On this episode we talk about how to get a relationship off to a good start, whether it’s a check-in clerk you’ll likely never see again, or an important client, or your own colleagues who’ve you only previously met on Zoom.
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 welcome to Episode One. And in episode one we’re going to be talking about first impressions, which often comes up as a challenge for people in companies. And the question I want to ask you guys is, do you believe in love at first sight?
Deborah Frances-White: I believe in lust at first sight for sure. I definitely believe in chemistry at first sight. And I think it’s easier if you have that instant chemistry. And I will say, three times in my life, there have been people I have met to whom I have been instantly magnetically drawn – no cases have been romantic or sexual. But those people have all been very important players in my life, instantly wanted to spend a lot of follow up time with me, and I them. And as our stories unfurled over the following year or two, it would always turn out that we had something deep – and in this case, traumatic – in our past around religion and oppression and family issues and things like that, in common, but that didn’t come out till later. So that feeling of being drawn to each other was based on something. And sometimes you have to spend time exploring what that thing is. So that’s what I believe in. I believe that whenever I have that connection with someone else, where I go, wow, there’s something going on here. I think look for the reason that underneath.
Tom Salinsky: So what can you do? If you don’t feel that instant connection? What can you do to try and increase your chances of making a good first impression without that kind of backstory either being sensed or later revealing itself?
Alex MacLaren: Yes, it’s a good and important question. Because what Deborah’s describing there is that sort of serendipitous moment that you have, as you assemble your people around you, and it’s almost like you think back – there was something magic there with those individuals? I mean, I what you’re saying about people who are different from us is really significant to me, because I’m thinking of friends, I have who – actually, there’s one friend, I’m thinking of who, when we first met, I thought, oh, no, this is this is not good, we have nothing in common at all. And then that turns out to be wrong. It’s almost like the second and third impression, which is when the friendship gets built, or maybe the experiences we have together, which are then the foundation for that connection. And when people are coming to us with this challenge about first impressions, they’re basically thinking about oh God, I need to make a good first impression in this situation, and it sometimes goes wrong.
Tom Salinsky: So let me ask you this, Alex. All other things being equal – would you rather be feeling like you have to make a good first impression and feeling like you are the host, and you’re welcoming someone else into your space? Or would you rather be the guest and someone else’s assuming the role of host? And obviously, Deborah, if you got an answer as well, that would also be interesting. But, let me check in with Alex first.
Alex MacLaren: Yeah, I’m a happy guest, I think. But I think that’s because I have been a host. I think I talked about sometimes might feel, I feel party fear as a host because I want to make sure that people feel safe and comfortable, in my house. When I’m a guest in somebody else’s house, some of that responsibility is off my shoulders, and all I have to do is to be a good guest. And I find that I think easier.
Deborah Frances-White: I’m a definite host. When I found my biological family, and I was going to – I’ve never met anyone related to me. I’d spoken to them on Facebook a little bit on the telephone. And I was going to New Zealand to meet for the first time, this was in 2013. A friend of mine said to me, let them host. I know what you’re going to want to do, you’re going to want to make it all right for them. You’re going to be on the front foot, you’re going to be in your stand-up comedy persona a little bit, making everyone feel welcome and comfortable and – let them host. And I thought that’s a really good note. It’s their home, it’s their family. You’re entering into it. Sit back, let them make overtures. Let them offer you things. Don’t feel you have to do all the emotional work and the social work. And I really took that on board. Yeah. And I think I am much stronger in the host position, I think in the guest position. I can probably be overwhelming to people.
Alex MacLaren: It’s so funny. I was thinking, what disaster stories could I tell about first impressions. And this one, which relates a little bit to what you’re saying, Deborah, I was having this relationship once. And I’d heard a lot about her family. And she didn’t particularly get on with them, it was quite a complicated family. And, after a while, it became really necessary for me to meet them. And I can’t quite remember the details, but we ended up going out for lunch, me and her mum, and her mum’s boyfriend. So it is a little bit like this family thing that you’re describing.
Deborah Frances-White: Oof.
Alex MacLaren: Yeah, well, the stakes are incredibly high. And so obviously, I felt under pressure in that I felt quite protective of my girlfriend at the time. But I also have these family members to please. I mean, it’s such a really, really high stakes. Anyway, I definitely messed it up. The bit I remember vividly is at the end was trying to pay and trying to buy lunch, for these people. And I think it must have read as some kind of power grab for me to pay for lunch with people who are a generation ahead of me.
Deborah Frances-White: Oh, that’s a classic, me move, classic.
Alex MacLaren: And I knew it as it was happening, I thought, oh, no, I’ve really mis-stepped here. And I think I then had the experience of somebody telling me how rude and arrogant I was to my face.
Deborah Frances-White: So you’re pretty sure you didn’t make a good first impression there.
Alex MacLaren: I’m pretty sure about that. Yeah. And I think I want to tell this story purely because I think it’s inevitable that we have screw ups, okay, even in relatively functional social patterns. And because we have those experiences from which we learn, and not ones that we just go away and kind of sort of beat ourselves up about for the rest of our lives. But the penny does drop – okay, I think that was the problem in that situation. But it’s these high stakes moments. I think that is part of what of our anxiety about first impressions, it’s often okay, my first day as a member of new group, so your first day of school, your I noticed that often people want to transform themselves when they move into new situations. And so they feel they can make a different impression. People change their names when they go to university.
Tom Salinsky: One of the profoundly weird things about the pandemic has been people joining new jobs, new workforces without being able to physically meet people. You know, when you start a new job, everyone says hello to you, and you’re shown to your desk and someone will say do you want to come for lunch? Or we’re going for drinks after work. And you get all that stuff, so you start to be assimilated. You start to be able to bond with everybody. Can you imagine having to do that over Zoom? Well, it’s just impossible.
