Traversing an Executive Interview

I admit it. I’m a little tired this week.  At close to fifty, I find that traveling the world and back and forth two hours or so to clients a few times a week to conduct interviews can be a bit taxing.  Plus, as we grow as a business, I can’t be everywhere.  I love conducting interviews – meeting new people who tell me things I don’t know already – but , as we continually strengthen our bench, I thought I’d try to encapsulate the training I’d like empowered Green Ink interviewers to have had.  Don’t get me wrong!  I’m not done traveling the world (at least I hope not), but I can’t keep this up forever!

But it sure has been fun to meet all the amazing minds I’ve been able to explore, to see all the places I’ve been able to see.  I’m lucky to have been entrusted to talk with some of the most influential people in corporate America – and around the world. 

There’s probably very little that I’ve actually developed new here, but I think I’ve been a pretty good sponge and absorbed some reliable tricks of the trade along the way.  I’d love to hear others’ tips that I’ve not included… these are from the perspective of a corporate ‘Producer-Director’.

Chip’s Interview Tips

I remember directing an on-camera executive delivery once with a person who was, even then, a very powerful woman.  Though I believe I’m respectful of people who have attained high rank or fame, I try not to let the situation intimidate me or make me nervous at all.  I felt particularly relaxed in her presence, and I said to someone on the crew, “Oh, she won’t mind doing it again if there’s a problem.” Well, she hadn’t in the past.

And she said, looking at me with a school teacher’s knowing smile, “Oh, she won’t, will she?”  I realized immediately that I had broken a cardinal rule of corporate culture:  I’d presumed. My critical error could have caused her, had she been any less gracious, to foster ill will against ‘that Director‘.

Thankfully, she didn’t say, “Don’t bring that crew back here again.”  But she very well could have.  It’s the little things that can cost a relationship.  Thankfully, she nailed it first take every time and has certainly continued to do so.

As they taught me in Boy Scouts (yes, I was a scout in the ‘don’t-ask-don’t-tell’ era – before the ban’), be prepared.   I hadn’t had my ‘prep’ session.  A bit too relaxed, perhaps.

The Pre-Interview Prep

Start with empathy.  It’s important to understand the executive and their goals; to understand their mood and their comfort level.

Executives do not like to be told what to do any more than any of us like to be told what to do. They also like to know what’s coming. I’ve often heard, “OK, so what are we doing?”  It’s good to be pro-active here.

Be direct.  “First we’re hoping to put you into make up with Milania here, then we’ll ask you to come over to the hot seat where Paul will put a microphone on you, and then we’ll have two or three minutes of final adjustment to the lights, and I’ll give you some more prep then…”

Be attentive, but let the make-up artist do their magic.  A good make-up person will provide a calming, spa-like treatment.  ‘You are special.’  You might use this time to discuss final expectations with the exec’s coordinators (if you haven’t had the pre-interview conference calls you probably should have had).

Ideally, the make-up person will ask questions along the way: “Do you mind…?”, “Are you ok with a little powder…?” “Would it be ok if we…?”  Listen to your subject’s answers.  These are ways of finding out important things like whether a person is nervous or not, whether they’re feeling pampered or poked, whether they understand the mission at hand or have unanswered questions.  If they are still unsure, they’ll typically ask over their shoulder to their comms person or assistant, “So, did you bring those notes?”

Oh no!  Not the notes!   The notes are deadly!  You should keep your mouth shut.  Let them do whatever they want.  It’s their show.  But be prepared to work with the comms person to help make the person feel more comfortable winging it.  Ideally, someone will say, “You know this stuff.” or “If you do it just like you did at the conference, we’ll be great.”

My feeling is, if we’re just regurgitating notes, we might as well publish that as printed material or do a prompter read (which is a whole other blog).

Sometimes, it’s not always judicious to offer marketing advice at that moment and you help them to struggle through.  Other times, it’s all the encouragement the subject needs to take that journey into the unknown with you that will make for much better ‘television’.

If you wouldn’t mind having having a seat, Jim here can put a microphone on you…

You might assume a certain level of media savvy if they’re senior executives, however, if they’re newly appointed, it’s often the case that they’ve not been on camera much before, particularly not in front of a TV studio camera.

It’s important to have on hand an audio technician or camera person who is experienced in ‘wiring’ a person with a corded lavaliere microphone.  Confidence is key.  Combine that with humility and sensitivity.  It’s really a matter of being adult about it and getting through it efficiently.

Again, the audio tech should ask questions: “Can you help me run this up the back of your buttons from here to here?”  Or, “How would you feel about putting it right here, on the lapel of your sweater?”  With women especially, the mic person is often working in a highly sensitive area.  The more ‘clinical’ this sometimes invasive medical procedure can be performed, the better.  Women can tolerate a Dr.’s touch, but not a punk’s.  I’m very conscious of who’s mic-ing my execs.  Trust is key.  Thankfully, I’ve never had a complaint.

