Free Coordinates…

For good communication…

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  • Published: Oct 10th, 2016
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Three funny sounding words…

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Never Knowingly Undersold. These “three funny sounding words”, as John Lewis calls them in their current crop of print ads, sum up the retailer’s unchanging price promise to customers. It’s a promise they’ve stuck to since 1925 and one they maintain they’ll always honour. Indeed why wouldn’t they – good value never goes out of fashion.

But are they really that funny sounding? There’s certainly a distinctive character to them, which is an undoubted plus. A more straightforward trio such as Always Good Value would also be more forgettable.

Funny or not, there’s a lot to be said for the power of three, for example in adding melody and memorability to your writing, and in creating a groundbreaking way to give everyone, everywhere a simple address.

So in distilling your story and/or articulating your promise, it’s no bad thing to go for three distinctive words. Funny sounding optional.

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  • Published: Sep 5th, 2016
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The cat sat on the dog’s mat…

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What’s at the heart of a good story?

Who better to answer than the creator of Smiley’s People and countless other gripping tales, John Le Carré: “You take one character, you take another character and you put them in collision. And the collision arises because they have different appetites and you begin to get the essence of drama. The cat sat on the mat is not a story; the cat sat on the dog’s mat is the beginning of an exciting story.”

And of a classic ad for real fires. Woof woof, miaow miaow, squeak.

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  • Published: Jul 21st, 2016
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Write differenter…

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In a new book, ex Apple ad guy Ken Segall encourages us to Think Simple. A good call, for there are virtues in cutting out complexity, such as making things easier to understand and speeding up decision taking. A timely call, too, as simplicity’s stock is rising. Across business models and brands, from cooking to cycling – simple is fashionable. But is it everything?

Under Ken Segall’s watch, Apple ran the famous Think Different campaign, which by all accounts provoked a fair few complaints about the slogan’s poor grammar. Yet by lopping off the adverbial tail of the second word, Segall & co not only made the line simpler, but also more characterful. Think Differently. Correct, yes, but less distinctive than Think Different.

So, let’s not only write clearly, let’s write differenter.

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  • Published: Oct 7th, 2015
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In the blood…

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An incisive take on tone of voice, courtesy of one of the big pop hits of the 8Os: A-Ha’s Take On Me

“We’d already written Take On Me but hadn’t recorded it…It reminded me of an advert for chewing gum that went: Juicy Fruit is a packet full of sunshine. That influenced the verse melody,” says A-Ha’s singer Morten Harket. “Paul [Waaktaar-Savoy, guitarist] had the idea of really using my vocal range in the chorus, having notes rising in octaves like Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. As for hitting that last high note, you either have wings or you don’t – the voice is not in the throat, it’s in the blood. It’s what you envisage, what you believe. ”

From the flighty falsetto of Take On Me to the rutting bellow of the red deer in Bushy Park last weekend:

Red Deer copy edit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Albeit way down the scale, this character’s call was equally full of emotional conviction.

High notes or low, find your voice in your blood. Sing from the heart.

 

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  • Published: Aug 26th, 2015
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Nobody likes a tailgater…

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Driving back to London along the M1 after a wonderful week in Wales climbing mountains, canoeing lakes and chomping chips, we slowed down along a sustained stretch of 50mph roadworks.

Nothing new there for anyone familiar with the UK’s motorway network, except for the unusually characterful traffic signs. Gone were the standard blunt and bland commands to keep your speed down. In their place, conversational messages: “Nobody likes a tailgater”, “Let’s all get home safely”, “Our Dad works here”…

With their refreshingly friendly tone, they certainly caught the eye and according to a Highways England spokesman have been developed with the help of psychologists “to improve the customer experience through roadworks”. I’m not sure it’s about improving the customer experience so much as making safety messages clearer and more compelling. On that score, the ones I saw worked well. Nobody does like a tailgater, for example – not even the tailgater themselves, when they stop and think about how dumb and dangerous they have been.

But then came a message that stood out by virtue of its worrying ambiguity: “You may not always see us”. Did it mean that the road workers were not always there? We know that already – how many times have you driven along a stretch of motorway roadworks with not a worker in sight! Or did it mean that we were not allowed always to see the road workers? A rather rude mind-your-own-business message. Or did it mean that sometimes the road workers were difficult to see. Yes, but that in turn raised another question: Why aren’t road workers more visible? Worse, this sign was on the central reservation, rather than on the left by the hard shoulder – the natural home for such signs. It was all rather distracting and disconcerting – the last thing you want when driving along a motorway – and made me hanker for a much simpler old-style “drive carefully”.

