Musings on cartoon thinking, comedy and speechwriting

I’ve led many cartoon workshops over the years, and have yet to meet someone incapable of learning how to draw. But occasionally before a workshop, I’m told, “I’m sure you won’t be able to teach me how to draw, because I’m a verbal, words person, not an arty, visual one.”

The tendency for people to view themselves as either visual or verbal is widespread in our culture. Its roots lie in the mistaken belief that our senses exist in separate boxes, more or less isolated from each other.

The now discredited theory of learning styles – the view that when it comes to learning things, each of us favours the input of one sense, above others – is yet another manifestation of this wrong-headed notion. Imagine the pickle you’d find yourself in if you had to teach a self-described auditory learner the shape of Algeria, using sound alone. Whatever their professed learning style, there’s only one sure-fire way to teach someone the shape of Algeria, or any other country for that matter – you need to show it to them, and they need to take it in with their eyes!

It just doesn’t make sense for someone who regards themself as primarily verbal to insist they aren’t visual – not least, because good writing tends to be jam-packed with images and metaphors. Whether we’re talking Shakespeare, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Jerry Seinfeld, good writers and communicators, paint pictures with words.

The art of the gag
Recently, the Guardian invited the very funny and clever stand-up comedian, Milton Jones, to analyse his comic technique. He began with some reflections on this, his opening gag:

“Incredible to think, isn’t it, that the Chinese language started off as English in England, but then one person whispered it to another person…”

As a practising speechwriter (words person?) and cartoonist (pictures person?), I’d like to share a few insights into how I think this delightful gag works, because I believe the same set of techniques could help you bring your own stories, speeches and presentations to life.

Jones observes that when one of his gags works “it’s because it puts a silly cartoon in people’s heads, and they suspend their disbelief for a millisecond.” I know exactly what he means – cartoon thinking is my stamping ground. I use it everyday in my work as a cartoonist, speechwriter, and workshop leader – and I’m convinced it lies at the heart of all good communication.

The grain of sand in Jones’s creative oyster is the phrase ‘Chinese whispers’. He uses the term “reverse engineering” to describe the cartoon thinking technique he uses to pull the phrase apart and then put it back together again, differently.

“Most of my stuff is reverse-engineered from tripping over a phrase or an idea and working out what the most unlikely misinterpretation might be (now the phrase reverse engineer has me thinking). At some point, I played with the concept of Chinese whispers like a Rubik’s cube in my head, until I’d settled on the unlikeliest combination.”

Words into pictures…pictures into words…
Cartoon thinking brings to light the intimate relationship, and interplay, between drawn images, mental images and words. All it requires is something to make a mark with (pens are useful!), something to make a mark on (paper comes in handy!), and an unfettered imagination.

Let’s kick off with some doodles inspired by the phrase, ‘Chinese whispers’, starting with the word ‘Chinese’.
chinese head
The currency of cartoon thinking is stereotypes: the bad cartoonist is blinded by them; the good cartoonist deconstructs and subverts them. The act of thinking about a word or image is akin to throwing a pebble into a still pond – instantly, and without conscious determination, your mind begins to ripple with associated images, words, recollections and feelings.

“Chinese…inscrutable…populous…whispers…Great Wall…take-away…Red Army…power…Chinese language…difficult…pictograms…”, and so on. The order of associated words and feelings will, of course, vary from person to person, but stereotypical thinking guarantees that many key associations are shared.
The word ‘Chinese’ gives rise to ‘whispers’, so let’s look at a drawing of one Chinese person whispering to another.
The drawing depicts a single act of whispering, but the notion of Chinese whispers conjures up an image of a chain of people whispering – let’s look at one in action.
chinese whisper
Cartoon thinking often employs exaggeration to get our attention, and make its point – rhetoricians call it hyperbole. ‘Chinese whispers…Great Wall of China…’ – what if we imagine a Chinese whisper that’s as long – or maybe even longer than – the Great Wall of China?