Be sure to water your executive!   Put an unopened bottle of water next to the chair and let them know its there.

The Drill

As your team is adjusting the lights, take the opportunity to give a short drill.  I like to deliver something along the lines of:

“This is going to be easy. We’re going to have a conversation that nobody will ever see or hear in its entirety, so there is really no way that you could possibly screw up (or mess up depending on whether you’re subject is from the Midwest or not).  Feel free to stop a sentence and start it over again at any point.  You and I will be having a conversation.  We’ll edit this to take out any uncomfortable pauses, but feel free to just let your mind go and speak as you would in a normal conversation with somebody you are just informing about this subject.

“I don’t want you to be self-conscious, but there are a couple things I would ask you to try to remember…”

“If you could try to avoid using words like ‘as I said’ or ‘like I said before’ or ‘again.’ We very likely won’t have heard what you’ve said before.  We’re going to be taking this conversation and shrinking it down to two or three minutes and we probably won’t have heard that frame of reference, so we’re going to ask that every statement that you make is a complete statement, and we’d like you to try to add some context, because they’ll never hear my questions, they’ll only hear your statements.  It might help, for example, if you used some of my question in your response. ‘What did you have for breakfast this morning?’ ‘For breakfast this morning I had…’  If there is any time that you want to stop recording, just let us know, otherwise we’ll just record continuously.”

“So Paul, do we have speed?”

“Speeding”

During the interview…

Recognize that how you ask the question will dictate how the subject responds.  People have a tendency to mimic the person they’re talking with.  So, avoid ums and ahs and you knows and likes if you don’t want those words to constantly show up in your transcript.  Avoid long, run on sentence questions if you want to avoid having run on responses.

Nod attentively, and keep as much eye contact as is comfortable for you both, but feel free to look down at your notes from time to time to help reenforce your thoughts.  In the case of a customer testimonial, I like to have the customer’s company web site open so I can ask questions that are more relevant.  “I see you’re into tire distribution.  Tell me about that.”

Don’t wait til the end of the response to know what the next question is.  Nothing prevents a ‘conversation’ from happening more than smiling attentively, rewarding them with a ‘that was great,’ and then pausing to look down at your notes for the next question.  “Let me see here… um….”  NO!   Please!   Keep it flowing.  Act interested.  Ideally, you will be sincerely engaged in the subject matter you’re discussing and have a real interest in discovering the unique story or perspective here.  If you’re feeling informed and surprised, then your final viewing audience will as well.

I try to make subjects feel like they’ve come into our living room, into our environment. This is our home that we’re sharing with you, and we want to you to be as comfortable as possible. Relax and we’ll go for a little journey together.

Analogies

I think it helps to compare what we do in interviewing people with other occupations. I was thinking that it’s like bringing somebody into the barber’s chair and being sure to always ask what they’re looking for before assuming anything; to make sure you have that understanding of what the haircut is going to look like before you embark upon the service.  This mindset can help you to help the subject create the story that they want to tell.  I’ve often said, “They’re the expert.  I just try not to get in the way.”

Some have suggested that it’s akin to a dentist chair where you let somebody know that this really might hurt.  If you see they’re nervous, empathize.  “I know this feels painful and you can’t wait to get it over with, but the good thing is, once the camera starts rolling, people usually can’t tell that you’re nervous – and it goes away.  It’ll never feel completely comfortable, but that can also be a good thing.  The good news is: it’ll be over in ten or fifteen minutes.”

Having been in the hot seat, once the camera starts rolling, it can feel to the person who’s ‘on the spot’ like an out of body experience.  Your job is to walk them over to the other side.

Time is Money

So the question is “How much time should we level set the executive interview subject for in terms of time?” We recommend staging interviews within an hour block if they’re back-to-back interviews at a conference or other type of event. Although this schedule can certainly be accelerated and people can be waiting in cue and we can make that a half hour. But this hour allows us to create a window of ability to change lighting, change background. Essentially what we’re looking at from the executive is 5 minutes of make-up, 5 minutes of microphone and chair prep, 15 minutes of conversation and 5 minutes taking of the microphone and taking off any make-up.  And, if the program calls for it, perhaps we can take 15 minutes after the interview to shoot some ‘day-in-the-life’ b-roll.

Devil’s Advocacy

When there’s time, after I’ve exhausted the questions I’ve worked out with the client beforehand (which I try to keep as simple as possible; leading questions; softballs), I ask the subject if they’d mind if we ‘shift gears a bit’ for a couple ‘devil’s advocate’ questions.  Usually, I get a fairly confident, ‘Bring it on’ kind of look.  And I do.

