By way of an end of year sign-off, recommended reading for the new year: the delightful Lost In Translation, An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World. It’s a treasure trove of lovable language – from commuovere (to be moved to tears by a story) to komorebi (the sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees).
As author Ella Frances Sanders says in her introduction: “In our highly connected and communicative world, we have more ways than ever to express ourselves, to tell others how we feel, and to explain the importance or insignificance of our days. The speed and frequency of our exchanges leave just enough room for misunderstandings, though, and now perhaps more than ever before, what we actually mean to say gets lost in translation. The ability to communicate more frequently and faster hasn’t eliminated the potential for leaving gaps between meaning and interpretation, and emotions and intentions are misread all too often. The words in this book may be answers to questions you didn’t even know to ask, and perhaps some you did. They might pinpoint emotions and experiences that seemed elusive and indescribable, or they may cause you to remember a person you’d long forgotten. If you take something away from this book other than some brilliant conversation starters, let it be the realisation (or affirmation) that you are human, that you are fundamentally, intrinsically bound to every single person on the planet with language and with feelings. As much as we like to differentiate ourselves, to feel like individuals and rave on about expression and freedom and the experiences that are unique to each one of us, we are all made of the same stuff. We laugh and cry in much the same way, we learn words and then forget them, we meet people from places and cultures different from our own and yet somehow we understand the lives they are living. Language wraps its understanding and punctuation around us all, tempting us to cross boundaries and helping us to comprehend the impossibly difficult questions that life relentlessly throws at us.”
Wishing you a happy and prosperous 2016, one and all.
Hot on the heels of being bought up by Nikkei, the FT has seen the value of declaring its shared mission: “to translate information into knowledge with timely, accurate reporting and analysis around the clock from Beijing to Brussels, Tokyo to New York and London to Johannesburg. With our global networks, we connect the dots in an increasingly interconnected world.”
While lacking the fire and zing of “Without fear and without favour”, it is nevertheless a decent statement and underlines the value of making your purpose clear for all to see and react to. As Grant Thornton UK’s chief executive Sacha Romanovitch puts it, “a strong sense of purpose helps a venture thrive.” It gives people a shared cause to rally around, a big why to spur them on, a point of guidance for day-to-day decisions and actions.
So a strong purpose is both glue and fuel – a potent mix for any organisation or endeavour.
An incisive take on tone of voice, courtesy of one of the big pop hits of the 8Os: A-Ha’s Take On Me…
“We’d already written Take On Me but hadn’t recorded it…It reminded me of an advert for chewing gum that went: Juicy Fruit is a packet full of sunshine. That influenced the verse melody,” says A-Ha’s singer Morten Harket. “Paul [Waaktaar-Savoy, guitarist] had the idea of really using my vocal range in the chorus, having notes rising in octaves like Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. As for hitting that last high note, you either have wings or you don’t – the voice is not in the throat, it’s in the blood. It’s what you envisage, what you believe. ”
From the flighty falsetto of Take On Me to the rutting bellow of the red deer in Bushy Park last weekend:
Albeit way down the scale, this character’s call was equally full of emotional conviction.
High notes or low, find your voice in your blood. Sing from the heart.
Every three minutes someone is injured by a traffic accident in China. One in ten die. To help fight this, the campaign revolves around a simple and arresting idea: to use real accident victims to underline the dangers. To this end, we see them holding up traffic signs at the spots where their accidents actually happened.
Commissioned by Shanghai General Motors; created by Lowe China; deserved winner of a D&AD White Pencil for work that excels in effecting real and positive change in the world through creative thinking.
Driving back to London along the M1 after a wonderful week in Wales climbing mountains, canoeing lakes and chomping chips, we slowed down along a sustained stretch of 50mph roadworks.
Nothing new there for anyone familiar with the UK’s motorway network, except for the unusually characterful traffic signs. Gone were the standard blunt and bland commands to keep your speed down. In their place, conversational messages: “Nobody likes a tailgater”, “Let’s all get home safely”, “Our Dad works here”…
With their refreshingly friendly tone, they certainly caught the eye and according to a Highways England spokesman have been developed with the help of psychologists “to improve the customer experience through roadworks”. I’m not sure it’s about improving the customer experience so much as making safety messages clearer and more compelling. On that score, the ones I saw worked well. Nobody does like a tailgater, for example – not even the tailgater themselves, when they stop and think about how dumb and dangerous they have been.
But then came a message that stood out by virtue of its worrying ambiguity: “You may not always see us”. Did it mean that the road workers were not always there? We know that already – how many times have you driven along a stretch of motorway roadworks with not a worker in sight! Or did it mean that we were not allowed always to see the road workers? A rather rude mind-your-own-business message. Or did it mean that sometimes the road workers were difficult to see. Yes, but that in turn raised another question: Why aren’t road workers more visible? Worse, this sign was on the central reservation, rather than on the left by the hard shoulder – the natural home for such signs. It was all rather distracting and disconcerting – the last thing you want when driving along a motorway – and made me hanker for a much simpler old-style “drive carefully”.
So, when revamping motorway messages or indeed any other communication, it always pays to pay attention to keeping clarity while adding character.
