Thursday, 9 December 2010

Rebel talk

Intervention. Usually, it’s what takes place between people arguing or fighting. We intervene to stop things getting worse. Perhaps, then, it’s not so odd that it’s a word used so frequently by health professionals. A medical intervention. A surgical intervention. A psychiatric intervention.

Personally, I think it’s a hard word. It makes me imagine someone coming at me with some kind of instrument. It conveys none of the sense of curing or caring, healing or making better that is its presumed aim. And it’s on my mind because my wife Sarah and I had a conversation about it at dinner last night.

Sarah’s a counsellor and some of her work is in the NHS where she’s available to counsel hard-pressed staff, from consultant physicians through to hospital porters. We were talking about how she approaches a first session with a new client and the discussion she has with them about what they might need. ‘I tell them that there are a variety of interventions available,’ she said.

I questioned the use of the word, saying that I felt it was depersonalising. We explored alternatives. ‘There are a variety of approaches we could take,’ was better, we agreed. But the best was, ‘there are lots of different ways we can help you.’ Rather than the abstract ‘intervention’, this phrase contained the three very real and human words ‘we’, ‘you’ and ‘help’.

The trouble is, like legionnaire’s disease, ‘interventions’ and all the other abstractions of health-speak breed in the air conditioning of hospitals, and in their own way I believe they’re just as lethal. For anyone who is sick, one of the most important things surely is to be treated humanely, to be made to feel cared for, and language that fails to do that is no part of the healing process, quite the reverse in fact. But in a monolithic organisation like the NHS, making the conscious decision not to adopt that way of speaking takes courage. It’s a small but important act of rebellion.

Talking of which, there may be rebellion in the air on the publishing front. First, a question: what does Room 121 mean to you? Does it intrigue you, perhaps make you wonder what goes on there, perhaps remind you of Orwell’s Room 101?

It’s the title of the new book that John Simmons and I are writing, on the subject of writing for business. It’s sub-titled ‘a masterclass in business communication’. Our contention is that to communicate well you have to write as one human being to another, one-to-one, in fact. In writing the book we’re creating a space, a room if you like, where people can come to learn. And the form in which we’re writing it, as a series of 52 weekly exchanges, directly reflects the title.

But our publishers’ head office is in Singapore and we’re currently ‘in discussions’ with them because they tell us that ‘readers in Singapore don’t get the title’. Perhaps they’d get a title like How to write better for business, but there are umpteen books out there making that claim. Room 121 is aimed at people who already write for business and regard it as a craft they’d like to improve. These are people who’ve got beyond advice such as ‘use active verbs and personal pronouns’. They want to be intrigued, entertained and enlightened.

We’d love to know how you respond to this title. Like it? Hate it? Find it confusing? If you have a moment to leave a comment here, or email me direct, it would be a great help to us. (If you've already responded to John, don't worry - and thank you!)

And finally, I may not be able to post next week. I'll be in Marrakech, charging the solar batteries in readiness for the next round of snowmageddon.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Skating backwards

I don’t remember the miseries of the winter of 1963 (no running water in the house for several weeks, among other things, I’m told). I just remember the fun. I was fourteen, home from boarding school, and Perthshire was a winter playground.

There was endless tobogganing. The best, at Ochtertyre, just outside Crieff, was down a long, very steep field and straight out across several hundred yards of frozen loch, dodging skaters, a motorbike (how it stayed upright I have no idea) and even a couple of cars. It was surely the dream toboggan run, the best thing outside the Cresta.

Then there was ice hockey. Ten minutes from home, a neighbour had flooded a field to make a flight pond. Set in a hollow between two hills, it was shallow and froze very quickly. That winter it was a couple of acres of pure glass. We played with walking sticks and a shoe polish tin filled with sand to give it weight. God, could we skate – flat out across the ice, whacking the puck and occasionally each other, twisting and turning on sixpences until the surface was scored and powdered by our blades and our cheeks were crimson and burning in the cold. Late in the afternoon the sky would turn pink and fill with skeins of geese heading down to the River Earn to roost. I remember feelings of extreme exhilaration at the sport and the speed of it, combined with something approaching ecstasy at the beauty of our surroundings.

But the thing I remember best, and last week’s Imagination Club outing to that great empty ballroom put me in mind of it, was skating backwards. I got very good at it, skating forward as fast as I could, then pivoting on one toe to whip round into the backward movement with almost no loss of speed. Skating backwards involved making a snakelike movement of the hips as you transferred your weight from one ankle to the other, and more even than forward skating it seemed to depend on a good rhythm. If you got it right it was almost like flying (if you didn’t you were liable to trip and crack your skull).

So much of what we do works best when we get into a rhythm. I’m just back from the pub where for, obvious reasons, it was a quiet night. But there were three other musicians there, all good players, and after half an hour or so of warming up we spontaneously hit a groove. It was exciting, like skating backwards, and we kept it going for a good long time. We could tell that it was infectious from the way the audience reacted, nodding, smiling, tapping feet.

Another rhythm has me in its grasp at the moment, too. John Simmons and I have been commissioned to write a book about business writing and language which takes the form of a conversation between our two blogs. With meetings cancelled because of the weather this week, we’ve hit a groove in our exchanges, batting back and forth new blog posts almost every day. Again there’s something exhilarating about it, and I’m sure we’re both writing well at the moment.

It’s easy to forget that from the moment we first hear the thud-thud of our mother’s heartbeats, we are creatures of rhythm. Last week’s dancing reminded me of it, and so, oddly enough, has being in the grip of the coldest November on record.