Free Coordinates

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  • Published: Apr 20th, 2021
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Encouraging stories…

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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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  • Published: Mar 27th, 2021
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Tell your truth beautifully…

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“Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations… They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries…” So begins the only known recording of Virginia Woolf, who goes on to explore why it is so difficult “to create beauty… to tell the truth…” with the “half-a-million words all in alphabetical order” at our disposal.

Easy or not, and our current culture’s love of image notwithstanding, words are arguably our primary tool for telling the truth and creating beauty (ideally at the same time). As neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett says, “Humans have a special power to connect with and regulate each other: words. In my research lab, we run experiments to demonstrate this power of words. Our participants lie still in a brain scanner and listen to evocative descriptions of different situations. One is about walking into your childhood home and being smothered in hugs and smiles. Another is about awakening to your buzzing alarm clock and finding a sweet note from your significant other. As they listen, we see increased activity in brain regions that control heart rate, breathing, metabolism and the immune system. Yes, the same brain regions that process language also help to run your body budget. Words have power over your biology – your brain wiring guarantees it.”

Given the undoubted power of words, what can we do to up our chances of using them wisely and well? Virginia Woolf has some good advice at the end of her talk: “words…like us to think, and they like us to feel, before we use them…they like us to pause…”

So the next time you have to use one or more of those half-a-million plus wonderful words in our lovable language, take a moment. Listen for the echoes. Look for the associations. Think about what you feel. Do your best to tell your truth beautifully.

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  • Published: Feb 21st, 2021
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Show feelings effectively…

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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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  • Published: Jan 16th, 2021
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The sound I saw…

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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:

Roy Decarava

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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  • Published: Dec 28th, 2020
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Feed the good wolf…

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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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  • Published: Nov 9th, 2020
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The simple shapes of stories…

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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:

story lines

 

 

 

 

 

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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  • Published: Oct 1st, 2020
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Today, we stockpile empathy…

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Today, we stockpile empathy

We supply love and good energy

We sing to each other across buildings…

So begins Love in the Time of Coronavirus, a film made by artist Chris Ridell and poet Nikita Gill to mark National Poetry Day (yes, it’s today).

For me, every day is a good day to celebrate poetry. But if we had to pick just one it would be today, so let’s sing poetry’s praises to each other across buildings, over Zoom calls – whenever, wherever and however we can.

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  • Published: Sep 7th, 2020
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Shockingly good…

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Can computers enhance, or even outdo, human creativity?

According to the FT’s John Thornhill, OpenAI’s GPT-3 program has been used “to write poems, articles, comic sketches and computer code, compose guitar riffs, offer medical advice, and reimagine video games, sometimes with stunning effect.” Indeed, tech entrepreneur Arram Sabeti, who used the software to write a Raymond Chandler-style screenplay about Harry Potter, called it “shockingly good”. Technology this powerful inevitably raises ethical issues. A group of philosophers tasked with assessing GPT-3 concluded it was “unnervingly coherent and laughably mindless”. But such facility without the moral compass to match is far from funny.

As with creatives, so with computers – it’s not enough to be good at what you do, you also need to do good with what you do.

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  • Published: Aug 5th, 2020
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The speech of a tiger shark…

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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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  • Published: Jul 3rd, 2020
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Close to music…

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As close to music as I can get is how I like to write.

As Oliver Reichenstein points out, “Being fully immersed in writing is like composing and playing music while we drum up our perceptions into letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs.” In his post on Music in Writing, he shares Martin Amis’s take: “What you’re trying to do is: Be faithful to your perceptions, and transmit them as faithfully as you can… You know I just say these sentences again and again in my head, until they sound right. And there is no objective reason why they sound right. They just sound right to me. So it’s euphony, sometimes it’s harshness you want. But it’s… it’s just matching up the perception with the words… in a kind of semi-musical way.”

Beyond the sheer pleasure of listening to the melody, beat and tone of your words as you write, why write this way? Grace Nichols nails it: “The rhythm and musicality of poetry is more direct in its appeal to the human heart and spirit.” In short, musical writing is more effective.

So, write with your ears, and let your sentences sing.

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