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Stay odd…

Back in the late 1990s, cheeky smoothies start-up Innocent Drinks revolutionised on-pack communication with the simply brilliant step of bringing their true character to life on the bottles and cartons destined to end up in consumers’ hands:

Rather than just contain the product or carry the logo or convey the smallprint, Innocent’s packaging sung the personality from the rooftops (and supermarket aisles). These days, characterful on-pack communication is pretty much the new norm. Take for example, “Wow no cow!” milk-alternative Oatly:

These days too, as Oatly demonstrates, there is an increasing on-pack appetite to communicate not just personality but responsibility, in line with the global sustainability megatrend.

For me, the standout company here is Oddbox. A Certified B Corporation, Oddbox regularly delivers to my door a box full of fresh fruit and veg “rescued from going to waste”. Oddbox’s boxes live and breathe their purpose and personality, summed up in their mantra “Eat Good. Do Good. Stay Odd.”:

And what’s inside the boxes is pretty good, too:

 

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The speech of a tiger shark…

Every time we communicate we use a tone of voice, and that tone creates a sense of character. Whether we’re talking personally or as a multibillion dollar corporate body – none of us likes to be taken the wrong way. So the task with tone is to get our true character across.

I spend a fair bit of my time with clients helping them define and use a tone that fits their character. So they can give customers, investors and other stakeholders a clear sense of who they are and why they’re different. Alongside core purpose and culture, tone is critical. A galvanising core purpose, so you know exactly where you are going and why you want to get there; a strong values-based culture, so you journey together as one through thick and thin; and the right tone, so you communicate your true self clearly and characterfully – these are the three essentials at the heart of all great businesses.

Talking of truly characterful communication, here’s a brilliant take on the power of tone, courtesy of Jayne Cortez: “The speech of a tiger shark is not like the bark of an eagle fish…”

Tiger shark, eagle fish, plain old human being, bright new business – no matter who you are: find your own voice, and use it.

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Champions keep playing…

This time last year in Barbados, I came across a mighty fine motto accompanying a court for the island’s homegrown game of road tennis:

CHAMPIONS KEEP PLAYING – both a definition and an encouragement, it’s one of those immediately getable and galvanizing phrases that stick in your head in a good way. Like all great calls to action, it not only sounds right but rings true. There’s no avoiding it – to win at anything truly worthwhile, you’ve got to put the effort in. Take for example the work rate of Liverpool Football Club’s players, who are heading for clear victory in this year’s Premier League. Last season, the Reds clocked up 4,737 sprints – more than 150 ahead of the next closest team. As Jürgen Klopp said when asked the secret of the club’s success: “No secrets, hard work.”

So Happy New Year to champions everywhere – keep playing.

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The necessary qualities of good business…

In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I came across a “devoted band that called itself the Eldorado Exploring Expedition. Their talk was the talk of sordid buccaneers: it was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole bunch of them, and they did not seem aware these things are wanted for the work of the world. To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.”

Strikes me that the qualities the Eldorado Explorers lack are the very ones that lie at the heart of what goes into good business: hardihood, audacity, courage, foresight and serious intention. These five are a handy guide and inspiration for all of us trying to do worthwhile work in the world.

Better a good business than a sordid buccaneer. Every time.

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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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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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In the blood…

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.

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Nobody likes a tailgater…

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.

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Creatures of emotion and imagination…

What made Winston Churchill a great leader?

In a National Trust feature gently plugging his newly published The Churchill FactorBoris 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.

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Earthy eloquence…

“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.

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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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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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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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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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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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Character at the core…

What puts Paul Klee in a different league from his contemporary Johannes Itten? For Philip Hensher it comes down to character.

Dismissing Itten, he says: “There is no character there at the core. But Klee has an irreducible centre, and though he changed his style and approach many times in the 40 years of his mature career, there is always something there that makes you say “Klee” without hesitation.”

From Klees to companies, all great ventures need character – the irreducible centre that sets them apart and drives them on.

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Strategies are stories…

I’ve been doing a fair bit of work recently which has included discussing with clients what strategy is all about. The conversations have tended towards couching the strategy thing in terms of good decisions and actions. Looking at it this way, strategy comes down to a group of people (a team, a company, a country…) answering a few simple yet essential questions: What are we going to do? Why? And how? It’s a world away from those thick and expensive docs heavy with impenetrably overloaded matrix diagrams so beloved of a certain kind of consultant and belittled by the great information design guru Edward Tufte.

So strategies are social. They are action. And they are something else, too: they are stories. Bad strategies are tragedies, full of loss and woe. Good strategies are adventures – epic tales of worthwhile quests and real achievements, of great characters and grand deeds.

I know which strategies I’d like to read…

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In defence of chartreuse…

If you want your writing to appeal to a lot of people, keep it simple and emotional.

This is the wise point made by fast rising young writer dude from NY Simon Rich: “I’m trying to connect with as many people as possible so I’d only write about emotions I think billions of us have experienced… When you remove multisyllabic words from your vocabulary, you widen the net. You gain a lot by calling something yellowy-green instead of chartreuse. I don’t know what you have to gain with chartreuse. I haven’t looked up a word since college. If I come to a word and I don’t understand it, to my mind that’s the word’s fault.”

There’s a lot of truth in this, but I’d also advocate a place for chartreuse, not least because it has a very different feel from its admitedly more down to earth but rather ugly sounding relative. Chartreuse conjures a sense of elegance, of lazy hazy sun days at a French chateau. It’s a colour to accompany a champagne cocktail. Yellowy-green by contrast is no nonsense, gutsy, downtown. Stuff the cocktail – give me a double on the rocks.

