Think well, write well…
“People who think, well write well,” wrote advertising legend David Ogilvy. These and other wise words come from The Unpublished David Ogilvy, according to City A.M.’s Marc Sidwell, who I’m cheered to read sees “clear English as a critical business tool”.
There’s a lot of meaning packed into the word ‘well’ here – the sense both of words that are well crafted and well intentioned. As Marc Sidwell points out, “Oglivy’s passion for clear and honest words” echoes George Orwell’s brilliant articulation of the mainline connection between clarity and morality in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language: “the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”
It’s not enough for your words to sound good, they must be good. Euphony and ethics should go hand in hand. Good English is good business.
The great Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who has passed away at the grand old age of 104, had a clear sense of what inspired his work and a wonderful way of expressing it.
“I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man,” he says in his memoir The Curves of Time. “I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman.”
Like the best writing, Oscar’s builds vivid images – conjuring with words the warm concrete curves of his architecture.
Wise words from the man in the 90-year-old lederhosen…
Johannes Gutmann has over the past two decades or so built from scratch a highly successful business based in his home region of Austria marketing organic produce to over 50 countries around the world. Along the way he has become known for sporting the same pair of 90-year-old lederhosen and scarlet shoes pretty much everywhere he does business.
It has been a highly distinctive and memorable bit of brand building. “You just need an idea of how you want to present what you have,” says Johannes. “For example, for someone who sees my lederhosen, they are worth nothing. But they have a high non-material value: they are a story. And that works just as well on the world stage as at a market in the Waldviertel.”
From Austria to Australia, from farming to pharmaceuticals, no matter where in the world you are or what business you’re in – for your brand, stories are priceless.
Musick to my ears…
Picking up on the apparent importance of knowing your “its” from your “it’s” when applying for jobs, the FT’s Michael Skapinker touches on the lovably liquid nature of English: “English has always changed. It is a permanent referendum. If enough people start regarding “its” as the contraction of “it is” and “it’s” as the possessive then that is what they’ll eventually become and everyone will write them that way.” My money’s on the gradual disappearance of the apostrophe, driven by the evolving influence of texting and other bite-sized digital communications and the power of context to help clarify: it’s often easy to see whether you mean “its” or “it’s” thanks to the surrounding words, which in turn makes the mark less necessary.
As with punctuation, so with spelling. We now happily write “music” rather than “musick”, as in Samuel Johnson’s day. Three centuries on, music’s notes haven’t changed but its spelling has. That’s fine with me. In line with the inherently democratic character of my mother tongue, I’m happy to let the people decide, over time through their usage and abusage, how they want English to evolve. For one of the great good things is that we’re free to use our language clearly and characterfully for our own ends.
In this respect, I’m on the side of Michael Skapinker’s “affectivists” – a term “conjured out of Sir Ernest Gower’s book, The Complete Plain Words, which remains a superb guide to clear communication nearly 60 years after it was first published. The aim of writing, he said, should be to affect your readers in the way you wish them to be affected.” Musick to my ears.
Economy of expression…
Top of my Christmas list is Philip Pullman’s reworking of Grimm’s tales for young and old.
Why revisit these classics? Because the stories themselves bear endless telling. More particularly, as Philip Pullman points out, his edition clears “out of the way anything that would prevent them running freely.” It promises the “economy of expression” Italo Calvino identifies as the first characteristic of folktales, in his Six Memos for the Next Millenium. For the best fables are compressed stories – free flowing, fleet of foot, impactful. Floating like butterflies, stinging like bees, they are the Muhammad Alis of the storyworld.
As Philip Pullman notes, “There is a great pleasure in telling a tale swiftly and clearly.” And a great pleasure in reading them, too.
Sometimes longer can be clearer…
To be clear should you always be concise? It can be tempting to conflate the two – after all, clarity and concision often go hand in hand. But they are not joined at the hip. There are times when you need to take more words to make yourself clear. Michael Skapinker makes this point in the FT when exploring the dangers of beeing too chatty and informal for non-native English speakers: Rather than saying ‘I agreed to put him up’, “far better to say ‘I agreed to offer him accommodation’. The words may be longer but the meaning is easier to grasp.”
So if being clear isn’t always about being concise, what is it about? For me it’s more akin to bringing things into sharp focus. Clearly revealing the real reality, no matter how messy or complex. At times that can take a fair few words to communicate clearly and characterfully. But the result is more representative, more faithful, more vivid – and consequently all the more compelling and memorable.
