Talking to Strangers: Part I

By Martha Rush; Chief Educator-in-Residence

Tales and Tips From the Front

In the Lean Startup process, student entrepreneurs are expected to talk to strangers—both teenagers and adults—not once or twice, but over and over again.

(Fun Fact: The world “interview” appears 80 times in the QØ Teen Startup Handbook)

We send our students out to interview potential customers when:

  • They are collecting problem ideas

  • They are validating the problem they have chosen

  • They are getting feedback on solution ideas (and Product-Market Fit)

  • They are testing their minimum viable products (MVPs)

  • They are generating sales

For many ventures, students also need to talk to resource vendors, manufacturing facilities, contractors and potential investors.

That’s a lot of talking to strangers—something most teenagers will go out of their way to avoid.

As a teacher and entrepreneurship coach, I’ve had several venture teams over the years that outright resisted interviewing anyone. Ever. Week after week, they would show up to our club meetings, stand in front of the group, and report out: “well, we didn’t actually talk to anyone this week. But we’re going to do it next week.”

As you can imagine, it was incredibly frustrating. But I felt better after I talked to a friend who runs a prestigious entrepreneurship program at a private school. 

When I told him about my team’s passive-aggressive stance, he told me:

“Martha, I’ve been doing this for a lot of years, and I can count on one hand the number of student groups who have actually talked to customers outside the school building.”

Realizing that I was not alone, and that talking to strangers is truly one of the most terrifying things we ask our students to do, changed my perspective. It helped me see that I needed to develop better strategies for helping my students learn this skill, rather than just demanding they “do it”.

Luckily, I was able to draw on my experience as a journalism teacher—because journalism students also have to go out and interview strangers. So, how do journalism teachers build this skill?

#1 Requiring students to write out meaningful interview questions

Questions that will generate more than a yes/no answer—before they contact anyone. This seems obvious to us, but our students are used to answering questions—not asking them. They don’t know how to frame questions politely, how to minimize bias, how to build toward more difficult questions, or how to make clear what they are really asking. It may take a few drafts.

#2 Giving students time to practice interviewing each other—or friends and friendly adults—before setting out to interview strangers

Even if the questions seem good on paper, it’s a very different experience to ask them aloud. If a student does five practice interviews before conducting a real one, they will be far more confident and comfortable. And they’ll learn about asking follow-up questions when they don’t get the answers they expected.

#3 Encouraging them to conduct their first interviews in pairs

Asking people questions is awkward. Asking people questions with a teammate at your side is slightly less awkward. You feel less vulnerable, for one, and if the interview goes sideways, you have someone to cry with (or laugh with) later.

#4 Teaching students to be cognizant of their own body language and eye contact, and the body language and eye contact of other people

We sometimes assume that everyone knows this stuff, instinctively. But some teenagers can’t easily distinguish between a neutral passerby and an actively hostile passerby, and they also don’t recognize when their own stance seems aggressive or intrusive. Role-play these scenarios in class, so they understand how to present themselves and how to “read” potential interview subjects.

#5 Making it fun

When you’re interviewing prospective customers about your idea to make their lives easier, it shouldn’t feel like grilling a criminal suspect with questions like: Did you do it? Why did you lie?

Customer discovery interviews should feel more like conversations and less like interrogations. If they go well, these “strangers” may become potential product testers, buyers and even early evangelists. You might be the answer to their most vexing problem! Encourage your students to see this experience as a chance to better understand fellow human beings—not an onerous assignment to be completed. Perspective makes all the difference.


Martha Rush

Martha, founder and CEO of NeverBore Education Consulting and author of Beat Boredom (Stenhouse, 2018), is a nationally recognized teacher with 25 years of classroom experience. She has worked as a professional curriculum writer since 2011 and a workshop consultant since 2013. She founded NeverBore in 2015 with a mission to provide teachers nationwide with hands-on strategies to overcome boredom and improve student engagement and motivation. She now serves as Chief Educator-in-Residence at Quarter Zero and has compiled the QØ Teen Startup Handbook.