Thursday, 25 March 2010

The rhythm of life

We start our Dark Angels courses with a simple but illuminating exercise. We ask everyone present to name a favourite word. The resulting list allows us to make the point that we have a relationship with words that goes well beyond their simple meaning.

This week, for example, ‘onomatopoeia’ and ‘hippopotamus’ were two of the words offered on a workshop I was running. Why did you choose that word, I asked the participants. Because of the way it sounds, answered one. Because of the rhythm, said the other.

From the beat of our mothers’ hearts to the sweep and tug of the furthest planets, rhythm is a constant in our lives. We find life and energy in rhythm. We also find familiarity and safety in it. And as my students demonstrated, we’re naturally responsive to rhythm in language.

In the meaning-obsessed world of business, the ‘non-essential’ qualities of language tend to be excluded. The writer’s palette remains a dreary monochrome, the voice a dull monotone. And if some kind of pulse does creep in it’s less likely to be for purposes of enlivening the writing, more likely to be out of fear that if you don’t say the same thing three times, people will think you’ve only done a third of the job.

‘Design, develop and implement’ is a favourite, beloved of the strategificators and initiative-creators who populate the modern business world in a great droning swarm. But as rhythm goes, that string of three verbs has all the charm and subtlety of a hammer hitting a thumb. And as for meaning, why in God’s name would you design something if you didn’t intend to develop and implement it? What happened to good old-fashioned planning, anyway?

Many of the recent obituaries of Michael Foot quoted his observation that ‘the men who do not read are unfit for power’. He was right. Great leaders know that the best writing, and speaking, combine clarity of meaning with an awareness of all those ‘non-essential’ qualities of language: sound, rhythm, colour, texture. And how else can you nurture that awareness but by reading?

My own version of Michael Foot’s epigram would be this: the men and women who do not read are unfit to communicate. And yet… it seems that our students do read. Another of our exercises is to ask them to talk about a favourite novel. This they invariably do with enthusiasm, conviction, even passion; and with full awareness of the power and nuance of the language they’ve been exposed to.

So what’s going on? Why do they feel they have to shed that sensitivity like an overcoat each time they approach their office doors?

To be continued, diddle-de-dee...

Thursday, 18 March 2010

50 words for 50 days

My fellow Dark Angel, John Simmons, responded to my last week’s post by adding ‘the pretence of objectivity’ to the list of ingredients that I suggested might be swilling around in the toxic soup called management speak – or Manglish as I heard someone so brilliantly describe it the other day.

Objectivity is a word that often stands in for truth when truth itself is too uncomfortable, or too difficult to get at. But as John pointed out, it seeks to ignore everything that’s human and messy, passionate and unmeasurable, so it can hardly ever offer an accurate representation of the human endeavour that characterises all working life.

Objectivity may have its place in the cold, hard reaches of science and mathematics – although there are plenty who would argue that as human constructs, even those disciplines can never be as free of subjectivity as they would like to think they are. But the idea that work, which occupies so much of our waking lives, can or should be described in language from which conviction or emotion is absent, is patently ludicrous, not to say against nature.

In effect, ‘the pretence of objectivity’ is a form of control. Which, of course, is why tyrants since the beginning of time have sought to stifle writers and impose their own regimes of so-called objectivity on language and ideas.

As I write, International PEN is celebrating 50 years of support for imprisoned writers. It has teamed up with 26, the writers’ group that champions a greater love of words in work and in life. Fifty writers from 26 have 50 words each in which to write a tribute to the PEN member they’ve been assigned. These are being published, a tribute a day, for 50 days at

Please read them – and as you do, try really hard for a few moments to imagine what it would be like to be locked up for what you have written; to live in constant fear of torture, further torture, or execution.

As a testament to the human spirit, these short pieces of writing are very fine. They’re wonderful too as an example of the creativity that can result from a constraint such as fifty words. But best of all they stand as a metaphor for the beauty and clarity of thought and language that prison bars themselves can engender. The one thing you will not find in any of them is the slightest whiff of objectivity.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Oral history

How did we get here? How did we reach the point where we have one language for work and another for the rest of our lives?

