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In praise of pad and pen…

As a lifelong fan of writing things down with pad and pen*, I was heartened to read that this age-old method has the edge over simply tipping and tapping away at a keyboard when it comes to actually thinking about things.

“It turns out that writing involves a completely different process to typing,” says Charles Wallace in the FT. He quotes Daniel J Levitin, a professor of psychology and behavioural neuroscience at McGill University in Canada: “Writing things down requires more concentration and deeper processing than typing… Deeper processing means you are more likely to remember and encode the information… Deeper encoding allows for the linking of the concept to other concepts that you have deep in memory.”

So if it’s not too late, ask Santa to pop a pad and pen into your stocking this festive season.

*My trusty Pilot V5 Hi-Tecpoint extra fines.

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An aromatic and delicious spirit…

Just as being clear doesn’t necessarily mean being concise, so being compressed doesn’t mean being characterless. On the contrary, in communication as in cognac, distilling down to the essence creates something more intense and memorable.

Carmen Herrera admires Ben Nicholson’s ability to “reduce pictorial forms and ideas to their very essence…He was never austere, dry, or rigid. A true distiller always leaves an aromatic and delicious spirit.”

Many moons ago I had the pleasure of learning a little bit about the art of making cognac while working on a project for Martell. The key is double-distillation and it’s no bad thing for writers everywhere to take inspiration from this process: edit, and edit again. Till your writing has the pure impact of this painting by Mr Nicholson:

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Can a crocodile play cricket?…

“Computers can do some of the toughest tasks in the world but they cannot perform some of those that seem most simple to us mere humans,” writes Walter Isaacson in an article sparked by the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game. “Ask Google a hard question such as, “What is the depth of the Red Sea?” and it will instantly respond, “7,254ft”, something even your smartest friends don’t know. Ask it an easy one such as, “Can a crocodile play cricket?” and it will have no clue, even though a toddler could tell you, after a bit of giggling.”

I’m not so sure the toddler’s answer is the end of it. Indeed the answer is not a simple binary yes/no, it is a potentially multi-taled unending yesnomaybe. The difference here is that, unlike computers now or any time soon, we can make sense of simple and complex questions alike through stories – our wonderfully human form of communication. For example, through the story of how the crocodile could indeed play cricket by using its tail as a bat, before promptly bringing the game to an end by eating all its team mates.

There are inevitably attempts to create robot storytellers – Scheherazade, Whim and the like. But as Nicholas Lezard puts it, “Even if one day a computer will pass muster at the level of a sentence, there is no foreseeable way as yet that it will be able to construct a narrative that is both plausible and gripping.”

So despite the inexorable rise in digital firepower, storytellers everywhere can continue to sleep and dream and write soundly. Computers are a long, long way off from crafting tales of crocodiles and cricket.

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Sketch trees in winter…

“In handbooks on Chinese traditional painting, an advice commonly given to the artist who wishes to learn to paint trees is to sketch them in winter, for then, without the seductive yet confused and blurry effect of their leafy masses, through their stark nudity they can best reveal their inner structure and specific character.” 

So says Simon Leys in his Chinese Shadows. A fair few decades on, Apple teaches the same principle to its design pupils, pointing them in the direction of Picasso’s progressively stripped back sketches of a bull.

To divine, distil. It’s a sure route to get to the heart of a character. And once you’re there at the essence you can add and amplify, as Chineasy does to great effect in making it easier to understand and remember Chinese language characters.

My own personal favourite is this eternally optimistic take on tomorrow:

Tomorrow is going to be a bright day. Amen to that.

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The power of stories…

Back in 2007 Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates was only able to sell his pottery bowls for $25 a piece, despite a great deal of time, effort and money going into making them.

“I decided that the reasons were: I’m a nobody, so the bowl is a nothing,” says Theaster. “The bowl looks like lots of other bowls that are mass produced you can buy for even cheaper than $25; the bowl has no magical context that would help get it valued in other ways. If I could be a somebody; if I could elevate [the bowl] beyond the everyday context, would people value it more?”

So Theaster set about creating that all-important magical context in the form of an imaginary mentor with an intriguing and appealing story to match. Meet Yamaguchi, a gifted Japanese potter who fled Hiroshima for Mississippi, where he married a black woman and created a unique ceramic style blending Asian and African-American techniques.

This carefully crafted fiction paid dividends. Theaster/Yamaguchi’s bowls began selling for far more than $25, for people weren’t buying the pottery so much as the character and story surrounding it. They were buying into the magical context – the brand in other words. For all great brands are essentially great stories. Therein lies their power.

