Alex MacLaren: Hello, and welcome to You Can Talk to Anyone, the podcast in which we open the bonnet and our communications engine. I’m Alex. And I’m Tom. And in the run up to the holidays, we thought we’d talk about an issue which is going to be very important to all of you in the next fortnight. It’s about families. And we’re interested in this question of how do families affect the way we talk to people? And what does it mean for our working lives as well as for our lives away from work?
Tom Salinsky: You and I have rather different families, Alex.
Alex MacLaren: Yes, we do. So let’s get started. Do you want to go first or shall I?
Tom Salinsky: Well, I was just thinking, you know, it’s often said that when you’re growing up, you accept all of your family’s eccentricities as normal, because you don’t know any better. And so it was only when I’d been at school a number of years and had been back to a number of different friends’ houses that I realized, in several quite significant ways, my family was the unusual one. For example, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, Alex, but sometimes, when families get together and interact, laughter ensues.
Alex MacLaren: Yes, I don’t think I’ve ever sat down with the whole of your family together. But I can imagine that being quite difficult for someone with your sense of humor.
Tom Salinsky: They were occasionally smiles or nods of appreciation for a particularly elegant bit of wordplay. But teasing and being playful with each other is just not the kind of people that my parents are.
Alex MacLaren: Oh, God, it’s so important. That thing about teasing really strikes me as well, because that is something that we do have in common, it was quite difficult to tease… Well, actually, no. I’ve got three brothers. And we obviously we ripped into each other a lot. But we didn’t really tease my parents until we were adults, when we realized how healthy teasing can be and how absent it had been before – although it is something that I do with tremendous tentativeness around my mother. And I know that we’re on a really good day when we can tease my mum and make her cry with laughter. But it’s quite a rare occasion. I think that that point you’re making about what’s normal in our own family circumstances when we’re small is really important, because that’s where we learn a huge amount of stuff about, “Oh, these are the rules of the game.” And we don’t realize how local those games can be, until we actually venture outside those family circumstances into communication rules elsewhere. Do you remember those moments when you suddenly notice the way another child is relating to their parent, and you realize how you could not do that with you parents and sometimes you can be actually relieved that you don’t relate that way. And then sometimes you can be jealous. I remember seeing a kid I knew when we were at secondary school. But his father had been a teacher of mine at primary school. And so seeing somebody in a family role, as opposed to a sort of a formal school or authority role was very different, because they would tease him in a way that we hadn’t been able to tease him as schoolchildren.
Tom Salinsky: Yeah, you don’t have permission to do that
Alex MacLaren: You don’t have those permissions at all.
Tom Salinsky: So family is a sort of unit, where there’s an unspoken set of rules that everybody just knows. And I think the most treacherous situation is to be the one coming into that unit from the outside. So if you’ve got a relatively new partner, for example, you may have decided to spend Christmas with your partner’s family. And you will discover that there are all sorts of traditions and just ways of being which everyone else knows – and so therefore, no one’s gonna think to sit you down and explain them to you – but you can very, very easily put your foot in it,
Alex MacLaren: I think possibly I have been a little bit too careful. I think I was very clear that… So my missus’s family is very different from mine, much quieter, the curtains were always closed. And as a consequence, for her, she’s always been very reluctant to get back there for Christmas. But we’ve been pushed into doing it much more often lately to get together with her family out of duty because they’re simply so much more elderly than my parents and more vulnerable. And so we feel that duty more seriously. But I do remember one tremendous family occasion where we’re all sitting together and my late father-in-law was making some grandiose speech and we realized my son had run off. And when we went to get him, he was in the other room. And when we asked him, he was must have been about three-and-a-half or four, we said, “What’s happening, Frank?” And he said, “I don’t want to be in the room where people aren’t having fun.” And I genuinely think that if we’d explained this to my in laws, they would have been absolutely mortified. Because the other thing about being a newcomer coming into a family situation, is that it’s actually at that point that you can sometimes see your own family, from the perspective of somebody who hasn’t been completely indoctrinated into the way we do things here – for good or for ill. And so I think those interactions between one family set of circumstances and another family set of circumstances can be extremely healthy, if sometimes somewhat jolting.
Tom Salinsky: And something similar happens in the world of work, doesn’t it? If you are sent to someone else’s office – and that could be a brief visit, because you’re just there to have a meeting or deliver a pitch or something like that, or it can be because you’re some sort of consultant, and you’re now being embedded within another organization. And again, you have to learn their culture and their rules. And I think one of the dangers here is that, uncertain how we’re going to be received, we sort of put forward a bland, middle-of-the road-version of ourselves with all the edges sanded off. And it’s so difficult to actually build relationships from that base.
Alex MacLaren: I mean, we were we’ve worked together for years. And so being inside very large organizations is something I’ve only ever done as a visitor, so I’ve only ever joined the family for lunch or supper. But people within those organizations will sometimes confide in outsiders about their feelings about the culture. They can be incredibly strong, people who have been part of an organization for most of their working life will, will find it very difficult to change the way they communicate, because that’s not the way we do things here. Whereas sometimes sideways hires who come into an organization, it seemed to me that there are two ways that they deal with it. One is people keep their mouth shut, try to figure out what the rules are and function like they’ve been there all along. And that I’ve seen be incredibly stressful for many people, particularly those people who are quite entrepreneurial in tone, and they want to generate and innovate and make things change. And then the alternative point of view is people who come in and one way or another, they feel they have the confidence – or sometimes the explicit permission – to actually shake things up. And this can sometimes be the case that somebody is hired, in order to jolt the culture, in order to change things. And so it can be a tremendous disappointment, however threatening the organization finds it, if they actually learned the rules of this organization and joined the family in the way that perhaps they imagined that’d be welcomed to do
Tom Salinsky: Yeah, they’ve been sent to pull people out of the quicksand. But they end up just being drawn down into the morass along with everybody else. But it’s quite a tricky situation, I think, to come in and say, “Everything’s going to be different now. And this family unit, which you’ve established, looks to me to be less than optimal, or even looks to be toxic. And I’m now going to change it.” But that toxicity can be reassuring simply because it’s familiar. And so now you’re the person coming in going, “everything you knew is wrong, and I’m going to change it all” and to do that benevolently is genuinely difficult. But it comes back to some principles I think we’ve talked about a lot in the past. And so if you’re able to express yourself, with clarity, and with a certain amount of status, but you’re not trying to take that status away from anyone else, then I think you least have a chance of being listened to.
Alex MacLaren: I was just thinking about the position that people sometimes take when they’re talking to me when I’m visiting and talking about the way people communicate, and giving people permission and confidence to do things in a new way. And I often will come back to the metaphorical family, because we learn how to communicate from our mums and dads and our carers and our brothers and sisters. That’s where a lot of the patterns get learned and where a lot of the habits get formed. And very often, the idea of a family is used as a kind of a metaphor, we talk about the father and the mother of the nation, you know, for government. And so, not only is it in our patterns of behavior, but also in our language that we talk about things as if they’re a family when perhaps they’re not – or are they? And I’m interested in what you think about this, that people will sometimes say to me, you know, to think about this pitch as if it’s a hospitality situation, that you’re welcoming someone round to your house into the family for an interaction, or as if you’re visiting somebody else’s family for a moment that – well it’s not that. No, no, no, this is a business meeting, we mustn’t think of it like that. When we talk about the way we engage with our colleagues, you know, sometimes you’re gonna have to be a big sister figure here, sometimes you have to allow them the permission to be a tough guy because they that they’ve been here longer than you, so it’s like your big brother. People will sometimes tell me that they don’t necessarily connect with that way of looking at things. And I’m wondering what you think about this? Is there a way in which we think about families, that is not useful at work? And I’m thinking maybe about boundaries? Possibly. Maybe that’s what they’re getting at?
Tom Salinsky: Yes, I think something I’ve said in the past is – a little informality goes a long way. Just as it would be a mistake, I think, to go into a situation such as this, where you’re going to be there for a short while, but you’re hoping this is going to be the beginning of a longer relationship, such as delivering a new business pitch, it’s tempting to want to go in and not make any overt choices, and just be this sort of bland, middle-of-the-road version of yourself. And if your pitch is good enough, that might be successful, but the getting-to-know-you bit is going to have to start after that, because nothing of you has walked into that room – an empty suit just walked into that room, okay. But equally, when you’re really at home with people, when you really do feel like family, you do all sorts of things that would be quite inappropriate. You can’t come in in your underpants, crack open a can of beer and then fall asleep on the couch. So a little informality goes a very long way. If you can put just five or ten percent of your genuine personality on display, and have one little joke where you just experiment with a little status raise or lower here or there, or just a tiny little off-the-cuff remark, any kind of little hint of color, you’ll start getting a sense back very quickly, either “This is welcome,” or “Gracious, no, dear boy, we don’t behave like that.” And you can modulate as a result.
Alex MacLaren: Absolutely. And in fact, sometimes the changes, positive as they are, have happened almost by accident. I think particularly in the last 18 months, what you’re saying about don’t show up in your underpants…
Tom Salinsky: You haven’t actually had a client show up in their underpants?
Alex MacLaren: Well, for all I know, I’ve been on a Zoom call with somebody who…
Tom Salinsky: Oh, of course, yes.
Alex MacLaren: So, in the last year, there’s been this real, almost enforced, shattering of boundaries between the domestic life we lead with our own family circumstances. I just remember particularly early on, this wonderful period where of all the children were at home, of course. And so I used to just keep a tally of children appear in meetings. And I was always impressed that I didn’t think on a single occasion – possibly it was to do with the nature of the meetings I was attending on Zoom – I never felt that people weren’t delighted to have family life break into the business circumstances. People have been wearing the kind of clothes they wear around their loved ones rather than around their colleagues. And so we have seen a side of the family person that we have never seen before, I think in most people’s cases. And I think most of the people I’ve been working with has seen that as a positive. What’s been your experience there?
Tom Salinsky: Yes, I think that’s true. I think on the whole it has been a positive. But I think there is also a certain anxiety. I think if you are on a Zoom call, and you’re feeling as if that once rock solid boundary between work life and domestic life has become noticeably more porous, then that can create alarm, because you don’t know if in the next 30 seconds there will be a naked child charging through the shot, or a dog going berserk, or the washing machine will explode, or your partner in another room will start getting into a full and frank exchange of views on their own Zoom call very much within earshot. And so you’re suddenly having, in your private domestic space, people you work with. And you would have to work with somebody, I think typically for a very long time, before you said, “Shall we carry this on in my front room?” So I think it is partly a trend that was ongoing anyway. But if I just think about the way men dress, when I started doing this kind of work, if I went to somewhere like a law firm or even an advertising agency, certainly anything in the financial sector, most of the men would be wearing shirts and ties and suits. And then after I’d been doing this for a while, once or twice, I found as I looked around the room, I was the only man wearing a tie. And if I turned up in a tie today, I am pretty sure almost no matter what the environment, I would be the only person wearing a tie. And if there was somebody wearing a tie would it almost certainly somebody older than me. Occasionally you see very, very young men wearing a tie. But it’s really unusual. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see something much more like jeans and a jacket becoming much more commonplace even in places like law firms, which typically would always have been suits.
Alex MacLaren: Yeah, it’s funny. I think, for me, there’s been one dimension of my client base where that bleed existed beforehand. And weirdly, it was among very, very senior people. So I remember doing some work with a bunch of C-suite, people talking about the kind of networks they wanted to build. And they were simply talking, particularly international groups, when they were spending time away from their families, when they actually really did dig themselves in with the personal lives of the bosses that they were wanting to work with. It was almost more like, I mean, historically, it’s terrifying that you’d actually hand over children to the opposite side for them to raise, there are gangster movies about this issue, in which, in order to build a strong alliance, we actually gave sort of genetic hostages to each other. And so it feels that like on a certain level, it might relate to that. And so I feel in the last 18 months, we’ve all slightly moved into that world a little bit. And we’re beginning to find different sorts of relationships with each other, which allow for a bit more of the vulnerability and the humanity that we have tended to reserve for our family lives. I remember once about 15 years ago, and I was doing some work with a consultancy firm. And I remember talking to this woman, and she said that for her success in life was going to be when her work persona, and her home and family persona, were indivisible. And they were exactly the same. So the implication was clearly that she was very different when she wasn’t around a family and I said, “Well, what, what is the difference?” And she said that she felt that at home, she was somewhat more compassionate. And that was interesting to me. I think in some families, it can be the other way round. At home they have permission to be absolutely ruthless in a way that they don’t have at work. But I think that resistance depends on a kind of mutual understanding of real loyalty. And I’m just wondering whether there are expectations within our actual domestic families that actually would never have the same sort of feel at work. And I wondered what you thought about family firms?
Tom Salinsky: Well, we use that phrase, don’t we? We talk about families. But I think, to a greater or lesser extent, it’s a little bit of corporate storytelling. It’s somewhat of a fiction. And I think the key difference is, you can’t be fired from your family, except in very specific situations. So that kind of loyalty is actually relatively easy to engender, provided you don’t expect it to last. You know, we can go and run – not that we really do this kind of thing – but we go and run a team building event and you arbitrarily divide group of people into the red team and the blue team, then the red team, the blue team will be fiercely loyal within their teams. But then as soon as the game is over, or certainly within 24 hours, all of those loyalties, and all of those enmities will be entirely forgotten about. And as actors, we’ve both had the experience of joining a company, that’s what they call a group of performers. And not just performance, but also stage managers or camera operators, like the whole team, depending on you know, stage, film, whatever. And that becomes a unit, that becomes a family unit that’s devoted to each other. And sometimes you make friends for life, but not every time. Sometimes the people that you were pouring your heart out to, are people that when that project comes to an end, you will literally never see again for the rest of your life.
