Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Sheep and goats

Tomorrow morning early I’m leaving for Geneva to see my 18 year-old son who’s working for the winter season at a French ski resort. I won’t pretend that I don’t envy him.

Last time I flew to Geneva I was struck by two advertisements along the walkway from the aircraft to the terminal. The first was for a Swiss merchant bank. It had no imagery, simply bands of burgundy, gold and black, along with a classic serif typeface, to intimate privilege and exclusivity. ‘Imagine a bank that combines strength with dedicated service…’ it exhorted us. That was all. It was banal and ineffably smug.

Imagine one that doesn’t, I thought, moved by irritation to apply the principle of opposites. It’s an old but handy trick for separating the sheep from the goats. If the opposite of what is stated raises a hollow groan or a weary sigh, then the writer is probably, to continue in agricultural vein, trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, or at the very least a virtue out of the unremarkable. Strength and dedicated service, one would think, are the sine qua non of any Swiss bank. That copywriter should have been made to eat raclette till his giblets congealed.

Straight ahead, at the end of the walkway, was another advertisement, a huge and arresting photograph of the Dents du Midi raising their snowy ramparts into a clear blue sky. ‘Bienvenu à notre usine’ ran the copyline. ‘Welcome to our factory.’ In the bottom corner was the Evian logo. That was all. But what a difference…

Perhaps most tellingly, it was the advertisement that had not one iota of imagination behind it that used the word ‘imagine’, whereas the Evian ad had plenty, and it trusted that we’d use ours to get their message, witty and thought-provoking as it was. The ability to appeal to the imagination is one of the essential qualities of all good writing, but it also takes imagination to achieve it; you can’t simply command people to switch theirs on. But then one ad was for a Swiss bank, the other a French multinational…

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Reading for survival

Last week I learned that my young adult novel, The Reckoning, has made it onto a government-sponsored list of 250 books for teenagers. Every secondary school in England will receive their choice of 15 titles from the list, free, as part of a scheme to encourage reading among an age group whose aversion to it is notorious.

To make it easier for school librarians to choose, the titles are arranged under themed headings: boggle, experiment, explore, fast forward, fear, go wild, imagine, indulge, investigate, laugh, look back, play, spy, survive, think, train. Mine, a thriller, comes under ‘survive’.

As I looked at the list, I found myself picturing the study in an executive home, as described to me by someone who had once been into one. It contained an empty desk and chair, an exercise bike, and a bookcase with two books in it: a computer manual and something along the lines of Marketing Made Easy. Today it might also have housed The Da Vinci Code.

It’s easy as a lifelong reader to be dismissive of non-readers, when there are plenty of other equally valuable ways of passing your time. But I can’t help thinking that if more people in the business world read good writing, they might become better at it themselves.

Picture Lord Mandelson dreaming up a similar scheme for British business. The list of headings would, in fact, be remarkably similar to the one for teenagers: experiment, explore, fast forward, fear and so on. And the titles themselves? I’d welcome suggestions (leave a comment), but under ‘survive’ I would certainly want to include Hilary Mantel’s magnificent, Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall. It's a tough but enthralling read and, as a study of self-preservation, persuasion and the relentless pursuit of power, without equal. I’m sure the Business Secretary would heartily endorse it.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Sob story

‘The sob is in the story. It mustn’t be in the voice.’ So said Antonia Fraser on Radio 4’s Front Row this week. She was speaking of her difficulty in reading aloud the love poem by her late husband, Harold Pinter, with which she concludes her memoir of their life together, Must You Go?

She had been persuaded to read the book for radio, she explained. In the end it took her several attempts to master the neutral voice that concealed her personal feelings and left listeners the room they needed to discover the emotion in the poem for themselves.

I wrote last week about trusting that people will ‘get it’. This is the same. If the story’s strong enough and the writing good enough, no one needs another voice metaphorically holding up cue cards with exclamation marks or sad faces. But it’s a lesson many organisations still have to learn. The temptation to tell the world how innovative or robust or trustworthy or, most laughably, how passionate they are continues to seem irresistible. Yet it invariably sounds like a ham performance which at worst stretches credulity, at best provokes the response: ‘I think I’ll decide that for myself, thank you.’

‘Show, don’t tell’ is one of the first principles of fiction. Storytellers have known from time immemorial that an idea or message revealed has infinitely more power than one baldly stated. For many organisations, business case studies can be a nod in that direction; though even then the fear that people will somehow miss the point can result in the ‘lesson’ being spelt out at the end in bold type.

But the truth is that we learn from stories as naturally as we breathe, whether they hold sobs or laughter, facts or ideas; and we learn best when the author isn’t leaning over our shoulder pointing things out. The stories just need to be told with conviction – passion, if you prefer - for as the American poet Robert Frost said, in a nice corollary to Antonia Fraser’s bon mot: ‘no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader’.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Trampled by mammoths

Speak of resolutions in this season, and one thinks of those backbone-stiffening intentions with which we traditionally enter a new year. We resolve to do things; things recognised, even acknowledged, but previously undone. We firm our minds towards some new, and usually improving, task.

But resolution can also mean that we wish to resolve things already partly done, to tidy up the loose threads that are hanging over, perhaps, from the old year; the unfinished business of before. If this is a time of year for stock-taking, for looking backward and forward at once, both lines of sight can be epitomised in that single word - resolution.

My resolve today, as I look out over Edinburgh rooftops to Fife, a crumpled, snowy counterpane, is to celebrate the potential for ambiguity, the multiplicity of meaning that helps make our language so rich, while seemingly causing the pen to tremble in so many business writers’ hands.

The business world is a literal one where things must say precisely what they mean, and ambiguity is a form of suicide. Unless things are made factually explicit, delineated in all their fullness with a cold chisel in hard stone, the poor reader’s feeble mind will wander off and get lost in the graveyard. This fear ignores the critical fact that, as with body language so with written language, we are hard-wired to ‘get it’, to read the silences, interpret the things unsaid, peer into the cracks and sift through the ambiguities. Were it otherwise we would have been trampled by mammoths a long, long time ago.

Which brings me back to a point I’ve often made before: that organisations can afford to sound much more like people than they think – flawed, uncertain and, dare I say it, unresolved. We’ll believe them and even like them all the more for it. Happy New Year!