The Four Channels of Entrepreneurial Influence You Must Master if You Want Your Research to Make an Impact Outside the Lab or Library
As a researcher, you’ve developed a sophisticated set of communication skills. You’ve mastered the art of sharing your findings with your peers through academic articles, posters, and conference presentations. You’ve probably written at least a couple of scholarship or grant applications. You may also have gained experience as a teacher, in which case you’ve learned how to convey complex information to novices in your field. And if you’ve spent any time on committee work, then you’ve likely been exposed to administrative communication practices, such as taking minutes and writing reports.
As you start trying to connect with audiences beyond the academy, however, you’ll discover that the communication skills that now seem second-nature don’t produce the outcomes you’d think they would. The emails you take so long to craft go unanswered. Presentations you deliver seem to fall flat. Meetings with promising contacts lead to dead ends.
When you step outside the Ivory Tower and enter unfamiliar contexts in government or industry, the habits of academic persuasion you’ve acquired will no longer serve you well. You need new methods to get your message across in ways that win over funders, partners, and others.
In my work with researchers who want to mobilize or commercialize academic knowledge, I’ve noticed that success depends on the ability to exert influence across four channels:
- Networking opportunities
- Informal pitches
The key to succeeding in all these contexts is to think like an entrepreneur, whether or not you aim to pair up with an industry partner or spin out a startup from your research. To make an impact outside the academy, you need the set of competencies that together equip you with Entrepreneurial Influence.
What is Entrepreneurial Influence?
Entrepreneurial Influence is the ability to get an audience that doesn’t know you to buy into a novel idea.
Notice the two parts of that definition:
#1. Your audience doesn’t know you. You may have achieved considerable fame within the circle of peer reviewers who know and admire your work. You may even have won impressive academic awards. But outside the academy, very few researchers achieve the kind of fame that makes them a household name.
Even Nobel prize-winners, the celebrities of the research world, seldom rise to the level of fame of a mediocre pop star. I bet you’d recognize Justin Bieber on the street before you’d recognize Tu Youyou, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work combating Malaria.
#2. You’re selling a novel idea. When you’re introducing people to a brand-new idea, the experience can be disorienting for them. And painful. Trying to make sense of something you can’t readily file under a certain category or compare to something familiar is hard work.
As an expert in your field, you almost certainly overestimate the background information your audience brings to your topic and their level of interest. To wield entrepreneurial influence, you must recognize how much mental work you’re asking your audience to put into grasping your ideas. As a change-maker who thrives on novelty, you must be prepared to empathize with people who prefer stasis to change and the comfort of the familiar—even if the familiar is dysfunctional.
Given these two factors, Entrepreneurial Influence differs in both kind and degree from the persuasion businesspeople use to sell run-of-the-mill ideas, goods, and services. Bottom line: it requires a more thoughtful, strategic approach than you’d typically need in a conventional business situation.
For example, imagine that you’ve invented a solar-powered vacuum that uses filters made from orange peels. Your apparatus is a sustainability dream, so you figure it will be no sweat to sell it to an industry partner who’s on a mission to achieve as many SDGs as possible in the next year. You submit a straightforward proposal describing the “leading-edge technology” and start planning an elaborate lunch out to celebrate with your team.
However, your proposal for a dozen Citrus-Clean vacuums is quickly dismissed in favor of the latest model from Industrial Vacuums Inc., even though the machine is an electricity hog and uses plastic-framed filters.
Huh? How could an organization that’s consistently making noise about its “eco-friendly values” make such an eco-unfriendly decision?
In sales, there’s an old adage: people buy from those they know, like, and trust. And when you’re an innovator, most of the people you’re selling to don’t know you or your technology, let alone like or trust you. Without an extra-thoughtful, extra-strategic approach to wooing your audience, your offering is likely to get shunted aside every time.
Entrepreneurial Influence is the antidote to complacency and indifference. As a researcher engaged in knowledge mobilization or commercialization, you can’t ever afford to leave home without this secret weapon.
Here are a few pointers for using Entrepreneurial Influence across the four channels through which researchers interact with potential collaborators in industry, government, and healthcare.