Long-time corporate bull basher Lucy Kellaway recently targeted Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s 1,500 word email to all staff telling them about the company’s new mission statement. As well as taking aim at the language, she questions Mr Nadella’s belief that “Every great company has an enduring mission.” “This sounds good, only it is not true,” says Ms Kellaway. “I like to think that the Financial Times is a great company; we have endured 127 years without an official mission.” Yet I’d argue that the FT does have a long-standing purpose, and is all the better for it. It might not be cast in a mission statement, but it is there atop the leaders page of every single edition: “Without fear and without favour.” Indeed it was there on the first front page back in 1888: “A financial paper for the City of London, carrying the banner of Without Fear and Without Favour, cannot fail for lack of raison d’être.”
This unswerving promise put me in mind of The Economist‘s creation story: “First published in September 1843 to take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.”
Missions, purposes, whys – call them what you will, when crafted to galvanise in a way that rings true they are truly valuable. My own personal favourite is attributed to the old Italian Communist Party: “The best salami for everyone.” Tasty.
Off to the annual poetry fest at my daughter’s school, where Paul the poet urges us all to strive to “say the biggest things with the littlest words”.
This doesn’t simply mean keeping your communication short, but rather as long as it needs to be – and no longer. The poetic art of compression can lead to some pretty lengthy pieces, such as Claudia Rankine’s 160-page Citizen, which has just been shortlisted for the Forward prize.
From the three lines of a haiku to the 100 cantos of Dante’s Divine Comedy, great poetry squeezes as much as possible into the space it occupies. That’s one of the ways it packs such a punch.
In a National Trust feature gently plugging his newly published The Churchill Factor, Boris Johnson cites his hero’s “ability to stick to his guns and to inspire people, and he was brave. He also had a love of language and could explain what was going on in a way that engaged people. We are creatures of emotion and imagination, and language is absolutely vital.”
So if you want to lead, choose your words wisely – and aim them at the heart.
On reading Robert Macfarlane’s book Landmarks, his father observed that he was “rewilding the language” with words ancient and local in danger of being lost forever. Words like slomp: to walk heavily, noisily (Essex). And droxy: decayed wood (Cotswolds). Eminently lovable words as rare and rich as truffles under English oak.
“This book has been coming for as long as I’ve been writing,” says Macfarlane. “I have been collecting these words for a decade or more, in the same way you might pick up pebbles on the beach. It’s been a long time in the walking and the writing.”
Good to see France’s culture minister Fleur Pellerin advocating greater acceptance of foreign words into the traditionally insular French language. “French is not in danger and my responsibility as minister is not to put up useless barriers against other languages but to give all our citizens the means to make it live on… Certain languages, like English today and Italian in the past, have shown themselves particularly generous in offering French hundreds of new words.”
To support les mots justes from all corners of the linguistic globe – this is quite a volte-face for the home of the Académie Française. But it’s a wise and welcome one, for in languages as in all forms of human exchange – from stocks and shares to stanzas and stories – protectionism is rarely the best long-term strategy.
“Lincoln’s great skill was to speak simply. He searched for language that was spare, colourful and accessible to all,” says Martin Kettle in an article on the great orator of Gettysburg.
“He liked it dry, clear and cogent, but he liked colloquialism too. As Harriet Beecher Stowe put it, Lincoln’s language always had the “relish and smack of the soil”. An aide tried to get him to withdraw the phrase “sugar-coated” from a speech once, on the grounds it was undignified. Lincoln would have none of it. He was also a great pruner: the Gettysburg address, perhaps the best-known political speech in English of all time, is less than 300 words long and took as little as three minutes to deliver.”
Earthy eloquence at a hundred words per minute – we could do a lot worse than aim for this in all our communication.
In an article exploring the heavily analysed utterances of central bankers, CNBC’s UK business editor Helia Ebrahimi highlights the importance and trickiness of “making words perform the exact meaning one wants”.
Yes, words are slippery eels, especially when it comes to trying to synch what you want to get across with what people understand by what you say. Just what does Mario Draghi mean by “whatever it takes”? The phrase gains different currency as, for example, events in Greece unfold, and these events in turn are open to multiple interpretations.
Meanings, like markets, move. But that does not create a get-out clause for clarity. Helia Ebrahimi quotes former US Fed chairman Alan Greenspan: “If I turn out to be particularly clear, you’ve probably misunderstood what I’ve said.” A neat turn of phrase, but one which makes light of always striving to be clear no matter how complex the issues.
After all, a little more clarity back in 2007/8 could well have meant a lot less crisis.
I recently came across a lovely phrase that would be a worthy addition to our ever evolving English language: tot ziens! As bright and breezy as a brisk cycle along a coastal dyke, it’s the Dutch way of saying: see you!.
One of the great strengths of English is that it embraces no end of new words and phrases, leaving it up to the people to decide whether or not to keep or discard, combine or refine them. That way we’re invariably spoilt for choice when picking le mot juste.
So ciao ciao tot ziens – welcome aboard the good ship English.
The FT’s Michael Skapinker sets out seven lessons in management he has learnt over the last decade. One stands out for me: “Decide what your business stands for and tell everyone until you can no longer stand the sound of your voice. Every business has an ethos: the way it does things, or does things best. You need to decide what yours is, and you need to keep telling people, both inside and outside. Whether they believe you depends on how true it is and how much sense it makes.”
It also depends on how much feeling you put into the way you get it across. Combining truth with emotion is a powerful formula. So yes, never stop saying what you stand for, but make sure you put your heart into.