Taken Hostage In Cannes

(Originally published on StrategyOnline.ca, June 21, 2014)

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Last year, I wrote a blog post for strategy on the less-appreciated sessions that are conducted every year in the basement of the Palais. This year, despite the undeniable charms of Sarah Jessica Parker, Courtney Love and other celebs headlining in the Grand Audi, I once again plumbed the depths of the Palais to see what I could find in the small workshops and Master Classes that Cannes Lions has to offer, and one immediately caught my eye: What can you learn about communication skills from a hostage negotiator?

The hostage negotiator in question is Simon Wells, a former U.K. policeman, who worked for several years in Iraq and Afghanistan. From 2003 to 2006, both regions were the scenes of a rash of kidnappings, many committed by Al-Qaeda, and Wells was the man they sent in to secure a hostage’s release – talking to terrorists with effective and persuasive communications techniques.

While qualifying that his talk was a précis of content normally delivered in a week-long workshop, Wells had some fascinating advice for effective communications – and counter-intuitively, much of it involves just shutting up and listening.

Last year, Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin of Swim did an excellent workshop on “Extreme Listening,” and in many ways Wells picked up where the Swim workshop left off. Interestingly, many of the techniques he employs apply to business communications, but perhaps more profoundly, to marketing and advertising communications as well.

Wells breaks his techniques into three distinct stages, and they’re surprisingly similar to the steps a salesperson might take: understanding the subject, communications and closing. Every step emphasizes listening over talking.

The first step is understanding the subject – what can you tell about your subject by observing him or her? How they dress, their natural language and vocabulary, their body language, their cultural background or other evident affiliations – what one might call sizing your subject up. We do this often in our industry of course, but great communicators have the ability to do it like a hostage negotiator, intuitively, and in real time. It’s a quality that the ivory towers of marketing and advertising often don’t value enough, perhaps because unlike big data, it’s tough to quantify.

The slightly-chubby Wells asked people to guess, by his appearance, his accent and so on, what sorts of things he might believe in, what activities he might like or what foods he might enjoy. Reaching for something that might demonstrate my understanding of British culture while perhaps being amusingly obscure, I suggested “prawn-flavored crisps.” After an engaging diversion about how artificial and unwholesome that kind of snack is, Wells admitted that yes, he did like prawn-flavored crisps.

The second stage, communicating, is again listening focused: understanding, encouraging and empathizing. “The more they talk, the more you learn,” he said. By way of illustration, he showed a hysterically germane video, “Woman with a nail in her head,” that illustrated some of the concepts he was talking about. Worth a watch.