Free Coordinates…

For good communication…

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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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  • Published: Nov 13th, 2017
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Build a good name…

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Back in 2007, I co-created and ran an executive day for the Henley Management College. It focused on how to enhance reputation through core purpose. The gist: build your good name (your reputation) with stories that pivot around your big why (your core purpose).

A good few years on from that enjoyable day, and reputation, more than ever, is in the air. Purpose, too, and of course stories. Rohan Silva bigs up purpose by way of his favourite quote from business – Hewlett Packard co-founder David Packard’s: “Many people assume, wrongly, that the purpose of a company is to make money… a group of people get together and exist as an institution we call a company so they are able to accomplish something collectively that they could not accomplish separately — they make a contribution to society, a phrase which sounds trite but is fundamental.”

Prompted by Taylor Swift’s release of Reputation, Ludovic Hunter-Tilney explores the r-word in the FT: “The public persona that we present to the world grows ever more significant. In the digital age reputation is inescapable. Not a day goes by without our judging something or being judged ourselves.”

But I’d like to leave the last word to the inestimable Patti Smith, who tells this story: “When I was really young, William Burroughs told me: ‘Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful. Be concerned with doing good work, and make the right choices, and protect your work. And if you build a good name, eventually that name will be its own currency.”

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  • Published: Apr 29th, 2017
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The donkeys gallop…

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Just in time for the long weekend, a treasure trove of words and images in the form of postcards from the past. Tom Jackson’s Twitter account and soon-to-be-published book, lets us glimpse myriad holiday stories of yesteryear. Stories such as these:

The donkeys gallop

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The donkeys gallop and once I nearly fell off. I bet you wish you were here with me, don’t you?’

I suppose you heard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘I suppose you heard about our plane catching fire?’

Filtered through the come-what-may sunny outlook of people on their hols, like all great stories they catch your attention. But it’s a bitter sweet experience – the stories are inevitably unfinished, leaving you hungry to find out more. Why didn’t you fall off the donkey? How fast do they gallop? How did the plane catch fire? Are you OK? Questions, questions. More postcards, please.

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  • Published: Feb 8th, 2017
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Visual plots…

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Maps are on my mind this month, not least thanks to the treasure trove of charts and other cartographic wonders on display at the British Library’s Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line. Two of my favourites from the exhibition were both tourism maps, but each very different from the other. One was for 1950s Alicante, all sunshine and sailing boats; the other was for 1947 Hiroshima, showing in chilling grey the A-bomb impact area.

“Our best way of sharing knowledge – whether it’s a physical representation of land or an energy space variable – it’s a map. Every scientific analysis produces maps or visual plots to look at. That’s the way we intuitively understand the best,” says Naoko Kurahashi Neilson, in Lois Parshley’s article on mapping uncharted territories.

Whether or not they’re the best route to understanding, good maps can certainly be great sense makers – brilliant visual plots for the stories that bring us together, set us apart and spur us on.

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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: May 13th, 2016
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Once upon a plumber…

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Riffing on the corporate storytelling thing in her characteristically acerbic comms-weary way, Lucy Kellaway makes the anti-case: “the storytelling craze has gone too far.”

Yes, there are a lot of pretty awful attempts to tell corporate stories out there, along with a burgeoning mini-industry of people proclaiming stories to be the new ‘most valuable corporate asset’, and any number of job ads and titles purloining the s word for a sprinkle of zeity geistness. But this does not mean that storytelling in business is any less important, just that it could do with being done a whole lot better.

Indeed, as Lucy Kellaway says: “Stories in the right place are an excellent thing…We all like stories because we like emotion, and because they are easy for our befuddled brains to follow. They liven things up. They cheer us up. They can inspire us… [but]…The trouble with stories is that to have any effect they have to be good ones – and most people are rubbish at telling them.”

To reinforce her case, Lucy Kellaway claims that plumbers, along with dentists, are mercifully story-free professions: “Plumbers don’t tell stories because they are too busy unblocking your toilet.” But of course, because plumbers, like us, are only human, they do. Especially when, like Charlie Mullins, they have built a great big plumbing business brand: Pimlico Plumbers.

A bog standard story is no doubt not worth the paper it’s written on, but a brilliant story is unquestionably priceless. Indeed, I’d argue that it is just about the most powerful (and pleasurable) thing there is.

 

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  • Published: Mar 25th, 2016
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For me it started with sunshine fingers…

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A beautiful poem by Gilda Hanson, a very promising young poet deservedly commended in the Agincourt 600 competition. I’m very proud to say she is also my daughter.

Outcast
by Gilda Hanson

Thank you
I have been waiting for this moment
For 600 years
Alone

For me it started
With sunshine fingers
And soldiers getting ready
Like children
On their first day at school
Morning minds aching with worry
About the day ahead

The French army stood
Like bulls ready to charge
Blocking our way

We were silent
Full of fatigue and fear

I heard my heart
Cast out of steel
Thumping

An unsteady hand
Grabbed my body
Placed me in the arms
Of a long yew bow
Drew me back
And let me go

And I SOARED!
As high as the heavens

Beside me
My brothers and sisters
Bodkins, swallowheads
An army of arrows in flight

Below me
Swords danced
A chaos of screams
Shouts, yells
Of mud, blood and guts

And down my fellow arrows arched
A waterfall of death

But I flew on
And on
Until I fell
To pierce the heart
Of a destitute ditch

And there I lay
An outcast arrow
Alone
Save for time
Marching on
Like soldiers to battle

So thank you
For finding me
For taking me home
For listening to my story
And for giving me hope

 

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  • Published: Nov 11th, 2014
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Can a crocodile play cricket?…

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“Computers can do some of the toughest tasks in the world but they cannot perform some of those that seem most simple to us mere humans,” writes Walter Isaacson in an article sparked by the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game. “Ask Google a hard question such as, “What is the depth of the Red Sea?” and it will instantly respond, “7,254ft”, something even your smartest friends don’t know. Ask it an easy one such as, “Can a crocodile play cricket?” and it will have no clue, even though a toddler could tell you, after a bit of giggling.”

I’m not so sure the toddler’s answer is the end of it. Indeed the answer is not a simple binary yes/no, it is a potentially multi-taled unending yesnomaybe. The difference here is that, unlike computers now or any time soon, we can make sense of simple and complex questions alike through stories – our wonderfully human form of communication. For example, through the story of how the crocodile could indeed play cricket by using its tail as a bat, before promptly bringing the game to an end by eating all its team mates.

There are inevitably attempts to create robot storytellers – Scheherazade, Whim and the like. But as Nicholas Lezard puts it, “Even if one day a computer will pass muster at the level of a sentence, there is no foreseeable way as yet that it will be able to construct a narrative that is both plausible and gripping.”

So despite the inexorable rise in digital firepower, storytellers everywhere can continue to sleep and dream and write soundly. Computers are a long, long way off from crafting tales of crocodiles and cricket.

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