Free Coordinates…

For good communication…

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  • Published: May 1st, 2020
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Change the ending…

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In these uncertain times, simple words put together well carry much weight. Whether it is Captain Tom’s “Remember, tomorrow is a good day, tomorrow you will maybe find everything will be much better than today…”, Duke Ellington’s irrepressibly upbeat “What I do tomorrow will be the best thing I’ve ever done…”, or this gem from C.S. Lewis: “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

The great thing about all these thoughts is that they never lose their relevance or power to inspire. They remain as universal and heart-warming as sunshine.

So here’s to Tom, Duke and Clive (yes, Clive). Let’s all take heart from their warmth and wisdom.

 

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  • Published: Mar 7th, 2020
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Living in English…

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In a recent episode of Open Book, Isabel Allende touched on the long and the short of today’s storytelling:

“Literature has changed – it has become much more direct, more visual. There is less space and patience from the readers – for baroque literature, for long sentences, for very long family sagas. That was what people were reading in the 80s, but not any more. So the world has changed, literature has changed, and me too, because I live in English. In Spanish, to the say the same thing, it takes us, like, five paragraphs. Because, because we go around, beat around the bush, we are polite, we think that being too direct is rude. In English, it’s the other way around. You cannot test the person’s patience. You just go to the point immediately.”

There are certainly times when getting to the point is the priority, but I’d say that in English there is still not only room but also a fair degree of appetite to take people along with a long story. Living in English, for me, is essentially about being open to all kinds of storytelling. Long and short. Direct and less direct. Like the look and the feel of a story, the length should be led by the tale that needs to be told.

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  • Published: Feb 7th, 2020
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Conscious start-up stories…

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With start-ups, the FT’s Andrew Hill notes, “the temptation to storm forward and tweak your principles later is strong.” Move fast, break things, grow grow grow – leave thinking about all that core stuff till sometime later, maybe never. Yet as Mr Hill points out, it’s “better to establish strong values early”. That way, you limit the possibility of chaotic rudderless acts having disastrous consequences. You also up your chances of recruiting and retaining talented people with strong principles of their own – good responsible start-ups attract good responsible folk. Hence venture capital fund Atomico is now running “conscious scaling” workshops for founders of the companies it backs and for its investment partners.

So establishing strong values early is vital. Not only establishing them but articulating them in a clear, compelling, characterful way that everyone involved can rally around and build on.

And the great thing is, this doesn’t have to mean pressing pause on your forward motion. With the right help, you can distil and articulate your core story in synch with your early stage expansion. So your stellar growth gets you where you really want to go. Sooner, too.

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  • Published: Nov 10th, 2019
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A safe space for stupidity…

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On a recent trip to LA, I was held captive in a quiet corner of The Broad by William Kentridge’s brilliant Second-Hand Reading. In six or so minutes of animated words, images and music, the work takes you on a magical journey which is both substantial and light-touched, heavy-souled and uplifting. I happily watched it again and again, each time sensing something new in the looping lyrical storytelling.

In a TEDx talk, William Kentridge describes how “ideas come into the studio and meet charcoal, paper, ink…” This fluid, handmade “thinking in material” is core to his art. And so, in turn, is the task “to find the less good idea. One knows the danger of confident men with their good ideas, and the damage this does every time. Give yourself over to the logic of the material… The main idea gets pushed to the side and other things emerge from the process of working… the less good ideas… This is key in the studio – to allow a space for this to emerge… to allow the studio to be a safe space for stupidity…”

So for anyone struck dumb by the terrors of the blank page, or indeed convinced of the perfection of their opening line, take a leaf out of Mr Kentridge’s book. Start writing. Be stupid. Goof about a bit. Get your hands inky. The less good ideas will emerge, and who knows – they may well prove to be great.

 

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  • Published: Sep 3rd, 2019
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I will always remember when…

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In the Serpentine Gallery a work of art by Faith Ringgold stopped me in my tracks:

Tar Beach

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Woman on a Bridge #1 of 5: Tar Beach weaves magic with canvas and quilt, colour and words. These words:

I will always remember when the stars fell down around me and lifted me up above the George Washington Bridge.

I could see our tiny rooftop with Mommy and Daddy and Mr & Mrs Honey our next door neighbors, still playing cards as if nothing was going on, and BeBe, my baby brother, laying real still on the mattress, just like I told him to, his eyes like huge flood-lights tracking me through the sky.

Sleeping on Tar Beach was magical. Laying on the roof in the night with stars and skyscraper buildings all around me made me feel rich, like I owned all that I could see. The bridge was my most prized possession.

Daddy said the George Washington Bride was the longest and most beautiful bridge in the world and that it opened in 1931 on the very day I was born. Daddy worked on the bridge hoisting cables. Since then, I’ve wanted that bridge to be mine.

Now I have claimed it. All I had to do was fly over it for it to be mine forever. I can wear it like a giant diamond necklace, or just fly over it and marvel at its sparkling beauty. I can fly, yes fly. Me, Cassie Louise Lightfoot, only eight years old and in the third grade and I can fly.

