To get serious for a moment, it’s Holocaust Memorial Day. The event has extra resonance this year. It’s 70 years since Soviet soldiers liberated Auschwitz. And there’s fresh alarm over anti-semitism in the wake of the Paris supermarket shootings.
One thing that anyone interested in the Holocaust soon runs into is the role of language. It paved the way to destruction, and oiled its machinery. The hate-filled, unsophisticated language of the Nazis’ propaganda. The bureaucratic language of laws that lent an orderliness to the prejudice (a strangely high number of senior Nazis were law graduates). The cynical, duplicitous language that helped strip Jews of their belongings, businesses and rights.
And finally, when it came to killing, the euphemistic language used by the people involved. First in quasi-clinical environments where they honed their methods on the mentally ill and disabled. Then in the logistical, scientific, industrial system they created to murder millions.
Removal, resettlement, evacuation, transport ‘to the east’, special treatment, disinfection. Words and phrases that meant something, yet obscured meaning. The people involved used them for various reasons. To lend their work a twisted propriety; to dress it up as duty and necessity. To shroud it in secrecy as well as to hoodwink the victims (though by the end of the war, no one was under any illusions). And to insulate themselves from the deed itself.
Why think about all this? Language is powerful. It can be liberating, positive, inspiring. And it can be the opposite. It just depends who’s using it.
Much hoopla this week about the landing of a picture-taking, data-relaying thingmy on the back of a comet.
Am I alone in being left a bit cold by this? I mean, well done amazing scientists for working out how to fire the thingmy gazillions of miles into space and bump it down onto an object travelling gazillions of miles an hour.
But what’s it all for?
All I heard on the news was the technological achievement, or the ‘how’. Only after a good minute or two did the BBC’s David Shukman throw in any mention of the ‘why’. It seems the thingmy might tell us how the Earth got its water. Ah. Now I’m interested. Tell me more. Except Shukman didn’t. Shame. (Especially as I really like him, usually.)
This all reminded me a bit of something we tell people in workshops: talk about benefits, not features. Because people care more about how fast they can download films than how big the chip in their phone is.
I’m not averse to a science story. The Voyager probe transforming what we know about the universe. The boffins at Bletchley Park shortening WWII by cracking the Enigma code. But until someone tells me what use this thingmy really is, I’ll just think the money would have been better spent on developing an Ebola vaccine.
As you probably know, the Co-operative Group has been having a pretty bad time of it lately. And the day before the Easter break, we found out just how bad. Losses of £2.5bn, mostly down to the Co-operative Bank, which had to be bailed out by its own bond holders. In short, the worst results in the Co-op’s 150 years.
So how to break this badder-than-bad news? Well, the Co-op’s CEO, Richard Pennycook, just came right out and said it. ‘A disastrous year’ is the headline he gave the press, the savers and the analysts. And there’s the d-word again in his annual report intro – he uses it three times. No ‘weathering adversity’. No ‘working to restore confidence’. Just disaster, plain and simple. And you can bet the honesty will have earned the Co-op respect and probably a few friends just when they need them.
Of course, there’s a lesson for everyone here. If you’ve got bad news, don’t sugar-coat it. Even if it’s not as galactically bad as the Co-op’s. People know when they’re being spun to. And they won’t respect you for it.
(Okay, people also know when organisations time their announcements to limit damage. All of us on the sidelines went away for Easter and promptly forgot all about the Co-op. So consider this bit of bad news exhumation our way of helping you fight your inner sugar-coater.)
Do get along and see American Hustle if you haven’t already. Great fun from the start. Yes, from the start. Good films, books, plays and so on tend to have good openings. ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’ (Rebecca). ‘The past is a different country. They do things differently there’ (The Go-between). ‘Are you watching carefully?’ (The Prestige). And so on.
In American Hustle, it’s just a few words on screen: ‘Some of this actually happened.’ But they’re so much better than the usual words that get trotted out in this situation: ‘Based upon actual events’, ‘Based on a true story’, or some slight variation on that snoozy formula. By messing with it ever-so slightly, the film sets us up to expect the cheeky, good-humoured yarn it duly serves up.
