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Long on wit…

By way of an end of year gong, I’d like to tip my woolly hat to Hiscox whose sharp ads have consistently caught my eye these past few months. Ads like this one, snapped while waiting for the tube:

Long on wit and short on guff, their intelligent combinations of words and images are a great example of how staying true to your tone can not only attract attention but also build interest.

So here’s to you Hiscox. Keep up the good words.

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While wandering the magical Cass Sculpture Foundation, I noticed this notice:

No high walls or barbed wire. No blunt “Private Property – Keep Out”.

Just a quiet statement: private home. Not property, not house, but home.

It’s a neat reminder of how just one word can make a world of difference.

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Three funny sounding words…

Never Knowingly Undersold. These “three funny sounding words”, as John Lewis calls them in their current crop of print ads, sum up the retailer’s unchanging price promise to customers. It’s a promise they’ve stuck to since 1925 and one they maintain they’ll always honour. Indeed why wouldn’t they – good value never goes out of fashion.

But are they really that funny sounding? There’s certainly a distinctive character to them, which is an undoubted plus. A more straightforward trio such as Always Good Value would also be more forgettable.

Funny or not, there’s a lot to be said for the power of three, for example in adding melody and memorability to your writing, and in creating a groundbreaking way to give everyone, everywhere a simple address.

So in distilling your story and/or articulating your promise, it’s no bad thing to go for three distinctive words. Funny sounding optional.

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The cat sat on the dog’s mat…

What’s at the heart of a good story?

Who better to answer than the creator of Smiley’s People and countless other gripping tales, John Le Carré: “You take one character, you take another character and you put them in collision. And the collision arises because they have different appetites and you begin to get the essence of drama. The cat sat on the mat is not a story; the cat sat on the dog’s mat is the beginning of an exciting story.”

And of a classic ad for real fires. Woof woof, miaow miaow, squeak.

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As cold as…

As temperatures, and tempers, rise with the summer sun, an arresting sign courtesy of my local offie:

Cold beer. Consolation for broken hearts.

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Write differenter…

In a new book, ex Apple ad guy Ken Segall encourages us to Think Simple. A good call, for there are virtues in cutting out complexity, such as making things easier to understand and speeding up decision taking. A timely call, too, as simplicity’s stock is rising. Across business models and brands, from cooking to cycling – simple is fashionable. But is it everything?

Under Ken Segall’s watch, Apple ran the famous Think Different campaign, which by all accounts provoked a fair few complaints about the slogan’s poor grammar. Yet by lopping off the adverbial tail of the second word, Segall & co not only made the line simpler, but also more characterful. Think Differently. Correct, yes, but less distinctive than Think Different.

So, let’s not only write clearly, let’s write differenter.

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The ing thing…

In his regular column on the art of persuasion, Sam Leith explores a grammatical construction he calls the “marketing gerund” (AKA present participle): “‘Delivering quality first’ is a BBC Trust slogan. If it sounds like anodyne business-blurb, that may just be the temper of the times: that subjectless “-ing” form of slogan is ever more widely used… Why is it so popular? My hunch is that it is an elegant, if slightly cheesy, way of having your cake and eating it. It puts, right up front in your slogan, a strong and action-filled verb but it also makes it sound almost stative (describing a state of being rather than an action)…an ongoing thing.”

Like all the tools and rules of writing, the ing thing is neither good nor bad. It can be used more or less well and a lot of that comes down to context. But there’s no denying its neat power to free actions from the shackles of a set time and space and in so doing to give your communication a touch of the eternal.

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Once upon a plumber…

Riffing on the corporate storytelling thing in her characteristically acerbic comms-weary way, Lucy Kellaway makes the anti-case: “the storytelling craze has gone too far.”

Yes, there are a lot of pretty awful attempts to tell corporate stories out there, along with a burgeoning mini-industry of people proclaiming stories to be the new ‘most valuable corporate asset‘, and any number of job ads and titles purloining the s-word for a sprinkle of zeity geistiness. But this does not mean that storytelling in business is any less important, just that it could do with being done a whole lot better.

Indeed, as Lucy Kellaway says: “Stories in the right place are an excellent thing…We all like stories because we like emotion, and because they are easy for our befuddled brains to follow. They liven things up. They cheer us up. They can inspire us… [but]…The trouble with stories is that to have any effect they have to be good ones – and most people are rubbish at telling them.”

To reinforce her case, Lucy Kellaway claims that plumbers, along with dentists, are mercifully story-free professions: “Plumbers don’t tell stories because they are too busy unblocking your toilet.” But of course, because plumbers, like us, are only human, they do. Especially when, like Charlie Mullins, they have built a great big plumbing business brand: Pimlico Plumbers.

A bog standard story is no doubt not worth the paper it’s written on, but a brilliant story is unquestionably priceless. Indeed, I’d argue that it is just about the most powerful (and pleasurable) thing there is.

