Thursday, 17 December 2009

An act of creation

My colleague John Simmons blogged a couple of days ago on the Writers & Artists site about the significance of the place you write being as much to do with mental as physical location. I agree with him. I’m writing this in a busy Starbucks by Edinburgh’s Haymarket Station, on a snowy December evening. But more of that in the new year …

Last weekend I went to the Turner Prize show at Tate Britain and marvelled at Richard Wright’s winning creation. A vast gold-leaf fresco of mesmerising power and beauty, ‘creation’ seems the right word for it because that is just what it conjured for me: the Creation. Minutely detailed shapes seethe, swirl and flow in a gorgeous torrent of gold across a huge expanse of white wall. It has an almost religious intensity, like something by Blake or Michelangelo. I could have gazed at it for hours.

Not so the programme. Here is one sentence: ‘Wright accepts and virtually reverses the effects of attrition, re-assessing correlative notions of value and preservation, a virtue running across his practice.’ There are, in fact, three things you need to know about Richard Wright and that, whatever it means, is not one of them.

Sadly, this is language that seems designed to exclude, not because people are too dumb to understand it - it’s actually pretentious twaddle that is mostly not worth saying anyway; but because it exudes intellectual superiority, whose underlying message is that certain great cultural experiences are beyond the reach of ordinary people. That doesn’t seem to me like a very sensible or enlightened communications strategy for the twenty-first century.

And the three things about Richard Wright? First, he’s steeped in the history of art and draws on influences as old as they are wide. Second, he never knows what he will create until he steps into the space where he’s going to exhibit. Third, his work is impermanent; he makes it straight onto the wall and paints it out again when the show ends (in this case on 3 January).

Go and see it before he does. And have a Happy Christmas!

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Christmas shopping

I'm conscious that I ended last week’s post on a negative generalisation, making the point that in the world of business, bad writing so often puts paid to good ideas.

But precisely because so much of it is so poor, it’s all too easy to dismiss the genre completely; when in fact there are plenty of individuals in the world of business who write extremely well, and a small but growing number of organisations that really understand the value of language.

Seeking to redress the balance, I went Christmas shopping today with my eyes peeled for good examples. Since my first port of call happened to be John Lewis, I didn’t have to wait very long. The famous slogan ‘Never knowingly undersold’, and the accompanying pledge to refund the difference if you find the same item cheaper elsewhere, have stood the store in good stead for nearly 85 years.

‘At John Lewis we don’t just define value by price,’ they say. ‘Though our prices are some of the most competitive on the high street, we also offer incredible value in the quality of our products, as well as our expert, highly professional service.’

The thing is, it’s all true. And we believe it partly because the experience of shopping in the store confirms it; partly because it chimes with everything we know about the business ethos of the John Lewis Partnership (whose 67,000 ‘partners’ received a bonus for 2007/8 worth 20% of their gross salaries).

John Lewis’s signage and leaflets are brilliantly written because the language they use is simple, direct and, above all, honest. It’s an organisation whose voice is in harmony with its head and its heart. That makes for compelling communication.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Advanced magic

The visionary Arthur C Clarke once said, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ I spent an intriguing day this week in the presence of just such magic, at the Informatics Department of Edinburgh University.

Informatics is the science of information and information processing. If that sounds dry, picture a lab festooned with cameras and microphones which record every word uttered and every movement made by each member of any group that gathers there – essentially an intelligent meeting room that can capture the discussions and interactions that take place in it, and analyse them by practically any set of criteria you care to think of.

Alternatively, imagine a table top which is also a multi-touch screen from which you and the other people sitting around it can individually summon information or entertainment, share knowledge and communicate, or even play a game together, all by lightly pressing the glass in front of you.

A small, curious group of us were there as token consumers to brainstorm possible commercial applications for these technologies. We hadn’t the faintest idea how they worked, and to that extent they were magic; the things they were capable of doing seemed miraculous.

It struck me that good writing can also seem miraculous in its ability to touch the heart and stir the soul, enliven the mind and ignite the imagination. Yet, effortless and transparent as it might appear, it’s similarly underpinned by the application of, in this case, a finely honed craft rather than technology, to an idea that has germinated in the fertile recesses of someone’s brain.

And when the craft, like the technology, is not sufficiently well developed the idea itself is likely to wither - as, sadly, business writing all too often demonstrates.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Goethe got it

I sometimes work in my local library, the AK Bell in Perth. On the walls of its café are quotations about literature and writing from famous literary figures. There’s one by Goethe that often catches my eye: ‘When ideas fail, words come in very handy.’

