No Lips for the Trumpet: The Rhythm of Persuasion


I was always into music, but never very musical.

When I started senior school, the music department put me down to learn the trumpet. My brother Martin was already studying it and we could share the same instrument. Although the trumpet may not have been my first choice, I nonetheless conjured up images of myself as a lovelorn Chet Baker, charming a smoke-filled jazz club with my unique version of ‘But Not for Me.’

I arrived at my first lesson eager with anticipation.

My new tutor, a stern, bearded fellow who looked like he’d rather be somewhere else, began by instructing me on the correct embouchure. I had to practice buzzing my lips into the mouthpiece. As easy as blowing a raspberry, he said.

However, after several attempts, we established that this foundation skill was beyond me.

‘I’m sorry to tell you this, son. You’ve got no lips for the trumpet.’

And that was the end of that.

I had to come to terms with the fact: though I loved music, music did not love me.

'They're writing songs of love, but not for me.
A lucky star's above, but not for me.
Although I can't dismiss the memory of her kiss,
I guess she's not for me.'

Chet Baker, 'But Not for Me' (Ira and George Gershwin)

And yet I have always liked to listen to theorists talking about music’s hidden mysteries. I’m fascinated when experts deconstruct chord progressions, scales and arpeggios; major and minor keys; time signatures and tempos; verse, chorus, middle 8, chorus. I remain impressed that, beneath the sweet soulful melodies I adore, there is shape, structure and form; that there is architecture in music.

After spending a few years in the advertising profession, I realised that arguments too have their own hidden anatomy; that behind the seduction of salesmanship, there is order and design; that there is a rhythm to persuasion.

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Take for example the pitch. For all the many and varied presentations that I attended over the course of my career, I’d suggest that most of the successful ones shared the same shape.

They’d begin with enthusiasm to put the Clients at their ease.

Yours is a great brand with an extraordinary heritage and unique ongoing characteristics.’

But confidence would turn to concern for the challenges that lie ahead.

‘You’re assaulted on all sides: by new market forces, new competitors, new consumer tastes and preferences. It’s difficult out there, and it could get a whole lot worse.’

The Clients would be a little unsettled, but the pitch would invite some hope: taking a broader view of the sector; observing the evolving cultural context in which the brand competes.

‘The market is on the move. There is change afoot. It may have begun with a few outliers, but it will soon be mainstream.’

Next would come the tricky bit. The best pitches would identify a means by which the Clients could take a leadership position, at the heart of sector reinvention; hitching the brand to culture; driving reappraisal, not falling victim to it.

‘With our idea we can position you at the forefront of social and industry transformation. And only our idea can take you there.’

The Clients would complete their rollercoaster journey with feelings of expectation and excitement.

I’m generalising somewhat. Of course every pitch is different. And I’m talking about an era when strategy was more concerned with positioning than precipitating specific behavioural change. But I’d still maintain that most of the good presentations shared this simple pattern: enthusiasm for the brand; empathy with its challenges; vision of cultural and sector revolution; and all culminating in an idea that positions the brand in the vanguard of change.

It’s a simple pattern, but it’s one that often eludes us in the midst of big meeting pressures and deadlines. We frequently fail to impose structure and shape on our arguments. We forget to start with the Client and consumer perspective. We ignore the emotive power of light and shade. We neglect the need to build positive momentum in the second half. We say all the right things, but in the wrong order.  

The lesson is simple. When you’re pitching, don’t just think about the right answer; think about the rhythm of persuasion.

I had one last attempt at becoming a proper musician. Inspired by Neil Young’s plaintive performance of ‘Heart of Gold,’ I bought myself a Hohner mouth organ. I imagined that the harmonica might be a less challenging route to rock’n’roll credentials, and I’d seen that Hohner was the singer-songwriter’s brand of choice on ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test.’ Sadly the instruction manual was rather rudimentary and my dedication to the task was merely modest. I only managed to master the tonguing of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’

‘I want to live.
I want to give.
I've been a miner for a heart of gold.
It's these expressions
I never give
That keep me searching for a heart of gold.
And I'm getting old.’
Neil Young, ‘Heart of Gold’

No. 175