How to end your dysfunctional love affair – with cigarettes

smokingDo you believe in change?

I do, because on at least one occasion I have managed to. And in spite of the fact that apparently, however urgent the change that needs to happen is, we have just a one in nine chance of making it happen. In 1995 I managed to end my 15-year love-affair with cigarettes. Because my mother made me.

For the first fifteen years that I smoked my mother’s strategy for getting me to stop smoking was to say every time she saw me “When are you going to give up this disgusting habit? You know it’s going to kill you. And I know you’re just doing it to upset me.” All this achieved was that I stopped smoking around her, but would chain smoke to make up for lost time as soon as I got away from her.

In 1995 I was living in Poland, where a combination of managing an exuberant but inexperienced team of 15 young teachers and my inexperience in doing this had doubled my cigarette consumption, (i.e. I was now on 40 a day).. My mother sent me a couple of articles from The Guardian, one which suggested that people who smoke may have good, valid, rational reasons for smoking, and the other, a book review of Cigarettes are Sublime by Richard Klein. This was surprising, to say the least.

When your mother says smoking is cool …


Cigarettes are sublime

I called my mother, and she said to me, “I can understand why you smoke. You’d never have achieved everything you’ve done if you didn’t.” Then she said, “I’m testing a new theory that smokers should be appreciated, and not criticised, for how they manage their stress and anxiety levels.”

Have you ever heard something that made the neurons in your brain start rewiring themselves on the spot? Wait … what? First of all, my mother had never used the word “achieve” in relation to me, or anyone else.  And, secondly, I totally, SO could have done everything I’d done without cigarettes.

I gave up smoking for two reasons: first of all, I couldn’t tolerate the idea that I wouldn’t have achieved what I had without cigarettes; and secondly, because my mother had suddenly started appreciating my smoking habit and the achievements that came from it. And so, obviously, I had to stop smoking, just to annoy her.

What could be the science behind this?

cognitive dissonanceI remember learning about cognitive dissonance during my psychology degree when we were studying the placebo effect. The placebo effect is when you give a patient a sugar pill, and tell the patient that it will cure their symptoms, and the patient’s symptoms get better. Cognitive dissonance is when you give a patient a sugar pill and you tell them it will make them better, but also that it’s just a sugar pill; in this case patient’s symptoms still get better, in fact, cognitive dissonance makes the placebo effect even stronger. So the patient knows that the pill doesn’t do anything whatsoever, but agrees to take it anyway, and feels better.

How your brain deals with conflicting ideas

calvin cognitive dissonance

Calvin & Hobes from this great article

Holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time, like, “this is a sugar pill” and “the doctor says this will make me better”, or “smoking is bad for me” and “I’m an intelligent person who makes good choices”, creates an unpleasant feeling that Psychologist Leon Festinger in 1956 called cognitive dissonance. And when we have  conflicting ideas, and experience dissonance, we have two options:

  1. we either change our beliefs, attitudes, or behaviours – really, really, really difficult, a 10% chance of doing that
  2. or, 90% more often, we decide to minimise or ignore the information that conflicts with our beliefs.

As the economist, GK Gilbraith, said, “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”

How to give smokers a hand

How does cognitive dissonance work with smoking? When we smoke, we know it’s bad for us and this is in conflict with our need to see ourselves as good, intelligent people who make good choices. So we smoke, obviously. Don’t bother trying to reason with smokers.

So if you want to help someone you love stop smoking, try and imagine the trade-offs they are making to get through the day, and appreciate them for how well they’re managing their complex lives – because they smoke. Appreciating people for who they are and what they’ve accomplished as a result of the choices they’ve made is a powerful way of reducing the unpleasant feeling of cognitive dissonance. And this reduction in stress might be enough to break out of the vicious cycle of feeling bad about smoking, and feeling bad makes you want to smoke, which makes you feel bad for smoking, which makes you want to smoke even more, etc.

What to replace smoking with

Finally, smokers, there are plenty of non-lethal things you can do to self-medicate to get through the challenges of every-day life.

You’ll need to find things that replace all the things cigarettes do for us, which include,



giving us something to do with our hands in social situations, socialising, meditation breaks throughout the day, and relaxing and prolonging pleasurable moments.