And, yes, there’s a lesson for us here in Realityville. Don’t waste the opening words of whatever it is you’re writing. Don’t clear your throat with ‘I am writing with regard to...’. Don’t take a run-up to the main point of your email, report, white paper or letter. Get right into it straightaway. That way, the person on the receiving end is much more likely to pay attention, think what you want them to think, and do what you want them to do.
Every so often Argos enters my life. Occasionally I enter Argos for the full-shop ritual, complete with betting-shop pens, Fisher Price keypads and strangely ‘benefit office’ queuing experience. But mostly it’s the vans. They flit across my cycle route just long enough for me to see the words on the side: Delivering value. And every time I smile, if only inwardly.
Who came up with that? Did they know how good it was? The vans are literally delivering value to people who either didn’t do the store ritual or couldn’t carry a three-piece suite home.
But the line is (or perhaps isn’t) also a send-up of one of the biggest buzzword evils in business language. Throw a brick at the average bit of business discourse and you’ll hit the word ‘delivery’. Outcomes, efficiencies and of course value are all being delivered, 24/7.
Throw 20 bricks and you’ll hit the even-bigger bullseye: ‘delivery vehicle’. A delivery vehicle can be many things (a project, an initiative), nearly none of which the reader will understand. But it’s almost never a good-old-fashioned metal box with an engine and four wheels. Which is why that line on the Argos vans is such a killer.
If only for that reason, my next big-ticket purchase may just be from there.
You can’t help but earwig on people’s conversations on the train. Especially when they’re happening only a yard or two away. Usually they’re not worth passing on, but I’ll make an exception.
A man was telling the woman opposite how his son had been kicked out of school. The school had copped out of dealing with the boy’s behavioural problems, and the local authority was following suit by fudging the issue of what to do next. All this told in measured, but still emotional, language.
Then she chipped in. It was clear from the off that she was an Education Professional. ‘They’re required to make reasonable adjustments,’ she said. ‘With their expertise you would hope they have encountered many circumstances…’ she added. ‘The way teaching assistants are being deployed has been subject to a great deal of research,’ she mused.
So, an Education Professional only capable of speaking in dry, institutional language. And not putting it through her own humanity filter for the sake of her hapless friend.
Dangerous stuff, formal language. Work near it for long enough and eventually it will take your soul.
Remember that ‘grammar nazi’ sketch on Mitchell & Webb? The boss of a business calmly shoots employees who misuse or (mostly) mispronounce words and ends up killing himself when a colleague points out his own mistake. What is it about it that makes us laugh? The risqué idea of going on a workplace killing spree? Or is it that we imagine ourselves pointing the gun at apostrophe, comma and colon abusers? (Enough about my dodgy fantasies.)
There’s obviously something about grammar that gets under people’s skin. Newspapers’ postbags and inboxes are groaning with spleen-venting rants about this or that mistake that lazy sub-editors have let through. The ranters usually end up tracing the ‘problem’ back to inadequate teaching. Or a general decline in ‘standards’. Which of course were much higher when they went to school and learned how to do it all properly.
Take a look at this nutty blog from a businessman who says he won’t hire people with ‘poor grammar’. Then check out the comments. Typical combination of frothing anger and nit-picking. Hardly anyone’s thinking about what the piece actually says. They’re all getting stuck on hyphens and split infinitives.
Above all, they’re not seeing that good writing is about more than grammar. Grammar all by itself never moved anyone. Never persuaded them. Never entertained them.
So what’s really going on when the ‘sticklers’ hold forth? I’ll take a punt. People who dislike and fear change, but can’t do much about it, are latching on to what they see as an example of it and letting out all that pent-up fear and rage. It helps that the topic is something they feel they’re an ‘expert’ on.
It’s great if you can put your commas and apostrophes in the right places. And not get your ‘there’ and ‘their’ mixed up. Your writing will be easier to read and readers won’t get distracted by the mistakes. They’ll probably take the writing more seriously too. But that’s assuming they read to the end. To make them do that you need personality, verve, style.