With as broad a smile as I can muster, I’ll pretend I’m a probing reporter, looking for something scandalous.  This is when I’ve found I receive the answers that are best if I’m the one creating the script.  These are the questions the MarComms people are often afraid to ask, but which the discerning viewer is dying to know…

“So, why would I want to buy your product.  Aren’t you just trying to sell me a lisence and then get me hooked on your ‘proprietary’ software?”  You can hear the comms folks gasping.  But the execs – so far – have loved these questions.  No one’s thrown me out on my ear – yet.

Other examples might be, “There are so many brands that are already so established. What makes you think you can beat out some of these competitors?” “You say they’re open standards, but they’re not really ‘open’, are they?’

I haven’t found an executive yet that doesn’t enjoy this type of challenging question and the opportunity to really drive home the passion behind the product or the brand.

These answers will usually have the ability to cut through the noise and answer the FAQ’s most don’t dare ask.

Off-Camera Approach

For the past 20 plus years, the defining ‘style’ for interview-based video, or ‘cinema verite’ has been for the interview subject to look just off camera, with the interviewer hugging the lens to create an ‘almost talking directly to us’ feel.  I’d expect this style to continue to be used and there are still videos that benefit from this style.  If this is the preferred approach, you’ll want to make sure the subject knows to, “Look at me, not the camera.  The camera’s not there.  Try to ignore everyone and everything else.  It’s just you and me having a conversation,” and I do a back and forth gesture between my eyes and theirs.  The first question of, “Can you tell me your name and spell if for me.” is a good first test of whether they’re heeding your advice.

Direct to Camera?  You betcha!

Ever since seeing Errol Morris‘ fantastic IBM documentary for Ogilvy, 100 by 100, I’ve come to love the credibility of a direct-to-camera approach.  Talk about not getting in the way.

But how can you help the subject to be comfortable in this environment, to not feel abandoned, like a deer in the headlights?

Errol Morris uses an innovative (albeit expensive and large footprint) two-camera, two teleprompter system that allows the interviewer’s head to appear in the subject’s prompter screen and vice versa.  In this way, the two can have a conversation as if in a video conference environment.  A less expensive and I think equally valid approach is for using only one prompter.  Though a second prompter helps, the interviewer doesn’t necessarily need to see the subject directly.

But corporate budgets do often allow for a prompter and, I’ve found we just don’t need one to achieve a comfortable look.  I’ve developed my own approach that I feel works well for the corporate world…

I give the subject my normal prep as if it’s ‘just you and me having a conversation’.   Except here, I tell them, “But let’s pretend you’re on the moon and you’re talking to me back in mission control.”

And then I duck under the camera; sitting cross-legged under the camera on the floor or just off to the side, bowing my head down so as not to distract the person, and then I point right into the lens.  “OK. So, I’m right in here.”   

And, it really shouldn’t, but it works!

The subjects relax and I’m right there with them, engaged in conversation…  I pretend I’m blind and sometimes I’ve found myself rocking back and forth in agreement.  It helps me to focus on their messaging and develop my thoughts for the next question.

This has been an especially effective approach in marketing programs and webcast roll-ins where we’re trying to really engage the viewer.  Executives seem to be fine with this, though some prefer a prompter or notes in front of them if they’re going direct-to-camera.

I asked a CEO of one of the top petroleum companies in the world if he minded doing an interview direct-to-camera vs. to off-camera, and he told me it really doesn’t matter to him as long as there is someone there that he can talk to.

So I’ll end this on that note.  Cause isn’t that what it’s all been about?  Finding interesting people to talk to?   In the case of the executive interview, it’s not about you having to be interesting.  It’s really about finding what’s interesting about the person you’re talking with – so other people can share in the insight.

Here’s to all the interviewers out there!  I think most would agree, we’re a lucky lot!

A Shanghai travelogue

This is a long story about a short journey.  90+ hours of total door-to-door travel time for 36 hours in Shanghai.  Worth it?  You betcha!

Our illustrious, uncomplaining Director of Photography, Paul Arias, joined me at Exit 24 off I-95 at 4AM on Tuesday morning.   We arrived JFK three hours early as planned and found the check-in at that hour easy.

Our flight to LAX seemed a bit shorter than usual.  There already seemed to be about half the flight with Chinese nationals.  I was disappointed that there was no meal on the flight as I’d not had anything so early at the airport.  This was the first cross-country flight I’d been on where no meal was served.  Headphones were for purchase only as well.  But who’s complaining?  I slept half the way.

We were able to have a healthy lunch at LAX, and the cross-Pacific China Air flight of about 13 hours allowed me to start in on Keith Richards’ wrenching biography, Life.  That mixed with intermittent sleep made the time pass, if not quickly, at least fairly easily.  And they fed us!   There were three servings – breakfast (with great fruit), a snack and dinner (a decent noodle dish).  Beautiful Asian flight attendants; very attentive especially with the water.

