Q&A

I usually start any session by asking what people want out of it.

I don’t use PowerPoint, because I want to show I am truly open to whatever comes up.

When I was teaching storytelling at Zenith, individuals said:

  • sell ideas,
  • improve communication,
  • be more concrete,
  • inspire,
  • be more engaging in meetings,
  • improve people’s understanding,
  • persuade.

At the end, I reminded everybody to what they had wanted at the beginning, and said if I hadn’t addressed their own particular interest, now was the time to ask questions. I would answer them if I could.

I reminded them story shapes our lives: the story you tell yourself is the life you live.

Don’t be rejected

Imagine, if you will, the following scenario. You’re in a theatre space, with an audience. You’re invited to go on stage, without any preparation.

Bad enough? Well, hang on.

Going on stage with you are three other people. You’re going to play The Rejection Game. These are the rules:

  1. One of the four people on stage must be socially rejected by the other three.
  2. It mustn’t be you.
  3. Rejection means
    a) three players successfully send the other one offstage, or
    b) three players abandon the other one onstage, or
    c) one player is totally ignored, as if a ghost.

Afraid yet? I’m not surprised. It sounds brutal – it is brutal – and the most natural thing in the world is for players to feel afraid.

But feeling afraid tends to make a person close up in what I call the “bubble of poor-me”.

And when you are in the bubble, you are less likely to engage openly and confidently with others. So you are more likely to be rejected – exactly what you’re afraid of. It becomes self-fulfilling.

Yikes!

The Rejection Game was taught to me by Keith Johnstone. He once said that I was very good at it – just as I was going onstage. As intended, this had the effect of uniting the other three players against me from the start – but I still didn’t lose.

I’m sorry, that wasn’t very modest. But the truth is that I was OK at it, perhaps because I found the game utterly fascinating, and I went on teach it to others.

In 2015, funded by the government in Northern Ireland, I played it with a variety of community groups, youth groups, reformed paramilitaries, business networks, secondary school children and guests of Her Majesty’s prison service in Belfast.

Everywhere I went, people made the same elementary (and entirely human) mistake.

They thought that the best way to avoid being rejected was to be nasty – to scapegoat somebody else.

This was a mistake. If Siobhan said that Martin was horrible, it always backfired: it tended to make others feel sorry for Martin, and to suspect that Siobhan was a bit nasty.

Very quickly, players learned the following:

  1. Be agreeable, considerably more agreeable than normal. If you don’t know how, simply allow yourself to find other people interesting and attractive.
  2. Stay close – literally. Any player more distant than the others is in danger.
  3. Don’t give up. Never acknowledge that you are being ignored. The other players are human, and one of them will inevitably bring you back into the game with a fleeting injection of eye contact. (The audience, bloodthirsty beast that it is, will often groan when this happens.)

And that’s basically it.

Avoid eye contact, use soundbites, admit nothing

When training executives to get the better of journalists, Tim Arnold employs an affable, witty manner that blunts the sharpness of his cynical teachings.

“Dealing with the press is a Faustian pact,” he says to today’s anxious trainees, as he stands before a flip chart. “The reporter wants a story, and you want to get your point across.

“When you meet a journalist, you’ve got to be steely about your objectives. It’s about winning. Your mindset – but only your mindset – should be: ‘Oy, Thickie, come here and listen.’ But there’s a social veneer on top of that. Before you start, you tell the reporter that you loved their story about… plastic hip joints.”


When Arnold says this, five accountants burst into relieved laughter.

They’re representatives of Howard Schultz & Associates, a Bedfordshire-based firm which carries out audits for clients that include major retailers; and media virgins, hoping to build up their public profile by appearing as retail experts on TV and radio.

“The Wickes scandal would have been a good opportunity for us be interviewed,” says Stephen Cheliotis, Howard Schultz’s external PR consultant. “At the moment, they [the news channels] always call some guy from Verdict to talk about retail. We want to get in there.”

Exposure on TV and radio, says Cheliotis, is much more credible than in newspapers. “For instance, I was trying to see a particular client for several months, and the day after I was interviewed on CNN that particular client came up to me at a party.”

Howard Schultz’s managing director, John Holdstock, believes broadcast media possess another attraction: “Our fear is that you have to watch [print] journalists. They don’t report what you tell them. But TV doesn’t lie. TV reporting has to be accurate.”


Avoiding the traps
“As business news gets more and more airtime,” argues the website of Media Master, the training company which has brought Arnold and Howard Schultz together, “you need to make sure you’re getting the right corporate message across. The only way to do this is to make sure your staff know how avoid the usual journalistic traps. We can help [your staff] to stay calm in the face of hostile questioning and a barrage of microphones.”

Today, for a fee of £950 per person (plus VAT), the executives will acquire experience of radio and TV interviews – with a real anchorman, from a leading news broadcaster, asking the questions (not Arnold but another man).

Before the radio interviews begin, some general advice from Arnold. “In your jobs,” he says, “you are used to answering questions from clients. But journalists are not clients. They don’t pay your wages. So you’re in charge. Find out beforehand: will you be alone, or confronted (by somebody putting the opposite view). And ask yourself, What’s in it for me?”

[Hey – thanks for reading so far. To be completely transparent, this story is from my archive. It’s from the olden days, before companies had their own video channels on YouTube etc. Just wanted to be clear about that…]

CONTINUED…

Steve Chapman and the dandelions

Steve Chapman was relatively new to coaching. One of his first clients was a very stiff finance exec from a pharmaceutical company.

The man’s colleagues described him as only barely human.

Steve didn’t know what to do, but felt certain that if he was to encourage the man to be more spontaneous, he would need to be more spontaneous himself.

They went out for a walk, and Steve found what he needed in the dandelions at his feet.

Later, he challenged the man to impersonate an art expert at one of London’s leading museums.

Listen to the audio to hear Steve describe what happened.