Pictures in your mind’s eye
At this point on our creative journey, the mental image begins to offer much more imaginative versatility than its physically drawn counterpart. In my mind’s eye, I can fly at great speed above a Chinese whisper that circles the world. What’s more, I can swoop down and zoom in to look at the faces of the individual whisperers too. (Compare Churchill’s iron curtain descending across the continent ‘from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic’ – as a mental image it catches fire, but would fall flat on its face as a PowerPoint slide).

Chinese whispers is a visual metaphor for the degradation of a message as it passes from one whisperer to the next. What message could these people be sharing? It’s time to play with another basic cartoon thinking technique that involves turning things on their head, it’s called reversal.

What if the Chinese whisperers aren’t Chinese at all. What if they’re English like Milton Jones, and me? England and China…what if the chain of whisperers stretches all the way from England to China?

Two very different languages, English and Chinese. What could connect them? What if the degradation of the message involved one of the languages morphing into the other? You see where this is leading, don’t you?

As this stage, Jones has a clever idea, but his next big challenge is to translate it into words that do it justice. Like all good writers, he knows that less is more. He tells us that sometimes it can take him years to get the wording of a gag just right: “a subtle inflexion or an extra word can make all the difference. But when a joke is successful it makes people see something in a completely new light.”

And like all good performers – whether they be stand-up comedians or speechmakers – he knows that audiences love to be involved in the act of creation, and like nothing better than being invited to fill in the gaps. The rhetorical devices that make Jones’s gag tick are synecdoche (building a picture of the whole from a significant detail) and enthymeme (filling in the missing gaps of an argument) – devices also beloved of speechwriters and speechmakers!

In a recent Desert Island Discs programme, comedian Jack Dee described these devices another way when he talked about the stuff you don’t say being just as important as the stuff you do say: “it’s allowing the audience to join the dots and do some thinking for themselves, which is brilliant.”

So next time someone asks you about your preferred learning style, think cartoonist and tell them you’re a visual/verbal/auditory/touchy-feely kinda guy, or gal, with a nose for a good idea.

If you enjoyed this post, why not come along to our day workshop on 11th July in Brighton – if you use the promotional code CARTOON when booking your place, you’ll get a whopping £150 discount!

Improvising authenticity – has the written speech had its day?

Last week’s UK Speechwriters’ Guild London conference was a triumph for its founder Brian Jenner and a delight for its participants. Brian’s recipe for success is based on keeping things simple. He chooses a broad mix of contributors – often from very different backgrounds and with very different points of view – and just lets them get on with it. The result, last week, was a conference that was both entertaining and thought-provoking.

One presentation in particular rattled the speechwriters’ cage and littered the conference floor with feathers. It was given by Russian ‘presentation guru’ Alexei Kapterev who raised the provocative – but important – question of whether the written speech has had its day.

The day after the conference, Max Atkinson blogged his thoughts on Alexei’s presentation, and the following day Alexei wrote a blog in response to Max’s post. I encourage you to visit both posts because they are well worth reading, and what follows is my take on some of the issues raised.


At the heart of Alexei’s argument is the idea of ‘authenticity’. He argues that, in the digital age, the gap between the informality of the spoken word and the formality of the written word is narrowing with each passing day. And he makes an interesting observation when he writes that the blog style of writing is closer to the style of everyday speech than it is to the more formal writing style of the article or essay.

So far so good, but the next step in his argument proves more contentious, because he moves from the influence of everyday speech on writing to its influence on public speaking. He asserts that when we speak in public we always sound ‘a bit odd’. But, do we?

There is, I think, a broad spectrum of situations in which we find ourselves speaking in public. At one end of the spectrum is the grand occasion – a political speech, a funeral eulogy, a Commencement speech, etc, – which we prepare for in advance; and at the other end of the spectrum is the impromptu circumstance – a colleague’s leaving do, a meeting, a dinner party, etc, – where we unexpectedly find ourselves speaking in front of a group. Alexei makes it clear that his preference is for presentations at the impromptu end of the spectrum, and his reasons are as follows:

  • They don’t involve a script, which means there is nothing to distract the speaker from connecting with their audience
  • Being impromptu they are, by definition, more conversational in tone than a written speech
  • They are more authentic because the speaker’s body language, facial expressions, tone and pitch of voice match the words more than they might with a written speech (I detect a whiff of the Mehrabian myth here – i.e. the myth that words only account for 7 percent of the meaning of a spoken message)
  • Compared to impromptu speaking, speeches are too safe and dull.

