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The one who tells the story…

There’s a Native American proverb that says “The one who tells the story rules the world”, says psychologist Dr Zoe Walkington in a brilliant BBC feature on the power of stories not only to influence or persuade us, but literally to change our minds.

People who read a couple of chapters of a story about vampires genuinely believe that their teeth are slightly longer than other people in the population. But it doesn’t stop there – if, for example, you read the word “jump”, you fire up the areas of your brain that are activated when you actually do jump.

Just goes to underline how potent stories are, and how important it is to tell your key stories as well as possible.

 

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Encouraging stories…

Writing in the FT on the “guff” “surrounding stock markets at the moment”, Merryn Somerset Webb says “it feels as though we have reached a point in the market cycle where everyone is preferring stories to reality.”

Yet as Yuval Noah Harari points out in his seminal Sapiens, we are an essentially storytelling species. Stories are our reality.

That’s not to say that there is only ever just one story for any given event. There are many angles; many stories. Take, as Merryn Somerset Webb does, the recent far from stellar stock market debut of food delivery firm Deliveroo. Why did the shares end their first day of trading 26 per cent down? One storyline focuses on Deliveroo’s dual share structure – standard practice for tech IPOs in the US, relatively new and offputting in the UK. Another highlights environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns surrounding the gig-workers at the heart of Deliveroo’s business. My money is on Merryn Somerset Webb’s take: “busy bankers at Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan” simply “mispriced the Deliveroo deal”. Either way, it’s a matter of stories.

More than any other means, stories are how we make sense of ourselves and our world – stock markets and all. So rather than question everyone preferring stories, we should encourage everyone to tell more and better stories. Stories that not only make sense but ring true; ones that stand out and stand the test of time.

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Show feelings effectively…

Picture the scene: our hero walks down the road. Hang on a minute – ‘walks’? That’s not much help. Howabout ‘trudges’, or ‘skips’, or ‘saunters’, or ‘slouches’, or ‘rushes’, or ‘ambles’, or ‘totters’, or ‘strolls’ down the road. To tell a vivid story, choose your verbs with care.

As my daughter’s English teacher puts it so well: “Verbs show feelings effectively.” In Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, Virginia Tufte drives the point home with the help of F. Scott Fitzgerald: “all fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences. They make sentences move.” And in so doing, they take us with them.

For economy of style and poetic punch, verbs are your best friends. So if you want to add colour, sense, meaning and emotion to your story, resist the temptation to add adjectives or adverbs. Simply be precise with your verbs. And if you think this might be a tad limiting, take heart in knowing that there are well over 30,000 verbs in the English language. More than enough to play with. Enjoy!

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The sound I saw…

Conceived, designed, written and made by hand by master photographer Roy Decarava, The Sound I Saw brings words and images together brilliantly to tell its story. As Roy says in the introduction, “This is a book about people, about jazz, and about things… It represents pictures and words from one head and one heart.”

What a head; what a heart.  And what a hand and eye:

Through big arresting black & white images, Roy weaves words in carefully crafted lines, rather than unthinking blocks of text. Lines are broken here, indented there, always in service of the story Roy wants to tell. It’s what the great information artist Edward Tufte calls content-responsive typography in his latest book Seeing With Fresh Eyes. In this way, Roy amplifies the meaning and melody running through The Sound I Saw.

Inspired by Roy and Edward and in lieu of a new year’s resolution, here’s a new year’s tip:

write with your eyes and ears.

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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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The simple shapes of stories…

From Rags to Riches to Man in a Hole, Cinderella to Oedipus – you can draw the emotional journey of archetypal stories in a single simple line:

As Kurt Vonnegut says, “the simple shapes of stories… are beautiful.” So simple, as Kurt brilliantly shows, that you can map them out in minutes with chalk on board. And so beautiful that we keep coming back to them time after time. Kurt again, on the Man in a Hole story: “Somebody gets into trouble, gets outs of it again. People love that story. They never get sick of it.” So much so that it’s apparently the most popular storyline when it comes to Hollywood blockbusters.

So if you’re looking to write the next big movie hit, or indeed to craft a corporate story with mass appeal, you could do a lot worse than follow that down-then-up Man in a Hole trajectory. But of course, stories come in many different shapes and sizes. We’re not always looking to smash the box office.

Whatever your story, keep it simple, make it beautiful – follow your line.

