Behind the curtain: Interview with Yacine Kouhen


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“Whatever you talk about, you have to be convinced it’s worth sharing.”

This week we talked with Yacine Kouhen, a communications expert. He has worked with a variety of clients both in the private sector and European Union on effective communication. 

In this podcast, Yacine talks about how to improve on your communication techniques. He explores how storytelling affects how audiences receive information, and how having an out-of-the-box-approach to training can improve both the way a team learns and connects.

Interview with Yacine Kouhen: 

Q: Hi Yacine. So can you start us off by telling us what you do?
A: I'm a coach in communication and a copywriter.

Q: How did you get started in communications?
A: Actually, for about five years I used to work in a different field, in diplomacy, and I came to Brussels. I was still working in this sort of international relations “project management stuff”, and I just wanted to be independent and do my own projects. Once a guy came and gave us a training in presentation skills, and I thought “wow, that's really cool because I love doing this”, and I was just curious if I would be able to transmit this knowledge.

I didn't study properly in the university. I started a program independently within an association, and I sort of learned on the spot how to train people. After about a year of doing it in this association, people who were coming in the training started to spread the word and I got proper contracts with companies.Eventually I got sort of handled by one of the big agencies here in Brussels who work with the European institutions and other private companies. So I mostly work with them and sometimes with other clients, via word of mouth.

Q: What attracted you to communications in particular?
A: The fact is I saw so many people giving conferences, and in Brussels you know what it's like, when you evolve in this sort of Euro-bubble, you have many people giving talks, and having to talk in public, and many of them were just boring. There's no other way to put it: it is. It is true, and if you ask anyone you know who go to conferences, most speakers don't really know.

It's a shame because they have very interesting things to say: things that actually matter. I thought; “Ok, I just want to be able to help these people communicate, because communicating is sharing something”. Communication is amazing. You can solve so many problems; you can pass on so many messages, and really make a difference in your personal life and in your job. That's something I've always been passionate about.

Yacine Kouhen: Communication is amazing. You can solve so many problems; you can pass on so many messages, and really make a difference in your personal life and in your job. That's something I've always been passionate about.
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Q: Would you say that's kind of your mission, or that's what inspires you, is improving communication in other people?
Exactly. I love communicating: but there's another dimension when it comes to coaching people doing it. That's something I love as well, how to have someone and just make him better whatever his level is. That's what's thrilling, to see someone improve, and to be part of this improvement.

Q: How do you go about improving the person? How do you take them from one level and bring them up to the next level?
A: The one thing that is extremely important is empathy, which is something that comes with life experience. Women are much better at this than men actually, but I have to work on it. You have someone in front of you, and my job is to sort of feel this person, when you shake someone's hand, or you just observe, and you have a feeling. Then of course, you have different exercises.  I do different exercises sort of warm-ups, which help me identify their strengths and the weaknesses.

My approach is to build on their strengths. To tell the person in front of me “Ok, you're good at this, and now we're going to improve this other stuff.” Because many people don't actually realize that they have strong points. They come to a training and say “I'm not creative,” or “I'm not…”  or, they come to de-evaluate themselves.

Yacine Kouhen: My approach is to build on their strengths. To tell the person in front of me “Ok, you're good at this, and now we're going to improve this other stuff.” Because many people don't actually realize that they have strong points. They come to a training and say “I'm not creative,” or “I'm not…” or, they come to de-evaluate themselves.

Q: So, it's a part of improving their self esteem and then also giving them some tips on how to improve.
A: Absolutely. There's something very personal, and another more professional or technical side.

Q: Can you tell us a bit more about you? Like maybe an interesting fact or story?
A: One interesting thing could be the fact that I didn't study the same thing twice, even though I hold a master's degree!

Also, by twenty six years old I had lived and worked in about five different countries, including Zimbabwe, Honduras, and Turkey. I set up the first major hip hop festival in Zimbabwe.

Another thing, I was a radio talk show in Honduras. Noventa Cinco Punta Tres, la mission de hip hop. That was... (Yacine gives a very enthusiastic example of an introduction in Spanish.)

Q: Oh man, we're going to have you do the intro, that was very fun. Do you think that living in all of these different countries has had an effect on you being a communications trainer and coach? Learning how to communicate to these different people and their cultures, what effect has that had?
A: I think it had a deep effect. Not only the fact of moving in different countries, but living there. This improves the fact that you have to adapt to different cultures, but also my social background.

I was born and raised in sort of a low-class background, like Banlieue in France, and then moved into like upper class social classes for my studies and my job. In the end, I have a wide spectrum of the different kind of people I can talk to. I know how to talk to a guy from “the hood” in France or to a diplomat from an African country. This helps me a lot when I do a training, because I train many different kinds of people. This experience has been very helpful for me to pass on a message.