Alex MacLaren: And in fact, I’ve had clients say to me in the last year during Zoom training sessions, oh, yes, I was recruited in the pandemic, I’ve done all of my work from my desk at home. But then last week, I had my first day at work, and I met these people whose faces I’ve seen. But it’s different when you’re there in person. Oh, gosh, you’re tall! Is a thing that people are saying or hearing for the first time?
Deborah Frances-White: Well, here’s a question I have is the difference between making a first impression at a networking event where nobody really knows anyone, or there might be little pockets of people who know each other, and turning up as the new boyfriend or girlfriend of a really tight friendship circle, where they’ve all got nicknames, and you use one of the nicknames too soon. So what I would sort of posit is, what is this most like, this situation? Is it in some ways a bit easier, because lots of people were recruited in that time? So that now you’re going into a place that’s a little bit more like a friendly bar where some people know each other, but it’s not weird if you don’t know anyone. And well, I’ve never met her either, as opposed to first day of school at a new school where everyone else is already in a tight gang. So there might be some advantages if you are merging into your new workspace as one of a few or many new recruits during the Zoom era, because you might have an opportunity to be more of an architect of the space, as opposed to going into something that is absolutely dead set in concrete. We all have got those groups where that dynamic is absolutely set. And it’s hard. And you’re a different sort of person. I’m a different sort of person with my oldest girlfriends when we go out for cocktails. I club up, I know everyone’s going to be wearing something a bit fun and I’ll put on my fanciest pair of shoes, I’ll tell different jokes. So is it possible that if you are now turning up into a space that actually was dismantled because of COVID, you get to be one of the architects. You get to redesign this space from scratch, but you do know people, and you do know some things about them. And you have got a good working relationship with some of them. But now you need to make that 3d and in person. So you could I think use that opportunity to say ah, they say you never get a second chance to make a first impression – have you heard that?
Alex MacLaren: Yeah, very much so.
Deborah Frances-White: I think you do, in this situation.
Alex MacLaren: Well, I think you’re absolutely right. I think firstly, this question about having only one shot, I think is really important. Because I think one way to cope with the stress of the first impression pressure is to remember, no, you will see them again, and you have the opportunity to adjust and to alter the impression people have of you. It’s quite interesting that First Impressions was the name of the first draft of Jane Austen’s famous novel Pride and Prejudice, okay?
Deborah Frances-White: Interesting!
Alex MacLaren: And, I mean, I also think about it in terms of modern publishing, we talk about the first impression of a book being the best printing of it, because later when they get those plates out and use it again, it will be worn it off. And so it feels like the first impression is never going to be as good as that. So if you make a bad first impression, you’re working down from a bad first impression, whereas actually, that isn’t what happens. You have opportunities to change it. I sometimes see people on competitive talent shows say this, “This is my one chance, Simon.” And when I hear that I’m kind of going well, I hope. I hope that isn’t the only way you’re thinking about this, because this is not the only talent show.
Deborah Frances-White: They’re bullied into saying that, Alex, because a friend of mine wouldn’t say it. And they said, Well, you’re not right for this show. She was like, this is a terrible message to put out there – my last chance!?
Alex MacLaren: It’s true, but I’m also wondering whether that actually I experienced a lot of second chances, because I’m part of a lot of very privileged groups. And it may be that there are some people that don’t experience that, oh, don’t worry, I’ve had other chances. And so I will, again. Maybe they haven’t had enough of those opportunities that that pressure is much more acute.
Tom Salinsky: And it comes back to something we’ve said to our clients for years, which is stop trying so hard. If you feel that pressure, if you feel like this is my one chance to make a good first impression. And you let that anxiety start to build up on you and you start trying your hardest you start second guessing everything, you’ll probably never find the chemistry that Deborah was talking about, even if it was there to be found. And you certainly won’t be as relaxed and charming as you’re capable of being
Alex MacLaren: Yes, it’s that the issue of trying to prove something as well. I had a friend once at college who said, “No, it’s awful for me. I’m quite impressive and clever when I first meet people, and it’s just downhill after that. Later on they discover I’m really dim.” Whereas actually, I’ve seen this I’ve seen friends of mine be quite mediocre when they first meet people – and then later they dazzle and impress them.
Tom Salinsky: Well, you wanna give yourself some headroom!
Alex MacLaren: Exactly, give yourself somewhere to go.
Deborah Frances-White: I have a friend whose father moved around a lot, I think he was a diplomat or something. So he went to a new school every year. And he said, I make a dynamic first impression. And after that, no, all I know how to do is make a great first impression, I’ve got no follow through. Because I never hung around anywhere to figure out how to form long lasting friendships or, you know, be valuable in year two. And so I think a lot of us have different skills in this set. And I think there’ll be lots of people listening to this who go, yep, relate to that, can make a great first impression, and then find it quite awkward to follow up and say, let’s have a lunch. I think also, I can make a great impression on stage. But then sometimes if I am trying to talk to two people in a bar who know each other very well, I think I’m being too much, or oh, I can’t quite get in here. They already they have their thing going on. So I think it varies situation to situation where individuals listening to this might know they make good impressions. So some people say I’m great with mums, you know, I’ve had every boyfriend I’ve ever had, like the mums cried when we broke up. I can absolutely work mums. But new bosses – oof. And I think sometimes what’s useful for me is figuring out, in a process driven way, what is it that I’m doing in the situations in which I know I’m coming across very well, and people like me. Because if I can figure out the mechanics of it, when I am in a situation of high anxiety. I can go, well you know you’re good with mums. And you know what you do there is you tell them something wonderful about their son, that’s not sycophantic. Then you ask her lots of questions. So here I am standing at a networking event. Can I if, I recognize the name on their badge of the company they work for, say I hear you’re doing a very exciting project to do with the merger. That’s going to open them up – “Oh, you heard about me?” People love hearing you’ve heard about them. And then can you ask them questions.
