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Ruthful roots…

As an uplifting end-of-year read and/or last-minute festive gift, I’d like to recommend Roots of Happiness: 100 Words for Joy and Hope, by all-round word wizard Susie Dent.

“I am on a mission to find light in the deepest darkest corners of our language,” says Susie, on the back cover of her brill book. Lovable language like “forblissed” (extremely happy). “Lost positives” like “ruthful” (full of empathy and compassion) that have fallen out of everyday use, rather than their easily-found negatives.

We could all do with a lot less ruthlessness in the world, a lot more joy and hope. That starts with the language we use between and about each other. Susie’s setting the tone. I’m all ears.


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Toasty, not scalding…

As the great Ed Ruscha says, “Words have temperatures.”

A master at choosing and using words with care, Ruscha plays not only with their meaning but also their look, their sound, their all-round feel. Take, for example, this work, currently on display at Tate Modern:

According to the FT’s Ariella Budick, Ruscha likes words that are “toasty, not scalding”. “Sometimes,” he says, “I have a dream that if a word gets too hot and too appealing, it will boil apart.” Ouch! In this spirit, here are a few of my favourite phrases to gently warm the head and heart:




Keep it toasty.

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Poetic possibilities…

When it comes to innovating, what part do facts play?

In his Selected Writings, Ralph Waldo Emerson puts them firmly in their place: “Whoever discredits analogy, and requires heaps of facts, before any theories can be attempted, has no poetic power, and nothing original or beautiful will be produced by him.” This chimes with one of the many good things Storied CEO Michael Margolis has to say in his conversation with Chris Do, CEO of The Futur™: “Data is a story of the past, whereas disruption is a story about the future. So we have to start with the future first, and then we use the past, the data, to legitimise and validate the future we’re trying to create. Most of us have that order or sequence turned upside down. We’re constantly looking backwards instead of looking forwards. And this is where we trap ourselves within a past story or within even an existing narrative that may not be the right story for the future we’re trying to create… For any of us who are leading change or doing something that’s new and different – you’re being hired for your possibility mindset, the ability to see and name the possibilities and the opportunities amidst change, amidst constraints. But we often are leading with the data, trying to prove and validate something and trying to posture instead of widening the aperture and really unlocking the creative mojo and the generativeness in any situation.”

Whether it’s Waldo’s ‘poetic power‘ or Michael’s ‘possibility mindset‘, the key here is to prioritise and encourage the freedom to imagine. To explore in full the poetic possibilities.

Looking to innovate? Dream more; let the facts follow…

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Synching brains…

It’s one of their great qualities – stories bring us together, encouraging us to think and feel that we are all connected. But the thing is, this only works if the story is well told.

As The Moth’s How To Tell A Story points out, this is backed up by science: “A study led by neuroscientist Uri Hasson found that when a person is listening and comprehending a story, their brain activity begins to couple, or align, with the brain of the teller. The scientific term is “speaker-listener neural coupling”. MRI scans of two brains, one talking, one listening, showed that the brains began to synch. Where the teller’s brain showed activity, or “lit up”, soon after, the listener’s brain lit up too.” However… “One catch is that this only happens when the listener is engaged and comprehending the story being told. In short, if you want to spark another person’s brain, your story needs to be good.”

So the next time you need to tell a key story, it is well worth making sure it is as good as it can be.

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Unsung hero…

“The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there’.” So begins Truman Capote’s classic In Cold Blood. Lyrical, loaded, a touch ominous – as all good openings should, it sets the mood while encouraging you to read on.

But it didn’t start out that way. Indeed, as Capote’s recently published manuscripts and notebooks reveal, it was initially a more detailed, less captivating description: “Holcomb is a very visible village located on high wheat plains of western Kansas, where the air is Swiss-clear and the flat views lonesomely, awesomely extensive.” Which is where editing comes in. Capote took the key parts of the statement, cut out the rest (no matter how appealing, such as the spot-on ‘Swiss-clear’), and created a sentence that sings his song, strong and true.

It’s a great example of the power and point of revising your writing. Sometimes seen as an afterthought or poor relation of drafting, editing is in fact more often than not a critical part of the whole writing process. So here’s to good editing – unsung hero of great storytelling.

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Good to see an uptick in support for the age-old art of rhetoric, AKA persuading people through words.

Yet coming as they do, clothed in the relatively arcane and unfamiliar terms of the ancient Greeks (anaphora, anastrophe et al), the techniques can seem daunting. Happily though, much of the effect can be achieved just by focusing on the music of your meaning. Its rhythm, rhyme and melody.

I recently came across an example of not quite getting this right, while waiting for a tube train at my local Underground station:

Put to one side the questionable use of “most original” and linger instead on the ending: “…whatever it is you do, there’s a space for you here.” Clunky, isn’t it. But easy to fix: move the last three words around and you have the more musical “…whatever it is you do, there’s a space here for you.”