Brilliant, lusty, rumbunctious…
Among the bright and hollow rhetoric of today’s politicians, where words are polished to assorted sweet nothings such as “things can only get better” and “we’re all in this together”, one individual’s oratory consistently stands out. Yes, the politician du jour (et des jeux), Boris Johnson’s. Compare his “final tear sodden juddering climax”, “routed the doubters” and “scattered the gloomsters” London 2012 tribute to David Cameron’s eminently forgettable “moments we will never forget”. On the campaign trail as in the corporate world, the vivid and particular beats the bland and general every time. Small wonder, as the FT points out, “Boris Johnson frequently upstages the premier.”
One of the more colourful exemplars of the power of characterful communication, you’re encouraged to believe Boris. For in contrast to many of his peers, the language he employs – brilliant, lusty, rumbunctious – not only puts a smile on your face but also feels like it fits and flows from the man.
The best story wins…
Writing in the FT recently, John Kay touched on the power of stories in our fluid fluxy world: “The real world is characterised by radical uncertainty… We deal with that world by constructing simplifying narratives. We do this not because we are stupid, or irrational, or have forgotten probability 101, but because storytelling is the best means of making sense of complexity. The test of these narratives is whether they are believable.”
As John Kay points out, juries convict because they find the prosecution’s account more believable than the defence’s. Just as investors follow the most compelling investment stories. In the courtroom, in business – in all walks of life, the best story wins.
Clarity is good business…
Courtesy of the FT’s Lex, a passing mention of how ArcelorMittal likes to call reducing capacity at its steel plants an “asset optimisation plan”. Usually I like to let such examples of cloudy business speak pass, not least because the market for criticising them is crowded and noisy. But this one caught my eye not so much because of its ugly unclear nature so much as its lack of point. A waste of words, it tells you next to nothing worthwhile. Every plan is or ought to be about doing and achieving the best (optimisation). When did any of us last set out to do anything less? What Lex readers (direct and indirect investors and commentators on the company) really want to know is why and by how much ArcelorMittal is reducing resources. So the language is not only unlovable but reflects poorly on the company’s ability to live up to its responsibility to communicate clearly and characterfully.
This isn’t simply an ethical responsibility, it is a commercial one. As the canny souls who set up a clarity index a few years ago explored, being clear can help a company make money.
So let’s all plan to optimise our communication by being as clear and characterful as we can.
Why I’m doolally about hullabaloo…
Some words just come up and give you a big smack on the lips when you first meet them. Full of melody and meaning, you can’t help loving them. Words like doolally and hullabaloo – two of the many great words that have made their way into the English language courtesy of India.
You’ll find doolally, hullabaloo and other Inglish wonders in Hobson-Jobson – “a glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms etymological, historical, geographical and discursive” compiled by Sir Henry Yule and AC Burnell.
First published in 1886, it’s never been out of print since. Just goes to show, lovable language is also long-lasting language.
Let your imagination fly…
There’s a magic at the heart of many of the best stories. A magic that draws you into their world and takes you where they want you to go.
Take the Arabian Nights, where for centuries we have stepped out of our daily lives into a world where we happily fly magic carpets, follow genies and sail the Seven Seas with Sinbad.
Marina Warner, Professor of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex and author of Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, talks of “the atmosphere of enchantment, of wonder, that is very specific to the book. There is a sense of a kind of endlessly emancipated imagination. You don’t feel that you need to observe any of the coordinates of ordinary life. The stories are simply asking you to let your imagination fly.”
An invitation many of us find irresistible.
Not walk on the steep…
Walking past a neighbour’s door the other day, the following wonderfully idiosyncratic note caught my eye:
Not walk, not don’t walk. Steep, not step. A far more characterful and therefore arresting warning than the blandly familiar standard issue at the other end of my road:
Same message; different communication.
Like laughter lines and the odd scar on a face, the stumbles and kinks in a communication can add character. As Valerie Hazan, Professor of speech sciences at University College London puts it: “Certain utterances stick in your mind: contorted use of language not planned in any way is often most memorable.”
It’s the opposite of the super-smooth polish beloved of politicians: “That rebel leader in Benghazi, don’t you think his English is a little too … sublime?” asks Seun Kuti.
So let’s look for ways to not walk on the steep, rather than simply watching out for wet paint.
This one’s for you…
“Here was vintage Blair, looking healthy and tanned, a familiar, beguiling combination of piety, self-regard and charm. Those seductive verbal mannerisms were on full display: “Look…I mean…I felt it was the right thing to do.” He still uses the third person to bring us all into his world. “Look, I mean, when you’re prime minister…”
As Ben Macintyre notes in his 29th May article in The Times, that little word “you” has a remarkable power to attract and engage us, to draw us in to its world. Tracey Emin’s “It’s different when you are in love” would have far less impact without it. It regularly tops the lists of the most powerful words in the English language.