The first time I saw it I was confused. What are words if not the expression of ideas? But then I started to think about an exercise that’s well known to teachers of creative writing, and that we often use with business writers too.

Sometimes known as automatic writing (though I avoid the expression – it makes me think of séances), it involves writing continuously, in longhand, on a given subject for three or four minutes.

At its best it produces a stream of consciousness, unfettered by the remembrance of rules or the anticipation of readership; and the results are often surprising, because Goethe was right - the simple act of putting words down on the page, one after the other, fast and with as little thought as possible, becomes a kind of lubricant for the imagination.

It can work on a purely personal level, unlocking memories and emotions, but it can also work creatively as a way of getting at trapped or unrealised ideas. And in the world of work, where the prospect of a report, or even an email, can sometimes seem impossibly daunting, five minutes letting your thoughts flow freely onto paper, safe in the knowledge that no one else will read them, can be a wonderful way of priming the creative, or even simply the narrative, pump.

Next time you’re stuck, try it.

On the subject of Goethe, and à propos last week’s posting about constraints, Tessa Ransford, founder of the Scottish Poetry Library, sent me her splendid translation of Goethe’s Natur und Kunst. Click here to read it and the original.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Creative constraints

I listened to an intriguing programme on Radio Four yesterday while driving south down the M6 in horizontal rain. Presented by the miscellaneous Ben Schott, it documented the Oulipo movement, one of whose members, Georges Perec, famously wrote a novel from which the letter ‘e’ was entirely absent – a so-called lipogram.

Founded in France in the 1960s, the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle held as its central philosophical plank the notion that constraints encourage enjoyment and creativity. So Perec’s experiment was true to its aims, as were those of the members who wrote sonnets with interchangeable lines, palindromic poems and, the one I liked best, texts in which each noun was substituted with the one that came seven entries after it in the dictionary - with particularly hilarious results when applied to the opening sentence of the Book of Genesis.

The creative value of constraint is a theme that my friend and fellow writer John Simmons has regularly explored, most recently in 26 ways of looking at a Blackberry (A&C Black, £9.99), in which he challenges himself to rewrite a piece of bland corporate text in 26 different ways ranging from a fairy tale to a presidential speech, a text message to a song lyric. The point is not so much to improve on the original but to show how the strictures of different forms can make you think harder about what you’re saying and bring life to dull expression or tired ideas.

At work we may not choose to experiment like the Oulipo writers but we do face constraints all the time in the form of deadlines, word counts, specific audiences to be addressed, themes to be followed or arguments to be made. And they can help us to be more creative simply by forcing us to focus and direct our energy; while the alternative, the blank page, can be paralysing in its very lack of boundaries.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Healing talk

Six months ago I ran a workshop for a group of doctors, healthcare workers and former cancer patients. The object was to consider how to improve the quality of information that people receive at different stages along the cancer ‘journey’.

We looked at examples which ranged from the very informative to the virtually unintelligible, the simple to the terrifying. The one thing that many of them had in common was a tendency to speak in the clinical, rather peremptory, often condescending and largely masculine language of the consultant physician. What an equally large number lacked was any kind of empathy.

Yesterday, I received an email from one of the workshop participants, an oncologist, enclosing a copy of a leaflet that she and her team had subsequently written ‘in a very different style from the one it would have been without your input’.

It was clear, direct, warm, empathetic, authoritative, helpful, respectful. It treated the readers as human beings, it subtly acknowledged their predicament, and it spoke to them as equals. I simply couldn’t fault it and I don’t mind admitting that it made me feel immensely proud.

The NHS has mountainous lessons to learn about language, as anyone will know who has ever been summoned to a hospital appointment (‘you are required to attend …’), let alone been handed a ‘patient information’ leaflet on any subject.

And the starting point, the absolute foundation of any learning, is that language can, should, must be part of the healing process. As my oncologist friend so beautifully demonstrated, it just takes a little imagination, a bit of graft, and the will to connect. The opposite doesn’t really bear thinking about.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Significant detail

In need of escape I recently read Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo. It’s a long time since I’ve read a thriller and it took me a little while to get used to the style – the reportage and long passages of exposition. Once I did, I was hooked. The story is utterly gripping, twists like an eel, and is cleverly rooted in a social issue that few people could take exception to – the abuse of women.

But there was one thing that grated throughout, and that was the naming of brands; not Fleming-like exotica - cocktails, wrist-watches, sports cars - but the terminally mundane such as second-hand cars and computer software.

