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For good communication…

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  • Published: Dec 17th, 2012
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Think well, write well…

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“People who think, well write well,” wrote advertising legend David Ogilvy. These and other wise words come from The Unpublished David Ogilvy, according to City A.M.’s Marc Sidwell, who I’m cheered to read sees “clear English as a critical business tool”.

There’s a lot of meaning packed into the word ‘well’ here – the sense both of words that are well crafted and well intentioned. As Marc Sidwell points out, “Oglivy’s passion for clear and honest words” echoes George Orwell’s brilliant articulation of the mainline connection between clarity and morality in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language: “the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”

It’s not enough for your words to sound good, they must be good. Euphony and ethics should go hand in hand. Good English is good business.

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  • Published: Dec 6th, 2012
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Free-flowing sensual…

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The great Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who has passed away at the grand old age of 104, had a clear sense of what inspired his work and a wonderful way of expressing it.

“I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man,” he says in his memoir The Curves of Time. “I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman.”

Like the best writing, Oscar’s builds vivid images – conjuring with words the warm concrete curves of his architecture.

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  • Published: Nov 27th, 2012
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Wise words from the man in the 90-year-old lederhosen…

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Johannes Gutmann has over the past two decades or so built from scratch a highly successful business based in his home region of Austria marketing organic produce to over 50 countries around the world. Along the way he has become known for sporting the same pair of 90-year-old lederhosen and scarlet shoes pretty much everywhere he does business.

It has been a highly distinctive and memorable bit of brand building. “You just need an idea of how you want to present what you have,” says Johannes. “For example, for someone who sees my lederhosen, they are worth nothing. But they have a high non-material value: they are a story. And that works just as well on the world stage as at a market in the Waldviertel.”

From Austria to Australia, from farming to pharmaceuticals, no matter where in the world you are or what business you’re in – for your brand, stories are priceless.

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  • Published: Nov 2nd, 2012
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Musick to my ears…

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Picking up on the apparent importance of knowing your “its” from your “it’s” when applying for jobs, the FT’s Michael Skapinker touches on the lovably liquid nature of English: “English has always changed. It is a permanent referendum. If enough people start regarding “its” as the contraction of “it is” and “it’s” as the possessive then that is what they’ll eventually become and everyone will write them that way.” My money’s on the gradual disappearance of the apostrophe, driven by the evolving influence of texting and other bite-sized digital communications and the power of context to help clarify: it’s often easy to see whether you mean “its” or “it’s” thanks to the surrounding words, which in turn makes the mark less necessary. 

As with punctuation, so with spelling. We now happily write “music” rather than “musick”, as in Samuel Johnson‘s day. Three centuries on, music’s notes haven’t changed but its spelling has. That’s fine with me.  In line with the inherently democratic character of my mother tongue, I’m happy to let the people decide, over time through their usage and abusage, how they want English to evolve. For one of the great good things is that we’re free to use our language clearly and characterfully for our own ends.

In this respect, I’m on the side of Michael Skapinker’s “affectivists” – a term “conjured out of Sir Ernest Gower’s book, The Complete Plain Words, which remains a superb guide to clear communication nearly 60 years after it was first published. The aim of writing, he said, should be to affect your readers in the way you wish them to be affected.” Musick to my ears.

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  • Published: Oct 27th, 2012
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Economy of expression…

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Top of my Christmas list is Philip Pullman’s reworking of Grimm’s tales for young and old.

Why revisit these classics? Because the stories themselves bear endless telling. More particularly, as Philip Pullman points out, his edition clears “out of the way anything that would prevent them running freely.” It promises the “economy of expression” Italo Calvino identifies as the first characteristic of folktales, in his Six Memos for the Next Millenium. For the best fables are compressed stories – free flowing, fleet of foot, impactful. Floating like butterflies, stinging like bees, they are the Muhammad Alis of the storyworld.

As Philip Pullman notes, “There is a great pleasure in telling a tale swiftly and clearly.” And a great pleasure in reading them, too.

