Stephen Bayley became famous as an authority on style and design when Sir Terence Conran chose him to head up the Boilerhouse exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Britain's first permanent exhibition on design. He then went on to become the first chief executive of Britain's Design Museum. He is now a celebrated, outspoken broadcaster and critic, author of 12 books, and consultant on design and presentation to companies such as Ford and Coca-Cola.
Erik Hansen talks to Stephen about his book, coauthored with Roger Mavity, titled Life's a Pitch ... How to Be Businesslike with Your Emotional Life and Emotional with Your Business Life.
tompeters.com asks …
Stephen, what’s the main idea here?
SB: Well, Edmond Burke once said that a clear idea is another name for a little idea. I’m not sure there’s a single clear idea here, but there are a number of them. I suppose one way you could put it is that I’ve got a reputation—if that’s the right word—for knowing about design. I’ve written a lot about the design of fridges, cars, furniture, and buildings. But to me, what we’ve written here is almost the ultimate design book, because it’s about how to design yourself, that is, how to create a winning and attractive personality and how to get to “yes” in an argument or presentation. So, the book is about the self—communication, self-presentation, and how we create impressions. It’s a book about design, but design that is applied to people and ideas—not to objects.
That’s one thing the book is about. I had a collaborator on this project, Roger Mavity. He wrote one half of the book, too. He’s a guy who spent a lifetime in advertising. The book came about when Roger, who I’ve known for many, many years, said, “You know, no one has ever written a book about how to do a pitch.” He meant it in the way you do it in the advertising business. You go to some terrible, badly lit meeting room at an airport hotel and you do a pitch with show-and-tell and flip boards—nowadays PowerPoint—to try to win the dog food account.
I said to him, “Well, that’s very interesting. If you want me to help you write it, of course I will. It is interesting that no one has ever done it.”
I waited a little, and then I thought that yes, we could certainly do it. But then I also thought that—and that’s where the title came from—actually, isn’t all of life just a pitch? I mean, everything is about the transfer of power, about wanting to win acceptance, about getting your own way. So it’s not just about winning the dog food account. Everything is a transaction, or a pitch, such as borrowing the money to start a business or to buy your own house.
In England, do you have the same saying “life’s a bitch?”
SB: Yes. It’s a disrespectful, and somewhat sexist pun.
I was very surprised by your half of the book. When I started into it I understood Roger’s half. He has 29 sections. I looked at the table of contents and said to myself, “Oh my God, the first guy has 29 headings, and the second has only ten. What’s going on here?”
SB: Roger and I are very different people. We’re a very good double act. Roger is very methodical and very businesslike, and he’s been schooled entirely in a business environment. He ran his own successful ad agency, and he’s done many successful pitches. At one time or another in this country his agency had important accounts such as Volvo and Heineken. He’s the big time in advertising, but very much on the account side.
My career is entirely different. In fact, in one sense I’m a bit of a fraud. I’ve never done a successful business pitch in my whole life!
Roger’s part is actually written as if it were a presentation. There is one idea on one page. It’s almost like presentation slides. My approach is very, very different. I like to think I’m full of, I hope, provocative and quite exciting and diverting ideas—but I’m not methodical. I always see the bigger picture. But I think the two approaches work together very, very well.
Another thing that is important to understand, which you might have inferred anyway, is that while we have very different personalities—different writing styles, different views of the world—we are united in one common idea, which makes the book very … apposite to the general contemporary mood. In our different ways, we both designed our lives like in an attack on McKinsey. I know this is a dangerous thing to say talking to your audience.
No, that’s fine. Tom Peters decamped from McKinsey.
SB: McKinsey said once, “You can measure anything, and if you can measure it, you can manage it.” Now, both Roger and I think that’s absolutely wrong, because the most important things in life cannot be measured. You can’t measure peace, beauty, love, happiness, serenity. Yet both of us live in the industrial, political, and business cultures of America and Britain, which are dominated by McKinsey’s sensibilities. We are surrounded by bean counters and number crunchers. Roger and I both believe that ideas and passion are far more important than numbers.
But, on the other hand, you also believe that everything can be managed at some level.
SB: I’m a fabulously bad manager.
I mean regarding self-presentation.
SB: I wouldn’t say managed, although everything can be designed, if you like. One of the points we’re trying to make, when we’re talking about first impressions in one part of the book—and I’m not talking about whether we wear Gucci or Prada, I couldn’t care less what you wear—is simply about trying to make the point that you give the first impression whether you want to or not. So make it work for you.