Irrelevant detail with a weird, faintly macho whiff about it, this did nothing for plot, characterisation or colour. It was a world away from the significant detail that illuminates good writing by lending plausibility, emotional weight, shades of definition.

I once interviewed an old fiddle-maker who showed me a caliper he’d made from the metal heel of his boot, a piece of an old steel ruler, a welding rod and the top of a tube of eye ointment. Writers dream of that kind of information because it’s impossible to make up.

But businesses have trouble distinguishing between the two. So often business literature is full of information the reader really doesn’t need. Project names, department names, job titles – these are the equivalents of Larsson’s Volvos; while the significant detail that would really bring the writing to life is nowhere to be seen.

Once again it's down to being able to make the imaginative leap of being both writer and reader simultaneously, something that even the most successful thriller-writers, let alone business writers, often fail to manage.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Warren, Doris and Bertie

Warren Buffett (profiled by Evan Davis on BBC2 last Monday) was the world’s richest man until his chum Bill Gates knocked him off the perch. Even so, he remains the world’s most successful investor. Previously known as ‘the sage of Omaha’, he is now revered as the ‘oracle of Omaha’, so good is his investment record.

But prodigious wealth, and a fondness for bridge, are where the similarities between the two end. Gates, the über-nerd, controls a vast and glossy empire from Microsoft’s sculpted headquarters outside Seattle. Buffett, the hayseed from the heart of the mid-west, makes his decisions from Berkshire Hathaway’s scruffy office in downtown Omaha, Nebraska.

Buffett doesn’t buy fashionable companies, only those that are well managed. He has never bought a technology stock because he doesn’t understand the business. He owns a modest suburban house and drives a second-hand car. His company website looks like a first-year design project, while the Berkshire Hathaway AGM has all the sophistication of a country fayre, where 30,000 adoring shareholders come to eat ice cream, drink cherry coke and sit at the feet of their guru.

For all the homespun veneer, Buffett in his own way is probably just as much of a nerd as Gates – undoubtedly brilliant, probably a little autistic, certainly obsessive-compulsive. But there’s one thing he has mastered, which is plain speaking. In 1998, such is his standing in the investment world, he was invited to write a preface to the US Security and Exchange Commission’s Plain English Handbook. He concluded with this ‘one unoriginal but useful tip’:

‘Write with a specific person in mind. When writing Berkshire Hathaway's annual report, I pretend that I'm talking to my sisters. I have no trouble picturing them: Though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them. My goal is simply to give them the information I would wish them to supply me if our positions were reversed. To succeed, I don't need to be Shakespeare; I must, though, have a sincere desire to inform. No siblings to write to? Borrow mine: Just begin with "Dear Doris and Bertie."’

For that alone he gets my vote. If you have a moment, look at Warren Buffett's Letters to Berkshire Shareholders, especially the letter for 2008 when the recession started to bite. There is nothing else like them.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Heat, dust and truth

We took off from Jodhpur at 2.45pm on Tuesday and climbed, rather slowly it seemed, over the Rajasthani desert on the first leg of our journey home to Scotland. After fifteen minutes, and five thousand feet at best, there came an announcement: we had a ‘minor technical fault’ and would be returning to Jodhpur.

For the rest of the afternoon we drank chilled water and looked on in hopeful ignorance as an earnest knot of uniformed types ferreted around in the plane’s innards. Then, at 6.00pm, came the second announcement: we were grounded for the night.

This meant that several of us would miss our international connections in Delhi. Agitated conversations took place in hot, crowded offices. The ground staff were variously evasive, defensive, rude, conciliatory, unintelligible and plain confused. Jodhpur is not Heathrow. It is not even Exeter. It might conceivably be Stornoway with palm trees. This was a situation they had clearly never been trained for.

Odd bits of information emerged, none of them helpful. A small part, but nonetheless vital for making the propellors go round, had broken. We might or might not have come close to falling out of the sky. The part was in Mumbai from where it might or might not appear sometime during the hours of darkness by road, or plane, or some combination of the two. They might or might not be able to find us overnight accommodation and alternative flights next day.

It’s enough to say here that things got considerably worse before they got better. I’m writing this in Heathrow T5, where I should have been yesterday, and where I’m now also keenly reminded of the debacle over the opening of the new terminal building last year.

So often, it seems, the problem is that information is a jigsaw, with many people holding a couple of pieces each, and no one holding them all. This is when it becomes more important than ever that people treat the information they do hold with integrity.

