How to seduce the girl, kingdom or nation of your dreams – lessons from Shakespeare’s Richard III

It’s the summer of 2016, of Brexit and Trump’s nomination as the Republican candidate. How did this happen?

If you know anything about combining a knowledge of human psychological weaknesses (our cognitive biases), with the darker arts of hypnosis and persuasion (like Scott Adams) – or you’re Italian, and have lived through 20 years of Berlusconi – you’ll be laughing at all the shocked expressions around you. In a knowing and pitying way rather than a happy way.

Shakespeare would not have been surprised, as he could have taken a PhD in “Human Nature, and How to Manipulate it”. To understand how the most unlikely characters can rise to power out of nowhere, look no further than Shakespeare’s Richard III, which describes the rise and fall of a ruthless, amoral despot.

Shakespeare’s Richard III – a complete work of fiction

richard iii

The real non-murdering, law-abiding Richard III

When Shakespeare wrote Richard III he took relatively recent historical events, (it was Elizabeth I’s grandfather, Henry VII, who took over the English crown from Richard III), and completely changed them to gain favour with Elizabeth I, and boost the legitimacy of the Tudor reign.

First of all, he turned Richard III into a psychotic supervillain. Richard III introduces himself in the play by confessing to the audience that he has just personally murdered King Henry VI and his son Prince Edward, and intends to make Prince Edward’s hot widow, Lady Anne, his wife. And this is all part of his plan to usurp the throne.

When Richard’s eldest brother, Edward IV becomes king, Richard has their brother, Clarence, falsely accused of treason. He has Clarence assassinated, and the King dies of a broken heart. Two-for-one result!

shakespeare's richard iii

Shakespeare’s Richard III

After marrying Lady Anne, Richard poisons her so he can focus on marrying his niece, Princess Elizabeth. And just in case they turn out to be a nuisance in the future, he has Elizabeth’s two young brothers, King Edward V and Prince Richard, killed. He also offs his allies and faithful minions, whenever they so much as hesitate to do Richard’s bidding.

And just in case Shakespeare’s Richard III’s actions weren’t abominable enough, Shakespeare made him ugly and physically deformed.

And how do we, the audience, react to Shakespeare’s Richard III?

We are enthralled. We laugh with him, applaud his can-do attitude, cheer his daring and thrill in the accomplishment of every dastardly deed. (Think Frank Underwood in House of Cards, or Walter White in Breaking Bad). We don’t mourn him when he dies, but, by God, he went down guns blazing, and he certainly got things done! There is obviously more to this character than just murdering anyone who gets in his way.

How Richard III gets away with murder

In the second scene of the play, Richard III shows us what he can do and why he gets away with it when he seduces Lady Anne, whose father and husband he has just murdered.

Richard III seduces Lady Anne:

  • by lying to her: he tells her he didn’t kill her husband and father, it was someone else, it was King Edward’s fault, ok, it was him;
  • by putting his moves on her when she is half out of her mind with grief, (this all happens in front of her husband’s fresh corpse). When she tells him he belongs in hell, he agrees with her but also that he belongs in her bed; when she spits in his face, he treats this like erotic foreplay (“Never came poison from so sweet a place”);
  • by blaming her for being so beautiful that he killed her husband and father out of love for her, then by pretending to cry, threatening to kill himself, challenging her to kill him, and, when she refuses, demanding that she wears his ring.

When you read this scene, you are in no doubt that she hates his guts for 97% of the exchange.

So how does Richard III take Lady Anne in the space of 15 minutes from “grieving, furious and physically repelled” to “betrothed”?

