Friday, 28 October 2011

Murder was there none

‘What are the types of people who come on your courses?’ asked a prospective Dark Angels student a couple of days ago.
With last week’s course fresh in my mind I was able to reel off the following list: an archaeologist turned business consultant; a writer of web content for an oil giant; a professor of mental health; a business coach and trainer; a marketing assistant with a firm of fund managers; the owner of a small branding and communications consultancy; an arts curator currently on a Clore leadership programme; and three freelances, one a writer, one a corporate video producer and one a PR agent.
Ten people with extraordinarily different personalities, professional backgrounds and levels of writing experience. A group for whom five nights together in a remote Highland farmhouse might easily have had the makings of an Agatha Christie mystery. But murder was there none. Quite the opposite in fact. They got to know one another and stayed up late drinking, telling stories and singing songs. During the day they listened appreciatively to each other’s writing and supported one another when the going got a little rough. They cooked together and collaborated in pairs on joint writing projects. They embraced fondly, some even shed a tear, when it was time to part. And nearly a week later the emails continue to circulate.
So what actually happened? Was it really just a week long lock-in, a love-in, a bonding session for a non-existent team? No. What happened – what always happens on Dark Angels courses – was that we offered them the freedom and encouragement to discover the connecting power of words. They used words to dig deep into ideas, to reach for half-buried feelings, to say what they really, really meant about their lives, their loves, their work. Through this newly polished lens they could see the words of the world they had temporarily left behind for the lazy, lacklustre, tepid half-truths that so often pass for communication in businesss. And through that newly polished lens they connected with one another, heart, mind and imagination.
That’s the point of Dark Angels and they all got it. To choose the words that make the real human connections, in business, at home or anywhere else. When he came to the final chapter of Howard’s End, EM Forster could have written it just for us. 'Only connect.' It’s all that matters – and now there are ten newly fledged Dark Angels that know it. 

Friday, 21 October 2011

What's the point?

On Tuesday night we took the students on our Dark Angels course to the theatre. We left our lofty perch and plummeted down the hill to Loch Ness, then drove five miles along the lochside to the Victorian community hall in the village of Drumnadrochit (population 813 and known by musicians of my acquaintance as Dropmadrumkit, though more famous as the home of competing Loch Ness Monster centres).
This was no mere amateur dramatics evening. The residents of north Loch Ness-side owe much to the indefatigable Jennie Macfie who, amid a slew of other activities, finds time to programme events at the Glen Urquhart Public Hall, putting on some of the best music and drama that comes to the Highlands. This week it was Six and A Tanner, a one-man show featuring the Glaswegian actor David Hayman, fresh from the Donmar Warehouse where he’d been appearing with Jude Law in Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie.
It was a searing, deeply moving, and at times hilarious portrayal of a Glaswegian man ranting at the coffin of his brutal, abusive father, written largely from personal experience by the actor’s friend Rony Bridges. David Hayman held us enthralled for fifty minutes with the power and magnetism of his performance and then, with scarcely a pause, took questions from us for a further forty minutes. As well as talking about the play and his craft, he told us about his work in Afghanistan for the charity, Spirit Aid, which he founded in 2001 to help children whose lives have been devastated by war, genocide, poverty or abuse. This is no celebrity posturing. I learnt afterwards that for several years until his charity gained official recognition, he used to go there illegally, in disguise, so that he could do the work he wanted to.
As we left it occurred to me that there was one question he hadn’t been asked but which would have been of interest to us all: how did his political activism and charity work, which seem to represent the greater purpose in his life, feed into his performances as an actor? The answer might possibly have been something to do with a strong sense of injustice, which was certainly present in the way he portrayed the relationship of the character with his dead father.
Purpose has been a recurring theme in our discussions this week. How can an organisation communicate authentically and effectively to any audience, internal or external, if it isn’t clear about its purpose? To say that the purpose is to make money for shareholders simply isn’t enough any longer.  People want to know, quite reasonably, why the world would be a poorer place without it. Yet it’s a question many organisations seem incapable of answering; and then they wonder why they are in disarray. They could learn much from people like David Hayman, whose purpose seems to infuse every aspect of his thinking and being. In his stage performance and subsequent conversation with us he felt truly joined up. How many businesses or organisations can you think of that really feel that way?