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Change the ending…

In these uncertain times, simple words put together well carry much weight. Whether it is Captain Tom’s “Remember, tomorrow is a good day, tomorrow you will maybe find everything will be much better than today…”, Duke Ellington’s irrepressibly upbeat “What I do tomorrow will be the best thing I’ve ever done…”, or this gem from C.S. Lewis: “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

The great thing about all these thoughts is that they never lose their relevance or power to inspire. They remain as universal and heart-warming as sunshine.

So here’s to Tom, Duke and Clive (yes, Clive). Let’s all take heart from their warmth and wisdom.

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Living in English…

In a recent episode of Open Book, Isabel Allende touched on the long and the short of today’s storytelling:

“Literature has changed – it has become much more direct, more visual. There is less space and patience from the readers – for baroque literature, for long sentences, for very long family sagas. That was what people were reading in the 80s, but not any more. So the world has changed, literature has changed, and me too, because I live in English. In Spanish, to the say the same thing, it takes us, like, five paragraphs. Because, because we go around, beat around the bush, we are polite, we think that being too direct is rude. In English, it’s the other way around. You cannot test the person’s patience. You just go to the point immediately.”

There are certainly times when getting to the point is the priority, but I’d say that in English there is still not only room but also a fair degree of appetite to take people along with a long story. Living in English, for me, is essentially about being open to all kinds of storytelling. Long and short. Direct and less direct. Like the look and the feel of a story, the length should be led by the tale that needs to be told.

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Conscious start-up stories…

With start-ups, the FT’s Andrew Hill notes, “the temptation to storm forward and tweak your principles later is strong.” Move fast, break things, grow grow grow – leave thinking about all that core stuff till sometime later, maybe never. Yet as Mr Hill points out, it’s “better to establish strong values early”. That way, you limit the possibility of chaotic rudderless acts having disastrous consequences. You also up your chances of recruiting and retaining talented people with strong principles of their own – good responsible start-ups attract good responsible folk. Hence venture capital fund Atomico is now running “conscious scaling” workshops for founders of the companies it backs and for its investment partners.

So establishing strong values early is vital. Not only establishing them but articulating them in a clear, compelling, characterful way that everyone involved can rally around and build on.

And the great thing is, this doesn’t have to mean pressing pause on your forward motion. With the right help, you can distil and articulate your core story in synch with your early stage expansion. So your stellar growth gets you where you really want to go. Sooner, too.

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A safe space for stupidity…

On a recent trip to LA, I was held captive in a quiet corner of The Broad by William Kentridge’s brilliant Second-Hand Reading. In six or so minutes of animated words, images and music, the work takes you on a magical journey which is both substantial and light-touched, heavy-souled and uplifting. I happily watched it again and again, each time sensing something new in the looping lyrical storytelling.

In a TEDx talk, William Kentridge describes how “ideas come into the studio and meet charcoal, paper, ink…” This fluid, handmade “thinking in material” is core to his art. And so, in turn, is the task “to find the less good idea. One knows the danger of confident men with their good ideas, and the damage this does every time. Give yourself over to the logic of the material… The main idea gets pushed to the side and other things emerge from the process of working… the less good ideas… This is key in the studio – to allow a space for this to emerge… to allow the studio to be a safe space for stupidity…”

So for anyone struck dumb by the terrors of the blank page, or indeed convinced of the perfection of their opening line, take a leaf out of Mr Kentridge’s book. Start writing. Be stupid. Goof about a bit. Get your hands inky. The less good ideas will emerge, and who knows – they may well prove to be great.

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I will always remember when…

In the Serpentine Gallery a work of art by Faith Ringgold stopped me in my tracks:

Woman on a Bridge #1 of 5: Tar Beach weaves magic with canvas and quilt, colour and words. These words:

I will always remember when the stars fell down around me and lifted me up above the George Washington Bridge.

I could see our tiny rooftop with Mommy and Daddy and Mr & Mrs Honey our next door neighbors, still playing cards as if nothing was going on, and BeBe, my baby brother, laying real still on the mattress, just like I told him to, his eyes like huge flood-lights tracking me through the sky.

Sleeping on Tar Beach was magical. Laying on the roof in the night with stars and skyscraper buildings all around me made me feel rich, like I owned all that I could see. The bridge was my most prized possession.

Daddy said the George Washington Bride was the longest and most beautiful bridge in the world and that it opened in 1931 on the very day I was born. Daddy worked on the bridge hoisting cables. Since then, I’ve wanted that bridge to be mine.

