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Lovable letters…

I’ve just added to my Christmas list Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells A Story, a mighty fine sounding new book by Michael Rosen.

“Writing this book has been a fascinating journey,” says Mr Rosen. “The story of our alphabet turns out to be a complex tug of war between the people who want to own our language and the people who use it. I know which side I’m on.”

Me too, and I can’t wait to read these stories of A to Z. Thanks Santa!

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To begin at the beginning…

To begin at the beginning is, next to ending at the end, the whole art of writing; as for the middle you may fill it in with any rubble that you choose. But the beginning and the end, like the strong stone outer walls of mediaeval buildings, contain and define the whole,” says Hillair Belloc in On Nothing and Kindred Subjects.

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story,” says Chekhov.

Two top takes on what goes into good storytelling, and what stays out.

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The wrong kind of unreadability…

Who owns English in a global market? asks Michael Skapinker in this week’s FT. The short answer is: no one, and everyone. Neither native speakers nor the many who have adopted English as a lingua franca (ELF), but both.

Thankfully, we have no real equivalent of the Académie Francaise stunting our language, just a few hundred million English speakers around the world keeping it very much alive and kicking and moving with the times and places.

Our wonderfully open and democratic English welcomes all comers – from the sublime to the ridiculous. Or should that be ridiculositous. In Democracy Has Bad Taste, the first of his Reith lectures, Grayson Perry recounts how an Art Forum editor said of a previous encumbent of her job that ‘English wasn’t her first language, so during her tenure as the editor, the magazine suffered from the wrong kind of unreadability’. Apparently her International Art English (IAE) wasn’t quite up to scratch. Her IAWhat? A particularly impenetrable form of art institution speak, designed to cultivate the seriousness of serious art and sounding like nothing so much as “inexpertly translated French” according to Monsieur Grayson. Witness this, again c/o of the great Mr Perry quoting a Venice Bienalle wall text: “Affectivity remans a central access in contemporary Uruguayan artistic production…”

Quintessentially Ridiculositous English (QRE). Don’t you just love it.

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Character at the core…

What puts Paul Klee in a different league from his contemporary Johannes Itten? For Philip Hensher it comes down to character.

Dismissing Itten, he says: “There is no character there at the core. But Klee has an irreducible centre, and though he changed his style and approach many times in the 40 years of his mature career, there is always something there that makes you say “Klee” without hesitation.”

From Klees to companies, all great ventures need character – the irreducible centre that sets them apart and drives them on.

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If it sounds like writing…

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” said the late great Elmore Leonard.

Expanding on the theme, here are his Ten Rules of Writing:

1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Avoid prologues.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”.

7. Use regional dialect and patois sparingly.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Wise words from a king of crime fiction.

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Melodic fragments…

I’ve just finished reading How Music Works – a mighty fine book by one of my heroes, David Byrne. It’s packed full of all kinds of good thoughts and insights – from the importance of context in any kind of creation to the need for empathy for any type of communication, from the vocal roots of song to the merits of amateurs.

Oh yes, and the multi-layered, non-hierarchical nature of acoustic culture compared to the relatively fixed views of visual culture – “In an acoustic world one senses essence, whereas in a visual universe one sees categories and hierarchies.” It’s a point that’s all the stronger coming from a dude who’s known not only for great songs but also great images – he of the totally enormous big suit and collabs with the late great Tibor Kalman.

Along the way, he describes how he came up with the lyrics for one of my favourite songs, Once In A Lifetime. “I tried not to censor the potential lyrics I wrote down. Sometimes I would sing the melodic fragments over and over, trying random lyric phrases, and I could sense when one syllable was more appropriate than another. I began to notice, for example, that the choice of a hard consonant instead of a soft one implied something, something emotional. A consonant wasn’t merely a formal decision, it felt different. Vowels, too had emotional resonances – a soft ooh and a pinched aah have very different associations.”

So the trick is to treat consonants and vowels, the building blocks of your words, as melodic fragments – for as Mr Byrne highlights, the feeling as much as the meaning is key.

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Strategies are stories…

I’ve been doing a fair bit of work recently which has included discussing with clients what strategy is all about. The conversations have tended towards couching the strategy thing in terms of good decisions and actions. Looking at it this way, strategy comes down to a group of people (a team, a company, a country…) answering a few simple yet essential questions: What are we going to do? Why? And how? It’s a world away from those thick and expensive docs heavy with impenetrably overloaded matrix diagrams so beloved of a certain kind of consultant and belittled by the great information design guru Edward Tufte.

So strategies are social. They are action. And they are something else, too: they are stories. Bad strategies are tragedies, full of loss and woe. Good strategies are adventures – epic tales of worthwhile quests and real achievements, of great characters and grand deeds.

