Free Coordinates

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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 5th, 2014
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Quietly powerful comma…

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Pawn of the punctuation game, workhorse of sentences everywhere – it’s easy to take the humble common-or-garden comma for granted.

Its everyday uses are amply explored in Strunk and White’s timeless The Elements of Style. But there’s magic in this humble mark, too. I came across two examples of its quietly powerful ability to steer our thoughts and feelings in Albert Camus’ short and sweet as a fig The Sea Close By (currently on sale for a mere 199 of your pennies):

“But above all,* there is the silence of summer evenings. Those brief moments when day topples into night must be peopled with secret signs and summonses… I imagine its twilights as promises of happiness. On the hills above the city there are paths among the mastics and olive-trees. And towards them my heart turns at such moments. I see flights of black birds rise against the green horizon. In the sky suddenly divested of its sun something relaxes…”

*This comma tugs you back gently before toppling you into the brilliantly vivid depiction of Algiers in evening.

“Almost immediately afterwards appears the first star that had been taking shape and consistency in the depth of the sky. And then suddenly, all consuming,* night.”

*This comma wraps you up in the experience, rather than the description, of night.

So praise is due the comma, the unsung hero of communication.

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  • Published: Aug 3rd, 2014
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Business adventures…

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A thumbs up from Bill Gates has apparently sent John Brooks’ previously out-of-print Business Adventures into the bestseller lists. “Unlike a lot of today’s business writers, Brooks didn’t boil his work down into pat how-to lessons or simplistic explanations for success,” says Gates. “You won’t find any listicles in his work. Brooks wrote long articles that frame an issue, explore it in depth, introduce a few compelling characters and show how things went for them.”

Business Adventures was first published in 1969. News of its comeback, prompted me to lean across and pick up once more another business classic from the same era: Clarence B Randall’s The Folklore of Management, first published in 1961.

Through the course of his book, Randall explores 16 myths of the world of business. It is full of good insights that stand the test of time, such as this from The Myth of Communications: “The determining factor in effective communication is conviction. The authoritative voice that carries its message straight into the heart of every listener is that of the man who knows exactly what he believes. His utterance simply will not be denied, because it pours straight out from his spirit… No new marvel of technology will ever be able to bestow that quality synthetically upon a banal message from a man who has nothing to say because he believes in nothing.”

Strong stuff; still true.

 

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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: May 2nd, 2014
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The power of rightly chosen words…

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While visiting recently one of my favourite Parisian haunts, Shakespeare & Company, I found in the discount boxes outside a copy of Our Language by Simeon Potter. Four euros and an enjoyable chat with the bookseller behind the counter later and it was mine to leaf through at my leisure.

I didn’t have to go far to find the treasures within. From the opening paragraph:

“The power of rightly chosen words is very great, whether those words are intended to inform, to entertain, or to move. English is rapidly becoming a cosmopolitan means of communication… Let us all join freely in the quest and let us all share gladly in that intellectual joy of linguistic exploration which is ours for the seeking every day of our lives.”

Wise and encouraging words from 1950 by way of a mighty fine bookshop on the left bank of the Seine.

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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: Feb 11th, 2014
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Dear Andy…

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How do you brief creative folk? Mick Jagger’s letter to Andy Warhol is a great example:

“Dear Andy,

I’m really pleased you can do the art-work for our new hits album. Here are 2 boxes of material you can use, and the record. In my short sweet experience, the more complicated the format of the album, e.g. more complex than just pages or fold-out, the more fxxxxx up the reproduction and agonising the delays. But, having said that, I leave it in your capable hands to do whatever you want………..and please write back saying how much money you would like.

Doubtless a Mr Al Steckler will contact you in New York, with any further information. He will probably look nervous and say “Hurry up” but take little notice.

Love, Mick Jagger.”

I’m really pleased you can do the work… Here is some background material… I trust you… Do whatever you think best – the perfect brief.

So did Andy do a good job? Well, according to a Rolling Stone readers poll it’s one of the best album covers of all time.

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  • Published: Jan 7th, 2014
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The secret law of writing…

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Prompted by its inclusion in Michael Skapinker’s list of non-business books to inspire managers, I reached for my copy of The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers (another mighty fine book on writing given to me by my Dad):

“It is true that there are rules of grammar and syntax, just as in music there are rules of harmony and counterpoint. But one can no more write good English than one can compose good music merely by keeping the rules…

The golden rule is not a rule of grammar or syntax. It concerns less the arrangement of words than the choice of them. “After all,” said Lord Macaulay, “the first law of writing is this: that the words employed should be such as to convey to the reader the meaning of the writer.” The golden rule is to pick those words and to use them and them only. Arrangement is of course important, but if the right words are used they generally have a happy knack of arranging themselves. Mathew Arnold once said: “People think that I can teach them style. What stuff it all is. Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.””

So, melding Macaulay’s first law with Arnold’s only secret, the secret law of writing is: Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can for your reader.

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  • Published: Apr 17th, 2013
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The melody is the message…

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In Episode 2 of Noise: A Human History, Professor David Hendy speculates that millions of years ago our earliest ancestors “had a kind of sing song utterance that was a curious mix of both language and music.”

Fast forwarding to the hear and now, he evokes teenagers texting: “That hidden melody and rhythm of constant toing and froing with words. The melody is the message. We’re hearing the building up of a strong bond between friends. The rhythm provides the means of us touching at a distance.”

From yesteryear’s cavemen to today’s texters, when it comes to communication – to touching at a distance – the music as much as the meaning is key.

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  • Published: Apr 9th, 2013
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I’m upside down…

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Wandering along Floral Street many moons ago I spotted this cardboard box:

Just goes to show how a few simple words that talk directly to you can add a whole lot of character.

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