In one we tend to engage with all the unique characteristics and faculties that make us the individuals we are. In the other – only really half a language – we leave a large part of our personalities behind. Cipher is a frightening and demeaning word, but to some extent it’s what modern business-speak makes us.

Fear, of course, has a lot to answer for. Fear of looking stupid or out of touch, fear of being called to account, fear of losing control or authority. The less of ourselves we reveal the more we distance ourselves from the possible consequences of what we say or write.

But how did it come to this? I believe modern business language has been brewing for at least 250 years. It comes to us via the age of reason and early scientific enquiry; the subsequent industrial revolution when new technical processes were the dominant force; the expansion of trade and empire, from which a new vocabulary of commerce emerged; Victorian paternalism and love of litigation, which saw the full flowering of legalese; the periods of austerity following two world wars, and the language of twentieth century military command (in particular from Vietnam, the first televised war) with its talk of campaigns and strategic objectives; the IT revolution with a whole new almost mandatory technological dialect; and the explosive growth of management consultancy and the MBA culture – quasi-academic, pseudo-scientific. Add to all that the most recent and baneful influence, the culture of measure-ment, and the resulting cocktail is scarcely a language at all since it fails to communicate on almost any human level.

A couple of days ago my train came to a halt in the middle of the countryside. After a wait of several minutes a cheery guard came on the tannoy to apologise for the delay, explaining that it was caused by children playing on the line. (‘Of course they are,’ said the elderly woman sitting opposite me, ‘they’ve been cooped up inside all winter.’) Twenty minutes later we stopped at a big station. Apologising for the delay to passengers who had just boarded, a different voice explained that it had been caused by ‘trespassers on railway property’.

Twenty minutes. That’s how long it takes for children to become trespassers, and (to borrow again from Jurgen Habermas) for system world to overtake life world. This is the steady creep of something alarmingly like Orwell’s Newspeak. We may have ideas about how we got here, but do we have any idea where we’re heading?

Thursday, 4 March 2010

In the beginning ... (part two)

Last week I mentioned the opening of St John’s Gospel: In the beginning was the word … I didn’t have the space to add the perennial writer’s question: But which words should I begin with?

It’s one that business writers, particularly, struggle to answer. How seldom in the world of work do we read anything that draws us in and engages us right from the opening sentence? On the rare occasions that we do, it completely changes the way we think about the organisation whose voice we’re hearing.

One of the great privileges of my working life is to sit on the board of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the world’s largest. I was glancing recently at last year’s annual review and I came across this from our 2009 guest director, Richard Holloway:

‘Annual reports tend to be jaunty affairs, celebrating past achievements, as the organisation in question strides confidently on into the future. Well, it wouldn’t be dishonest to adopt that tone in reviewing my own wild fling … as guest director this year, but it would be the wrong way to begin, so I won’t start there.’

It takes a lot of confidence to write an opening like that and Richard, a former Bishop of Edinburgh, now broadcaster, writer and chair of the Scottish Arts Council, is an exceptionally confident communicator. It’s also very personal, and he goes on to explain that his involvement arose out of the misfortune of our director, Catherine Lockerbie’s unexpected leave of absence.

But why should we be so unused to hearing a truly personal voice in the business world? Why do chairmen’s and chief executive’s statements, not to mention letters, brochures and mailshots, so often sound robotic? Whatever the reason, their opening words set the tone for what follows and frequently leave us as readers struggling to stay interested.

Richard Holloway’s opening does at least three things that more or less guarantee we’ll go with him. He pokes a little gentle fun at the genre, so we know at once that this is not going to be earnest (which is not to say it won’t be serious); he introduces a lively voice, his own, which is not that of the organisation, but which we know speaks for the organisation; and he tempts us with a question: why doesn’t he want to start with the jaunty view?

Personal as his voice is, this is nevertheless a piece of business writing in an important public document that reports on the affairs of our book festival to a very wide range of interested and influential people. I’m sure that any one of those who read the opening sentence would have felt compelled to read on.