I know which strategies I’d like to read…

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In defence of chartreuse…

If you want your writing to appeal to a lot of people, keep it simple and emotional.

This is the wise point made by fast rising young writer dude from NY Simon Rich: “I’m trying to connect with as many people as possible so I’d only write about emotions I think billions of us have experienced… When you remove multisyllabic words from your vocabulary, you widen the net. You gain a lot by calling something yellowy-green instead of chartreuse. I don’t know what you have to gain with chartreuse. I haven’t looked up a word since college. If I come to a word and I don’t understand it, to my mind that’s the word’s fault.”

There’s a lot of truth in this, but I’d also advocate a place for chartreuse, not least because it has a very different feel from its admitedly more down to earth but rather ugly sounding relative. Chartreuse conjures a sense of elegance, of lazy hazy sun days at a French chateau. It’s a colour to accompany a champagne cocktail. Yellowy-green by contrast is no nonsense, gutsy, downtown. Stuff the cocktail – give me a double on the rocks.

Same colour; different vibe. The key thing is to be free to pick and choose the right one for your writing.

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Why add the adjective?…

In 1956, sci-fi horror doyen Richard Matheson wrote a story he called The Shrinking Man. When Hollywood came to make the movie they couldn’t resist mucking with the title: in 1957 The Incredible Shrinking Man was released. It went on to become a cult classic but Mr Matheson was understandably irked by that extra word: “It’s already pretty incredible that a guy is shrinking!” he said. “Why add the adjective?”

A neat reminder to leave out what you don’t need in. Although, on reflection, you could make a case for keeping that “incredible” in as it adds a certain melodic rhythm to the title.

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Shorter often takes longer…

From The Guardian’s In praise of… telegrams: Mark Twain received this telegram from his publisher: NEED 2-PAGE SHORT STORY TWO DAYS. To which he replied: NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES 2 DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS TO DO 2 PAGES.

As with a fine cognac compared to a run of the mill brandy, it takes time to distill your words well – shorter often takes longer.

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Oh! Kersliver…

To the Southbank with the family for a free singalong with the lovely Cerys Mathews and assorted London folk, all gathered to dip our voices into Hook, Line and Singer – Ms Mathews’ mighty fine collection of songs to singalong to.

Among the songs we sang was an early version of Clementine, which included in its lyrics a wonderfully evocative phrase describing how the ill-fated Clema falls into the river: Oh! Kersliver.

Conjuring and combining a curse and a slither – when I hear the phrase I can picture poor Clema trip-slip-sliding down the bank to her death. Oh kersliver indeed!

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Beware the lumbagain…

Great to see that BBC2’s short story competition for children had around 90,000 entries. Including Cloud Boy, a rather brilliant tale that turns raindrops into people, written by my daughter Gilly :).

Great to see also that these young authors share The Bard’s predeliction for inventing new words, adding to the richness of our lovable language. Words like lumbagain – a ghost who makes people dull and boring. What a wonderful twist on the grand tradition of scary spooks, and what a fantastically fitting word for said ghost – a mighty fine combination of meaning and melody. Imagine one lumbering after you, gaining ground surprisingly fast…

Beware the lumbagain!

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On ledgers, lifts…

Major works are afoot at Free Coordinates HQ, which has resulted in my gaining firsthand experience of ledgers, lifts and other weird and wonderful terms from the language of scaffolding. My initial thoughts were that such jargon was far from necessary for the simple matter of fixing poles and boards together to create platforms to work from. But when you consider the need to erect these platforms quickly and safely by fixing the right poles and boards together in the right order and way, the scaffold-speak begins to make sense.

As Hilaire Belloc says in On, an entertaining series of essays on all kinds of things – in this instance, technical words: “a technical word takes the place of long explanation. If you do not use technical words you have to replace them by clumsy, roundabout phrases. You lose your direct effect.”

Yes, technical terms can be effective shortcut language. Yet the principle, as with spelling out a Three Letter Acronym (TLA) the first time you use it, should be to explain the terms once up front. Just as the scaffolders did when I quizzed them. That way, everyone is free to understand should they be interested, as opposed to being excluded for want of clarification.

