As a journalist, Mike Sergeant’s job was to communicate complex issues clearly and quickly. He had to find within huge geopolitical issues the human stories that listeners could connect with. Today he uses that experience to help business leaders communicate more powerfully.
Mike believes that PR is simply storytelling – human to human. Finding the story and creating the emotional connection, that’s what saves us from spin and distrust.
In this conversation we talk about the difference between simplifying your message and clarifying it, the power of the podcast, and those weirdly productive 3am moments.
Mike’s site: https://sergeantleaders.com/
PR for Humans podcast: https://prforhumans.com/
Mike on Twitter: https://twitter.com/themikesergeant
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
Sign up for my business podcasting masterclass: https://alisonjones.lpages.co/podcasting-masterclass/
The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge starts 29 April: https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/
Alison Jones: Hello and welcome to The Extraordinary Business Book Club. It’s a great joy to be here today with Mike Sergeant who is an international communications coach and a PR advisor to CEOs and business leaders. And through his company, Sergeant Leaders, he delivers media training, public speaking coaching and reputation advise.
Mike began his career at CNN in 1996 before he moved to Reuters, Sky News, and then the BBC where you probably saw him reporting from all around the world. He spent 13 years there as a TV and radio correspondent covering business politics in the Middle East. And he’s also, most excitingly of course, the author of PR For Humans, which is the new book out from Practical Inspiration Publishing. So, welcome to the show, Mike.
Mike Sergeant: Thank you. Well, it’s great to be here.
Alison Jones: Really good to have you here. And it’s always lovely when I’m talking to a Practical Inspiration author, because in some ways I know you so well, I know the book so well. But in the podcast I get to find a bit more about the back story. And it’s lovely to sort of reflect on the journey, isn’t it at this point?
Mike Sergeant: Yes. Yes, a journey that you were very instrumental in, Alison. And you happen to have been the inspiration for writing this book, so thank you.
Alison Jones: Well, they can put that on my tombstone. I’d be quite happy with that, that’s brilliant. Tell us a little bit about PR itself, let’s start there because you’re right. You say in the book, you’re right up front about it that PR has got a bad rep, interestingly. And you use examples of how people say, “Oh, that’s just PR”, and so on. So, why has PR got such a bad reputation? And how are you reinventing it for humans?
Mike Sergeant: Yes, it’s a weird thing that the thing that PR is terrible at is actually its own PR.
Alison Jones: It’s so ironic, it’s beautiful.
Mike Sergeant: Very, very odd. And the thing that I’ve tried to point out in the book and tried to explain is that, what is public relations? Well, in essence, it just means relations with your public. And telling people what you’re up to, hoping they’re going to find it interesting. Hoping they’re going to like you. And over the years a lot of the public relations world has kind of got further and further away from that basic truth, which is where PR and its origins in the United States in the 1920s just go on with relations to the public, pure and simple. But PR agencies, it was all caught up in the kind of culture of spin and this idea that people could kind of come along and spray PR on the top of a business and that would magically make people like you, love you, and be interested.
And so, the agencies got very, very nervous about the brand of PR. And over the last 10-15 years being busy reinventing themselves into positioning agencies, branding agencies, influence or engagements, strategists, all these fancy titles that sort of litter the landscape of communications. But the essential truths haven’t changed. And these truths go back to the beginning of time, really. That if you want to have a good reputation you have to do good things and you have to tell good stories about those things. And those two elements, I think, are crucial and always have been crucial. And I hope always will be.
Alison Jones: And that point you make about the doing good things. In a sense, that’s where it all went wrong, isn’t it? Because we have people doing whatever the hell they liked and then putting this veneer of PR on top of it. And that alignment, that distrust in a sense, is what’s given PR its bad name.
Mike Sergeant: Yes, exactly. And I think people think I’ve got a terrible reputation. I’ve called in a PR person, and they can somehow come in and put up a new website and make a fancy video and do this and do that and suddenly the world will like me. And, unfortunately, it’s not like that. Or fortunately, for those of us who believe in the truth and believe that doing good things is generally the right thing to do.