Crossing the date line, we found ourselves arriving Shanghai at 7PM on Wednesday.  The Shanghai airport is modern and cavernous; miles of huge halls; easy early morning immigration and no stopping at customs.  Our visas worked!

I was immediately impressed with the cleanliness of the airport, and the large signs in both English and Chinese.  There was a Burger King at the airport and many large, tasteful billboards for jewelry and other bourgeois consumables.  Visa, other Western companies proudly advertise.  This is not your Father’s communism.

Per a suggestion from our IBM client, we took the MagLev train from the airport to downtown.  This eight minute ride at 300kph gave us a chance to see the layout of the surrounding countryside, the smooth-running traffic system, the modern, egalitarian housing and a wide range of unobtrusive billboards.   Many neighborhood downtowns were enhanced with neon and other colorful lights.  Older establishments seemed re-invigorated with large, colorful signs.  Much of the signage is also in English – easy to read; clear, concise words, usually all-cap.

Unfortunately, when we arrived at the downtown station and easily found our way to the Taxi stand, we realized we did not have the hotel name or address printed in Chinese characters, and our cab driver did not speak or read any English.  So, we showed him a number to call and he was able to get directions from the hotel’s operator.

We passed a group banging on drums on a street corner and I surmised that these were nationalist protesters expressing their discontent at the recent inflammatory purchase by Japan of the disputed island in the East China Sea.

The Marriot Apartments offered modern, luxury accommodations with 270 degree views (21st floor) from a four room suite.

After a quick clean up and call to the loved ones, Paul and I ventured out for an ‘authentic’ meal.  With our hotel’s surroundings being one huge modern shopping paradise, we found that search a bit daunting, though getting there was fun, traversing the five lanes of intersecting avenues in wide pedestrian crossing zones.   The westerners stood out to me in dress, manners and height.  I noticed on the plane and here on the street that many Chinese have an odd sense of ‘personal space’.  There’s a different kind of flocking behavior going on.  Yes, some courtesy, but usually an ‘I was here first’, oblivious kind of attitude. Or was I the rude, oblivious one?

I said I’d eat anywhere but a chain or a food court.  But there, amidst the majestic lights and big screen video of, yes, ‘TIMES SQUARE’, we found ourselves eating at a large ‘Food Mall’.   The first floor consists of a huge variety of merchants selling all sorts of Chinese specialties from exotic, colorful candies and cakes to dried worms.   We agreed this would be a great place to come back to later for gifts.

We took the escalators up two flights, past the Starbucks and the McDonalds, til we came to the third floor with two Japanese restaurants and a few more traditional places.  At 9PM, many of the places were just closing, but one restaurant let us in as most of their staff ate their end-of-shift dinners and giggled quietly amongst themselves.  Our waitress didn’t understand English. We struggled with the menu, which had vague indications of ‘mutton’ or ‘shrimp’, but large pictures.   We ordered what we thought were chicken dishes.  Our wait staff brought tea and some small soup bowls with our chopsticks and a moist napkin in a paper packet.  We asked for rice, and one of the young staff quickly got up from his dinner to heat it up in the microwave for us.

The dinner was inexpensive.  I left a five yuan tip on the table and the smiling young waitress ran after me, waving it at me.  “No, no”, I gestured.  “That’s for you.”  I pointed at her, waving her off.  She was adamant.  I was to keep it.  I was told later that tips are not accepted because there is fear that authorities will consider the person to be receiving a bribe of some kind.

We took a bit different path to get back to the hotel, and found a well-lit, modern electronics store where we were able to buy a conversion plug after finally finding someone able to speak English.  There were neat, Apple Store -like displays of the latest and greatest consumer products.  Does anyone not like their Samsung Galaxy?  I want something just a little bigger or smaller than what’s out there now…

Sleep came easy, though I was up intermittently through the night, unable to let a work day go by in the states without feeding my habitual control-freak behavior.

Our breakfast buffet the next morning was truly world class.  I won’t turn this into a bad wedding video (where they show the food), but I did in fact feel compelled to capture it for all to see.   Forgive the indulgence, but I found it cool how they catered to a range of European tastes while incorporating local strengths:  lychees, large grapes, and other fruit.  I don’t think I’ve ever had better bacon.

I spoke briefly with a gentleman, originally from Vancouver, who was in Auto Parts and had been coming to Shanghai on business for years.  We agreed he was a lucky guy to get this breakfast every morning.

We found it interesting – and a bit ominous – that Leon Panetta was on Global CNN visiting Beijing where a bottle had been thrown by a protester at his car.  PressTV – Panetta warns of war in East China Sea

Because Sec. Panetta and other dignitaries were dressed in traditional suit and tie, Paul convinced me it would be best for me to wear a tie to the gig.  I’m glad I did.

