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Heed Basil…

Budding poets asked Basil Bunting for advice so many times that he printed his key points on a postcard:

1. Compose aloud; poetry is a sound.
2. Vary rhythm enough to stir the emotion you want but not so as to lose impetus.
3. Use spoken words and syntax.
4. Fear adjectives; they bleed nouns. Hate the passive.
5. Jettison ornament gaily but keep shape.

Put your poem away till you forget it, then:
6. Cut out every word you dare.
7. Do it again a week later, and again.

Never explain – your reader is as smart as you.

Wise words that apply equally well to all forms of writing. To make every word sing true, read poetry. And heed Basil.

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Prone to mystify and exclude rather than clarify and engage – jargon is more often than not a bad thing. More often, but not always. Take teawords, for example….

While waiting for a cappuccino in my local coffee spot, I picked up a copy of the SCA Journal (“A Biannual Publication of the Specialty Coffee Association“). Inside, I found an exploration by anthropologist Sarah Besky of the ‘specialized lexicon of tea’. Teawords – the highly specific words used by tea traders among themselves when discussing, assessing, grading, buying and selling the stuff that ends up in our cuppas.

In teaworld, “seemingly straightforward words like cheesy, minty, and fruity do not reference the sensations of cheese, mint, or fruit. These words signal different “taints” in the teas imparted during storage or transport.” As a Kolkata tea broker Mr. Chetal explains: “The language of tea is an intra-trade language. Tea is unlike wine, whose language is applied toward the consumer. [Wine] terms are evocative, finely tuned, and pleasing. They generate emotion.” Tea terms, in contrast, are all business – helpful shortcut language created purely and simply for tea traders to oil the wheels of tea trade.

It just goes to show that occasionally, as with tech tea language, there can be such a thing as good jargon.

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Words are songs…

In Bluets, Maggie Nelson shares Maurice Merleau-Ponty‘s observation: ‘words do not look like the things they designate’. They might not look like them, but they can sound like them.

Boom, crash, bang, miaow, toot toot – onomatopoeic words are the most familiar examples. But as the FT’s Anjana Ahuja underlines in her review of Steven Mithen’s The Language Puzzle: How We Talked Our Way Out of the Stone Age, the association runs wider and deeper: “In 1929, the American anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir told a group of unwitting study participants that the made-up words mil and mal referred to different-sized tables, then asked them to guess which referred to the bigger table. Whether the volunteers were English or Chinese, child or adult, about 80 per cent intuitively chose mal. That same year, the German psychologist Wolfgang Köhler pulled a similar trick with maluma and takete, asking people to identify which meant “round” and which meant “spiky”. Maluma was overwhelmingly linked to a round shape; the sharp movements of the tongue required to utter takete led volunteers to associate it with a spiky shape.” So the sound of a word sets off a sense in our heads, and at times a non-sense – there is no rational reason why the bigger table could not have been the mil. But our ears instinctively tend to tell us otherwise.

Words are songs, not signs. So it pays to pay close attention not just to their definition but also to their sound. Their meaning and their melody.

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Listening forward…

“As I write, I listen. The words forming in my mind are sounds. Listening forward in time, I sense and feel you: the reader, listening as well.”

As Ione underlines in her introduction to Pauline Oliveros’ Quantum Listening, writing involves not just paying close attention to the sounds of the words you are using but to the audience listening to them, too. It is a super-empathetic auditory art.

To write well, write with your ears – for your reader.

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Way with words…

It is common for copywriters of a certain vintage to laud David Ogilvy, but there’s a reason why the greats are, well, just great.

For proof, look no further than his classic book Ogilvy on Advertising. It is chock full of examples, such as these opening lines for a corporate ad designed to foster international friendship:

“The Japanese have a wonderful way with words. What we call a back porch they call a moon-watching platform. A fountain pen is a ten-thousand-year brush. Their name for a motorcycle truck is bata-bata because that is the noise it makes. And do you know a word in any other language that sighs good-bye as wistfully as sayonara?”

Their sense, their sound, their meaning, their melody – a master of words on the wonder of words.

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Et tu, Brutus.1?…

Fully 26 years ago, “the world’s most advanced artificial story generator” Brutus.1 wrote Betrayal, a somewhat clunky, clichéd tale of back-stabbing in ivy-clad academia.

Able to come up with stories of no more than 500 words all on the same theme of – yes, you guessed it – betrayal, Brutus.1 was state-of-the-art in 1998. Artificially generated stories have moved on quite some way since then, but the fundamental flaw remains. As the developer of Brutus.1, Selmer Bringsfjord, said at the time, “To tell a truly compelling story, a machine would need to understand the inner lives of its characters. To do that, it would need to think not only mechanically, but also experientially, in the sense of having a subjective or phenomenal awareness.” In short, it would need to not just think but feel – to have a heart, and give a damn.

Want any old story? Try prompting a machine. Want a great story? Trust a human.

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Values and a voice…

These days, annual reports are much more than just a home for the numbers aimed purely at finance folk. At their best, they’re strategic documents setting out for all key stakeholders what a company has done to live its core purpose, create lasting value and contribute to the wider world.

Values and a voice are critical here. According to the FT’s Peggy Hollinger, “A recent study found that companies that came in highest or lowest on a well-known ranking of LGBTQ policies were rewarded by investors with share price rises, while those in the middle were ignored. It was not about who had the most inclusive policies but who had the clearest position.” The moral is, avoid the murky mid-zone – have a strong point of view and let it sing.

So as we head into 2024, I’m resolved to put more clarity and conviction into reporting.