Alex MacLaren: Yes, completely. There’s a great film by François Truffaut called La Nuit américaine, which is about the assembly of a film crew into this very, very tight, very intimate family unit, which lasts only for the duration of the shoot. And the moment at the end of it when everybody gets in their cars incredibly quickly. People waving at each other at a distance as they say “see you in Paris,” and then it evaporates and they’re never going to see each other again. And that that tightness is really interesting in temporary family spirit in showbusiness, and I wonder – I want to kind of tentatively go into this as well. This links to the kind of the dark side of families as well. People are terrified of strangers, but you’re much more likely to be abused within your family, okay? And I think sometimes the loyalty expectation that is connected to that family narrative within organizations can sometimes be unhealthy.
Tom Salinsky: Yes, your loved ones, the ones closest to you, who know you the best, therefore, also know exactly where your weaknesses are.
Alex MacLaren: They know how to wind you up, and torture you, and hurt you.
Tom Salinsky: Yeah, so these kind of overly close family units can have issues and then you end up –this is possibly a topic for another podcast – in the area of workplace flings, which can sometimes bust up existing families. So I think the thing to bear in mind is that what we think about as this family unit can often feel much realer than in fact it is and can feel much more permanent. We can’t imagine when we’re in the midst of these feelings, that life could be different in any way. But experience teaches us that actually, these can evaporate very quickly. So from the point of view of somebody who’s hoping for the success of the project, or the success of the company, engendering this feeling is very, very helpful. But it shouldn’t be confused with what happens in a real family, which is for life.
Alex MacLaren: Yes, I think also, there’s something important about your own experience of families, everybody listening to this, is that people can sometimes appeal to family feeling as if it is something not just sort of permanent, but eternal. Whereas the reality is that, in a healthy family, it does actually change – a toddler becomes a school child, a school child becomes a teenager, teenagers start to form their own very, very strong social groups, which begin to be more important to them in the immediate term than their family relationships, they then will possibly go off and form new relationships and start building families of their own, they will then have a new alliance with a completely different family, they’ll then start establishing their own identity as this is my family. And then there’s those other families in the history of – and so it keeps on mutating and changing. And you have to give yourself permission to change families in order to keep the whole idea of it alive. Otherwise, you can get stuck in a pattern that people tell you must never change, which in my experience tends to absolutely kill relationships. And I think this is true at work as well. That however, fixed and immutable, the patterns and dynamics of the way you’re relating to your colleagues, your peers, your bosses, if you accept that there’s something permanent about it, and there’s nothing you can do about it, it will begin to start to have its problems for the way you’re engaging with others. You’ve got to give yourself permission to be flexible and try out different ways of engaging and risk it.
Tom Salinsky: Are we going to give our listeners the gift of homework and this holiday season, or do they get time off a good behaviour?
Alex MacLaren: Time off for Christmas? Although if you will be spending time with people who have known you very well for a very long time. Some of you for the first time in actually a number of years after last Christmas was canceled in the UK.
Tom Salinsky: And so maybe this could be a time gently and tactfully if needed to try and reset some expectations. If you do feel as if going back home to your family means you’re infantilized, you’re not given the respect that you would ideally like, see what you can do to have an open conversation about that, and really, really listen to what the other person is telling you about how they’re feeling. And see if you can therefore open the door to them making changes in how they relate to you. But maybe do that on Boxing Day.
Alex MacLaren: With a sandwich, we’ll include a recipe for sandwich in the shownotes. Thank you all so much for joining us. We deliver training days to people in business in person or via Zoom on all of the topics we’re covering in these podcasts. We do client meetings, better negotiations. We do lots of work on presentation, storytelling, networking and more. If you want to discuss what your company’s needs are, send an email to info at the hyphen spontaneity hyphen shop.com. Or give The Spontaneity Shop a call on 020 7780 4080.
Tom Salinsky: And we’d love to hear from listeners as well. If you’ve tried out any things we’ve been talking about if you’ve got some family horror stories you want to share or some stories of great success that came about because you were able to create that family feeling and have everyone pulling in the same direction then do let us know. You can send us an email podcast the-spontaneity-shop.com, or you can record your thoughts in the form of a voice message and send it over to us and we might play it on a future show.
Alex MacLaren: Until next time I’m Alex.
Tom Salinsky: And I’m Tom.
Alex MacLaren: Thank you very much for listening and goodbye.
Bringing someone a gift should delight both of you, but in some cases both buying a gift and receiving it can be fraught with danger and anxiety.
Alex MacLaren: Hello, and welcome to You Can Talk to Anyone, the podcast in which we open the bonnet on our communications engine. I’m Alex.
Tom Salinsky: And I’m Tom.
Alex MacLaren: And this week, we are going to be talking about not communicating in the way we talk, but also a thing which goes alongside it. We’re talking about gifts. What shall we bring? Gifts and meanings. This is something that I’m really interested in, particularly it’s good to talk to you about it, because I think you’re very good at presents, Tom, and I don’t think I am.
Tom Salinsky: I’m okay. I’m okay. I think I got a lot of points in the bank early on in my relationship with Deborah, because I was sort of lucky in that over the first few months, I happen to kind of clock a few things and file them away and think “that would be good.” So like a book that she talked about reading when she was a child, which she couldn’t find any more, I was able to find a copy of that, that sort of thing. And now we’ve been married a long time. After all, you run out of that kind of thing, and you just say – what’s on your Amazon wish list?
Alex MacLaren: Yes, that is true. And I think it’s also the case that it is harder to give gifts to people who are just older. I mean, buying things for kids is dead easy, because they haven’t got anything and they want everything. And so you’ve got a lot of things that you can choose from. They very easily have things that they’re faddish about and interested in. And therefore, you can simply go and get something from the toy shop. My son, he changes his latest thing that he wants a present all at the time. But he’s always incredibly happy with something that we give him. And we’ll come back to that, I think in due course.
Tom Salinsky: I know in other cultures, there are some quite strict rules about gift giving, I worked for a while for an English guy who had lots of Japanese clients. And there were very strict rules that related to not how old the person was, nor how long you’d known them, nor how close your relationship was, but actually to their seniority in the company. And it was the monetary value of the gift that mattered. You had to buy something more expensive for the person who was more senior, something less expensive for the person more junior and so on all the way down the line. And if you didn’t, it was seen as a great insult.
Alex MacLaren: Yeah, it’s interesting, and also those rules often have to be learnt only consciously by people from outside that circle. Very often the rules are tacit, which are kind of soaked up over a lifetime, and you figure it out in your 30 years as a salaried person within a Japanese organisation. In fact, with that in mind, I had a conversation only yesterday with my sister-in-law, who is Polish by birth, and she’s only lived in the UK since about the last 10 years, or however long she’s known my brother Sam, and we were talking about this very question, because at her wedding, I noticed that one of the things that was a standard wedding gift, at a Polish wedding, is an envelope of cash. Now, for that to happen at the British wedding, it would feel like it would have a completely different kind of meaning. It’s absolutely the thing to do to help a young Polish couple get set up. And also it avoids that risk of getting too many teapots, which is something that happens, or can happen. And we in the UK, we avoid it by having a wedding list set up at Heals or John Lewis, which means that everyone can go along and select something which suits their pocket, and which has doesn’t duplicate something they’ve already been bought by somebody else.
Tom Salinsky: And that feels to us totally different from the envelope of cash. But actually, it’s more similar to the envelope of cash than what we think about as traditional gift buying, which is: Alex, I know you so well, that I’ve been able to find something that you will adore that you didn’t even know you wanted. Which, I think, is the kind of Holy Grail of gift buying.
Alex MacLaren: Yes, this is it. It’s like – oh my god, I would never have chosen this for myself, but now I’ve got it, it’s absolutely perfect. I’m going to go first with this, but I want you to think about it as well. When we think about the perfect gifts given to us in our life, very often it’s something like that. And I was just wondering it can you think of a particular object or thing which is absolutely in your life, still very much part of your existence, but which was a gift from somebody else – and I’ve got something. I’ve got a friend who’s very, very good at gifts. And when we first moved out of London and into our flat in Folkstone in Kent parcel arrived, I opened it up very excited. It was from my best mate from drama school. And he basically bought me this coffee machine, but it wasn’t a plugin Gaggia or DeLonghi, it was a manual object. It’s actually constructed, the engineering is like a corkscrew. And so you put in your coffee and sort of fill it up with normal coffee, like in a coffee machine that a barista would use. And then you pour in water at the top and then squeeze down two levers, and it’s that manual pressure that produces your espresso. Anyway, I absolutely love it. And I use it like four or five times a day. I’ve replaced most parts in it, it’s like axe that took off Anne Bolyn’s head, everything’s been replaced, but it’s still the same original thing. And it’s almost like, I barely remember almost as a present at all. It’s just entered into the fabric of my existence. And it is an absolute beauty. And I love it. Have you got anything quite like that?
Tom Salinsky: The thing that leaps immediately to mind is one of those things that I actually didn’t know I wanted, because I didn’t even know it existed until it was given to me as a present. And that was membership of the Wine Society – which is a curious gift because you’re being given the gift of purchasing. But you do have to be put forward as a member. So only another member can buy this for you as a gift. And it was given to me by someone who knows much more about wine than I do, at a stage of my life when I was buying more wine, and keen not to waste money on buying very expensive wine that I didn’t like. And so this turned out to be a truly excellent gift. And yeah again, something I’m still using – not every day, Alex, that would be upsetting – but something I’m still using very, very regularly.
Alex MacLaren: I was wondering for a moment whether it was me that joined you to the Wine Society. But when you said someone who knows more about wine than you, I knew it couldn’t be me.
Tom Salinsky: No, it wasn’t you. Where do you think gift giving fits in in the corporate world? When is it appropriate to buy someone a gift that you’re just working with? Or working for?
Alex MacLaren: Well, it depends on the nature of the gift, I think. Do you remember that episode of Yes Minister or Yes Prime Minister in which basically a diplomatic gift is handed over, and there are very, very strict rules about what happens with diplomatic gifts in the United Kingdom. And so the whole joke is about whether or not Jim Hacker can take home this lovely vase and give it to his wife, Annie, or whether or not he has to declare it and hand it over to the Foreign Office for them to sell it or auction it or whatever. And so I think that if you were to take something kind of small and charming and personal along and present it to somebody, or take it to a meeting for you to share, for example, I think that feels less stressful. I think that can be quite a lot of stress involved in handing over a gift with some sort of meaning attached to it, which is substantial. Literally just the other day, a client got in touch with us and asked me to make a donation, I was asked to give something for their Christmas charity raffle. Okay, so there’s a whole load of things involved in that. I feel like I’ve got very happy to do so. But there’s also this sense of Gosh, how much should I spend on this? And what are they going to take from it? They’re not going to notice, it’s not going to make any difference to whether or not they give me loads more work in the next year or not. But it does feel like I need to be part of that gift giving circle and almost like part of that family in the way that I respond to it. So yeah, claim something over.
Tom Salinsky: I remember in an earlier, less digital age, we would regularly send Christmas cards to clients – something we haven’t done for at least a decade. But that was a regular feature of our November, getting a fun Christmas card printed up making lists of clients to send it to, sticking stamps on the envelopes.
Alex MacLaren: And it’s not just us that did it. And it’s not just us that doesn’t do. We don’t receive them in the way that we used to. It just seems to have faded out. And I do think it’s interesting that – and this happens in sort of private life as well as in work life – sometimes the receipt of a gift is not just necessarily the pleasure of having this lovely new thing, it also feels like there’s there can be an obligation involved.
Tom Salinsky: Yes, you don’t want to be overdrawn at the gift bank.
Alex MacLaren: It’s true. We keep a sort of an account book. Yes. I’ve had this situation myself, I have an old friend who’s very good at remembering things. She’s just got one of those organized memories. I’m terrible at it. So I’m always missing birthdays, and we had to confront it eventually. And I found myself saying, look the only way for me to deal with this is to occasionally when I find things to say do them on a whim, regardless of whether it fits with your birthday or not. But that’s helped to kind of ease off some of my natural kind of guilt and shame at not being good at remembering that people do need presents once in a while.
Tom Salinsky: Yes, because on the one hand, we don’t want to turn every relationship into a transaction, we don’t feel like that’s the way we want to go through life. Like I’m keeping this detailed ledger. And actually, I feel like I’m in debt to you, or you’re in debt to me, because I’ve done you favors or I’ve given you gifts in the past. On the other hand, ever since childhood, I think we’ve had this very strong sense that things ought to be fair. And if you are in a relationship of any kind with someone else, where you are constantly doing all of the giving, all of the providing, all of the accommodating, you can start to feel like, ahh… this isn’t fair. This isn’t right.
Alex MacLaren: Absolutely true. And what you’re saying does begin in childhood, that sense of justice. I’ve got three brothers. And when we were small, I remember my aunt Moira, she did this every year, she instituted a family birthday, in order to level up the ledger for any of the birthdays that she’d forgotten. And so in order to make that feeling of fairness happen every year, there would be like an extra Christmas in the middle of the summer holidays in order to balance it all out. Because you don’t want it to feel unfair. And now weirdly, as an adult, I always am very scrupulous about sending presence to her. Because it feels like she laid down a lot of really excellent gift-giving early on in our relationship. And now she deserves for it to be coming back in the other direction. Here’s a question. Do you like surprises?
Tom Salinsky: I’m not averse to surprises. But I am someone who, given the choice, likes to plan things out. I sort of like to know… Where I’m trying to get to in my life – and this is possibly a topic for a whole other episode of this podcast – where I’m trying to get to in my life is a point where I can have a detailed plan for everything. And I can simultaneously have the ability to throw that plan away the second it isn’t helpful.
Alex MacLaren: Yeah. And when you’re on the receipt of a surprise present, that’s not something which is entirely in your control.
