Free Coordinates…

For good 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: Sep 16th, 2014
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Confusing marks…

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I prefer not to join the noisy critiquing of the misuse of English in and around business (amply covered by the likes of the FT’s Lucy Kellaway among others). I also have an enduring affection for HP, one of my earliest clients who, I fear, has somewhat lost its Way in the past few years. But given that I had so recently sung the praises of the humble comma, I felt compelled to comment on the company’s strange use of the mark in its current run of UK print ad headlines:

Flex, when in flux. (Flex when in flux would do much better.)

Move, able. (Clever clever nonsense.)

Dream big, data. (I guess HP is talking to companies about big data rather than to data about dreaming big, but that’s not what that comma says.)

These from a campaign which also uses the admirably distinctive and eye-catching words Thwart, Foil, Stymie and Crimp as headlines in other ads.

So come on HP, less of the confusing marks and more of the lovable language.

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  • Published: Jul 15th, 2014
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Crisp and pungent…

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“Good intelligence depends in large measure on clear, concise writing,” states the style manual of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). “The information the CIA gathers and the analysis it produces mean little if we cannot convey them effectively.” So far so good. Then a rather odd injunction to “keep the language crisp and pungent”. Crisp conjures up a certain no nonsense to-the-pointness, which is OK on its own. But pungent too? Calls to mind stinky cheese – not the best image for incisive intelligence.

Far better simply to guide people towards making their writing as clear and vivid as possible – as “clear as a country creek,” as Truman Capote put it.

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  • Published: Apr 29th, 2014
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This tale begins in Nebraska…

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Praise for the Sage of Omaha in today’s FT, not so much for his legendary skill as an investor as for his use of clear, simple language:

“Mr Buffett’s plain speaking shows confidence,”says Sam Leith… “Two things in particular make the plain style sing for him. He tells stories and he uses metaphors… As far as storytelling goes, his letter to shareholders this year…opened with an account of a small investment he made years ago that did little to change his net worth. “This tale begins in Nebraska,” he wrote, before describing his 1986 purchase of a farm. He went on to explain how the story illustrated “certain fundamentals of investing”. “As for metaphors, Mr Buffett can barely get through a sentence without one… “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

His use of storytelling and metaphor means that even when Mr Buffett is talking about something as complex, impersonal and abstract as finance, [he can] make it sound simple, human and concrete.”

Outstanding investment success and clearly characterful language – now that’s a connection to conjure with.

 

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  • Published: Apr 4th, 2014
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Constructive clarity…

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Is constructive ambiguity, the practice of deliberately clouding the message to further your own ends, an acceptable let alone good thing?

The phrase is attributed to Henry Kissinger and the murkiness it denotes crops up regularly in diplomatic and business circles alike. You can make a case, as I’m sure Mr Kissinger did, for the benefits that flow from making yourself less, rather than more, clear during delicate negotiations. But I don’t buy it. I’m on the side of constructive clarity. It requires reasonable folk around the table and things of real value and interest to talk about, but that aside, it is a far better communication tactic than its mean-spirited cousin. One that genuinely brings people together, rather than setting them up as adversaries or, at best, sparring partners. One that’s bias is to get on and get good things done. One that moves everyone on in the right direction.

So, no matter how delicate the situation or nuanced the issues, let’s not just be constructive but also clear in all our communication.

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  • Published: Jan 28th, 2014
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The return of purpose…

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Good to see the FT’s Andrew Hill picking up on the return of purpose as a key factor in corporate success. Lauded back in the mid-nineties by Collins and Porras in Built To Last, their mighty fine exploration of the most succesful visionary companies, the P word was apparently on the lips of many a CEO at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos. “The most important thing is to focus on purpose,” said Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan. “You have to be a purpose-driven organisation,” said EY’s Mark Weinberger.

While purpose seems to be back in fashion, there is according to Andrew Hill some uncertainty over what we actually mean by the term. However, bearing in mind the essentially social nature of business, when you root purpose in the common interest, the shared endeavour, the collective action of a company, rather than, say, individualistic notions of why you go to work every day, the fog lifts.

