Dumb if you do, dumb if you don't
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE - Rod Nepomuceno () - July 18, 2011 - 12:00am

When the Los Angeles Lakers were swept by the Mavericks in the NBA playoffs a couple of months ago (yes, I am still officially in mourning, folks), one of the first questions that came to every Laker fan’s mind was “Who’s going to replace coach Phil Jackson next year?” 

For those of you who don’t follow basketball much (and in case you’ve been living in a cave), Phil Jackson was the coach of the Lakers since 2000 (well, except for two years when he and Laker superstar Kobe Bryant had an “LQ”). He is generally regarded as the best coach ever, having won 11 NBA championships in his storied coaching career. He is known by non-basketball fans — not only because he coached two of the greatest hoopsters ever, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant — because of his unique, Zen-master leadership style. Because of his fantastic win-loss record and his unique style, he was basically considered irreplaceable.

A few weeks after the Lakers were ousted, the son of Lakers owner Jim Buss announced that Mike Brown, the former coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers and former mentor of LeChoke — I mean, LeBron James — was going to be Phil Jackson’s replacement. After the announcement, a lot of Lakers fans and Laker haters weighed in. Most people thought that Brown was the wrong choice; everyone had something to say about the controversial hiring. Everyone except for one very important guy: Kobe Bryant. For some reason, the Lakers’ franchise player remained completely silent about this very important development. Everyone was asking, “Does he like Brown?” “Does he hate Brown?” “Has Kobe spoken to the new coach?” “Does he think Brown is the right choice?” Through all the Internet, radio, TV, and newspaper chatter, Kobe remained silent, which most people interpreted as a clear message that he wasn’t for it. Which was funny because he hadn’t actually said anything.

Personally, I think Kobe’s silence is a thumbs-up marketing strategy. Okay, maybe it’s not really a strategy. It’s possible that he really just doesn’t want to speak out. But notice how his silence has made more people intrigued about him. Everyone was anticipating what he’d say, excited to hear any word that would come out of his mouth. But all we got was silence. Brilliant. On the other hand, you have LeBron blabbing away about how it was okay to lose to the Mavs, and that the next day, all his haters would go back to their everyday, problem-filled lives while he would still be living a charmed life as King James. After he said that, a lot of people got really peeved. One guy opens his mouth and he gets ridiculed. One guy keeps silent and everyone is intrigued. Silence is indeed golden.

Playing Dumb As A Strategy

Sometimes, in certain situations I try to play dumb in order to be one step ahead. Now, you might ask, “How does Rod play dumb? He goes into a room wearing a baseball cap with the word ‘Duh’ on it?”   Actually, I use the word “dumb” here in an expanded sense. When I say, “dumb,” I don’t just mean being stupid. I also refer to its other meaning: being mute, not able to speak, or keeping silent. Used wisely, silence can actually be a great ally. But often, silence can be tricky, and it makes people confused. A lot of people are unsure about whether or not they should keep silent in certain situations. I call it the “dumb if you do, dumb if you don’t” syndrome.   Sometimes, when we’re in meetings and even in casual group discussions, we keep silent because we’re afraid to speak up. And usually, this fear is due to the fact that we don’t want to say anything dumb lest we be made fun of or ridiculed. And if there’s one thing that we all don’t like, it’s being branded a “dumbo” for things we blurt out. We have in all of us what I personally call the “beauty queen” fear, which is the fear of saying a line that becomes a pop culture byword, like “Major major” or “My greatest asset is my long-legged” or “Don’t judge my brother, he is not a book.”  

On the other hand, some people don’t want to keep silent for the very same reason: they don’t want to appear dumb. Isn’t that weird?  It’s kind of ironic, right? We don’t want people to say, “He’s not saying a thing. He’s not contributing anything at all. Maybe he’s dumb.” And again, because of the fear of being mocked, we try to say something just to avoid people branding us as dumb. And then we do end up saying something dumb, and so we end up in the first situation. It’s a vicious cycle. It’s dumb if you do, dumb if you don’t.

Personally, I think that silence is one of the most underrated tools in the business. It’s one of the things I learned from my former boss, Mark McCormack, the late, great founder of sports marketing giant IMG. I use silence as a tactical tool, especially when things are a bit sticky. For example, once I feel that I’ve gotten a client to agree in principle to something I am proposing to him, I say, “Great! Looking forward to a long partnership.” Then I shut up about it. Or I talk about something totally unrelated.   Because one of the worst things you can do in a situation like that is to continue blabbing about the deal. You got the deal; move on. Because if you continue chatting, chances are, you’ll say something that might be a red flag for your prospect. You might even say, “This is a good deal — you will not regret it.” If you say that, the client will say, “Why does he feel the need to reassure me? Did I get a raw deal?” 

And sometimes, a client will negotiate with me about certain deal points. It’s very common in my business that a client will not only want concessions that will cost me an arm and a leg; they’d like to take my heart and soul as well.   Around 10 years ago, a client told me that he was very interested in sponsoring one of my annual sports events. I had lunch with him and asked him what his budget was. He basically said to me, “Yun nga, Rod, eh, I don’t have a budget. But how can my brand be part of the event?” Now, I could have easily gone ballistic and said, “What? How can you even think you can be part of the event without giving anything in return?” But I didn’t do that.  Instead, I just smiled, stared ahead, and remained silent. I didn’t say anything, but I’m sure he could tell from my eyes that what I was saying inside was, “I hope you realize that I didn’t come all the way here to this lunch just for you to say that.”  After that awkward pause, my client said, “Actually, Rod, baka I can get it from next year’s budget. I can sign now, but can you collect the sponsorship fee from us next year?” (Note: we met in December, so “next year” was not too far off). I told him, “Absolutely.” He signed the deal right there and then. And I sealed the deal with silence.

In conclusion, sometimes it’s very difficult to determine whether it’s best to speak up, or it’s better to remain silent. It takes years and years of experience and practice for you to really know the best course of action, given a particular situation.   Of course, in a beauty-pageant situation, it’s worse not to say anything after a question is asked. But not all situations are beauty-pageant situations. Sometimes, in business, there are opportunities to think things through. Thus, if you were to ask me, in business situations I’d normally keep quiet first before I blurt something out. For one, it affords me time to gather my thoughts and organize my ideas. And two, by being silent, my prospect might feel compelled to break the pregnant pause, and in the process, I may be able to get more information from him than I bargained for. 

As they say, silent water runs deep.   So there’s a lot of area to swim in. Make use of it. 

But be mindful. You can also drown in deep water.

* * *

Thanks for your letters, folks! You may e-mail me at rodhnepo@yahoo.com

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