In our modern world, one of the things that makes it absolutely fascinating is that there’s no such thing as an escape to a sort of value-free neutrality. You can’t say, “I don’t care about clothes. I just wear boat shoes, chinos, and a t-shirt.” That is really just a way of saying you do care about clothes, and that’s the style you choose to wear.
In Britain there’s been a huge debate in politics about the difference between style and substance. Tony Blair is always said to have great style, but no substance, which might or might not be true. In the book what we’re trying to say in our different but related ways is that with successful people, and probably successful businesses, style and substance are exactly the same thing. That brings us back to Machiavelli, to whom we dedicated the book. Machiavelli is sometimes portrayed as a cynical manipulator, and he certainly was part of the time. But there’s a more humane side to Machiavelli, too. When he says, “Appearances are real,” I think what he means is that you shouldn’t or can’t dissimulate. That’s an attractive idea to me. In fact, it is a kind of a classical idea that goes back to the ancient Greeks. They thought that if you’re beautiful, handsome, and well-mannered, you’re also a moral person.
I’m glad you touched on that. I wanted to ask about the dedication to Machiavelli.
SB: The book is not just dedicated to Machiavelli, but also to your countryman, Dale Carnegie. In one way you could describe the aims of the book as similar to what Dale Carnegie brought about in the early 20th century. Our book is about how to win friends and influence people. Carnegie’s book was conceived in the intellectual and business environment of the 1930s. We have the same objectives, but we’re 70 years on.
What about letter writing?
SB: That’s a passion of mine. Of course, we all use email, and we all love email, but, it’s also turned the world upside down. Nowadays, if you want to draw attention to yourself, you should write a letter. I don’t know whether social post [mail] actually exists in the United States anymore, but there’s certainly not much of it going on in Britain. But my God, when you send a handwritten letter on decent paper, what an amazing way that is to make an impression!
You write about the excitement of getting a letter that’s addressed by hand. Everyone in the world, I think, understands that excitement. I mean just what does that portend? You get this letter, and there’s so much possibility in a handwritten letter, unlike most of the junk that comes through the post box.
SB: Believe me, it suggests value, and it suggests intimacy. All those things McKinsey couldn’t measure are suggested by a handwritten letter. But even if you haven’t got time to do that, you can still make an effect with an email.
Almost always in Tom Peters’ presentations , he talks about handwritten thank you notes. That’s probably the only sort of letter writing that continues—and that’s certainly tailed off quite a bit. But when you get a handwritten thank you note from someone, it is very special.
SB: He’s so right. It’s a lifetime habit of mine. I always write a postcard the day after a lunch, dinner, or whatever—always, always, always.
I knew that about you; I could tell.
SB: It sounds obsessive.
No, I think it’s a wonderful trait; I’m envious.
SB: It makes other people happy.
Yes, it’s more gracious than hosting the meal in many ways. It’s honoring the people who invited you into their homes.
SB: Without trying to sound like a fatigued old hippie, which I’m certainly not, making other people feel good about themselves is deeply, deeply satisfying. Again, that’s what any sort of pitch is about. I mean, we all know whether it’s a social pitch, whether you’re going out on a date or want to borrow money to buy a house, or whether you’re trying to win some new business. At one level, it’s all about the transfer of power. You know the thing that happens in a business or personal context, when you actually experience that mystical moment when you know it’s going your way—when the gravity of authority suddenly changes, and you’re no longer a supplicant, but you’re in charge. That’s a thrilling moment.
You could demonstrate that in a sort of Edward Tufte sort of diagram about quantitative analysis. We all know what’s going on—what’s more important is that suddenly people like you. In some of the reviews in this country, our book has been portrayed as a bit cynical. But it’s not cynical. We’re not advocating dissimulation.
Not at all. I think this is one of the most honest books I’ve read in a long, long time. Maybe forever.
SB: That’s very flattering. As a serious person, I hope it’s helpful to people, but I also think part of the fun of this book is that it’s meant to be quite amusing, too. I think once you get the idea that all of life is a pitch, it’s like an infection. It sounds sort of negative, but you can’t stop seeing it. You realize every encounter you have is an opportunity to help you do something interesting.
