Alan Partridge - Monkey Tennis

Sometimes, I’ve just felt a meeting or pitch slipping away from me.

In desperation, I start to thrash around for a way out – throwing new ideas or angles into the conversation, trying to dig my way out of the hole in the hope that something – anything – lands and gives me firm ground to climb back onto.

You don’t like this? How about that? Yes, of course we can do that. That too. I’m sure there’s a way to make it work.

Alan Partridge fans know this as Monkey Tennis:

In the scene, Alan meets with the BBC’s Chief Commissioning Editor to pitch him new series ideas. But as none of them land, Alan runs out of material and ends up weakly, offering ‘Monkey Tennis?’, before… well let’s just say it descends into a situation beyond rescue.

Avoiding Monkey Tennis

Alan’s first mis-step is failing to understand the context for the meeting. He’s prepared for a pitch, when really he’s being gently let go, and having a final polite hearing with a former colleague.

Sometimes, your counterpart is ‘in the market’ as they say, with a need and a budget and wanting a solution. But sometimes it’s just a social chat, a procurement formality, a respectful audience based on your past work together, perhaps a brainstorm or just testing the waters.

His second error was to stumble into pitching solutions without grasping the brief.  There’s no escaping the reality that clients and senior people in general are often terrible at articulating what they actually want. On the other side of the table, you find yourself having to take a stab at what you think it may be, since no brief was shared beforehand, and little useful context was given – they seem to want to hear your ideas first. And yet the opportunity to meet was too good to pass up, so here you are, chucking mud at the wall and hoping some of it sticks. Youth hostelling with Chris Eubank. Inner City Sumo.

I’ve kicked myself many times for not working harder at the start to ask questions like:

  • What does a good outcome look like for you?
  • (to flip it around, since this often gets more useful answers) What do you want to avoid here? What would failure look like?
  • Do you have an idea of what format of solution you’re looking for already?
  • Have you come across some options you’re inspired by and want to try?
  • What’s worrying you about what you’re doing at the moment?

When I have had the presence of mind to throw one of those in early on, it’s always paid dividends in giving me something solid to bridge back to later on. You can’t spend too long asking questions without offering some of your own insights or ideas though, or it feels like an interview and they worry they’re giving too much away. And don’t ask about budgets right at the start.

Getting out of a Monkey Tennis situation

Assuming you’ve managed to establish the meeting isn’t simply a polite brush-off, it seems to me you have three options once you find yourself gazing into the abyss of ‘A Partridge Among The Pigeons’ desperation:

1. Fight for your idea

The Donald Draper technique.  Stick to your guns and argue hard that the idea(s) you’re pitching are right, based on your insights into the  situation your counterpart is in. Suggest that they’re unrealistic or possibly rude to challenge it.

A bold strategy, with a low chance of success. (And while Don tried it in this first meeting, he climbed down later).

2. Fall back on your credentials

The meeting is unravelling, but you know your experience and approach are sound, and the person across the table is listening to you, even if they’re challenging the idea.

Resist the urge to do a 180 and offer something completely different.

Buy yourself time by articulating that there’s obviously a misunderstanding here, admit you haven’t grasped the (imaginary) brief, but say confidently that think you have the experience and ideas to meet it once you’ve clarified what’s needed.

Unlike Alan, stop pitching solutions and switch to some stories of how you’ve done tangentially related things for other credible people (after all, if the BBC doesn’t do it, Sky will). Subtly highlight your USPs, maybe your track record together and your concern to get this important project right rather than try and shoehorn a packaged solution to fit.

3. Stop and try to write the brief together

Or, you can switch to consultant and coach mode. Say openly that it’s your mistake: you recognise now that you’re not clear yet on what the need is, or what’s already been considered and ruled out.

Take out the notepad or unshare the slide deck for a moment while you ask your counterpart some clarifying questions. Practice your best active listening skills to frame the issue they describe and paraphrase it back to them. That way, you can paddle back to solid ground from where you can at least identify which bits of your original solution still fit, and which ones you’ll need to take away and rework. If you establish that you can dive back into your presentation, you can flick to just the stuff that’s still applicable.

If you can’t get to clarity after that kind of conversation – well, maybe you dodged a bullet – or else you can suggest a process to get that clarity through some scoping research or maybe testing out a couple of simple approaches as an experiment.

Offer to take the notes away and come back with a sharper brief for their feedback, so that when you (or anyone else!) start framing solutions, you’re more likely to be on the right track.

Failing that, have Lynn as a getaway driver

For me, the pain of finding myself in the Monkey Tennis spotlight is mainly from embarrassment and discomfort, feeling foolish and conscious that I’ve probably come across as too eager to please and have stretched my credibility with implausible answers.

On reflection, I want to have the courage to say:

Look, it seems we’re at cross purposes a bit here. I’m missing the important context to give you options that might work for you, but based on my experience I’m sure we can get there. Let’s take a step back and chew the problem over a bit more.

Fancy some cheese?

Get notified of new blog posts by email


Leave a Reply