The solution: our smartphones. They look cool, give us something to do with our hands, something to talk about so we can break the ice and socialise, we can reclaim our meditation moments with cute baby animal videos (which research shows makes us happy and more productive), and we now we take selfies to commemorate those special moments.

I’d like to leave you with this question: who are you going to appreciate for having a successful life – because of their bad habit?


How to give history-changing speeches: top tips from Shakespeare

Why is “To be, or not to be? That is the question.” one of the most famous quotes of all time?

shakespeare twitterOne reason is that this line is a masterpiece of speech engineering.

Shakespeare is still relevant today, 400 years after his death, because he was a public-speaking genius who knew exactly how to use words to inspire people to do things. Good and bad.

9 Powerful Speech-writing techniques

While researching this idea, I found a checklist of nine techniques that Speechwriters today use to engage, seduce and bamboozle their audiences.

  1. Make your opening dramatic with a challenging question.
  2. Start your sentences with a verb.
  3. Use contrast.
  4. Use repetition.
  5. Use the rule of 3.
  6. Use metaphors and vivid images.
  7. Tell stories.
  8. Make historical and geographical references.
  9. Use humour.

Shakespeare used them all, but “To be or not to be? That is the question.” contains no fewer than  five out of the nine speech-writing techniques:

hamlet teenage tshirtTechnique 1: Make your opening dramatic with a challenging question.

“To be, or not to be? That is the question.”

Technique 2.   Start your sentences with a verb.

“To be, or not to be? That is the question.”

Technique 3.   Use contrast.

“To be, or not to be? That is the question.”

Technique 4.   Repetition.

Repetition can take the form of repeating rhythms, sounds, and even pauses. But simply repeating the same thing, over and over again, is a powerful technique politicians use to make what they are saying sound true.

“To be, or not to be? That is the question.”

Technique 5.  The rule of 3.

You should arrange information in threes (points or beats)  because

  1. We are wired to remember three pieces of information even more easily than one piece of information
  2. Information arranged in a list of 3 sounds like a story, with a beginning a middle and an end.
  3. Arranging what you say in this way has been shown to hypnotise an audience.

“To be, or not to be? That is the question.”

A speech that changed the course of history

hre0009_hi.jpgShakespeare used all 9 of these techniques throughout his plays. But Marc Anthony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius like a textbook demonstration of  three techniques in particular:  the rule of 3, contrast and repetition.

In this scene Brutus and his gang of senators have just assassinated Julius Caesar, because they thought Caesar was becoming too ambitious and a threat to democracy. Brutus has just delivered a competent, but pompous and professorial speech to the Roman people, more or less persuading them that Caesar’s death was in Rome’s best interests.

Then Brutus invites Marc Anthony, one of Caesar’s generals, to show his loyalty to Brutus by telling the Roman people why Julius Caesar had to die. This is in spite of Brutus’ confederates insisting this is a terrible idea (“Are you crazy? You’re inviting Marc “Tony Robbins” to speak after you? This is public speaking – and literal – suicide!”) In fact, Marc Anthony intends to incite the people of Rome to rise up and avenge Caesar’s death. But he has to do this while pretending to support Brutus’ actions.

How does Marc Anthony set about demolishing Brutus’ reputation, without seeming to?

First of all, he grabs the people’s attention with the rule of 3 and a few, well-chosen words: “Friends, Romans, Countrymen. Lend me your ears!”, in stark contrast with Brutus’ ponderous opening: “Romans, countrymen, and lovers! Hear me for my cause, and be silent, that you may hear: believe me for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that you may believe;…”

Then, he uses contrast again. He reassures Brutus and the Roman people by telling them: “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” And then he spends the next fifteen minutes praising Caesar.

Throughout the speech Marc Anthony repeats three main ideas, over and over again.

  1. that he, Marc Anthony, is a simple man, no good at public speaking and is just speaking from the heart, (a beloved technique of politicians like Berlusconi and Trump – the “I’m a man of the people” tactic);
  2. that yes, Caesar was ambitious, but he did many great things for Rome and the Romans, which Marc Anthony illustrates with plenty of examples, saving the best till last – Caesar’s will and bequests to the Roman people;
  3. but 3, that Brutus must have been right to kill Caesar because Brutus is an honourable man. We know Brutus is honourable because Brutus kept going on and on about honour during his speech.


