Two prime ministers are having an important private meeting. Suddenly, the door is flung open and an official, in great distress, bursts into the room. The resident prime minister cuts him short: “John, remember rule number 6.” The man regains his composure, apologises and bows his way out of the room.
A few minutes later, another civil servant bursts into the room in hysterics. The resident prime minster cuts the drama short, saying: “Joan, remember rule number 6.” Again, a magic transformation. The lady calmly leaves the room.
This happens one more time and the visiting prime minster becomes curious. “Please share what rule number 6 is.” The resident PM replies: “Rule number 6 is don’t take yourself so damn seriously!” The visiting PM replies “What are rules 1 to 5?” The answer? “There are no other rules.”
This wonderful story is shared by Benjamin Zander, an American conductor, in a talk to educators where he implores them not to take themselves so seriously. We have recently seen this modelled on the world stage.
Michelle Obama, America’s First Lady, was seen dancing on stage to drive home her message about fighting childhood obesity with physical activity. It was fun, and worked for her young audience. Humour and the energy of dance connected in ways that normal messaging wouldn’t have.
In a recent interview, award-winning actress Helen Mirren surprised and delighted audiences when she sucked on a helium balloon and then delivered lines in a her new helium-altered voice! It had the studio audience in stitches. Mirren showed she was so comfortable in her skin that she could embody rule number 6, without it diminishing her chops as a serious award-winning actress.
Sadly, so much of the business of business has become invested with a moribund gravitas: we have put business communication in a dreary old suit and given it a briefcase to boot. Humdrum, tedious and eye- wateringly boring. We could all do with Benjamin Zander’s imploration to not take ourselves so seriously!
Rule number 6 is a way of being light-hearted and optimistic even while doing important work and your best for a better world.
In every village the locals would come out and present the Dalai Lama with gifts: a handful of rice, an old book – whatever they had.
One of the journalists became angrier and angrier as he saw people who had practically nothing gifting what little they had and the Dalai Lama graciously accepting every offering.
In the final village of the tour, an old lady who lived under a tree was in tears because she had nothing to give the Dalai Lama except the clothes she was wearing. Then she started digging furiously at the foot of the tree and carefully unearthed an old, fraying, dirt-ridden dress; her wedding dress from many years ago.
With tears still pouring down her wizened cheeks, she presented this to the Dalai Lama. He gracefully clasped his hands together and bowed humbly while accepting this gift.
The final straw
This was the final straw for the journalist. He exploded with rage and challenged the Dalai Lama: “Why on earth would you take a wedding dress from this poor lady?”
The Dalai Lama replied: “I accept the dress and the gifts not because I need them, but because my people need to give them.”
The Dalai Lama had demonstrated his mastery of empathy. He cared for his people; connected with them and understood they wanted to experience the dignity of giving him a gift. But most of all, he had the courage to act, even if it felt counterintuitive.
American marketer Seth Godin, in a recent blog post on empathy, said: “Dismissing actions we don’t admire merely because we don’t care enough to have empathy is rarely going to help us make the change we seek. It doesn’t help us understand, and it creates a gulf that drives us apart.”
Every day we have that same choice: we can assume we’re doing the right thing and create gulfs; or really get inside the hearts of the people we’re relating to, and build bridges with empathic words and actions.
Please comment – I love hearing from you.
One of my holiday jobs as a student in London was to count people entering Harrods. We operated in shifts in crack teams of two with a clicker and a clipboard. It was mind-numbing, but watching nearby street vendors fascinated us.
Every day, two men would set up on a pavement nearby and display a range of perfumes. They would cheerily spruik to passersby, claiming the goods were genuine but suggesting they had fallen off the back of the truck.
They quickly attracted a handful of prospective buyers, which rapidly swelled to a crowd. The seductive bargains and enthusiastic buying did the rest.
This performance happened a couple of times a day, and we noticed that the first two customers were always the same people. They would appear from the subway, eagerly try and buy lots of perfume, and disappear.
Later, when the crowds thinned, they would return discreetly, slip the perfumes back, and repeat the ruse. The con worked every time!
Why? Humans are hugely context-sensitive creatures, and we’re highly attuned to context cues. It explains why you see people wearing business suits in the city and swimsuits at the beach.
The two ringleaders were masters of context. The general heuristic rule is that if many others are doing it, it must be good: a persuasion principle known as “social proof” (Cialdini and Goldstein 2004). The salesmen had set up the perfect context with rigged social proof and it worked every time!
We feel we are less likely to make mistakes if we follow the majority. This is both the weakness and the strength of social proof. It does provide a convenient shortcut in our time-poor and busy lives, but can also leave us vulnerable to hucksters.
On the other hand, when we set out to influence, it does not have to be complex models, mind-numbing data or thrilling explanations. But simple, humble social proof will work every time. The proof is not in the pudding: it’s in the social proof.
Please comment, I love hearing from you.