Now I have claimed it. All I had to do was fly over it for it to be mine forever. I can wear it like a giant diamond necklace, or just fly over it and marvel at its sparkling beauty. I can fly, yes fly. Me, Cassie Louise Lightfoot, only eight years old and in the third grade and I can fly.

That means I am free to go wherever I want to for the rest of my life. Daddy took me to see the Union Building he is working on. He can walk on steel girders high up in the sky and not fall. They call him the cat.

But still he can’t join the Union because Granpa wasn’t a member. Well Daddy is going to own that building cause I am gonna fly over it and give it to him. Then it won’t matter that he’s not in their ole Union or whether he’s Colored or a half breed Indian like they say.

He’ll be rich and won’t have to stand on 24 story high girders and look down. He can look up at his building going up. And Mommy won’t cry all winter when Daddy goes to look for work, and doesn’t come home. And Mommy can laugh and sleep late like Mrs Honey and we can have ice cream every night for dessert.

Next I’m going to fly over the ice cream factory just to make sure we do. Tonight we’re going up to Tar Beach. Mommy is roasting peanuts and frying chicken and Daddy will bring home a watermelon. Mr and Mrs Honey will bring the beer and their old green card table. And then the stars will fall around me and I will fly to the Union Building.

I’ll take BeBe with me. He has threatened to tell Mommy and Daddy if I leave him behind. I have told him it’s very easy, anyone can fly. All you need is somewhere to go that you can’t get to any other way. The next thing you know, you’re flying among the stars.

Personal and universal, imagined and real, timeless and of its time – Tar Beach is quite simply a brilliant story. And happily, it’s one you can buy in book form.

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Smashing records on the ‘Old Cope’ track…

My local park has in recent years been steadily spruced up. The latest enhancements include renovating the clock tower, opening a small cafe and placing on the surrounding benches a series of plaques cast confidently in iron, such as this one, featuring Victorian running champ Charles Westhall:

A fine example of civic storytelling, they highlight the rich and varied history of the park.

Good to see stories helping to build stronger attachments to our public spaces.

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Gardening, economics, murder…

“No matter what you’re talking about – gardening, economics, murder – you’re telling a story. Every sentence should lead to the next sentence. If you say a dull sentence, people have the right to turn off.” Wise words from one of the great storytellers of 20th century affairs, Alistair Cooke, courtesy of John Yorke’s Into the woods: How Stories Work And Why We Tell Them.

Storytelling is sense making. And as Alistair Cooke consistently demonstrated, not least through his 2,869 Letters from America, the best storytelling is both enlightening and enjoyable.

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Something delicious…

“There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story,” wrote Beatrix Potter. “You never quite know where they’ll take you.”

As the creator of Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and countless other classic tales points out, stories are adventures. And like all adventures, if you don’t depart you’re never going to have one. So pick up your pen and head off across the page. Who knows where you’ll end up. Perhaps Beirut. Potentially Gallipoli. Maybe even both places at once – after all, anything’s possible in the wonderful world of stories.

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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.

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I love porridge, but…

I love porridge, but as Philip Pullman points out, it’s not the thing to aim to cook up when you’re creating stories: “I enjoy the process of constructing a story and making it better… You have to hear what you’re writing. Because prose isn’t simply a sort of porridge with no structure. It’s got a metrical structure, and if you’re not aware of it, you damn well ought to be.”

Steve Reich, in the BBC’s Tones, Drones and Arpeggios – The Magic of Minimalism, says something very similar in terms of music making: “All great music is founded on some very strong structural development and creation. Without the marriage of the thinking process and the emotional process, then, it doesn’t matter.”

So here’s to the structure in stories. An unsung hero, it’s rarely the first thing we think of when we’re caught up in the magic of an amazing tale, not least because it’s often intentionally buried or hidden backstage. But in all the best stories it’s there, working hard behind the scenes to help bring the story to life.

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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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The donkeys gallop…

Just in time for the long weekend, a treasure trove of words and images in the form of postcards from the past. Tom Jackson’s Twitter account and soon-to-be-published book, lets us glimpse myriad holiday stories of yesteryear. Stories such as these:

The donkeys gallop and once I nearly fell off. I bet you wish you were here with me, don’t you?’

‘I suppose you heard about our plane catching fire?’

Filtered through the come-what-may sunny outlook of people on their hols, like all great stories they catch your attention. But it’s a bitter sweet experience – the stories are inevitably unfinished, leaving you hungry to find out more. Why didn’t you fall off the donkey? How fast do they gallop? How did the plane catch fire? Are you OK? Questions, questions. More postcards, please.

