Imp of the Perverse

Put someone under pressure and it’s amazing what they’ll say. I discovered this early on in my short lived career as a radio journalist. I used to run about London with an enormous but supposedly portable tape-recorder, that pulled your shoulder out of its socket with it’s weight, while making items, features and ambitious documentaries for a weekly radio magazine programme. I’d plunge into any story that took my fancy.

My interviewees often assumed that I had some killer question up my sleeve. That I’d be a close equivalent to Jeremy Paxman. Alas this was far from the case . More often than not I had very little knowledge of the story I was pursuing and would believe whatever they said, even when a London parking official told me they made no profit at all from issuing parking fines; it cost more to police and collect the fines he declared. Ah, how naïve I was in those days.

However I quickly discovered that many of my interviewees got a little anxious when the microphone appeared. It wasn’t that they had anything to hide; it was simply a touch of stage fright. However the effects could sometimes be dramatic! They’d often say the opposite of what they meant. They’d admit to mistakes, confess to errors that were sometimes relevant to the interview and sometimes not.

The psychologist Oliver Burkeman has written about how, when stressed, we will often behave in a perverse way – like that time you found yourself cleaning the kitchen floor the night before a vital exam, when you should have been revising. The author Edgar Alan Poe wrote an article titled The Imp of the Perverse suggesting that when it matters most you’re likely to say the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time. It’s as if your mind had been taken over by a malevolent spirit.  Witness that job interview when HR simply let you talk and talk  – and you dug yourself a deep hole, incriminating yourself further with every word.

That imp is likely to get any of us at one time or other and it can strike when we least expect it – although it’s usually when we’re feeling anxious.

Is there a solution? Practicing the answers you expect to deliver before that job interview out loud, will keep the imp under some sort of control. Relaxation exercises both cognitive and behavioural will help keep you calm as well. Perhaps the best advice is for you to monitor the length of your sentences. Keep introducing full stops as you speak – to keep your sentences reasonably short. Above all don’t fill the silences!

If you’d like more help then why not enrol on the next Successful Speaking Skills workshop that’s running in Hatton Garden London EC1 on December 6th – where you’ll get an opportunity to practice these techniques. Click on this link for all the details:

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