Of course, these things are connected. And we live in a very transparent world these days, where you can’t fake it for long. And if you could ever spin your way out of trouble it’s not going to last forever. And in time, what you really do, and your reputation are going to converge. And if you’re bad then, ultimately, you’ll have a bad reputation. If you’re good, ultimately, you’ll have a good reputation.
But these things can diverge for quite a long period of time. And you can be a bad person and have an okay reputation for quite a long period of time but, ultimately, the truth catches up with you.
Alison Jones: Yes, absolutely. And I think you’re right, that is quite heartening. So I’m sorry, if you were hoping to buy this book to put some spin on your business and pretend you’re doing the right thing when you’re not, it’s not the book for you. It’s actually found on authenticity. And you mentioned story earlier, and that really is key to what you’re talking about here, isn’t it? And again, it’s not really about telling a story in sort of a fictional way. It’s about creating a narrative about who you are and what you do in the world and all that kind of stuff.
Tell us a little bit about your journey from journalism into PR and how that’s shaped your understanding of story and communication because I think that’s fascinating.
Mike Sergeant: Yes, and I’ve been a story teller all my career. And even before my career started I did a lot of acting at university as well as studying economics. And I found that the link between the human story and the kind of hard analytical stuff quite fascinating. And so, when I went into journalism, initially, I was doing business journalism. I was trying to take really complicated subjects and trying to explain them to audiences in a way that they would understand and engage with. And then I went through a big, sort of long, sweeping, meandering journey, in a way. Through the Middle East and through politics and through local government and lots of different types of reporting.
And then I left journalism in 2014 and moved into public relations, initially, with an agency. And although I’ve been telling stories all my career, telling human stories all my career, I’d never really taken a step back and analysed what makes a good story. What are the ingredients for a good story? Why some leaders cut through and people like and they want to listen to and others just kind of fade away or remain in obscurity.
So what I’ve been doing over the past few years is trying to understand the principles of story telling better. What are the characteristics of a good leader and what are the ingredients for a powerful business story that that leader is actually going to be able to tell? And I think that this is the critical thing for me is that, I’ve got to the point where now I see as public relations as failing, mostly when it does fail, because it produces a story which is not a real human story that audiences will connect with. And the leaders that we get to see or anyone else can’t deliver that story because it’s not made for her or him. It’s not human sized or following human principles. So that’s what I’m trying to explore.
Alison Jones: And I thought that was a really interesting point. You talk about PR as a corporate activity and telling stories about an organisation because nobody actually cares about organisations, we care about people. So it’s bridging that gap.
Mike Sergeant: Yes, the best stories are human stories. They have been since the beginning of human history and they always will be. They’re stories about people. And the problems come when you try to tell a story about a legal construct, which is a corporation or indeed a government or a charity. And if you take the organisation and try to tell the story of the organisation, that’s always going to be difficult. Because as human beings we’re not really very well programmed to receive stories about organisations or legal entities, but we love stories about people. So the challenge always, and it’s not an easy thing to do, is to personalise it. Personalise the business, personalise the leader, think of the audience as real people and to try to think well, how are we going to demonstrate our humanity to those people? If you’re a leader how are you going to show that you have a heartbeat? That you believe in things. That you are an emotional being. And all these things are quite soft and quite touchy-feely for some people in business and some people in corporate communications, but they are essential.
Alison Jones: And, of course, that’s what you did in trying to bring massive global, political, economic stories to make people care about them by focusing on an individual.
Mike Sergeant: Yes, exactly. And it’s the way we think of any political topic. And we always think about who is the leader and do we trust them? Do we believe that they are leading us into the future? Politics, as I reported it at Westminster, was unfortunately not about policy. It wasn’t about how to build public services or how to build great trade policy or how to do any of these things really well. It was about who do you believe in? Who do you trust? Which person has kind of won you over on an emotional level? And there isn’t a very long list of those people any more, unfortunately.