It took a while, but the hotel taxi attendant was able to transcribe the address for the IBM location we were visiting.  The wide main avenue was full of traffic at 9am, turning the mile long drive into 20 minutes, but allowing for some ‘out-of-window’ b-roll.  The architecture of the large buildings is innovative and original; construction everywhere you look.

The security at the Hyatt-office building combo was seamless and we were soon at the HQ for IBM’s Global Growth Markets team.   Our local crew had already loaded in, and I was pleased to meet our crew-leader, Adam, a late 20 something guy from San Francisco who’d come to Shanghai four years ago with an ex – but stayed.  “Food is cheap and you can pretty much do anything you want here.”

He’d just come from Tokyo via Hong Kong, where his connecting flight had been delayed seven hours due to the East China Sea tensions.

We talked about our not being able to access FaceBook, or other ‘comments’ sections of blogs and local papers.   He called it ‘the great firewall of china’.   He mentioned that one could get a VPN – a virtual personal network – to enable access.

He and our charming local IBM hostess suggested:

The Bund – An historic colonial district

Huai Hai Lou – A long street known for shopping

Xu Jai Hui – Another historic district where Electronics could be found

We only made it to one of those, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be back in Shanghai sometime. IBM’s presence there continues to grow.

The shoot went well as we captured two executives talking about mobile computing and how countries like China and India are ‘leap frogging’ western adaptation of mobile without having had a ‘PC’ revolution.  You’ll have to tune into the webcast to learn more about all that.

After set-up, we had some time for Paul to go to street level to shoot some B-roll.

There was a language barrier with the rest of the Chinese crew, but they were each bringing a positive, can-do attitude.  We noticed a certain colonial-era condescension born of frustration from our SF friend when our lighting person seemed to think they’d left a key component back at the shop.  Phone calls back to the rental house and directions to have it delivered ASAP were all for naught as it was discovered that we did in fact have the part.   Having things go wrong like that was said to be the norm (snafu’s), but things always work out and get done.  Roads are paved overnight, like clockwork.  People are marshaled and big things happen quickly, but the lack of attention to details drives this Westerner nuts.

The make-up person used the more studio-normal ‘liquid pancake’ technique that works well under hotter lights. I prefer powder when able, but that’s best with a softer lighting environment.

Both of our on-camera IBM subjects delivered beautifully and we were able to wrap up by 1PM or so.  Again, our lack of Chinese proved a problem in letting taxi attendants and drivers know where to take us, but Paul had the ingenious idea of using the Chinese address on the back of the card key to get us back to the hotel.  We had a quick hotel lunch (somewhat bland Wonton Soup with too many Raman noodles for me) and naps.  I was able to take a sauna and steam, and wished I’d brought my suit for the large pool.

In a text, Adam suggested we might stop by the offices of our local production team to discuss the partnership relationship I’d mentioned I’d hoped to cultivate.  This time, I had a text from Adam of the Chinese characters to show the taxi driver.  He took us quickly under two tunnels, through various neighborhoods, to the ‘artsy’ district where, above a photography shop, the 29 person production company resides.  Comprised of expats from a wide range of countries, they represent videography, editing, animation and audio support that I’m expecting will form the basis of our Shanghai production capabilities.

One of the company’s principles, Thomas, spent a half hour with us discussing ways in which we can work with them to support opportunities from both US and China-based multi-nationals.   An impressive team.  Great for business long term, but it cut into our daylight b-roll time.

Thankfully, the area just behind their shop, Tianzifang, is a unique historic district where near-claustrophobic alleyways feature small, attractive shops and enticing bars and cafes.  Oh, to be here with my life partner to really shop.  I nearly made twenty different impulse buys – the prices were low, the hand made quality undeniable.  ‘NO PHOTOS’ posted (we were warned they’d take your camera away), but I and other tourists took a few quick shots anyway.  Completely unique and charming.

We took a cab during rush hour to The Bund District, taking video along the way, arriving at the pier area just after sunset.  I wish I’d been able to get a shot of that large statue of Mao.   The riverside boardwalk is the largest I’ve seen… like the one in Brooklynn times a hundred.  Huge.  Grand.  Someone had a brilliant vision and was able to apply millions of people’s talents to make that happen.

It had been suggested that we visit the rooftop of the Roosevelt Hotel for a great view.  The impressive Victorian stone building was beautifully appointed, and, though the dining room looked opulent and the food smelled great on the way up to the rooftop bar, the $15/each beers persuaded us to find another place for dinner.  There was a business conference (name tags are a sure giveaway) of mixed westerners, but the music was loud Miami beach out of an amazing Bose speaker system.  We took shots of the panoramic cityscape in front of us with the beautifully lit skyscrapers and funky blinking ships cruising between the barges on the wide river.