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…again, oh…

The last in a trio of comments upon the comma…

As the comma carefully placed by my daughter between “again” and “oh” in her literacy homework demonstrates, punctuation is as much about character as it is about correctness. This is a delicate mark, for the Lady is veiled in gossamer sorrow. No heavy-handed dash here, just the light touch of a gentle comma.

My daughter’s deft touch with her comma put me in mind of another brilliant example of how using that mark in the right way can work wonders with the meaning and feel of what you are writing: Orange Pear Apple Bear. With just those four words, well-placed punctuation and simple illustration, Emily Gravett conjures a book of pure enchantment.

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Confusing marks…

I prefer not to join the noisy critiquing of the misuse of English in and around business (amply covered by the likes of the FT’s Lucy Kellaway among others). I also have an enduring affection for HP, one of my earliest clients who, I fear, has somewhat lost its Way in the past few years. But given that I had so recently sung the praises of the humble comma, I felt compelled to comment on the company’s strange use of the mark in its current run of UK print ad headlines:

Flex, when in flux. (Flex when in flux would do much better.)

Move, able. (Clever clever nonsense.)

Dream big, data. (I guess HP is talking to companies about big data rather than to data about dreaming big, but that’s not what that comma says.)

These from a campaign which also uses the admirably distinctive and eye-catching words Thwart, Foil, Stymie and Crimp as headlines in other ads.

So come on HP, less of the confusing marks and more of the lovable language.

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Quietly powerful comma…

Pawn of the punctuation game, workhorse of sentences everywhere – it’s easy to take the humble common-or-garden comma for granted.

Its everyday uses are amply explored in Strunk and White’s timeless The Elements of Style. But there’s magic in this humble mark, too. I came across two examples of its quietly powerful ability to steer our thoughts and feelings in Albert Camus’ short and sweet as a fig The Sea Close By (currently on sale for a mere 199 of your pennies):

“But above all,* there is the silence of summer evenings. Those brief moments when day topples into night must be peopled with secret signs and summonses… I imagine its twilights as promises of happiness. On the hills above the city there are paths among the mastics and olive-trees. And towards them my heart turns at such moments. I see flights of black birds rise against the green horizon. In the sky suddenly divested of its sun something relaxes…”

*This comma tugs you back gently before toppling you into the brilliantly vivid depiction of Algiers in evening.

“Almost immediately afterwards appears the first star that had been taking shape and consistency in the depth of the sky. And then suddenly, all consuming,* night.”

*This comma wraps you up in the experience, rather than the description, of night.

So praise is due the comma, the unsung hero of communication.

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The whew in blue…

Far and away my favourite read of the summer was On Being Blue. In a little under a hundred pages, William H Glass explores no end of essential thoughts and feelings – from the importance of loving the language you use to the definition of genius: the ability to see a long way, swiftly.

Here he is on the character evoked simply by the sound of blue and other colours: “The word itself has another color. It’s not a word with any resonance, although the e was once pronounced. There is only the bump now between b and l, the relief at the end, the whew. It hasn’t the sly turn which crimson takes halfway through, yellow’s deceptive jelly, or the rolled-down sound in brown. It hasn’t violet’s rapid sexual shudder, or like a rough road the irregularity of ultramarine, the low puddle in mauve like a pancake covered with cream, the disapproving purse to pink, the assertive brevity of red, the whine of green…”

Rich, eloquent, precise. Brilliant and beautiful. A mini masterpiece on life, language, and all things blue.

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Business adventures…

A thumbs up from Bill Gates has apparently sent John Brooks’ previously out-of-print Business Adventures into the bestseller lists. “Unlike a lot of today’s business writers, Brooks didn’t boil his work down into pat how-to lessons or simplistic explanations for success,” says Gates. “You won’t find any listicles in his work. Brooks wrote long articles that frame an issue, explore it in depth, introduce a few compelling characters and show how things went for them.”

Business Adventures was first published in 1969. News of its comeback, prompted me to lean across and pick up once more another business classic from the same era: Clarence B Randall’s The Folklore of Management, first published in 1961.

Through the course of his book, Randall explores 16 myths of the world of business. It is full of good insights that stand the test of time, such as this from The Myth of Communications: “The determining factor in effective communication is conviction. The authoritative voice that carries its message straight into the heart of every listener is that of the man who knows exactly what he believes. His utterance simply will not be denied, because it pours straight out from his spirit… No new marvel of technology will ever be able to bestow that quality synthetically upon a banal message from a man who has nothing to say because he believes in nothing.”

