Talking to Strangers: Part II

By Martha Rush; Chief Educator-in-Residence

Tales and Tips From the Front

In last week’s post, I shared strategies for helping student entrepreneurs learn to talk to strangers. That post was mostly about building confidence and self-awareness so that our teenagers are not intimidated by the customer discovery process—and even learn to enjoy it.

This week I want to tackle another aspect of talking to strangers: Teaching students the ability to adapt and adjust during conversations with adults.

Earlier this year, one of my student teams mentioned in their weekly update that a conversation with a potential supplier didn’t go well. “It got a little testy,” one student said. Why would a resource supplier get “testy” during a phone call from a potential customer? That didn’t sound good.

So I asked the student—we’ll call him Neal—to elaborate. Here’s what happened. (I removed details, both to protect the student and to protect his venture’s idea.) Neal called the company during the week after Christmas. He read his prepared script, which was something like this:

“Hello, my name is Neal, and I’m part of a student-run company called ___, based in Minnesota. We’re concerned about the environment and plastic waste, so we’re working to produce biodegradable ____. We are talking with a local co-packing facility, and if we end up manufacturing with them, we need to provide the raw materials. We learned that your company is a supplier of _____, so I’m calling to find out how much you charge per pound and learn about delivery options.”

So far, so good, right?

The receptionist listened patiently and offered to connect Neal to the right person. She transferred the call, and unfortunately, he was disconnected. So he called back and started over again, repeating the exact same spiel—not recognizing or acknowledging that he was talking to the same person. With some irritation, she offered to connect him again, but the individual was not in the office. So Neal called back and started over again. See the problem? This went on a few more times—every time, with Neal starting fresh from his script: “Hello, my name is Neal, and I’m part of…”—and the receptionist losing her patience. Finally, Neal just gave up.

How do we coach students through this? How could I have better prepared Neal, so he wouldn’t have ended up in this awkward “testy” situation?

To be clear, Neal did exactly what I had trained him to. He wrote out a script. He summoned the courage to call a stranger. He asked a clear question. He behaved in a professional manner. He just wasn’t prepared for a receptionist, a faulty phone system, or a holiday break. (Yes, Tip #1 is to make that call during a week when everyone is at work!)

What Neal didn’t do, however, was adapt and adjust.

As adults develop workforce communication skills, this is something we learn. When I call parents to report on a student’s misbehavior or low grade, I need to be prepared for any response.

The parents might yell at me.

They might cry.

They might yell at their kid.

They might thank me.

They might be glad he’s even coming to class.

And I need to be prepared to listen, adjust and respond appropriately—no matter what they say or do. I realized we need to teach our young entrepreneurs to do the same. That means not just running practice interviews with their friends, but running practice interviews with people who are role-playing difficult and unpredictable responses. We also need to coach students directly on what to do if you get cut off, what to do if you think someone hung up on you, how long to wait before calling back if you think your message got lost.

We need to coach them to listen, to pay attention to tone as well as words, to abbreviate and adapt the script as needed. “Hi, my name is Neal, and I’m calling from ____. I just called a few moments ago and was connected to a sales manager, but we were cut off.”

Fortunately, Neal is a resilient and self-confident kid, and he took this whole thing in stride. We all got a good laugh out of it, honestly. At this point, I think his team is working with a different manufacturer.

But next time, I’ll be more prepared to help students with navigating the nuances of business conversations. It’s not enough to know what you’re going to say, you have to be ready to react when your interview or phone call takes an unexpected turn.

It’s a hard lesson, but also a good reminder of why teen entrepreneurship is such a valuable experience. These students are not just learning how to make biodegradable bags or straws or whatever—they are learning valuable skills for life.


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.