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Take this book…

‘I came across a magazine with an inscription that said: “Civilisation flourishes when men plant trees under which they themselves will never sit.” But to me it’s not only plants – putting something in somebody’s life, a young person’s life, is the same as planting a tree that you will not cut and sell during your lifetime. That has helped me a lot in my work. Sometimes the more you give, the more you get.’

So says James Barnor, on the wall at the start of his arresting Accra/London retrospective. Indeed, looking at this master photographer’s work, you can see that he gives a great deal of himself to get images that really let the personalities of his subjects shine through.

Walking homewards from the exhibition through Hyde Park, in one of those happy moments of timely connection, I came across a tree bearing books for people to freely pick:

These particular books are part of a wider network of free-book sharing, courtesy of The Book Fairies. “Take this book, read it & leave it for the next person to enjoy” says the sticker on each book.

Civilisation does indeed flourish when men plant trees under which they themselves will never sit – and when people plant books on trees for the world to enjoy.

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Feed the good wolf…

Top of my list of recommended reads from 2020 is Rutger Bregman’s Humankind, his essentially positive and timely take on our species. A chunky science-heavy tome that has the classic page-turning qualities of a great novel, Humankind questions and debunks the Hobbesian damning of people as brutish folk only prevented from descending into violence and mayhem by a wafer-thin veneer of imposed civilisation. Rutger’s view of us is more akin to Rousseau’s noble savage. But he neither romanticises nor idealises our state. As he says upfront, “To be clear: this book is not a sermon on the fundamental goodness of people. Obviously, we are not angels. We’re complex creatures, with a good side and a not-so-good side. The question is which side to turn to…

Floating around the Internet is a parable of unknown origin. It contains what I believe is a simple but profound truth:

An old man says to his grandson: ‘There’s a fight going on inside me. It’s a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil – angry, greedy, jealous, arrogant, and cowardly. The other is good – peaceful, loving, modest, generous, honest, and trustworthy. These two wolves are also fighting within you, and inside every other person too.’

After a moment, the boy asks, ‘Which wolf will win?’

The old man smiles.

‘The one you feed.'”

As the old man says, we should feed the good wolf. But what do we feed it? Rutger gives us the answer further on in Humankind: “As media scientist George Gerbner summed up: ‘[whoever] tells the stories of a culture really governs human behaviour.'” Stories it is, then. But not any old stories. They must be good ones, in every sense of that word.

So as we head into a new year following a year like no other, let’s all look to feed our good wolves with a rich diet of positively good stories.

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Shockingly good…

Can computers enhance, or even outdo, human creativity?

According to the FT’s John Thornhill, OpenAI’s GPT-3 program has been used “to write poems, articles, comic sketches and computer code, compose guitar riffs, offer medical advice, and reimagine video games, sometimes with stunning effect.” Indeed, tech entrepreneur Arram Sabeti, who used the software to write a Raymond Chandler-style screenplay about Harry Potter, called it “shockingly good”. Technology this powerful inevitably raises ethical issues. A group of philosophers tasked with assessing GPT-3 concluded it was “unnervingly coherent and laughably mindless”. But such facility without the moral compass to match is far from funny.

As with creatives, so with computers – it’s not enough to be good at what you do, you also need to do good with what you do.

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Natural brilliance…

For lovers of brilliant simplicity, a block of wood that lights up when you touch it, giving you a lovely way into your online world:

“Humans are designed to interact with nature,” says Mui Lab’s Kazunori Oki. “So we put a natural material between you and the information. So you can get a natural feeling rather than touching or talking with plastic keys.”

A great example of the ‘truly good and beautiful’, it is due to go on sale later this year. Add it to your 2019 Christmas list.

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The loving product of silence and slow time…

Towards the tail end of the 1950s, Laurie Lee wrote lyrically and longingly On Craftsmen:

“We are a starved society living in the midst of plenty. Our possessions are many, our serenities few.

If we look at objects fashioned by the hands of craftsmen, we instinctively recognise something we need, something we may almost have forgotten existed any more – something designed to keep us human. For the handmade object is one of the last visible defences of humanism left to us, and the craftsman ministers to our most basic spiritual needs.

The materials he works in – wood, stone, clay, iron, living wools and natural hides – are still those divine materials of the earth for which there are many substitutes today, but no replacements. His products are the result not of the juddering steel press, die-stamp and reeking chemical synthesis of mass production, but of human skills and judgements which have filtered down into these pages, into this moment, through unbroken generations of eyes and hands.

It is this we are in danger of losing forever – the virtue of the handmade object, whose making yields to no factory speed-up, but is the loving product of the master craftsman, of silence and slow time. In robbing man of the use of his hands, mechanisation mutilates his spirit also.”