Q: Thanks for sharing that with me. Do you remember what your best training session was? And what made it so effective?
A: I don't know if it was my best training was, but I had one recently which was quite fun! It worked really well. It was in Luc Samberg at the European Institution. This is a funny story actually.

Two days before, the agency calls me and asks me if I can replace someone for voice training. I'm not a voice trainer; the guy who was supposed to do it was a singer. I said, “Okay but it's not going to be pure voice training. It's going to be also communication.”  So, I go there and I make them sing! I'm not a singer, (I can sing a little bit,) but I started to improvise something. I started to do physical training first, developing the voice, and then got them to sing “O Solo Mio.”

All of them were in a very good mood, and when we went on something a bit more technical (like they had to improvise a speech,)  and analyzing their body language. I think it was one of the best atmospheres I have had in  training because everyone was just so relaxed. When you feel like an idiot in front of other people, you stop caring and you let yourself go. It was really a lot of fun.

I think this sort of out of the box approach, and making it more personal, added to this nice training.

Q: So was it effective because people really dropped their barriers and then they were able to communicate on a different level?
A: Yes, and they were very open to any sort of remarks from myself, or their peers.

Q: But it also sounds like it was a lot of fun as well!
A: It was a lot of fun, it was really cool. I love training, because I try to have fun. Otherwise I wouldn't do this, I chose to do this. But that session was particularly fun.

Q: What's the biggest problem with communication that you see coming into the different companies, both in the European Union and in the private sector.
A: Keeping things too abstract. People, when they give presentation, tend to remain at a level that is very technical and abstract. I'll give you an example, someone's going to talk about their work in this association that helps European regions develop. They will say something like: "In many regions we tried to improve safety or green energy," and they're not going to go deeper.

You can't touch people if you don't make it a bit more concrete, if you don't give example. Instead of saying “In many regions we tried to improve safety or green energy,” they could say “In this specific region…(depending on their audience, for example Spain, in Pamplona) we developed this specific thing.” Then give a concrete story that include actual people.Some people have this culture of telling a story, (like in the US and the UK,) they know how to do that. In many companies here, people have trouble being more concrete telling stories.

Yacine Kouhen: talks about why giving examples of situations is so important in communication

Q: What effect does telling stories have on communication?
A: Storytelling brings a lot to the table. It brings empathy from the audience. It enables them to remember the message much better, because they remember the story. When they tell the story again, and it reminds them of the main point, and it's very engaging. It makes abstract things much more concrete.

I work a lot with TEDx Brussels, and they get amazing speakers. I was lucky to work with them and to train them, and this is what TED is basically based on. Telling stories to touch people emotionally, and not just intellectually.

Q: What's the one thing you've learned about preparing training sessions that you could share with our audience?
A: Studying the company and knowing who you're going to train, and what their culture is. Preparing them well, about what you're about to give them. I always make sure, basically, that people know what to expect.

Yacine Kouhen: talks about how important it is to know your audience if you'd like to be effective.

Q: Instead of them going in blindly, if you know who you're talking to and what their company culture looks like; it's far more effective.
A: You're not going to talk the same way to people from Bonlieu as you would to people from the EU, or business school students. The level of language is not going to be the same.

Q: On that note, what's one piece of advice you would offer our listeners when it comes to communication?
A: Whatever you talk about, whatever you communicate on, you have to be convinced that it's worth sharing.

If you can’t convince yourself, you can't expect to convince anyone else. You can't fool anyone. This is essential in any communication. Even politicians! To give a concrete example. People often say that politicians lie when they talk, or they don't believe what they're saying, but I can guarantee you a hundred percent: whatever comes out of their mouth when pronounce a speech, they are truly convinced about it (maybe five minutes later they forget!) They have the appropriate technique to put them in a frame of mind where they say: “I believe what I'm saying right now.” This is essential for whenever you want to communicate.

Q: That's a very good piece of advice, thank you Yacine. So what's next for you?
A: Right now, I'm setting up my new website. I am trying to develop new approaches for my coaching. I have had this program for about three years now, and I have different sets of tools and it works, but I want to experience new things,  and start taking risks again. Now that this formula works well, experience new stuff.

Q: Well we wish you the best of luck with it, and thank you for talking with us today.
A: Thank you very much Esther, it was a pleasure.

A bit about our speaker:

Yacine Kouhen works with many EU Institutions, including Commission, Parliament, EFSA, REA, EESC, JRC, groups of interests like CEMR, Food Drink Europe, Carbon Watch, as well as private companies and business schools on how to communicate more effectively.  

He has also developed various creative projects, such as the Eurobubble Series, the first web series on the life of young EU Affairs workers, which won the Best Web Series Award at the Liège Festival 2013.

Would you like to find out more about Yacine Kouhen’s work, or hire him to work with your team? Here are some links you might find helpful.


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