Within the academy, emails tend to resemble essays. Here’s the typical profile of an academic-style message:
- Generic (merely descriptive) subject line
- Formal greeting and/or closing (e.g., Dear, Sincerely)
- In-depth background provided up front
- Lengthy paragraphs (long enough that they require the reader to scroll)
- Full sentences, often running to two lines or longer
- Main idea buried partway through the message
- Elevated word choices (e.g., multisyllable words where a shorter word would do the job)
- Missing or indirect request of the reader
In today’s business world, such an email comes across as old-fashioned, stuffy, and irritating. Why “irritating”? Because it takes too much time and effort for the reader to extract meaning from the wordy text.
In an entrepreneurial context, such as emailing someone you’ve never met to invite them to participate in a customer discovery call, the typical academic email is further disadvantaged. As an unknown quantity, you have just seconds to interest the reader in your message and show them why they should care enough to read it. Once you entice the reader into your email, then you must make it blatantly obvious why it’s in their best interest to collaborate with you and respond positively to whatever you’re asking of them. (Note that it must also be clear exactly what you’re asking them to do!)
So here’s what an email looks like when it conveys Entrepreneurial Influence:
- Precise subject line to entice the reader
- Clear statement of purpose in the opening paragraph, prefaced by a compelling statement to “hook” the reader
- Minimal background given up front (you can always provide more details later in the message or as an attachment)
- Headings to make the message easy to skim and telegraph key ideas
- Clear request of the reader
- Motivational reason to respond positively to the request
- Casual greeting and/or closing (e.g., Hello or Hi, Kind regards or Best)
- Short paragraphs, some of which are one or two sentences long
- Bulleted or numbered lists
- Conversational, friendly tone
- Everyday language
- Casual punctuation, which may break some of the formal “rules”
Many researchers overload an email message with background information and technical detail. At the same time, they pay too little attention to the hook, the purpose statement, and the motivation for the reader to respond positively to the request.
Exercising Entrepreneurial Influence means carefully constructing email messages so they don’t merely deliver information but also cater to the reader’s personal interests. Approaching your emails with an entrepreneurial mindset means treating each message as an opportunity to help the audience know and like you better, and trust you more.
The academy is famous for meandering meetings, gatherings that can stretch to an hour or more, without resulting in any evident outputs. That’s because academic culture places a high value on open discussion. In fact, you might say that creating time and space for free-ranging discussion is (or perhaps should be) the number one value in most academic institutions.
In the world of business, government, or healthcare, other cultural values come into play, often overriding the desire to allow for comprehensive debate. Efficiency tends to top the list of guiding principles, and the pace of a meeting outside the academy can feel rushed the first few times you experience it.
Your Entrepreneurial Influence depends on your ability to accommodate the need for meeting speed. Show respect for your audience’s time, and you’ll earn their respect. You’ll also drive the conversation more quickly to practical results.
Here are some pointers to help you make the most of meetings with industry partners, funders, investors, policy-makers and customers:
- Whittle your bio down to a short, snappy introduction.
- Always have an agenda. You don’t need a formal document listing topics in order of discussion, but you do need a stated purpose that you and the other parties have agreed upon.
- Enter each meeting with a personal goal. This goal may or may not be an objective you share with others in the meeting. What would make the meeting a win for you? Keep that target in mind throughout the conversation.
- Be clear on time constraints—and respect them. If you’ve asked for 30 minutes of someone’s time, for example, wrap up the meeting within that time frame.
- Keep your contributions as concise as possible. Rather than offering all your knowledge at once, give a quick overview and offer to provide more detail later on if it’s desired.
- Spend more time listening than speaking. Consider each meeting a research opportunity allowing you to learn more about your audience.
- Focus on asking great questions. Use your researcher brain to pose thought-provoking questions that get people thinking about critical issues from a new angle.
- Guide conversation toward your goal and action steps. Before you leave the meeting room, be sure to reach agreement on next steps and timelines. (An action step without a timeline is just a wish.)
As a researcher you’ve honed your observation skills. Use those to notice what makes a meeting effective so you can play your role accordingly.
How do you gauge the effectiveness of a meeting? I use this gut test: an effective meeting leaves me feeling positive and pumped for the next action. An ineffective meeting leaves me feeling drained and resentful that I’ve wasted time on an unproductive conversation.
What is your gut telling you about how you’re leading or participating in meetings outside the academy? Which of the above pointers could help you get more from your meeting time?
Although there’s no such thing as a pure meritocracy, an organization where people move ahead based purely on their achievements, the academy comes close to earning that label. Outside the Ivory Tower, however, credentials and line items on your c.v. often take a back seat to your personal connections.