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Visual plots…

Maps are on my mind this month, not least thanks to the treasure trove of charts and other cartographic wonders on display at the British Library’s Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line. Two of my favourites from the exhibition were both tourism maps, but each very different from the other. One was for 1950s Alicante, all sunshine and sailing boats; the other was for 1947 Hiroshima, showing in chilling grey the A-bomb impact area.

“Our best way of sharing knowledge – whether it’s a physical representation of land or an energy space variable – it’s a map. Every scientific analysis produces maps or visual plots to look at. That’s the way we intuitively understand the best,” says Naoko Kurahashi Neilson, in Lois Parshley’s article on mapping uncharted territories.

Whether or not they’re the best route to understanding, good maps can certainly be great sense makers – brilliant visual plots for the stories that bring us together, set us apart and spur us on.

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Three funny sounding words…

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.

Funny or not, there’s a lot to be said for the power of three, for example in adding melody and memorability to your writing, and in creating a groundbreaking way to give everyone, everywhere a simple address.

So in distilling your story and/or articulating your promise, it’s no bad thing to go for three distinctive words. Funny sounding optional.

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The cat sat on the dog’s mat…

What’s at the heart of a good story?

Who better to answer than the creator of Smiley’s People and countless other gripping tales, John Le Carré: “You take one character, you take another character and you put them in collision. And the collision arises because they have different appetites and you begin to get the essence of drama. The cat sat on the mat is not a story; the cat sat on the dog’s mat is the beginning of an exciting story.”

And of a classic ad for real fires. Woof woof, miaow miaow, squeak.

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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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For me it started with sunshine fingers…

A beautiful poem by Gilda Hanson, a very promising young poet deservedly commended in the Agincourt 600 competition. I’m very proud to say she is also my daughter.

Outcast
by Gilda Hanson

Thank you
I have been waiting for this moment
For 600 years
Alone

For me it started
With sunshine fingers
And soldiers getting ready
Like children
On their first day at school
Morning minds aching with worry
About the day ahead

The French army stood
Like bulls ready to charge
Blocking our way

We were silent
Full of fatigue and fear

I heard my heart
Cast out of steel
Thumping

An unsteady hand
Grabbed my body
Placed me in the arms
Of a long yew bow
Drew me back
And let me go

And I SOARED!
As high as the heavens

Beside me
My brothers and sisters
Bodkins, swallowheads
An army of arrows in flight

Below me
Swords danced
A chaos of screams
Shouts, yells
Of mud, blood and guts

And down my fellow arrows arched
A waterfall of death

But I flew on
And on
Until I fell
To pierce the heart
Of a destitute ditch

And there I lay
An outcast arrow
Alone
Save for time
Marching on
Like soldiers to battle

So thank you
For finding me
For taking me home
For listening to my story
And for giving me hope

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Can a crocodile play cricket?…

“Computers can do some of the toughest tasks in the world but they cannot perform some of those that seem most simple to us mere humans,” writes Walter Isaacson in an article sparked by the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game. “Ask Google a hard question such as, “What is the depth of the Red Sea?” and it will instantly respond, “7,254ft”, something even your smartest friends don’t know. Ask it an easy one such as, “Can a crocodile play cricket?” and it will have no clue, even though a toddler could tell you, after a bit of giggling.”

I’m not so sure the toddler’s answer is the end of it. Indeed the answer is not a simple binary yes/no, it is a potentially multi-taled unending yesnomaybe. The difference here is that, unlike computers now or any time soon, we can make sense of simple and complex questions alike through stories – our wonderfully human form of communication. For example, through the story of how the crocodile could indeed play cricket by using its tail as a bat, before promptly bringing the game to an end by eating all its team mates.

There are inevitably attempts to create robot storytellers – Scheherazade, Whim and the like. But as Nicholas Lezard puts it, “Even if one day a computer will pass muster at the level of a sentence, there is no foreseeable way as yet that it will be able to construct a narrative that is both plausible and gripping.”

So despite the inexorable rise in digital firepower, storytellers everywhere can continue to sleep and dream and write soundly. Computers are a long, long way off from crafting tales of crocodiles and cricket.

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The power of stories…

Back in 2007 Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates was only able to sell his pottery bowls for $25 a piece, despite a great deal of time, effort and money going into making them.

“I decided that the reasons were: I’m a nobody, so the bowl is a nothing,” says Theaster. “The bowl looks like lots of other bowls that are mass produced you can buy for even cheaper than $25; the bowl has no magical context that would help get it valued in other ways. If I could be a somebody; if I could elevate [the bowl] beyond the everyday context, would people value it more?”

