Friday, 28 May 2010

Feel the heat

‘Stay indoors: It’s hot as hell,’ shouts the Times of India, ‘Met Office Forecast Grim; Hyderabad Sizzles At 44° C.’

India is currently experiencing all-time record-breaking summer temperatures. In Delhi, where I was until Wednesday, it hit 48°. That’s 118° for you Fahrenheiters. Now I’m in Hyderabad and I can say with certainty that at these extremes, four degrees make no difference at all. The moment you step out of whatever air-conditioned sanctuary you’ve been hiding in, it hits you like an all-enveloping blast from a gigantic hair dryer.

I’m here running communications training for a large Indian company and this is business travel of the most disconnecting kind – airport to hotel to training centre to hotel and so on, all in chauffeur-driven cars with the mean inside temperature of Scotland in March. Beyond the windows the heat pounds down on cows, road-workers, beggars, motorcyclists, rickshaw drivers and pedestrians. We slide past them with a sense of suspended reality, aware that an essential part of India’s soul is missing from our experience.

There’s something essential missing from the way my client organisation speaks, too. Theirs is not the natural language of human exchange. Process, analysis, statistics and data are their currency; and the lack of human content is exacerbated by the excessive use of Powerpoint, which has become so ubiquitous in the organisation that it has almost replaced conversation. The usual request is not so much ‘come and talk to me’ as ‘send me some slides’.

In the training I take people through a series of exercises designed to show them that anything, however small, that lights a spark in their audience’s imagination will increase tenfold the human contact they make. There’s a point at which understanding dawns, almost invariably followed by a smile and a look of longing in the eyes, then a worried frown and a flood of questions as their reality impinges once more and they retreat to their position inside the air-conditioned car, looking out at the hot, crowded, pulsating human world beyond, and wondering if they dare open the windows.

It takes courage to do it the first time, there’s no doubt, but once they have, once they’ve felt what happens when they let the heat and smell and sounds rush in and wrap around them, there’s no going back.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Death sentences

Nailing his colours to David Miliband’s mast last week in the Labour leadership election, former Home Secretary Alan Johnson said: ‘his greatest talent is the ability to put really complex ideas into very simple language.’

Personally, I don’t know about David Miliband as a leader. He may be very clever but there’s something rather creepy about him and he seemed astoundingly arrogant as a very young Foreign Secretary. But there’s no doubt that putting complex ideas into simple language is one of the great leadership qualities – in politics, business or anywhere else.

There’s an impassioned and hilarious book by Don Watson, an Australian writer and commentator who was, among other things, Prime Minister Paul Keating’s speech writer. Called Death Sentences, it’s subtitled ‘How clich├ęs, weasel words, and management speak are strangling public language’.

Public language that defies understanding, he says, quoting Primo Levi, is ‘an ancient, repressive artifice, known to all churches, the typical vice of our political class, the foundation of all colonial empires.’ Agreed. But that’s the deliberate variety.

My favourite passage in the book concerns another Prime Minister, RJ Hawke, whose accidental approach to language makes him sound like Australia’s answer to John Prescott, or possibly even Donald Rumsfeld.

‘He was one of those politicians,’ Don Watson writes, ‘for whom it sometimes seemed words were less the medium of expression than just so many bloody obstacles placed in the way of people who needed to see what he bloody saw. When speaking off the cuff, he embarked on his sentences like a madman with a club in a dark room: he bumped and crashed around so long, his listeners became less interested in what he was saying than the prospect of his escape

‘When at last he emerged triumphant into the light, we cheered, not for the gift of enlightenment but as we cheer a man who walks away from an avalanche or mining accident.’

At least he got a cheer. More worrying still are the leaders in business, the public sector, the arts, whose ruminations send you to sleep long before it’s time for applause of any kind. And as you doze off you can’t help wondering if they’re really leading anyone anywhere.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Anyone out there?