We agreed we were truly fortunate to be able to visit this place at this time in history; to see something that most can only dream about.  The 21st is truly China’s century.  One only need stand atop the Roosevelt hotel after dark to see that.

We strolled past the historic, stone-columned ‘Custom House’ as a few beautiful, very healthy looking young women discretely whispered, “Massage?”

We hoofed it hungrily through city streets and avoided a couple foul smelling places, opting to leave one establishment that looked full of locals on the ground floor, but, when they took us to our Westerner’s isolation on the second floor, it gave us too much time to realize the place wasn’t clean and the smell became stronger than the desire for authenticity.

Soon, we found just what we were looking for:  though too bright, this place offered the ‘real deal’, with pleasant, albeit inattentive service.  We were the only Caucasions and the four plasma TV’s played nationalistic salutes to the military and patriotism.  I enjoyed sharing this photo via MMS and email with Tom and our transcriptionist…

We ordered: (clockwise from upper left) hot n sour soup, eel paste, green beans with hot pepper and garlic, and kung pao chicken.  The soup tasted much like authentic Boston China Town, but a bit ‘earthier’.  The eel paste was somewhat odd at first, but grew on me. Even Paul didn’t think it was half bad with its chewy little eel morsels in a semi-sweet sauce.  We both loved the green beans, a simple mix of very fresh beans, garlic and red pepper, al dente.   The chicken was also similar to a real deal China Town place, simple tender cubes with peanuts with a not overly sweet sauce.  We could have used some white rice, bud didn’t know how to ask for it.  I couldn’t finish the large beer, so Paul finished it for me.

We went for a long stroll after dinner toward what looked on the map to be an interesting tourist area featuring the Shanghai Town God’s Temple.

Toy helicopters were being shot off and descending all around us.  Deals were being attempted even before we knew what they were selling.  “How much you pay?”  “Only hundred each.”  I did my best to ignore them, but Paul was too nice to a street salesman who followed us for at least a full city block and from whom Paul ultimately haggled (your supposed to) a price of 70 Yuan (about 10 dollars) for two sets of light-up roller skates for his kids.   I bought a funky flexible small camera tripod for about five dollars.

The lit traditional temple-like buildings provided a great shopping and people watching area (auto free) that allowed us to wander amongst thousands of happy, mostly Chinese tourists.  Colorful lighting displays augmented the plaza areas and the whole effect was one of an exotic, modern Asian street fair.   Everyone could get their favorite food or an affordable toy.  People considered this a special, happy place.

It never stopped seeming odd to me that each family consisted of only one child.  We saw a few European-looking dogs being walked on the streets, with a couple off-leash.  Generally clean streets.

We laughed as one bicycle cart – with two riders – was loaded to the sky with boxes like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.

We made our way West toward the river where we thought we’d have a better chance at finding a taxi.  As we progressed, I notice there were more single men walking through this upscale neighborhood.   Was he just cruising me?

Then, as we approached a hotel where taxis seemed to be stopping, there was a block where two or three men approached us with, “Massage?”   One particularly aggressive hustler seemed very eager to help Paul find a taxi.   We were in fact having a bit of difficulty as two older drivers with poor eye sight were unable to read the small print on the back of the hotel key.  After ultimately finding a young, 20-20-enabled driver, I noticed the young poser now leaning provocatively against the light post, like a scene from Christopher Street circa 1979.   Paul was completely non-plussed.

Sleep came easily, although, comparing notes the next morning at our last luxurious breakfast, we found that neither of us had slept more than three or four hours at a time.  Paul had gotten up around four that morning and run through the city. I again had micro managed from a distance, trying not to let the distance be a delayed response to my clients.  Next time, I’ll have a base ops person identified, but this trip, all at home were already pretty busy.

The forty minute taxi to the airport cost less than $30US and, again, I was struck by the grandeur of the construction projects.   The hundred thousand unit condo cities being built on the outskirts of Shanghai, the long, tall streetlamp-lined, straight-as-can-be highway leading into the airport.  Master visions, master plans, masterfully executed.   Coming into Terminal Two, we noticed that there were in fact two huge mirror terminals connected by a grand hotel.  Check in and security were painless.

Changing planes in Tokyo, I was able to send some email (love Boingo Hot Spots) and try Unagi (eel) sushi locally.  Of course, best ever.  Not from a packet.

Toward the end of our 12 hour flight from Tokyo to DC, after watching a sampling of Weeds episodes I’d missed from not having Showtime, I tuned in to Smash, the Glee for adults.  I lucked into seeing Katherine McPhee’s amazing performance of Run.   I’d always loved the song, but her interpretation is magnificent.  Go ahead.  Click the link.  She’s lip syncing of course.  But even Keith Richard lip synced a few times.   