Same colour; different vibe. The key thing is to be free to pick and choose the right one for your writing.

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Beware the lumbagain…

Great to see that BBC2’s short story competition for children had around 90,000 entries. Including Cloud Boy, a rather brilliant tale that turns raindrops into people, written by my daughter Gilly :).

Great to see also that these young authors share The Bard’s predeliction for inventing new words, adding to the richness of our lovable language. Words like lumbagain – a ghost who makes people dull and boring. What a wonderful twist on the grand tradition of scary spooks, and what a fantastically fitting word for said ghost – a mighty fine combination of meaning and melody. Imagine one lumbering after you, gaining ground surprisingly fast…

Beware the lumbagain!

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Beautiful lies…

If you want to tell the truth, tell tales. Facts alone are not enough – you need fiction. Back in 1861, Charles Reade brought this vividly to life in the opening lines of his novel The Cloister and the Hearth…

“Not a day passes over the earth, but men and women of no note do great deeds, speak great words, and suffer noble sorrows. Of these obscure heroes…the greater part will never be known…their lives and characters lie hidden from nations in the annals that record them. The general reader cannot feel them, they are presented so curtly and coldly…they are not like living breathing stories appealing to the heart…nor can he understand them…for epitomes are not narratives, as skeletons are not human figures… Here, then, the writer of fiction may be of use to the public – as an interpreter…

There is a musty chronicle, written in intolerable Latin, and in it a chapter where every sentence holds a fact. Here is told, with harsh brevity, the strange history of a pair, who lived untrumpeted, and died unsung, four hundred years ago; and lie now, as unpitied, in that stern page, as fossils in a rock. Thus, living or dead, fate is still unjust to them. For if I can but show you what lies below that dry chronicler’s words, methinks you will correct the indifference of centuries, and give those two sore-tried souls a place in your heart – for a day.”

As Charles Reade attests, to free what really matters, what you really want to get across, from the deadweight of dry facts, you need imagination – that flight of the mind that can uncover and convey the hidden meanings, the true messages at the heart of your story.

For fiction is, after all, the truth wrapped up in a beautiful lie.

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Characterful leaders…

More backing for the importance of character in business comes courtesy of Donovan Campbell’s book The Leader’s Code, according to Morgen Witzel’s review in today’s FT.

Subtitled Mission, Character, Service and Getting the Job Done, the book emphasises how leaders have to have character in order to gain that all-important trust. “Character, as Campbell defines it, means strength of character, but also encompasses virtue – a word that appears often in the book,” says Morgen Witzel. “Leaders must do right by others; they should strive to make the world a better place.”

Indeed in deed.

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Beware dispiriting clarity…

I’m a big fan of clarity, particularly in business writing, but if you’re not careful too much of the clear stuff can bleach out the colour from your communication.

I was reminded of this courtesy of Peter Mathews in his book on Workrooms. In discussing the dimensions and dynamics of a good home-based Music Practice Room, he writes: “A high ceiling will give good resonance but this should not be so great that mistakes are not heard. Excessive use of absorbent surfaces leads to dispiriting clarity while contributing little to the sound insulation of adjoining spaces.”

Too much clarity can compromise character. The aim should be to be clear and characterful – to resonate and ring out, like a well-crafted bell.

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I’m upside down…

Wandering along Floral Street many moons ago I spotted this cardboard box:

Just goes to show how a few simple words that talk directly to you can add a whole lot of character.

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Fearless friend…

Happy birthday to the Financial Times, 125 years young today. The FT launched on Monday February 13th, 1888, proudly running its motto “Without Fear and Without Favour.” beneath its title and listing either side on the masthead its friends (the honest financier among other good business folk) and enemies (the unprincipled promoter, the company wrecker et al). As they said in the leader on the front page of that first edition, “Our attitude, our principles and our programme are summed up in the motto we have quoted.” It’s a motto the FT has continued to display and hold true to in every edition since.

In 1888 the FT cost the princely sum of one penny. Today it costs rather more – 250 times more in my local newsagent. Even accounting for inflation, that’s quite some increase, but its fearlessly independent and intelligent commentary is priceless.

The FT is a study in the great effect and good fortune that can come from having a strong character, getting it across in a few simple, powerful words and sticking to it. So, many happy returns to the pinkun’ – here’s to the next 125 years.

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Cooking with dragons’ flames…

On my way back from a client meeting in the West End I came across this wonderfully clear and characterful description by the great Quentin Blake:

Children flying through the air with fruit and sandwiches, a trampoline you can’t see, cooking with dragons’ flames – the writing’s as vivid and quintessentially Quentin as the drawings on the chairs.

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The essential qualities of good style…

I’ve been browsing through another excellent book on writing, inherited from my Dad:

It’s full of great guidance, not least when it comes to the Essential Qualities of Good Style. As Pink and Thomas say, “Style is the expression of personality.” It’s how you get yourself across in your own way, not just clearly but characterfully.

So what goes into a good style? Pink and Thomas identify five “positive qualities which are exhibited by all writing of the highest quality”: clearness, simplicity, strength, idiomatic writing and rhythm and harmony.

It would be difficult to find a handier handful.

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Charismatic communication…

What’s the secret of charismatic communication – communication that’s highly enchanting and persuasive?

In an article in the FT, Alicia Clegg cites many different factors, including a dozen communication habits – from telling stories to letting your feelings show – rooted in the principles of classic rhetoric, the importance of not just talking well but listening carefully, using appealing everyday language, and being sincere.

All good stuff, but in the interests of boiling it down: write from the heart with your ears.