No, it’s not.
I mean, I know people who are actually averse to surprises. So when I give Zoe a presence – these days, I’ve sorted it all out long in advance, she knows exactly what she wants, she’s ensured that I’ve got it, and the surprise is removed. In some ways I’ve had to take my time letting go of that, because part of the pleasure of giving a surprise gift is for the giver to see the face of the surprised person as they peel open the wrapper and see what they’ve been given. And look, isn’t it gorgeous. What a pleasure. So for people who don’t like surprises, it can be quite hard for them to actually say to their loved ones, I need to be able to tell you in advance what you’re giving me.
Tom Salinsky: And so if for example, you’ve had somebody come and speak at your event, and they’ve done a really good job, and they want to say thank you by sending them flowers, your rewarded for that – because you will not be there when the flowers arrive – your reward is the person who’s received the flowers needs to call you up. Not text you, not send you an email, but call you up and go “Oh my god, I can’t believe it! They’re so beautiful!” and almost kind of play-act that strong emotion and give you that catharsis you’re looking for, that release, that the flowers arrived, and they’re appreciated, and you get that moment where – that’s why we wrap gifts, even gifts that, as you have described, have been carefully pre-arranged. Because that moment where you peel the wrapping paper off and see, maybe with surprise and delight, or maybe with relief that the silly idiot has managed to mess this one up, that it is what you hoped it was going to be.
Alex MacLaren: No, it’s funny. This I think touches on why this is particularly relevant thinking about when we talk to other people and it goes back to something we discussed before, which is this question of authenticity. Because there is such an obligation when I open the present that you bought me Tom that I like it, that I’m probably going to make that face even if I don’t. I mean if it’s obviously something really offensive, then I’m gonna have to bring it up. But otherwise, I’m gonna have to go “Oh, I love it,” even if I don’t. And husbands and wives often know this about each other. It’s like oh god you’re making the face you make, which I’ve seen you make when you don’t like it, for other people, and now you’re making it for me. And I think that’s one reason why this goes back to these questions, again, is that sometimes gifts can produce that pretending and can produce the fakeness and then that can sometimes feel like it’s damaging, rather than actually helping make the relationship a better one.
Tom Salinsky: Yeah, because relationships certainly are never built on inauthenticity and lies, but at the same time with people who are only just getting to know, a policy of radical honesty may not necessarily bear fruit. So just as authenticity is a virtue, I would say so is diplomacy. And sometimes diplomacy means oh my god, I love it. Thank you so much.
Alex MacLaren: It does, it does. I was saying to a friend the other day that one of the great happy accidents of my life, certainly as it wasn’t his intention, is that my 11-year-old son is, I think, the best receiver of presents, that I know. In that if you give him something, he will always be delighted when he opens it. And then he’ll start talking to you about why it’s marvelous. And it’s all totally authentic, I hope he never loses it. Because that quality is really, really wonderful.
Tom Salinsky: It’s very appealing quality. This, I think, is a specific version of something much more general. In the theater, we know that something has happened when one person is changed by another. And I say theater, this obviously does apply to film and TV as well. But film and TV are often as much about the spectacle, as they are about the transactions between the characters. But in the theater, when it’s much more about who is on stage and how they’re feeling, we know something has happened when one person is changed by another, when they get a reaction. And so if you’re talking to someone else, it doesn’t really matter if they are happy, miserable, somber, playful… What matters is – are you changing them? And if I have an interaction with you, in which I change you, then I feel connected to you. So if I give you a gift, and you open it and you look up and say, “Well, this is lovely, thank you very much,” where your face doesn’t change at all, I haven’t got that catharsis that I’m looking for.
Alex MacLaren: I’ve absolutely seen it happen. I knew somebody who spent a number of Christmases with my family. And I suppose this is where it first began, Christmas is coming up. We’ll talk more about this in future. But the way it would happen when I was little is that one by one people would be handed a present from under the tree and everybody would witness the opening process. This may not be the case with everyone who celebrates Christmas, but that’s the way we did it when we were little. And I remember this person, his son, this is someone who was with us for a while, would open a present, look at it, and then just put it aside and there would be no thank you, it wouldn’t seem to change or alter their countenance at all. And so it was absolutely, initially, anxiety ridden. And then it was enraging. Because you’re right. It’s that sense that I did something which has now achieved some kind of impact. And I was talking about this earlier on last week when I was doing some work about chairing meetings remotely. This, I think, is fundamentally important in relationships, that it makes people happy, more than anything else, to know that they have made a difference. And so if by giving me a present, you have changed, and visually, you can see what’s happened to me, you can see that you have changed another person, that will make you think, and make you feel, that your existence was worthwhile today. Because there are a number of things that can make people happy. I mean, the happiness psychologists have written about three main themes. One of them is nice things happening, like getting a present. That’s lovely, wonderful. But it normalizes quite quickly, okay, just the feeling goes away. Tomorrow, you know, that will just be my coffee machine. And it will be nice to have it. But it the feeling happy feeling of opening the present goes. Second is the sense of being in a state of flow, when you’re so occupied and focused, that you’re not particularly concerned about whether you’re happy or not. Happiness is what happens when you’re doing other things, flow is the other things that you’re doing. But the most impactful and long-lasting source of genuine feelings of wellbeing is when you have had a positive impact on others. So the making a difference, feeling you’ve made a difference is tremendously binding and tremendously powerful. If we are people who make a difference to each other, that will make our relationships strong. And I think that that dimension is something which is crucial in business relationships, how do we trace the impact of things to the individuals that we’ve made those connections with? Our individual client, or our individual point person on the customer side? We’ll set some homework to do with that in a moment. But before we do, I just want to ask one final question, which is really important. Tom, what do you give the person who has everything?
Tom Salinsky: Well, I suppose the traditional answer is that what you do is you make something because somebody who is very wealthy, who, as you say has been on the planet for a long time and therefore has bought for themselves all the things they could possibly want doesn’t have something which only you can create. So if you paint them a painting or draw them a picture or sculpt them an ashtray, or whatever it is, you make them something really personal, even something like a photo of you and then in a nice frame that I think is something which is a bit more personal, has a bit more of you in it. And there’s a very, very good gag in Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil, which is a Christmas movie, where everybody who is giving and receiving a gift gives and receives the same gift, identically wrapped in silver wrapping paper, which is an executive decision-making toy. And what it’s saying is that there is something which was once so personal and so warm – giving someone else a gift, being thoughtful thinking of them – that has become completely depersonalized anonymized, and has had all the genuine warmth and joy and depth of feeling erased from it. And so, if I’m buying someone a gift, and I look on an Amazon wish list, and I get something nice, whether or not that’s something that they couldn’t have afforded to buy for themselves, then that’s lovely. If it’s, we’re just playing the game of I get you something, you get me something, and we both go over something nice, that’s fine. But if I’m buying for somebody who has lots and lots of things already, then simply me opening my wallet isn’t going to mean as much as me creating something which only I could create.
Alex MacLaren: It sounds like a great suggestion for my Christmas plans for those people. I’ll get to work on it. So your homework, everyone for this week, is to think of somebody either in your personal life, or in your professional world, who you think of as a great gift-giver, or someone who you think deserves a positive surprise. And either find them something which you think will suit them and buy it for them, or make them something real and special and specific and take it with you to your next engagement with them. And watch the relationship bloom.
Tom Salinsky: We do workshops of all kinds, generally centered on how to talk to other people. But that includes pitching for new business, presenting at conferences, running meetings, or just networking, getting to know people. We run those workshops, both online and in person. And if you want to find out more, you can get in touch with us by a number of methods. You can give us a call. You can send us an email, or you can send us a tweet and all of those links and bits of information are in the show notes.
Alex MacLaren: And we’d love to hear from you. Did you try today’s homework? How did you get on? Is there anything you hope we’re going to talk about that we haven’t yet and maybe other things that relate to what we have talked about that you want us to return to, please get in touch with us, send me an email or record your thoughts in a voice memo and we might play it on a future show. Until next time I’m Alex.
Tom Salinsky: And I’m Tom.
Alex MacLaren: Thank you very much for listening and goodbye.
I think I should start with a joke. But should you, and who will have the last laugh?
Alex MacLaren: Hello, and welcome to You Can Talk To Anyone, the podcast in which we open the bonnet on our communications engine. I’m Alex.
Tom Salinsky: And I’m Tom.
Alex MacLaren: And this week, we are talking about jokes. Now this is… let me give you some background here. Very often, when Tom and I are working with people in big skyscrapers in the City of London and elsewhere, occasionally, some shy person, often a man, a middle-aged guy, will come up to us afterwards, in the coffee break and say, “Can I ask you about jokes? I mean, I feel like I want to start with a joke.” When they’re giving some kind of address. I think what’s happened is that they’ve seen other people charm and delight an audience with remarks or stories that make them laugh, and they definitely want some of that themselves. But there is also this anxiety that some people have funny bones, and some people don’t. And they’re fretful about whether or not they should risk it or attempt it. Have you had that experience?
Tom Salinsky: Oh, yeah, all the time. And I think one of the things that happens is people misunderstand the role of laughter. Because we’re used to seeing stand up comedians, or sitcom performers elicit gales of laughter from an audience. And this actually is a sort of distortion of the function of laughter in social situations. It’s almost like taking something which has been useful to bond us together in social groups and weaponizing. It. There was a study done, quite a famous study, many years ago, in which social conversations were recorded and analyzed. What they were looking for was what was it that made the group laugh. And these remarks which elicited laughter in a social group, were very hard to categorize. But they had one thing overwhelmingly in common. They weren’t funny. The thing to notice about laughter is, first of all, it’s involuntary. And secondly, it’s hard to fake. So that makes it a very reliable social cue. And when a whole group laughs together, what they’re saying is, we all feel the same way about this, this is something we agree on. Because it’s generated this completely authentic reaction in all of us at the same time. So a stand up comedian is, first of all, taking advantage of the fact that when we’re in groups, we react differently than when we are on our own. If you’re sitting in rows in a theater, and everyone around you is doing the same thing, you’ll do it too. So the curve becomes very steep. It’s much easier to get a big group of people to laugh together than it is to get one person to laugh on their own. But in social situations, we’ll often laugh just to kind of be reassuring. And it’s very common, for example, for somebody telling a joke socially, to laugh at their own joke. Which is the thing that most comedians don’t do. And in fact, it;s one of these you’re told not to do.
Alex MacLaren: Yes, absolutely not. It’s a funny thing, that that I’ve often thought of laughter in social situations, as a sort of, is a signal to say, “Yes, I recognize you.” And so that dimension of polite laughter, I think, is part of the anxiety of those people coming up to us, in that what they don’t want to do is to be the person telling jokes, and everybody’s laughing, because they ought to, because they’ve been that person and they know that that it’s a kind of duty call rather than… it makes them feel fake. It suppose those best man speeches, when you’re kind of going ha ha, because that’s what you got to do. And it’s not about you. And it’s not really about the best man. It’s basically about the bride and groom. And everybody sort of enjoys it, but in inverted commas, and so that this area becomes fraught with those issues. It’s funny, we also have a history with jokes. I mean, my son’s 11. And obviously, we all make each other laugh all the time. But he also is interested in what a joke is because he reads them in the back pages of his comic…
Tom Salinsky: Or on lolly sticks? Did I just expose myself as a terribly old man?
Alex MacLaren: But it’s true. Well, I mean, when I was a kid, we had joke books, I mean, did you have those? 1001 Jokes
Tom Salinsky: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
Alex MacLaren: I used to have them. Page after page after page of them…
Tom Salinsky: Of drivel.
Alex MacLaren: Yes. And I would read these joke books. And I suppose what I was thinking was – is there material here, which I can then use? And kids do, they share jokes with each other, and they come back and tell them to their parents. And if you’re telling them to me and Zoe, and we’re both performance by trade, it must be incredibly difficult because we sit there and we go “Mm. Yeah.” We think about it. And occasionally we sort of laugh, but it’s the things he does that makes us laugh rather than the jokes he tells us that make us laugh. And that I think is very often the case with our closest social relations. And that I think is where we start with that place of authenticity.
Tom Salinsky: Somebody saying to me, “I think I should start with a joke” is almost always somebody who is beginning something which they have rehearsed. In an earlier podcast, we talked about broadcasting to a group as opposed to interacting with another person. And so there’s a sense of contrivance about this. Now, think back to a time when you were at work, and the whole room laughed together. I would bet a substantial sum that most of the events that you’re thinking of are things that were spontaneous and unplanned. Something went wrong, or somebody had to improvise. Somebody had to react very quickly to a changing situation. And it was an off-the-cuff remark that was said, without thinking. And it’s the very fact that it’s spontaneous, which can often elicit that absolutely genuine laughter, which is not anybody trying to be polite or reassure you. It’s just how we feel in that moment.
Alex MacLaren: Yes, we laugh because we recognize something true just happened. So it really goes to the heart of this authenticity question, which often comes up – and in fact, I tell you something, it drives me crazy when you see in pantomimes, particularly when they are faking that they’ve lost their lines or something. Or you go back to see a show, and the same mistake happens that happened the previous night. The sense of betrayal in that circumstance!
Tom Salinsky: Oh, people went crazy when they discovered that James Corden always found an audience member who had been eating a hummus sandwich in One Man Two Guvnors. You’re right, people felt absolutely robbed, but it’s a testament to – you know, he’s somebody who divides opinions – but it’s a testament to his skill as a performer that so many audiences were completely hoodwinked.
Alex MacLaren: Yeah, absolutely true and my opinions are divided as well, I absolutely love him as an actor and have no time for him as a personality. But it’s definitely the case that I think one reason why there’s an appeal to laughter and jokes in people’s communication is there is an understanding that it connects to something completely authentic. And then it also is treacherous, because it also is involved with all of these other elements, which can be much less authentic.
