Watching your sexual encounter play out in detail in the media must surely be the most humiliating moment anyone could possibly endure. The impact on the subject’s career and reputation is significant and long lasting. Look at the lengths to which Jeff Bezos went to keep his embarrassing images out of the public eye.
Add to that accusations of sexual harassment, followed by a media storm – it’s enough to floor anyone and seriously damage their reputation (current President of the United States excluded).
That’s what American actor and comedian Aziz Ansari dealt with in 2018 when an anonymous woman ‘Grace’ accused him of sexual assault at a time when the #metoo movement was at its peak. His name was being used in the same stories as Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K and many were divided about whether or not it belonged there.
At the time, he made a short statement, and that was the last we had heard from him on the matter until his new stand up show on Netflix. His first step towards repairing his public reputation.
Aziz uses Right Now to show that he’s human, has learnt a lot and that he’s not just a great comedian – but a good communicator.
He takes an unusually sombre approach to the opening and closing of his stand-up comedy act. But it is an incredibly smart one that shows effective communication skills.
Why Aziz’s use of stand-up comedy is a brilliant communication strategy.
When you say something, mean it.
Aziz addressed the facts at the time the scandal broke – within 2 days. He then seemingly spent the next 18 months processing and dealing with what had occurred. By the time he was ready, he had considered, very carefully, how he felt and how he wanted to deal with things and was crystal clear in sharing that he was a changed man, for the better, because of the lessons he learnt during that time.
Remove the ‘noise’ or distractions that can deter your audience from giving you their full attention.
Right Now is the first live comedy show Aziz has performed since the 2018 scandal. That scandal is the elephant in the room – and that elephant is distracting. Distractions like this act as barriers to effective communication.
He addresses the scandal at the very beginning of the show – around 5 minutes in. He talks about it openly, sincerely and for the right amount of time. He leaves the audience feeling satisfied with what he’s had to say, and they’re now ready to let that curiosity go and focus on enjoying the show. Here’s what he said – not a joke in sight and no effort made to lighten that part of his set.
“I haven’t said much about that whole thing, but I’ve talked about it on this tour, because you’re here and it means a lot to me. And I’m sure some of you are curious how I feel about that whole situation. And it’s a tricky thing for me to answer ’cause I felt so many things in the last year or so.
There’s times I felt scared. There’s times I felt humiliated. There’s times I felt embarrassed. And ultimately, I just felt terrible that this person felt this way. And after a year or so, I just hope it was a step forward.
It moved things forward for me and made me think about a lot. I hope I’ve become a better person. And I always think about a conversation I had with one of my friends where he was like, ‘You know what, man? That whole thing made me think about every date I’ve ever been on.’ And I thought, ‘Wow. Well, that’s pretty incredible. It’s made not just me, but other people be more thoughtful, and that’s a good thing.’ And that’s how I feel about it”.
Don’t speak out of school.
Aziz makes very special care to not blame, mention or attack the woman who accused him of sexual assault. She is not there to defend herself, and also, it’s not his place to discuss how she felt or what she was thinking. He speaks only of himself and offers insight into the impact of the scandal on him personally and professionally.
He chose a communication platform he is comfortable with, where he can speak directly to his more important audience.
At his show – the people who are willing to pay to watch him – are his fans. They already like him. They want him to succeed on that stage. It was the right audience, in a live space where he had full control of the message, and full confidence that his audience would support him. He also gave them the courtesy of being the first to hear from him on the matter, in the most personal way he can offer en-masse.
The media picked up the story from there. And of course, the message reached viewers directly all around the world.
He didn’t depend upon a direct media communication strategy to share his story. He spoke to his most important audience, directly himself, first. A great way to solidify loyalty.
There is no substitute for in-person communication.
Watching Aziz discuss the incident made me cringe. He appeared uncomfortable delivering it, as he slouched on his stool. The pace of his voice was slow. His tone and volume, low. His delivery, measured. He used the power of voice in verbal communication and body language to underscore his message. That’s the brilliance of it. It was no doubt rehearsed. But in person the best way to address such difficult topics.
A powerful lesson in public opinion.
Aziz used an audience ‘poll’ to make a point to all those who rushed to vocalise their strong views on the scandal in 2018. He shares an outrageous story about Pizza Hut, delivering a pizza that had its meat topping arranged in the shape of a swastika. He tells the audience people were outraged on social media and took polarising positions. Some condemning the chain, whilst others claiming it was a complete misunderstanding. He asks them – who thinks it did look like a swastika – and by way of applause, some in the audience thought it did, some thought it did not.
So you can arrange the embarrassment when he reveals the incident didn’t even occur. He just made it up. His point – people are quick to give an opinion even on things that never even existed.
Ending on a serious note.
Comedy often has serious undertones or messages. But a flat out serious ending is rare. Wanda Sykes ends her Not Normal stand-up comedy special with a hilarious sex joke. Dave Chapelle with his fourth OJ Simpson Encounter.
Aziz Ansari – ends his with “I saw the world where I don’t ever get to do this again, and it almost felt like I died”. He even declares the old Aziz is dead. He asks the audience to really take in the moment with him. A moment he has previously taken for granted and one that he wasn’t sure he would enjoy again. And thanks them from the bottom of his heart. No LOLs. Just applause.
If there was ever any doubt that Aziz had learnt from his life changing experience, it was gone by the end.
‘Right now’ reinforces the premise of effective communication.
Communication should be measured, carefully planned, authentic and meaningful. English novelist William Edward Norris said it best: “If your lips should keep from slips, five things observe with care. Of whom you speak, to whom you speak, and how, and when, and where.”
And of course, taking the time to self reflect and truly take in the experience is critical too. Especially after an issue or crisis. What’s needed is thought, time and then meaningful action or change. I’ve seen people or organisations try to “PR” their way out of an issue or crisis. It’s a shallow, band-aid approach and the media – and the public – are smarter than that.
Actions speak louder than words. And it is those actions that should be the centre of any mass communication designed to help rebuild or protect your reputation or brand.
Watch Aziz Ansari’s Netflix Special Right Now and observe the way in which he chose to speak of a very distressing and scandalous story. Or of course, just to have a laugh.
More information on our Effective Communication Training here.