Thursday, 25 February 2010

In the beginning ...

A friend sent me an article from a recent edition of the Harvard Journal of Management, not my normal bedtime reading. It reports how a group of scholars and business leaders came together to consider the great challenges involved in reinventing management and making it more relevant to a volatile world.

They listed 25 ‘Moon Shots for Management’ (how business loves to borrow the imagery of what it sees as more glamorous activities), including this, at number 24: Humanize the language and practice of business.

Well, at least it made it onto the list, even if preceded by other such eye-catching items as : De-structure and disaggregate the organization, or Stretch executive time frames and perspectives.

‘Tomorrow’s management systems,’ the wise men propose, ‘must give as much credence to such timeless human ideals as beauty, justice, and community as they do to the traditional goals of efficiency, advantage, and profit.’ In all fairness, a right-minded and laudable manifesto, even though I defy anyone to find the nobility in Powerpoint training.

But ‘humanising the language and practice of business’ at number 24 out of 25? Until the language of the business world is humanised, nothing else about it possibly can be. The practice simply cannot begin to reflect ‘timeless human ideals’ while the words that describe it remain impersonal and alienating; in fact, the ideas themselves can scarcely even take shape.

So let’s not forget the Gospel According to St John and its opening phrase, In the beginning was the word. ‘The word’, note, not ‘the thought’. For it’s the word that gives form to the thought. And by this reckoning, omega should become alpha, and number 24 should surely be promoted to number one. A few kind words would be a good place to start.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Flying blind

Yesterday afternoon I ran a two-hour online training session with nine HR managers from a multinational corporation. I sat in my office in my garden in Birnam. They sat in their offices in various locations in seven different countries, from Sweden to Morocco. Only two of them were native English speakers. They were there to learn about their company’s new, more personable, tone-of-voice, and how to put it into practice when they write.

We could all hear each other, but not see each other. We could also all see the same screen which I, as the trainer, was supposed to be managing but which stubbornly refused to allow me to do so. I had to co-opt one of the invisible participants, who seemed to have the magic touch I lacked, into being my assistant and clicking through the presentation for me.

More by accident of technology than by design, it was a session about words in which words were literally the only resource available to us. There was no eye contact, no possibility of facial expression or body language or hand gestures. And there were the additional obstacles of English-as-a-foreign-language and, in some cases, soft or indistinct voices.

How did it work? Surprisingly well, in fact. To communicate in this state of semi-sensory deprivation, you have to do two things. First, pick your words extremely carefully and enunciate them very clearly. Second, invest them, or rather your voice, with as many as you can of the emotional signals that stream from all the other transmitters at your disposal in normal face-to-face contact. This might sound hard but it seems that it’s instinctive. Within a few minutes everyone had cottoned on.

In an odd, and unintended, way it was perfect – tone-of-voice training in which tone-of-voice was literally everything. It makes me think that in future writing workshops I’ll get people to speak to one another with their eyes closed. Because one way of thinking about writing is that it’s the equivalent of speaking blindfold; and yet, when it’s good, the writer can be as present as if you could see them.

The Birnam Quartet are playing a house concert in Edinburgh on Wednesday 17th March. If you'd be interested in coming to hear us, please email me as soon as you can ( - numbers are very limited.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Stories for life

If you’ve never been there, Llandudno is a charming, and at this time of year extremely bracing, Victorian seaside town on the north coast of Wales. It’s also home to Venue Cymru, the national conference centre of North Wales. We were there, the Dark Angels, to run work-shops at a storytelling conference for public service managers from all over Wales.

The event was, in effect, a coming together of two domains which one of the speakers, borrowing from a contemporary German philosopher called Jurgen Habermas, described as ‘life world’ and ‘system world’ respectively.

On this occasion life world was represented by the storytellers, and that corner of each delegate’s heart that was ready to embrace the idea of stories as something that have a place at work. System world, on the other hand, was represented by the organisations the delegates came from, and their demand for a soulless obedience to a certain kind of logic.

We need both, of course. Without system world there would be anarchy or chaos. But Jurgen Habermas fears that it has got out of hand and is gradually colonising life world. In the face of this fear, stories are a vital line of defence.

Stories humanise and energise. They encourage their listeners to imagine, to feel, to connect. They allow people to lead through inspiration and persuasion. They help people understand change and each other, solve problems and come to terms with past difficulties. Most importantly, we don’t judge stories; they can’t be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. They are not the truth, merely a truth. And they challenge the view that logic offers the only proper way to think.

Llandudno, with its guest houses and sedate hotels, its broad sweep of promenade and slightly incongruous palm trees, is surely a place of countless stories: stories of holidays that went right, or wrong, or perhaps never happened at all; stories of local lives lived out to the sound of the waves rolling in from the bay. And now it has one more: how sixty public servants arrived at the conference from the cold domain of system world and left with at least a part of their souls restored, by the possibilities of stories, to life world.

Last week I mentioned our new CD The Music of Burns but not where to get it. It's now available from Shoogle Records

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Words and music

I belong to that generation of Scots for whom, shamefully, Scottish culture played no discernible part in education. So I came to our national bard late and, oddly enough, through music rather than words.

Last night, a musical project I’ve been involved with for four years finally came to fruition with a performance at the official ‘end of show’ party for Scotland’s Year of Homecoming and the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’s birth. Alex Salmond sent along Jim Mather, his Minister for Energy, Enterprise and Tourism, to make a speech, Dougie Maclean sang a song and we, The Birnam Quartet – so called because we first met at the weekly session in the pub in my village of Birnam, played some tunes.

The project was to record instrumental versions of the beautiful old melodies that Burns set his lyrics to. In a year crowded with his songs, poems and letters, we wanted to look at the man through the lens of the music he loved rather than the words he wrote. Now we have a CD* and a small tour of concerts and workshops about to run through the spring.

In the show we intersperse the music with anecdotes from Burns’s life, as well as stories about the provenance of the ancient tunes he chose for his songs (and helped to immortalise in the process). This calls for a script – which I duly wrote, the music playing like a soundtrack in my head as I did so.

When I came to read it back I realised that my exposure to the music had subtly enriched my understanding of the man and my appreciation of his genius with words. It had also, I like to think, added something – rhythm, depth, colour, I’m not exactly sure what – to the words I had written myself.

Language flourishes when the other senses are stimulated. It may seem obvious, but it’s still very easy to forget, especially in the world of work. Yet go out to a great concert, movie, exhibition, play, even meal and there’s a fair chance that you’ll bring something extra to the letter or report you have to write next morning.

When Tim Smit founded the Eden Project he insisted that every member of staff had at least one cultural experience a month and wrote a review of it. He knew very well that creativity begets creativity. If only more people in the business world did.

* We’re launching The Music of Burns this Saturday, 6th Feb, 7.00pm at the Birnam Institute, Birnam, Perthshire. Come along if you can. And I can avidly recommend Robert Crawford’s recent, brilliant biography of Robert Burns, The Bard.