Tom Salinsky: So even saying to somebody like me and Alex, “I think I should start with a joke,” I think is slightly misunderstanding, the role of laughter in these situations. But I’ve seen people who will double down on that misunderstanding, by putting the joke on the PowerPoint slide. Now, there is no possible way that the joke of the PowerPoint slide can be anything other than preordained. And what that does is it just kind of raises the bar, okay. The joke that’s totally off the cuff does not have to be as funny as the joke, which is clearly contrived. And the joke which is clearly contrived, which you say out loud, does not have to be as funny as the joke you put on the PowerPoint slide. So if you’re going to put a joke at the beginning of your PowerPoint, you’ve gotta make sure that what you’ve got on your hands is the funniest joke in the world.
Alex MacLaren: And I think it also can do with your relationship to the audience. Because if you know the people that you’re talking to very, very well, it’s much more difficult, I’d say, to contrive something which is going to connect with them in the way that maybe people at work really want to. And I think this actually goes back to something in our families. I don’t know about you, but there are some stories of my father’s that I have heard many times. And he’s a humane gentleman, and so he stopped telling them to us again and again and again. But if there are new people there, sometimes stories we’ve all heard will come back out. And of course, we have now a different meaning to those jokes and stories than he associates with them, because he’s got a bunch of people who are laughing along politely, and a new audience that might be delighted by it.
Tom Salinsky: But I think we do re-enjoy comedy from time to time. Yes, it doesn’t have the same impact that it has when you see it for the first time because a big element of comedy is surprise. But there are people who will watch and rewatch the same old comedy movies or old episodes of sitcoms and get a renewed pleasure from seeing them again, and sometimes the anticipation of the funny thing that’s coming is just as delicious as the thing itself. And I think it’s important therefore, not to worry too much about that. If you’ve got a standard speech that you do – as you and I have standard workshop material, which we deliver to different groups – there may be things which either by contrivance or by accident you’ve got, which are funny. A lot of the funniest thing they say to groups were once ad libs, and I’ve kept them in. And I had to figure out how to make them work now I know what’s coming, which is a different state for me, than somebody who’s just inventing something for the first time. But I can remember, for example, doing the same workshop, let’s say, three times in a row, with three different groups of people – but having the same organizer there all three times, the first time I do it, everything is fresh. And as far as that organizer knows, this is all off the top of my head, and I’m this inspirational, comedy genius. And the second time, because I don’t have a script that I’m reciting, but there will be certain things which are going to come out more as the same every time. Other bits, which are looser, that occasionally something brand new will come out. But something which caused that first group of people to have a wonderful time and fall about laughing, might have been something I’m going to say, again, the second time around, I could feel that anxiety about that. But I know if I’ve got a group of 30 people in front of me, my allegiance is to them. And it therefore, behoves me not to try and frantically rewrite my script on the fly, in order not to give the game away to one organizer. What I should do is say the thing which I think is going to work for this group of people,
Alex MacLaren: That’s really interesting. When something happens off the cuff in a moment when you’re at work, and the response tells you “Oh, yeah, that works, because it’s true.” I think one way which we can then use it, again, is when we understand precisely what it was that was true about that, because then we can apply that general truth to lots of other groups. The danger, of course, is actually it worked for that specific group, it was true for those people, and if we then use it on other groups, as if they are the previous audience, we’re not really recognizing who they are, we’re not really looking for the truth of that interaction. And I think that’s one of the problems of, say, a rehearsed piece of material, as opposed to being open to – not the jokes we tell, but maybe the jokes that we make. Because we’re all part of the joke making process, even if the punchline was delivered by you, the setup has been delivered by the people in the room. And I think that’s one of the reasons that those off the cuff magic moments. That I think is what people are hungry for when they come to us and they say, I want to use a joke. They want that feeling of something real happening. And they think they can rehearse it.
Tom Salinsky: And there’s a status component here as well. And again, I think this is where sometimes people misunderstand what they see happening in stand up comedy clubs. If you go to a stand up comedy club, very often what you’ll see on the stage is somebody with a lot of status. They have status anyway, because they’re on the stage and they have the mic. And they’ll say something funny, and they have this kind of power over the audience. As I said already, laughter is involuntary. So as the comedian, what I’m saying is, I’m going to make you react in a way that you can’t control. It’s a high status maneuver. But the person who comes to us saying I feel I should start with a joke often is someone who doesn’t have a lot of status within the organization. And they imagine that by starting with a joke, they’ll get the same kind of status that professional comedian gets. And I don’t think that’s true. I think a much more successful way of deploying a joke in that kind of situation would be somebody very senior, making a joke at their own expense, and being self deprecating to lower their status and make themselves more approachable. I think somebody more junior, feeling more anxious, should just be confident and authoritative. And that will tend to reassure them, which in turn will reassure the people they’re speaking to.
Alex MacLaren: Yeah, it’s funny. The status game dimension of jokes is really important. I was considering this earlier when I was asking myself: what actually is a joke? So this is something I do a lot at the moment. I occasionally – actually some people when they’re beginning some kind of speech or pitch or whatever, they’ll say, I looked up the dictionary definition of something. And I always think, oh never might what the dictionary says – what do people mean?
Tom Salinsky: Speaking of jokes, in professional joke-writing circles, like people who write comedy scripts for film and television, there’s the concept of a clam. A clam is a joke that’s gone-off. It’s a joke that’s too old, and we’ve seen too many versions of it. And not only is beginning with dictionary definition a clam, actually now using that in a script to indicate the person making this speech is doing it badly has itself become a clam. We’ve seen that too many times.
Alex MacLaren: Okay, well I now know that I am a clam. But what I was trying to work out was what my definition would be and I basically say that a joke is some sort of sort of structure, possibly a story structure, or possibly a kind of connected series of interactions, which allow us to process fear and uncertainty, safely and agreeing and whooping and recognizing that and laughing together.
Tom Salinsky: Yeah, a lot of drugs deal with dark or taboo subject matter. And it’s very striking to me that there are two films about the possibility of nuclear armageddon released the same year by different studios. Fail Safe, directed by Sidney Lumet and Dr. Strangelove directed by Stanley Kubrick. The Kubrick one is a comedy. It’s quite absurd in places and all the characters have ridiculous name, the president is called Merkin Muffley, for example, and there are three parts played by Peter Sellers. And – spoiler for Dr. Strangelove – it has a completely devastating ending in which the brinksmanship between America and Russia ends with the end of the world. And it can do that because it’s a comedy. Fail Safe is a straight drama, with basically the same premise. But I don’t believe the ending which is a kind of half assed happy ending, finally, snatching some kind of victory from the jaws of defeat. And it doesn’t feel true, even though it’s a much more realistic presentation of the material.
Alex MacLaren: It’s a joke about something so fundamentally terrifying. And yet that I think is what so much comedy is about. It’s all about sex and death and busting taboos. I think this explains a couple of things. One is why people are anxious about using it, and also why people are sometimes baffled by – how can that person get away with it, and this person can’t? Or why does that joke work and that not? It’ss because within jokes are often quite important sort of the statements about these fundamental matters, and I think people often don’t necessarily understand what’s underneath the joke. And that’s why sometimes jokes can go wrong, rather than right.
Tom Salinsky: Have you heard of dad jokes?
Alex MacLaren: Yes, I was going to raise dad jokes. You go first.
Tom Salinsky: There’s a theory that as we grow up, we get more and more used to telling jokes about sex and death, and other such things. And that becomes a staple of our job telling and our humorous interactions with each other. And then suddenly, there’s a five-year-old in the room. And now that entire avenue of joke-telling is closed off. So all you can do is puns and deliberate misunderstandings, and you’re stuck in dad jokes.
Alex MacLaren: Well, that’s true. And I think actually, I was just thinking about puns specifically. So I was thinking about that there’s an old, a dadI knew when I was a kid, who was just an absolute inveterate punster. But he was so unbelievably charming, he managed to get people on board with them. But I think that puns make people feel safe, because what they’re exploring is the uncertainty just about something straightforward, like the meaning of a word. So it’s actually very, very low stakes. But there’s still that risk in a pun about a word meaning one thing or another thing, or maybe even a third thing.
Tom Salinsky: Have you heard this one before? According to Freud, what comes between fear and sex?
Alex MacLaren: Go on.
Tom Salinsky: Fünf.
Alex MacLaren: Yes, there’s a pun for you German speakers out. So that’s interesting. So there’s a joke, which has a very particular and quite risky purpose, in that it can flatter your listeners, and it can also exclude those listeners that don’t get it. And I think that’s another kind of risk with kind of joke-joke structures is that they do achieve that social divider. And one could argue that that joke is about finding out who your who your people are – do you speak German or not? T hanks for putting up with my German accent. But one element of people’s joke telling with each other in social situations, and this happens at work as well and is fraught with risk, is the bit about making jokes about each other. Now, when we’re safe with each other, and we know each other, and most importantly, we know that we are friends, and we love the qualities about each other that make us friends, it gives us a certain amount of permission then to notice and mock slightly, each other’s failings. And for me, that’s actually very comforting thing when I get into that place with people who are my friends. But if it isn’t absolutely clear that we have that permission, that is a fraught with risk, and a joke for one person can end up being a humiliation for another.
Tom Salinsky: Yes. There’s a another saying or way of thinking about this from comedians, which is are you punching up, or are you punching down? If you’re punching up, you are mocking, making fun of, using jokes to lower the status of some authority figures. Think of Monty Python and Dave Allen making fun of the Pope and people like that – showing my age a bit there. But if you’re punching down, that is a slightly kind of queasier area to be in, because now you’re picking on the weak. Now you’re identifying somebody who would find it much harder to defend themselves and making fun of them. So in a toxic workplace, everyone will gang up and haze the new recruit. And in a more benevolent workplace, as we said already, it will be the person who is the most senior who lowers their own status, who makes a joke at their own expense. And will take it if people make jokes at their expense.
Alex MacLaren: Yeah, I think that if there was one really clear rule I would offer to people who are telling jokes or telling kind of funny stories in the workplace, it would be: lower your own status rather than other people’s. Because firstly, it will enable people to identify with you more strongly because when bad things happen to you, it reminds me of the bad things that happened to me. And they’re the ones that I remember. And they’re much funnier. But also, you’re taking away that risk that you might be pointing the finger at somebody who doesn’t feel so comfortable about it. And when those joke moments happen in public, then it will feel slightly, I guess, amplified. I mean, I’m sure that everyone’s had this experience, when you’re quite happy to be teased by people that you love. But as soon as other people are there, they can’t really say that thing. Because you’re comfortable to have your status go up and down within a very, very strong and comfortable relationship. But with new people there, then having your status lowered in front of strangers can often feel really humiliating and difficult.
Tom Salinsky: But just to re-emphasize this point, you should lower your status, when it needs lowering. Lower your status to bring it down to the level of the people you’re talking to. If you’re talking to an audience, and they have more status than you, then it’s much more appropriate to bring your status up. And it’s much harder to do that in the form of a joke. The oldest joke in the world, almost certainly, is somebody slipping on a banana skin. But it’s a much funnier joke. If it’s somebody who’s very senior, an authority figure.
Alex MacLaren: If it’s Michael Gove. Please, please Michael Gove.
Tom Salinsky: If it’s Michael Gove, if it’s a world leader, particularly a world leader, who’s generally you know, not liked. If a little old lady slips on a banana skin and can’t get up again, that’s just sort of awful. There’s nothing funny about that at all. So if you’re in a junior position and having to present to the board, lowering your own status is not required. No matter how funny the joke is,
Alex MacLaren: Yes, you may have your favorite taboo-busting remark, but ask yourself, Is this a situation in which that is just a useless and destructive taboo? Or is this a situation in which that what bothers you in one context is actually a very useful rule for the way that group functions and ask yourself if you’re pointing the finger in the right direction. So for your homework this week, when you’re thinking about using a joke in some kind of formal context. Here’s a question for you to think about, which is actually what is your joke about? This relates to Tom’s words about the status lowering, status raising, punching up, punching down dimension of your joke. They’re often about fears to do with important matters, like belonging, or power, or sex and death. And they’re often lowering the status of a personal thing that makes us feel powerless. Consider the context you’re in. If you’re planning to use the story, in any specific address, ask yourself, is it really the right story with the right meaning for your relationship to that specific group? And if you want to run your joke by us, get in touch, and we’ll give you our considered opinion.
Tom Salinsky: We run workshops on all of these topics on a very regular basis, we do them both in person and on Zoom. So if you’re interested in doing some work with us, please get in touch, drop us an email, give us a call. And let’s have a chat about your communication needs and how we could come into your company and help you.
Alex MacLaren: We’re hoping that this becomes a conversation with listeners. So please do get in touch with your results from today’s homework, how you got on. And if there’s anything you hope that we’re going to talk about that we haven’t spoken about yet, please do get in touch, send us an email or record your thoughts in a voice memo. And we may play it on a future show. Until next time, I’m Alex.
Tom Salinsky: And I’m Tom.
Alex MacLaren: Thank you very much for listening and goodbye.
On this episode we talk about what do to when things don’t go according to plan. How can you avoid blundering into social faux-pas and is that even a realistic goal?
Alex MacLaren: Hello, and welcome to You Can Talk to Anyone, the podcast in which we open the bonnet on our communications engine. I’m Alex.
Tom Salinsky: And I’m Tom.
Alex MacLaren: And this week, we are going to be talking about social disaster first aid. When we are connecting with others and making friends and going to parties, sometimes we put our foot in it, or we feel like something has gone awkwardly wrong. And sometimes when we begin those steps into awkwardness, into the swamp, we feel like we’re going to be swallowed up – or we wish we could be swallowed up and disappear into the ether. And that can be really bad for our confidence.