With this song as a backdrop, having finished a breakfast that gives credence to the claim that in-flight meals have in fact reached a new plateau (a spinach and cheese omelet with a hint of tomato sauce, not-so-soggy hash browns and a hot-dog sized Viennese sausage), I watched the three or four flight attendants assigned to my side of the plane work in concert together to clear the empty trays.  I try to avoid superlatives, but never before have I witnessed a more in-tune flight crew.   So often, travelers sit and wait for the overly tired servers pushing the cart back to clear their trashed trays, usually taking 15 to 20 minutes to finally let us get on with our self-destraction.  Not this team.  I could tell they didn’t want their guests to sit with their trays any longer than they’d like.  What an impression they made on me.

Perhaps it was a combination of the long journey with the song that gave soundtrack to their ballet, but seeing these attendants tending to us as if they actually enjoyed serving…  well, it opened the floodgates of my tears.  No lie.  I cried watching a United flight crew work well together.  Great coordinated service – like the first time you hear a beautifully written song interpreted well by a cohesive group of performers – can do that for me.  I can only hope our customers get a fraction of that sense when they watch our team working together.

On my final trip to the restroom, I was able to tell one of the crew that they’d made me cry.  I could tell she was touched and she promised to share the compliment with her fellow crew members.  “Yeah, this is a good team.  We’ve all pretty much worked together over the years.”  They were more mature than most crews, lead by a fifty something Latin gentleman; more ‘old school’ perhaps.  But, as I told her, I haven’t seen coordinated service like that since a high end Mexico City restaurant.

A quick and easy immigration-luggage transfer process in DC, before catching a small commuter jet back to JFK.  It was here I believe that I realized that, when you’re standing at baggage claim waiting for your bag, you become the bag.  “Here I am!”  Just like in golf.  “Yep.  That’s you over there”.  Are we in fact our luggage?  That’s a whole other blog.

Finally, a short, not so jet-lagged ride home to New London.  90 hours or so door to door.   Easy.

Who says business travel can’t be rewarding – even as an end to itself?   It separates the cry babies from the merely emotional; gives patience a new name; ensures you must be comfortable in your own skin, in your own assigned seat, occupying your own thoughts for hours on end, drifting in and out of meditation and sleep as you wish, with no place to go but home – or to places we once only read about or saw on TV.  Either direction, I enjoy the journey.

Special thanks to Paul for being such an easy travel companion; to Monica and Santiago for facilitating our visas; to Michelle for coordinating shoot logistics; and most of all to the love of my life, Tom, for arranging the perfect travel details.   Thank you all for making this one truly memorable excursion!

Chip’s Business Travel Tips

Well, I can’t say I invented them, but I can attest to their benefits.  This is your bonus for being good readers and so I’m rewarding you with these 30 nuggets of wisdom.  Perhaps leave a comment with your own tip.  These have not been put in chronological order – feel free to do that for me and send it back if you’d like – and I’ll repost it. I can do that.  It’s WordPress.

1. Find out beforehand if the flight will have a meal.  Don’t count on it.  Peanuts and pretzels do not a meal make. The to-go sandwiches near the gates have generally gotten better.  If you can find sushi, go for it!  It’ll make everyone jealous and you’ll feel mentally stronger for the flight.

2. Set your watch to the destination’s time zone as the plane is taking off.  Start thinking of yourself in that time zone.

3. If you have a window seat, keep the window closed after take-off to keep yourself in your upcoming time zone.  They’re making people keep the window down during long flights after lights have been dimmed now anyway.

4. Turn the air on and direct it to your face so you can get a bit more oxygen and lessen that stuffed-in-the-can-like-sardines feeling.  Think of it as your personal spa treatment.  And it’ll help quell any defacatory invasions to your olfactory zone.

5. Drink lots of water on long flights.  Pick up a bottle before getting on the plane or use the free drinking fountains at the gate.  I’ve never gotten sick from a drinking fountain.

6. Do your best to get an aisle seat, no matter how far back in the plane, so you can get up, walk around and stretch out at least every two to three hours.  If you don’t have an aisle seat, don’t hesitate to let the person next to you know you need to get out.  Don’t suffer for them.  When possible, go when others go.

7. I have a trick for unblocking my ears during decent where I block my nose and blow gently into my ears, but I would suggest doing it carefully as it might destroy your ear drums.  In fact, scratch that.  I didn’t say anything about that.

8. Keep shifting your butt in your seat. It’s easy for it to fall asleep without you knowing it.

9. Don’t be afraid to touch the elbow of the person next to you.  When in doubt, use the arm rest, but be willing to share.  Try not to just give it up to be nice.  I’ve never had an elbow war, but a couple times I have given up the arm rest if the person is obese.  The person is already miserable sitting in that seat – it’s the least you can do… but in the absence of obesity, it’s as much your arm rest as theirs.