Purpose is simply what we are all here to do together. Express that clearly and with feeling and you will have a powerful reason for people to work with you and buy from you and an enduring guide for good actions. 

Andrew Hill highlights a great example in his article. When Ellen Kullman, chief executive of DuPont, asked a contract worker on the Kevlar production line what he was doing, he replied: “We’re saving lives.”

Saving lives, not just making bulletproof vests. A good purpose is indeed powerful stuff.

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  • Published: Aug 1st, 2013
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Strategies are stories…

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I’ve been doing a fair bit of work recently which has included discussing with clients what strategy is all about. The conversations have tended towards couching the strategy thing in terms of good decisions and actions. Looking at it this way, strategy comes down to a group of people (a team, a company, a country…) answering a few simple yet essential questions: What are we going to do? Why? And how? It’s a world away from those thick and expensive docs heavy with impenetrably overloaded matrix diagrams so beloved of a certain kind of consultant and belittled by the great information design guru Edward Tufte.

So strategies are social. They are action. And they are something else, too: they are stories. Bad strategies are tragedies, full of loss and woe. Good strategies are adventures – epic tales of worthwhile quests and real achievements, of great characters and grand deeds.

I know which strategies I’d like to read…

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  • Published: Jul 24th, 2013
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In defence of chartreuse…

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If you want your writing to appeal to a lot of people, keep it simple and emotional.

This is the wise point made by fast rising young writer dude from NY Simon Rich: “I’m trying to connect with as many people as possible so I’d only write about emotions I think billions of us have experienced… When you remove multisyllabic words from your vocabulary, you widen the net. You gain a lot by calling something yellowy-green instead of chartreuse. I don’t know what you have to gain with chartreuse. I haven’t looked up a word since college. If I come to a word and I don’t understand it, to my mind that’s the word’s fault.”

There’s a lot of truth in this, but I’d also advocate a place for chartreuse, not least because it has a very different feel from its admitedly more down to earth but rather ugly sounding relative. Chartreuse conjures a sense of elegance, of lazy hazy sun days at a French chateau. It’s a colour to accompany a champagne cocktail. Yellowy-green by contrast is no nonsense, gutsy, downtown. Stuff the cocktail – give me a double on the rocks.

Same colour; different vibe. The key thing is to be free to pick and choose the right one for your writing.

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  • Published: May 25th, 2013
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On ledgers, lifts…

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Major works are afoot at Free Coordinates HQ, which has resulted in my gaining firsthand experience of ledgers, lifts and other weird and wonderful terms from the language of scaffolding. My initial thoughts were that such jargon was far from necessary for the simple matter of fixing poles and boards together to create platforms to work from. But when you consider the need to erect these platforms quickly and safely by fixing the right poles and boards together in the right order and way, the scaffold-speak begins to make sense.

As Hilaire Belloc says in On, an entertaining series of essays on all kinds of things – in this instance, technical words: “a technical word takes the place of long explanation. If you do not use technical words you have to replace them by clumsy, roundabout phrases. You lose your direct effect.”

Yes, technical terms can be effective shortcut language. Yet the principle, as with spelling out a Three Letter Acronym (TLA) the first time you use it, should be to explain the terms once up front. Just as the scaffolders did when I quizzed them. That way, everyone is free to understand should they be interested, as opposed to being excluded for want of clarification.

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  • Published: Apr 23rd, 2013
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Beware dispiriting clarity…

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I’m a big fan of clarity, particularly in business writing, but if you’re not careful too much of the clear stuff can bleach out the colour from your communication. 

I was reminded of this courtesy of Peter Mathews in his book on Workrooms. In discussing the dimensions and dynamics of a good home-based Music Practice Room, he writes: “A high ceiling will give good resonance but this should not be so great that mistakes are not heard. Excessive use of absorbent surfaces leads to dispiriting clarity while contributing little to the sound insulation of adjoining spaces.”

Too much clarity can compromise character. The aim should be to be clear and characterful – to resonate and ring out, like a well-crafted bell.

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