Tom Salinsky: And I think one of things you’re doing there is you’re taking responsibility for making this relationship get off to a good start. And I think that’s in a way tricky, because going back to the thing you we’re talking about, when you just click with somebody, no one’s having to consciously take responsibility. So I think we can sometimes be fooled into thinking, if that doesn’t happen magically by itself, it’s never going to happen and something’s gone wrong. But actually, there are lots of situations where someone else is taking responsibility for you feeling okay. And I think one of the best ways you can overcome your own feeling of anxiety or uncertainty is to say, well, I’m going to be the one to take responsibility. You know, I can think of occasions when, for example, I’ve been running a training session. And there’s been a delay, we’re waiting for people to turn up, it’s just me and the organizer stuck in a room, we’ve got nothing to talk about, except the thing that we’re here to talk about. And he or she seems a bit ill-at-ease and doesn’t quite know how to get the conversation going. Now, to be absolutely candid, this is not my idea of a good time. This is not a situation where I’m at my best I will do everything I can think of to keep the kind of chat going to find something we can talk about – anything at all make a joke, no matter how dumb, no matter how poor, any sort of attempt at humor that might be grasped with both hands, because it’s my job to keep this going. And not only if I succeed, will this person feel better, I will feel better because I’ve given myself a task.
Alex MacLaren: Yes. And I think that’s significant. Because when you’re describing that situation, you’re noticing somebody else’s state. And that, for me is really important.
Deborah Frances-White: Tom, I really have noticed you get better at this. And I think that’s encouraging for people who are listening. Because I think when you said this is not my natural home to be stuck in a room with some person who I’m meant to make a good impression on. And I think the way that you have done it is mostly you’ve changed your energy. I think the key to a lot of your charm now, which I you know, I think when we first got together – and listeners, if you don’t know, Tom is the producer of The Guilty Feminist podcast, which is the podcast that I’m best known for, but also is my husband. And I see you charm waiters now and charm your airline staff. And a lot of it is simply the energy in your voice. So you sound like there’s this great intention. So it’s the difference between somebody telling you something that’s sort of fact on a PowerPoint presentation. And somebody telling you that they’ve just discovered deep sea diving, you know, like, “Oh, my God, you’ve got to go down. It’s amazing.” So think about the energy you have in your voice. When you talk about something you care about whether that be you’re showing people pictures of your kids, your football club, your you know, a new band you’ve discovered, you just went on a yoga retreat, you can’t wait to tell your friend because they’re really into yoga. If you facsimile that energy, you just bang that energy into any sentence, you will appear to be good at making first impressions and connections, it doesn’t really matter much what you’re saying. Because that person will catch your energy and start to mirror your energy. And that’s, I think, the trick that you have – intuitively, or consciously, I don’t know which – you have developed that skill in the time I’ve known you. And I said to you, once we were at an airline counter, you really had fun with the person who was taking your case, and you were joking with them. And you gave them a really good time. And they were laughing and you were very appreciative for what they were doing. And we walked away, and I said, you know, you never, you never would have done that. years ago, you would have been quite curt in a way that I’m always trying to make people feel comfortable. And I would have thought, why are you being curt? Why have you changed that? Do you remember what you said?
Tom Salinsky: I don’t.
Deborah Frances-White: You said to me, I just realized it actually takes me very little effort to make somebody else’s day so much better.
Tom Salinsky: I’m a hero.
Alex MacLaren: You’re great, Tom.
Tom Salinsky: This is a fantastic story. I’m making a very good first impression on listeners if they don’t already know me.
Deborah Frances-White: Absolutely. But that took years and it took maturity and it took understanding. You weren’t going to get anything out of that. You were just interested in making that person’s day better. So you made a great impression on that person. But here’s what’s important about that. Sometimes, I’m with somebody in the corporate world, who’s grumpy to the taxi driver ignores the person who’s held the door open for them, curt with the receptionist, and then walks into the networking event and goes “Hello, hello, hello, it’s wonderful to meet me.” And I go, huh, there’s something off about your performance here. You haven’t had any practice. Because actually don’t really care about how other people feel. You care about how other people see you only if they’re important. So this is a win-win for you. Because you can practice this all the time, while making every waiter’s day more fun, making every service person feel more appreciated, and you will genuinely get better at it. Because in that same time, I’ve seen you be a lot better with clients as well, and you know, other people that we work with. You go into a theater and you’re able to charm the technicians who you know, to give you a little bit extra or you know – and I don’t mean charm in a manipulative way. I mean, genuinely put a good energy into the room, make them feel good, but also then have a better all-round experience for everybody.
Alex MacLaren: I think that consistency is what people know, is authenticity. Because it’s not just what you’re doing. It’s why you’re doing it. And it’s the fact that Tom’s doing it for a righteous reason that we love him for it, rather than he’s doing it in order to get this contract.
Deborah Frances-White: Alex, it’s interesting, you use that word, authenticity, because I hear that word a lot in the corporate world, people say you should be your authentic self, bring your authentic self to work. I mean, you can’t really bring your whole self to work. When that when people say that they don’t really mean it. We leave the worst parts of ourselves for those who love us the most – our family. But I think what they mean is bring more of your best self to work and more of your fuller self to work. As far as authenticity goes. Yes, great. But it can be a bit limiting. my authentic self likes to eat cake, and lie down. That’s who I am. That was who I was as a child. But my best self, likes to eat fruit and do yoga. And I find if I just do the things my best self would do for six months, that becomes authentic. Because now honestly, it is more authentic for me to move than it is for me to be sedentary. I cannot stay sedentary for longer than two to three days, I have to move, I have to exercise. So yes, be your authentic self. But know that your authentic self can evolve. Change your habits, it will feel weird at first, but in six months that you behavior of knowing how to make a great first impression on someone because you figured out what your routine is there or what processes you might use to do it will become authentic, and you won’t have to think about it anymore. You’ll just do it.