10. See if your seat has the head rest that is flexible.  If you can bend it and rest an ear on one side, you’ll get less stiff neck syndrome.  If you do get a stiff neck, just gently roll and stretch it out.  You get more used to it the more you travel.  Learning to sleep sitting up is a rewarding accomplishment.

11. Suggest to the person next to you that they can feel free to tap your elbow if you start to embarrass yourself by snoring.

12. Bring a long book and don’t hesitate to turn on your overhead light.  They’ll deal with it.

13. For security, wear easily slip on – slip off shoes (like in Up in the Air) and (if you’re not wearing a sport jacket), put your wallet, mobile, watch, keys and anything else in your pocket into your carry on bag with your mobile on top, keeping your boarding pass in a secure pocket as you walk through security.  Yes, some airports no longer require you to have it, but you’ll know where it is when you get to the other side and can check your gate info.

14. I know I’m old fashioned, but I like to dress up a bit for the flight. If you’re a guy, consider wearing a sport jacket.  You can always take it off, but the extra pockets are more secure.  Flight attendants treat you with more respect and, it hasn’t happened for a while, but you’ll likely be the first one bumped up to first class if there’s an extra seat.  Well, a guy can hope.

15. Be sure to be registered for any points you can get.  I’m not as fastidious as I should be.  Thankfully, I have people who help me with that.  Perhaps find a person who has a vested interest in sharing your points with you.

16. Use GoogleMaps and Starred Places for as many places you know you’ll be going before leaving the States.  You never know how much coverage you’ll get in any new location until you get there.

17. Before going to another country, update your phone’s global roaming.  Zero and pound out of the VRU (Voice Response Unit – my first impulse is always zero pound) and talk to a live person.  You’ll sleep better the night before.

18. Don’t drink a lot of coffee or alcohol if you want to keep your equilibrium and avoid jet lag.

19. If you get nervous about flying, do the crossword puzzle in the inflight magazine.  Or look at the route maps and think positive thoughts of all those flights multiplied by a thousand airlines multiplied by 365 days in a year of flights traveling these routes successfully around the globe, and you’ll realize that it would be hubris to think that YOUR flight would be the one to have a major problem.  More people die from shoveling snow than plane crashes.

20. Think of the baby crying behind you as if it were your own and you were the poor parent trying to just make it through this one flight so she can see her grandma for the first time.  Or consider trying to channel the primal scream therapy.  And remember, you cried like a baby at one time in your life as well.  Don’t blame the parents.  They do their best.  If you have a solution, share it.  Otherwise, deal with it.

21. Be open to learning something unique from the person sitting next to you, but don’t impose yourself.   And don’t be afraid to show disinterest if you’re not sensing a connection.  If the conversation and mutual interest is there, you’ll know it.  Just remember, you’ll likely never see this person again, so it’s often a good chance to get an objective opinion on something that might have been weighing on your mind.  Don’t take it personally if they don’t want to talk.  And don’t feel obliged to do so.  I’ve met some of my best role models at 30,000 feet.

22. Never get into an unmetered cab.  Get a receipt from the cab driver unless it’s on a credit card.

23. I check one bag. Sure, you can compact yourself and carry it on in one unit, but I like to be unburdened in the long trek to the gate and in the restaurant before boarding.  It’s been a long time since a bag’s not made it, knock wood.

24. Consider putting the ‘do not disturb’ sign outside your room after you leave if staying more than one night so the room cleaner doesn’t come in.  You’ll feel less entitled and more at home.  Yes, you can use the same towel twice and hang it to dry.  Still give them the tip you would for multiple days because you’ve shed just as much skin as if they’d cleaned it daily.

25. Try to avoid room service.  It’s expensive, and stinks up and messes up the room.

26. Don’t beat yourself up for forgetting to leave a tip for housekeeping, but try to leave extra tip the next time.  Most people are chincy.   Tip!   Karma.

27. Find some way to enjoy local music whenever possible.  Try the local food. Think of the things you ‘can’t get at home’.

28. Don’t forget your bathing suit.  Sometimes you’ll have time for a swim.

29. Use an ATM machine to get cash when you get off the plane.  They’re safe and usually have the best exchange rates.  Avoid the change offices – bad exchange rates and high fees.

30. Try to create an itinerary that might allow for your travel to be interrupted.  You might have to sit on the runway too long and miss your connecting flight.   Weather delays.  Any number of things can and do happen.  Thankfully, delays are not the norm.  And sometimes they’ll throw you a cookie if they really mess up your plans.

Please feel free to send this link to anyone you know.