faking it. We would go out with groups of friends until the early hours. Not anymore. I usually run out of steam within an hour or two.
It doesn’t always happen. If I’m deeply interested in the people I’m talking to, I can still go on for hours. The other night we went out with two friends: Prof. Ashkan Nikeghbali and his wife, Prof. Delia Coculescu – both high-powered mathematicians at the University of Zurich – I’m a bit of a fanboy. We had many glasses of wine and fun discussions late into the night, but in other situations, I can’t do it. When I’m with other types, I can be done after 30 minutes or less.
What’s going on and why does it relate to marketing?
First of all, I’m an introvert. Not the most introverted on the planet but still, on a broad scale, an introvert. My social battery for people who don’t interest me runs down fast. At high school, I often preferred to go to the library and study rather than hang out with friends. One feature of my sort of personality is that I’m really good in my interactions with a small section of humanity but really bad with the rest.
That’s all well and good, as long as all you are trying to do is get technically good at a subject – say maths or essay writing, law or economics, pleasing teachers, professors, and other authority figures. In fact, it’s a strength. My time spent swotting in libraries and reading at home – rather than with people in bars and clubs – is what got me through top colleges and universities and won me some great jobs in management consulting.
But it is not much use in the real world. Once I got out of consulting and academic circles, I found that in order to succeed, I needed the help and cooperation of a far more diverse group of people. Many of them were exactly the types that I had worked hard to avoid for much of my adult life.
I was in a quandary. I desperately wanted real-world success but that required spending time with such people. They were the source of deal flow, or clients and prospects, and of information and scuttlebutt. I noticed that many of my more successful peers seemed to be willing to go out to loud bars and talk about sports and which team had won the weekend before. Even when I attended conferences, I found that the real business got done after hours in the very environments that I hated. However, I thought: How hard can this be? So I made myself go into those situations and I did my best. It did work – a little. I did drum up some business but my heart wasn’t in it. I simply could not pretend to be interested in the local sports team and the like.
This came to a head when I was around 28 years old. I had suffered a career setback and at the same time, it really got to me that I could see all these peers with a far worse education than I had, who were (to my mind) far less smart but who were doing far better than I was.
It was not just frustrating; it was deeply painful. I felt blocked. I had left my academic career too far behind to go back and restart it, but the world I was in did not suit my personality at all.
My deep anger and frustration just kept building but in a turn that seemed miraculous, I got an insight – from Tony Robbins, the motivational speaker. Rather than walk around in frustration, I asked myself, “How can I use this?” When we go through a painful period in life, it’s bad enough that we are suffering but it would be a double loss if we did not put that pain to good use.
My next port of call was Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. I read the book two or three times. As Tony Robbins recommended, I also read Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini.
However, the real learning bump came after I met Mohnish Pabrai. I was sitting next to him on an internal flight to a remote part of India to visit Dakshana scholars. We had been talking for a while but we were tired. I turned to get some sleep but I noticed that Mohnish took some cards out of his bag. On closer inspection, I saw that these were holiday cards. He was writing a personalized note in each one. I felt a deep pang of envy.
There I was with nothing to do but perhaps read an annual report and get some shut-eye. Mohnish, by contrast, was networking, developing his relationships, and growing his business – all on a flight to some remote corner of India.
Thankfully, I had learned enough at that point to understand that my envy was a call to action. I needed to completely reset how I went about marketing myself. This was when I really started to learn how to do it. Before that, I was just going through the motions, half-heartedly doing things that I did not enjoy and that I was not good at in the hope that they would help.
And this is what I learned about marketing for introverts.
Don’t go into denial. Accept the handicap. In my case, it’s some sort of ADHD, combined with mild introversion. We could call that neurodiversity or simply shortcomings, but I prefer handicap. It’s a more accurate description. It’s also more dramatic. We learn to live with shortcomings and other features of our personality. By contrast, a handicap requires action. Workarounds. Support. Those are things that one can work with. Thinking of myself as handicapped set me up to take what Tony Robbins would call “Massive Action” (sic).
Next was to pull apart and to understand what actually happens at social and business networking events. I’m no expert but some key features are reciprocation and social grooming. I’ve been watching a lot of chimpanzee videos on YouTube lately. We share 98% of our genes with them. Did you know that it’s not the strongest male who becomes the alpha? It’s the one who builds the best relationships. How? In part though social grooming.
We humans no longer pick insects and other dirt off each other but we still groom. We just do it in other ways. What Mohnish was doing on the plane was a huge revelation to me. I did not have to be present at a social event to do social grooming and reciprocation – I could do it from the seat of an aircraft.
Once I had reached that breakthrough in my thinking, my brain exploded with possibilities. Shortly after I got back to Zurich, I pulled an all-nighter. Cloning Mohnish, I expanded my holiday card program to every person I had met and wrote a personal note in each one. It was a tough slog but I was determined – and anyway, this was far easier for me than showing up at some loud club or networking event with a pile of business cards.
I started sending birthday cards. Some years, I sent out Diwali, Eid al-Fitr, and Rosh Hashanah cards. I also began to send out books and other gifts. The opportunities were endless.
Over time, as I wrote those notes, something else happened. Rather than kneejerk social interactions at networking events where I was not properly prepared, I became far more mindful of each one of my relationships. Before I wrote each note, I began to think carefully about what I could do for that other person and what they could do for me.
The best part? None of them required me to sit in loud bars and talk about which sports team had just won. It was awesome, truly awesome. And, over time, my business began to change. I remember the first time someone decided to invest in my fund without even having met me. I called Mohnish excitedly to tell him. Mohnish’s response? “Welcome to my world, Guy.”
If we go back to my younger days, when I shunned social contact and instead went to the library and read, there was a real cost to that. While I was becoming academically smart, others were learning how to get along – and many other social subtleties that one can only learn from experience. Once I started engaging people through notes and the like, I started learning. Now, from the privacy of my office – or the seat of a plane – I can work on my social skills but at a distance, in a way that suits me.
Understanding what happens at networking events – social grooming, reciprocation, signaling to others that if they help me I’ll help them – was the key for me. I learned it from Cialdini’s book, combined with the insights of Mohnish Pabrai. And that is my story of how I learned to do marketing as a man who is handicapped by ADHD, slightly introverted, and who (doesn’t really) hate humanity.
If you see in yourself similar attributes to mine, I hope my story helps.