The truth, from the start, wouldn’t have made our enforced stopover at Jodhpur any more comfortable, but it would have made it a lot less stressful. Yet we all, in different situations, have our own reasons for fearing the truth – and that fear is simply the biggest obstacle to good communication of all.

Friday, 16 October 2009

The train now arriving ...

4.30 am. After five days in the mountains we have spent the last seven hours trying to snatch sleep as the train rattles and sways down from the north.

Now a lady with a singsong voice and cut-glass diction comes on the tannoy. ‘Good morning and welcome. In a short while the train will be arriving at New Delhi railway station. New Delhi is the political capital of India and renowned for its culture. Please dispose of your water bottle to avoid its possible misuse. There is a twenty-four hour foreign exchange at the station for all your currency needs. Thank you.’

John Simmons commented last week that one can understand a lot about a nation's personality from its public service messages. He’s right. So much of India is revealed in this short announcement to the bleary-eyed passengers now stumbling from their bunks.

There is pride, in the Lutyens buildings of administrative New Delhi and the political edifices they house, struggling to govern this practically ungovernable nation of over one billion souls; pride too in India’s brilliantly rich tapestry of music, art, literature, dance, theatre and architecture.

There’s the irresistible urge to issue instructions that wells up from that dusty and deeply bureaucratic crevice in India's soul, though in this case the injunction is futile; the habit of littering is endemic and the infrastructure too inefficient and corrupt to make the slightest impression on it.

And then there’s money. Even at 4.30 am it seems that the urgent daily business of making a rupee has begun. Enterprising porters have leapt onto the still-moving train to present themselves at our compartment door. Taxis and rickshaws wait, engines spluttering, at the station entrance. Embers are being blown up in the hearths of shadowy little food stalls. And, of course, it’s never too early, or too late, to garner a few more tourist dollars.

Finally, there’s politeness and a wish to please, perhaps more evident in the singsong tone than in the words themselves, but there nevertheless; a solid seam of civility present at all levels of Indian society.

This one short message contains a whole bundle of contradictions, and that is where its real character resides. We reveal most about ourselves, nation, organisation or individual, in our contradictions, our complexities; which is doubtless why so many businesses present such a one-dimensional, and ultimately uninteresting, personality to the world.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Indian autumn

It’s one of the great clichés of travel-writing that India is an assault on the senses, but stepping outside the terminal building at Delhi airport, I’m lost for any other way to describe the experience of arriving in the sub-continent.

This is my fourth visit and I’m coming to know and love the pervasively musky smell of spices and vegetation, the thick velvety light at dawn and dusk, the incessant passage and noise of people and vehicles and creatures, the jostling buildings, the garish markets, the chatter of birds, the cows sauntering amid the traffic and rubbish.

But there’s something else that I’m noticing this time, and that’s the words. On every conceivable outdoor surface, moving or static, there are words; thousands of them, like a written overspilling of the great, exuberant Indian conversation that starts every day at sunrise and goes on till moonset.

Slogans, advertisements, injunctions, bylaws, public notices, shop and business signs, graffiti - they plaster houses, offices, stalls, vehicles, hoardings, garden walls, bridges and flyovers. A large bus is a ‘stage carriage’ which is ‘propelled by clean fuel’. A ramshackle pick-up declares that it is ‘redefining distribution’ and a truck's bumper exhorts you to ‘keep distance!’ and ‘horn please!’. A hotel boasts of its ‘lavish lawns’ and ‘poolside parties’. A public park forbids ‘joy riding’ and ‘clothes washing’. And my favourite, whitewashed onto a rock on a hairpin bend in the foothills, warns: ‘Better late, Mister Driver, than the late Mister Driver!’

In the jaded West we know the outdoor conversation to be largely one-sided, dreamt up by admen and clever copywriters, so we tend to see it rather than actually hear it. But in India it’s noisier, less polished, more real; and the babble of those written voices seems almost as loud as the real ones. I’m sure India would be a quieter, and probably a poorer, place without it.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

A ticklish matter

I met my first grandchild on Tuesday. She was four-and-a-bit days old. It also happened to be my sixtieth birthday. What a birthday present. It won't be too long, I expect, before she discovers that she is quisquillosa.

This is the Spanish word for ‘ticklish’, and a lovely word it is (pronounced keeskeeyosa). You can feel it in your mouth. It sounds like a little girl’s giggle.