Alison Jones: No, it’s-
Mike Sergeant: … well, its 25 to 1.
Alison Jones: … well, I’m struggling…but it’s an important point as well that, well you call it soaring and diving, don’t you? That you have to dive in and you have to find an individual, particularly, if you’re reporting from a war zone or something. And you find, like the boy that you interviewed in Iraq, you have to find that kind of individual, human connection that we can empathise with that kind of creates a connection. But it’s important also, to sort of soar up and bring in the macro story. The context of what’s actually going on in the world around this. And it’s that balance between the big picture stuff because it must be maddening, actually. If you work in Westminster, if your job is to create really detailed policies and nobody cares about your policies, all they want to talk about is personality. But both of these matter, the way into them is still always through the human, isn’t it?
Mike Sergeant: Yes, and you’ve got to hook people with character. And some of these story-telling ideas apply to any novel or any film – all good stories are about a character, first and foremost. That character faces a challenge, there’s often a conflict. There’s something that they are against, they then face a crisis at some point along the narrative arc. And it looks like they’re going to fail and then there’s a catalyst for change and then the final scene is often the conquest. So that’s just a story arc that you can find in any movie and in any situation. And I think the challenge is how do you bring that arc into the business world, which is just loaded with jargon and complexity and different products and services and a lot of legacy. How do we cut through? And I’m glad you emphasis the soaring and diving point because I think that that’s a really crucial thing. To connect with a human story and then you’re soaring out to the big picture, whatever that is and then you’re coming back.
And the way I used to tell stories as a television reporter, you’d always find the individual. Find the individual, you could give them complete focus and let the audience get to know that individual a bit before you kind of come out and try to tell the story of Iraq or the story of the benefit changes in the UK or the Asian tsunami or whatever the massive thing that you’re trying to get attention on. The way into it is always through the eyes of, ideally, one person or maybe one family or one small community.
Alison Jones: Yes. And that point about focus. I want to pick up on that as well, because something I think that’s very helpful and a distinction that you make. As soon as you said it I completely got it, but until you explained it to me I didn’t really get it. It was the difference between simplifying and clarifying, which I think are used as synonymous for some people. But you say there using one person. In a sense that’s simplification, but actually, you can simplify, you can take stuff out and just have one point, but it still doesn’t have to be a very clear point. And clarifying is beyond that. And you use a lovely metaphor about water. Can you just talk people through that? Because I think it’s such a helpful point.
Mike Sergeant: Yes. And so… it comes actually from a course I once did with the BBC about how to put together a television report. And one of the takeaways from that day, perhaps the only thing I remember from that day, is the two rules of broadcasting. The first rule: decide what to leave out. And the second thing: decide what else to leave out. You’re always stripping away layers and getting to … and at the time I sort of questioned that a bit more. And I think that there is a difference between simplicity and clarity.
And the danger always with broadcasting is that you take out and take out and take out until something is simply vapid, it’s empty of real substance. And that’s the classic problem with dumbing down, you get to a point where you just think it’s too … there’s nothing there that’s substantial enough. And so, I think what we’re aiming for in communications is clarity.
And I use the metaphor of the clear mountain stream that’s loaded with nutrients against the kind of muddy and polluted river. And you take the muddy and polluted river and you can take away all the water apart from just one glass. You’ve taken away almost everything, but you still might still have a glass of muddy stream water that you couldn’t see through. And so, what we seek in communication is the beauty of clarity, which can take some incredibly complicated, difficult, yet subtle subjects and make them clear. And make people look at them and think wow, that just gives me a great new insight into that organisation, that person, that problem, whatever it is.
And it’s the same, I think, with the best business books, isn’t it? There’s one idea, but once you hear the idea everything kind of assumes clarity around it. It doesn’t mean the subject is easy or, in fact, the road map for getting there is simple. But there is clarity about the idea.