Tom Salinsky: It’s a sort of devastating feeling, isn’t it? We’re social animals, we need the connection we have with other people, we want to be liked and respected – and we feel like we’ve just said or done something so dumb, or inappropriate, it’s a real physical reaction.
Alex MacLaren: Yeah, it really is. And also, you’re kind of stuck with it as well. You sometimes feel like there’s no escape, you can find yourself almost glued to the spot. As if you’re kind of caught in some terrible slow-motion accident.
Tom Salinsky: So, go on then. Have you got any? Have you got any horror stories that you’re willing to share in this forum?
Alex MacLaren: I can think of a couple of examples. Sometimes it’s when I feel like I’ve gone too far. Or sometimes when it feels like I’ve been misunderstood. I remember one occasion when I was talking to a friend of mine and her husband. And we were chatting about a third party who wasn’t there. And I know all of the of the people here and I said “So what happened in the conversation?” because my friend was saying how something had been difficult. And then when he described what had happened, and I put two and two together, this man and this woman talking about this subject, I said, “Oh my god,” I said, “what with you and her together socially, this is a disaster.” Now, of course, I was thinking, this is sort of a gentle ribbing of people I know and love, but it was met with absolute silence. And I was kind of like, oh god, I’ve really offended somebody, or I’ve maybe have disclosed some of my feelings about the people involved, which actually could be quite hurtful, when being received on the other side, you know what I mean? So it was one of those situations when I felt I’d just kind of gone too far. And then of course, I feel sort of like, desperately embarrassed, I could feel the blood running to my face. And I find it’s very difficult for me to string the next few sentences together. Because my mind is stuck in this panic state, trying to reflect on what I just said, and also wondering precisely how has it been received? And then I started asking myself, so – do I need to confront this now? Do I need to apologize for this now? Or is the panic only mine? Am I overreacting? So there’s a huge amount of work going on inside me in that situation. And it’s a total disaster. Very difficult.
Tom Salinsky: Part of it is that we imagine that we are very good at reading other people. So we say something and we see a reaction, and it’s not the reaction we were hoping for. And now all of our worst fears start to manifest themselves. I’ve insulted this person. I’ve belittled this person. I’ve said something completely inappropriate. But you are just guessing at this point. And then you start second guessing yourself. And then because we think we’re so good at reading other people – which we’re not, we are just guessing – we also imagine that we’re totally transparent, and that your shame and humiliation is transmitting itself effortlessly and in high fidelity to everybody around you. And that’s not true either. That’s not to say of course, that people don’t make social faux pas. Of course they do. But the extent to which it’s crucifying you inside may not be read by other people and the blank look on the face of the person we’re talking to might be they’ve just remembered that they didn’t let the dog out
Alex MacLaren: Distraction, or worrying about something else. And for all you know, they’re feeling agonized about the fact that they didn’t listen to what Alex just said.
Tom Salinsky: Wouldn’t that be nice?
Alex MacLaren: Wouldn’t it? You know I think genuinely in social situations, there is a huge amount going on. There’s a lot of work that goes on into social connection. And I think that that’s something which has really hit us during the pandemic. I mean, for those of us who are socially sticky like me, personally, the idea of being sort of locked in my house with only my – I mean, I absolutely adore my family. But I also I need to connect with other people. And I need the fears and the excitement of meeting new people. But there’s many people who would classify themselves maybe as introverts for whom not having to expend all of that energy has been an absolutely massive relief. And I think that for everybody, some of the energy required in social situations is about managing these potential contre-temps and the difficult feelings we have about when things don’t go precisely in the way that we expected them to. I’ve certainly had people give me accounts of experiences when they were so traumatized by the feelings of exclusion when they said something, they literally had to go to the toilet, and sit there and kind of get themselves together before they go back in. And I know that there will be people listening to this who will say, Yes, that’s happened to me, definitely happened to me.
Tom Salinsky: I don’t think it’s such a bad strategy. If what you need in order to recharge your batteries is just some time away from all the people just to collect yourself, lower the stakes, remind yourself that this isn’t life or death, then that’s a fine thing to do. I think why keep piling on the pressure, if you can open the escape valve?
Alex MacLaren: I think that’s true. It’s funny, there’s a very famous Christmas party song, Jona Lewie singing, you’ll always find me in the kitchen at parties, that I’m no good at chatting up. And yet, Tom, so many of the cool conversations at parties happening in kitchens. And the reason that they happen in there is first of all, you can hear the conversation because the music is in another room in the house, okay? And it means that not only are you less anxious, because you can genuinely hear what people are saying to you, but you know, you can be heard by other people, which will tend to lower your stress levels. Also, have you ever had that experience when you’re at a party and it’s great, but then when you go into the kitchen, you kind of think – Oh god, the real party is happening in there! And so it’s all very well for rockstars like Jona Lewie to say, I’m shy, I’m in the kitchen, but people want to be in the kitchen with him because it’s a great place to be.
Tom Salinsky: So let’s sort of get down to brass tacks. You’ve said the wrong thing. Or at least you have good reason to think that you might have, you’re not getting the reaction that you hoped for. Maybe something very explicit, someone has actually said to you, I am highly offended by this. Actually, that’s not my name, you’re talking to the wrong person, whatever it is. What do you do?
Alex MacLaren: Okay, so I think if somebody actually calls you out on, there’s an error or a mistake, I’m always incredibly grateful for starters, okay? Because if there is a kind of a glitch somewhere in the machine, if somebody actually points it out, then I can start to repair it. If somebody, out of politeness, lets me persist with that error, or that glitch, for ages then that is much more embarrassing. And I could sometimes wonder, in retrospect, god, I really should have built a relationship in which it was possible for people to say, “No, I’m called Jeanette,” because that’s really what you need. But people won’t do that if they feel that it’s not safe.
Tom Salinsky: There’s a gag in Brazil, where Michael Palin’s boss calls his wife by the wrong name. And then the next time we meet him, he’s still calling her by the new name. And Jonathan Pryce says, “You aren’t going to keep calling her that, are you?” and Michael Palin says “Do you not like it? Do you not think it’s a nice name?”
Alex MacLaren: It’s awful. I mean, I find I’ve got I’ve got a name problem, which – okay, I’m gonna make a bet that he won’t hear this – which is my postman. So, when I moved to my current house, I introduced myself to the postman. And when we swapped names, I mentally made the note that his name was Gary. And then later I realized that somebody else called him Darren, so I didn’t know whether his name was Gary or Darren. So I ended up calling him mumble was unbelievably embarrassing. I eventually I managed to get it absolutely sorted. I found out from a third party at for whom his wife had been doing some work. His name was Darren, and I wrote “Darren” on a Post-it note and I stuck it on the inside of my door so that whenever he delivers a parcel, I know that it’s Darren. But weirdly, it doesn’t actually reassure me. It’s kind of like a reproach – you have forgotten this man’s name. And so although I do know what his name is, it doesn’t actually make me feel more confident about it. It’s terrible. But I wish that he called me up on it straight away. “Listen, just to let you know, my name is Darren,” because actually hearing it from him would have made me so much more comfortable. So in fact, as well, if you’re on the receiving end of a social faux-pas or a contre-temps, the earlier that you name it, the better.
Tom Salinsky: And what about if you merely suspect that you’ve put your foot in it? If you’re getting kind of weird vibes, but no one’s actually said, you’ve made this mistake, let me spell it out for you, now we can repair it together. What do you do in that situation?
Alex MacLaren: Well, I think that here’s a distinction. I think sometimes calling something out quickly or mentioning, oh, gosh, there’s an awkward vibe here, sometimes calling out an awkwardness makes the assumption that there is one when there isn’t necessarily and so it can multiply exponentially the problem or create one where none existed
Tom Salinsky: Don’t run if you’re not being chased.
Alex MacLaren: Yes, indeed, so much of these things that are very subtle and maybe nonverbal or related to just maybe pauses or, or moments in the – not the content of the conversation, but the architecture around it.
Tom Salinsky: I think it depends on the context as well. Let’s say for example, that you are part of a team doing a new business pitch, and it comes to the Q&A portion, and you’re asked a kind of combative question, a question which appears to have the subtext, “You have totally misunderstood the brief.” This may simply be a kind of hazing, you know, a kind of test. It may simply be, “what are these people like under pressure? What if we challenge their assumptions?” And so I think you can kind of play that with quite a straight bat, you can respond just by saying, “These are the assumptions that we’ve made. This is the way our thinking was going. If that’s not the case, we’re happy to revisit this. But based on the information, we had this is our best guess.” In social situations is all much more slippery. And I agree, I think if we’re feeling not completely confident and happy in the situation to begin with, and we start getting a weird vibe from somebody, we can start thinking this weird vibe must be my fault. And the only thing I can do is immediately fall on my sword and start apologizing. And this may in fact, create a problem when none existed.
Alex MacLaren: Yes, there’s a tremendous Englishness about apologizing in those circumstances, we want to be so clearly about establishing “I would never dream of saying something that crossed the line,” so we apologize early, and we get kind of advanced apologies in which can I think create more problems than it solves.
Tom Salinsky: Yes it’s often said that the English are the race who, if I step on your toe, you will apologize to me.
Alex MacLaren: It’s true. It’s funny, I was thinking how some of this is about – again, going back to Englishness – it’s about manners. And that actually applies in all sorts of cultural situations. I always think sometimes that politeness is the bit before the friendship. And so I hold very precious friendships I’ve got, which began very quickly to get into a teasing situation. I’ve got a friend in my hometown, who, when I was very new to the place, and I went along – and so effectively, it was all networking at first because I didn’t know anybody. I remember a party in a garden with lots of toddlers from the playgroup. And when I introduced myself to this woman, she said something, and I very quickly, I can’t remember why I had such a quick reaction, I must just got a vibe that it was going to be okay. And I made some joke. And she straightaway, she held my eye, and with a twinkle, she absolutely ripped me to pieces. And I And of course, we’re still great friends, now you know each other, we look after each other’s dogs, but, but I just remember thinking, gosh, that’s a very exciting quality. I really enjoyed that. But I also do know that there are people who have always found her intimidating, and continue to find her intimidating today. The fact that she’s so quick to get to a place of playfulness will mean she’s never short of friends.
Tom Salinsky: But this is the risk, isn’t it? You know, we can stay in that place of politeness and deference, and everything’s very calm and businesslike – and we’ll never really forge meaningful friendships that way. Or, we could take the risk, and try and tease someone a bit or make a joke, and know, some of the times when we do that. It’s going to go badly, it’s going to blow up in our faces. I think this is where maybe you and I do have an advantage because of the improvisation training that we’ve had. One of the first things we teach people is how to fail. And that strikes a lot of people in the business world as bizarre because they dedicate their lives to never failing. But you could only avoid failure, guaranteed, by not participating. I can absolutely make anyone listening to this podcast now, a cast-iron 100% guarantee that they will never socially embarrass themselves ever again, very simply. Never talk to another human.
Alex MacLaren: Never risk it!
Tom Salinsky: Exactly, never take the risk. But being alive is taking those kinds of risks. And I think the way in which you deal with the failures is more important, perhaps, than your ability to avoid them in the first place.
Alex MacLaren: Yeah, I think that’s really important. I remember when I was doing some work with a client, and we needed an extra person to come along. And we asked a really excellent actor and workshop leader who we both know. And I love this man dearly, and so does everybody who knows him. But he also has a tendency for treading on people’s toes. And he’s said, “I’m like this, I always cross the line, I always go too far. It’s awful.” And as we were discussing this, he was kind beating himself up about it. I remember asking him, but are you short of friends? And there was this amazing pause. And he went, “No, no, I’m not.” And I think that that is true, that actually tiptoeing around the edge of the pool may mean that you don’t get anybody else wet. But what people really want is the sensation of being surrounded by the water and splashing about and when you go in the water is lovely. So I’d say that the biggest problem with social faux pas and social disasters isn’t causing them, it’s fear of causing them. How do you even know that you have screwed up? That’s really the question. And very, very seldom is it an explicit indication from the people that you’re engaging with that you’ve done so. I think maybe one really key thing to think about in this is, how do you let go of it? I know for me, part of it is about converting those experiences into a story that I can then share with other people. They stopped being just sort of painful parts of my past, but they start being things that have processed and become a good narrative, or even better a lesson. And so if you have screwed up with one person, remember, this is just good material for a conversation with a third party,
Tom Salinsky: Yes. What’s horrifying to me today will be deliciously entertaining to someone else, tomorrow.
Alex MacLaren: It’s extraordinary. I like nothing better to hear about somebody else’s putting their foot in their mouth with somebody. Because, of course, it’s a generous thing to share that with other people because you’ve experienced it, so they don’t have to. So for your homework this week, when thinking about your social faux pas…
Tom Salinsky: Find somebody very important and just insult them to their face. And then you’ll know that it’s survivable. Is that what you were going to say, Alex?
Alex MacLaren: We’re laughing because we discussed this earlier. How can we give people homework to do about putting their foot in it!? So your homework basically, is to think about a painful social faux power from your past, one that you made with somebody who is still in your life. Okay? So this is one which is from your personal history that you’ve had time to process. And then the next time you encounter that person – not straightaway, but at some point in the conversation – just say, “Listen, I just need to discuss this with you because I’m trying to follow something up. Okay? Do you remember that occasion when dot dot dot, and ask them if they remember it, and what their side of that interaction was.” Now I know that this will be valuable. First, it won’t be a problem for them because they are still in your life. Or if it is, it’s a good thing to surface it and try and find out what nature of problem it caused and then you can do something about repairing it. But I’m also going to make you a bet. The likelihood is that they will not remember it at all. And they will find it delightful that you still have such a traumatic memory of an encounter with them, and that you still persisted with the friendship and the relationship. So go find that person and broach it and see their reaction. Let us know what they say.
