Everyone has the most beautiful baby: A very basic lesson in communication

It’s 8:55 a.m. in Woking, 4.55 p.m. in Nanjing, and my brain is in overdrive. In five minutes, I am to conduct a telephone interview with the Financial Director of a Dutch-Chinese resins manufacturer. The topic for my article, which is to appear in a client in-house magazine, is How standard business processes can enhance the order-to-cash function and therefore reduce financial risk exposure. As I fire up my computer and turn off the answering machine, intellectual squadrons are scrambling in my mind. It seems that I know nothing about resins manufacture, nothing about standard business processes, and nothing about the order-to-cash function. How am I to conduct an effective interview on these subjects with a total stranger on the other side of the world?

It’s 24° C in Woking. The Internet informs me that it’s 38° C in Nanjing, but Woking currently feels much hotter. I’ve lost my contact’s name and telephone number, and I’m not sure how to address Chinese people correctly. Wasn’t I once told that the essence of PR is Preparation & Research? Persistence & Resourcefulness? Passion & Resilience?

Whatever. I’ve located the name and number at last and am now inside the echoing labyrinth of a Chinese-language automated answering service. After listening numbly for a while I assume that the passionate and resilient PR person simply continues pressing ‘1’ in response to the sing-song of alien syllables. Gingerly, I press ‘1’.

And am immediately connected with my contact, who to my surprise speaks English with charm, grace, and crystalline clarity, if not quite an Oxford accent. ‘Li Ming!’ I chime. ‘May I call you Li Ming …?’

So far so good. But my more technical challenges concerning the optimisation of the order-to-cash function remain unanswered. I need an icebreaker, although the subjective temperature in Woking is still climbing. My fingers are rattling on the keyboard, desperately typing ‘Nanjing’ into Google.

‘Tell me about Nanjing’

A pause ensues in the conversation that has not yet really got under way. The telephone line crackles expensively. On screen, pictures of wide-eyed dragons appear between pagodas and ginkgo trees. I see a lake, a bridge, a city wall … ‘Li Ming,’ I say, inspired, ‘tell me about Nanjing …’

‘Nanjing?’ asks Li Ming.

‘Yes, Nanjing,’ I reiterate breathily.

‘Ah,’ replies Li Ming, ‘very beautiful city, home to many great dynasties. We have mountains – ’

‘Ah yes, I can see them – ’

‘And a lake – ’

‘Oh, wonderful, I can see it – ’

‘And the longest surviving city wall in the world – ’

Five minutes and five thousand years of Chinese history later, Li Ming and I are jawing away like old friends. Nanjing, Peking, Woking, Barking – it’s a very small world, really. Li Ming and I are just about to swap home phone numbers when I remember that we are supposed to be discussing the order-to-cash function.

‘And I understand,’ I continue in the same familiar tone, ‘that you and your colleagues have been doing a little work recently on optimising the order-to-cash function?’

‘Ah,’ responds Li Ming, ‘OtC. Very interesting subject …’

As it actually transpires to be – for Li Ming approaches the topic with the same infectious enthusiasm that he feels for his native city. My pencil whizzes across the page under the watchful gaze of a pixellated red-and-gold dragon who now seems kindly, sagacious and arcanely amused by everything he sees.

‘And this led to measurable cost savings?’ I inquire, scribbling as I speak.

‘Absolutely,’ affirms Li Ming warmly. ‘Not only to measurable cost savings but also to a quantifiable reduction in our risk profile …’

Long live Internal Control!
Thirty minutes later, and I have decided that the OtC function is the most important element in any business and that those dedicated few who spend their lives trying to optimise it are the heroes of the modern world. Long live Internal Control!

‘You must come to Nanjing,’ says Li Ming as we terminate our conversation.

‘Indeed, indeed,’ I respond, ‘and you must come to Woking, the weather here is just like where you are …’

Putting down the receiver and dropping my worn-down pencil, I push back my chair with a sigh and reflect on what I have learned. As my brain begins to cool, it strikes me that I have indeed found out all that I need to understand about the order-to-cash function for my 500-word article. And I’ve learned a little about Nanjing, a city about which I previously knew nothing. I’ve also been reminded of the importance of preparation, preparation, preparation … (mental note: ‘MUST TRY HARDER’).

But the most important lesson, which is a PR lesson, is the simplest. I think it’s that, in some sense, everyone comes from the best place in the world – and that everyone needs the opportunity to say so and be taken seriously. In some deep way that my bug-eyed digital dragon understands, everyone really does have the most beautiful baby. Everyone really does have the most intelligent dog. And everything else you need to know follows from that.

Text © Jonathan Steffen

This article first appeared on the website of Surrey Chambers of Commerce (http://surrey-chambers.co.uk/).

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