Alison Jones: I think that’s such a helpful distinction. And you’re right, particularly in business books, because there is this kind of vogue for one big idea which I totally get. And I agree with that in some sense, in part, because we’re all so distracted. But also, because actually, if you’ve got one really good idea you can really dive into great depths with it. But simplifying on its own, it’s a kind of a necessary but not a sufficient condition to have something important to say. It’s that clarity that really makes the difference. And I think that’s the step that a lot of people miss out on in their sales copy and their books and their communication generally.
Mike Sergeant: Yes. No, exactly. And it’s an easy thing to say. It’s a harder thing to do. And that’s why, as well as outlining these principles I’m trying in the book to be very specific about the ways in which these ideas can be used and their practical sense. And if you’ve got a speech coming up or if you’ve got a media interview or if you’ve got to record a video, these are actual moments of intense stress and for some people, panic. To say actually it’s okay, there’s just a few things you need to focus on here.
There’s not always a single idea. I’d love it if there was because one of the other points I make in the book is that news is almost always about trying to find a single headline, back to that point of focus, the one thing that you really want to know about that day. But we live in the real world and sometimes complexity is still there. But I think in those situations what people want you is, right, okay, here’s what I need to do to get through that complexity. And that’s what I’ve tried to set down, in the book to some extent but more in my coaching at work and my one-to-one consultancy, where I’m providing clients with a real sort of a roadmap about how to do this stuff, not just the sort of big information.
Alison Jones: It’s sort of the Einstein principle, isn’t it? As simple as possible but no simpler.
Mike Sergeant: Yes, that’s right.
Alison Jones: It’s a good rule to live by. And actually, one of the things I wanted to talk to you as well is your podcast. Because “PR For Humans” is not just a book, it’s a lifestyle, no, it’s also a podcast. Tell us a little bit about how that came about and what it’s done for you. I just want to geek out on podcasts really.
Mike Sergeant: Yes, no. And podcasts are wonderful. And I started working with you, Alison, we started working towards the book because I’d heard this podcast first. And because I’d heard you talking on the podcast. And I think when you hear someone’s voice you can start to trust them or you might start to distrust them, but you’re going to have an emotional reaction to them and you’re going to know them a lot more than if you’d just read their emails or looked at their websites.
Alison Jones: It is an oddly intimate medium somehow isn’t it? The podcast.
Mike Sergeant: It’s very intimate and it’s like a great version of radio. When I worked at the BBC I did radio and I did television. And they always said that radio could connect with the audience at a deeper level. People can hear you and understand you. But the kind of radio I did was very often two minutes, thirty seconds of very tightly edited package for the Today programme or the PM programme or whatever it may be. And you didn’t get that chance just to talk, just to hear people. And it was highly, highly edited, the bits that I would do.
And what I love about podcast is the freedom to talk more, listen more, but not feeling like you’re getting some edited version of a person or an event. You actually start to hear them as they really are. And I think this is very, very powerful. So I started doing the PR For Humans podcast as an attempt to allow people to connect with me in different ways, of course, but also just to talk to some really interesting people and had some great conversations and I’ve took the approach that even if no one listens to it, at least I’ve had a great conversation which has given me some wonderful thoughts and a new way of looking at a topic and some great material for writing a book.
Alison Jones: Absolutely, yes.
Mike Sergeant: So I used the podcast as a way of educating myself, challenging my views, gathering material for the book, at the same time as trying to build an audience for these ideas. And it takes time and you’ve got to invest in it, but I’m starting to see some really positive returns from the podcast in terms of people coming to me saying they’re a fan of the podcast and, therefore, they want to work with me before they’ve even met me. And I don’t think that could ever happen with any other kind of marketing effort or video series or the most beautifully designed website. I don’t think you’d ever make a decision to work with someone before meeting them or before talking to them on the phone, but you have that opportunity with a podcast. So I think it’s fantastic for all those reasons.
