Sridhar Ramanathan
Guest Article

How David Ogilvy's unique advice improved my conversations

He would come to office on most mornings, and we would go back to the hotel for lunch. One day, he asked me, "How ambitious are you? What do you think is coming in the way of your growth?"

David Ogilvy visited our Bangalore office in 1987. We had just started our direct marketing business. He saw a lot of our work. He felt that our strategic thinking was sound. But our creative execution needed improvement.

I had learnt from New York that he loves chocolates and ice cream. So, we had stocked our refrigerator with both.

We met some days at the office, and some other days at the West End Hotel, where he stayed. He was inquisitive and asked me a lot of questions. He was surprised that I don't smoke or drink. He was keen to know about our family and lifestyle. It took me some courage, and I invited him home for lunch. A simple South Indian lunch at home. He readily accepted it and came home for lunch.

He met my mother, wife and daughter Pavitra. He spoke to my mother. She was clad in a nine yard sari, like a traditional Tamilian Brahmin lady. He was pleased that she could reply in English.

He noticed that a couple of devices were connected to our TV set. He wanted to know what they were. It was ZX Spectrum home computer. The software used to be in audio cassettes. The cassette recorder and the computer were connected to the TV. It worked as the computer screen.

He wanted to know who uses this. He was surprised that our daughter used it. She was thrilled to give him a quick demo.

He mentioned to me that he had never met a traditional South Indian family before. He was struck by the simplicity of our home.

He would come to office on most mornings, and we would go back to the hotel for lunch. One day, he asked me, "How ambitious are you? What do you think is coming in the way of your growth?"

I was quite taken aback by that direct question. I asked for some time to think about it. When we met the next day, he reminded me of our conversation the previous day.

"One thing that could be coming in my way is, probably, my background. I come from a conservative family. I don't drink or smoke. So, I am often stuck, and do not know how to carry on a conservation in social situations."

"So, convert that into your advantage. Don't worry about your background, or what you don't know. Not knowing gives you the licence to be inquisitive. You listen well. Learn to ask good questions. Remember, there is a difference between asking questions to understand and being inquisitive. Always be polite when you frame your questions. If it is an important meeting, plan well. What do you want from the meeting, and plan your questions. What do you need to know to get a good brief from your client. If it is a social occasion, just listen well. Be interested. And interesting. Learn to tell stories well."

"How do I keep the conversation moving forward?"

"Listen well and show them you are listening. Use a question to build the conversation. Mention the last point the person may have mentioned and say, 'That is interesting, I did not know this', or 'Where can I get to know more about this?', or 'Who is the expert on this?'. Occasionally say, 'You just mentioned a point about your market. Can you elaborate?', or 'How can I learn more about this subject?'."

It is a three-decade-old advice, but it is still fresh in my mind. Has it improved my conversations? Well, I can say that I am still learning!

(The author is a former ad agency executive, and was associated with Ogilvy for over two decades. He is also a speaker, ideation facilitator, executive coach and author. The article was first published on the author's blog on LinkedIn and has been reproduced with permission.)