Blog in 05 2012.
A couple of weeks ago, Time magazine had on its cover a photo of a woman breastfeeding her three-year-old son. As a mum to a toddler, I’ve been watching the resulting media furore with interest.
One Guardian article quoted a mum as saying that her husband ‘practised baby-wearing’. This sounds rather alarming (especially if you’ve ever seen The Silence of the Lambs), but she just meant that her husband carried their baby in a sling instead of using a pushchair. An odd term for an ordinary thing.
Reading this made me realise that jargon isn’t confined to the business world. It’s seeping into our personal lives, too – right down to the way we raise our kids.
So, at the office your boss bamboozles you by telling you to ‘socialise’ an idea (tell people about it), or that your report is too ‘granular’ (goes into too much detail). Then you come home and read a book about ‘attachment parenting’ (keeping your baby close to you and responding to its cues), which recommends ‘co-sleeping’ (sharing a bed with your baby) and ‘baby-led weaning’ (letting your baby feed itself, instead of spoon-feeding it mush).
Now, I have no beef whatsoever with attachment parenting: I definitely have more in common with the lentil-weaving baby wearers than the more regimented Gina Ford types. But I do find this sort of vocabulary a bit icky. These are things people have been doing instinctively for generations – do they really need to have these fancy names?
Why our sudden collective inability to call a spade a spade? Maybe we’re trying to make the mundane details of life seem more exciting. Or maybe we just like to put ourselves in boxes, to feel like we belong to a particular tribe. Either way, I wish we could all just tell it like it is, whether it’s in the nursery or the boardroom.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and refresh my son’s disposable undergarments.
The Writer’s in New York and we’re looking for writers and trainers. The search has taken me to LinkedIn. And I’m a little underwhelmed.
Where’s the personality people?
I have a theory – LinkedIn is for business and your profile is a CV. So even when writers know they need to sell themselves and their skills, most don’t. LinkedIn has put them in ‘business mode’, so the writing is formal, long and – to be frank – dull.
But, I found an exception. His name is Peter Carbonara (Best. Name. Ever). He says things like:
My gifts are that I am broadly curious and words come easily to me. My key failing is that I sometimes let my shtick (Mr. Cynical) get in the way of my talent. A psychic jury consultant (!) once shook his head and told me, ‘I can see you are intelligent, but your heart –’ He made a fist. His page got my attention. In fact, it drove me to write a blog. Well done Mr Carbonara.
So, what’s he doing that you can do?
Five things you could learn from Peter
1. Use more verbs and fewer nouns.
Don’t say your experience involves the production of online features. Say I wrote for the web instead.
2. Don’t write dull lists.
One guy’s experience at a previous job consisted of:
White papers, brochures and other marketing materials.
What were they about? Who were they for? What was interesting about them? What did you learn? Did they keep you up at night? Why?
Peter put: As a print reporter I’ve written about murder, rabies, and a variety of big money corporate disputes, UFO abduction, the Boston police, education, private equity, banks, oil futures, debt collectors, mutual funds, stock scams, hospitals and Richard Thompson.
3. Find interesting alternatives.
I’ve seen these words a lot:
Managed. Produced. Developed. Delivered. Created. Executed. Supported.
They’re not very exciting. Find a different way of saying those things. Like:
Stood up to the client and won.
4. Show off your skills, don’t tell me about them.
Writing that you have a keen eye for detail and strong story development skills does not make it so. Prove it or tell me more.
I’m good at generating narrative ideas and helping other people organise theirs. I enjoy saying, ‘That would make a really good story’. I like detective work.
5. Be honest. Brutally, revealingly honest.
Hearing how much of a hot shot you think you are is not interesting. Show some weakness, show how you overcame adversity, show me anything to show you’re human.
Peter says: I followed the usual journalism path and was promoted beyond my level of competence. Was subsequently fired by incoming managing editor for ‘stirring up discontent in the newsroom’ and my general inability to take him as seriously as he took himself. I fought the law and the law won.
Now, get yourselves on LinkedIn, do a Carbonara and lick that profile into shape.
(And if you want to learn a few more tricks to better writing, we’re doing a webinar on 30th May. You can sign up or get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.)
So, Chiltern trains have used a comedy writer to help inject some personality into their announcements.
They’ve used someone good, too – Richard Preddy, who wrote Green Wing. And they’ve got Tony ‘Baldrick’ Robinson to help coach their announcers in how to deliver them.
It simultaneously makes me think two things:
- Oh good, that’s interesting. Rail announcements have always been a joke – but for all the wrong reasons. It’s nice to see a train company do something imaginative with their language.
- Oh, god: that’s excruciating. There’s nothing worse than Organised Fun. Off-the-cuff quips get a smile. Forced humour gets a grimace. (At best.)
The whole thing is a link-up with a comedy TV channel, so presumably it’ll run for a few weeks and then all be over. The real opportunity, though, is for a rail company which realises that there’s a middle ground between funny ha-ha and the weird formal/bureaucratic gibberish of ‘de-training’ and ‘alighting’ that announcements are usually full of.
So, if you’re on a Chiltern train and you hear one of these announcements, do email us and tell us what you think. If you’re a train company who actually wants to change your language for better, for good, email us for a chat.
I’ve seen a lot of ‘values’ documents over the years. A lot. And I can tell you two things about them.
The same values come up again and again. Everyone is ‘open’ and/or ‘honest’ and/or ‘trustworthy’. Why does everyone use the same language to describe what they stand for?