People write best when they enjoy it. And they won’t do that if they’re getting an insecurity complex from their inner school master.
Book: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Film: Rebecca, directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Not many directors are as distinctive as Hitchcock, so this his first Hollywood film was always going to step out from the shadow of the (perfectly decent) book. In a good way. Can Daphne Du Maurier have imagined Mrs Danvers was quite so chilling and kinky as Judith Anderson made her? Or that Jack Favell was as magnificently caddish as George Sanders?
Rummaging through Ericsson’s old annual reports (as you do), I came across something interesting. In 2002, the board of directors kicked off the report like this:
‘Ericsson’s core business is to be a preferred vendor of carrier-class communications systems to leading operators of mobile and fixed networks. We believe we are the leading supplier of mobile communication systems … and we have a strong position in solutions for fixed networks regarding next generation of IP-based communication and data.’
Okay, not very interesting. But compare that lifeless, hedging paragraph and these opening words from the next year’s report:
‘Lots of exciting things start with a phone call. Such was the case when I received a call in January 2003 inviting me to become CEO of Ericsson. This is an extraordinary company. I’ve always thought so, and I believe it even more now.’
Admittedly the arrival of a new CEO (Carl-Henric Svanberg, who did six years at Ericsson and is now chairman at BP) was a corking angle not available to most annual report writers. But which company would you rather invest in? Grey, stultifying 2002 Ericsson with its faceless board? Or incisive, go-getting 2003 Ericsson with its fired-up CEO?
Most companies are staring down the barrel of quarter four. It’ll soon be annual report time. What kind of message is it going to be this year? Solid showing in our big markets and hopeful signs in emerging ones? Making painful but necessary changes to weather a slump in demand?
Whatever it is, there’s no excuse for making it boring. Whether it’s good news, bad or somewhere in between, investors want you to give it to them straight. They want to hear you’ve got everything under control. That you’ve got a clear idea of what the business is doing next year and why. They’d like evidence to back all that up, and they’ll sniff out hyperbole a mile off.
But they don’t want to be put to sleep. They want to know there’s a steady, strong hand on the tiller, not a dead one. Investors are more wary, need more convincing and crave more reassurance than ever. That’s worth thinking about as you craft those all-important words.
Stories. Nothing cuts through to an audience quite as well. Why else do Innocent keep telling that one about how they started? You know the one. Founders turn up at a music festival with homemade smoothies, a sign saying ‘should we give up our jobs to make these?’ and two barrels marked ‘yes’ and ‘no’ for the empties (guess which one was full at the end).
There’s something instinctive, almost primal, about how we love to hear stories and tell them. It goes all the way back to when we first lit fires in our caves and huddled round them for warmth and company.
So why do we have such trouble telling the story that should come most naturally – our own? When you’re next at a conference, have a look at the speakers’ biogs. I guarantee they’ll be lifeless and formulaic, full of phrases like ‘prior to’ and ‘delivering excellent outcomes’. It’s as if the real person has been locked up in a big tower called ‘convention’ and their personality smothered in chloroform.
Check out these (randomly googled) speakers and session chairs at a series of Healthcare Technologies conferences.
See any patterns? They’re all ultra-formal, they all reel off, with grim monotony, a list of jobs the people have done, and none of them actually say what the people did in those jobs. What if Berwyn, Stuart, Tony and co actually told us what difference they made? ‘At Medidevice inc, I led the team behind a breakthrough that means 500 less people are dying of asthma every year’. ‘In the labs I run at Mediscreen, we’ve isolated 24 mutations of the flu virus. It’s vital work that helps vaccinations work better’.
The audience may be hardened healthcare pros, but they’re still human beings. No one’s immune to inspiration.
So next time they ask for your biog at work, express yourself. Say who you really are.
Kenneth Clarke, genial, knowingly rumpled Conservative minister. Lars von Trier, revered, slightly nutty Danish film director. In any given week they wouldn’t have anything in common.