Zoom forward some sixty or so years, pause briefly to doff your cap to the current fascination with all things primitive tech, and linger awhile here – with a 2018 take on the enduring importance and appeal of craft, courtesy of iA’s Oliver Reichenstein. As Oliver says, “We know that what is truly good is somehow beautiful, and what is truly beautiful is somehow good”.

So long live craft, and the long-lasting loveliness it creates.

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To boldly edit…

It’s probably one of the most famous missions out there. We can all no doubt have a good go at reciting it, lovely split infinitive and all. But the original is a world away from the final cut – credit to the edit.

Here’s the original:

“This is the adventure of the United Space Ship Enterprise. Assigned a five year galaxy patrol, the bold crew of the giant starship explores the excitement of strange new worlds, uncharted civilizations, and exotic people. These are its voyages and its adventures.”

And the edit:

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Two versions. One presents the facts; the other paints a picture. One explains; the other excites. I know which one I’d follow.

Just goes to show how far you can go with a little bit of critical crafting.

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Loopy strategies…

Virtuous circles, wheels of fortune, magic roundabouts – the one infographic more beloved by consultants even than the hierarchical pyramid or two-by-two matrix is the strategy loop. The FT’s Andrew Hill lays into them – their beguiling neatness, their often shaky foundations and their tendency, like boats too long in the water, to gather barnacles of complications.

“Strategies and business models are not infinitely repeatable perpetual motion machines,” says Hill. “If they were, chief executives and their teams could go home.” Yes, but given that these folk are staying at their desks, the question is: what should they be doing? The answer still is crafting and communicating the best strategy – the company’s way to win. And vitally, focusing on putting it into action. Too many strategies get lost in translation – declared from on high with more or less clarity and largely ignored when it comes to employees carrying out their day-to-day tasks. In this respect and to loop back, infographics can be a very helpful tool when it comes to explaining and implementing strategy. But only if they’re properly rigorous and compelling.

So long live loops, so long as they’re in service of strong strategies.

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Build a good name…

Back in 2007, I co-created and ran an executive day for the Henley Management College. It focused on how to enhance reputation through core purpose. The gist: build your good name (your reputation) with stories that pivot around your big why (your core purpose).

A good few years on from that enjoyable day, and reputation, more than ever, is in the air. Purpose, too, and of course stories. Rohan Silva bigs up purpose by way of his favourite quote from business – Hewlett Packard co-founder David Packard’s: “Many people assume, wrongly, that the purpose of a company is to make money… a group of people get together and exist as an institution we call a company so they are able to accomplish something collectively that they could not accomplish separately — they make a contribution to society, a phrase which sounds trite but is fundamental.”

Prompted by Taylor Swift’s release of Reputation, Ludovic Hunter-Tilney explores the r-word in the FT: “The public persona that we present to the world grows ever more significant. In the digital age reputation is inescapable. Not a day goes by without our judging something or being judged ourselves.”

But I’d like to leave the last word to the inestimable Patti Smith, who tells this story: “When I was really young, William Burroughs told me: ‘Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful. Be concerned with doing good work, and make the right choices, and protect your work. And if you build a good name, eventually that name will be its own currency.”

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Once upon a plumber…

Riffing on the corporate storytelling thing in her characteristically acerbic comms-weary way, Lucy Kellaway makes the anti-case: “the storytelling craze has gone too far.”

Yes, there are a lot of pretty awful attempts to tell corporate stories out there, along with a burgeoning mini-industry of people proclaiming stories to be the new ‘most valuable corporate asset‘, and any number of job ads and titles purloining the s-word for a sprinkle of zeity geistiness. But this does not mean that storytelling in business is any less important, just that it could do with being done a whole lot better.

Indeed, as Lucy Kellaway says: “Stories in the right place are an excellent thing…We all like stories because we like emotion, and because they are easy for our befuddled brains to follow. They liven things up. They cheer us up. They can inspire us… [but]…The trouble with stories is that to have any effect they have to be good ones – and most people are rubbish at telling them.”

To reinforce her case, Lucy Kellaway claims that plumbers, along with dentists, are mercifully story-free professions: “Plumbers don’t tell stories because they are too busy unblocking your toilet.” But of course, because plumbers, like us, are only human, they do. Especially when, like Charlie Mullins, they have built a great big plumbing business brand: Pimlico Plumbers.

A bog standard story is no doubt not worth the paper it’s written on, but a brilliant story is unquestionably priceless. Indeed, I’d argue that it is just about the most powerful (and pleasurable) thing there is.

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In praise of pad and pen…

As a lifelong fan of writing things down with pad and pen*, I was heartened to read that this age-old method has the edge over simply tipping and tapping away at a keyboard when it comes to actually thinking about things.