It’s all ‘tell’ and no ‘show’. Brand value documents tend to be stuffed with statements about ‘we are committed to this’ and ‘we’re dedicated to that’ and ‘people are at the heart of our business’ or ‘we leverage the talent of our employees’. I always want to see the proof. Show me how you make the most of your employees’ talents, don’t just tell me.
So, it was really refreshing to stumble on to the Wells Fargo ‘vision and values’ page and see this as an introduction:
Our progress has not been perfect. We learn just as much from failure (perhaps more) as we do from success. Companies are made up of human beings who make mistakes. When we make them we admit them, learn from them, then we keep moving forward with even more understanding, guided by the same values toward the same vision.
They sound open, honest and trustworthy. They don’t have to tell me they are.
And these are their values:
People, ethics, ‘what’s right for customers’, diversity and leadership.
It’s a bit of an odd collection of words admittedly, but I think ‘what’s right for customers’ is an interesting one.
So well done Wells Fargo. I could do with an American bank account. I think I know where I’ll go.
By Charli – representing The Writer in NYC.
We've come to the end of our waxing lyrical blog series where each of us dug through our music collections to choose our favourite lyrics. To end it in style we're doing a bumper batch. So have a read, sing the lyrics if you're feeling crazy, and enjoy our final bunch of blogs.
‘Karl Marx squeezed his carbuncles while writing Das Kapital / And Gaugin, he buggered off, man, and went all tropical / While Philip Larkin stuck it out in a library in Hull / And Dylan Thomas died drunk in St Vincent’s hospital’
There She Goes My Beautiful World, by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds is ultimately about a writer’s muse deserting him. And yet it has quite the opposite effect on me. Often when I have writer’s block, or I simply need to clear my head before tackling the next section of a proposal or the next chapter of my book, I go for a run. And always, this track is on my playlist.
There’s something about being reminded of those great writers’ and artists’ hardships that really helps to put my own writer’s block in perspective. (‘What do you mean you can’t think of an opening line for that shampoo bottle? John Wilmot penned his poetry riddled with the pox!’)
And frankly, anyone who can squeeze Karl Marx’s carbuncles into a song is an inspiration to us all.
I like songs with lists in: REM's End of the World As We Know It; Rodgers & Hammerstein's A Few of My Favourite Things; Paul Simon's Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.
I also like songs that use English place names for mild comic effect: Billericay Dickie by Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and the classic Darleydale, Meesham and Droitwich by Charlie Says to name just two. (Much better than the American habit of using place names like they possess a mystical aura: Georgia on My Mind; Sweet Home Alabama; California Dreamin; LA Woman and so on.
Which of course means that I find songs which contain both lists and funny-sounding place names completely irresistible. I give you Billy Bragg's A13 Trunk Road to The Sea. Genius:
‘It starts down in Wapping / There ain't no stopping
By-pass Barking and straight through Dagenham / Down to Grays Thurrock / And rather near Basildon
Pitsea, Thundersley, Hadleigh, Leigh-On-Sea, / Chalkwell, Prittlewell / Southend's the end
If you ever have to go to Shoeburyness / Take the A road, the okay road that's the best / Go motorin' on the A13’
By Nick P
‘Slooshy sloshy slooshy sloshy / Get that dirty shirty clean / Slooshy sloshy slooshy sloshy
Make those cuffs and collars gleam / Everything clean and shiny / Washing machine’
That’s Kate Bush singing about a woman watching her clothes go round and round in a washing machine in Mrs Bartolozzi.
It’s also Kate Bush wresting the right to be a fully fledged member of the outlandish, barmy, eccentric, Artist-with-a-capital-A brigade away from the sole domain of men.
I love her for opening that door – and leaving it open for the next generation of bonkers women in pop music.
Are you still with us? Here are the final two.
‘Girl, I’m in love with you, this ain’t the honeymoon, we’re passed the infatuation phase / Right in the thick of love, at times we get sick of love / It seems like we argue every day’
Ordinary People by John Legend, co-written by Will.i.am.
This song’s a real, honest take on being in love. It makes a change to the two-dimensional fell-in-love-on-the-dancefloor message we get from every other pop song today. Those songs put the concept of love on a pedestal (probably in the middle of a nightclub).
Ordinary People is a raw depiction of love. It scraps the versions we get fed in romcoms and pop songs. Instead, it brings a realistic element to the surface, the we-don’t-know-what’s-going-to-happen feeling that keeps us awake at night.
And there are some less ordinary rhymes you don’t hear in everyday ballads, like ‘thick’ and ‘sick’, that suggest the all-consuming nature of love. And the loose line ‘I know I misbehaved and you made your mistakes’ shows that every word was thought about and not just stuck in for rhyme’s sake.
Write about your favourite lyrics, our Harry said.
Well ‘favourite’ is a big word. I couldn’t pick. So in a hopelessly stereotypically male way, I came up with some categories (OK, I made up some categories to fit a few front-runners). And these were the winners.
It can only be Hal David’s line in I’ll Never Fall In Love Again, can’t it?
‘What do you get when you kiss a guy? / You get enough germs to catch pneumonia / After you do, he’ll never phone ya’
Genius. (I recommend the smoky Bobbie Gentry version.)
Two belters in one song here, Want You Gone, by Jonathan Coulton:
‘She was a lot like you / Maybe not quite as heavy’
Ouch. If that didn’t sting enough, he tops it off with this:
‘Goodbye my only friend / Oh, did you think I meant you?!’
I guess we like the songs that say the things we’d never dare utter in real life.