Well, for me it was particularly enlightening, because as soon as you begin to understand that—and this is really driven home once the reader comes to your half of this book—we’ve always been doing this. Whenever you’re in any social situation, where you’re usually sitting there fidgeting about who you might be that night, or how you are going to do something—your book offers just a few rules for how you can do things better. I mean, we all want to do whatever we do better.
SB: Like what I said about style and substance really being the same thing. I’m very interested in that observation, which is, in effect, that we’re all three people. We’re the person we think we are. We’re the person other people think we are. And most worryingly, we’re the person we think other people think we are. That’s a big problem being three different people.
And I think one of the things we’re saying, for a successful and contented existence, is that you should try and make those three different things all the same thing. You should be. As Machiavelli said, “You should really be what you appear to be.”
I was talking with a group of folks about branding and personal branding, which is really what this book is about as well. Somebody said, “Well, what is your brand?” I answered, “Your brand is what other people think it is.” What really surprised me was that this idea was news to these people.
SB: In a purely business context, I’ve always had a definition of what a brand is. A brand is that mixture of expectations and associations that successful products have. And you’re absolutely right—you can apply that to people. If you’re a successful person, you go around the world having raised a set of expectations from your friends and colleagues. I wish I had thought of that at the time, except I sometimes think the word “brand” is a bit overused.
It’s certainly verging on that, yes.
SB: It is about self-branding. But there are terrible, terrible traps there. One of my favorite parts of the book is that sort of cringe-making bit about Cary Grant. I don’t know if you’ve come across that, but Cary Grant was an amazing bit of self-invention. He was born a working class boy in Bristol, England. His real name was Archibald Leach. He gets a new name, Cary Grant. He moves to America and re-brands himself, and he becomes one of the most fabulously elegant Hollywood stars of all time. Towards the end of his life in a marvelously self-knowing way he said, “Oh look, everybody in the world wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.” It’s both heartbreakingly funny and true.
But to an extent we’re all being like Cary Grant. You’ve got your brand values, whether you want them or not. Just make them work for you.
I think you also make the point—you say it much more eloquently, of course—”Don’t try too hard.” In a way, you and Roger mean that there’s no way to win someone over.
SB: The other aspect is, as David Ogilvy, founder of Ogilvy & Mather, said, “You can’t win souls in an empty church. You can’t bore someone into bed or in the boardroom.” You can be too insistent. “To be too insistent is to be boring,” as the French say. The art of being boring is to say everything. You should leave a bit in reserve.
Right—to be more than you seem to be.
SB: Absolutely. That was Frederick the Great’s advice to his troops.
I wish more people would take that to heart.
SB: If only—particularly politicians, of course, who frequently achieve the opposite.
In your section of the book you talk about confidence quite a bit, or rather it’s one of those terms that pops up enough that you begin to notice it. What is it about confidence? And how do you get it? Or, how do you know when you don’t have it? Could you talk about why confidence is important?
SB: To be honest, a great deal of the stuff I’ve written in my book is autobiographical. I’m always told—often because I’m noisy and scurrilous and completely fearless socially, although I’m frightened of heights and water, and things like that—”God, how do you manage to achieve this confidence?” I made myself confident. Autobiographically, I had a rather lonely—not uncomfortable—but a rather lonely and isolated childhood. But I just decided at some point—I don’t know whether it was late teens or whatever—to venture into the world. I learned this from first principles. Confidence is one of those extraordinary things. I think I say this in the book, “Once you’ve got a little, you soon have more.” It is self-perpetuating. Act with a little bit of confidence, and people treat you differently. The more they treat you differently, the more confidence you have.
But, it goes back to the Ogilvy remark, “You can’t win souls in an empty church.” You can’t bore someone into saying yes. Make yourself interesting. That doesn’t mean to say you have to rehearse jokes and witty bon mots. There’s nothing more interesting than an honest expression of an idea or a belief. And that’s what I advocate. There are some people who are crippled by a lack of confidence. Anything you need, it’s there; it’s almost like faith. The whole point about religious faith is being able to overcome that one obstacle that prevents you from having it. It is the same with confidence. Once you’ve left the barrier and say, “I can be confident,” you will be that person.
I certainly suffered from a huge lack of confidence early on in my life. But I think I’m quite different now. I’m always wondering what happened—at some point you find something that you’re good at, or you realize in retrospect that you are good at something, and then you start focusing. Maybe it’s just a matter of focusing—you can’t invent confidence—but it’s got to come from something within yourself.
