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Ruthful roots…

As an uplifting end-of-year read and/or last-minute festive gift, I’d like to recommend Roots of Happiness: 100 Words for Joy and Hope, by all-round word wizard Susie Dent.

“I am on a mission to find light in the deepest darkest corners of our language,” says Susie, on the back cover of her brill book. Lovable language like “forblissed” (extremely happy). “Lost positives” like “ruthful” (full of empathy and compassion) that have fallen out of everyday use, rather than their easily-found negatives.

We could all do with a lot less ruthlessness in the world, a lot more joy and hope. That starts with the language we use between and about each other. Susie’s setting the tone. I’m all ears.


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The story is mightier…

In these dark days, a ray of light from Yuval Noah Harari:

Nations are ultimately built on stories. Each passing day adds more stories that Ukrainians will tell not only in the dark days ahead, but in the decades and generations to come. The president who refused to flee the capital, telling the US that he needs ammunition, not a ride; the soldiers from Snake Island who told a Russian warship to “go fuck yourself”; the civilians who tried to stop Russian tanks by sitting in their path. This is the stuff nations are built from. In the long run, these stories count for more than tanks.”

In the end, the story is mightier than the sword.

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Small change; big difference…

A tasty reminder of the power of words comes courtesy of research carried out by the World Resources Institute (WRI) into the big difference just a small change on a restaurant menu can make to what we choose to order.

Researchers tested responses to different sustainability-themed messages on menus. Messages such as: “Each of us can make a positive difference to the planet. Swapping just one meat dish for a plant-based one saves greenhouse gas emissions that are equivalent to the energy used to charge your phone for two years. Your small change can make a big difference.” Diners who read this message chose a vegetarian dish 25% of the time – over twice the rate of diners who were not shown the message. This is good news because, as the WRI points out: “Food-production accounts for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, with animal-based foods contributing double the amount of emissions to plant-based foods. Shifting consumer demand away from animal-based foods toward more plant-based alternatives is critical for reducing food-related climate change impacts, as well as resource use and biodiversity loss.” Imagine the difference if everyone everywhere swapped their beef burger for a bean burrito.

Of course, it’s not just on menus that a few well chosen words can have a big positive impact. (And indeed, vice versa.) Something for us all to bear in mind as we tell our stories – select wisely to tell well.

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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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Wild for weeds…

Rough hawkbit, cat’s ear, sow thistles, tagwort, viper’s bugloss, mallows, self-heal, love-in-a-mist, wild mignonette, rosebay willowherb, creeping buttercup – AKA ‘weeds’. According to Alex Morss, research shows that these colourfully named but often overlooked plants are heavy hitters when it comes to nectar and pollen. In other words, they’re bees’ best mates, and a growing number of street botanists are bringing them to our attention through the simple act of chalking the names of our autotrophic friends wherever they find them.

As one London chalker says, “I’ll keep labelling as I go on my daily walks. I think it’s really tapped into where people are right now. Botanical chalking gives a quick blast of nature connection, as the words encourage you to look up and notice the tree above you, the leaves, the bark, the insects, the sky. And that’s all good for mental health. None of us can manage that much – living through a global pandemic is quite enough to be getting on with. But it’s brought me a great amount of joy.”

An instantly lovable offshoot of the wider growth in plant awareness and advocacy, this green-fingered graffiti is a great example of using the right words in the right way to make a difference. So long live weeds, and long live words. And a big thank you to everyone who brings the two together for our understanding and enjoyment.

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To go…to testify…

To the Wellcome Collection, to see an excellent exhibition on Living with Buildings. It features Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ winning work on the Doctors of the World Global Clinic. Designed to be constructed in one day by doctors and nurses in the field, the clinic is a big step on from the tents and shipping containers the international health charity usually has to turn to when providing critical medical care in often far flung places around the world.

From initial ideas…

to finished version…

…the clinic is a plywood wonder.

And Doctors of the World is a wonder, too. Formed in 1980 to help the many Vietnamese refugees who had fled the country after the Vietnam War, its aim is “to go where others will not, to testify to the intolerable, and to volunteer.” In an age when it’s increasingly fashionable and indeed good for every organisation to have a purpose, this one really strikes home and sticks in the mind. I reckon it’s that great phrase in the middle: to testify to the intolerable. Meaningful and memorable – it makes it clear that Doctors of the World not only brings help but also bears witness. A mighty fine combination.

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The long why…

In Japan, home to more centenarians than any other country, the island of Okinawa is known as “land of the immortals”. It’s where over 1,000 people aged over 100 live.

How come so many Okinawans live so long? Having a reason for living makes a big difference. According to longevity expert Dan Buettner, focusing on your purpose can add up to seven years to your life. So it’s no surprise that on Okinawa people set up friendship groups known as ‘moai’, which means ‘meeting for a common purpose’. Across Japan there’s a rather lovely word for this purposeful way of living: ‘ikigai’ – ‘the reason you get up in the morning’.

For people, and for companies, the secret of a long life is to have a strong why. So if you’re looking for a new year’s resolution as we head towards 2019, why not find and/or fine tune your ikigai. Here’s to a long and happy life for all.

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Apple’s core…

Back in 1997, recently reinstated CEO Steve Jobs stood up in front of his staff and gave his own inimitable take on what Apple, at the time in desperate need of a turnaround in its fortunes, at its core was all about:

“Our customers want to know who is Apple and what is it that we stand for. Where do we fit in this world? What we’re about isn’t making boxes for people to get their jobs done. Although we do that well. We do that better than almost anybody, in some cases. But Apple is about something more than that. Apple at the core – its core value is that we believe that people with passion can change the world for the better…and that those people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones that actually do…”

The rest is history, the history of arguably the most loved and certainly one of the most valuable brands in the world today.