Not long after that, I spotted this in a pub garden:

Simply sings its sunny advice.

As the poster on the Underground and the notice in the pub garden affirm, to write well, write with your ears. Happy listening!

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The full meaning, colour, and harmony of words…

As Herbert J. C. Grierson says in his Rhetoric and English Composition, “Words are the material with which we have to work in composition, the bricks of our building, the simplest elements available for the communication […] of our thoughts and feelings.” No matter how lovable a word might be on its own, “The full meaning, colour, and harmony of words depend on their combination with others in sentences; the sentences themselves on their interaction in the paragraph; and the paragraph itself […] in other, larger divisions – chapter or canto or act – in the whole composition.”

I was reminded of this in the wake of the sad departing of Martin Amis – a king of composition. As Ian McEwan puts it, Martin Amis “really was one of those writers who cares a lot about the sentence. He had a real dedication to getting things right. He didn’t just think onto the typewriter.”

‘Writing is thinking’, so the saying goes. But this is only part of the story. Writing is thinking rethought, rewrought – composed. And like all the best compositions, it has meaning and melody, substance and style. Here’s one of many such compositions from the late great Amis – the opening to his article for The Guardian in the aftermath of 9/11:

“It was the advent of the second plane, sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty: that was the defining moment. Until then, America thought she was witnessing nothing more serious than the worst aviation disaster in history; now she had a sense of the fantastic vehemence ranged against her.

I have never seen a generically familiar object so transformed by effect. That second plane looked eagerly alive, and galvanised with malice, and wholly alien. For those thousands in the south tower, the second plane meant the end of everything. For us, its glint was the worldflash of a coming future…”

“The second plane, sharking in… galvanised with malice… its glint […] the worldflash of a coming future…” Words full of meaning, colour, and harmony – words composed with great care not just to capture our thoughts and feelings but to bring them into sharper focus and augment them. So that we are somehow made more from that moment on.

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We can be heroes…

In her brill book The Sound of Being Human: How Music Shapes Our Lives, Jude Rogers touches on the power of hero narratives not just to guide but to galvanise us all.

She draws on ‘Hero Worship’, a paper by psychologists Scott T. Allison and George R Goethals, which cites the importance of said narratives for both ‘human survival and human thriving’. According to Allison and Goethals, hero stories serve two functions: an ‘epistemic’ function and an ‘energising’ function. Epi-what?? Happily, Jude is on hand to explain: “By epistemic, they meant hero stories imparted knowledge and wisdom to people that needed them. Its energising function related to these stories elevating people to believe that they were capable of positive action.”

So the next time you want people not just to understand but to act, add a little heroism to your story. Or maybe even add a lot.

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Happy walking…

While following the South West Coast Path, we came across this handcrafted message – a welcome complement to the super-minimal and somewhat confusing official signage:

Friendly help for all befuddled ramblers, care of a kind Cornish stranger. Happy walking indeed!

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Wear sombreros…

In Edward Tufte’s Seeing With Fresh Eyes, the da Vinci of Data underlines the value of going beyond the confines of rational right-angled thinking to look truly, deeply and widely at the world as it really is in all its wavy wonky wonder – from the ellipse of the half-moon to the sloped ramp of the Guggenheim by way of the the laidback undulating curves of the sombrero:

In a world awash with data-driven decisions made by machines, it is more important than ever not to lose sight of the human angle and touch. Not least because still – and who knows, maybe forever – no algorithm can yet match us for creativity, judgement, nuance, empathy, perception. Those wrong-angled, right-minded beautiful things that make us who we are.

So let’s put down our set squares, look up, look out and trust our eyes – wear sombreros.

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Scrappy oracles…

I was going to write something about the implications of ChatGPT for writers, but there are already many eloquent voices out there on that subject, notably Nick Cave and iA. So instead, I would like to show my hand:

As Patti Smith says, while showing her own hand at the beginning of her brilliant A Book Of Days, “The hand is one of the oldest of icons, a direct correspondence between imagination and execution… Social media, in its twisting of democracy, sometimes courts cruelty, reactionary commentary, misinformation, and nationalism, but it can also serve us.  It’s in our hands. The hand that composes a message, smooths a child’s hair, pulls back the arrow and lets it fly. Here are my arrows aiming for the common heart of things. Each attached with a few words, scrappy oracles.”

In a world awash with hoo-ha surrounding generative AI, the mysterious alchemical magic of the human hand, head and heart remains as powerful and precious as ever, reminding us that we humans, in all our messy, marvellous, thinky blinky, scrappy oracular glory, are essentially, thankfully, unalgorithmable.