As a coach to financial advisors for the past 20 years, one of the most common questions I’ve been asked is, “What’s the best way to introduce myself?” What I’m really being asked is, “How do I prospect effectively in social situations and make the biggest impact on the other person in a short period of time?”

Obviously, there are lots of ways to talk about what you do. Unfortunately, most of them aren’t terribly effective, and many actually turn people off.

Attention! Attention! I’m Introducing Myself Now!

The biggest challenges in making an impactful introduction are the natural limits of human interest and the “cost” of paying attention to your message. Consider for a moment the literal meaning of “pay attention.” When you speak, the other person must deploy mental and emotional resources to receive your message. These resources, like any form of energy, are always in short supply.

When you start speaking, the other person is literally paying out energy and effort to absorb and understand what you’re saying. If there’s no immediate reward in self-interest, entertainment or novelty, your listener will quickly expend his mental and emotional gas. Therefore, you must be brief and your introduction must be unique, novel and compelling.

Never assume other people are paying attention as you are speaking. More likely their thoughts are drifting to who else is at the party or what they’re going to eat for dinner. Your first and most important task is to get their full attention.

The Problem of “I Know What You Are!”

The problem of attention is especially challenging if what you’re saying is familiar. The moment you describe yourself in familiar terms (for example, “I’m a Financial Advisor with XYZ firm”), the listener realizes there’s no novelty in the conversation. At this point she politely smiles, nods and turns off her mental engagement. Most people know what a financial advisor is. After all, Cerulli says that there are a lot of advisors out there: 316,109 client-facing financial advisors. Why would anyone “pay” their attention to this?

One (ineffective) way advisors have tried to deal with this is by using creative metaphors or extreme language. The instinct here is correct: you need to do something quickly to make it worthwhile for the other person to pay attention. “I’m a personal CFO” or “I provide customized, personalized and holistic wealth management solutions” or “I really, really care about my clients” are all attempts to spark novelty and increase significance. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of websites, e-mails, and print and television advertisements have burned out the effectiveness of highly charged words. You end up sounding like you sell used cars or pitch infomercials.

The Structure of Engagement

The key to combating attention deficit, consumer burnout and familiarity has much more to do with the structure of your message than its content. You’re a financial advisor and you can’t change that, nor should you. You want your listener to know this so that he can decide if he wants to engage your services. To keep his attention, create a sense of novelty by the way you deliver your message. Here’s a strategy for introducing yourself effectively.

First, it’s always best to wait to be asked, “What do you do?” This is easy to do in most social circumstances: simply ask the other person what she does, and then follow up with a string of questions about her occupation or situation. Pursue her assertively and with authentic interest. This will set up a need to reciprocate. In some cases, the person will even feel a compulsion to “even things up” by pursuing you in the same way.

When the other person finally asks, “And what do you do?” resist the temptation to launch into your elevator speech. Your first priority is to increase the novelty of the conversation in the mind of the listener so that he will budget more attention to your answer. Start by being reluctant to answer the question: “Well, it’s a bit difficult to explain. It takes me a couple of minutes to make it clear, and I get a little self-conscious about how to answer that question.” If you pause here, the other person has the choice of walking away and feeling relieved that he doesn’t have to continue the conversation, or he can say, “No! Really! I’d like to know.”

The listener almost always wants to know more.

Using the Problem of Familiarity to Your Advantage

It’s still not time to explain what you do. You still need to overcome the problem of “I know what you do.” Remember that you want to keep the listener fully engaged and interested. Your introduction is intended to lead to a more extensive conversation and possibly a professional engagement in the future.

Be aware that a significant majority of the investors you’ll meet already have one or more financial advisors. According to a Cerulli Associates’ analysis of a year’s worth of studies on financial advisory relationships, 70% of clients allocate assets to more than one advisor or directed-brokerage account. Therefore, there’s a good chance your audience knows what an advisor is and does. So, before you deliver your introduction, address the issue of familiarity by saying, “I’m sure you know what a financial advisor does; you probably have an advisor whom you work with. Well, although I’m a financial professional, what I do is very different from what the typical advisor does for his clients.” As you say this, it’s helpful to sweep your hands from left to right in front of you, as if moving an object away from you and the other person to imply, “I’m not like those people!”

You’ve now accomplished several important goals in the conversation: you’ve established a high level of novelty, the other person has asked you twice to introduce yourself, you’ve suggested that what you do is different, and you’ve swept their current advisor out of the conversation.

All this has taken about a minute from the time you were first asked, “What do you do?”

The Grass Is Always Greener

Now it’s time to close—the only point in your introduction that you need to think about strategically. You’ve brought the conversation to a sharp point of focus, and the person you’re talking with is using mental energy, ready to hear about what you do. Now it’s time to reveal your specialization.

The most common mistake advisors make when introducing themselves is to be far too general so as not to alienate anyone. By trying to be all things to all people, you actually succeed in being meaningless and boring; remember the problems of familiarity and attention deficit? Rather than alienating prospective clients, creating a clearly defined barrier actually increases your appeal.

Here’s a simple, three-step process for creating this part of your introduction:

  • Step One: Define a very specific group or type of investor you work with or a group whom you’ve served well. The key here is to be very specific.
  • Step Two: Describe a painful problem investors have or a danger to which they are exposed. Again, be very specific.
  • Step Three: Describe how you solve the problem in simple terms.

Now you can introduce yourself properly: “I specialize in [name the problem you solve] for [whom you solve it for] who are concerned about [the problem or danger they’re exposed to].” Your strategy is to reveal yourself as a highly talented and focused professional who has the knowledge and ability to solve important problems. This also tends to cause the other person to ask for specifics—most often either the nature of the problem or the features of the solution. Either way, the conversation is started with you sounding very knowledgeable.
For example, you might introduce yourself by saying, “I specialize in performing municipal bond analyses for qualified investors who are concerned about protecting themselves from rising interest rates by shifting from passive to active management.” Almost any person you would want as a client will have two immediate reactions to this: one, she will be curious about the specifics of the problem and the details of your solution; and two, she will wonder if she will qualify to work with you. More often than not, the other person’s advisor is a generalist, and your specialist role automatically raises your status in the listener’s eyes.

By pointing to a specific benefit or service you provide that’s both credible and describable, you get to the heart of an issue: your process, specific solution or particular benefit that you provide to your clients. Be confident that following the steps outlined here will enable you to create the “Wow!” you’ve been seeking.

Ken Haman is the Managing Director at the AllianceBernstein Advisor Institute, visit

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