Throughout the speech Mark Anthony repeats “But Brutus is an honourable man” no fewer than 10 times, contrasting Brutus’ honour with the powerful visual aid of Caesar’s still warm, dead body lying there in front of everybody in a pool of his own blood, covered in stab wounds, inflicted by Brutus and friends.

When Mark Anthony finishes his speech, sure enough, the people of Rome riot, civil war breaks out, and Brutus and his followers commit suicide. And we know that Mark Anthony (or Shakespeare) knew exactly what he was doing because at the end of his speech he says, to himself

“Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot”

(I have played my trick – now let it work)

So if you want to learn public-speaking techniques for inspiring people  – to do good, or bad – look no further than Shakespeare, the master of verbal manipulation, and especially how he uses the rule of 3, contrast and repetition.

In the next post in this series, we’ll be looking at Shakespeare’s most charismatic supervillain: Richard III, and how he exploits cognitive dissonance to get what he wants.

10 fun facts about phonemes for Italian speakers of English

Phonemic-ChartDo you want to reduce the impact of your Italian accent when you speak in English?

This is the first in a series of posts which aim to a) help you understand the mechanics of pronunciation, and b) give you some quick win strategies for reducing your accent when you speak in English.

In the same way you need to learn grammar to have a common language in which to discuss correct English usage, there is also a grammar of pronunciation to talk about producing the sounds of English.

This grammar of pronunciation can be divided into three main aspects that you need to focus on:

  1. Individual sounds: the individual sounds in a language, phonemes
  2. Connected sounds: e.g. where the stress (or accent) falls in words, the relationship (or lack of) between English spelling and sound, etc.
  3. Connected speech: how we pronounce words when we put them together in sentences

Here are 10 fun facts about phonemes:

Click here to see and hear the British Council’s interactive phonemic chart.

1) There are 26 letters in the English alphabet, but there are 44 sounds in British English. There are 31 sounds in the Italian language.

2) The sounds of a language are represented by symbols, like the normal alphabet. Some of the symbols in the British English phonemic chart are the same as the normal alphabet, like /r/, /s/, /k/, and some are different, like /ɔ:/, /əʊ/ and /θ/. The American English phonemic alphabet is very different from the British English one.

3) In British English there are 20 vowel sounds. In Italian there are 7 vowel sounds.

4) In British English there are 24 consonant sounds. In Italian there are also 24 consonant sounds, but they are often not the same consonant sounds.

5) There are sounds in the English language that don’t exist in Italian, such as /θ/ in “thin”, /ŋ/ in “doing”, /ɔ:/  in “more” and /ɜ:/ in “work”.

6) There are sounds in the Italian language that don’t exist in English, such as /ʎ/  in “aglio”, /ɲ/ in “lasagne”, /ts/ in“forza” and /dz/ in“zero”. If a sound doesn’t exist in your own language it can be hard to hear it.

7) We use about 72 different muscles when we speak. Each phonemic sound requires different muscles. If a sound doesn’t exist in your language, it can feel strange when you try to make that sound. This is because you use different muscle combinations.

8) We make different vowel sounds by varying the shape of our mouth. We make different consonant sounds with our tongue, teeth, lips, palate, nose and vocal chords.

9) Consonants can be voiced or voiceless. The only difference between the sounds /d/, as in “down”, and /t/ as in “town” is that our vocal chords vibrate when we make the sound /d/, and don’t when we make the sound /t/. It’s the same difference between the sounds /v/ and /f/, and /z/ and /s/.

Why is voiced or voiceless important? Because, for example,  in the Italian words “smalto”, “slitta” and “snaturato” you use the voiced /z/. In the English words “snail”, “slow” and “snap” we use the voiceless /s/. Try saying the Italian words and then the English words.

10) There are three types of vowel sounds in English: short, long and diphthongs.

There are  long vowel sounds in the words “car”, “seat”, “word”, “more”, (they have a /:/ after them)


There are short vowel sounds in the words “cat”, “sit”, “men”

Diphthongs are a combination of two vowel sounds: /ɔɪ/ as in “boy”, /eə/ as in “wear”, /ɪə/ as in “near” and /əʊ/ as in “home”.