“It turns out that writing involves a completely different process to typing,” says Charles Wallace in the FT. He quotes Daniel J Levitin, a professor of psychology and behavioural neuroscience at McGill University in Canada: “Writing things down requires more concentration and deeper processing than typing… Deeper processing means you are more likely to remember and encode the information… Deeper encoding allows for the linking of the concept to other concepts that you have deep in memory.”

So if it’s not too late, ask Santa to pop a pad and pen into your stocking this festive season.

*My trusty Pilot V5 Hi-Tecpoint extra fines.

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Confusing marks…

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.

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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.

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The secret law of writing…

Prompted by its inclusion in Michael Skapinker’s list of non-business books to inspire managers, I reached for my copy of The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers (another mighty fine book on writing given to me by my Dad):

“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.

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To begin at the beginning…

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.

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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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Shorter often takes longer…

From The Guardian’s In praise of… telegrams: Mark Twain received this telegram from his publisher: NEED 2-PAGE SHORT STORY TWO DAYS. To which he replied: NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES 2 DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS TO DO 2 PAGES.

As with a fine cognac compared to a run of the mill brandy, it takes time to distill your words well – shorter often takes longer.

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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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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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True stories travel light…

For psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz, our innermost feelings can only be understood through stories, and the key to storytelling is truthfulness. The kind of truthfulness that brings your stories to life and lets them fly.

“My friend [the poet] Wendy Cope says, ‘Make it more truthful.’ Is this exactly what the patient said? Is that exactly how it was? You have to dig down really deep to make it good – but you’re also after lightness. You don’t want to write about the Oedipus complex, you want to take weight out of the story. That, for me, is what the great writers do… When I taught a course on writing case histories, I discovered that what I felt was true had nothing to do with length. What counted was telling the story so well the reader had the same experience as the writer. I’m not convinced by statistics or page count, I’m convinced by someone who’s been there, got really close, seen what they’ve seen, and can put it across in writing.”

This Lightness of touch forms one of Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millenium. True stories travel light – covering a lot of ground quickly. As the Sicilian saying quoted in Calvino’s chapter on Quickness puts it: “Time takes no time in a story.” Creating the story on the other hand can take a great deal of time and care but it’s always worth it. By digging deep into the truth of a story you can set it free to capture people’s attention and imagination.

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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.

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The positive energy at the heart of character…

From new books to the recently launched Jubilee Centre for Character and Values, it’s good to see that character is increasingly in vogue. But what exactly is character? “It’s personality, it’s energy…at it’s heart, it’s a set of personal values that guide conduct,” says Lord Wilson, Chair of the Centre’s advisory committee, on Radio 4’s PM programme.

Lord Wilson touches on a key characteristic of character – its bias to action. Characters don’t just talk, they do – and in our new age of character the two have to be in synch.

Although characters come in many guises (good and bad), there’s an inherently constructive undercurrent – a positive energy at the heart of character. Strong characters have a clear sense of who they are and of how they contribute, and they have the communication to match. “We’ve become very shy of using very simple, powerful words, like honesty and truth and loyalty,” says Lord Wilson. “Big words like that…to describe values.” Big words or small, it’s worth taking care to use the right ones to communicate our character, so we can bring to life in a clear and compelling way the positive difference we make.

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Zest, grit and other great character traits…

In an article in the FT, champion of all things entrepreneurial Luke Johnson hones in on the essential ingredient for success in school and in business: character.

He points to Paul Tough’s New York Times essay “What if the Secret to Success is Failure”, which identifies the seven character traits that matter most for a child to do well at school: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. These, he says, are also the defining criteria for entrepreneurs.

They’re certainly a fine selection – who among us wouldn’t like to have zest and grit, optimism and curiosity coursing through our veins.

Whether or not they’re the secret seven for budding pupils and business starters alike, or a rather more universally advantageous septet, one thing’s for sure – as JP Morgan famously put it and L Johnson reminds us, in pretty much all aspects of life  “…the first thing is character.”

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Hydropathic pudding anyone?…

The summery sunshine reminds me of a seasonal culinary delight: hydropathic pudding. Hydrowhatic pudding? Hydropathic pudding. That’s summer pudding to you and me. Invented in the 19th century as a none-too appetising-sounding but healthy option for spa-residing poorly people, this delicious fruit-filled concoction was renamed summer pudding at the turn of the 20th. Armed with this appealing new name, it never looked back and today is a modern British classic.
Meanwhile over on Wall Street, Big Lots, the discount retailer, enjoyed a market-beating increase in its stock after changing its ticker from BLI to BIG. According to the FT, academic research shows that stocks whose tickers can be pronounced as a word beat stocks with unpronounceable tickers by a statistically significant margin. As the FT suggests, perhaps that’s why an agribusiness exchange traded fund chose the ticker MOO!
Just goes to show, with clear words and a good name you can go a long long way.