Networking forms the foundation of Entrepreneurial Influence. Remember, people buy into ideas put forward by those they know, like, and trust. Networking is often the quickest way to build strategic relationships with potential collaborators and decision-makers, and people who can connect you with those first two groups.
Networking events, such as “industry connectors” and local innovation conferences, provide great opportunities to meet new people with links to your target audience. If your goal is to connect with industry partners or investors, then LinkedIn will also play a critical role in developing your Entrepreneurial Influence.
Successful networkers avoid linear thinking, the trap of assuming that one or two connections will lead them directly to the office of the CEO or investor they want to pitch. Instead, researchers with a robust network grow it one conversation at a time, nurturing relationships with different kinds of people:
- People to socialize with. These could include other researchers at a similar stage in their career or their knowledge mobilization journey. It could also include people who serve the same industry you’re interested in but in a capacity different from yours. For instance, if you’re a biologist working on solutions for forest management, you might include in your network forestry consultants, project managers at forestry companies, and sustainability experts from different industries.
- People to collaborate with. These could include other researchers, potential research assistants, and industry partners. They could also include your competition. In some cases, the best way to beat ‘em is indeed to join ‘em.
- People to emulate. These could include academics who have successfully mobilized or commercialized their research, founders who have established a viable company or perhaps exited their startup, and thought leaders within the industry or government space you want to enter.
Novice networkers sometimes make the mistake of trying to engage with people in just the second and third categories because their strategic value is most obvious. Social connections can prove just as valuable, however. Never underestimate the power of an authentic friendship to spur you on. People you connect with for social reasons can provide encouragement, peer-to-peer mentorship, and other connections you might never have guessed at.
Veteran networkers know you can’t easily predict who will hold the key to the door you want to open. That graduate student you almost snubbed at the last conference could have a family friend who’s a venture capitalist focused on your field or an aunt who plays pickleball with the executive assistant to the policymaker you’ve been trying to reach for months.
Networking comes more naturally to some than to others, but like any other aspect of Entrepreneurial Skill, it’s an ability that can be learned and refined. With intent and practice, you can become comfortable striking up small talk, asking questions to get people talking about themselves, and growing a networking conversation into a mutually-supportive relationship.
Sales professionals live by the mantra “Always Be Closing.” For researchers bent on making an impact outside the academy, the mantra is “Always Be Pitching.”
A pitch doesn’t always take the shape of a formal presentation. You can pitch a potential funder or collaborator during a get-acquainted coffee chat, a routine meeting, an unscheduled phone call, or, yes, during the proverbial elevator ride. In most instances, informal pitches don’t sound at all like the canned “elevator pitch” you may have memorized just in case you run into the VC of your dreams on the way to the top of a skyscraper.
The art of informal pitching involves recognizing an opportunity to share a thought-provoking idea, inviting your conversation-partner to explore the idea with you, and getting agreement on a small next step. If you’re particularly artful, you’ll guide a potential collaborator through this process so subtly that they’ll think they’ve pitched you!
While informal pitches seem to happen casually, and some can occur spontaneously, they require preparation on your part. Before the meeting at which you plan to pitch an idea, here are a few questions to consider:
- How familiar is the audience with my research and its potential?
- How interested are they in my research and how it could be applied?
- What big, urgent problem is my audience concerned about now?
- What questions could I ask to tease out that problem?
- How might I reframe the problem as an opportunity to collaborate on a solution?
- What would really excite the audience about such a collaboration?
- What could I ask the audience to agree to as a small next step?
During the meeting, you can use your pre-meeting intelligence to guide the conversation, skilfully probing the problem and whetting the audience’s appetite to work with you on creating a solution.
For example, let’s say you’ve developed an app to help make triage more efficient in the emergency rooms of rural hospitals. You’re meeting with a senior administrator of a large rural hospital who is curious about the research behind the app. You’d like to convince the administrator to help pilot the beta version.
In this case, you know that the administrator—let’s call him Phil—knows a bit about your product and is interested in your research. He hasn’t expressed interest in becoming a pilot partner, but you see the potential to encourage him in that direction.
As you start the conversation with Phil, you let him direct it. You offer to answer any questions he has about your research and the app’s development and indulge his curiosity. As you do so, you point out that you and he seem to have some common interests.