On our Dark Angels courses we do an exercise that helps to make the point that words have character beyond their meaning; and that in the meaning-obsessed world of business writing, character is frequently overlooked.

So we ask for a favourite word. Invariably, people's responses are influenced as much by sound and rhythm, texture and tone, even how the word looks on the page, as by meaning. We celebrate this, because the character of all good writing, whether business or personal, derives in very large part from the choice of words we make. (If that seems like a statement of the obvious, just read a couple of pages of your insurance or utility company’s annual report.)

When we're in Andalucia we ask for a favourite word in Spanish. Some people are fluent, some have a smattering, some have none. But everyone knows at least one word in Spanish, even it if it’s simply ‘si’ or ‘señor’. So our opening list of Spanish words adds a dash of salsa to our linguistic deliberations. This year, like my grand-daughter, quisquilloso made its debut.

In due course the little girl herself will start to learn a new language, her first. By then she will have a name, one of the most important words in her vocabulary. I hope she’ll grow up to know what it means – names come with their own power. I also hope she’ll like the sound it makes, even the way it looks. Because this will be the first step on a journey that will lead her, if she's fortunate, to the same love of words, the same delight in language, as her grandfather - and, I'm happy to say, her father, my new son-in-law.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

The rain in Spain

I'm on the train to catch a plane to fly to Spain where the rain, I hope, stays mainly on the plain. We, the Dark Angels, will be in the mountains of Andalucia - where fellow writer John Simmons and I make our annual pilgrimage with a group of business people keen to refresh their writing skills.

Far from their offices, they will be immersed for five days in all that is new about a foreign land including, not least, a different language; one they may not know a word of, but from which we will ask them to translate, guided by sound, rhythm and tone alone.

This is a place of cork forests and olive groves, fierce sun and glossy black fighting bulls. Africa is a mere hundred miles away as the vulture soars. The civil war is still within living memory. There is much here to feed the imagination and we will encourage them to produce writing that brims with the colours and textures, the tastes and smells and sounds of southern Spain.

They will create poems and stories, they will write with all their senses engaged, they will discover things about themselves they didn't know. At the end they will go back to work having crossed a linguistic Rubicon. If we've done our job well we will have made it impossible for them ever to return to the corporate equivalents of rain, plain and train - the dreary monotones of so much modern business language.

Still warm from the Andalucian sun, our nine new converts we hope will flex their wings and join the crusade for a few more kind words.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Cherish the stories

There’s a wise storyteller called David Campbell who cuts a distinctive figure about Edinburgh with his kilt and ponytail. ‘Story is the lifeline of human consciousness,’ says David. ‘Stories do not argue. They speak to the heart.’

Smart organisations have discovered this. Stories, they realise, create a sense of belonging, and everyone likes to belong. So they use stories not just to win customers and supporters, but to enthuse and encourage their own people - stories of beginnings and endings, of everyday events, of great achievements and, occasionally, if they're very confident, of failures.

I like this one. The McIlhenny Company of Louisiana is on the skids. Tabasco sales have fallen year on year and the directors are holding a crisis meeting. Enter the tea-boy with his trolley. He sees the grim faces, the plunging graph, and asks what they’re talking about. Priding themselves on their southern openness, they tell him. I know what to do, he says after a moment. Tell us, they humour him. Easy, he replies, make the hole bigger. And they do.

Simple though it is there’s nothing trivial or childish about this story. It doesn’t even set out to make a point – it doesn’t ‘argue’, as David would say - though we draw our own conclusions from it about the value of honesty and the importance of listening. But it does tell of human struggle, of emotions like worry and relief; and so it should, because organisational life doesn’t just echo human experience, it is human experience.

For that reason alone, organisations should cherish their stories like all their other resources. ‘We cannot disagree with someone’s story,’ says David Campbell, ‘but we can listen, we can walk in step and thereby make a little contribution to widening and deepening the understanding between our brothers and sisters.’

At work, as elsewhere in our lives, what could possibly be more important?

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Human capital

I’m a latecomer to the superbly written White House drama series, The West Wing.

In the first series, the deputy chief of staff meets with a black senator who wants the government to start making reparation for slavery. As their exchange grows increasingly heated, the senator describes how his own grandparents were kidnapped in West Africa, transported in appalling conditions and sold onto a plantation.

Clearly discomforted, the deputy chief of staff suggests that the conversation would be better kept in the abstract. But the senator demurs, knowing his emotional case is a powerful one.

