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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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The speech of a tiger shark…

Every time we communicate we use a tone of voice, and that tone creates a sense of character. Whether we’re talking personally or as a multibillion dollar corporate body – none of us likes to be taken the wrong way. So the task with tone is to get our true character across.

I spend a fair bit of my time with clients helping them define and use a tone that fits their character. So they can give customers, investors and other stakeholders a clear sense of who they are and why they’re different. Alongside core purpose and culture, tone is critical. A galvanising core purpose, so you know exactly where you are going and why you want to get there; a strong values-based culture, so you journey together as one through thick and thin; and the right tone, so you communicate your true self clearly and characterfully – these are the three essentials at the heart of all great businesses.

Talking of truly characterful communication, here’s a brilliant take on the power of tone, courtesy of Jayne Cortez: “The speech of a tiger shark is not like the bark of an eagle fish…”

Tiger shark, eagle fish, plain old human being, bright new business – no matter who you are: find your own voice, and use it.

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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 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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Libération’s lament…

Libération’s lament that its shareholders’ plans would reduce the paper to “a mere brand” reminds me of the misconception running through No Logo, Naomi Klein’s critique of brands from back in the day – the notion that a brand is something other, something unwelcome if not evil, done to you by someone else. In short, an ill-intentioned imposition. It isn’t. It is part of you – your brand is your character. Like it or not, like them or not, we all have brands/characters. We simply need to understand and communicate them in truthful and enjoyable ways.

Like many of the most interesting aspects of life, commercial or otherwise, this is a never-ending process, a living enterprise, an ongoing endeavour. So don’t duck, swerve or lament your brand, embrace and make the most of it.

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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.