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Five things we could learn from The Apprentice

44’s Emily New puts The Apprentice under the microscope as she discovers how – underneath the show’s tasks, triumphs and tantrums – there could actually sit some lessons in good communication.

Love it or hate it, you can’t have failed to notice The Apprentice. The BBC programme attracts around seven million viewers each series and, for many, Wednesday evenings just wouldn’t be the same without Prokofiev’s dramatic music sounding out at 9pm, those sweeping aerial shots of London, and Lord Sugar uttering those infamous words: “You’re fired”.

I have to admit I’m a bit of a closet fan, even if this enjoyment sits under an unwavering layer of scepticism and bemusement. My all-time favourite business boasts include: “If we went to Mars I’d find a way to be excellent” and “Not only am I the youngest in the team, but I’m also the shortest.” Wait. What?

So what can we learn from The Apprentice? Well, you always give at least 110%, if you have just the right experience for a particular task you’re likely to end up fired, and maths is a fundamental but confusing skill for the modern entrepreneur. If you’re making a 1,200% profit in a sausage-selling challenge then something has probably gone wrong.

But, if we dig considerably deeper, perhaps there are a few takeaways that could help internal communicators. After all, a successful task in The Apprentice boils down to good communication, effective engagement, the right team dynamics, enthusiasm and the best creative ideas.

So, here are my top five things to take away from The Apprentice (cue Prokofiev):

1. There’s no such thing as a bad idea…

Ok, that’s not quite true (anyone remember Pants Man?). Yet, creativity is consistently important. The teams that think more creatively tend to stand out more than the ones that play it safe. Equally, in internal communications, it’s the stand-out ideas that usually get more traction with employee audiences. In a recent survey by All Things IC, 93% of respondents surveyed acknowledged the importance of creativity in the IC industry, yet only 6% felt creative ideas were being used to their full potential.

2. …but be careful with creative thinking

Back in an earlier 2014 episode, candidates were asked to purchase a skeleton in a product-sourcing challenge. One candidate had a brainwave to buy a paper skeleton – which was cheaper than the real thing – but was promptly fired by an unimpressed Lord Sugar. However, outside the boardroom, 87% of the people who responded to a Digital Spy survey believed that Felipe had, in fact, come up with a genius idea. Whether you were Team Felipe or not, this example reminds us that good ideas can sometimes be subjective and might not be liked by everyone. Yet we can also all be fooled into thinking our bad ideas are actually brilliant. Sharing ideas with others early on can help to avoid this, along with having someone to rely on for honest feedback.

3. Remember the individual

“There is no ‘I’ in team, but there are five in ‘individual brilliance’,” stated one 2014 candidate. Yes, The Apprentice is all about team dynamics. However, the show also focuses on the individual – their business plans, personalities, performance and enthusiasm. There’s also been a recent emphasis in IC on how individual employee personality traits can impact engagement levels. The AON employee engagement trends for 2015, for instance, notes this shift towards a focus on the individual: “Engagement is an individual concept and should be managed at that level and companies affect the culture of engagement one persona at a time.”

4. Know your audience

A recent Apprentice task involved creating and selling a new children’s book for three-to-five-year-olds. The losing book was about a hybrid dragon/elephant called Snottydink. The idea was sniffed at (excuse the pun) and the team was criticised for using over-complicated language in an effort to create the sequel to King Lear. It’s therefore important to truly know the people you’re communicating with – whether this is the audience for a new marketing launch, a new product, or a new IC campaign.

5. Be clear with communication

One candidate came under fire in 2011 for being unable to explain her business plan without resorting to complicating business jargon. The more her interviewer kept asking “But what do you actually do?”, the more the candidate buried herself deeper under management speak. Not only did this result in cringe-worthy viewing, it also emphasised the importance for all communicators of using plain English, taking an outside perspective and putting things simply.

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