So, when revamping motorway messages or indeed any other communication, it always pays to pay attention to keeping clarity while adding character.

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  • Published: May 12th, 2015
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Creatures of emotion and imagination…

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What made Winston Churchill a great leader?

In a National Trust feature gently plugging his newly published The Churchill FactorBoris Johnson cites his hero’s “ability to stick to his guns and to inspire people, and he was brave. He also had a love of language and could explain what was going on in a way that engaged people. We are creatures of emotion and imagination, and language is absolutely vital.”

So if you want to lead, choose your words wisely – and aim them at the heart.

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  • Published: Mar 6th, 2015
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Earthy eloquence…

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“Lincoln’s great skill was to speak simply. He searched for language that was spare, colourful and accessible to all,” says Martin Kettle in an article on the great orator of Gettysburg.

“He liked it dry, clear and cogent, but he liked colloquialism too. As Harriet Beecher Stowe put it, Lincoln’s language always had the “relish and smack of the soil”. An aide tried to get him to withdraw the phrase “sugar-coated” from a speech once, on the grounds it was undignified. Lincoln would have none of it. He was also a great pruner: the Gettysburg address, perhaps the best-known political speech in English of all time, is less than 300 words long and took as little as three minutes to deliver.”

Earthy eloquence at a hundred words per minute – we could do a lot worse than aim for this in all our communication.

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  • Published: Dec 5th, 2014
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An aromatic and delicious spirit…

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Just as being clear doesn’t necessarily mean being concise, so being compressed doesn’t mean being characterless. On the contrary, in communication as in cognac, distilling down to the essence creates something more intense and memorable.

Carmen Herrera admires Ben Nicholson’s ability to “reduce pictorial forms and ideas to their very essence…He was never austere, dry, or rigid. A true distiller always leaves an aromatic and delicious spirit.”

Many moons ago I had the pleasure of learning a little bit about the art of making cognac while working on a project for Martell. The key is double-distillation and it’s no bad thing for writers everywhere to take inspiration from this process: edit, and edit again. Till your writing has the pure impact of this painting by Mr Nicholson:

June 1937 (painting) 1937 by Ben Nicholson OM 1894-1982

 

 

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  • Published: Oct 22nd, 2014
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Sketch trees in winter…

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“In handbooks on Chinese traditional painting, an advice commonly given to the artist who wishes to learn to paint trees is to sketch them in winter, for then, without the seductive yet confused and blurry effect of their leafy masses, through their stark nudity they can best reveal their inner structure and specific character.” 

So says Simon Leys in his Chinese Shadows. A fair few decades on, Apple teaches the same principle to its design pupils, pointing them in the direction of Picasso’s progressively stripped back sketches of a bull.

To divine, distil. It’s a sure route to get to the heart of a character. And once you’re there at the essence you can add and amplify, as Chineasy does to great effect in making it easier to understand and remember Chinese language characters.

My own personal favourite is this eternally optimistic take on tomorrow:

 Bright day - tomorrow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tomorrow is going to be a bright day. Amen to that. 

 

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  • Published: Oct 8th, 2014
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The power of stories…

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Back in 2007 Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates was only able to sell his pottery bowls for $25 a piece, despite a great deal of time, effort and money going into making them.

“I decided that the reasons were: I’m a nobody, so the bowl is a nothing,” says Theaster. “The bowl looks like lots of other bowls that are mass produced you can buy for even cheaper than $25; the bowl has no magical context that would help get it valued in other ways. If I could be a somebody; if I could elevate [the bowl] beyond the everyday context, would people value it more?”

So Theaster set about creating that all-important magical context in the form of an imaginary mentor with an intriguing and appealing story to match. Meet Yamaguchi, a gifted Japanese potter who fled Hiroshima for Mississippi, where he married a black woman and created a unique ceramic style blending Asian and African-American techniques.

This carefully crafted fiction paid dividends. Theaster/Yamaguchi’s bowls began selling for far more than $25, for people weren’t buying the pottery so much as the character and story surrounding it. They were buying into the magical context – the brand in other words. For all great brands are essentially great stories. Therein lies their power.

 

 

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