Functionalization of unactivated carbon-hydrogen (C-H) single bonds is an efficient strategy for rapid generation of complex molecules from simpler ones. However, it is difficult to achieve selectivity when multiple inequivalent C-H bonds are present in the target molecule. The usual approach is to use σ-chelating directing groups, which lead to ortho-selectivity through the formation of a conformationally rigid six- or seven-membered cyclic pre-transition state. Despite the broad utility of this approach, proximity-driven reactivity prevents the activation of remote C-H bonds. Here we report a class of easily removable nitrile-containing templates that direct the activation of distal meta-C-H bonds (more than ten bonds away) of a tethered arene. We attribute this new mode of C-H activation to a weak 'end-on' interaction between the linear nitrile group and the metal centre. The 'end-on' coordination geometry relieves the strain of the cyclophane-like pre-transition state of the meta-C-H activation event. In addition, this template overrides the intrinsic electronic and steric biases as well as ortho-directing effects with two broadly useful classes of arene substrates (toluene derivatives and hydrocinnamic acids).