Alex MacLaren: I think when people are talking about authenticity, they’re often thinking about a narrative about a person and about whether or not they’re being tricked, or there’s something fake going on.
Tom Salinsky: I’m being manipulated, such a sly one.
Alex MacLaren: Yeah, or that, oh, no, that’s that’s not what she’s really like, or he’s actually like this. And I think, really, when we’re talking about the behavioral dimension of making a first impression – jwhat do I do, what person is standing at the door – really, I think the question people are asking is not is this behavior, authentic behavior, but they’re really asking is this motive, an authentic motive? And I think that’s one of the challenges we face at work in that we are being asked to do things as part of my job description, not necessarily something I would do outside this salary situation. And so I think people are often, on a sort of very gentle level, wracked with anxiety about this question all of the time, and we’ll be returning to it through this series of podcasts.
Deborah Frances-White: It’s a very important question for the first episode of this podcast, though, because some people may have tuned in thinking, “Am I going to learn to be a fake?” Because I think for some strange reason, people skills, we think we can not develop without being fake. So you wouldn’t say to your colleague, she speaks excellent German – but she’s not German. She learned that. She went to classes!
Tom Salinsky: You should have seen the first cake she tried to bake. Oh, my word!
Deborah Frances-White: She’s not an authentic baker. She’s studied that, she’s practiced. We understand if someone plays the piano, it is not authentic, is learned, and it is practiced. But we know the difference when we hear a player who is putting their full self in and their self-expression into the rendition. And when we hear somebody going 1234, 1234. And so we understand to get better at something, we might have to go through a phase where we’re counting it out. I don’t know why we have this strangeness around people skills and self-development skills, presentation skills, things like that. Because you we have developed the ones we’ve got – most of us were pretty feral when we were three, but we learned through peer group pressure and – don’t be like that you’re being you’re being a dick. You know, somebody would say that at school, and then you kind of figured out that if you wait, behave in certain ways, you’re going to get bullies to leave you alone or boys or girls to like you.
Alex MacLaren: And I think also there is an implicit compliment in bringing energy to an interaction in looking like you want to be there. You don’t have to say “Oh, I think you look great,” or “I’m glad I’m here.” It’s there in what you’re doing. And it’s there in your curiosity about the people you’re engaging with, regardless of where they sit on some kind of putative rank ladder. So your homework for this week listeners, okay, is about noticing things about the people you’re engaging with. This is about outward consciousness. Next time you have an encounter with a stranger, any kind of interaction with a stranger – regardless of whether they are the person you’re buying your coffee from, or the person you’re having a job interview with – think about their choices, think about what they’re saying, think about how ask yourself how they feel about things – not the innate things about their age, and gender, and race and how their status presents to the world – and assume that all of their choices are good choices. And ask yourself and maybe even ask them, why they’re making those choices and have that interaction. Be curious and interested in the people you’re talking to. And that will totally transform the first impression you’re making on them.
Deborah Frances-White: One way of looking at it could be – does this person want to be the host? Or does this person want to be the guest?
Alex MacLaren: Yeah, that’s brilliant.
Deborah Frances-White: Thank you, Alex. And now I feel like maybe I’m the guest, because I’ve been told I’m brilliant. But I think that’s a useful way for me to look at it, because I’m too often the host. And I think actually – I’m just working something out now, live on this podcast, listeners – where I make an excellent impression is with people who enjoy being guests. Where I overwhelm people or make people feel somehow that I’m the big energy in the room and they’ve just got to compete, or shut up till I leave, I think I am probably with natural hosts. So I am going to set myself homework, which is to ask myself, Is this taxi driver a host? Or is she a guest? That’s right, the taxi driver was a woman all along! #feminism.
Alex MacLaren: Thank you guys so much for joining me for this week’s You Can Talk to Anyone. And let’s catch up next week.
Alex MacLaren: So, I’m Alex as you know, and – are we podcasting?
Tom Salinsky: We are yes, I’ve been podcasting for a while. This is your first opportunity. Deborah of course is the podcast queen.
Deborah Frances-White: Well, let’s not exaggerate, Empress, that’s more appropriate.
Alex MacLaren: As you know, here I am not exactly kicking and screaming. But I like talking in rooms with people. And today we’re doing that, which is great. I want to really talk about what it means to talk together. And I thought a great way of kicking off would just be for us to talk about the first conversation we ever had. And I wonder if you can even remember it.
Deborah Frances-White: Oh, I can, I can remember it really well.
Tom Salinsky: I remember the occasion, certainly. Do you think you can remember the first conversation?
Deborah Frances-White: Yes, yes I can.
Tom Salinsky: Go for it.
Deborah Frances-White: So we were doing a comedy improvisation show. And by we I mean Tom and me with our comedy improv group, The Spontaneity Shop – that’s the origin of the name. And Alex had just graduated from Oxford. And turned up. Well, actually, I think, no, I think he’d graduated from Oxford and then Bristol Old Vic drama school.
Alex MacLaren: That’s right.
Deborah Frances-White: And he turned up, watched the show, and clearly had enjoyed the show and not just slunk off into the night, thinking I don’t wany anything to do with these guys.
Tom Salinsky: We must have been on form.
Deborah Frances-White: I think maybe he’d heard that we were good at improvising or had an improvisation company he might be interested in joining. And he approached us afterwards in the pub downstairs. It was the Canal Cafe in London.
