29 November 2018
I am Africa!
By Richard Pooley
“What do you do?” you are asked by the person you’ve just met. How do you answer? Does it depend on who is asking? Perhaps a person you want to impress… or seduce. Do you take note of how they ask it? Or when? Maybe a grudging acknowledgement that it is your turn to speak after they have given what feels to you like a ten-minute presentation of their job. Does the context (sitting next to the questioner at the start of a long-haul flight, or at a party with only a minute at most before you are interrupted) change your reply?
During thirty-nine years, first as a language teacher and later as a management trainer, I have had to listen to thousands of answers to this question, perhaps as many as fifteen thousand. Yours might have been one of them. You know the kind of thing. It’s the beginning of a course. The trainer (me) asks you and the other participants to “give a self-introduction… who you are, what you do, why you’re here.” At first, I used to hate the time lost to this exercise. And the energy that it so often sucked out of the room. But I soon learned the tricks needed to keep everyone’s attention and quickly realised just how important it was to have answers to questions two and three. How can you teach anyone anything if you don’t know what their current level of knowledge is likely to be, nor what they want to learn? In the past five years I have been able to know a lot about my students before I meet them, thanks to the profiles nearly all of them have on LinkedIn. Even so I have persisted with the self-introduction routine. Why? Because of how much extra I learn when listening to people introducing themselves: “It’s the way they tell them!”
In fact, the way we tell our stories, the way we sell ourselves to the world, is dire. It is a vital social skill and yet so few of us are any good at it, whatever our age, sex or nationality. Of all those thousands of self-introductions during my professional life I can barely recall a handful.
The most recent one was the Head of External Communications at an eastern European airline. Not that Janis gave that as his title. He stood up in front of his senior management colleagues at the beginning of my Communication Skills for Leaders course and said:
“I lie for my company. I am here to steal your ideas, Richard, and make myself a better liar.”
He then sat down. When I last checked he is still employed by the airline in the same job and the airline continues to prosper.
Five years ago the Russian-speaking Latvian boss of a fast-growing company was on a sales presentation course with me. He had opened large showrooms in Riga and Moscow and had tried for months to persuade owners of commercial property in London to rent him a showroom. To no avail.
“What exactly do you do, Aigars?” I asked.
“My company designs and sells top-quality carpets and rugs.”
Say that slowly in a heavy Russian accent and you may understand why the other participants laughed and why the owners of empty showrooms in Chelsea were unwilling to lease their space to Aigars. I got him to switch to selling “rugs and carpets” and he was renting a showroom in Mayfair by the end of the year.
One self-introduction stands out in my memory above all others, even though I was witness to it some thirty-five years ago. Jean-Philippe had listened intently to the other five businessmen in his group at one of our London training centres, smiling all the while. They were French, German or Italian and told of their work in marketing, finance or R & D in various European companies. They were all white. He was black. And huge. When it was his turn, he stood up and back, towering over all of us. He thrust his right arm out:
“I am Africa!”
Using his left hand, he waved his arm over different parts of his body. Above his extended right arm:
“West Africa and the Sahel,”
Over his stomach:
“Congo. Too, too big.”
Over his crotch:
He pointed to his right armpit and paused:
“Gabon. My country.”
Another pause as he looked around at all of us, that smile now broader than ever, his finger still pointing at his armpit:
“And you are all thinking: ‘Here, it is too, too hot. And sweaty. And too, too smelly.’ And you are right, my friends! This is where I work. For Shell in north-west Gabon. The armpit of Africa! I am responsible for maintaining the oil pipeline. Through to the coast. My biggest problem?”
It wasn’t a rhetorical question. When the rest of us realised this, several possible answers came tumbling out. As did further questions. Jean-Philippe continued to beam and why not? He had succeeded in doing what few of us ever achieve: making others genuinely interested in what we do for a living.
I am not suggesting that such a long and theatrical self-introduction should be a model for us today. Outside the training room it would look and sound bizarre (though Jean-Philippe did admit that he had done it once before at the start of a presentation at Shell’s Head Office, with equally positive results). But it illustrates what is required for self-introductions to be memorable: making it relevant to your listener, playing on their likely prejudices, telling a story, using visual and concrete language. It doesn’t have to be long. Indeed, less is often more. Say something puzzling or surprising which forces your questioner to ask another question. “I lie for my company,” for example.
What do I say in response to “What do you do?”? I’m now a member of the Used-to Generation; as in “I used to run a management training company” or “I used to work in the overseas aid field.” Only those my age pursue these any further. “I occasionally write articles for an online weekly magazine called Shaw Sheet” has yet to excite anybody much (sorry, ed.). “I recently finished a novel” dies as soon as the listener learns it has yet to find a publisher. “I manage the copyrights and trademarks of a literary estate” also lit few fires until I tried a new version last year: “I part-own Sherlock Holmes. Just in the USA. And only until the copyright runs out on the last stories in four years’ time.” Worked a treat.
So… What do you do?