Most businesses, like public servants, are fearful of emotion. They like the abstract because abstractions take the heat out of uncomfortable realities. Shrinking markets, for example, seem somehow more palatable than fewer customers.

In certain circles ‘human capital’ is the latest term for employees; the people without whose talents and energy there would be no business. But if it comes to it, you can reduce your capital with an easier conscience than you can lay off your people.

Slaves, of course, were human capital in the most literal sense. It would be salutary for the people who coined the current term to reflect on that for a moment because, as Orwell so brilliantly demonstrated, you can enslave people with language, and particularly the dehumanising language of abstraction, just as easily as you can with chains.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Murder by process

"Viola Tors wanted more community involvement, public hearings, more transparency, a poll, an environmental impact study … She was a killer of wonderful ideas and like so many murderers, she used procedure as a weapon."

Viola Tors features in Liberty, the latest tale from Lake Wobegon by that wise observer of human foibles, Garrison Keillor. A member of her local Fourth of July committee, Viola hails from small-town Minnesota; but one suspects she would be quite at home in the offices of any one of those big organisations where, on any given day, following detailed consultation with partners and stakeholders, major strategies are being identified, designed and implemented in order to initiate short-life project working groups tasked with significant action plans.

Now these processes may be necessary, they may even be essential, but that doesn't mean they make for exciting reading. Expect people outside your organisation to be interested in its procedures and you might as well ask a perfect stranger to take an interest in the workings of your large intestine. Yet forests are felled in order that these rumblings of the corporate gut can be trumpeted to the world at large.

Behind them, more often than not, there are real people with real conviction doing real things, but you would never know it from the language. Indeed it’s sometimes quite hard to figure out what the organisation in question actually does.

And wherever the language of process is allowed to stifle the language of purpose, you can be fairly sure that somewhere not far off there’s the dismal sound of creativity being strangled. Viola Tors would be sharpening her pencil.

Friday, 28 August 2009

'Sir, you have agitated my heart.'

For the last nine years I’ve sat on the board of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the world’s largest literary festival. It has been one of the most enriching experiences of my working life, and every year as August comes to an end, I leave the magical, tented enclosure of Charlotte Square with my head full of ideas and my language sensors rinsed and refreshed.

Ten days ago at her farewell party, Catherine Lockerbie, our remarkable outgoing festival director, told this story. One afternoon she was hovering by the queue in the book-signing tent following a reading by the Chilean-American writer and human rights activist, Ariel Dorfman, who had been speaking movingly about freedom of speech and the horrors of the Pinochet regime. Reaching the front of the queue, a tall, distinguished-looking man stepped forward to shake the writer’s hand and said, in a North American accent, ‘Sir, you have agitated my heart.’

Catherine later learned that he was a banker who, following this encounter in Charlotte Square, had quit his job in the world of finance and gone to work for an aid agency.

That, of course, is the power of language well used, of the word thoughtfully chosen. It can, and should, agitate the heart. And to do so is not the sole prerogative of ‘creative’ writers. Agitating the heart is the essence of all effective human communication, and many of the world’s more successful organisations know it. It’s how they inspire loyalty and commitment among their customers and followers. It’s also where their lesser brethren fail so singularly, with language that wouldn’t agitate a millpond, let alone a human heart. And there’s a corollary: if an organisation shows so little conviction in the way it speaks, one can’t help but wonder how much it has in what it does.

The answer seems simple: before you can agitate other people’s hearts, you have to agitate your own.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Welcome to my blog

I've called it A Few Kind Words because that's the title of a talk I gave recently to a group of HR directors. Paradoxically, it's HR people who are often the unkindest of all in the way they use language at work. Even the description, Human Resources - to reheat an old chestnut - seems to me a kind of relegation. It puts people on a par with the paperclips. In fact it precisely dehumanises them. And it's the dehumanisation of people through language that I try and counter at every turn.

I do so by reminding people that the word kindness originally meant being kin, or kindred, or of the same kind. We are all humankind and we forget it at our peril when we communicate. So we must remember to be kinder to one another. We must remember that when we write something, the person who reads it will be another human being probably much like us. And if we use language that fails to make a human connection, that reduces people and ideas to abstractions, we might as well not have bothered. Language like that is worse than useless, yet the world of work is full of it.

I want this blog to be an antidote to the dead language of business. I want it to be about the colour and rhythm, the emotion and humour that we use quite naturally when we speak to one another. And I want it to be about all the marvellous possibilities that lively, engaging language could bring to our writing lives if only we'd let it. I hope you'll join me on the journey ...