Tom Salinsky: I’m sure that’s true.
Alex MacLaren: We deliver training days people in business, in person or via Zoom, on all of these topics to do with connecting with people, client meetings, better negotiations, presenting with confidence, storytelling, networking, and lots more. And to discuss your company and its needs, send an email to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you could give The Spontaneity Shop a call on 020 7788 4080.
Tom Salinsky: And we’d love to hear from you on the podcast as well. If you tried today’s homework, then let us know how that went. If there are topics that you’d like us to discuss, then let us know. If you’ve got war stories that you want to share. We’d love to hear those as well. You can either send us an email which we can read out or you can record your thoughts in a voice memo and we might play it on a future show.
Alex MacLaren: Until next time, I’m Alex.
Tom Salinsky: And I’m Tom.
Alex MacLaren: Thank you very much for listening and goodbye.
On this episode we talk about how a networking event doesn’t have to be a good party ruined and give you some tips about getting in, getting out and making friends.
Alex MacLaren: Hello, and welcome to You Can Talk to Anyone, the podcast in which we open the bonnet on our communications engine. I’m Alex.
Tom Salinsky: And I’m Tom.
Alex MacLaren: And this week, we’re going to be talking about networking. Or as I call this in the show notes, Tom, “Oh no, networking.” And I call it that for a reason. Because we’ve been working with people in business for twenty years and that’s what they say to us again, and again. Grown up professional people with significant experience and amazing insight and skill into their specialist areas. They really hate the idea of going to a party with a lot of other people and building relationships for work.
Tom Salinsky: I’m certainly aware that it creates an enormous difference just in the way that the event is contextualized and framed. As you say, a networking event is a party, an opportunity to meet people, it should be a nice thing. Well, as soon as we put that label “networking” on it, it changes. And I think one of the things that changes is there’s now an obligation on you, you’re here for a specific purpose. And that purpose is maybe not one we’re all terribly comfortable with.
Alex MacLaren: Yes, I remember a specific occasion in which I actually went to a networking event with my business hat on.
Tom Salinsky: Oh, I’m sorry.
Alex MacLaren: Yes, I know. Basically, I was invited by one of our improv students Sital – hello Sital, he’s in Singapore now, where he works for Microsoft. And he knew that we needed to build up connections when we first started. And the stakes were slightly raised because I was the only person there apart from Sital who I knew. And also it was in quite a high stakes environment. It was at the National Liberal Club. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, it’s a big swanky…
Tom Salinsky: I think I went to a wedding reception there once. Does that sound plausible?
Alex MacLaren: Sounds very plausible. It’s a grandiose imperial building on Northumberland Avenue, on Embankment. And this man talked about his business consultancy, to a group of people sitting in rows. And the awful thing was I felt this pressure to impress people, which is so bad for anybody’s sense of ease and relaxation, and actually gets in the way of impressing people And I remember the subject came up between me and this basically old white haired, be-suited, posh man, and which we were talking about psychometric testing. And I didn’t know much about psychometric testing, certainly not at the time. And I referred to it as “psychometry”. Which isn’t a word, Tom. Which I would never have done if I hadn’t been tried to make some kind of impression and I was off my topic. And he eyeballed me and said, “What’s psychometry?” And I just wanted the ground to swallow me up. But that is it. I think it’s just that heightened sense of this is a sort of a version of me, which is reaching for something and needs to take home the booty.
Tom Salinsky: And of course, something like that could have happened at a regular party. But if it did, there will be people into whose grateful arms, you could fall. And you could explain what had happened, you would be able to leave. And you wouldn’t have felt like you had been set a task at the beginning of the evening, which you now failed at, because the only reason you go to a party is to meet people and have fun. Whereas when you go to an event like this, you’re meant to come away with scalps in the form of business cards, if people today still give out business cards? I don’t know.
Alex MacLaren: I don’t think they do. Actually, no, I was asked for one on Monday. And handed it out because I had them at the bottom of my bag, where they were in reasonably good condition. I think it actually presses people’s really old buttons. So one thing that happens when you walk into a room full of people at networking events is that you often see other groups of people talking to each other. And they’re often in little circles and everybody has a glass of Chablis or their non-alcoholic tipple of choice.
Tom Salinsky: Especially if you’ve arrived on your own. You look around the room and you’ve seen these sort of hermetically sealed cliques. These groups which will admit no intruders.
Alex MacLaren: Yes. And actually, you don’t know whether these are groups of people that just met ten minutes ago and are so delighted with each other’s company, the last thing they want would be some other numpty to come along and interrupt the fun. Or for all you know, these are old alliances and people who haven’t seen each other for a long time and again, they don’t want to be interrupted by somebody new. And that tends to be the negative assumption that can occur to people when they walk into those big rooms. There is also the fact that when we are sent off looking for scalps, often we’ll go with our own hunting band. So you will arrive not alone with the mental and the headspace to make connections, you’re arriving with somebody and holding their hand or they’re holding yours. And you’ll end up basically talking to each other throughout the evening and not really talking to anybody else.
Tom Salinsky: And that’s all about making sure that you’re comfortable. And that’s exactly what we all do when we put in situations where we don’t feel we’re entirely on safe ground. But that can lead to misjudgments. One thing I’ve observed, as a don’t, as a thing not to do, if you finally pluck up the courage to let go of your friend’s hand and you say to each other, I’m going to go and find people to talk to you, if you look around, and what you see are all of these sealed groups, you need to pick one of them and approach it. And I recommend barreling up and just saying hello to everybody in as open and friendly and as confident in a manner as you can muster. That will feel terrifying the first time you try it. But here’s why you have to do that. What you’re going to be tempted to do is to stand near that group, and wait either for somebody to notice you and beckon you in, or possibly for somebody to say something, and you think our ah I can contribute to that. But you can’t control either of those things. They might happen or they might not. And if they don’t, which on the balance of probabilities is the more likely outcome, you are now lurking on the outskirts of a group, for second after horrifying second.
Alex MacLaren: Yes, I mean, thinking about this, because of the anxiety that hits us when we go into this space that can often produce feelings and then behaviors of timidity. And I suppose if, if I’m feeling comfortable at an event, and I can see somebody who clearly needs to be looked after, or potentially even rescued, then if I have the presence of mind, and I’m not immediately distracted, then I will reach out and do the rescuing and invite that person in and warm them up. And they’ll often have amazing contributions to make. But I think that if I’m not entirely comfortable, and I’m still kind of managing my own anxiety in that situation, I may not feel like I have the wherewithal to rescue somebody else, as well as myself. And I think that is often what will happen is that people will… their timidity will leak out and they won’t be a kind of sort of like a kitten saying, pick me up and stroke me, it will be like a smelly dog that people want to repel from the kitchen. And so I think it is very much a good thing to front up and look positive as you’re approaching people. I think when I’ve worked with people about networking events, one thing which they’re always anxious about is spoiling it for other people, i.e., interrupting a conversation, rather than joining one. So I always suggest, as you approach groups of people make very, very clear physical signals that you’re coming, and that you want to join in. Because you don’t need to interrupt with “Hello! Stop your conversation, I want to introduce myself,” you can simply make very strong signals with your eyes and eyebrows – I’m coming to join you, this sounds interesting. And then you can listen to the conversation before you then fold yourself into it. And when you’ve listened to it, you can actually make contributions to that conversation rather than insisting they start a new one with you.
Tom Salinsky: Yes, it’s worthwhile, I think looking around and thinking, not just which group looks inviting. But also, is there a group given how I’m feeling, given my level of comfort and confidence and so on, is there a group where I think I could make it better, you know, you put the group is having a worst time in the room, and there’s a danger that you’re going to be walking into conversational quicksand. And all that’s going to happen is that you’ll go down with them. But if you pick a group that’s having a fantastic time, where you think I’d like to be part of that group, there is a very grave danger, you may go in and make it worse. So, try and pick the group where you think you can add something where given how ebullient you’re feeling, you could go into that group and make it a bit more cheerful and give them a better time than they’re having at the moment.
Alex MacLaren: Yes, I do think there’s a thing about am I diluting what’s going on and thus spoiling it for everybody…
Tom Salinsky: Or am I fortifying it?
Alex MacLaren: Or contributing to it. Yeah, absolutely. I’m just interested as well that when we go in to a networking event, it’s not the same as going around to your friend’s house for a party. It’s more like going to one of those big events where there are a lot of individual guests and it is worth asking – if I had a guest coming round to my house for a party, what would a good guest do? And I think they would certainly wants to help support the party itself. So it’s worth thinking when you go along to a networking event, what did the organizer have in mind when they set this whole thing up? What is it that they would like to have as an outcome? Which means that you can slightly shift your focus from self-consciousness about yourself to other people’s needs, which I think is always a really good attitude to take with you, when you’re trying to engage socially with new people – what do they need out of this interaction rather than just you?
Tom Salinsky: And organisers themselves can sometimes take proactive action. I’m now recalling, when we used to run regular improvisation workshops, on the first day of what would be a series of eight weekly classes, something between ten and twenty people would show up, and they’d all be strangers, and people would have trouble finding the place sometimes. So over about twenty minutes, those people would slowly arrive. And very often I was having to duck in and out and guide people in and so on. So there’d be a circle of chairs, which would gradually start filling up – people very rarely sit next to a stranger. And sometimes there’ll be a couple of people there who are just very outgoing and personable and without me having to do or say anything, the room will be full of noise and activity. And I as the organizer will be feeling: this is going really well. But on at least one occasion, I clearly remember coming back in and having found somebody who was calling me saying I can’t find the place and having walked them in. And I had to walk in with this person to room that was totally silent. And I had to say, “Guys, as we’re still waiting for a few more people, turn to the person next to you and introduce yourself,” and just make that an instruction. And people did. And then when I had to go out again and come back the room was full of energy and people discovered that the totally random strangers sitting next to them was a nice, interesting person. And their reason for coming to this event was a topic of conversation.
Alex MacLaren: Yes, I think when you’re hosting a party and your network and networking if part of it, or building networks is part of the brief, particularly at the beginning of the assembly of a group, one thing which I discovered early is that if I was talking to everybody, the conversations wouldn’t begin. So I actually had to, as the host, drop my voice and start an individual conversation with one person – not in order to exclude everybody else, but in order to give people permission to talk to each other so that there was not only one conversation happening in that room. And so we do sometimes have to be quite strategic about these things, when it’s our responsibility to be like that.
Tom Salinsky: The other thing which people ask me, we talked about how you get into a group. The other thing people ask me is, how do I get out? How do I leave? How do I end a conversation? Because if you have made a bad call – or even if just you’ve been talking to this person or this group of people for what feels like long enough and given that you’re there to meet lots of different people, being stuck in the same conversation for an hour, two hours is a bad outcome. So people need a way of removing themselves without causing offence. Do you have any tips about that?
Alex MacLaren: Yeah, I notice people feel embarrassed about making lying excuses. So I have to make this urgent call. Or I must visit the bathroom and hopefully they can sneak out another door and find themselves talking to somebody else. And so people do feel this sense of I want to have an honest reason for extricating myself from a conversation. I think as far as actual formal networking is concerned, the more brightly you can simply say it’s been a pleasure, I’m going to do some more circulating, because that’s a sort of a kind of a verb to describe what people are supposed to do at party’s which people generally understand. You have also to be strong. It’s tough love, you may see their crestfallen face because they’re about to be abandoned by their lifebelt, who has supported them for the first twenty minutes of this event. But I think we can sometimes get stuck imagining that we are indispensable to this person now, simply because it went well. And I don’t think we are. If you’ve had a conversation with this person, somebody else can have a conversation with them as well. And if they truly are incredibly hard work – and let’s be frank sometimes that’s how it feels – then it’s probably a good thing for everybody that the load is spread out beyond just you or you and one other person.
Tom Salinsky: Yeah, the expectation that we’re there to make contacts and figure out what can you do for me, what can I do for you the kind of grubby commerciality of that is one of the things that brings that pressure to bear but you’re right, you can – like a judo master – use that to your advantage, you can say quite explicitly, we’re here to meet lots of people. As fascinating as you are, I’ve been talking to you with only you for twenty minutes. Let’s both go and find new people to talk to. And let’s meet up later and compare notes.
Alex MacLaren: Yes, it’s funny, I was just talking earlier on to our colleague Gina, who in a former life used to run a networking club in Adam Street. And she was saying that they used to do formal speed networking, with the idea that by setting a clock every three minutes, you could get through thirty people very quickly. And by that means you’d actually have gone through a kind of triage process. And then you would genuinely have a kind of a shortlist then of the people that you really do want to spend slightly more time with as you went through the evening. Now, I mean, that does make the sort of motivated, connecting somewhat explicit, but then anyone who’s going to an event like that, is there with that motivation in mind. So it just kind of takes the responsibility for that shifting from person to person and making sure you meet as many people as possible off the shoulders of the individual party attended. And you can see why that would liberate people.
Tom Salinsky: The other thing, which I think is vital, is understanding your own role in the conversation. If you are trying to draw someone out who’s a bit shyer than you are, who is not having as good a time as you’re capable of having, you’ll want to ask them questions in order to get them to respond. But if you’re not careful, early on in the conversation with someone who’s not feeling quite at ease, yet, they may be giving you rather short answers. And you can start sort of interrogating them, you know, did you manage to go on holiday this year? Yes. Where did you go? Skiing. Do you go skiing every year? Answer the question!! And what’s missing from this interaction, which would be present? If you are talking to your friends is your reaction, and your opinion. So if you ask somebody, did you go on holiday and they say, Yes, we went skiing, you’ll probably have a view about skiing, you might also enjoy skiing, which is great. Now you found a subject that you have in common. But if you dislike skiing, or you just like the idea of skiing, then you can also say that, and now the skiing enthusiasts that you’re talking to might have quite a good time selling skiing to you.
