Ian Whitworth looks at the worst five lines you’ll hear from your audience.

No offence, but you are one of the stupidest, ugliest people to ever pick up a copy of micenet magazine. That constructive idea you were thinking: it’ll never work. It’s just a BAD IDEA. Hey, no offence!

What is it that makes people come out with lines like these in meetings? As if the magic preface ‘no offence’ gives total diplomatic immunity to trample all over your ideas and feelings without anyone finding it rude or obstructive.
You mainly see it in boardroom-style presentations and pitches rather than conferences. It’s very common in creative presentations. You can present numbers or project management flow charts all day and people will nod in blind consensus – quite possibly because they don’t understand – but show them an ad, menu or a concept for their opening ceremony and it’s open season. Often based on purely personal hangups like ‘I just don’t like light blue’ or ‘it reminds me of clowns’. In their own mind they see themselves as constructive, so they feel they should cushion your pain with a little verbal Band Aid first.

Here are the Top 5 Most Soul-Destroying Meeting Lines a presenter will hear:

1. With all due respect…
2. No offence, but…
3. Here’s my two cents worth.
4. To be totally frank…
5. If I can just be devil’s advocate…

People who use these lines generally don’t care about making progress or improving people’s lives. They tend to fear any sort of change, and just like to exert whatever power they can muster up.
Number 5, in particular, will come from someone whose preference is do nothing, rather than something. Generally, any ‘devil’ line spells bad news for you. One you hear a lot in a pitch situation is where they elect to continue a dysfunctional business relationship because ‘better the devil you know’. Another from people who haven’t bothered to read the full proposal, is ‘but I’m sure the devil is in the detail’. Please people, this is the 21st century, keep your superstitious devil-talk to yourselves.

It’s partly because everyone has an opinion on subjective things like food or entertainment, based on holding the qualification of Bachelor of What I Reckon. The worst mistake you can make if you work in communication is to believe that you are the universal customer: that everyone likes what you and your uniform circle of friends like. If you’re dealing with a conference of asphalt paving contractors or a public event for pet owners, those people will think and do things that you’d never have dreamed possible. Your personal instincts will be wrong unless you’ve taken the time to get amongst those people in their native habitat.
This makes life tricky for those of us who deal in subjective services. No accountant or dentist has to put up with a second opinion from the client’s sister-in-law ‘who eats out a lot and really knows what people like.’
How to deal with them? Look for advice from Socrates, renowned Ancient Greek keynote presenter and thinker of smart stuff that still works. He taught that nobody persuaded anyone of anything with forcible opinions. Instead, he asked them a series of questions that led to the conclusions he wanted them to reach. With each question, he would observe their reaction, and tailor his next question.
Repeat until you reach the desired conclusion. Apparently he rarely failed to change the other’s mind. The power of the question over the power of giving an opinion prevailed.

The beauty of asking a question is that it changes the vibe in the room. If they’re asking the questions, they take on the power of the inquisitor, and suddenly you’re the one who’s in the dock. Turn that around with questions of your own, so you’re seen to be in charge of the situation. Ask your Devil’s Advocate diplomatically for their own advice on how to solve the issue at hand.
Almost always, they won’t have an alternative idea. Give them plenty of time to run with their line of negativity. Gently bring the topic back to the overall aim of the meeting. Do the others in the room want to make some progress, or just delay any decisions until the next meeting or the one after that?
Peer pressure always works better than a direct confrontation. And if that fails, pull out a pitchfork and jab them. m

Ian Whitworth leads a double life as a co-owner of audio-visual group Scene Change, and principal of creative marketing consultancy, A Lizard Drinking. He can be contacted on email –