Strong stuff; still true.

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Crisp and pungent…

“Good intelligence depends in large measure on clear, concise writing,” states the style manual of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). “The information the CIA gathers and the analysis it produces mean little if we cannot convey them effectively.” So far so good. Then a rather odd injunction to “keep the language crisp and pungent”. Crisp conjures up a certain no nonsense to-the-pointness, which is OK on its own. But pungent too? Calls to mind stinky cheese – not the best image for incisive intelligence.

Far better simply to guide people towards making their writing as clear and vivid as possible – as “clear as a country creek,” as Truman Capote put it.

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Poets take risks…

Far from “conniving at its own irrelevance” by failing to engage with ordinary people, poetry continues to fight on the front lines of our lovable language.

As George Szirtes points out, poetry’s task is not to play safe by finding “a pretty way of saying plain things”. From ee cummings’ abandoning of capitals to Tricky’s “My brain thinks bomb-like”, poets take risks – pushing and pulling the way we use and think about words into weird and wonderful new corners and possibilities, pumping new life into our tongue.

In his A Note on War Poetry, TS Eliot talks of “the abstract conception of private experience at its greatest intensity becoming universal, which we call ‘poetry’.”

Small wonder wartime yields such intense universal expression. Take Isaac Rosenberg’s twisting visceral Louse Hunting:

Nudes – stark aglisten

Yelling in lurid glee. Grinning faces of fiends

And raging limbs

Whirl over the floor one fire,

For a shirt verminously busy

Yon soldier tore from his throat

With oaths

Godhead might shrink at, but not the lice.

And soon the shirt was aflare

Over the candle he’d lit while we lay…”

“We feel poetry rather understand it,” says George Szirtes. I’d like to temper that assertion by saying we feel poetry and understand ourselves better for it. Which is why poetry will always be relevant and, for a good many of us, well loved.

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I eat rubbish…

Wandering across the Wobbly Bridge on my way to the amazing Matisse Cut-Outs exhibition, I caught sight of an old friend with a new banner:

The anodyne “Cleaning the river together” has replaced the arresting “I eat rubbish” – a far more characterful call-out for a hard-working platform that catches the detritus of the Thames as it flows down and out towards the sea.

So come on, let’s get the old banner reinstated – the new one’s rubbish.

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The power of rightly chosen words…

While visiting recently one of my favourite Parisian haunts, Shakespeare & Company, I found in the discount boxes outside a copy of Our Language by Simeon Potter. Four euros and an enjoyable chat with the bookseller behind the counter later and it was mine to leaf through at my leisure.

I didn’t have to go far to find the treasures within. From the opening paragraph:

“The power of rightly chosen words is very great, whether those words are intended to inform, to entertain, or to move. English is rapidly becoming a cosmopolitan means of communication… Let us all join freely in the quest and let us all share gladly in that intellectual joy of linguistic exploration which is ours for the seeking every day of our lives.”

Wise and encouraging words from 1950 by way of a mighty fine bookshop on the left bank of the Seine.

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This tale begins in Nebraska…

Praise for the Sage of Omaha in today’s FT, not so much for his legendary skill as an investor as for his use of clear, simple language:

“Mr Buffett’s plain speaking shows confidence,”says Sam Leith… “Two things in particular make the plain style sing for him. He tells stories and he uses metaphors… As far as storytelling goes, his letter to shareholders this year…opened with an account of a small investment he made years ago that did little to change his net worth. “This tale begins in Nebraska,” he wrote, before describing his 1986 purchase of a farm. He went on to explain how the story illustrated “certain fundamentals of investing”. “As for metaphors, Mr Buffett can barely get through a sentence without one… “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

His use of storytelling and metaphor means that even when Mr Buffett is talking about something as complex, impersonal and abstract as finance, [he can] make it sound simple, human and concrete.”

Outstanding investment success and clearly characterful language – now that’s a connection to conjure with.

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Constructive clarity…

Is constructive ambiguity, the practice of deliberately clouding the message to further your own ends, an acceptable let alone good thing?

The phrase is attributed to Henry Kissinger and the murkiness it denotes crops up regularly in diplomatic and business circles alike. You can make a case, as I’m sure Mr Kissinger did, for the benefits that flow from making yourself less, rather than more, clear during delicate negotiations. But I don’t buy it. I’m on the side of constructive clarity. It requires reasonable folk around the table and things of real value and interest to talk about, but that aside, it is a far better communication tactic than its mean-spirited cousin. One that genuinely brings people together, rather than setting them up as adversaries or, at best, sparring partners. One that’s bias is to get on and get good things done. One that moves everyone on in the right direction.

