Before we go any further, let me start by saying that you should (obviously) never talk to someone if the situation feels dangerous or, just as importantly, harass someone who wants to be left alone.
Now we’ve got that out of the way…
Most people love to talk. It usually takes very little to get someone who barely knows you to start telling you their life story, what difficulties they’ve faced that day or what they’re watching on Netflix right now.
I’ve had many fascinating conversations on long trips, learnt a lot and even made useful business connections.
As a strategist, it’s my job to understand people. There are many incredible tools available to help with this, from massive data sets like TGI Kantar to intimate focus groups and shop-alongs. However, it’s my belief (and my experience) that none of these can replace pervasive curiosity, everyday observation and conversation.
If you’re a strategist, especially if you’re just starting out, I’d highly recommend taking some of the following steps. These are great additions to my Strategy Secret Weapons.
Spend at least half of your time traveling or walking around with your phone away and headphones out. I know it sounds insane, but you’re not going to learn much about the world by listening to Camila Cabello on repeat and playing Candy Crush. You’ll learn so much about human behaviour and what’s going on in culture just by observing others going about their lives. And if they’re talking loudly enough for you to hear them, even better. It’s not eavesdropping if they’re practically shouting (this is a big advantage US-based strategists have – Brits tend not to be quite as loud unless they’re traveling to a football match.)
Talk to your friends and family about things you wouldn’t usually talk about. What does your great uncle think about climate change policy? How does your teenage cousin feel about cooking? Even when they’re people you know really well, you never know what insights you’ll gain by asking interesting questions.
Use long journeys to your advantage. When you’ve settled into your train, plane, boat or coach seat, say hi to the person next to you (unless they’re clearly giving ‘don’t talk to me’ vibes.) Most people really enjoy being asked about their lives and most people are surprisingly honest when talking to strangers. I’ve had many fascinating conversations on long trips, learnt a lot and even made useful business connections. The same thing applies if you’re in a quiet café or shop – ask whoever’s taking care of you how their day is going and see where it goes from there. Just this week I found out that the guy who works in my local grocery shop wants to train to be a dog handler at an airport, and is willing to travel 7 hours to do the training.
We increasingly live in bubbles and it’s very easy to create our own little digital world. As strategists, it’s vital that we keep curious in a very simple, human way, by keeping our heads up, engaging in a little harmless nosiness and giving others as much opportunity as possible to teach us about their experiences.
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