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.
“To begin at the beginning is, next to ending at the end, the whole art of writing; as for the middle you may fill it in with any rubble that you choose. But the beginning and the end, like the strong stone outer walls of mediaeval buildings, contain and define the whole,” says Hillair Belloc in On Nothing and Kindred Subjects.
“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story,” says Chekhov.
Two top takes on what goes into good storytelling, and what stays out.
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.
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.