So, no matter how delicate the situation or nuanced the issues, let’s not just be constructive but also clear in all our communication.

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Libération’s lament…

Libération’s lament that its shareholders’ plans would reduce the paper to “a mere brand” reminds me of the misconception running through No Logo, Naomi Klein’s critique of brands from back in the day – the notion that a brand is something other, something unwelcome if not evil, done to you by someone else. In short, an ill-intentioned imposition. It isn’t. It is part of you – your brand is your character. Like it or not, like them or not, we all have brands/characters. We simply need to understand and communicate them in truthful and enjoyable ways.

Like many of the most interesting aspects of life, commercial or otherwise, this is a never-ending process, a living enterprise, an ongoing endeavour. So don’t duck, swerve or lament your brand, embrace and make the most of it.

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Dear Andy…

How do you brief creative folk? Mick Jagger’s letter to Andy Warhol is a great example:

“Dear Andy,

I’m really pleased you can do the art-work for our new hits album. Here are 2 boxes of material you can use, and the record. In my short sweet experience, the more complicated the format of the album, e.g. more complex than just pages or fold-out, the more fxxxxx up the reproduction and agonising the delays. But, having said that, I leave it in your capable hands to do whatever you want………..and please write back saying how much money you would like.

Doubtless a Mr Al Steckler will contact you in New York, with any further information. He will probably look nervous and say “Hurry up” but take little notice.

Love, Mick Jagger.”

I’m really pleased you can do the work… Here is some background material… I trust you… Do whatever you think best – the perfect brief.

So did Andy do a good job? Well, according to a Rolling Stone readers poll it’s one of the best album covers of all time.

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Stoked by the gnarly new…

Like a great river, our endlessly lovable language keeps on moving and changing with the times. New words and phrases flow in from many different tributaries. Words and phrases such as “stoked”, “gnarly” and “snow snakes”, courtesy of the snowboarding folk, currently hanging out at the Sochi Winter Olympics.

While much of the language will remain the preserve of those sailing on the good ship Snowboard, some will make the leap and swim over to the mainstream, to be shared and enjoyed by us all.

I must say I’m stoked by the prospect of great new words and phrases enriching English, almost as much as I am by watching Jenny Jones win bronze in the women’s slopestyle today.

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The return of purpose…

Good to see the FT’s Andrew Hill picking up on the return of purpose as a key factor in corporate success. Lauded back in the mid-nineties by Collins and Porras in Built To Last, their mighty fine exploration of the most succesful visionary companies, the P word was apparently on the lips of many a CEO at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos. “The most important thing is to focus on purpose,” said Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan. “You have to be a purpose-driven organisation,” said EY’s Mark Weinberger.

While purpose seems to be back in fashion, there is according to Andrew Hill some uncertainty over what we actually mean by the term. However, bearing in mind the essentially social nature of business, when you root purpose in the common interest, the shared endeavour, the collective action of a company, rather than, say, individualistic notions of why you go to work every day, the fog lifts.

Purpose is simply what we are all here to do together. Express that clearly and with feeling and you will have a powerful reason for people to work with you and buy from you and an enduring guide for good actions.

Andrew Hill highlights a great example in his article. When Ellen Kullman, chief executive of DuPont, asked a contract worker on the Kevlar production line what he was doing, he replied: “We’re saving lives.”

Saving lives, not just making bulletproof vests. A good purpose is indeed powerful stuff.

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The secret law of writing…

Prompted by its inclusion in Michael Skapinker’s list of non-business books to inspire managers, I reached for my copy of The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers (another mighty fine book on writing given to me by my Dad):

“It is true that there are rules of grammar and syntax, just as in music there are rules of harmony and counterpoint. But one can no more write good English than one can compose good music merely by keeping the rules…

The golden rule is not a rule of grammar or syntax. It concerns less the arrangement of words than the choice of them. “After all,” said Lord Macaulay, “the first law of writing is this: that the words employed should be such as to convey to the reader the meaning of the writer.” The golden rule is to pick those words and to use them and them only. Arrangement is of course important, but if the right words are used they generally have a happy knack of arranging themselves. Mathew Arnold once said: “People think that I can teach them style. What stuff it all is. Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.””

So, melding Macaulay’s first law with Arnold’s only secret, the secret law of writing is: Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can for your reader.