SB: That’s why I wasn’t making a blasphemous comparison to religious faith, because it’s like that. But with confidence, you have to be able to make a small leap. You have to, because it won’t come to you. You have to go out and get a bit of it.
That’s a good point. I think it’s a very important thing, because I see a lack of confidence in many people that I deal with. I find myself sometimes just wanting to shake people and say, “Come on, get with it. Be more confident!”
SB: There’s a quote I’ve put in the book from Beatrice Webb, who is one of the founders of the London School of Economics. She said that she completely lacked confidence as a child, even though she came from one of the richest and most successful and intellectually respected families in Britain. She remarked that before she went into a room, she used to stand outside it and just say to herself, “You’re a successful person and you come from one of the most successful families in the country. Get into that room and get on with it.” I am paraphrasing—she said it rather more beautifully.
The point you’ve got to explain to people who don’t have confidence is that everybody could be like that. We all have, or almost everybody has his or her own sensitivities. You have to fight them.
You must have had a most effective pitch at some point. What was that?
SB: Me? Well, no, as I said, I’m a bit of a fraud because I’ve never done a business pitch.
But the whole point of this book is that we’re always pitching.
SB: What I’ve done is to design an entire persona for myself, which gives me the credentials to write my half of the book, and which is more about life than business. I’ll leave it to others to judge whether I am successful or not.
I don’t know whether Kurt Vonnegut was paraphrasing Machiavelli when he once said, “You are what you pretend to be.” I am—I’ve become—what I’ve pretended to be. I decided to become interested in the history of design. Then somebody called me a “design guru” years ago, which is a sort of ludicrous notion.
We need guru-dom—
SB: Exactly. I took up the design guru cognomen with what I like to think of as sort of my self-deprecating irony. I just thought that if they think I’m a design guru, I may as well become one. And here I am.
That’s good—you’re flexible, adaptable.
SB: Another aspect of the book is personal—I just find most everybody interesting. What I should perhaps say is that I’ve written a lot about the design of cars, objects, furniture, and all that sort of stuff, which I love. But the underlying interest I have in objects is not so much the design, but in what things mean. I’m interested why a certain chair is more attractive, more desirable. I just apply the same principles to people and ideas. What makes certain ideas, certain gestures, certain people more attractive and more winning than others? And, of course, I don’t know all the answers; I know very, very few of them. I think there are a few hints towards an answer to that question in the book.
In a way the title is quite understated, although I think you make the point that has a good effect at times as well. But your half is sort of a bit of a life primer.
SB: I think we both loved the title. If you’re in the right mood, it’s quite funny. And it does get the essence in three words. But from an entirely commercial sense, we had a lot of discussions with publishers, because they didn’t know where to put the book in the bookstores. They didn’t know whether it’s a therapy book, a business book, a book of cultural history. And the answer is that it’s all those things.
I’m sure it was the publishers who said that you need to mention business in the subtitle.
SB: The subtitle was entirely my own invention.
You’ve got a book that says, Life’s a Pitch—and the first thing I thought about was where someone would put this in the bookstore. But then you see the business life with your emotional life subtitle.
SB: In London it’s all over the place. In some stores it’s in pop psychology, and in other stores it’s in the business department, and in other stores it’s at the front of the house by the cash register, which is sort of fine.
That’s good, you’re reaching a wider audience that way.
SB: But I think we definitely didn’t want to be in the business book ghetto. Not nice to have to say, as there’s nothing wrong with business books.
I often think there are a lot of things wrong with business books. And so you’ve gone way beyond that here. I love the way the book looks and its design.
SB: Most business books—and this is where Tom Peters is another exception—they’re so ugly, they suck all enthusiasm out of the universe. To me, most business books act in defiance of the central proposition. Business books are usually about how to be more successful, but you look at these tedious, awful objects designed without any passion or belief. They deny the point that they want to make. So we couldn’t do a book like that. We actually deliberately chose the designers who had worked on extremely popular cookbooks in this country called The River Café Cookbook. The River Café is a very, very stylish Italian restaurant owned by the architect Richard Rogers. It has mega-wonderful Italian food. The River Café Cookbooks have been huge successes here. And we very deliberately chose the same designers. We wanted the book to look like a premium branded object in its own right; not like a tedious little book written for an accountant.
It’s quite gorgeous. The size is nice. I love the paper—everything about it. The images are fantastic.
It’s been wonderful speaking with you.
SB: Thank you for indulging me.
Email: guru (at) – stephenbayley.com