I'll Take That Pitch With a Dash of Politesse
By Ann Harrington

(FORTUNE Magazine) – When I first heard that MIT's business school was teaching its entrepreneurs cocktail-party skills, I called up Ken Morse, the managing director of MIT's Entrepreneurship Center, and asked him whether I could get the scoop on schmoozing. The disapproval in Morse's voice was clear, even over his speakerphone: He didn't teach schmoozing but "targeting opportunities." Oops. That was my first indication that MIT's entrepreneurs take their networking very seriously.

And why shouldn't they? Now that venture capitalists look a bit more skeptically at the dot-com wannabes they embraced a few months ago, no great idea can afford a bad first impression. But I was puzzled: How do you reconcile the rules of etiquette, most of which emphasize deferring to others, with the urgent agenda of the entrepreneur--to sell yourself?

The answer, Morse said, was empathy. Take the basic entrepreneur's pitch, often called the "elevator speech" because you are supposed to deliver it in the 60 seconds or so you spend traveling between floors with a very busy person. I had always thought of this as a generic spiel, delivered by rote, but Morse insists that his students tailor their pitches to specific targets, focusing on such matters as how their idea could help cut a product's time to market. "If they talk about technology," he says, "they're toast."

The key to empathy, of course, is knowing your audience--hence Morse's obsession with preparation. (In his previous life, at onetime startups like 3Com and Aspen Technology, he once spent eight hours preparing for a 15-minute sales call. He won the business.) Recently he let me sit in on a briefing for students before a cocktail party at MIT. The party, packed with venture capitalists and e-CEOs, included some worthy "targets," and Morse began his tutorial by highlighting their names on the guest list. (Morse recommends arriving early at events to scan nametags or, better, getting the guest list in advance.)

By 6:30, the student hosts had changed into suits and ties or skirts and jackets to greet their guests--no casual dress for disciples of Morse. Most of his students disclaimed any natural networking ability but proved to be gracious hosts: Jill Krzewina noticed my look of incomprehension at the mention of a hot e-consulting firm and stepped in to enlighten me; Heather Wilding rescued me from a sea of strange faces to introduce me to executives at two startups she'd worked for. (Being introduced, Morse says, confers an aura of authority.)

Other tips from the master: Stand near the food, not the bar, since people are most receptive when they're eating; at the bar you're just in the way of someone who wants a drink. (Morse himself almost never drinks alcohol at such events.) To break into a conversation already in progress, hover 18 inches away, make eye contact, and wait.

Not everything went according to plan: One student forgot her business cards, and another spilled her drink. But those were minor glitches. Many of the students weren't necessarily looking to make a big score, just new connections. Jennifer Storer already had a job lined up and seemed more interested in "hooking up people who are looking for each other," a sort of Dolly Levi for the Internet Age.

Matchmaking, networking, call it what you will: People used to say that MIT grads had great ideas but lacked social skills. Morse appears to have fixed that.