Quick exercise: use an online dictionary to check your pronunciation

Go to and look up the definitions of the following words:

success, scissors, iron, comfortable, rarely, suit, thorough

success dictionary.jpgWhen you look up a word, at the top of the page you’ll see a phonemic transcription and a loudspeaker icon. Click the loudspeaker icon to hear the correct pronunciation of the word. The tiny ‘ symbol means you stress (or accent) the syllable after the symbol, so in “success” the stress falls on the second syllable.

Were you surprised by the pronunciation of any of the words? Was this helpful?

In my next post, I’ll be talking about the four pronunciation traps for individual sounds.

How to harness the power of superheroes – and supervillains

jamie oliverAre there people in your life, alive or dead, real or fictional, who just thinking about make you feel happy – or enraged?

I recently read “Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman” by Lindy West, who immediately shot to the top of my hero charts. She is a comic writer and activist, a combination I find irresistible: being a comic performer, journalist or artist requires great courage, perseverance and creativity, and if you can bring that to social issues that tend to make people switch their brains off and give up, and help people to change their minds and then act on those new perspectives, well, you’re my hero. Just thinking about her and the important social changes she has achieved makes me feel happy, energised and inspired.

On the other hand, there was a period 10 years ago when I was flying a lot, when thinking about Michael O’Leary, the CEO of Ryanair, made me hyperventilate with fury. (This was when he was considering charging to use the toilet, and selling standing room only places on his flights, where passengers were already packed like sardines.)

How to pump up the energy

There’s a problem-solving technique I enjoy using with people who are managing change called Superheroes & Supervillains which involves accessing inner resources you didn’t know or forgot you had by thinking about people you admire – or who are the personification of evil for you. You identify your heroes and supervillains, living or dead, real or fictional, and list each of their characteristics and achievements, being as specific as possible.

For example, I admire Jamie Oliver, specifically, his curiosity, his endless experiementation, his enthusiasm for whatever he turns his attention to, and his cheerful  optimism and perseverance in the face of the many obstacles he encounters as a social activist, (for example, his mission to change the way schoolchildren eat).

My heroes include comedians (including this one), activists and cartoonists, (including this one),  journalists and writers. And Angela Merkel. Hero worship is a personal thing, and you need to identify who gives you that warm feeling.

My supervillains include white collar criminals, sociopathic CEOs (including this guy, and these) and politicians with scary influencing and persuasion skills.

Who are your superheroes and supervillains?

what would satan doIn the second part of this problem-solving exercise, you think of a challenge you are facing and ask yourself “What would [superhero or supervillain] do?” This can give you new ideas and insights into your situation.

This exercise is paricularly powerful with supervillains. I have done this exercise using Michael O’Leary, the CEO of Ryanair, whose attitude to customer care made my regular budget business trips a misery for years, but who is also a real out-of-the-box thinker and innovator.  Using supervillains forces you to adopt a point of view which (you assume and hope) is not your own, and this is likely to produce new ideas and insights about your situation.

Some national cultural differences

However, I’ve found the Superheroes part of the technique doesn’t work well with my Italian or French clients, whose cultures don’t not seem to feature hero-worship. My French and Italian clients often find it difficult to come up with people they admire.  This is what happens when I use this technique with French or Italians:

French or Italian client: “I don’t admire anyone.”

Me: “Oh, come on. There must be someone you admire.”

French or Italian client: “…”

Me: “What about, I don’t know, Steve Jobs? You’re a fan of Apple products.”

French or Italian client: “Steve Jobs was arrogant. I don’t admire him. I admire Apple products.”

Me: “Ok. What about Gandhi? Mother Teresa? Were they arrogant?”

French or Italian client: “… No …”

Me: “So, do you admire Gandhi? Mother Teresa?”

French or Italian client: “ … Ok. The person I admire is my mother.”

I swear, I have had this exact conversation on 10 different occasions.


In the end, whether the person you admire most in the world is your mother, Pope Frances or Tony Stark, just thinking about the people and characters you admire is likely to release a cocktail of happy hormones – endorphines, dopamine, seratonin and oxytocin – into your body. So just doing the first part of the exercise, listing your heroes, should bring you rewards. And thinking specifically about what your superheroes or supervillains would do if faced with your problem can produce new thinking and ideas and turn your situation around.