Hunter S Thompson wrote in Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ’80’s
The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason
I think he was putting a positive spin on it.
To succeed in the business of media I had somehow always believed I could play by a set of rules that fitted my ethics and world-view. A world of fairness and justice. Well. Let me count the ways that I was wrong. And please, read this to your children if they are thinking of going into the “Biz”. They need to know.
You are your pitch.
Most of what I do is pitch. Mostly my ideas, but at the heart of it, mostly myself, as the two are inextricably linked. To be honest, I’ve always thought I was very good at it. However, when I have got it wrong – and that’s sadly more often than I would care to think about – well, it has been nothing short of a catastrophe. Seriously, a catastrophe. (Once I walked out of a full boardroom of 25 people, stopping in mid-sentence. I had blanked out, and simply walked out. It was so bewilderingly unbelievable to the CEO and chairman that it actually worked in my favour, but that’s a story for another time…)
So let’s meander through some more of my failures, because this is where I learnt some of the top tips about being the boss, being a psychopath and being me – and how those three things sometimes need to be one and the same thing.
I recently read the book Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff. What I realised early on from the book was that my pitch failures, my lack of closing deals and my hideous rate of return from clients, was all because I wanted to play the role of the “nice guy”. And really that just translates to wearing a “kick me” post-it on my forehead in the media corporate hierarchy. One of the light-bulb moments was when Klaff mentions laughing at some unfunny joke the head honcho is pummelling you with. I mean, literally just a few days before, I had been reduced to a circus seal slapping my fins and bouncing the ball for everyone’s entertainment in the board room – and all the time smiling to see if they would throw me some stinky mackerel.
Now, you’d think from all that bruising I would have realised I was a battered and bullied victim. That at some stage I would have gone, enough! No more! But I truly hadn’t seen what I was doing to myself in that light. Let me give you a little more detail. As the meeting began and I was saying, “Hello, my name is…” I was interrupted by Mr BigWig who, without even feigning interest said, “Right, give me your three best pitches. Go.” I hadn’t even thought I was pitching. I thought I was having a first round “friendly chat”. Suddenly I was paddling backwards from a great white with me as the main course. The reason I was suddenly prey? Because I believed I needed him, and he knew it.
#1 Neediness is repulsive.
I smiled, and dived into a winning idea (and really, trust me it’s a winner). Before I got ten lines in he looked up from his phone and said, “That’s your best?” Anyhow, I rallied. I pitched an idea which I know he liked, he countered with, “We’re already doing something similar”. So it went. When it was over I felt like I had been put in a washing machine. A wet, muddled and broken mess. So muddled in fact, that I even remember thinking to myself, I really came back from the brink there. But what had actually happened? I was chum, the stinky mess they throw in the water for the sharks. In fact, I was what was left when a seal is eaten and then pooped out in False Bay. Yes, exactly. Who wants to touch that?
So jump forward to reading Klaff’s book, and in a flash of insight, I suddenly saw just how I had allowed myself to be bullied (not just by this BigWig but countless before) and countless times. At first I was incandescent with rage. Mainly at myself that I had even gone so far as to believe my own spin that the interaction wasn’t a complete failure (how had I sold myself a Fabergé Egg that was really just a well glittered turd?). The outcome? From the very moment he had me performing (obeying his “now GO!”) I had put a nail in the coffin of ever getting work from his company. Not his fault. Mine. No work – ever. Why? Because I needed him and he knew it.
No-one wants what they can have.
Oh, believe me there is no other way to dress this up. Neediness is as attractive as Ebola. Every single pitch I have won has been where my need for the work has been from low to zero. In fact, let me recount how the biggest deal of my life played out.
I walked into an office of two MajorPlayers who I had pitched to before (and many times since) and I simply couldn’t have cared less whether I got the deal or not (I was recently involved ,and frankly, I wasn’t thinking with my brain at all, if you see what I mean). In fact, I had no pitch at all. Nothing. I had no slides, I had no documents. I didn’t even have a speech. I said, I have “X”. That was the sum total. The two MajorPlayers looked at each other. They nodded. And I got 22 million without much more discussion. Yup. Now I could drop the microphone and say, “like a boss”, but as I had no clue what I had done right (or how to repeat it) I was in serious danger of never getting another one like it! (Of course the project was good, but my delivery made it completely irresistible – especially when my obvious lack of concern was signalling, who else has he got interested if he seems this unconcerned by US?)
So, just in case you are not following:
If you can genuinely let go of any need or desire for the work, well, basically, you have a godlike power.
I however, am a highly charged, emotional creature – a “Creative” they call us. It’s in my fucking DNA to be needy. And because you can’t cheat this moment of letting go, I have developed a few methods of forcing this state. One of these is a death meditation. Yup. You focus on the moment of your death. I try and be really vivid about it. For me, sometimes I picture a car accident. I have been thrown out of the window, lying broken on the asphalt and bleeding out. Arms mangled, I can smell oil and hear sirens. I can see my phone lying crushed near me, and I imagine if I could reach it – who would I call? What would I say? You get the picture. The key is to genuinely shrink the value of the pitch into something completely inconsequential. If you go deep enough, it will inform your body language, your focus and your tone. Thing is, you can’t fake it, so you need to find the way to genuinely access it.
#2 Feelings are not facts, discount all of them.
Some lucky people don’t have to go to these lengths though. There is a fantastic book called the Wisdom of Psychopaths that details exactly why the traits of psycho- or sociopaths are often (and mostly) found in the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies. You can read here why so many CEO’s are psychopaths. People who never, ever let their emotions affect their decisions get what they want. The rest of us? We get angry, we get bullied, maybe we sometimes get even, but we often don’t end up with what we want. You see there are lots of very good traits associated with this pathology that have nothing to do with the Hollywood version of what we understand a psychopath to be.
So here is the second big thing that you should teach your kids. Sure emotions might be your “truth” and you’re allowed to feel them, and all that. But if you want to win, then never ever base your actions on your emotions, whether good or bad.
You know who is perhaps the best example? Nelson Mandela. The man who bent an entire nation to his will. When making the biographical film NELSON, Mandela redrawn I interviewed John Carlin (he wrote Playing the Enemy, which later became the movie Invictus). Carlin said it best, that Mandela’s genius lay in his ability to ignore what he felt, and act strategically – he manipulated people through the most precise control of his interactions. What he personally felt was simply not relevant for what needed to get done. I cannot stress how powerful this is.
I became obsessed while making the movie to find footage or stories of when Mandela lost it. I mean really, genuinely lost the plot. Only one person, and off camera, would even admit that it had happened (and I can’t disclose, so the myth of total control will become apocryphal). Oh, he was good at getting angry. He put de Klerk down like a puppy that widdled on the carpet at CODESA. But, as always, it was measured, controlled and – most importantly – achieved the outcome he wanted. Why?
#3 it’s all just a game.
So here is the final nugget. It’s a game. It’s the most personal, serious, emotional and un-fucking-fair game there is, but it is just a game. Once you see this, then you are ready to see yourself not as a pawn, but as a player. And once you start to play, well, then amazing things really do tend to happen.
The first realisation is that it truly isn’t personal. Emotions really aren’t helpful. And bullies like Mr BigWig are easy to deal with, by saying, “Sorry, there’s been a misunderstanding, this meeting is just for us to get to know each other.” When he smiles, looks at his watch and says, “Well, I only have fifteen minutes.” You can give a genuine laugh, and respond, “Excellent, cos I have to go in ten.”
Then go. Trust me. Just… trust me.
Brett Lotriet Best is the Founder & Creative Director of EdenRage Media, check out their Immersive Media work at www.edenrage.tv.