Alison Jones: Yes. And of course, the bodcast book… I just called it the bodcast-pook, which is something completely different. The podcast-book combination, that’s a great … you’re capturing in a sense all the bases there, and people go with you. As a podcast as you say, I mean you didn’t say, you can ramble on. But that’s kind of what you meant, isn’t it? You can talk-
Mike Sergeant: … yes, I think-
Alison Jones: … it’s more longform, sort of discursive-
Mike Sergeant: … Yes, I think you can.
Alison Jones: … it’s more human, it’s … and the book is much more tightly written. It’s more polished in a sense, but again, it’s that deep dive stuff. And whether it’s a half an hour on a podcast or five hours reading your book, it’s that sense of having really invested time and attention in somebody. And that feeds back into feeling as though you know them and like them and trust them, which is really powerful.
Mike Sergeant: Yes. But I think you need a niche for these things. And I think you need to chose who you’re trying to reach with a podcast of course, like anything you do. And I think, particularly, in this country, in the UK, because the dominance of the BBC and the power of the audio that that one organisation is sending out, I think it’s quite hard to get established with a general podcast. But what you can do, very powerfully, which you’ve done and I’m trying to do as well is, identify a niche. A key audience who, for whatever reason, might be interested in what you’ve got to say. And then work on really satisfying that narrow audience. Don’t think you’re going to make yourself into a one-person media empire overnight, but just be satisfied with reaching those people. And as somebody said to me, “Even if 200 people listen to the podcast a week, imagine doing an event every week in front of 200 people.”
Alison Jones: That’s a good way of thinking about it, isn’t it?
Mike Sergeant: What would you pay for that?
Alison Jones: Yes, absolutely.
Mike Sergeant: That kind of access to potential clients and fans, or whatever you want to call them, I think that is a really good kind of mindset. Not be obsessed with trying to generate hundreds of thousands of listeners. But just think if they’re the right people, who are actually going to support me in my business in the future. And I think that’s a good … it may be 10 people. Even 10 people listening to a podcast and one of them goes on to be an important client, that’s a valuable thing to do.
Alison Jones: Yes. Absolutely. And if as you say, A: you’re enjoying it and B: you’re getting great material for the book, then everybody’s happy. That’s a great thing to do.
Mike Sergeant: Yes.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. Well, we’ve sort of segued into tip-giving. But I’m going to ask you more explicitly, what would your best tip be, Mike, for somebody who is listening who is at the beginning of the hard yards? They’re just getting their business book idea together. What would you tell them from this vantage point now, looking back?
Mike Sergeant: I think the breakthrough moment for me was, and I’m sure it was based on, in fact, I know it was based on a conversation that we’d had, was the importance of the table of contents and getting real clarity as to the structure of the book. And it’s more important than anything else. And it came to me, actually, in the middle of the night. I woke up in the morning, it was about 3:30 in the night. And, suddenly, I just thought I kind of see it somehow in my head, what this table of contents is going to look like. So walked up the stairs-
Alison Jones: … That hooray moment-
Mike Sergeant: … yes. Well, it was a bit like, yes, it was a bit like that. And I, obviously, all these ideas had been kicking around in my head for a long time. Years really. But at that moment I came down and just wrote the first half of the book is principles, the second half of the book is actually the situations you find yourself in, these are the nine principles. And then, after about an hour and a half on my laptop, I closed it, went back to bed. And then I kind of stuck with it. I stuck with that and it was the table of contents I ended up using. I questioned it, I tested it, I thought is there something better? But that helped me to deliver the book. Just because I put that up on the wall, I knew the structure of the book, I divided into different sections. And then I just wrote a section a day for however long it took me. It didn’t actually then take me that long to write the book because I had such a clear map for what I needed to do. So I think that that is so important as well as kind of having your idea and why you’re the great person to write the book and all those things. To have that table of contents, for me, was the breakthrough moment. And I think it could be for others too.