A while back the always enlightening Laura Barton touched on its pivotal role in John Lennon’s In My Life: “‘You’ is such an insignificant, pale blue dot of a word. Its significance comes from the love that we place upon it, the way that we deal with it, conserve it, cherish it. In Lennon’s song, that “you” becomes a dot powerful enough to eclipse the past, all that went before; somehow he makes that “you” here, he makes it home.”
So thanks, you. You’re one in a million. This one’s for you.
“Choose the English that helps you win” runs the headline of Michael Skapinker’s article in the FT, following the launch of the University of Southampton’s Centre for Global Englishes. “That’s right: Englishes, because as the language spreads, people are speaking and writing it in many different ways.”
With multiple forms and over a million words and counting, we’ve never had so much choice. Our happy challenge is to craft a winning English for every context and occasion. One that’s as fitting as it is characterful – from Compare the Meerkat’s Simples speak to the Queen’s English.
The positive energy at the heart of character…
From new books to the recently launched Jubilee Centre for Character and Values, it’s good to see that character is increasingly in vogue. But what exactly is character? “It’s personality, it’s energy…at it’s heart, it’s a set of personal values that guide conduct,” says Lord Wilson, Chair of the Centre’s advisory committee, on Radio 4’s PM programme.
Lord Wilson touches on a key characteristic of character – its bias to action. Characters don’t just talk, they do – and in our new age of character the two have to be in synch.
Although characters come in many guises (good and bad), there’s an inherently constructive undercurrent – a positive energy at the heart of character. Strong characters have a clear sense of who they are and of how they contribute, and they have the communication to match. “We’ve become very shy of using very simple, powerful words, like honesty and truth and loyalty,” says Lord Wilson. “Big words like that…to describe values.” Big words or small, it’s worth taking care to use the right ones to communicate our character, so we can bring to life in a clear and compelling way the positive difference we make.
The value of English…
While over a billion people have Mandarin Chinese as their first language the number for English is less than 400 million. Yet what my mother tongue lacks in volume it more than makes up for in value.
“Measured in billions of pounds, Chinese is ‘worth’ four hundred and forty-eight billion, Russian eight hundred and one, German one thousand and ninety, Japanese one thousand two hundred and seventy billion, English four thousand two hundred and seventy-one. English is the buyers’ and sellers’ language, the stock language of the market,” says Melvyn Bragg in his enlightening study The Adventure of English.
“And English is the first language among equals at the United Nations, at NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund. It is the only official language of OPEC, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the only working language of the European Free Trade Association, the Association of Baltic Marine Biologists, the Asian Amateur Athletics Association, the African Hockey Federation…while it is the second language of bodies as diverse as the Andean Commission of Jurists and the Arab Air Carriers Association.” English is in short the world’s language of choice when it comes to sharing ideas and information across countries and cultures. The ultimate international language. The language of connection.
So what’s the source of its power? The value of English lies less in its political, economic or historical associations than in its inherently open and evolving character. English is freely adopted around the world and happily adapted and enriched by all who embrace it, with new words and turns of phrase being added all the time – from bamboozle to bishy barny bee, from wig wag to wiki. In so doing, this eminently lovable language grows in value with the world.
Royally good advice on clarity…
I recently came across my grandfather George Hanson’s copy of The King’s English, published in 1908 and signed and dated 1917.
A hundred years on, the opening words of Chapter 1 continue to get to the heart of what it takes to achieve the core of all good writing – clarity:
“Any one who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous and lucid.
This general principle may be translated into practical rules in the domain of vocabulary as follows:
- Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.
- Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.
- Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.
- Prefer the short word to the long…”
This guidance has echoed through the ages – in William Strunk, Jr . and E. B. White’s seminal The Elements of Style, in George Orwell’s six rules of effective writing, and in The Economist Style Guide as elsewhere. But HRH King George V, courtesy of his compilers H.W. and F.G. Fowler, got there first when it comes to laying the foundations of clear writing. Of course, as The King’s English implies, clarity is a necessary first step but by no means the end of the journey. What my granddad’s book calls “the more showy qualities” I call character – the essential build that at its best turns good writing into great writing.
A new Age of Character…
In her book QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain identifies a transition in early 20th century America “from the Age of Character to the Age of Personality”. A transition from an age where people are judged by what they do to one where they are judged by what they say (loudly).
A hundred years on, we’re in a new Age of Character. In our multiconnected early 21st century world, simply talking loud and long no longer cuts it. These days we’re rightly judged not just by our words but by our words and our deeds – by how well we marry the two. Which is why, whether introverts or extroverts or a more nuanced mix, it’s in all our interests to employ clear communication that allows our true character to come through.