We have an embarrassing photo on our fridge.
It is of a dorky, mop headed teenager caught in a clumsy Peter Townsend pose – red Gibson guitar over shoulder, arm in full swing. The difference here though is that Townsend would be striking this pose a metre off the ground, propelled by a zillion watts of ‘Won’t get fooled again’, all to an appreciative capacity crowd of 50 or 60,000.
To say the photo does not convey the same energy and excitement is an understatement in the extreme.
The only similarity is that Townsend has a slightly bigger nose. Only slightly. But it looks like I’m having fun.
Yes it’s me on the fridge.
The photo in question came into our possession at a friend’s wedding some months ago. The couple had a neat idea of using old photos of guests as place cards. We all sat down to dinner and had to confess to our embarrassing pasts.
Terry and I were in several garage bands in high school. And Terry having vast amounts of musical talent is now a professional musician. I am more of a Salieri type. (See Amadeus, which tells Mozart’s story from the point of view of the court composer Antonio Salieri, who is presented as a caricature of musical mediocrity. Born with the desire but not the talent.)
We thought we were the hottest band around and were on the verge of telling our parents that we were going to cut school and tour the world. The only thing that stopped us was the nagging suspicion that we sounded tragic.
I decided we needed a gimmick to overcome this lack of appealing sound. And I thought I had found it one day. I had accidentally plugged headphones into the guitar socket of my amplifier and discovered a strange and curious fact. Rather than destroying the headphones, they acted like microphones and picked up all of the crackly sounds resulting from them being dragged over hair and snapped into place on my head. It appeared that speakers and microphones basically worked on the same principle. I had found my ‘hook’. In a sort of melding of Devo and Kraftwerk we could appear on stage wearing headphones, not over our ears but over our mouths like Top Gun oxygen masks. We’d make up some story about them being a way of conveying the pure message of the song without it being contaminated by the air between mouth and microphone. The effect would be mysterious and memorable. We would be propelled to lofty heights. We’d be a hit.
Fortunately it didn’t work as they kept sliding of as soon as you moved your head. And we went back to banging out ‘Smoke on the Water’ for hours on end.
I was not the only one to make the observation that speakers can work as microphones. I learnt the other day that Russia was bugging the American Embassy in Moscow for years using the speakers in the ‘free and welcoming gift of 20 Kolesnikoff 12 inch glorious black and white televisions with detachable dials’ (always hide a manufacturing fault as a feature and benefit) to the Americans.
They were listening to Yankee diplomatic prattle for years until someone tried the TVs and couldn’t get any sound.
Anyway, I digress.
From what I have observed in the last few months, we are a bit like the headphones. We are capable of listening and speaking. But we can’t do them at the same time. We have to consciously make the decision to unplug from speaking and plug into listening.
And listen we must. Because as soon as we think that we know it all and try to convince clients of that, we’ve lost all credibility.
We made a pitch to a client a couple of weeks ago and we won the business largely by pointing out that we could not deliver a definitive answer because from the information given. We’d have to make gross assumptions. And that was dangerous. We pointed out an example where that had happened to a competitor and it had ended in disaster.
In other words, we felt that we had not done enough listening to talk yet. And any agency that tells you that they have a definitive answer is kidding themselves.
Over dramatic? Not at all.
The answer does not lie in what we have to say, but in what customers have to tell us.
Now in an effort to tie in the beginning of this entry, consider the words of French composer Florent Schmitt when he said ‘When I don’t like a piece of music, I make a point of listening to it more closely’.
It is a good thing he never heard me playing the guitar, headphones over my mouth or not.
(For the paranoid: Actually your TV is listening to you now. They are all listening. And they have found a way to make your TV tube transmit pictures back. They can see what’s going on in your home. Remember this next time you sprint across the room in the altogether to rescue a pair of undies from the clean washing pile. How do you think they arrive at viewer survey numbers? Volunteers? Yeah right!)