Alex MacLaren: Yes, it’s funny. There’s a very important relationship in my life, which is very frustrating. The person involved never asks me questions, and is always telling stories…
Tom Salinsky: Is it your son?
Alex MacLaren: No, and I’m not going to say. So that’s incredibly frustrating. But you’re right, that the problem isn’t necessarily whether somebody asks questions, it’s who is this person who is asking me questions? And have they disclosed enough for me to feel safe about swapping my feelings on any trivial subject? Because then we’re finding that that shared territory. And so I do think asking questions is important. But you’re correct, it’s the follow up, and the sharing that comes out of that questioning, which makes it safe rather than, as you say, an interrogation in which the questioning is designed to make you vulnerable and expose you and get you convicted in court. And that’s sometimes how it can feel when people are politely trying to express interest in us. But they’re not actually sharing enough in order to make it safe for us to then share our own positions on things.
Tom Salinsky: One of the things that’s, of course, going to, I think, come out a lot of the conversations that we have on this podcast, is the fact that not all the kind of communications that we’re doing look the same because of lockdown, and the pandemic, and so on. And there are people who have run networking events in online spaces, they’ve done Zoom things where you can have half a dozen people in breakout rooms, out of a population of several hundred in some cases.
Alex MacLaren: I think that’s really significant. And there’s something to be learned, which is relevant both online and in person, which is that when you have crowds of people in an online space, like a Teams call, or a Zoom call, it’s never particularly satisfying experience until you break it down into smaller groups. And in fact, I would argue that all of the most satisfying interactions in the universe are one on one. It’s often said, in my background as an actor, that all of the best scenes are dualogues. And if it’s a monologue, it’s a dualogue between you and an audience. Those are the ones which are most satisfying. So if you’re running an online event, get familiar with how to send people out into breakouts in pairs. I know that we’ve had a lot of success randomizing those breakout pairs, partly so that people can connect with a lot of different people and the responsibility for choosing who those people are is not theirs, but also so that people can be rescued from challenging situations, again, without having to feel that they’re stuck in that situation.
Tom Salinsky: But if you do have a breakout group, which is bigger than two, which I agree is not ideal, there is the danger that two or three people, out of let’s say six, will do the vast majority of the talking and there’ll be one or two people who barely contribute at all. And I think one of the most vital things that you can do is notice who has hasn’t spoken up yet, and draw them in. And of course, one of the glorious benefits of meeting people on Zoom is that their name is displayed in little letters underneath the image of their face. So you don’t have to worry about remembering who that person was, you can just look and say, Sam, we haven’t heard from you. You can even call it out. You don’t have to, but you could, you can be as bold as to call it out. Did you have anything you wanted to add to this? Yeah, and that’s something I’ve been doing on Zoom meetings, from quite early on.
Alex MacLaren: Yeah, it’s really significant how reassuring that is to people. And it does make me want to return to this in a later episode about remembering names. It is also, I’ve got to point out that it doesn’t happen with such reliability on MS Teams, where people can very quickly vanish into a couple of initials in a circle at the bottom of the screen. And not having actually written in white in the bottom left corner of the screen suddenly makes you feel like very vulnerable and anxious.
Tom Salinsky: And also some people who are sharing devices, oh, yes, they not have the accurate name.
Alex MacLaren: Oh, it happens again, and again, or it just says “Work Zoom”, which is not their name at all. And one thing, which actually, I suppose is interesting is thinking about what connections have you made virtually, where you haven’t yet met in person. And I recently had an experience when somebody who I know through conversations we have had with each other via Facebook threads actually showed up in my town, and we met up for a cup of tea. Have you ever had one of these experiences Tom, like via Twitter or or kind of a social media friendship?
Tom Salinsky: Sort of. One of my best friends is somebody that I initially interacted with on a bulletin board, a forum…
Alex MacLaren: That’s outstanding!
Tom Salinsky: …and then met this person in real life.
Alex MacLaren: Yeah, it does feel it does feel slightly like dating. Do you know what I mean? So there is something about the… I guess, you’re acknowledging a connection of some kind, at least. Those friendships are really precious to me. It was really intriguing with this particular person, when she came around to my house. She was looking at the house and looking at me. So it can be very anxiety inducing for both parties when you’re first encountering each other. You need to acknowledge that and cut a lot of slack, which I think is something we don’t necessarily do. We don’t notice that. In networking situations, most people recognize it’s not very easy for most people most of the time. And therefore, we’re likely to be much more forgiving and generous about the awkwardnesses and screw ups that inevitably happen. So your homework for this week, for networking, listeners of this show, is at your next party, aim to spend time just having one real conversation, just lower the stakes on the whole thing. Even if you’ve been told to go and meet specific people, or meet as many people as possible, spend time just building one connection, listening and sharing and connecting with one individual because that real connection, then gets witnessed by other people. People are always very, very conscious of who are the people who are successfully making connections around them. And when they notice one connection being made, that becomes magnetic, and it starts to raise the likelihood of you then making a second and a third real connection with other people at that party.
Tom Salinsky: And if you’ve got any stories that you’d like to share with us, or any questions, anything that you thought we were going to tackle it and that we didn’t on the subject of networking, or any communications challenge, do please get in touch with us. You can send us an email to email@example.com and we can read it out. Or you can record your thoughts and send us a voice message which we can play. Or you can send us a tweet, I’m on @tomsalinsky.
Alex MacLaren: I’m tweeting at @SpontaneityShop. Until next time, I’m Alex.
Tom Salinsky: And I’m Tom.
Alex MacLaren: Thank you very much for listening and goodbye.
On this episode we talk about public speaking, why people fear it, what you can do to survive it and why the best speakers are lions who play tennis.
Alex MacLaren: Hello, and welcome to You Can Talk to Anyone, the podcast in which we open the bonnet on our communications engine. I’m Alex.
Deborah Frances-White: I’m Deborah.
Tom Salinsky: And I’m Tom.
Alex MacLaren: And today we’re going to be talking about being in the spotlight. Now we are all seasoned performers. I’ve been acting since I was a teenager, I’ve done loads of stage time with both of you, Tom, we’ve done millions of shows together, Deborah, you’re regularly doing stand-up performances. But people who are in everyday working life, find it really terrifying. And they come and talk to us and ask us for help.
Tom Salinsky: I remember taking a corporate session once and chatting to someone in the coffee break, who was feeling profoundly anxious about the fact that I had this background in theatre and comedy and the whole thing was putting him on edge, even though I was doing everything I could to reassure him. And I noticed that he had arrived to the session on a motorbike. And this struck me as odd because as listeners may know, surgeons nickname habitual motorbike riders “donors” because it’s such a dangerous way of getting around. I said to him, how can you be anxious about the possibility of having to give a presentation to this group of people when you are taking your life in your hands every time you get on board this machine? And he pondered this for a while. And he said, “Well, I think the way I’d analyze it is I am definitely going to die one day. But it’s possible that I won’t socially embarrass myself between that day in this.” And there is a certain logic to that.
Alex MacLaren: There is a logic and in fact weirdly, I just thinking about that. Being a motorcyclist reminds me of – possibly another experience when people feel terrified is when there’s lights in their face. So if you think about rabbits stuck in headlights, they freeze. And I think that when people do have the unusual experience for non-performers, of being standing isolated in space with lamps on them, they cannot even see the people that they’re speaking to. This scares the hell out of them. But it’s a familiar experience for you, Deborah, and I remember, you developed some just fascinating work about what this means to people.
Deborah Frances-White: Yes, I actually have a TEDx talk about this, if anybody wants to see me talking about it, but not till you finish listening to this podcast, because there’ll be plenty of things we say here that I didn’t get to say there. But my theory, I’m sure I’m not alone in this is there’s a reason that stage fright is an extremely common fear. There are surveys that say the number one fear is public speaking, the number two fear is death. And Jerry Seinfeld has a joke about this, where he says that means that at a funeral, there are some people who’d rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy. And that that obviously isn’t true. But it feels true to people – they feel like, anything but this and I think, all commonly held phobias have their roots in life or death case situations. So the fear of heights we can see, we’ve evolved to have a fear of heights because people who were not frightened of running along a cliff edge, well, they had fewer children and those children died of plummeting to their deaths. We know why most people have a visceral fear of snakes. That’s because our ancestors on the savannah who thought snakes were cute and cuddly had fewer children and those children died of venomous snake bites. But it’s not easy to see with public speaking. It’s like there was a lot of Toastmasters on the savannah, or a lot of PowerPoint presentations. But I think I know why. I think it’s because if I went on a safari to the savannah, even today, and in the evening, I wandered away from my Safari party and came out into a big empty, open clearing and looked up and saw there were ten, twenty, fifty eyes on me. It would probably mean I was prey. Historically, and even pre historically, if you’re the only one looking in this direction, and everyone else is looking in your direction, you’re probably going to be eaten. It’s probably not a good sign. And that is why your adrenaline goes up. Yes, obviously don’t screw up the presentation. You could forget what you’re gonna say in the PowerPoint could crash. But that’s actually not a life or death situation. The visceral response – people get the shakes, the closed throat, the sweats. Even if you don’t get any of that you might get a butterfly sensation in your stomach, you get a kind of “Oh, come on, get on with it” feeling. Even if you like doing it – “come on, get on with it get on with it, this guy is going to take all day letting me on.” Everybody gets a visceral physical reaction, well beyond what they should get, given the situation, which is I might bore them a bit. If the PowerPoint crashes, what has happened to them, they’ll wait, take a five minute break. We get a reaction. And I think that is life or death. So I think there are things we can do that will override the neural patterning, which tells you you are in danger when you are in fact not. It is just a fake message going to the brain, because people are great at surviving. So we’ve got to be excellent at detecting danger.
Tom Salinsky: And I think one of the things that happens is that there is a will from the audience, that you will be in charge of them, and you will look after them. And that can happen even in quite small audiences. But it definitely happens with big audiences. And you can see the way that the space is arranged, the audience sits neatly in rows there in the darkness, you have all the space of the stage, you have the light, you have the microphone, it’s all trying to raise your status. So someone who comes in and accepts that status, does the thing, the Deborah’s talking about, makes physical choices, which say, I’m in control here, they are easy to watch and easy to listen to. Someone who leans into their own feelings. Like they feel like prey, they feel scared, they feel anxious, is very difficult to watch and to listen to, because what they’re saying is, this isn’t safe. But you’re the one who’s supposed to be making it safe.
Deborah Frances-White: you see often presenters looking like a gazelle, about to be eaten by a pride of lions – i.e. the audience. But honestly, I think that’s because audiences do behave like predators. Because the two of you now, just sitting around here are giving me little signals all the time, we were listening, and we’re with you. And it’s just tiny nods of the head, and just engagement that you’re constantly nodding a bit, which you don’t even realize you’re doing until I pointed it out. And that is absolutely standard human behavior. But whose responsibility is it in an audience of 50 or 100, or 2000, to give me a good time? To go, we’re listening, we’re here. Nobody’s. That responsibility is entirely diluted. And what that means is audiences look like lions, you’ll see lion sitting on the savannah and the lion will be dead still, and the lion will see the gazelle and the gazelle will see the lion and the gazelle will go like – small indecisive movements. The lionesses hunt, and they actually wait to see which is the twitchiest gazelle, that’s true, they do, because that’s the most indecisive gazelle. And that’s the easiest one to catch.
Alex MacLaren: It’s true. audiences don’t know how intimidating they look to a performer. And if a performer is to explain to an audience – “You all look so scary. You’re staring at me blankly,” – audiences go, “Do we? No, not at all!” They don’t experience that intimidating behavior. They’re simply part of a group of people waiting for you to talk to us. And looking forward to it, in fact. The internal experience of being an audience is it’s quite nice not to have the spotlight on us.
Deborah Frances-White: We think we’re invisible in an audience. It’s true.
Alex MacLaren: And also, there’s no happier audience that I work with than a group of people that habitually have to run rooms. They are so relieved not to be the person up on stage with the spotlight on them. But they’re not working hard to enable things, okay. They’re literally having time off. And I think that’s what maybe non performers don’t understand about audiences in professional situations is that people go along, to have a night off and for the attention to be on you and they want to feel like they’re in your presence. They want to feel seen by the person on stage. We don’t go to see Beyoncé, okay? We go for Beyoncé to see us.
Deborah Frances-White: Oh yeah you get a better view on the television, with surround sound, but you want Beyoncé to see you, you want to have been in the room with her.
Alex MacLaren: You want to be seen by them.
Deborah Frances-White: It’s how she make you feel.
Alex MacLaren: This is true, because she’s actually she’s looking at you. She’s not a self-conscious performer. She’s looking out to the audience. And yet it goes wrong for big stars. Okay, so don’t imagine when you look at a major superstar that they feel this is easy. They often find it very difficult. I’ve just been recently reading about the great stage actor of the 20th century, Laurence Olivier, who was afflicted by terrible stage fright, because just like an ordinary civilian in a giving a presentation at work situation, he was facing expectations. And in fact, he’d ramped up the expectations to the point that he was like the – you could not see a greater stage actor doing Shakespeare, the Laurence Olivier in his 50s and 60s – and it terrified him and he carried on doing it but he had to say to people “Don’t look at me on stage.” There was no space for him to both look after the audience and look after the other actors. So it could be quite a lonely experience performing with him, but dazzling to see how he built that relationship with the people who had bought tickets. He was reaching out and seeing them,
Deborah Frances-White: Can I suggest, Alex, there are times when an audience does not like being seen by a performer and that can be some members of an audience at a stand-up comedy club.