Alison Jones: Yes, I couldn’t agree more, as you know. I bang on about that endlessly, but it’s really useful I think, for people to hear how it worked for you. That wasn’t a bad night’s work, was it?
Mike Sergeant: Yes, that’s probably the most productive I’ve ever been.
Alison Jones: Those 3am moments.
Mike Sergeant: You’ve just got to capture those moments. And I do get a lot of ideas that come to me at odd times, particularly, in the middle of the night. And I always regret it when I don’t capture them because I don’t quite remember what it was.
Alison Jones: There you are. Another tip; a pad of paper and a pencil.
Mike Sergeant: I think it’s very important. Yes, I’m afraid so.
Alison Jones: No screens at 3:00 in the morning. Brilliant. Right now, I also ask people, Mike, as you know, to recommend a business book that they think everyone listening should read. Now, I quite genuinely believe everyone should read “PR For Humans”, and I will put in that link as well, obviously. But is there another one that you’d like to showcase here?
Mike Sergeant: Well, there’s a book I know you’re familiar with, it’s called “The One Thing” by Gary Keller, which I know you’re not a big fan of. Well, you told me you weren’t a big fan of it, so maybe this is a difficult one to suggest. But it’s an interesting one in that when I read it, I started to look at business and look at my life in different ways. The whole thrust of this book is to simplify things. Don’t try and do lists, just try and focus on one big thing that is going to kind of make everything else fall into place.
And I sort of read the book and then I was having a bit clear out night and I actually got rid of the book. I took it up to a charity shop. And the other day, someone I’m working with sent me this book. It’s like a boomerang. I tried to get rid of it but it keeps coming back. So I did enjoy it the first time and I’m now reading it again. So maybe that’s a sign that that’s an important way that I can find focus in what I’m doing.
Alison Jones: Yes. And to be clear, I think it’s got a lot of merit. I just thought it was a bit laboured, that was all. And also, I think, I don’t know, I have a sort of natural distrust of anything that says you must focus on one thing and one thing only. And I don’t know if this is a female perspective. But just, actually, I’d love to do that but life doesn’t allow it. You’ve got to keep all these things in balance. So there was a little bit of resistance there…
Mike Sergeant: Yes. What’s it look like? Yes, and it depends. I think you’re very good at multi-tasking. Other people can kind of keep balls in the air at one time. I think that the danger for me is that I’ve got a great idea over here and the next day I have another great idea over here. I come up with an idea for a business book every day. But I’m glad I’m not acting on those impulses. I’m trying to keep my eyes on the big prize here and I think that the kind of approach where I’m just trying to say, “Right. This is the one thing I’m good at. This year this is what I’m doing.” And that helps me and everything else can kind of fall in amongst that. It doesn’t mean that I will only ever do that one thing. Of course there’s lots of other things going on, but it’s more a focus thing for me. But yes, different people will approach these things in very different ways. And that’s the joy of it really.
Alison Jones: Do you know, I probably need to go back and read it as well. I’ve got a feeling that I sold mine to a charity shop as well. So, maybe I’ll just stick around and wait for somebody to boomerang it back to me. Brilliant.
Well, Mike, that was absolutely fantastic. Thank you so much. Now, if people want to find out more about you, more about Sergeant Leaders, more about “PR For Humans”, where can they go?
Mike Sergeant: You can reach me at sergeantleaders.com. And you spell sergeant just like the police and the Army do. And still a lot of people can’t spell it and I wouldn’t be able to spell it if it wasn’t my name. And you can also just go to prforhumans.com. F-O-R, rather than the number four. And contact me via that or engage with me via my podcast or another way. So, yes, lots of easy ways people can reach me if they want to look at these ideas further or think about how they might apply to their own business.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. And for those challenged with spelling, I will put all those links up on the show notes as well at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com, so you can find them all there.
Well, thank you so much for your time today, Mike. That was absolutely fantastic. And every success with the book.
Mike Sergeant: Thanks, Alison.