What he does is deliver a series of psychological slaps to the brain that would leave anyone reeling, defenceless and willing to agree with anything. Leon Festinger in 1956 defined cognitive dissonanceas the intolerable feeling – like mental asthma – we experience when we try and process conflicting thoughts. Our need for relief from the intense discomfort of cognitive dissonance makes us vulnerable to making stupid decisions, to holding onto factually disprovable opinions and to self-destructive behaviour [see how my mother made me gave up smoking].

the emperor's new clothes

The Emperor’s New Clothes – a tale of cognitive dissonance

Marketing and Sales people have long understood how to provoke and exploit the mental stress of cognitive dissonance to get us to make decisions we otherwise absolutely would not make. There’s a whole advertising and after-sales-care industry devoted to helping us manage our buyer’s remorse whenever we spend more than we can afford on luxury items (“Now I can’t afford to go on holiday, but my Dolce & Gabbana/ BMW/ gigantic iPad/ [insert overpriced/ obsolescent/ high-maintenance status-symbol here] makes me feel so badass!”).

What did Shakespeare know about cognitive dissonance?

He knew all about it, and here are some of the ways Richard III bamboozles Lady Anne into submission:

Lying to someone’s face, when there’s a mountain of evidence against you, produces cognitive dissonance:

Richard III: I did not kill your husband.

Lady Anne. Why, then he is alive.

Another way of creating cognitive dissonance is to “change the narrative”. We are wired to perceive anything presented in a story structure as the truth. Change the story and you change reality. When Lady Anne tells Richard III that he killed her husband, the best man on earth, he tells her she should be grateful he sent the best man on earth to heaven. That’s obviously where he belongs. And the best man died to make way for an even better man: Richard III.

Being offered two equally unattractive choices leads to cognitive dissonance:

Richard III: Take up the sword again, or take up me. [“Kill me, or marry me.”]

It turns out to be a short step from this manoeuvre to getting engaged. [Lady Anne: “Er … no?” Richard III: “OK. Then you have to wear my ring.”]

At the end of this scene Richard III turns to the audience and says:

Was ever woman in this humour woo’d? Was ever woman in this humour won? I’ll have her; but I will not keep her long.

[i.e. “Guys, bet you’ve never seen a girl pulled like that! She’ll do for now, but I’ve already got my eye on someone else.”]

What do Shakespeare’s Richard III and Donald Trump have in common?

donald trump

He did NOT just say that!

Psychologically, there seems to be a thin line between being appalled and being enthralled. Donald Trump and Richard III both stun their prey into submission by being outrageous – provoking cognitive dissonance. Our reaction to most of what they say is “He did NOT just say that!”. Here are some examples of classic Trumpisms:

  • “I will build a great wall – and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”
  • “I think the only difference between me and the other candidates is that I’m more honest and my women are more beautiful.”
  • “It’s freezing and snowing in New York – we need global warming!”
  • “My IQ is one of the highest — and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure; it’s not your fault.”
  • “The point is, you can never be too greedy.”
  • “My Twitter has become so powerful that I can actually make my enemies tell the truth.”
  • “My fingers are long and beautiful, as, it has been well documented, are various other parts of my body.”

Neither Trump nor Richard III make any effort to use reason to win people over, instead bludgeoning them with absurd and shocking affirmations – and then getting them to do what they want: marry them, crown them, vote for them.

How can you protect yourself from people who want to distract and exploit you?


“With great power comes great responsibility – NOT.”

Count to 100. Be the little boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes – a story ALL about cognitive dissonance – call out the outrageousness and break the spell.

Finally, remember that whatever Spiderman says, great power DOES NOT come with great responsibility, and you cannot trust these guys. Don’t wear their ring, make them king or vote for them.

This is the second in a series of posts about Shakespeare. I was asked by the British Council Milan to give a series of talks to mark Shakespeare’s 400th  anniversary, linking Shakespeare and his works to the world of business and to current events.

You can click here to see the first post, “How to give history-changing speeches: top tips from Shakespeare.”

How to understand the sounds English speakers make – the mysterious case of the disappearing “R”

Did you know there are nearly 3 times as many vowel sounds in English as there are in Italian?

Learning English - Lesson 72 - thOr that English has short and long sounds, like in “sit” and “seat”, which are hard for Italians to hear the difference between?

Or that English has diphthongs, like in “ear”, “hair”, and “home” that don’t exist in Italian? But that in the words “fruit”, “could” and “receipt” there are NO diphthong sounds?

