Guilty of poor writing…
This one goes out to anyone who has ever been left scratching their heads or indeed tearing their hair out trying to decipher lawyer-speak – hello everyone…
Each year, the Ig Nobel awards honour research that “first makes you laugh, then makes you think”. Sure enough, I chuckled to see that this year’s literature prize went to a team who analysed why legal documents are so impenetrable. Far from conceding that the complexities of law call for similarly complicated language, the team concluded that poor writing was the culprit. They found legal documents guilty of containing “startlingly high proportions of certain difficult-to-process features – including low-frequency jargon, center-embedded clauses, passive voice structures, and non-standard capitalization – relative to nine other baseline genres of written and spoken English”. Pretty damning stuff.
So the next time a lawyer tries to bamboozle you with legalese, politely but firmly ask them to go away and come back with some clear communication.
Having recently returned from North Wales with another pebble for my collection…
…I was pleased to see Robert Macfarlane singing the praises of Clarence Ellis’s The Pebbles on the Beach: A Spotter’s Guide. He highlights the book’s “calm clarity… Ellis’s prose is lucid, patient in its explanations, and hospitable to all-comers. He relishes his subject across its aspects: this is an expert talking to amateurs, but also an enthusiast seeking to ignite enthusiasm in others.”
Taking the time to make things clear to all-comers, relishing your subject, not just explaining but sharing your enthusiasm – all fine principles for companies to take to heart when communicating.
On murky bottoms and clear heads…
“We should always try to use language to illuminate, reveal and clarify rather than obscure, mislead and conceal…The aim must always be clarity. It’s tempting to feel that if a passage of writing is obscure, it must be very deep. But if the water is murky, the bottom might only be an inch below the surface – you just can’t tell. It’s much better to write in a way that the readers can see all the way down; but that’s not the end of it, because you then have to provide interesting things down there for them to look at. Telling a story involves thinking of some interesting events, putting them in the best order to bring out the connections between them, and telling about them as clearly as we can; and if we get the last part right, we won’t be able to disguise any failure in the first – which is actually the most difficult, and the most important.” Just a drop from the ocean of wise words in Philip Pullman’s brilliant Daemon Voices.
It’s a call for us all to take ownership of our words and strive to be as clear as possible. A call echoed by iA’s Oliver Reichenstein in his blog on tackling the toxic web: “The answer to the passive consumption of trash is the active formulation of questions, the active search for answers and the active work of putting complex knowledge and diffuse feelings into clear words.”
Clear writing takes clear thinking. It’s hard work. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a grind. On the contrary, like all good graft, it can be deeply satisfying. So where to start? Take the time to clear your head. Clear words are sure to follow.
He’s no tiger…
On a recent trip to LA I was struck by the sheer brilliance not only of the sunshine but also of much of the communication. Our American friends seem to revel in clear lively English. Whether that’s shedding light on age-old tar pits…
or discouraging cars from driving down dusty ol’ cowboy towns…
It’s a confidence and playfulness in words we can all enjoy and draw inspiration from.
Wild of tongue…
In New York, an exhibition of work by one of my favourite illustrators, Maira Kalman. It includes the originals of the pictures she put to the words of one of my favourite books on writing, William Strunk Jr and EB White’s The Elements of Style.
After picking up a copy of the book in a yard sale, Maira was inspired to create a set of paintings illustrating various Strunk & White words of wisdom. Words such as “Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!”
Wild of tongue and wild of eye.
For me, it’s a match made in heaven.
Swoosh n swirl…
The other day I came across an old Nike shoe box from the 70s. It was once home to my sister’s prized Raquette tennis shoes but some 40 years on now contains assorted collectors’ cards from my youth – Asian Wild Life (Goitered Gazelle), Famous People (Sir Laurence Olivier) and the McDonnell F-101A Voodoo from the Lyons Tea Wings of Speed series for example. I’ll no doubt delve into the contents more deeply another day but for now it was the outside of the box that held my attention…
The familiar swoosh was there:
But so too was an eye-catching swirl:
Accompanied by the clear and confident: “Nike sports shoes are manufactured to the exact specifications of champion athletes throughout the world. Continued research and constant development are responsible for the athletes of the Seventies changing to Nike.”
Changing to and sticking with.
Great brands, like great athletes, last long.
I’ve been a big fan of Edward Tufte, the doyen of information design and data visualisation, for many years. From Beautiful Evidence to Visual Explanations, his books embody his thinking, summed up for me in The Visual Display of Quantitative Information: “Graphical excellence consists of complex ideas communicated with clarity, precision and efficiency.” In this sense, it’s akin to the best poetry: brilliant distillations that strike home and stick with you.
It’s not simply about bare bones communication. The kind lauded by Lucy Kellaway, citing meat magnate Wan Long’s “What I do is kill pigs and sell meat.” It involves something more than mere plain speaking, or plain designing – refreshing though that might be in a sea of guff and nonsense. Edward Tufte’s sadly recently departed kindred spirit, data visualiser Hans Rosling puts it well: “having the data is not enough – I need to show it in ways people both enjoy and understand.”
So yes, excellence is effective. But it is also, and above all, enjoyable.
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.
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.
“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.
The economics of clarity…
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.
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:
I prefer not to join the noisy critiquing of the misuse of English in and around business (amply covered by the likes of the FT’s Lucy Kellaway among others). I also have an enduring affection for HP, one of my earliest clients who, I fear, has somewhat lost its Way in the past few years. But given that I had so recently sung the praises of the humble comma, I felt compelled to comment on the company’s strange use of the mark in its current run of UK print ad headlines:
Flex, when in flux. (Flex when in flux would do much better.)
Move, able. (Clever clever nonsense.)
Dream big, data. (I guess HP is talking to companies about big data rather than to data about dreaming big, but that’s not what that comma says.)
These from a campaign which also uses the admirably distinctive and eye-catching words Thwart, Foil, Stymie and Crimp as headlines in other ads.
So come on HP, less of the confusing marks and more of the lovable language.
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.
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.
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.
The return of purpose…
Good to see the FT’s Andrew Hill picking up on the return of purpose as a key factor in corporate success. Lauded back in the mid-nineties by Collins and Porras in Built To Last, their mighty fine exploration of the most succesful visionary companies, the P word was apparently on the lips of many a CEO at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos. “The most important thing is to focus on purpose,” said Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan. “You have to be a purpose-driven organisation,” said EY’s Mark Weinberger.
While purpose seems to be back in fashion, there is according to Andrew Hill some uncertainty over what we actually mean by the term. However, bearing in mind the essentially social nature of business, when you root purpose in the common interest, the shared endeavour, the collective action of a company, rather than, say, individualistic notions of why you go to work every day, the fog lifts.
Purpose is simply what we are all here to do together. Express that clearly and with feeling and you will have a powerful reason for people to work with you and buy from you and an enduring guide for good actions.
Andrew Hill highlights a great example in his article. When Ellen Kullman, chief executive of DuPont, asked a contract worker on the Kevlar production line what he was doing, he replied: “We’re saving lives.”
Saving lives, not just making bulletproof vests. A good purpose is indeed powerful stuff.
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…
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.
On ledgers, lifts…
Major works are afoot at Free Coordinates HQ, which has resulted in my gaining firsthand experience of ledgers, lifts and other weird and wonderful terms from the language of scaffolding. My initial thoughts were that such jargon was far from necessary for the simple matter of fixing poles and boards together to create platforms to work from. But when you consider the need to erect these platforms quickly and safely by fixing the right poles and boards together in the right order and way, the scaffold-speak begins to make sense.
As Hilaire Belloc says in On, an entertaining series of essays on all kinds of things – in this instance, technical words: “a technical word takes the place of long explanation. If you do not use technical words you have to replace them by clumsy, roundabout phrases. You lose your direct effect.”
Yes, technical terms can be effective shortcut language. Yet the principle, as with spelling out a Three Letter Acronym (TLA) the first time you use it, should be to explain the terms once up front. Just as the scaffolders did when I quizzed them. That way, everyone is free to understand should they be interested, as opposed to being excluded for want of clarification.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Right for your audience…
When Benjamin Britten took a Baroque theme by Henry Purcell and adapted it to accompany a film called Instruments of the Orchestra, he gave it the clear and engaging title The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. “Programmers often wanted to call it Variations on a Theme by Henry Purcell,” according to Ian Bostridge. “But Britten objected – he didn’t want to sound pretentious, preferring to stick with the title that has endured.”
As a young person, I doubt I would’ve taken much notice of Variations on a Theme by Henry Purcell – vari-what? Purce-who?? But I remember being enthralled by The Young Person’s Guide – it talked directly to me, after all, and proved to be every bit as illuminating as its title suggested.
From classic classicals to corporate comms – it pays to make sure your writing’s right for your audience.
Think well, write well…
“People who think, well write well,” wrote advertising legend David Ogilvy. These and other wise words come from The Unpublished David Ogilvy, according to City A.M.’s Marc Sidwell, who I’m cheered to read sees “clear English as a critical business tool”.
There’s a lot of meaning packed into the word ‘well’ here – the sense both of words that are well crafted and well intentioned. As Marc Sidwell points out, “Oglivy’s passion for clear and honest words” echoes George Orwell’s brilliant articulation of the mainline connection between clarity and morality in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language: “the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”
It’s not enough for your words to sound good, they must be good. Euphony and ethics should go hand in hand. Good English is good business.
The great Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who has passed away at the grand old age of 104, had a clear sense of what inspired his work and a wonderful way of expressing it.
“I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man,” he says in his memoir The Curves of Time. “I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman.”
Like the best writing, Oscar’s builds vivid images – conjuring with words the warm concrete curves of his architecture.
Musick to my ears…
Picking up on the apparent importance of knowing your “its” from your “it’s” when applying for jobs, the FT’s Michael Skapinker touches on the lovably liquid nature of English: “English has always changed. It is a permanent referendum. If enough people start regarding “its” as the contraction of “it is” and “it’s” as the possessive then that is what they’ll eventually become and everyone will write them that way.” My money’s on the gradual disappearance of the apostrophe, driven by the evolving influence of texting and other bite-sized digital communications and the power of context to help clarify: it’s often easy to see whether you mean “its” or “it’s” thanks to the surrounding words, which in turn makes the mark less necessary.
As with punctuation, so with spelling. We now happily write “music” rather than “musick”, as in Samuel Johnson’s day. Three centuries on, music’s notes haven’t changed but its spelling has. That’s fine with me. In line with the inherently democratic character of my mother tongue, I’m happy to let the people decide, over time through their usage and abusage, how they want English to evolve. For one of the great good things is that we’re free to use our language clearly and characterfully for our own ends.
In this respect, I’m on the side of Michael Skapinker’s “affectivists” – a term “conjured out of Sir Ernest Gower’s book, The Complete Plain Words, which remains a superb guide to clear communication nearly 60 years after it was first published. The aim of writing, he said, should be to affect your readers in the way you wish them to be affected.” Musick to my ears.
Economy of expression…
Top of my Christmas list is Philip Pullman’s reworking of Grimm’s tales for young and old.
Why revisit these classics? Because the stories themselves bear endless telling. More particularly, as Philip Pullman points out, his edition clears “out of the way anything that would prevent them running freely.” It promises the “economy of expression” Italo Calvino identifies as the first characteristic of folktales, in his Six Memos for the Next Millenium. For the best fables are compressed stories – free flowing, fleet of foot, impactful. Floating like butterflies, stinging like bees, they are the Muhammad Alis of the storyworld.
As Philip Pullman notes, “There is a great pleasure in telling a tale swiftly and clearly.” And a great pleasure in reading them, too.
Sometimes longer can be clearer…
To be clear should you always be concise? It can be tempting to conflate the two – after all, clarity and concision often go hand in hand. But they are not joined at the hip. There are times when you need to take more words to make yourself clear. Michael Skapinker makes this point in the FT when exploring the dangers of beeing too chatty and informal for non-native English speakers: Rather than saying ‘I agreed to put him up’, “far better to say ‘I agreed to offer him accommodation’. The words may be longer but the meaning is easier to grasp.”
So if being clear isn’t always about being concise, what is it about? For me it’s more akin to bringing things into sharp focus. Clearly revealing the real reality, no matter how messy or complex. At times that can take a fair few words to communicate clearly and characterfully. But the result is more representative, more faithful, more vivid – and consequently all the more compelling and memorable.
Clarity is good business…
Courtesy of the FT’s Lex, a passing mention of how ArcelorMittal likes to call reducing capacity at its steel plants an “asset optimisation plan”. Usually I like to let such examples of cloudy business speak pass, not least because the market for criticising them is crowded and noisy. But this one caught my eye not so much because of its ugly unclear nature so much as its lack of point. A waste of words, it tells you next to nothing worthwhile. Every plan is or ought to be about doing and achieving the best (optimisation). When did any of us last set out to do anything less? What Lex readers (direct and indirect investors and commentators on the company) really want to know is why and by how much ArcelorMittal is reducing resources. So the language is not only unlovable but reflects poorly on the company’s ability to live up to its responsibility to communicate clearly and characterfully.
This isn’t simply an ethical responsibility, it is a commercial one. As the canny souls who set up a clarity index a few years ago explored, being clear can help a company make money.
So let’s all plan to optimise our communication by being as clear and characterful as we can.
Royally good advice on clarity…
I recently came across my grandfather George Hanson’s copy of The King’s English, published in 1908 and signed and dated 1917.
A hundred years on, the opening words of Chapter 1 continue to get to the heart of what it takes to achieve the core of all good writing – clarity:
“Any one who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous and lucid.
This general principle may be translated into practical rules in the domain of vocabulary as follows:
- Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.
- Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.
- Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.
- Prefer the short word to the long…”
This guidance has echoed through the ages – in William Strunk, Jr . and E. B. White’s seminal The Elements of Style, in George Orwell’s six rules of effective writing, and in The Economist Style Guide as elsewhere. But HRH King George V, courtesy of his compilers H.W. and F.G. Fowler, got there first when it comes to laying the foundations of clear writing. Of course, as The King’s English implies, clarity is a necessary first step but by no means the end of the journey. What my granddad’s book calls “the more showy qualities” I call character – the essential build that at its best turns good writing into great writing.
A new Age of Character…
In her book QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain identifies a transition in early 20th century America “from the Age of Character to the Age of Personality”. A transition from an age where people are judged by what they do to one where they are judged by what they say (loudly).
A hundred years on, we’re in a new Age of Character. In our multiconnected early 21st century world, simply talking loud and long no longer cuts it. These days we’re rightly judged not just by our words but by our words and our deeds – by how well we marry the two. Which is why, whether introverts or extroverts or a more nuanced mix, it’s in all our interests to employ clear communication that allows our true character to come through.
Touching the heart not the hard drive…
A while ago while wandering the secondhand book stores on and around Charing Cross Road, I picked up for a pound a copy of the Grand Old Doyen of management thinking Peter Drucker’s Technology, Management and Society. It’s a slim volume packed with clear, compelling Druckerisms that are as true today as they were when he penned them back in 1958. Take, for example, his four fundamentals of communication:
- Communciation is perception
- Communication is expectations
- Communication is involvement
- Communication and information are totally different
In exploring these fundamentals, he imparts pearls such as the importance of talking to people in their own terms (“one has to use a carpenter’s metaphors when talking to carpenters”), the pernicious nature of information overload (“it does not enrich, but impoverishes”), and the essential contrast between information and communication – “Information is purely formal and has no meaning. It is impersonal rather than interpersonal.” Communication by contrast is human, emotional, experiential. “Indeed, the most perfect communications may be purely shared experiences, without any logic whatever.” Communication touches the heart; information resides in a hard drive.
All of which put me in mind of the following poetic wisdom from e.e. cummings:
since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you