Thursday, 29 October 2009

Warren, Doris and Bertie

Warren Buffett (profiled by Evan Davis on BBC2 last Monday) was the world’s richest man until his chum Bill Gates knocked him off the perch. Even so, he remains the world’s most successful investor. Previously known as ‘the sage of Omaha’, he is now revered as the ‘oracle of Omaha’, so good is his investment record.

But prodigious wealth, and a fondness for bridge, are where the similarities between the two end. Gates, the über-nerd, controls a vast and glossy empire from Microsoft’s sculpted headquarters outside Seattle. Buffett, the hayseed from the heart of the mid-west, makes his decisions from Berkshire Hathaway’s scruffy office in downtown Omaha, Nebraska.

Buffett doesn’t buy fashionable companies, only those that are well managed. He has never bought a technology stock because he doesn’t understand the business. He owns a modest suburban house and drives a second-hand car. His company website looks like a first-year design project, while the Berkshire Hathaway AGM has all the sophistication of a country fayre, where 30,000 adoring shareholders come to eat ice cream, drink cherry coke and sit at the feet of their guru.

For all the homespun veneer, Buffett in his own way is probably just as much of a nerd as Gates – undoubtedly brilliant, probably a little autistic, certainly obsessive-compulsive. But there’s one thing he has mastered, which is plain speaking. In 1998, such is his standing in the investment world, he was invited to write a preface to the US Security and Exchange Commission’s Plain English Handbook. He concluded with this ‘one unoriginal but useful tip’:

‘Write with a specific person in mind. When writing Berkshire Hathaway's annual report, I pretend that I'm talking to my sisters. I have no trouble picturing them: Though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them. My goal is simply to give them the information I would wish them to supply me if our positions were reversed. To succeed, I don't need to be Shakespeare; I must, though, have a sincere desire to inform. No siblings to write to? Borrow mine: Just begin with "Dear Doris and Bertie."’

For that alone he gets my vote. If you have a moment, look at Warren Buffett's Letters to Berkshire Shareholders, especially the letter for 2008 when the recession started to bite. There is nothing else like them.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Heat, dust and truth

We took off from Jodhpur at 2.45pm on Tuesday and climbed, rather slowly it seemed, over the Rajasthani desert on the first leg of our journey home to Scotland. After fifteen minutes, and five thousand feet at best, there came an announcement: we had a ‘minor technical fault’ and would be returning to Jodhpur.

For the rest of the afternoon we drank chilled water and looked on in hopeful ignorance as an earnest knot of uniformed types ferreted around in the plane’s innards. Then, at 6.00pm, came the second announcement: we were grounded for the night.

This meant that several of us would miss our international connections in Delhi. Agitated conversations took place in hot, crowded offices. The ground staff were variously evasive, defensive, rude, conciliatory, unintelligible and plain confused. Jodhpur is not Heathrow. It is not even Exeter. It might conceivably be Stornoway with palm trees. This was a situation they had clearly never been trained for.

Odd bits of information emerged, none of them helpful. A small part, but nonetheless vital for making the propellors go round, had broken. We might or might not have come close to falling out of the sky. The part was in Mumbai from where it might or might not appear sometime during the hours of darkness by road, or plane, or some combination of the two. They might or might not be able to find us overnight accommodation and alternative flights next day.

It’s enough to say here that things got considerably worse before they got better. I’m writing this in Heathrow T5, where I should have been yesterday, and where I’m now also keenly reminded of the debacle over the opening of the new terminal building last year.

So often, it seems, the problem is that information is a jigsaw, with many people holding a couple of pieces each, and no one holding them all. This is when it becomes more important than ever that people treat the information they do hold with integrity.

The truth, from the start, wouldn’t have made our enforced stopover at Jodhpur any more comfortable, but it would have made it a lot less stressful. Yet we all, in different situations, have our own reasons for fearing the truth – and that fear is simply the biggest obstacle to good communication of all.

Friday, 16 October 2009

The train now arriving ...

4.30 am. After five days in the mountains we have spent the last seven hours trying to snatch sleep as the train rattles and sways down from the north.

Now a lady with a singsong voice and cut-glass diction comes on the tannoy. ‘Good morning and welcome. In a short while the train will be arriving at New Delhi railway station. New Delhi is the political capital of India and renowned for its culture. Please dispose of your water bottle to avoid its possible misuse. There is a twenty-four hour foreign exchange at the station for all your currency needs. Thank you.’

John Simmons commented last week that one can understand a lot about a nation's personality from its public service messages. He’s right. So much of India is revealed in this short announcement to the bleary-eyed passengers now stumbling from their bunks.

