The imaginary audience in times of crisis

The next time you find yourself in a difficult situation, try this exercise: Imagine you are an objective third party, watching the story play out on TV.

Sit back and view your drama as if you were in the audience instead of the action. How does it look from the outside? Is it a small issue or a major crisis unfolding before your eyes? Are you making the right moves or making it worse?

We may make a big deal out of a splinter when it’s in our own little finger. But if you think of it as someone else’s finger, you may realize how ridiculous it is to make a fuss. This outsider perspective may also help you to keep your emotions under control.

Face each challenge objectively

By training yourself to look at things from an objective standpoint, you may save yourself a lot of trouble. Often, from the audience’s perspective, the answer to your dilemma is simple.

In times of crisis — when you’re backed into a corner — it’s easy to falter and make poor judgments. Those bad decisions often cause even more damage. We’ve all seen business and political leaders in times of crisis. We may be sitting home, glued to our televisions, wondering why they behave the way they do — often making their own situations worse. But the fact is, in these situations you can lose sight of the things that seem obvious to everyone else on the other side of the cameras.

That’s why sometimes we must simply face each challenge objectively, from the perspective of the person at home, watching along on TV. When we pause to examine something from a bystander’s point of view, we may make different choices.

Over a year ago, in the middle of a logistics bottleneck crisis in Japan, I took a widely unexpected step by telling the tens of thousands of merchants on our marketplace platform that Rakuten was going to help them solve this problem. The existing delivery networks that e-commerce shoppers relied on were at bursting point. The traditional logistics companies were driving up their prices and turning away customers due to lack of capacity. I could see that we needed to look at this problem from a new objective standpoint.

Now, the crisis is not yet solved but we are gradually improving the situation. We’re adding logistics capacity by building new warehouses across Japan. We’re looking for creative customer-centric solutions to minimize waste and to ensure shoppers can take delivery of their items at a time and place that suits them.

Pause and think: What would my imaginary audience see?

There were other times when I could have benefitted from an objective viewpoint but I was perhaps too passionate about the compelling logic of my own perspective. Years ago, Rakuten made headlines when we attempted to acquire Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS), one of Japan’s major national broadcasters. I was sure this was a win-win for both companies and I pursued it aggressively. If I’d stopped to check in with my imaginary audience, I might have seen the biggest obstacle to our success: The executives of the broadcasting company were devoted to an old-school vision of media and they were entrenched in that way of thinking. They were never going to see the deal my way. I eventually abandoned the deal — and it cost us a lot of wasted time and money.

This tactic can work even in calmer moments. As we’ve considered how to promote the Rakuten brand in the U.S., while our brands such as Ebates have deeply loyal fans, we’ve had to come to terms with the reality that the Rakuten name is nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is in Japan. When we stepped back to look at it objectively, it became clear that a U.S. advertising campaign had to start from square one — even if it doesn’t feel to me like we are new here. That realization guided our newest round of advertising — TV spots aired during the Grammys and the Superbowl pre-show — that begin at the beginning: how to say our name (Hint: “RACK-uh-ten.”)

The imaginary audience is a tool for facing any challenge. It’s there when emotions run high and you’re tempted to make a rash choice. Is that what an objective viewer would advise? Conjure up your imaginary audience and look at it from their perspective.

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