Or that until recently it was possible to reach adulthood in Italy without EVER hearing English spoken by a native speaker, either on TV, at the cinema or at school? (Because EVERYTHING is dubbed in Italy …)

If you are an Italian speaker of English you may have problems understanding native English speakers – because English just doesn’t sound AT ALL like it should.

Also, if you pronounce English the way it’s spelled, you make it very difficult for people to understand what you’re saying.

So here is a 4-point checklist for pronouncing English more accurately, and for helping you understand spoken English.

The easiest way to correct your pronunciation assumptions is to listen to English while reading it at the same time, either from subtitles in films and TV shows, or with audiobooks, (some tips below). As you listen and read, watch out for the 4 pronunciation traps below:

Pronunciation trap 1: vowel and consonant clusters in English words

Are you sure you are pronouncing the words “early”, “mountain” and “favourite” correctly? You may be trying to pronounce all the vowel sounds, like you would in Italian.

“Early” is pronounced /’ɜ:li/, “mountain” is /’maun-tin/, “favourite” is /’fei-vrət/. In each case the vowel sound is very different from what you expect from the spelling.

Are you pronouncing the “i” in “fruit”, “suit”, “juice”? Please don’t:  /fru:t/, /su:t/ and /ʤu:s/

What about the words “success”, pronounced /sək-‘ses/, “access”, pronounced /’æk-ses/ “ignore”, pronounced /ig-‘nɔ:/, “scissors”, pronounced /’si-zəz/, and “exclude”, pronounced /iks-‘klu:d/? English pronunciation of consonants doesn’t follow the same rules as Italian.

How about ‘ancient’, pronounced /’ein-ʃənt/, which has both vowel AND consonant clusters?

Pronunciation trap 2: silent letters

Take the word “Wednesday”. This word, like many others in English, has letters that you don’t pronounce. It’s pronounced /’wenz-dei/. “Comfortable” is pronounced /kʌmf-tə-bl/. “Vegetable” is pronounced /’vedȝ– tə-bl/.

You don’t pronounce the /l/ in the words “half”, “calm”, “talk”, “walk”, “salmon”, “could”, “would”, “should”.

There is no /b/ in “climb”, or any /p/ in “cupboard” and “receipt”.

Pronunciation trap 3: intrusive vowel sounds

Can you say “equipment”, /i’kwipmənt/, without inserting a vowel sound between the P and the M, and possibly after the T, making it “equip-a-ment-a”? How about “Appartment”? Does /ə’pa:tmənt/, becomes “apart-a-ment-a”.

It’s difficult for native speakers of English to pronounce all of the consonants in these words as well, but we don’t introduce vowel sounds: native speakers will often not pronounce the consonant before the M, so it will sound like “equi-ment” and “appah-ment”.

This is one of those little things that has an enormous impact on other people’s perception of how well you speak English. If you can remember to eliminate these intrusive vowel sounds, your English will sound twice as good.

Pronunciation trap 4: The disappearing R in standard British English

The R is usually pronounced in some regional British accents, and in many American accents, so it’s fine if you want to pronounce all the R’s in English.

However, in standard British English pronunciation we mostly don’t pronounce the R when it appears after a long vowel sound or diphthong, or at the ends of words. “Warmer” is /’wɔ:mə /, “girl” is /gɜ:l/, “early” is /’ɜ:li/, “more” is /mɔ:/, “or” is /ɔ:/.

You don’t have to sound like a mother-tongue English speaker to speak good English and make yourself understood, but you might have to work with native speakers, and understand the strange, unpredictable noises they make.

And, finally, here are some online resources for listening to, and reading English at the same time. – Home to hundreds of talks on a multitude of topics. Most of the talks come with subtitles and interactive tapescripts. There is an app so you can watch and listen on your phone or tablet. Start with this one:

BBC 6 minute English – home to hundreds of 6 minute programmes about a multitude of topics, broadcast once a week, downloadable from the website, there is also an app. Presented by native English-speaking presenters, who speak clearly, and relatively slowly. There is always a glossary of words from the programme. – a website where you can watch movies and TV series with very good quality subtitles.