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Trusty and welbeloved…

Around about the time that Henry V’s longbowmen were winning their famous victory at Agincourt, his pen was setting English on its way to becoming the language we know and love today. “Trusty and welbeloved, we grete yow often tymes wel…” so begins the first letter in English that we know of by a King of England, sent in 1417 to all the citizens and aldermen of London. Six hundred years on, the spelling has aged but the meaning remains clear – a warm greeting to the people who had helped finance Henry’s French wars.

By adopting English as the official language of court, Henry opened the way for it to become the language of diplomacy, of trade, of entertainment – a truly international language of Hollywood and Hinglish, of shares and Shakespeare. As historian Malcolm Richardson says, “Henry’s legacy to the English language was more fruitful to his people than his legacy of military glory and conquest, which soon crumbled in less able hands.”

More fruitful to Henry’s people, and to the estimated 1.5 billion English-speaking people around the world today.

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For me it started with sunshine fingers…

A beautiful poem by Gilda Hanson, a very promising young poet deservedly commended in the Agincourt 600 competition. I’m very proud to say she is also my daughter.

by Gilda Hanson

Thank you
I have been waiting for this moment
For 600 years

For me it started
With sunshine fingers
And soldiers getting ready
Like children
On their first day at school
Morning minds aching with worry
About the day ahead

The French army stood
Like bulls ready to charge
Blocking our way

We were silent
Full of fatigue and fear

I heard my heart
Cast out of steel

An unsteady hand
Grabbed my body
Placed me in the arms
Of a long yew bow
Drew me back
And let me go

As high as the heavens

Beside me
My brothers and sisters
Bodkins, swallowheads
An army of arrows in flight

Below me
Swords danced
A chaos of screams
Shouts, yells
Of mud, blood and guts

And down my fellow arrows arched
A waterfall of death

But I flew on
And on
Until I fell
To pierce the heart
Of a destitute ditch

And there I lay
An outcast arrow
Save for time
Marching on
Like soldiers to battle

So thank you
For finding me
For taking me home
For listening to my story
And for giving me hope

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Listen to purple trees…

Wandering through Covent Garden with my daughter on our way to see our favourite painting in the Courtauld Collection, we came across Wrdsmth’s arresting appropriation of this K6:

A call to keep the creative spirit we all share as children, to colour outside the lines, to watch green oceans and red bears, to listen to purple trees.

Picasso put it well, as well: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

A long while ago, I did a piece for a client that riffed on the same theme:

He may only be knee-high to a grasshopper, but you can learn a lot from this young fellow…

There’s something about a beach that capture’s a child’s imagination.

Give them a stretch of sand and some sea and who knows where it will lead. New adventures? New friends? New experiences? Maybe just wet feet and hands. But one thing’s for sure: children will happily spend hours on a beach doing the things that us grown ups are all too often far too grown up to do. Things like exploring, discovering, rooting around and joining in, sharing stuff, trying stuff out just for the hell of it. Generally having the time of their lives.

The kid cartwheeling on the sand. Or the grown up snoozing in the deckchair. Which one’s the more inspirational?

That’s not to say we should all act like ten year olds. Just that we can all draw inspiration from how a ten year old acts. Management consultants talk about empowering, innovating, re-engineering… It’s often difficult to see what it is that they’re actually getting at – right here, right now, in the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives. For a different, more enlightening point of view, we could do a lot worse than watch, listen and learn from the cartwheeling kid.

Who knows, we might even end up doing a few cartwheels ourselves.

Some things bear repeating, with different hues and tones each time.

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Hugs with lobby…

Put my postcode into what3words and out pop these three words: hugs.with.lobby

This poetic threesome rubs shoulders with other equally arresting triumvirates such as manual moon skills, tonic twig town, insist gold level. Although randomly generated, like astrologers’ predictions, they invite you to attach to them much meaning. This is a happy by-product of the core ambition of the business: to create the simplest way to communicate location by giving every 3m x 3m square of the planet its own unique trio of words. So for example, 10 Downing Street has slurs this shark for its three, while the White House has improving enjoy buddy. Read into those what you will.

According to What3Words, 75% of the world’s population has no address, but now we can all let everyone else know where we are no matter where in the world that is. A new take on triangulation employing our eminently lovable language – like all great breakthroughs, it’s both brilliantly simple and simply brilliant.

Applause all round.

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Thinking and producing…

A new year’s resolution courtesy of James Rhodes: play the piano for an hour every day.

Or… “If the piano isn’t your thing, buy a guitar. Write a thousand words a day. Take a photography course. Learn to dance. Find something, anything creative… We are facing unfathomable challenges regarding everything from population growth to natural resources, finances to politics. Thinking ain’t going to solve these challenges. But creativity? Creativity will usher us into a new age of Wonder and Awe. In business, it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to see solutions to problems by thinking in a conventional fashion. That part of our brain that translates notes on a manuscript into finger movements, sound, interpretation and life is what will help us navigate things.”

A lot of fluff and guff is written about creativity, but James Rhodes nails it: “Creativity is the act of turning new, imaginative ideas into reality. It involves two processes: thinking and producing. If you have ideas, but don’t act on them, you are imaginative, but not creative. And boy, do we need to act.”

Spurred on by these wise words, my own personal resolution is to think and do things in new ways.