That means I am free to go wherever I want to for the rest of my life. Daddy took me to see the Union Building he is working on. He can walk on steel girders high up in the sky and not fall. They call him the cat.

But still he can’t join the Union because Granpa wasn’t a member. Well Daddy is going to own that building cause I am gonna fly over it and give it to him. Then it won’t matter that he’s not in their ole Union or whether he’s Colored or a half breed Indian like they say.

He’ll be rich and won’t have to stand on 24 story high girders and look down. He can look up at his building going up. And Mommy won’t cry all winter when Daddy goes to look for work, and doesn’t come home. And Mommy can laugh and sleep late like Mrs Honey and we can have ice cream every night for dessert.

Next I’m going to fly over the ice cream factory just to make sure we do. Tonight we’re going up to Tar Beach. Mommy is roasting peanuts and frying chicken and Daddy will bring home a watermelon. Mr and Mrs Honey will bring the beer and their old green card table. And then the stars will fall around me and I will fly to the Union Building.

I’ll take BeBe with me. He has threatened to tell Mommy and Daddy if I leave him behind. I have told him it’s very easy, anyone can fly. All you need is somewhere to go that you can’t get to any other way. The next thing you know, you’re flying among the stars.

Personal and universal, imagined and real, timeless and of its time – Tar Beach is quite simply a brilliant story. And happily, it’s one you can buy in book form.

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  • Published: Aug 2nd, 2019
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Smashing records on the ‘Old Cope’ track…

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My local park has in recent years been steadily spruced up. The latest enhancements include renovating the clock tower, opening a small cafe and placing on the surrounding benches a series of plaques cast confidently in iron, such as this one, featuring Victorian running champ Charles Westhall:

Cally Park

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A fine example of civic storytelling, they highlight the rich and varied history of the park.

Good to see stories helping to build stronger attachments to our public spaces.

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  • Published: Jun 3rd, 2019
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Gardening, economics, murder…

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“No matter what you’re talking about – gardening, economics, murder – you’re telling a story. Every sentence should lead to the next sentence. If you say a dull sentence, people have the right to turn off.” Wise words from one of the great storytellers of 20th century affairs, Alistair Cooke, courtesy of John Yorke’s Into the woods: How Stories Work And Why We Tell Them.

Storytelling is sense making. And as Alistair Cooke consistently demonstrated, not least through his 2,869 Letters from America, the best storytelling is both enlightening and enjoyable.

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  • Published: Feb 4th, 2019
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Something delicious…

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“There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story,” wrote Beatrix Potter. “You never quite know where they’ll take you.”

As the creator of Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and countless other classic tales points out, stories are adventures. And like all adventures, if you don’t depart you’re never going to have one. So pick up your pen and head off across the page. Who knows where you’ll end up. Perhaps Beirut. Potentially Gallipoli. Maybe even both places at once – after all, anything’s possible in the wonderful world of stories.

 

 

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  • Published: Jun 4th, 2018
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On murky bottoms and clear heads…

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“We should always try to use language to illuminate, reveal and clarify rather than obscure, mislead and conceal…The aim must always be clarity. It’s tempting to feel that if a passage of writing is obscure, it must be very deep. But if the water is murky, the bottom might only be an inch below the surface – you just can’t tell. It’s much better to write in a way that the readers can see all the way down; but that’s not the end of it, because you then have to provide interesting things down there for them to look at. Telling a story involves thinking of some interesting events, putting them in the best order to bring out the connections between them, and telling about them as clearly as we can; and if we get the last part right, we won’t be able to disguise any failure in the first – which is actually the most difficult, and the most important.” Just a drop from the ocean of wise words in Philip Pullman’s brilliant Daemon Voices.

It’s a call for us all to take ownership of our words and strive to be as clear as possible. A call echoed by iA’s Oliver Reichenstein in his blog on tackling the toxic web: “The answer to the passive consumption of trash is the active formulation of questions, the active search for answers and the active work of putting complex knowledge and diffuse feelings into clear words.”

Clear writing takes clear thinking. It’s hard work. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a grind. On the contrary, like all good graft, it can be deeply satisfying. So where to start? Take the time to clear your head. Clear words are sure to follow.

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  • Published: Mar 14th, 2018
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I love porridge, but…

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I love porridge, but as Philip Pullman points out, it’s not the thing to aim to cook up when you’re creating stories: “I enjoy the process of constructing a story and making it better… You have to hear what you’re writing. Because prose isn’t simply a sort of porridge with no structure. It’s got a metrical structure, and if you’re not aware of it, you damn well ought to be.”

Steve Reich, in the BBC’s Tones, Drones and Arpeggios – The Magic of Minimalism, says something very similar in terms of music making: “All great music is founded on some very strong structural development and creation. Without the marriage of the thinking process and the emotional process, then, it doesn’t matter.”

So here’s to the structure in stories. An unsung hero, it’s rarely the first thing we think of when we’re caught up in the magic of an amazing tale, not least because it’s often intentionally buried or hidden backstage. But in all the best stories it’s there, working hard behind the scenes to help bring the story to life.

 

 

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