So Theaster set about creating that all-important magical context in the form of an imaginary mentor with an intriguing and appealing story to match. Meet Yamaguchi, a gifted Japanese potter who fled Hiroshima for Mississippi, where he married a black woman and created a unique ceramic style blending Asian and African-American techniques.

This carefully crafted fiction paid dividends. Theaster/Yamaguchi’s bowls began selling for far more than $25, for people weren’t buying the pottery so much as the character and story surrounding it. They were buying into the magical context – the brand in other words. For all great brands are essentially great stories. Therein lies their power.

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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.

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Lovable letters…

I’ve just added to my Christmas list Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells A Story, a mighty fine sounding new book by Michael Rosen.

“Writing this book has been a fascinating journey,” says Mr Rosen. “The story of our alphabet turns out to be a complex tug of war between the people who want to own our language and the people who use it. I know which side I’m on.”

Me too, and I can’t wait to read these stories of A to Z. Thanks Santa!

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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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Why add the adjective?…

In 1956, sci-fi horror doyen Richard Matheson wrote a story he called The Shrinking Man. When Hollywood came to make the movie they couldn’t resist mucking with the title: in 1957 The Incredible Shrinking Man was released. It went on to become a cult classic but Mr Matheson was understandably irked by that extra word: “It’s already pretty incredible that a guy is shrinking!” he said. “Why add the adjective?”

A neat reminder to leave out what you don’t need in. Although, on reflection, you could make a case for keeping that “incredible” in as it adds a certain melodic rhythm to the title.

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Beware the lumbagain…

Great to see that BBC2’s short story competition for children had around 90,000 entries. Including Cloud Boy, a rather brilliant tale that turns raindrops into people, written by my daughter Gilly :).

Great to see also that these young authors share The Bard’s predeliction for inventing new words, adding to the richness of our lovable language. Words like lumbagain – a ghost who makes people dull and boring. What a wonderful twist on the grand tradition of scary spooks, and what a fantastically fitting word for said ghost – a mighty fine combination of meaning and melody. Imagine one lumbering after you, gaining ground surprisingly fast…

Beware the lumbagain!

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Beautiful lies…

If you want to tell the truth, tell tales. Facts alone are not enough – you need fiction. Back in 1861, Charles Reade brought this vividly to life in the opening lines of his novel The Cloister and the Hearth…

“Not a day passes over the earth, but men and women of no note do great deeds, speak great words, and suffer noble sorrows. Of these obscure heroes…the greater part will never be known…their lives and characters lie hidden from nations in the annals that record them. The general reader cannot feel them, they are presented so curtly and coldly…they are not like living breathing stories appealing to the heart…nor can he understand them…for epitomes are not narratives, as skeletons are not human figures… Here, then, the writer of fiction may be of use to the public – as an interpreter…

There is a musty chronicle, written in intolerable Latin, and in it a chapter where every sentence holds a fact. Here is told, with harsh brevity, the strange history of a pair, who lived untrumpeted, and died unsung, four hundred years ago; and lie now, as unpitied, in that stern page, as fossils in a rock. Thus, living or dead, fate is still unjust to them. For if I can but show you what lies below that dry chronicler’s words, methinks you will correct the indifference of centuries, and give those two sore-tried souls a place in your heart – for a day.”

As Charles Reade attests, to free what really matters, what you really want to get across, from the deadweight of dry facts, you need imagination – that flight of the mind that can uncover and convey the hidden meanings, the true messages at the heart of your story.

For fiction is, after all, the truth wrapped up in a beautiful lie.

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The best story wins…

Cold hard facts or clear compelling stories? When it comes to really understanding our world, it’s the latter that matter.

Writing in the FT, John Kay picks up on the age-old power of stories to help us make sense of things: “Probabilistic reasoning has become the dominant method of structured thinking about problems involving risk and uncertainty – to such an extent that people who do not think this way are derided as incompetent and irrational. Yet this probabilistic approach, a recent intellectual development, was heavily implicated in the 2008 financial crisis. Legal systems have evolved over hundreds if not thousands of years…to establish the degree of confidence in a narrative, not to measure a probability in a model. Such narrative reasoning is the most effective means humans have developed of handling complex and ill-defined problems… We cope with these situations by telling stories, and we base decisions on their persuasiveness.”

So stories rather than stats are the great sensemakers. And as John Kay implies and Life of Pi highlights, the best story wins.

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Charismatic communication…

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.