It’s a testament to being clear about your core and sticking to it, and an encouragement to all of us to be brave and think different.

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Do less, obsess…

Riffing on New Year’s resolutions, the FT’s Andrew Hill explores how doing less, rather than more, could well be the thing. But as he points out, doing less is only half the story…

“Academic Morten Hansen … cites his compatriot Roald Amundsen, who won the race to be the first person to reach the South Pole in 1911. … Prof Hansen believes Amundsen’s success came down to his obsessive focus on using only dogs and sleds to transport his team. Scott was better resourced …but the complexity of the Scott approach proved fatal. … Amundsen, who had concentrated on getting the best dogs, the best handlers and the best training, was far quicker. “By the time Amundsen reached the pole, he was more than 300 miles ahead,” writes Prof Hansen. “Amundsen had chosen one method and mastered it. He had done less, then obsessed. … You have to obsess because if you don’t you don’t have an advantage over the people who are doing more things.”

Prof Hansen studied the performance of 5,000 people and discovered that those who pursued a strategy of ‘do less, then obsess’ ranked 25 percentage points higher than those who did not embrace the practice. … The best performers in the study … matched passion with a purpose.”

How does this play out for writers? Sylvia Plath melodies the essence: “I want to write because I have the urge to excel in one medium of translation and expression of life.”

From crafting poetry to reaching the South Pole – there’s a lot going for obsessively focusing on one thing to excel at it. Especially when you bring brilliant specialists together in teams to combine and amplify their excellence.

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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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Connecting the dots…

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.

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The best salami…

Long-time corporate bull basher Lucy Kellaway recently targeted Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s 1,500 word email to all staff telling them about the company’s new mission statement. As well as taking aim at the language, she questions Mr Nadella’s belief that “Every great company has an enduring mission.” “This sounds good, only it is not true,” says Ms Kellaway. “I like to think that the Financial Times is a great company; we have endured 127 years without an official mission.” Yet I’d argue that the FT does have a long-standing purpose, and is all the better for it. It might not be cast in a mission statement, but it is there atop the leaders page of every single edition: “Without fear and without favour.” Indeed it was there on the first front page back in 1888: “A financial paper for the City of London, carrying the banner of Without Fear and Without Favour, cannot fail for lack of raison d’être.”

This unswerving promise put me in mind of The Economist‘s creation story: “First published in September 1843 to take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.”

Missions, purposes, whys – call them what you will, when crafted to galvanise in a way that rings true they are truly valuable. My own personal favourite is attributed to the old Italian Communist Party: “The best salami for everyone.” Tasty.

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Once more, with feeling…

The FT’s Michael Skapinker sets out seven lessons in management he has learnt over the last decade. One stands out for me: “Decide what your business stands for and tell everyone until you can no longer stand the sound of your voice. Every business has an ethos: the way it does things, or does things best. You need to decide what yours is, and you need to keep telling people, both inside and outside. Whether they believe you depends on how true it is and how much sense it makes.”

It also depends on how much feeling you put into the way you get it across. Combining truth with emotion is a powerful formula. So yes, never stop saying what you stand for, but make sure you put your heart into.

Once more, with feeling.

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Poets take risks…

Far from “conniving at its own irrelevance” by failing to engage with ordinary people, poetry continues to fight on the front lines of our lovable language.

As George Szirtes points out, poetry’s task is not to play safe by finding “a pretty way of saying plain things”. From ee cummings’ abandoning of capitals to Tricky’s “My brain thinks bomb-like”, poets take risks – pushing and pulling the way we use and think about words into weird and wonderful new corners and possibilities, pumping new life into our tongue.

In his A Note on War Poetry, TS Eliot talks of “the abstract conception of private experience at its greatest intensity becoming universal, which we call ‘poetry’.”

Small wonder wartime yields such intense universal expression. Take Isaac Rosenberg’s twisting visceral Louse Hunting:

Nudes – stark aglisten

Yelling in lurid glee. Grinning faces of fiends

And raging limbs

Whirl over the floor one fire,

For a shirt verminously busy

Yon soldier tore from his throat

With oaths

Godhead might shrink at, but not the lice.

And soon the shirt was aflare

Over the candle he’d lit while we lay…”

“We feel poetry rather understand it,” says George Szirtes. I’d like to temper that assertion by saying we feel poetry and understand ourselves better for it. Which is why poetry will always be relevant and, for a good many of us, well loved.

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Dear Andy…

How do you brief creative folk? Mick Jagger’s letter to Andy Warhol is a great example:

“Dear Andy,

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.

So did Andy do a good job? Well, according to a Rolling Stone readers poll it’s one of the best album covers of all time.

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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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Brilliant advocates…

It’s good to see storytelling in business gets a big thumbs up from Luke Johnson in his New Year article for the FT.

“What is the special secret that makes a great entrepreneur? The power to motivate – to lead others in a grand task. So how do they enthuse and encourage followers? A key ingredient is the ability to tell stories. The more compelling the storyteller, the more devoted the adherents. From Benjamin Franklin…to Akio Morita…these were not spin masters but brilliant advocates who caught people’s imaginations and won both hearts and minds.”

Equating storytelling with advocacy is spot on, for the best stories in business, like the best representations in court, are carefully considered and crafted for a particular purpose and audience. Their emotional appeal is finely tuned and precisely targeted. As Luke Johnson says, this is the opposite of the chatter and noise of the daily news. “Rolling news channels and the digital revolution mean the exposure and pitch of headlines are more intense than ever. We cannot influence any of these events, unlike our own stories. So I recommend that readers avoid too much news and focus instead on cultivating their own narratives.” And if you like, enlist an expert to help you cultivate them.