Alex MacLaren: Oh, God.
Deborah Frances-White: Why do you not sit in the front row at comedy club?
Alex MacLaren: Well, I don’t go to comedy clubs, for this reason, I think, because it’s so combative.
Deborah Frances-White: Well, here’s the thing. Lots of people love going to stand-up comedy, but very few people want to sit in the front row. Because a comedian like Al Murray will pick on people in the audience – it’s what comedians call crowd work. And he’ll say, what do you do for a living? And if they say banker, they’re a banker, oh the whole audience goes, oh great. He’s got to take this person apart, especially if there’s been something in the papers about bankers’ bonuses. I know bankers who say I’ve never say I was a banker, I make up a job, because I don’t want to be publicly mocked.
Tom Salinsky: What are the safe jobs? Nurse? Comedy reviewer!
Deborah Frances-White: Comedy reviewer’s good! That’s very funny. That’s funny. That’s what I might say next time I’m asked. That’s a great thing to say. I’ll take that on board. Although if everybody listening to this podcast does that, what will happen is comedians will find that every time they ask someone what they do for a living, every single person in the audience will be a comedy reviewer.
Tom Salinsky: We’ve ruined comedy.
Deborah Frances-White: We’ve ruined comedy, we’ve broken it. But some people love being picked on by Al Murray because the status raise of Al Murray talking to them is enough to mitigate the fact that he’s going to mock them and lower their status
Tom Salinsky: Groucho Mark said late in life when he was a sort of old crotchety man, I can’t insult anyone anymore. So whenever he insulted someone people would just say, did you hear what Groucho just said to me!?
Deborah Frances-White: Yeah, so the insult was the status raise. Yeah, but in terms of lions and gazelles, what I would say is a very high status comedian who is taking people down a peg or two is a lion, who makes the audience feel like gazelles. Beyoncé, and some good natured comedians, are doing something different. If I go to a Beyoncé concert, she is a lion. But she is a lion who is in charge of her pride. So she makes me feel like a lion. That’s why I want to go and see Beyoncé. And I think it’s a really interesting dichotomy. Ask yourself when you go out onto the stage, are you a lion that makes everyone feel like a gazelle, and you’re about to eat them? Are you a gazelle standing in front of the audience looking edible? Or are you a lion in charge of the pride that makes everybody else feel more warm and lionlike, and like this is now a collective?
Alex MacLaren: So that’s I think what I mean when I say people want to feel seen, in fact, many people do say to me, I absolutely hate audience participation, in that I didn’t actually buy a ticket to be scrutinized by the entire audience. But what I do want is to go and when somebody speaks, to feel, yes, this has something for me, personally. I feel like that when they’re addressing me or looking in my direction, they’re not putting me under pressure, but they’re including me in that pride, as you’re saying, in your metaphor. That I think is pretty universal. When I think about stand up comics, I think we go to watch, I think those combative comics, in a successful club, we go to, to fight somebody and enjoy losing to them. But I don’t think that’s the case with all speaking-to-a-group situations. But I do think we want to feel that whatever they’re doing to us, they’re in control of it. And they’re including us and making us feel like we belong.
Tom Salinsky: But there’s a paradox here, which is, people will come to us and ask for help with a presentation they have to give, or with a dynamic like running a meeting or a job interview or something like that. And I always find, as the coach, it’s the presentation which is the easier thing to work on. Because when you’re presenting by and large, you’re sort of broadcasting. So what that means is if we get the story that you’re telling right, and we find a manner that works for you, and that fits this material, and you practice it here in the workshop, if you are able – and that’s quite a big if – if you are able to successfully replicate that in front of the audience, it will still work. But you have to sort of wargame interactions, you have to think of lots of different possibilities because exactly how I should behave in this situation to get the right effect, to come across the way I hope to, to make you feel okay, is absolutely dependent on what you say next. So it’s a much harder problem to solve. But it’s something which feels so much more familiar, so much more natural, so much more comfortable for most people. The very fact that there is a spotlight on you, or there are more than two or three pairs of eyes looking in your direction, just seems to change everything for people.
Alex MacLaren: I think that that relationship with a lot of people looking at me, is something actually that we’ve seen in Zoom calls in the last 18 months as well, in that you’re basically looking at a field, sometimes of many tiny little faces, like a stamp collection or staring at you rather than sideways on…
Deborah Frances-White: And all on mute, which is a nightmare for a comedian!
Alex MacLaren: Oh, it’s a huge headache.
Deborah Frances-White: Literally my worst nightmare.
Alex MacLaren: And not only on mute, but in some people’s cases – sometimes for good reasons, sometimes you never know what the reasons are – people have switched their cameras off.
Tom Salinsky: I have a client the moment who said to me that they’re working on pitches, and one of the problems they have is that when they start the pitch, the person that they’re pitching to will say everybody’s now going to turn the cameras off. And they’re doing it because they don’t want to give anything away. But it means you’re now totally in a vacuum. It’s so off putting.
Alex MacLaren: Yeah, it’s incredibly difficult. In fact, one of our clients – I don’ know if you remember this, Tom – booked as at the beginning of the pandemic, and one of the things they said to us in the remote work we’re doing is see if you can teach all of our people to turn their cameras on during their MS Teams calls. And obviously, the wasn’t the only reason we were doing it, but there was clearly a culture of anxiety about sharing your domestic space and your domestic self, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic, although I’m happy to say that they seem to have calmed down about that now, like everybody. But yes, having at least people’s faces can give you some kind of relationship with their reaction to what you’re saying. And I remember, we were doing an improv exercise about working with audiences about making sure you’re an equal opportunities eye contacter. Now this links to something I’d been doing with a Shakespeare Company, which is when you’re doing a soliloquy, if you’re standing down at the front of the stage, you’ll notice that what Judi Dench does is the first people she looks at are right at the back.
Deborah Frances-White: Sarah Millican too.
Alex MacLaren: She starts with them. And she doesn’t give them more than their fair share. But she starts there. And then she gives some attention over here onto the right and then once she’s got a reaction from them – or at least she’s been there long enough for them to absorb the fact that they’ve been the center of attention with Portia, or Cleopatra, or whoever she’s playing – then she looks right down to the front row. And when they feel that they’ve kind of taken in some of the warmth of what she has to offer them, then she goes back over to the far side of the gods. And so you’re kind of a tennis player on one side of the net. And you’re playing a match in which you keep a rally of contact going with a thousand people sitting in a West End theatre. Now, obviously, no individual will necessarily feel that you’ve spent time with them. But they will know that your attention has been shared out and the game has been played. And so they feel that they’ve made a kind of contribution. Because even though they’ve not said anything, they don’t need to heckle the comedian, in order to be part of a conversation with the person who is speaking,
Deborah Frances-White: I always divide the audience into three – if I want to think about it intuitively because it’s an anxiety ridden gig – and I sent my energy to the back of the room, and I think of myself throwing a ball, literally throwing a ball with my hands. That means my gestures will go out towards them. I give myself a front foot energy, always. Always put my energy on the front foot, because it’s hard to look scared of people you’re coming towards. So I know I’m more lionlike if I’ve got my energy on my front foot and more gazelle-like if I keep my energy back, I start backing away from them. When I’ve done a complete thought, and I’ve given them a little bit of love, I think oh these people on the right haven’t had any love. And I take my ball back in my hands, physically pull my hands in, and I throw the ball to the right. And I see what happens to that section of the audience when I throw them some love. It’s got to be direct. People want to shift their eyes around and take everybody in. But if you take everyone in you take nobody in, you just look like: which of these lions is going to come and get me, quick, keep my eye on all of them. But I take my eye completely off this middle section – they’re fine, they’ve had loads of love, none of them are going to eat me – and I throw it to the right, but I give my energy to the back, and I hold my gaze on this right hand side of the audience. And after a little while I think: these people on the left haven’t had anything! Ball back, over here. Complete thought, maybe a couple of thoughts. Those people in the middle, they’ve been missing my eyes. And I pull the ball back. And when I bring it back to them – wow! It’s like, oh, you’re seeing us again!
Tom Salinsky: So I think there are three sort of phases to someone’s development. I think someone could start really, really anxious about public speaking and they’re just trying to get through it. And I think we’ve seen people in this state and maybe if we’ve had particularly bad gigs we’ve even found ourselves in this state, just pure survival mode. I’ve got to say things I’ve got to say and then get off the stage. Then if you have even a moment to collect yourself, you can start to do some of the things that Deborah is talking about, you can have that front foot energy, you can start to accept that offer of status that’s being given to you, even if that offer of status is five people around a boardroom table are all looking your direction. What can you do to accept that offer and to grow into that spotlight rather than be diminished in it? And then I think what can finally happen, as you do start getting more confident, and it starts to become a bit easier and a bit more habitual, is the broadcasting starts to feel more like a conversation again. And that’s what the best speakers are doing. They sound conversational. Sometimes that’s only achieved because of some artifice. If you are on a big stage, like the ones you’re talking about. You can’t do the same things that you do when you’re sitting next to people, but you can do different things that will give those people the same experience as if they’re sitting next to you. Even if they are fifty feet away at the back of a theatre,
Deborah Frances-White: I sometimes ask big audiences: put your hand up if a pop star or a rock star has directly looked at you or winked at you, acknowledged you, from the stage at a concert. Nearly every woman and many men think of that has happened to them. The maths just simply doesn’t add up. What that person is doing is they are sending so much love in this direction that they make a hundred or a thousand women (if they’re a heartthrob) feel seen. Now in my case, Paul McCartney really did wink at me in Sydney in the late nineties. Now, you laugh, you laugh. And I held on to that for years because I knew it was true, in my case. I had got past the bouncers at the front and worked my way to the – I’d rushed it and I’d worked my way to the front of the stage, and Paul McCartney saw me and he winked at me. But for others, it isn’t true. Now, you laugh, but in 2019, I met Paul McCartney at a very exciting show business party that I was lucky enough to be invited to. And I said to him, Sir Paul, it’s an honor to meet you. I’ve been such a big fan of you since I was a kid. And actually, you winked at me in sitting in Sydney in such and such a year. And he went, Oh, yeah, I remember you. And I said, Look, I know, I know, you probably just wink out and he went, No, no, I remember you. And that is why he is the star that he is.
Tom Salinsky: And while that story is definitely true in your case, the reason it’s unlikely to be true in so many cases is the very thing that we started with. It’s the fact that these big stars have a spotlight in their face, and they can’t see the audience. And I think that’s something worth bearing in mind. If you are presenting on a Zoom or a Teams call. You can’t have eye contact anymore, it doesn’t exist. What you can do, what I think you should do, much more than people generally realize is eyeball the camera. Because if you’re staring down the barrel of the camera, people who are watching you get the experience of being looked at. It does mean, depending on how your system set up, it’s much harder for you to gauge their reaction. And there will be times when that is going to be more important. But eyeballing that camera, although it feels so unnatural, can really help you to connect through this technological medium, and find that connection and get that conversational tone back again,
Deborah Frances-White: Can I suggest you practice looking down the camera, it will feel weird for a while, and then it won’t. And the other thing I would suggest is if people turn their cameras off, or if people are looking away or looking bored or whatever, make positive assumptions. The great Philippa Waller, who has her own company 4D Human Being once told me a story that she went into pitch for three or four people, they were all sitting behind a desk X Factor style. And she was standing up and she said three of them seemed engaged. And one of them was very rudely looking out the window. And she said, I almost stopped and said: if you don’t want to hear this presentation, like you know, you don’t have to because it was so extreme. But I didn’t, I just pushed on and thought you know, it’s fine. Maybe the others are enjoying it. I finished it. And she left the room and walk down the corridor, thinking I’m not sure that went well. And the woman had been looking out the window ran after her and said I just wanted to say that was a fantastic presentation. It was so clear. I have problems hearing, I can only hear at one year. So I have to look away from people when they’re presenting. And every word was clear. And the shape of it was wonderful. And I just thought it was fantastic. Make positive assumptions. Even if they’ve got their cameras off. Imagine them loving it. Even if they’re looking away. Imagine that they’re really engaged by it. Something else is there on the table that they’re, maybe they’re making notes. Maybe if they’re, look, they’re on their phone, they’re writing an email about how brilliant you are.
Alex MacLaren: Make the assumption that they’re making good choices for them and for you, rather than making choices deliberately to screw you up. It feels like you’re under scrutiny, but actually, they simply want to be part of the conversation with you in one way or another. So your homework this week is to go away – and this is may sound like a bold call, but Deborah’s metaphor about using a ball is something that theatre companies do, actually as an exercise, okay. So take a sponge ball, and book three of your colleagues, and sit them in the space as if they were members of an audience, and actually talk to them and throw the ball back and forth and make sure that each of them is involved in the rally. Because rallies are more exciting games to watch than tennis matches where people are simply aceing serves again and again and again.
Deborah Frances-White: You need to keep your focus on the person you’re throwing the ball to, until they throw it back to. Because what you want to do is go – there, you’ve got the ball! Now I’ll shift my eyes around, because it’s uncomfortable to send your energy in this direction. That’s the main thing I see when I’m coaching speakers or even if I just watch speakers who were speaking before or after me sometimes – the pacing up and down that even very highly paid professional speakers do because, like a trapped lion, they can’t be still and they can’t just throw the love and keep it there. You’re my only focus. I’m on a date with you. I’m in love with you. When they throw the ball back as part of this exercise, you then go – at the end of a sentence, not in the middle of a word – you’re going to look at this person, see this person, throw the ball to them, and then they are yours until they throw that ball back.
Alex MacLaren: Thank you so much for joining us for In the Spotlight. We’re really looking forward to hearing your homework adventures. So do get in touch and let us know how it goes for you. See you all next week.