Trevor Noah could hear the three black guys following him talking about mugging him.
He knew this because he spoke their language, Xhosa.
As they got closer, he turned round and spoke to them in Xhosa.
He said, “Hey guys, if you’re looking for someone to mug I saw a white guy up the street.”
They stopped, shocked, they hadn’t expected that.
Trevor Noah had a black mum and a white dad, he was mixed race and lighter skinned, that was why the black guys thought he was an easy target.
When he spoke to them in their language all their animosity evaporated.
They said, in Xhosa, “Hey, sorry man, we didn’t know you were one of us.”
He replied, in Xhosa, “No problem guys, do you need help mugging white guys?”
They laughed and said, no they were doing fine, and they parted on friendly terms.
Trevor Noah says he learned how to make friends growing up in South Africa, the secret is language, people identify with their own language above everything.
Trevor’s mother made him learn to speak correct English, from his father he learned German, and from South Africa’s rulers he learned Afrikaans.
But what gave him real fluidity was the language he learned in the street.
Each of the Black groups had their own language: 11 million people spoke Xhosa, 12 million spoke Zulu, 8 million spoke Tswana, 7 million spoke Sotho, and 4 million spoke Tsonga.
In all, he could speak 8 languages, which made him able to connect with anyone.
He grew up in the time of Apartheid, South Africa was divided into four racial groups: White, Black, Coloured, and Indian.
Inter-racial marriage was illegal, which is the title of his autobiography: Born A Crime.
He didn’t fit into any of the racial groups, but he preferred the company of Blacks, so he learned all the different Black languages.
Looking at him, Blacks were initially suspicious, but once he spoke to them in their language they accepted him immediately, all other differences disappeared.
Trevor Noah later became a comedian, he appeared onstage in London and New York.
Eventually he moved to LA and became host of The Daily Show, earning $16 million a year.
All because he learned that language is the secret of connecting with people.
He says that he learned language, not race, is what makes us identify with each other.
And this is the pattern that guided his life, I can identify with this in the UK.
Idris Elba once said “There is more diversity at Fords Dagenham than there is at the BBC”.
This is because everyone at Fords Dagenham is a cockney, whatever their race.
Idris Elba says he had uncles who worked at Fords, my Uncle Mick also worked at Fords.
I’ve got more in common with Idris Elba than I have with, say, Jacob Rees Mogg.
One speaks my language, one is from a different planet.
So the real lesson for us is the power of language against the power of visuals, and what we lose when we sacrifice spoken language in our advertising.
Visuals will work at Cannes of course, because all the judges are different nationalities, but in the street with real people a common language works much better.
For one thing words go viral much more easily, it’s hard to describe a beautiful visual but it’s very easy to repeat a funny end line or a song.
That’s also why language stays in the mind longer than a visual, it’s more memorable.
In an ad the visuals are there for impact, to arrest your attention (right brain, feelings).
Once you are stopped the words are there to communicate (left brain, rational).
If we rely on visuals rather than words, we throw away the most powerful part of the communication.
That doesn’t matter in an art gallery, where people have only come to look at the pictures.
But remember, we’re supposed to be in the communication business.
And that isn’t for art critics, that’s for real people in the street.
How does it make sense not to prioritise the most powerful communication tool of all?