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Beautiful lies…

If you want to tell the truth, tell tales. Facts alone are not enough – you need fiction. Back in 1861, Charles Reade brought this vividly to life in the opening lines of his novel The Cloister and the Hearth…

“Not a day passes over the earth, but men and women of no note do great deeds, speak great words, and suffer noble sorrows. Of these obscure heroes…the greater part will never be known…their lives and characters lie hidden from nations in the annals that record them. The general reader cannot feel them, they are presented so curtly and coldly…they are not like living breathing stories appealing to the heart…nor can he understand them…for epitomes are not narratives, as skeletons are not human figures… Here, then, the writer of fiction may be of use to the public – as an interpreter…

There is a musty chronicle, written in intolerable Latin, and in it a chapter where every sentence holds a fact. Here is told, with harsh brevity, the strange history of a pair, who lived untrumpeted, and died unsung, four hundred years ago; and lie now, as unpitied, in that stern page, as fossils in a rock. Thus, living or dead, fate is still unjust to them. For if I can but show you what lies below that dry chronicler’s words, methinks you will correct the indifference of centuries, and give those two sore-tried souls a place in your heart – for a day.”

As Charles Reade attests, to free what really matters, what you really want to get across, from the deadweight of dry facts, you need imagination – that flight of the mind that can uncover and convey the hidden meanings, the true messages at the heart of your story.

For fiction is, after all, the truth wrapped up in a beautiful lie.

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Characterful leaders…

More backing for the importance of character in business comes courtesy of Donovan Campbell’s book The Leader’s Code, according to Morgen Witzel’s review in today’s FT.

Subtitled Mission, Character, Service and Getting the Job Done, the book emphasises how leaders have to have character in order to gain that all-important trust. “Character, as Campbell defines it, means strength of character, but also encompasses virtue – a word that appears often in the book,” says Morgen Witzel. “Leaders must do right by others; they should strive to make the world a better place.”

Indeed in deed.

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Bedazzled by The Bard…

Estimates vary on just how many new words and phrases William Shakepeare coined. The Oxford English Dictionary puts it at over 2,000.

In no particular order, here are three of my favourites: bedazzle, heart of gold, and mind’s eye. Each one is great on its own, and they’re also rather wonderful when put together: Your heart of gold bedazzles my mind’s eye.

Thanks Bard.

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Beware dispiriting clarity…

I’m a big fan of clarity, particularly in business writing, but if you’re not careful too much of the clear stuff can bleach out the colour from your communication.

I was reminded of this courtesy of Peter Mathews in his book on Workrooms. In discussing the dimensions and dynamics of a good home-based Music Practice Room, he writes: “A high ceiling will give good resonance but this should not be so great that mistakes are not heard. Excessive use of absorbent surfaces leads to dispiriting clarity while contributing little to the sound insulation of adjoining spaces.”

Too much clarity can compromise character. The aim should be to be clear and characterful – to resonate and ring out, like a well-crafted bell.

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The melody is the message…

In Episode 2 of Noise: A Human History, Professor David Hendy speculates that millions of years ago our earliest ancestors “had a kind of sing song utterance that was a curious mix of both language and music.”

Fast forwarding to the hear and now, he evokes teenagers texting: “That hidden melody and rhythm of constant toing and froing with words. The melody is the message. We’re hearing the building up of a strong bond between friends. The rhythm provides the means of us touching at a distance.”

From yesteryear’s cavemen to today’s texters, when it comes to communication – to touching at a distance – the music as much as the meaning is key.

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I’m upside down…

Wandering along Floral Street many moons ago I spotted this cardboard box:

Just goes to show how a few simple words that talk directly to you can add a whole lot of character.

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A kerfuffle in B Flat…

News just in that the mighty fine Michael Rosen, former Children’s Laureate and all-round good guy, is co-creating The Great Enormo: a Kerfuffle in B Flat for Orchestra, Wasps and Soprano – a children’s guide to the orchestra.

Echoes of Britten and a reminder of just what a lovable word kerfuffle is. Classic Rosen. Can’t wait.

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The best story wins…

Cold hard facts or clear compelling stories? When it comes to really understanding our world, it’s the latter that matter.

Writing in the FT, John Kay picks up on the age-old power of stories to help us make sense of things: “Probabilistic reasoning has become the dominant method of structured thinking about problems involving risk and uncertainty – to such an extent that people who do not think this way are derided as incompetent and irrational. Yet this probabilistic approach, a recent intellectual development, was heavily implicated in the 2008 financial crisis. Legal systems have evolved over hundreds if not thousands of years…to establish the degree of confidence in a narrative, not to measure a probability in a model. Such narrative reasoning is the most effective means humans have developed of handling complex and ill-defined problems… We cope with these situations by telling stories, and we base decisions on their persuasiveness.”

So stories rather than stats are the great sensemakers. And as John Kay implies and Life of Pi highlights, the best story wins.

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Fearless friend…

Happy birthday to the Financial Times, 125 years young today. The FT launched on Monday February 13th, 1888, proudly running its motto “Without Fear and Without Favour.” beneath its title and listing either side on the masthead its friends (the honest financier among other good business folk) and enemies (the unprincipled promoter, the company wrecker et al). As they said in the leader on the front page of that first edition, “Our attitude, our principles and our programme are summed up in the motto we have quoted.” It’s a motto the FT has continued to display and hold true to in every edition since.

