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The importance of being unimpressive

The importance of being unimpressive

Being unimpressive is an underrated skill for a strategist

Is it immodest to say that one has a talent for being unimpressive? Of course it is. It’s an arch, rhetorical humble-brag of a question. Nonetheless…

Being unimpressive is an underrated skill for a strategist. It’s not something that you tend to get feedback on. No one makes a point of positively reinforcing unimpressive behaviour. It would be strange for your line manager to encourage you to exercise restraint and be less impressive over the next twelve months.

Self-assessment is another matter.

Here’s another strange effect of the pandemic. I’ve been regularly confronted with evidence that, no matter how unimpressive I’d like to think I am, I could be doing better if that’s not a contradiction in terms.

I have interviewed dozens of people in the line of duty during the last eighteen months. I’ve interviewed my clients, my clients’ clients, my clients’ customers, and my clients’ colleagues. There’s nothing unusual about that. However, it is unusual to conduct so many interviews by video rather than face to face. And so it’s also a novel experience to watch these interviews on playback, rather than just listen to an audio recording.

What I see in these videos is that I’m not as unimpressive as I’d like to think I am.

Being unimpressive - Zoom interview screenshot
Giving it my best shot at being unimpressive

The best chat show and podcast hosts are unimpressive. Their role is to ensure that their guests impress, not them. The guest must be more interesting than the host. The host’s job is to create an environment in which their guests will be as candid, as vulnerable, as enlightening, and as generous with their stories as possible. A good chat show host knows how to light the fuse and shut up. A good chat show host knows when to stay shut up and leave a pregnant pause for their guest to fill with insight.

The same skills apply when you’re doing primary research. The voice of your source is much more important than yours.

The transcription software I use tells me the percentage of interview time for which each participant was talking. And there is a 75:25 rule for the best interviews. Something hasn’t quite clicked if I’ve done more than a quarter of the talking.

No one likes watching themselves on video. But it’s doubly cringeworthy when you watch yourself being overeager, jumping in too soon to make an observation, just as your interviewee was about to say something profoundly useful. It’s obvious on playback that they were about to do so, but it wasn’t in the heat of the moment. That’s why the discipline to leave potentially uncomfortable pauses is so important. The answer to the whole project might have been about to drop into my lap.

There’s always room for unimpressive improvement.

This post was partly inspired by listening to the excellent Rule Of Three podcast. Comedy writers Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris chat with a comedian or comedy writer about his or her favourite piece of comedy. At it’s best it is funny (obviously) and very useful. These people are experts on narrative, aesthetics, use of language, structure, and the importance of delivery. I’ve saved many quotes to use in my work.

But it can also be frustrating at times. Three’s often a crowd when it comes to experts, particularly when they are (unwittingly) competing to impress each other. Transcribing an episode to source good quotes reveals that guests do fifty percent or less of the talking. Time and again a guest is interrupted just as they are about to share some valuable knowledge. It was listening to cartoonist Moose Allain struggling to be heard on what he admires about Gary Larson’s Far Side that put the idea of being unimpressive in my head. The podcast hosts are very impressive but they could do with being less so on occasion, I thought.

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