By Poppy C- Spain
I believe in first impressions. I reckon I could count the number of times my first impression of someone was wrong on the one hand, so I credit myself with being a good judge of character. The main reason people misjudge others is a lack of attention. As humans, we’re all pretty self-obsessed. So, when we meet new people, our focus is generally facing inwards when it should be looking out. When we allow our focus to face this way, we miss things like body language, expression and other quirks that reveal who people are. I can’t say that I haven’t spent any time wondering what people are thinking about me, but I know it’s much more productive and interesting to focus on them. It’s amazing how much you can learn about someone from things they didn’t mean to tell you.
That’s why people watching is great. It’s always been a fun pastime for me, but it became much more interesting after I did a writing course at Faber. Our teacher for the day told us to go out to lunch and watch people, but instead of just observing them, he said we should make up stories for them. It may sound silly, but I’d never thought to do this! I would just look at people and analyse them, wondering what they’re story was but never writing it myself. To be honest, I’d often feel sad when I stepped off a tube knowing I’d never find out the story of the interesting-looking character I’d just seen. It didn’t occur to me that I could try and piece this together myself, This is effectively what we do when we’re building personas. We’re artificially constructing an understanding of our audience who are ultimately real people.
Understanding people is the main reason I chose a career in advertising. When we’re set loose in Adland, I want to create things that become a part of people’s culture, their life, I want my words to seep into their psyche. And this requires climbing into someone else’s skin, walking a mile in their shoes and looking through their eyes; I need to know what they’re thinking and feeling. That’s why I watch ‘What Women Want’ and wish that it was me with mousse in my hair, mascara in my eyes, wearing laddered stockings, getting electrocuted by a hair dryer in my bath. If you haven’t seen this film, my previous statement will seem totally bonkers so, to confirm, this results in the main character (Nick) being able to hear what women are thinking. In an ideal world, there’d be no electrocuting (because that’s no fun) and I’d hear everyone’s thoughts. Just imagine the insights!
The fact is that sadly I (and as far as I know, nobody else) can’t hear what everyone else is thinking. Instead, we rely on observations and assumptions (which is why paying attention and developing understanding are so important). Ultimately, I think these are successfully applied when you experience empathy. I’m also pretty sure that empathy is a crucially important skill to develop as a creative. And as we progress through our portfolio briefs, I become more and more convinced of its power.
I like to think that I’m pretty good at empathising, or at least understanding what people are trying to say, but I’m certainly no expert. I rely on instinct and intuition, and I definitely make mistakes. A conversation with another SCA student (Mr Joey Sare) this weekend confirmed that I still have a lot more to learn when it comes to understanding people. We spent some time chatting about human behaviour, exchanging facts (mostly from him – thanks, Joe!) and thoughts on the subject, before applying our conversation to a small group of half-cut twenty-somethings sat on the table next to us. We tried to read them using simple observations, concocting a story about their relationships with each other and an idea of what kind of individuals they were. It was a lot of fun, but it reminded me that I need to take people watching a little more seriously and spend more time collecting what I’m going to call ‘People Dots’.