In my next post we will be looking at the importance of the stress in English words and sentences. If you liked this post, follow my blog to receive updates.

Read the first post in this series: “10 Fun Facts about Phonemes


How to solve all your problems at once – with Toastmasters

How can you make new friends, meet a life partner, articulate what you want to do, learn to sound like you know what you’re doing (even when you don’t) and start taking regular exercise?

solution to everythingIn 2002 I needed help with all of these things. I had just finished a distance MBA, which had taken me 3 years of non-stop studying while working. The MBA had inspired me to “go it alone” as a management consultant, and I had quit my job with no clear plans, financial resources, (MBAs are not cheap), contacts, or even friends, all the studying and working having turned me into quite the hermit, emerging from my cave pale, blinking, with atrophied muscles, barely able to speak, let alone make eye-contact.

All the things I tried …

I tried various things in Milan. I signed up for three six month evening courses in things like creative writing and life-drawing,  during which I did not learn the name of single co-student.

I joined a political association with about 30  members who met every week or two, to discuss things like how to get a new left-wing mayor elected for Milan (which we were influential in achieving). I learned the names of a dozen of my comrades, but was unable to join in most of the discussions due to a) not knowing what they were talking about most of the time and b) my inability to understand the rules of Italian-style communication (i.e. being too British to just jump in there and risk interrupting someone or repeating something someone had already said.)

music and movement

Now imaagine this with adults …

I did “Biodanza”, which was a bit like “music and  movement” from my primary school days, all pretending to be trees blowing in the wind but with more hugging, plus positive feelings and self-awareness. I learned a few more names at this one, and had an intense one-week serious relationship with a guy, who then became my first real friend in this ‘reconnecting with the human race’ process.


The solution to everything

Then I found Toastmasters, a club for people who want to improve their communication and leadership skills. I went, expecting to find a room full of boardroom-type men, and instead walked into “Shy and Incompetent Communicators Anonymous”. I had found my spiritual home.

Fast-forward to a year later, when I was asked to give a quick talk about Toastmasters to the Milan PWA. This is what I said:

“Toastmasters is a club where you learn to communicate with confidence and to lead responsibly. It was started by Ralph Smedley in 1924 in California, and now there are clubs all over the world.

How does Toastmasters work?

“You meet twice a month, and every meeting follows the same three-stage format: first, three or four people give short, 6-minute speeches, then there’s a part where people can be asked to improvise for one minute on a given topic, and finally there’s a feedback session, first for the speakers regarding their speech objectives, and then feedback for the whole club.

“What do you do, as a member? If you want to develop your public speaking skills, you can follow the 10-speech Competent Communicator programme. Each 6-minute speech practices one aspect of public speaking, for example, organising your speech, body-language, voice or using visual aids. You can follow the programme at your own pace, and with the full support of the other members who are there to give constructive and positive feedback.

A true story

“I’d like to tell you about something that happened to me recently that made me notice how much the Toastmasters programme has helped me. I work as a consultant, and a couple of weeks ago I was working at my client company in the UK, when John, the sponsor of  the change programme we are working on, decided to involve  me at the last

meeting picture

“Uh oh…. Why are they all looking at me?”

minute in a meeting. I didn’t know who the people were at the meeting, what the meeting was about, or what, exactly, I was doing there. I sat there for fifteen minutes and my mind began to wander. Suddenly, I heard, ‘… and it’s crucial that we get started with this as soon as possible, and I’d like to ask our consultant, Elena, what she thinks the next steps should be.’

“I did not panic. I am halfway through the Toastmasters programme, and now I know about sounding organised, and how important voice and body-language are. I breathed deeply, wrote down a few notes, looked everyone in the eye, and spoke. Afterwards John said to me, ‘Good job, Elena. I have no idea what you were talking about, but I liked the way you said it!’

“In conclusion, if you want to sound more confident and competent in challenging situations, Toastmasters can make a big difference.”

And, by the way, at Toastmasters I did solve all of the above-mentioned problems I had in 2002.