There is pride, in the Lutyens buildings of administrative New Delhi and the political edifices they house, struggling to govern this practically ungovernable nation of over one billion souls; pride too in India’s brilliantly rich tapestry of music, art, literature, dance, theatre and architecture.

There’s the irresistible urge to issue instructions that wells up from that dusty and deeply bureaucratic crevice in India's soul, though in this case the injunction is futile; the habit of littering is endemic and the infrastructure too inefficient and corrupt to make the slightest impression on it.

And then there’s money. Even at 4.30 am it seems that the urgent daily business of making a rupee has begun. Enterprising porters have leapt onto the still-moving train to present themselves at our compartment door. Taxis and rickshaws wait, engines spluttering, at the station entrance. Embers are being blown up in the hearths of shadowy little food stalls. And, of course, it’s never too early, or too late, to garner a few more tourist dollars.

Finally, there’s politeness and a wish to please, perhaps more evident in the singsong tone than in the words themselves, but there nevertheless; a solid seam of civility present at all levels of Indian society.

This one short message contains a whole bundle of contradictions, and that is where its real character resides. We reveal most about ourselves, nation, organisation or individual, in our contradictions, our complexities; which is doubtless why so many businesses present such a one-dimensional, and ultimately uninteresting, personality to the world.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Indian autumn

It’s one of the great clichés of travel-writing that India is an assault on the senses, but stepping outside the terminal building at Delhi airport, I’m lost for any other way to describe the experience of arriving in the sub-continent.

This is my fourth visit and I’m coming to know and love the pervasively musky smell of spices and vegetation, the thick velvety light at dawn and dusk, the incessant passage and noise of people and vehicles and creatures, the jostling buildings, the garish markets, the chatter of birds, the cows sauntering amid the traffic and rubbish.

But there’s something else that I’m noticing this time, and that’s the words. On every conceivable outdoor surface, moving or static, there are words; thousands of them, like a written overspilling of the great, exuberant Indian conversation that starts every day at sunrise and goes on till moonset.

Slogans, advertisements, injunctions, bylaws, public notices, shop and business signs, graffiti - they plaster houses, offices, stalls, vehicles, hoardings, garden walls, bridges and flyovers. A large bus is a ‘stage carriage’ which is ‘propelled by clean fuel’. A ramshackle pick-up declares that it is ‘redefining distribution’ and a truck's bumper exhorts you to ‘keep distance!’ and ‘horn please!’. A hotel boasts of its ‘lavish lawns’ and ‘poolside parties’. A public park forbids ‘joy riding’ and ‘clothes washing’. And my favourite, whitewashed onto a rock on a hairpin bend in the foothills, warns: ‘Better late, Mister Driver, than the late Mister Driver!’

In the jaded West we know the outdoor conversation to be largely one-sided, dreamt up by admen and clever copywriters, so we tend to see it rather than actually hear it. But in India it’s noisier, less polished, more real; and the babble of those written voices seems almost as loud as the real ones. I’m sure India would be a quieter, and probably a poorer, place without it.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

A ticklish matter

I met my first grandchild on Tuesday. She was four-and-a-bit days old. It also happened to be my sixtieth birthday. What a birthday present. It won't be too long, I expect, before she discovers that she is quisquillosa.

This is the Spanish word for ‘ticklish’, and a lovely word it is (pronounced keeskeeyosa). You can feel it in your mouth. It sounds like a little girl’s giggle.

On our Dark Angels courses we do an exercise that helps to make the point that words have character beyond their meaning; and that in the meaning-obsessed world of business writing, character is frequently overlooked.

So we ask for a favourite word. Invariably, people's responses are influenced as much by sound and rhythm, texture and tone, even how the word looks on the page, as by meaning. We celebrate this, because the character of all good writing, whether business or personal, derives in very large part from the choice of words we make. (If that seems like a statement of the obvious, just read a couple of pages of your insurance or utility company’s annual report.)

When we're in Andalucia we ask for a favourite word in Spanish. Some people are fluent, some have a smattering, some have none. But everyone knows at least one word in Spanish, even it if it’s simply ‘si’ or ‘señor’. So our opening list of Spanish words adds a dash of salsa to our linguistic deliberations. This year, like my grand-daughter, quisquilloso made its debut.

In due course the little girl herself will start to learn a new language, her first. By then she will have a name, one of the most important words in her vocabulary. I hope she’ll grow up to know what it means – names come with their own power. I also hope she’ll like the sound it makes, even the way it looks. Because this will be the first step on a journey that will lead her, if she's fortunate, to the same love of words, the same delight in language, as her grandfather - and, I'm happy to say, her father, my new son-in-law.