Alex MacLaren: Yeah, it was
Deborah Frances-White: And we were talking to a man called Piers Torday who is now a children’s author. But at that time, was running the Pleasance a very famous venue in Edinburgh. And so we were trying to get a slot from him, Piers, and Alex had been to Oxford University together. And so when Alex came over with his CV saying, I’m very interested in joining your group or learning improvisation from you and being involved in this outfit. He said, Oh, hello, Piers. And they said, Oh, remember the days! And we thought well, we definitely want Piers to like us, because we need a slot at the Edinbrugh festival. And so we must, of course, include this old drinking buddy of Piers’s.
Tom Salinsky: And see, I don’t think I’d even put all that together at the time. Obviously, I’ve heard the story since but I’m pretty sure that when I was first introduced to Alex, I thought you were you’d come with Piers, you were also somebody important from a big Edinburgh venue that I needed to impress and be especially nice to.
Deborah Frances-White: Well, I often – if it’s not too rude of me to say – pick up on the finer details of the relationships between people
Tom Salinsky: That is not inaccurate.
Deborah Frances-White: So, I assessed very quickly what was going on here. And it was the fact that Alex had his literal CV in his hand…
Tom Salinsky: That was a clue
Deborah Frances-White: That was a clue. I was like, This guy really wants to be part of us. And I thought that made us look good. Because if one of Piers’s friends is sitting there going I’d love to be in group. i Could you teach me what you know. Could you include me in the shows? Then, clearly, this is a show worth taking to the Edinburgh Festival. Now, listeners, I need to tell you that we were not offered a slot from Piers Torday.
Tom Salinsky: Which I blame you for, Alex.
Alex MacLaren: I take all the hit. Yeah
Deborah Frances-White: Piers is doing very well. I went to see a play of his a couple of Christmases ago. But he did not offer us a slot despite the clear old school tie bonding that was going on.
Alex MacLaren: Disgraceful!
Deborah Frances-White: But we did end up with a wonderful Alex MacLaren in our lives.
Tom Salinsky: What was your take on joining us that night? Tell us the story from your point of view.
Alex MacLaren: I love this. This is a little bit like when you hear husbands and wives talk their own perspective on how they met and I feel it’s very like that. So I did bring my CV to an improvisation show and I’d never heard of you and I didn’t know your names. I don’t think I contacted you in advance because I don’t even think I had an email address at the time.
Deborah Frances-White: So, you just turned up to the show?
Alex MacLaren: No. I needed a good reason to meet up with somebody who I’d been going out with and I wanted to give her her clothes back and so she and I met and went to the theatre together.
Deborah Frances-White: Oh, so this was an ex-girlfriend and you had a bag of things that she’d left at your flat? I had no idea. Tell me more.
Alex MacLaren: And now that you mention it I remember that Piers was there – I’m so sorry Piers. But I also remember… am I wrong about this? Wasn’t Henrietta Finch there as well, who is now a very famous producer who runs the Donmar Warehouse.
Deborah Frances-White: Ooh… maybe what was Henrietta doing now? But she working for the Pleasance at the time?
Alex MacLaren: She was agenting and she was working for Marc Berlin who did end up being your agent I remember
Deborah Frances-White: Oh my god, yes! She introduced us to Marc Berlin and got us our first agent!
Alex MacLaren: I think so, that may be the connection. I’m gonna have to check with Henny now. And weirdly, that was the connection because I know Henny better than I know Piers, although we were all at college together. And I did take my CV because I just read a book about improvisation. And one of the formats in it was Gorilla Theatre, from Keith Johnstone, and your show Gorilla Theatre was in Time Out. And I think one reason why I got excited about your show. Now unusually, I think I then subsequently discovered you weren’t hosting it. Philippa Waller was. You were playing,
Tom Salinsky: I think we pretty much took it in turns, actually. I think it was shared out pretty evenly.
Deborah Frances-White: Before we started doing the DreamDate format.
Tom Salinsky: Yes, on DreamDate it was then you and me hosting then it pretty quickly became you hosting, Deborah.
Deborah Frances-White: And then that’s when I wanted to transition into stand up because I realized I like talking to the audience, a lot more than I like to pretending to be characters. And I just got to the point where I was like, it seems undignified when you’re out of your 20s to be pretending to be a 12 year old boy or a dog. I just was like, no. I’m aging out of this silliness. But I love talking to the audience. I loved that lively feel. And that’s when I decided I wanted to be a comic.
Alex MacLaren: Well, this is very much an origin myth for everybody. Also, particularly if what we’re talking about today, because I remember the show, and I remember it – and this is not by any means a criticism – it was not slick.
Tom Salinsky: That was deliberate.
Alex MacLaren: I know it was and I remember…
Tom Salinsky: A carefully cultivated lack of slickness.
Alex MacLaren: But so often, when I was seeing improv shows, I think I was seeing really, actually just marginal variations within a very, very slick format. And so I didn’t really see people taking the risk of going out and not really knowing what choices they were about to make.
Deborah Frances-White: That’s making me miss improv now.
Alex MacLaren: Yeah, no, happy days…
Tom Salinsky: How much?
Deborah Frances-White: You know, a little bit.
Alex MacLaren: But that vulnerability…
Deborah Frances-White: That moment of going out and really not knowing…
Alex MacLaren: No, I don’t think you miss that. Because I think actually part of what makes performers exciting to watch is that they are doing something new live. And that was what was exciting to me. And why not only did I want to be in the show, with the performers, I wanted to get to know you. And so it’s almost like I met you before I sat down and had a conversation with you. And I think that’s something that performers will often experience – people know them before they know the people.
Deborah Frances-White: And why was it important that Philippa Waller was hosting? Philippa Waller, by the way, who also now works in communications…
Alex MacLaren: Great genius.
