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Trying...to be specific
I have had the pleasure of interviewing her before but never in person.
The union was joyous, warm-hearted but also bloody refreshing.
I deliberately use that word, refreshing, because being with someone who can be very specific in their stories and examples is rare. Being with someone who knows their views, and knows what they don’t know as well, and will voice them? Ever rarer.
A large part of my job is helping people tell their stories or elicit their true feelings or views about something. But I was also doing this in my private life and conversations long before I stepped into a radio or TV studio. And often left wanting.
Worry not - this is not about to be a predictable rant about social media pile-on fears stopping people from speaking their mind.
Nor am I about to lament the rise of spin and PR machines surrounding politicians, business leaders, and celebrities. Both are sadly some of the reasons for true thoughts not being voiced - but enough words have flown about these issues.
Instead I wanted to share my observation that a lot of people struggle to share key information about their lives in a way which helps the person listening know anything specific about them - beyond platitudes and what I would call easy content.
Within minutes, Chimamanda were talking about constipation. I s*** you not. One of her bug bears about pregnancy when she had her daughter, now seven years old. Wonderfully specific. (We also talk about a second type of constipation too - the creative kind - with much laughter. You need to watch to understand).
And then came. a story about her mother’s funeral and a Church minister using the ceremony to lament Chimamanda’s work. Again I s***t you not. Having only touched upon pregnancy and her feelings to do with faith, I was in her life. Far in.
The result? We connected. Fast. Yes she is a storyteller by trade - but we all are in our own ways - or rather can be and should think of ourselves as such.
I remember when I wrote my book, It’s About Bloody Time. Period. and a male MP asked me which period of time I had penned my thoughts on. I swiftly replied: “The one in my pants.” The look on his face will live long in the memory and hopefully the topic of my book made a lasting impression.
People too often confuse intimacy and not wanting to say anything to disrupt the perceived conversational rhythms around us with not saying anything at all. We are also increasingly out of the habit of verbally expressing ourselves, as the phone call dies and text continues its dominance.
I have written before on here about my loathing of the question - ‘how are you’ - and how pointless it has been rendered.
But today - as someone who keenly watches how people do and don’t answer questions - and tries to find ways to help bridge those gaps - I wanted to share my experience with Chimamanda in a bid to inspire more folk to say something specific when asked questions in their day to day lives.
Find a story that illustrates what you are saying - and don’t let it last too long. If asked about your day - think of one thing specifically rather than doing a long general run-down. And if you don’t know what you think of something? Just say and then perhaps ask a question you really want the answer to. Rather than trying to fudge it.
Beth Mead - England’s Lionesses star forward and golden boot, just named the BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year, came on Woman’s Hour last week. As a fellow Northerner, I felt it was going to be good from the moment she bounced into the studio. I love straight-talking people but she also went there.
When asked about the upcoming World Cup in Qatar - as a gay woman - and an avid football fan - she didn’t flinch or mince her words about the men’s tournament being held in a country where homosexuality is illegal. She said she would not show her support for this year’s competition. She said the ban on homosexuality in Qatar was “the complete opposite to what I believe and respect”.
“It’s not something I will be backing or promoting. It’s disappointing in the sense that there’s no respect on a lot of levels, even though it’s a game of football.”
Specifics are key for connection and memorable meetings. It’s all in the detail you might be shying away from. Or only get to right at the end of a night or a bottle of wine when everyone is too sloshed to remember what you finally said.
One of my dearest friends used to save the most interesting part of her day or life right for the end of our chats. She would casually at the end of our meeting just slide in that she had started seeing someone or something horrific someone at work had said.
As a news journalist through and through - who searches for what we call the news-lines in every on-air and off-air exchange - I urged my pal to bring the good stuff to the beginning of our chats. It’s now a very good natured joke between us and she beautifully obliges.
This week another interview - with some major news-lines as we say in the trade - caught millions of people’s attention: Jennifer Aniston opened up about her years of gruelling IVF for the first time and coming to terms with not having a child. But again it was the specifics that brought the horror to life - when she talked about mainlining Chinese tea and “throwing everything at it”.
I particularly appreciated her reference to surviving this process being like making a little mosaic: “it gets blown apart and then somehow gets put back together into this beautiful mosaic”.
Quietly stunning. Very specific. Zero constipation - creative or otherwise. Let’s all aim for the same. Even when discussing the very toughest things in life.
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