This week is different. They’ve both been in trouble for saying the wrong thing.
In a radio interview, Ken suggested there were serious and less serious kinds of rape. Cue the infamous exchange:
Victoria Derbyshire: ‘Rape is rape’.
Ken: ‘No it is not’.
He could perhaps have dodged the bullet altogether if he’d said there were serious and more serious kinds of rape.
In a Cannes press conference, Lars took that surprisingly well worn path to career suicide that involves publicly sympathising with Hitler. Shortly afterwards, digging the hole even deeper, he said: ‘OK – I am a Nazi’.
He should perhaps have stayed in bed, or not turned up in Cannes at all.
Both men’s advisors have no doubt sat them down in a quiet corner and said, ‘Ken, old chap/Lars, darling. Think before you speak’.
Great advice for writers too.
Every day, we write words that we hope will change people’s minds, make them like us or get them to do what we want. The more we think before we lay a finger on the keyboard, the better those words will turn out. And the more effective they’ll be. Our internal editor needs to be sure what we want to say and what order to say it in. Then they need to be an ultra-harsh critic of every phrase and argument.
Unlike Ken and Lars, we have the luxury of being able to cross things out and start again. But once our words are out there, on people’s desks and in their inboxes, we can’t hastily correct ourselves or go on Question Time to say sorry for being confusing or accidentally offensive.
We may not be going out live to millions, but we can still do a Ken/Lars.
There’s a lot of bad language on the railways. Not swearing, though when trains get cancelled even sensitive souls dig into a store of expletives they didn’t know they had.
No, the bad language I mean is the announcements.
When train companies want to tell us things, they get all embarrassed. Why else use the strangely remote and pompous language they reach for so routinely? The kind that tells us they’d rather do anything but talk to us.
You’ve got to feel for them a bit. They hardly ever have good news to share. Prices never go down. There’s never a sale. And when stuff goes wrong, it’s often not their fault.
But it’s hard to like anyone who talks to you the way they do.
‘Here is a special announcement to help you with boarding and alighting,’ says the recorded voice of First Capital Connect, gearing up to tell us (needlessly, perhaps) how to open the doors. No one’s talked about ‘boarding’ since trains ran on steam, have they? And has anyone ever used the word ‘alight’ to mean anything but ‘on fire’? Nothing special about that announcement.
Live ones are no better. ‘There are safety notices displayed throughout the train. Could passengers please take a moment to familiarise themselves with their contents’. That’s the driver, reading the script obviously pinned up in the cab. It will only ever get one result. Zero compliance. But we might feel different if the driver said: ‘There’s a safety notice close to you. Please take a minute to have a look at it.’
People do notice when humanity puts in a rare appearance. A whole carriage recently clapped the driver who veered away from the schtick he was meant to deliver before linking our train up to another one. Instead of the usual ‘please be seated, the doors will be released shortly’ guff, he prepared us for the small jolt by saying: ‘Anyone with babies or laptops – hold on to ‘em’. The message landed. As well as laughing, people did hold on to their laptops (I didn’t see any babies).
The people who run the stations are just as bad, so at least the bad language is joined up. ‘Due to today’s inclement weather, please take care when on or around the station, as floors may be slippery’, says the Kings Cross PA on wet days. Nice that they’re worried about our brittle limbs. But unless you’re living out a Miss Marple fantasy, would you use a dotty word like ‘inclement’? ‘Ticket checks are in operation at this station’. ‘For your safety and comfort, this station operates a no-smoking policy’. And so on.
Then there’s silly stuff like ‘station stops’ (the other kind of stop is?), ‘sorry for the inconvenience this may cause to your journey’ (not ‘sorry for the inconvenience we’ve caused you’) and ‘de-training’ (‘getting off’ to you and me).
Language is a dead giveaway for how businesses really feel about their customers. The more strained the situation, the faster they retreat to their linguistic bunker and its awkward words. Us and them. We live together in permanent dread of the next delay. But what if companies started sounding like human beings? It might at least help us feel they were on our side. It might make us like them just a bit.