Deborah Frances-White: Yeah. And runs a company called 4D Human Being. Why was it important for you to remember that?
Alex MacLaren: Well, because now I’ve worked with you two for 20 years. And I feel like it’s me and you two and our gang. And in fact, there were, I suppose maybe the first people I saw were Philippa, Chris Harvey John – hello, Chris! And people like Jacqueline Haigh, Gary Turner, all those other performers as well. But I suppose the tone was set by you two, because it was your show. And so that openness and that vulnerability was really, really important. I think it’s something that happens when people connect with friends. And so you do not need to be a performer or a comedian in order for those dimensions to really feature in the way you communicate with others and the way they communicate with you.
Tom Salinsky: And you quickly became a huge asset to us both as a performing company. And then also because we have a lot of teaching, and teaching is something which some people who are brilliant practitioners can also do. And it’s something that some brilliant practitioners struggle with. I’ve often said, I think it’s very difficult to be taught by a genius, because typically geniuses have no empathy. They can’t understand why it’s not just as easy for you as it is for them.
Deborah Frances-White: PE teachers!
Tom Salinsky: Yes, or maths teachers.
Deborah Frances-White: PE teachers were always good at sport at school. And that’s why they became PE teachers, but they don’t understand children who are uncoordinated, who are not fast at running and who don’t enjoy it. And so they tend to get rather cross and think you’re not making an effort. When in my case, well, I wasn’t making an effort, but that’s because I hated it and was no good at anything. So I think that that’s right, that sometimes if you have to learn something by rote, you’re a better teacher.
Tom Salinsky: But you Alex actually, I think took to improvisation very easily, at least from my perspective as somebody helping you through that, but also immediately became very, very good at conceptualizing it for other people.
Alex MacLaren: Well, that’s interesting. I think the reason why it came relatively quickly to me and certainly not completely is that it’s so much of Keith Johnstone’s approach, which was the school we were all schooled in and via Patti Stiles is that it actually faces the fear. And I am interested in how taking fear away, makes people better at things, makes them able to be their authentic selves. And yet, we can’t live in a world in which that is entirely taken from us. At least that’s not yet happened to me. There’s always something and we often have to function in our working lives, in which we’re under pressure, and we’re dealing with anxieties, and we’re dealing with targets we’ve got to hit and maybe even people with whom we don’t have the strongest kind of relationship, Maybe we are given tasks to do in terms of connecting with people, which we wouldn’t necessarily choose for fun. But that is something we all have to tangle with. And I think that at work particularly, there is fear, which is invisible, because it’s so universal. And so I’m really interested in actually at the moment, looking at the intricacies of it all. Because we’ve had some time now where we haven’t been able to be together and talk about the kind of challenges that we face in communicating. And I think in that time, I’ve really been missing it. And thinking about what it is that I miss. And also noticing which dimensions of my own instinct, experience and talent are actually transferable into other formats like the Zoom work we’re doing, which we’ve been getting very, very positive responses from. And I’m interested in actually asking more intricate detailed questions that we have time to in our everyday training sessions when we’re actually tackling client’s problems, specific challenges, rather than actually looking at the problems behind those challenges.
Deborah Frances-White: So I haven’t looked at any of your prep, and I know you’ve been thinking about this quite deeply. Can you give me some kind of insight into things we might be discussing in future episodes? Because I’ll be one of the discussers. So I’m very intrigued. I mean, in some ways, I want it to be a surprise,
Tom Salinsky: Like Christmas!
Deborah Frances-White: Yes. I’d like to know what’s… just the shape and feel – you know, when you feel your presents just before Christmas when you’re a kid? Could that be a PlayStation? Is this the shape of the new dress that I wanted, or whatever it is? So could you give me… could you let me feel your presents?
Alex MacLaren: Absolutely. Hey, feel away. It’s basically going to be short, we’re thinking something about 25-30 minutes. And what we’re going to do is each week, we’ll look at just one question about the nature of communicating and talking to other people. So it might be about making a first impression, first time you meet somebody and our feelings around that.
Deborah Frances-White: You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
Alex MacLaren: So it seems. We’ll be talking about what happens when we go too far. When we cross a line, and we only realize afterwards that we socially screwed up, what can we do about that? As well as what can we do to anticipate that challenge? I want to look at the different kinds of people that we engage with and which kind of person we are. I’m interested in introversion, as well as extraversion. And I’m interested in exploring what that concept means or what it means for when we’re communicating with others.
Tom Salinsky: And I want to look as well at what happens in different environments. Why is it that some people if you put them on a stage, in a big venue, some people absolutely come alive? And other people, the majority I would say of people diminish, and they are a bit overawed by the experience and they can’t do their best, they’re much more effective one on one. Why some people actually prefer Zoom interactions to being physically present with people and other people feel almost like they’re having to juggle with one hand behind their bag.
Deborah Frances-White: And can I add to that, I’d love to hear from some different guests, because some of my closest friends because I’m a stand-up comedian, are extremely introverted stand-up comics, who, if you put them on the stage at the London Palladium, or even the O2, they will have the time of their lives communicating with thousands of people at once. Then you try and chat to them in the bar and they’re looking at their shoes, they’re awkward, and you try and say that was a fantastic set. They go no, no, don’t say that. They love the applause. But they don’t want you to look them in the eye and tell them: you’re a great comedian. What’s that about?
Alex MacLaren: Yes, well, it’s absolutely fascinating. I mean, and in fact, it’s interesting to me because one actually thing which is interesting is how do we communicate with people that we do know as well as people we don’t and I want to explore the fact that I’m basically a kind of – somebody recently said to me, I don’t switch on until I’m in a room with people. And that’s true. But my partner Zoe is not like that at all. She likes company and she’s great company, but it uses her up in a different kind of way. So she would probably put it that she’s an introvert and I’m an extrovert and I find that exciting that people who can be so different from each other can want to be with each other more than anybody else on Earth. And that is part of what we want to explore – variety.
