Cold reading, hot bullshit

One very important skill as a scriptwriter is cold reading – the ability to make the client (whether that’s the producer or director or whoever) think you’re telling them what’s in their brain.

“It’s amazing, we’re on exactly the same wavelength!”

Uh-huh, that’s right. Amazing.

The basic principles of cold reading are just to throw out shit loads of ideas and information at someone until something strikes a nerve. As soon as you see a reaction focus on that bit, dismiss the rest and repeat until you have a complete story.

When someone invites you in for a meeting and asks for your take/opinion on a pre-existing script or an idea for a specific genre – do not give it to them. Instead, talk in general terms about similar films, stories and ideas. Frame random ideas as dreams, other people’s films, funny stories which happened to you or someone else – these are not suggestions, this is just chit-chat. During the course of all this, you can gradually whittle away what they don’t want (bearing in mind, they probably don’t know what they do want until they hear it) until you’re left with a pretty good idea of what they’re looking for.

Then you pitch your idea/take/opinion which is built purely around the ideas they’ve either given you or the things you’ve said they didn’t screw their face up at.

For example, let’s say you designed kitchens for a living.  A client asks you (and a few others) to suggest a design. You’ve got one chance, they’re going to look at all the suggestions and pick the one they like. Your job is to make sure they pick yours. In an ideal world, you find out exactly what they want in a kitchen before committing anything to paper – but imagine, for a second, people who want kitchens consider themselves to be artistic and creative – in other words, arty-farty, airy-fairy, haven’t got a fucking clue what they want and generally fucking useless. You can’t just ask them, because apparently gaining information restricts the creative process. And anyway, you’re the expert, they want to know what you think.

Except, they don’t actually want to know what you think, they just want you to translate their mental (in every sense of the word) image of a kitchen into reality.

But how?

Well, you start by telling them, as a story/joke, about some friends of yours who’ve got a blue kitchen!

They’ll either say, ‘Ooh, I like blue’. Or ‘Blue? Are they fucking morons?’

In either case, you now have one piece of information on which to build. You haven’t suggested a blue kitchen and so haven’t gained any black marks – it was just idle chit-chat. And so on. This is why it’s always easier to meet someone in person to discuss script ideas – it’s very hard to do this sort of thing via email.

Never has cold reading been more useful to me than a recent (and by recent, I mean sometime in the last two years) meeting for a job re-writing someone else’s script. Imagine the scene, you’ve been sent two previous drafts by two different writers, a couple of script readers’ reports and a list of notes for improvements. You sit down in the office of the director who not only wrote the first draft, but wants to pay you to re-write it. At this point you realise one, fairly important, fact.

You haven’t read any of it.

Not one single word.

You’ve been busy, you forget – it just slipped your mind amidst the maelstrom of idiocy which is your daily life.

 And then she asks the first question:

‘So, what did you think of the script?’

You have to be tactful here, she wrote it – so you can’t say it’s shit. On the other hand, she knows it’s not good enough – that’s why you’re here. She’s expecting you to tell her why it’s bad and how you can fix it. Obviously you need to toe a line which goes something like:

‘I can see what you intended and there’s a great story at the heart of it, but it’s obscured at the moment by… sorry, can I just use your toilet?’

Genius, you’ve got out of that one.

In the toilet, scan the script for character names, plot points, genre, locations – big tip, keep a copy of all scripts you’re working on on your phone. It’s quite easy to take your phone into the toilet for a refresher, quite hard to disappear with a paper script.

In this case, of course, I didn’t even have the script or any of the notes with me. I did actually cry a little at this point.

When you get back from the toilet, take charge. Talk to them about why they want to tell this particular story. What, to them, is the essence of what they want to say? With any luck, they’ll give you the entire plot. If they mention a character and you’ve no idea if it’s the protagonist, antagonist or comedy cameo on page 92 – again, dodge the issue. Don’t ask any questions whose answers may be obvious if you’d actually read the script – find out who they had in mind to play that part first. That’s always a good one – it should at least narrow it down to male or female. When they tell you, act like that’s a genius suggestion and one which you hadn’t considered but now they’ve mentioned it – yeah, he/she would be perfect. Which performance of theirs led her to choose that actor?

Which, hopefully, should give you the genre of the script.

And so on.

Eventually she’ll have told you the entire plot, the characters, their motivations and goals. If it all sounds good, then the script’s problem will be none of this comes across. If it sounds bad, then the problem is here and you can completely discount the script. Ignore it, fix the basics.

If it is all good and the script must therefore struggle to convey it properly, ask them ‘So of the two script reports, which criticisms do you feel hit the nail on the head? What do you agree with? What do you disagree with?’ But be wary, they might throw the same question back at you. If so, time for another toilet break. Seriously, the toilet is your friend, use it. By the time you get back they’ll have forgotten what they asked you.

‘Where were we?’

‘You were writing me a cheque, weren’t you?’

Of course, the most important piece of advice in this kind of situation is never, ever get yourself into this kind of situation in the first place. I mean, come on, it’s not professional, is it? Don’t behave like this, it’s just embarrassing.

Still, cold reading – important skill. You can already do it, everyone can – just practise hard and learn how to do it properly.

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Categories: My Way, Random Witterings | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Cold reading, hot bullshit

  1. You realise now that you’ve peppered your blog with the words ‘cold reading’ that you’ll get comment spammed with NLP nutcases, don’t you?

    I learned to cold read a few years ago, around the same time some rather interesting people introduced me to something they called chaos magick. Magick is, of course, almost entirely bollocks. Cold reading, on the other hand, is utterly invaluable.

  2. Rob Webster

    Last year I spent a period of time chatting to a complete stranger at a station when my train broke down. I have no idea why – maybe I’ve just got a tennis face – but he insisted on discussing Wimbledon. At length. For half an hour. With me sat on a bench. With no escape routes.

    At this point, I should point out that I know fuck all about tennis, and just wanted to go home – but if it was some kind of “secret shopper” type test, I think I scraped a C through my own version of cold reading. It consisted of rearranging whatever he said, and adding some fairly shallow detail. If I knew a tennis player’s first name, I’d throw that in. He was convinced that it’d depend on how the weather was. So I started saying “Exactly! I mean, obviously if the weather stays constant then nothing much will change, but yeah – it’s all up in the air I guess.” 30 minutes of saying exactly nothing of any value whatsoever about something I have no idea about or interest in. Occasionally I’d make up a fact, and then substantiate it with something he’s already said so he’d nod sagely. “‘Course, Serena Williams is a bit more agile – but again, it completely depends on the weather.” I have no idea if Serena is more agile than her sister.

    Somehow, I managed to last until such time as the train was fixed without him spitting on me, punching me, or denouncing me as a charlatan. This was a personal victory for me. Good, though. So useful in all aspects of life – anywhere you need to build rapport, make connections, or talk to someone who won’t shut up about tennis.

    Actually, I think I got good when I used to have to pretend I’d done my homework. “I had a fairly good look at it, but I was completely perplexed by the time I got to question 6. Could you take me through it?” Teachers LOVE being a beacon of knowledge. Always worked.

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