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Getting traction

On Monday I’m driving up to the writers’ centre at Moniack Mhor, in Inverness-shire, to run a Dark Angels course. There are several reasons why I’m particularly looking forward to it.
Firstly, I missed not being involved in the Advanced Course in Spain much more than I thought I was going to. Photos, glimpses of the writing produced there, and the flurry of euphoric emails that followed the course, did nothing to alleviate the pinch of something missed or lost. So I’m looking on Moniack Mhor rather like the breaking of a fast.
On which theme, secondly, we haven’t been there for five years and it’s one of my favourite of all the Dark Angels venues. A converted farm and croft house, perched high on a hillside between Loch Ness and Beauly with spectacular views north to Ben Wyvis and the big hills of Wester Ross, it feels wild and remote and quintessentially Highland. I’m even secretly hoping we get some snow next week.
Thirdly, it’s the original and longest in duration (five nights, four days) of all our courses – which is why we haven’t run it since 2006. We felt that in a tougher economic climate people might have difficulty taking so much time off work; though having reinstated it this year we’ve filled it without any trouble, which we now suspect may be the In Business dividend, the payoff from the programme BBC Radio 4 made about Dark Angels back in the summer. In any event, we call this one the Full Foundation Course and it runs from Monday evening to Saturday morning. It’s long enough to take people on a proper journey of creative and personal discovery; to get some real traction, as they say.
This is the nub of Dark Angels, this traction. Yes, our courses are about the words, about honing the craft, dusting off the vocabulary, polishing the syntax – those are all good things for any writer to do. But beyond that they’re about the kindness of the words – the humankindness (as in the title of this blog), that allows us as writers and communicators to make the powerful connections we seek with others who, whether we work with them or share our lives with them in other ways, are mostly just like us; people who become engaged, moved, bored by the same things as we do.
And the best reward for us as tutors is when we see our students first making that connection with themselves, understanding that the very greatest value those words, that vocabulary, that syntax can have is to provide the lens through which they start to see clearly their own purpose. Because only then are they ready to start using the words to make powerful connections with others. 

Friday, 7 October 2011

Autumn tales

I often write this on the train on the way back from Edinburgh. It’s a picturesque journey, across the Forth Bridge and east along the Fife coast, then inland through the soft, fertile farmland of central Fife, a short climb and down again to the glint of the Tay estuary and Perth, and finally into the hills for fifteen miles before the train deposits me at Dunkeld and heads on through the Highlands for Inverness.
Today there’s a real breath of autumn on the air. We’ve had sunshine, cold squally rain, and now a ragged sunset. The geese have been back from Greenland for a couple of weeks and today, the forecasters said, the first snow would dust the high hilltops.
The journey reminds me why I choose not to live in the city, and never more so than after a day like today. There were three long meetings, each one stimulating in its own way, but now I need to be out of the buzz to digest them and let my mind clear. The movement of the train and the passing view of the darkening countryside helps.
The first meeting was with one of the world’s largest producers of collagen casings – which you or I know better as sausage skins. Collagen holds us mammals together. It’s what our connective tissue is made of. And if you scrape it off the underside of cowhide, then subject it to clever chemistry, you can spin it into incredible lengths of absolutely uniform, unblemished, edible sheathing for sausage meat. In a single year this company makes enough to go to the moon and back five times.
The second meeting was with a designer colleague who has worked for a number of years with one of Scotland’s more famous hotels. Now it’s looking for a new voice – and more specifically a fictional character to embody the brand and provide that voice. If the project comes off it will stretch my imagination in enjoyable ways. 
The third meeting was with my branding expert friend and another designer colleague. We were tidying up loose ends on projects we’ve undertaken together for several different educational establishments, all of which, for differing reasons, need to raise either funds or student numbers. Robert is a genius at helping them identify their unique selling propositions, which we then work together to articulate.
Sausage skins, a luxury hotel, an Oxford college and two private schools, one of them for children with specific learning difficulties. What could they possibly have in common? The answer, it struck me as we left Edinburgh, is that they are all searching for stories to tell. Stories that connect them with their audiences just as firmly as that extraordinary monument to Victorian engineering, across which we now rattled, connects the two sides of the Forth.
Take away our stories and we are nothing but husks. The same is just as true for organisations as it is for people. The trick, as I said here a few weeks ago, is knowing which one to tell when.