Deborah Frances-White: Similarly, I get my energy from other people. And that’s how I recharge my batteries. And then I need some time alone to process that. Tom absolutely can only be on charge if he’s alone – maybe if I’m there, that’s fine, but he doesn’t have to talk, he doesn’t have to be “on”.
Tom Salinsky: Yeah, I’m the Zoe.
Deborah Frances-White: But you’re good with people, Tom. You’re good at a dinner party. But at one of those freeform parties, where you just have to wander around talking to people with a drink, Tom will last half an hour. And then go. Once Alex, this is true. I had to, I had to, you know what I’m going to say?
Tom Salinsky: Yes, yes I do…
Deborah Frances-White: We went to a friend’s wedding. And the music was extremely loud. He was very fond of the bride and groom but didn’t know anyone else.
Tom Salinsky: I was not having a good time.
Deborah Frances-White: And after a while, he said, do you know I’m really not coping at all. I’m just going to have to go. I’ve said my pleasantries to the bride and groom. I’ve wished them well, I’m not enjoying talking to other people here. And the music’s really too loud. And I said, you’ve only just got here. And he said, I’m going to have to And I said right, okay. Don’t say goodbye. I will just pretend you’re here. And I’ll cover for you. And every time the bride – who absolutely loves Tom, and she calls him Tomlumbo because it’s a running joke about Columbo – every time she came by and said “Where’s Tomlumbo?” I’d go “He’s just over there” and I’d point to another man with dark hair, and she’d say “I must go over and say hello.” And then of course, she’d get waylaid, because she was the bride. A couple of times, I said he’d gone outside with the smokers because he needed fresh air. It was freezing cold, it was snowing, it was actually snowing. He didn’t. But every time I just would point in a direction, like “there he is!” I maintained that Tom was there for hours, I left at eleven and said, Oh, I think Tom’s just got ahead of me to the station to just make sure…
Tom Salinsky: Which I had by two and a half hours.
Deborah Frances-White: Yes, indeed. But I have had to cover for Tom because I didn’t want the bride to get hurt feelings. I have since – because that bride is no longer married to that groom – I have since, one night after we’ve had a few drinks to revealed this to her. She thought it was absolutely hilarious.
Tom Salinsky: But that’s what I find fascinating about this, that somebody will look at someone like you, Alex. And they’ll see you very socially adept, very confident, and they won’t know what is the situation that is your kryptonite, they will push your buttons. And I think people often say the same thing about me. It was interesting when I had a brief flirtation with doing close up magic, that an anxiety and nervousness that I hadn’t experienced for years suddenly came back. Because when I’m on stage, whether it’s talking at a conference or doing an improv show or anything like that, I’m on very familiar ground. But when you’re doing a magic trick, you will either do it right and it will be successfully fooling. Or you’ll screw it up and everyone will see straight through you. And that put a lot of extra tension on me and my hands were literally trembling as a result.
Alex MacLaren: Yeah, it’s funny, I get very anxious when I need to almost extract myself from the performance. Reading in church funerals makes my knees knock, because that’s not a time for grandstanding. Except in some cases – it all depends on who’s in the box. But…
Deborah Frances-White: If I die – I want you to grandstand away, Alex. I want a big performance.
Tom Salinsky: If you die? Is that in doubt?
Deborah Frances-White: Hey, all right. If I die before you, Alex, and you are able to attend the funeral…
Alex MacLaren: Well, even if I go first, I promise I’ll be there to read at your funeral.
Alex MacLaren: But what Tom’s saying about what goes on behind a confident front is really important, because I cannot speak for everybody. But so many times when you talk to people who seem powerful, they don’t feel powerful. When you talk to somebody who makes it look easy. They’re actually incredibly busy inside. And I think that that sharing of different perspectives on this is really important. When I say you can talk to anyone, I think that’s true. But it doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be the same way for everybody. So I’m not fixing broken people. I’m really interested in what it is that makes it possible for people to connect with each other. And I believe it’s possible for everybody.
Tom Salinsky: I’m really looking forward to this podcast. This is one of those podcasts that I’m helping to make because I want to listen to it.
Alex MacLaren: Good. It’s gonna be fun. And there’ll be once a week, please come and check in and engage as much as you can. Thank you very much, guys for coming to play.
Deborah Frances-White: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to delving into this subject more and also strangely, I think I might begin to learn more about both one of my oldest friends and work colleagues and my husband, the producer of The Guilty Feminist. I mean, I’ve already learned things from this conversation.
Alex MacLaren: There is no doubt you will. Thanks, guys. See you next week.
I sent the screenshot above to my colleagues at the Spontaneity Shop yesterday afternoon, and was genuinely excited about it. The little network symbol in an orange square is the long-awaited MS Teams Breakout Rooms button, and it is a strangely big deal for those of us who want to communicate more effectively.
At the Spontaneity Shop we come from show business, and something all actors know is that the best scenes are between two people. I’d go further and say that to a degree all scenes are between two people, even monologues – when Hamlet says ‘To be or not to be’ the other person in the scene is the audience. It’s true of a crowd scene: when Evita sings ‘Don’t cry for me’, the other person in the scene is Argentina.
This creates a real tension in many work meetings, because of the number of stakeholders that need to attend. Can six people have a conversation? I wonder. In the before times, clients (often quite senior people) would tell me how much they hated ‘standing in a circle of six strangers with a glass of white wine’. The reason is twofold: firstly, it is not dialogue, more a group of people taking stressful turns to make a speech; secondly, the more people present, the less time you can justly take to be – and importantly feel – heard.
