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You’ve been working your tail off to get ready for this presentation. The work is some of the best you’ve ever done. And it’s being held captive. In the next hour or so, depending on the client, your big idea will live or die. What we have here is a hostage crisis.

It sounds far-fetched, but getting what you want out of this situation, whether it’s from a CMO or David Koresh, is fundamentally the same thing. True, Wolf Blitzer won’t be covering it on CNN. There won’t be any helicopters hovering overhead or SWAT teams hunkered down outside the conference room. Still, it’s a standoff. You on one side of the table. The client, the other. You, on the one hand, are mad crazy in love with the work. She, on the other hand, is not.

In the ’60s, you could stomp up and down, pound your fist against the wall, and threaten to jump out the window if you didn’t get what you want. George Lois once did this to great effect. These days, that kind of thing will only succeed in (a) getting you fired and (b) getting your work—a.k.a. the hostage—killed. But FBI negotiators have a five-step system for defusing a hostage crisis and getting someone to let the hostages go. It works for them, and there’s no reason it can’t work for you.

Step 1: Active Listening. The FBI says this is where every successful hostage negotiation starts. It's just what it sounds like. You listen—and you listen like you mean it. You say very little. No buts. No yes-but-what-abouts. You don't disagree. You don't judge. You just sit there, you nod your head and you actually pay attention without drifting off into thoughts like whether you're having Chinese or Mexican for lunch. You make eye contact. You mirror back what she's saying. You say things like "Yep" and "Uh-huh" and "I can understand that." You ask short questions without an agenda. Anything that shows you are hanging on her every word. There is a reason you do this.
Step 2: Empathy. Here's the thing. Listening i the breeding ground of empathy. And right now, you want empathy. Empathy is a huge deal in a hostage crisis. You know why? Because empathy says, "I get you. I understand why you se things that way. And you know what? If I were you, I might see the same thing." Empathy shows that you understand what it must be like to stand in her shoes. That you see where she's coming from. That you know how she feels. That her feelings are as valid as anyone's, especially yours.
Step 3: Rapport. So far, so good. The client believes that you feel what she feels. That you actually do see her side. If she didn't trust you before, she's starting to now. At the beginning, she might have thought you were only interested in yourself. Your work. Your ego. Your week in Cannes. If the situation were reversed, would you trust you? Hardly. Once you've established rapport, then you know you're moving closer to freeing your work.
Step 4: Influence. No we're getting somewhere. You've listened. You've shown empathy. You've got a connection going. This is when both of you get to throw solutions on the table. You: Can we make the brand insinuate itself a bit less in the film? She: Is there a different photography? You: Are you married to this color? She: Are you married to this director? I should warn you, though: most creatives are impatient. We want to go right to step 4, brefore we've set the table emotionally. Don't let it happen. Thke the time to work the situation, don't rush it and do the steps. With any luck, your client will believe in you, and better yet, the hostage will live to see another day.
Step 5: Behavior Change. For the FBI, this is when the hostages are freed and everyone breathes a sigh of relief and goes home, to have dinner, watch Jimmy Fallon and call it a day. You give the hostage-taker something. She gives you something. You walk away with the work pretty much unscathed. Better yet, you both feel a sense of trust that maybe wasn't there before.
Needless to say, it’s only advertising. If the client shoots down your campaign, well, you and I know you’ll live to create another. But there are times when an idea is so perfect, so glaringly appropriate for the brand, that even if your client doesn’t see it at the time, you might consider asking yourself, “What would the FBI do?” ca

Ernie Schenck (ernieschenckcreative.prosite.com) is a freelance writer, a creative director and a regular contributor to CA’s Advertising column. An Emmy finalist, three-time Kelley nominee and a perennial award winner—the One Show, Clios, D&AD, Emmys and Cannes—Schenck worked on campaigns for some of the most prestigious brands in the world in his roles at Hill Holliday/Boston, Leonard Monahan Saabye and Pagano Schenck & Kay. He lives with his wife and daughter in Jamestown, Rhode Island.
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