Then, gradually, you start asking Phil questions about where his interest in the app has come from. What trends has he noticed with triage in his hospital, for instance? How has his hospital been coping with the staff shortages that have been in the news? What financial issues have triage backlogs been creating?
As Phil responds, you pay close attention to the language he uses, especially when he gets emotional (as he does when he talks about the stress on triage nurses, for instance, and the rising costs of covering absences due to burnout). Reading between the lines, you sense that Phil has a vision for his hospital and is frustrated that it seems so hard to reach.
Once you've learned how the triage problem looks from Phil’s perspective, you ask him whether it would be helpful for him to have access to the kind of detailed data the app gathers.
“Hell, yes!” says Phil. “Unfortunately, I don’t see us ever having budget to purchase the software for our hospital. The hands that hold the purse-strings tend to distrust any software that doesn’t exist on a desktop PC.”
Now’s your opportunity to drop an artful suggestion, otherwise known as an informal pitch.
“Well, Phil, as it so happens, we are working on a desktop application. But the first step toward that is doing some preliminary testing of our smartphone app. Would you consider collaborating with us as a pilot partner?”
“Hmmm… what would that involve? You know, we have quite a few tech-skeptics on the leadership team…”
Beautiful. Phil has just revealed another problem you can help him solve—overcoming the tech-skepticism that’s holding back other initiatives he’d like to pursue. From there, you take the conversation to a deeper level, getting to know Phil better and interesting him in the prospect of working with you.
By the end of the meeting (a few minutes before scheduled end-time), Phil has agreed to another exploratory meeting to “brainstorm” possible approaches to conducting a short, simple pilot of the app.
Congratulations! You’ve just successfully delivered an informal pitch, which has now set you up to work collaboratively with Phil on developing a formal pitch to his leadership team.
As you can see from this example, informal pitching has little to do with a memorized mini-script. It has a lot to do with your ability to elicit curiosity, ask probing questions, and engage your audience in a low-risk, collaborative process.
As a researcher, you may find informal pitching a bit unnerving at first, partly because it requires you to carry on a dialogue, not deliver a presentation. In many ways, the practice of Entrepreneurial Influence involves letting go of the idea that you, as a communicator, are in control of the communication situation.
Outside the academy, you’ll find that communication tends to happen in ways that are not only less formal but also less predictable than the exchanges that occur at conferences and within the pages of peer-reviewed journals. Once you embrace that difference, you’re already halfway to developing the next-level persuasion skills you need to turn your research into impact.
Discovering Your Brand of Entrepreneurial Influence
As you explore the four channels of Entrepreneurial Influence, two common themes will help you develop the new skills you need to communicate outside the academy:
Theme 1: Know your audience. The more you learn about the people you’re communicating with, the better you’ll be able to customize your messaging to them, and customization is the key to piquing their interest and building trust.
Theme 2: Know yourself. When it comes to Entrepreneurial Influence, there are no templates. Whether you’re communicating via email, at a meeting, at live networking event, or through an informal pitch, the real secret is to show up as your authentic self.
In some cases, that might mean showing up as the more extroverted or attentive or articulate version of your self—we all have aspects of professional self-presentation that we can refine. Nonetheless, genuine influence happens when we let our passion and personality shine through.
As you cross the chasm that divides the academy from the community you want to impact, keep these two principles top of mind. And remember that Entrepreneurial Influence is a practice you develop over time. The more you experiment and reflect on your experiences, the easier it will become to lean into your personal strengths while adapting to your audience and winning them to your cause.
- Writing (2)
- Scientific Language (2)
- Business Writing (4)
- Effective Writing (1)
- Clarity in Writing (1)
- Written Communication (1)
- Persuasive Communication (7)
- Customer Awareness (1)
- Writing Process (17)
- Business Growth (1)
- Effective Communication (1)
- Knowledge Translation (9)
- Writing Coaching (1)
- Blogging (2)
- Writing Voice (4)
- Proposals (3)
- Cover Letters (1)
- Team Writing (2)
- Getting writing help (1)
- Messaging Strategy (7)
- Web Copy (4)
- Ideation (1)
- Visionary Writing (2)
- Writing Persuasively (3)
- Learning Design (1)
- Visual Communication (1)
- Grant Applications (1)
- Pitching (3)
- Framing (1)
- Entrepreneurship Skills (2)