So we’ve used Zoom’s breakout facility for every remote training session (unless clients insisted on the old Teams platform) because during the best meetings there is time to be heard. Breakouts are best in quite small groups, and we usually send people away in groups of only two. At a session last week, a client said that ‘the breakout conversations I’ve had in your workshops have been my most satisfying work interactions in 9 months’. Even with the vaccine rollout, remote participation is going to have a long legacy, and now – finally! – the most broadly used platform can make real dialogue possible as part of bigger meetings. It is the best thing to have happened to the technology since the first lockdown began.
Now go away and discuss this in pairs, then let’s feed back here in 10 minutes.
It’s 2019. You’re having coffee with a close friend, and within seconds of putting down your chocolate éclair she’s alerted you to the blob of cream at the corner of your mouth so that you can dab it away. With her it’s trivial, though it might amuse you both. But what if the meeting had been with a new client? What if you were at an interview for a job you needed? What if you were the person interviewing candidates, or on stage at a public event? A stranger would feel less permission to mention it; and in those circumstances we might obliviously carry on with the blob of cream in full view. I’m thinking of Rudy Giuliani, hair dye and press conferences here.
‘Oh would some power the giftie gi’e us, to see ourselves as others see us’. Well, careful of what you wish for, Robert Burns: 2020 has brought us Zoom. At every meeting there is a ghost at the table – as well as ourselves, an image of ourselves on the screen – and it slightly spooks us. At least Zoom, Skype and MS Teams show us the flipped, reflected image that we are familiar with from our bathroom mirrors (though they de-flip your image on everyone else’s screen). This mitigates the uncanniness slightly, but it is still a huge distraction. We are, permanently and literally, ‘self conscious’.
‘Hide Self View’ therefore should be a boon. If you float your cursor over the three dots in the top right corner of your image during a Zoom call, one of the options that drops down allows you to switch off your own image (see picture above). Others can see you, but you are not distracted by seeing yourself. You can send your ghost back to purgatory where they belong, and then you are 100% available for the other people you are engaging with. This option is still not available in MS Teams, so it is one of the things Zoom still does better than its competitors.
But I notice that it’s not easy to deliberately give up that power that Burns is yearning for – I know the benefits of being less self-conscious, but… if I can see what they are seeing it seems like I might be slightly more in control – I can be watchful of my image, notice and wipe away treacherous blobs of cream and hair dye. And I can feel myself accepting the ghost at the table.
Video Conferencing has been a salvation for all of us this year, make no mistake – but I am still questioning its default assumptions. Human interactions float on a vast collective ocean of trust; that we won’t exploit the advantage our perspective gives us over others. If our remote working patterns mean that we can take over the policing of our own dignity – muting the sound of our children in the background, switching off the camera because our pyjamas or bedroom wallpaper make us feel vulnerable – things will have changed. An implicit set of principles, ‘behave honestly, and be generous to others’, are subtly replaced by new ones: ‘beware, they might be out to get you – don’t get caught out’. And in a blended work environment, this subtle difference will matter even more.
I see clicking ‘Hide Self View’ as a way of setting the tone for the call – saying to myself ‘I am going to trust these people like I would if we were meeting in person’. Some readers will think this approach incompatible with their work culture, or for other reasons may not feel they have that freedom; some days (and with some people) I may not feel it myself. But it’s the future I’m looking forward to, so I’m doing it today.
Going on a course can feel slightly scary; to learn we must face and embrace our failures. At our workshops we make a virtue of this, and validate it – after all when any human is learning they are heroically heading on a new path, and ‘scary’ is how every adventure feels. When we work with corporate groups in-house, the shared experiences and mission can make for exhilarating discoveries, when a problem that was thought to be a personal weakness turns out to be a shared one, and possibly even a helpful indicator of more structural vulnerabilities, which the company can strengthen now they are exposed.
But for some learners, those in-house sessions may not be an option. Some people are sole traders; some businesses are still small enough to need people at the phone so that a group can’t be assembled. And some people’s work culture means that even with an external coach offering support and setting a healthy tone they won’t feel able to risk the openness that behavioural change needs.
At our open events for individuals you’ll be learning safely alongside total strangers who are not your commercial rivals – all facing challenges slightly different but with surprising common threads. In our calendar we now have sessions on Impact, Storytelling, Negotiations and finessing your Zoom software set-up. Have a look and book today!
Here’s a screenshot from today at 1114hrs GMT; arguably one of the most important videoconferences in history. This group is discussing the preliminary results of the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID vaccine trials. It’s wonderful news so far, but let’s assess some of their image choices.
Virtual backgrounds: Professor Andrew Pollard and his boss, Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson, are using badged images of the institution’s high-status environment. It’s partly brand-building, but it also signifies that they are there to represent other hardworking brains – a point that must feature in their media strategy, because they consistently reiterate it whenever they are on the news. Menelas Pangalos and his boss Pascal Soriot are also using virtual images of buildings (AZ’s new compound in Cambridge). In all these cases it helps to associate them with a specific geography in our minds (especially if they are not actually there physically).
Locations: Professor John Bell is in an office (rather too starkly sidelit by his office desk lamp), as are the members of the Government science team that Brits have come to know – Whitty, Vallance and Jonathan Van Tam. It doesn’t surprise me that uniquely JVT, who is by far the most gifted communicator of the three, has taken care to elevate the camera angle and ensure that everyone gets clear audio of his contributions through a headset – when he’s not on mute, that is.
The UK Prime Minister: the least professional in some ways; flat lighting, and even his tripod-mounted camera is too far away. But oddly it’s quite on-brand for Boris Johnson, who can show off the classical environment of the state apartments at Downing Street while being ‘adorably’ unconcerned about the trivia of electronic whatnots and thingumajigs.
To learn more about getting your Zoom style and approach right, book here.