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  • Published: Oct 10th, 2012
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Sometimes longer can be clearer…

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To be clear should you always be concise? It can be tempting to conflate the two – after all, clarity and concision often go hand in hand. But they are not joined at the hip. There are times when you need to take more words to make yourself clear. Michael Skapinker makes this point in the FT when exploring the dangers of beeing too chatty and informal for non-native English speakers: Rather than saying ‘I agreed to put him up’, “far better to say ‘I agreed to offer him accommodation’. The words may be longer but the meaning is easier to grasp.”

So if being clear isn’t always about being concise, what is it about? For me it’s more akin to bringing things into sharp focus. Clearly revealing the real reality, no matter how messy or complex. At times that can take a fair few words to communicate clearly and characterfully. But the result is more representative, more faithful, more vivid – and consequently all the more compelling and memorable.

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  • Published: Oct 4th, 2012
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Brilliant, lusty, rumbunctious…

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Among the bright and hollow rhetoric of today’s politicians, where words are polished to assorted sweet nothings such as “things can only get better” and “we’re all in this together”, one individual’s oratory consistently stands out. Yes, the politician du jour (et des jeux), Boris Johnson’s. Compare his “final tear sodden juddering climax”, “routed the doubters” and “scattered the gloomsters” London 2012 tribute to David Cameron’s eminently forgettable “moments we will never forget”. On the campaign trail as in the corporate world, the vivid and particular beats the bland and general every time. Small wonder, as the FT points out, “Boris Johnson frequently upstages the premier.”

One of the more colourful exemplars of the power of characterful communication, you’re encouraged to believe Boris. For in contrast to many of his peers, the language he employs – brilliant, lusty, rumbunctious – not only puts a smile on your face but also feels like it fits and flows from the man.

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  • Published: Aug 20th, 2012
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The best story wins…

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Writing in the FT recently, John Kay touched on the power of stories in our fluid fluxy world: “The real world is characterised by radical uncertainty… We deal with that world by constructing simplifying narratives. We do this not because we are stupid, or irrational, or have forgotten probability 101, but because storytelling is the best means of making sense of complexity. The test of these narratives is whether they are believable.”

As John Kay points out, juries convict because they find the prosecution’s account more believable than the defence’s. Just as investors follow the most compelling investment stories. In the courtroom, in business –  in all walks of life, the best story wins.

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  • Published: Aug 1st, 2012
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Clarity is good business…

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Courtesy of the FT’s Lex, a passing mention of how ArcelorMittal likes to call reducing capacity at its steel plants an “asset optimisation plan”. Usually I like to let such examples of cloudy business speak pass, not least because the market for criticising them is crowded and noisy. But this one caught my eye not so much because of its ugly unclear nature so much as its lack of point. A waste of words, it tells you next to nothing worthwhile. Every plan is or ought to be about doing and achieving the best (optimisation). When did any of us last set out to do anything less? What Lex readers (direct and indirect investors and commentators on the company) really want to know is why and by how much ArcelorMittal is reducing resources. So the language is not only unlovable but reflects poorly on the company’s ability to live up to its responsibility to communicate clearly and characterfully.

This isn’t simply an ethical responsibility, it is a commercial one. As the canny souls who set up a clarity index a few years ago explored, being clear can help a company make money.

So let’s all plan to optimise our communication by being as clear and characterful as we can.

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  • Published: Jul 15th, 2012
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Why I’m doolally about hullabaloo…

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Some words just come up and give you a big smack on the lips when you first meet them. Full of melody and meaning, you can’t help loving them. Words like doolally and hullabaloo – two of the many great words that have made their way into the English language courtesy of India.

You’ll find doolally, hullabaloo and other Inglish wonders in Hobson-Jobson – “a glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms etymological, historical, geographical and discursive” compiled by Sir Henry Yule and AC Burnell.

First published in 1886, it’s never been out of print since. Just goes to show, lovable language is also long-lasting language.

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