Fearful of being made to participate in a conga or mass karaoke, the nervous participants shuffle up to the front.
They line up, facing east, looking at each other's backs. Earls taps the person on one end on the back, gets them to turn around, demonstrates a reasonably simple action that they need to pass on to the next person.
As this action passes down the line, it gradually changes. A wave from the left becomes a waggle of both shoulders. A nod becomes a toss of the head.
The audience is enthralled. In the space of a few moments, the action is entirely transformed. Earls asks the audience to communicate to the participants what they have witnessed. "That third chap in," one audience member calls out, "he waved the wrong arm, for a start." Earls responds: "Shall we say 'different' rather than 'wrong'?"
I have actually been that third chap in Earls’ line and been called out for getting the action "wrong", only to have Earls’ reassurance that, on the contrary, I didn’t get it "wrong" but added creatively to the routine. It was in a client seminar, where Earls was demonstrating his brilliantly original thinking around copying that is explored in his new book, Copy, Copy, Copy. For me, it clarified the difficulty of requesting creativity from teams under pressure to get things right.
Just for a moment, I wanted to apologise for my mistake, to assure everyone that I would get it right next time, that I wouldn’t make the same error twice. Then Earls assured me that I hadn’t made a mistake at all. Indeed, it wouldn’t be much of an illustration of Chinese whispers if everyone got the routine right with military precision.
If the saying goes "talent copies, genius steals", then the takeout from Earls' book is: good thinkers copy, great thinkers copy badly.
There are times in the working day when precision is massively important and getting it right is crucial to business success. Then there are the other times: the creative moments, the occasions when we should be changing the thinking on a piece of business or disrupting the normal course of events. This requires a different state of mind entirely. One where we can get things wrong and be happy about it. When the cliché that there is no right answer is real, not a comforting fantasy. When copying two or three ideas badly might engender a genuinely brilliant original answer to a brief.
Get it wrong, and you couldn’t be more right.
Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom