I recently had the pleasure of visiting the impeccable grounds of The Newt in Somerset. Owned by Koos Bekker (AKA Canniest Investor In Tech), the Newt is a wonder to wander, not least because of its attention to every last detail. Yes, the big draws include a reconstructed Roman villa and grand gardens, but my eye was caught by the scatterings of little infopanels around and about. Miniature marvels of communication, such as this one:
In a handful of well-chosen words, it takes you from when the surrounding beech trees were planted to what was once a Somerset Boxing Day treat, by way of the chatting, digging, steaming, weeping badgers who live in the sets beneath your feet.
Jugged badger may no longer be on the menu, but characterful communication is never out of fashion.
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.
As close to music as I can get is how I like to write.
As Oliver Reichenstein points out, “Being fully immersed in writing is like composing and playing music while we drum up our perceptions into letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs.” In his post on Music in Writing, he shares Martin Amis’s take: “What you’re trying to do is: Be faithful to your perceptions, and transmit them as faithfully as you can… You know I just say these sentences again and again in my head, until they sound right. And there is no objective reason why they sound right. They just sound right to me. So it’s euphony, sometimes it’s harshness you want. But it’s… it’s just matching up the perception with the words… in a kind of semi-musical way.”
Beyond the sheer pleasure of listening to the melody, beat and tone of your words as you write, why write this way? Grace Nichols nails it: “The rhythm and musicality of poetry is more direct in its appeal to the human heart and spirit.” In short, musical writing is more effective.
So, write with your ears, and let your sentences sing.
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.
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.
Hot on the heels of being bought up by Nikkei, the FT has seen the value of declaring its shared mission: “to translate information into knowledge with timely, accurate reporting and analysis around the clock from Beijing to Brussels, Tokyo to New York and London to Johannesburg. With our global networks, we connect the dots in an increasingly interconnected world.”
While lacking the fire and zing of “Without fear and without favour”, it is nevertheless a decent statement and underlines the value of making your purpose clear for all to see and react to. As Grant Thornton UK’s chief executive Sacha Romanovitch puts it, “a strong sense of purpose helps a venture thrive.” It gives people a shared cause to rally around, a big why to spur them on, a point of guidance for day-to-day decisions and actions.
So a strong purpose is both glue and fuel – a potent mix for any organisation or endeavour.
Every three minutes someone is injured by a traffic accident in China. One in ten die. To help fight this, the campaign revolves around a simple and arresting idea: to use real accident victims to underline the dangers. To this end, we see them holding up traffic signs at the spots where their accidents actually happened.
Commissioned by Shanghai General Motors; created by Lowe China; deserved winner of a D&AD White Pencil for work that excels in effecting real and positive change in the world through creative thinking.
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.
Off to the annual poetry fest at my daughter’s school, where Paul the poet urges us all to strive to “say the biggest things with the littlest words”.
This doesn’t simply mean keeping your communication short, but rather as long as it needs to be – and no longer. The poetic art of compression can lead to some pretty lengthy pieces, such as Claudia Rankine’s 160-page Citizen, which has just been shortlisted for the Forward prize.
From the three lines of a haiku to the 100 cantos of Dante’s Divine Comedy, great poetry squeezes as much as possible into the space it occupies. That’s one of the ways it packs such a punch.
“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.
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:
“But above all,* there is the silence of summer evenings. Those brief moments when day topples into night must be peopled with secret signs and summonses… I imagine its twilights as promises of happiness. On the hills above the city there are paths among the mastics and olive-trees. And towards them my heart turns at such moments. I see flights of black birds rise against the green horizon. In the sky suddenly divested of its sun something relaxes…”
*This comma tugs you back gently before toppling you into the brilliantly vivid depiction of Algiers in evening.
“Almost immediately afterwards appears the first star that had been taking shape and consistency in the depth of the sky. And then suddenly, all consuming,* night.”
*This comma wraps you up in the experience, rather than the description, of night.
So praise is due the comma, the unsung hero of communication.
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.”
“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.
While visiting recently one of my favourite Parisian haunts, Shakespeare & Company, I found in the discount boxes outside a copy of Our Language by Simeon Potter. Four euros and an enjoyable chat with the bookseller behind the counter later and it was mine to leaf through at my leisure.
I didn’t have to go far to find the treasures within. From the opening paragraph:
“The power of rightly chosen words is very great, whether those words are intended to inform, to entertain, or to move. English is rapidly becoming a cosmopolitan means of communication… Let us all join freely in the quest and let us all share gladly in that intellectual joy of linguistic exploration which is ours for the seeking every day of our lives.”
Wise and encouraging words from 1950 by way of a mighty fine bookshop on the left bank of the Seine.
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.
I’m really pleased you can do the art-work for our new hits album. Here are 2 boxes of material you can use, and the record. In my short sweet experience, the more complicated the format of the album, e.g. more complex than just pages or fold-out, the more fxxxxx up the reproduction and agonising the delays. But, having said that, I leave it in your capable hands to do whatever you want………..and please write back saying how much money you would like.
Doubtless a Mr Al Steckler will contact you in New York, with any further information. He will probably look nervous and say “Hurry up” but take little notice.
Love, Mick Jagger.”
I’m really pleased you can do the work… Here is some background material… I trust you… Do whatever you think best – the perfect brief.
“It is true that there are rules of grammar and syntax, just as in music there are rules of harmony and counterpoint. But one can no more write good English than one can compose good music merely by keeping the rules…
The golden rule is not a rule of grammar or syntax. It concerns less the arrangement of words than the choice of them. “After all,” said Lord Macaulay, “the first law of writing is this: that the words employed should be such as to convey to the reader the meaning of the writer.” The golden rule is to pick those words and to use them and them only. Arrangement is of course important, but if the right words are used they generally have a happy knack of arranging themselves. Mathew Arnold once said: “People think that I can teach them style. What stuff it all is. Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.””
So, melding Macaulay’s first law with Arnold’s only secret, the secret law of writing is: Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can for your reader.
In Episode 2 of Noise: A Human History, Professor David Hendy speculates that millions of years ago our earliest ancestors “had a kind of sing song utterance that was a curious mix of both language and music.”
Fast forwarding to the hear and now, he evokes teenagers texting: “That hidden melody and rhythm of constant toing and froing with words. The melody is the message. We’re hearing the building up of a strong bond between friends. The rhythm provides the means of us touching at a distance.”
From yesteryear’s cavemen to today’s texters, when it comes to communication – to touching at a distance – the music as much as the meaning is key.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Among the bright and hollow rhetoric of today’s politicians, where words are polished to assorted sweet nothings such as “things can only get better” and “we’re all in this together”, one individual’s oratory consistently stands out. Yes, the politician du jour (et des jeux), Boris Johnson’s. Compare his “final tear sodden juddering climax”, “routed the doubters” and “scattered the gloomsters” London 2012 tribute to David Cameron’s eminently forgettable “moments we will never forget”. On the campaign trail as in the corporate world, the vivid and particular beats the bland and general every time. Small wonder, as the FT points out, “Boris Johnson frequently upstages the premier.”
One of the more colourful exemplars of the power of characterful communication, you’re encouraged to believe Boris. For in contrast to many of his peers, the language he employs – brilliant, lusty, rumbunctious – not only puts a smile on your face but also feels like it fits and flows from the man.
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.
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.
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:
I came across this rather fine job ad on the window of the Flat Planet cafe, Great Marlborough Street, the other day. Ironically on the site of a former AN Other Coffee Chain, it struck me as a refreshingly engaging alternative to the cookie cutter communication of cappuccino corporations.
Awhile ago I was asked whether or not Mr should be followed by a full stop. As you can see by the way I’ve just written it, I reckon not.
When it comes to abbreviations – eg Mr, Dr, ie etc – I adapt The Economist’s less is more rule on capital letters: use lower case unless it looks absurd. Indeed less is more is a pretty good principle to adopt for all punctuation.
Full stops, commas, dashes and so on are there to help rather than hinder understanding. Too many and you’re in danger of obstructing the flow of your communication, like barnacles on a boat.
So as a general rule I’d say that if a piece of punctuation doesn’t aid clarity or add character, leave it out. Dr.? No!