Sometimes when I start to write these blog posts I don’t really know where my thoughts will take me or what the point is that I want to make. On these occasions I work on the EM Forster principle: how can I tell what I think till I see what I say?

This week is a case in point. I recently read a profile of a British professor called Paul Davies who, even for a scientist, has an unusual job. A theoretical physicist, cosmologist and astrobiologist, he chairs the Post-Detection Group of SETI (the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence). In other words, he’s the man who, should it occur on his watch, will take charge of the first contact with whatever might be out there.

SETI, which falls under the umbrella of the International Academy of Astronautics, examines the universe for radio transmissions that might indicate life elsewhere. It’s a serious organisation and Paul Davies, currently a professor at the University of Arizona, is a serious scientist who, according to the profile, ‘lives his life at an incredibly high level of amazingness.’

I like that description. It’s playful and vivid and extremely effective in conjuring an image of someone who lectures at the UN, the Vatican and the Royal Society, as Davies does. It’s also apposite. Nothing could better characterise the possibility of extra-terrestrial intelligence than amazingness.

But what sort of language will humankind use to communicate with alienkind? Davies is disparaging about space capsules containing the works of Sophocles and Shakespeare, Beethoven and the Beatles. We will have only one possible language in common with other forms of intelligence, he believes, and that is mathematics; the reason being that mathematics is a language so absolute, so fundamental to the explanation of the universe and the nature of existence, that any intelligence capable of making contact with us will have to have grasped it.

This leaves me with the sobering thought that those of us whose stock-in-trade is mere words, who take delight in amazingness, won't have much of a role to play in what will undoubtedly be the most amazing exchange of all time.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Tales from Wales

By odd coincidence I happen to have spent election night in the home of a former British Prime Minister. I am at Ty Newydd, the house to which Lloyd George retired from politics, now the Welsh National Writing Centre. It’s a glorious place perched on a gentle slope between the mountains of Snowdonia and the great sweep of Cardigan Bay. I’m running a Dark Angels course for staff of the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth.

I arrived on Tuesday evening and since there was no one else here – the students, having considerably less far to travel, turned up on Wednesday morning – I took myself off to eat at the pub in the village. Walking back up the drive, around ten pm, my eye was caught by something on the branch of a tree, silhouetted against the dusk sky. It was a large, fine owl. I stood and watched it for a while until it swooped off in search of dinner.

That’s an auspicious welcome for a writing course, I thought. The owl symbolises wisdom and the arts, in Greek mythology anyway. But this is the Welsh heartland. In the pub I heard no English spoken, and Ty Newydd was once the home of the only British Prime Minister not to have had English as his first language. I checked Welsh legend to find that in the Mabinogion, the owl is accursed, a faithless woman condemned to eternal night. Maybe not such a good omen, after all.

Ty Newydd is a house full of books, all of which contain stories or poems, each of which, like the appearance of the owl, will be open to more than one interpretation. And that’s the glory of it. There is no ‘right’ telling or reading of a story or poem; they are metaphors for life, ambiguous, messy and multi-layered.

There’s a growing recognition in the business world of the power of story – and rightly so. Modern organisations have to find a different way of telling people what they’re about; the conventional assertions of corporate excellence sound as false as they’re banal. But businesses are also suspicious of stories, and confused by them. How do you use them? More worryingly, how do you control them?

Again, organisations are right to be concerned, because stories are about truth and they’re only believable if they reflect human truths. You can’t fake stories and expect people to buy into them. So if a business wants to tell a good story, it must be prepared to be honest, to shed the carapace of corporate invincibility that has become the norm, and allow itself to be seen as less than perfect, as capable of making mistakes.

That takes courage, not least in admitting the possibility that people may read different things into the story than the organisation wants them to­. But as with the owl and the books at Ty Newydd, it’s in that very possibility that the reader finds the freedom to make his or her own personal connection. It may take courage to offer it, but it’s sure to pay dividends.