In 1888 the FT cost the princely sum of one penny. Today it costs rather more – 250 times more in my local newsagent. Even accounting for inflation, that’s quite some increase, but its fearlessly independent and intelligent commentary is priceless.

The FT is a study in the great effect and good fortune that can come from having a strong character, getting it across in a few simple, powerful words and sticking to it. So, many happy returns to the pinkun’ – here’s to the next 125 years.

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Cooking with dragons’ flames…

On my way back from a client meeting in the West End I came across this wonderfully clear and characterful description by the great Quentin Blake:

Children flying through the air with fruit and sandwiches, a trampoline you can’t see, cooking with dragons’ flames – the writing’s as vivid and quintessentially Quentin as the drawings on the chairs.

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The essential qualities of good style…

I’ve been browsing through another excellent book on writing, inherited from my Dad:

It’s full of great guidance, not least when it comes to the Essential Qualities of Good Style. As Pink and Thomas say, “Style is the expression of personality.” It’s how you get yourself across in your own way, not just clearly but characterfully.

So what goes into a good style? Pink and Thomas identify five “positive qualities which are exhibited by all writing of the highest quality”: clearness, simplicity, strength, idiomatic writing and rhythm and harmony.

It would be difficult to find a handier handful.

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Charismatic communication…

What’s the secret of charismatic communication – communication that’s highly enchanting and persuasive?

In an article in the FT, Alicia Clegg cites many different factors, including a dozen communication habits – from telling stories to letting your feelings show – rooted in the principles of classic rhetoric, the importance of not just talking well but listening carefully, using appealing everyday language, and being sincere.

All good stuff, but in the interests of boiling it down: write from the heart with your ears.

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Right for your audience…

When Benjamin Britten took a Baroque theme by Henry Purcell and adapted it to accompany a film called Instruments of the Orchestra, he gave it the clear and engaging title The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. “Programmers often wanted to call it Variations on a Theme by Henry Purcell,” according to Ian Bostridge. “But Britten objected – he didn’t want to sound pretentious, preferring to stick with the title that has endured.”

As a young person, I doubt I would’ve taken much notice of Variations on a Theme by Henry Purcell – vari-what? Purce-who?? But I remember being enthralled by The Young Person’s Guide – it talked directly to me, after all, and proved to be every bit as illuminating as its title suggested.

From classic classicals to corporate comms – it pays to make sure your writing’s right  for your audience.

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True stories travel light…

For psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz, our innermost feelings can only be understood through stories, and the key to storytelling is truthfulness. The kind of truthfulness that brings your stories to life and lets them fly.

“My friend [the poet] Wendy Cope says, ‘Make it more truthful.’ Is this exactly what the patient said? Is that exactly how it was? You have to dig down really deep to make it good – but you’re also after lightness. You don’t want to write about the Oedipus complex, you want to take weight out of the story. That, for me, is what the great writers do… When I taught a course on writing case histories, I discovered that what I felt was true had nothing to do with length. What counted was telling the story so well the reader had the same experience as the writer. I’m not convinced by statistics or page count, I’m convinced by someone who’s been there, got really close, seen what they’ve seen, and can put it across in writing.”

This Lightness of touch forms one of Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millenium. True stories travel light – covering a lot of ground quickly. As the Sicilian saying quoted in Calvino’s chapter on Quickness puts it: “Time takes no time in a story.” Creating the story on the other hand can take a great deal of time and care but it’s always worth it. By digging deep into the truth of a story you can set it free to capture people’s attention and imagination.

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Brilliant advocates…

It’s good to see storytelling in business gets a big thumbs up from Luke Johnson in his New Year article for the FT.

“What is the special secret that makes a great entrepreneur? The power to motivate – to lead others in a grand task. So how do they enthuse and encourage followers? A key ingredient is the ability to tell stories. The more compelling the storyteller, the more devoted the adherents. From Benjamin Franklin…to Akio Morita…these were not spin masters but brilliant advocates who caught people’s imaginations and won both hearts and minds.”

Equating storytelling with advocacy is spot on, for the best stories in business, like the best representations in court, are carefully considered and crafted for a particular purpose and audience. Their emotional appeal is finely tuned and precisely targeted. As Luke Johnson says, this is the opposite of the chatter and noise of the daily news. “Rolling news channels and the digital revolution mean the exposure and pitch of headlines are more intense than ever. We cannot influence any of these events, unlike our own stories. So I recommend that readers avoid too much news and focus instead on cultivating their own narratives.” And if you like, enlist an expert to help you cultivate them.