Alexei’s concept of authenticity starts to take shape when he tells us that we see ‘the real (Steve) Jobs when his clicker breaks down or when his demo doesn’t work the way it should.’ This crack between preparation and performance is far more authentic, in Alexei’s view, than, for example, Jobs’ much-lauded Stanford Commencement speech, which he delivered from a lectern, and read from a script. In fact, Alexei goes on to say that though Job’s speech was brilliant, it ‘could have been much, MUCH better.’ (Now that’s quite a claim!)

Is improvisation the answer?

For Alexei, improvisation lies at the very heart of authenticity. Which is why, as far as he’s concerned, Jobs is at his most authentic when his equipment breaks down.

But let’s imagine, for a moment, that Jobs had abandoned the idea of writing a Commencement speech and instead had simply turned up and started riffing on the podium, as he walked up and down. How do you think that would have gone down with his audience? Do you think they would have responded even more positively because of its heightened ‘authenticity’? I suggest not.

I think that Jobs’ academic audience would have been shocked and even insulted. Just as it would be absurd to turn up for a chat with a friend with a script, it would have been wrong for Jobs to have improvised on such a grand and formal occasion.

Jobs established his authenticity – or ethos, as Aristotle might have put it – by taking great care over what he said, and making it as personal and appropriate to the occasion as he could. The informal, yet artful construction of Jobs’ speech serves to remind us that ‘authentic’ is a style like any other – but with a difference: in order to work, the authentic style has adapt itself to the circumstances in which it is being used.

Nowadays, on the grand stage, the authentic style requires an Obama approach, whereas at a speechwriters’ conference, a more informal, less-polished, Alexei Kapterev approach will do very nicely! But the important point to bear in mind is that both styles involve a great deal of forethought and practice if they are to succeed.

Preparing to be authentic

A couple of years I ago, I saw the chief executive of the NHS Sir David Nicholson give a riveting talk without notes (and apparently off-the-cuff) to a conference of health professionals. As he finished, someone behind me turned to a colleague and commented on its brilliance. His colleague agreed, but added that he’d seen Sir David give the same outstanding speech, word-for-word, the month before at another conference.

Now did this revelation somehow tarnish Sir David’s authenticity in my eyes? Not at all, if anything he went up in my estimation because I felt honoured that he’d taken such pains to give his audience such an engaging and lively experience – we ‘give’ speeches, a speech is a speaker’s gift to an audience.

The other day, I heard a well-known comedian talk about the huge amount of time it takes to work up a modest twenty minutes’ worth of material. Comedians work hard to look as though they’re making it up on the hoof, and they also have to build up a great deal of experience and confidence before they can throw in the odd genuine improvisatory remark as they perform their act.

Authentic is a style

The bottom line is this: authentic is a style. If you believe that it contains essential truths about the speaker, you probably also believe that Sir Richard Branson is a hippy who keeps getting bullied by the nasty people at British Airways; and that Steve Jobs was a joy to work with because he was so laid-back and easy-going. (I note too that Alexei helps people in corporations present in a more authentic style – all I can say to him and them is, be careful what you wish for!)

Everything in the realm of public speaking is artifice – the art that conceals art. And without artifice we’d be exposed to many more boring presentations and speeches than we are already. The written speech has existed since antiquity (see Classical Rhetoric by George A. Kennedy, chapter 6) and I believe there’s still life in the old dog yet – after all, against the odds, well-written speeches succeeded in opening the doors of the White House to its first black incumbent.

Reading from a script is not the problem – speeches can be either read well, or badly. Speakers can either be rehearsed and coached well, or badly, Politicians like Tony Blair and David Cameron are masters at looking down at a script at just the right moment and looking up again at their audience at just the right moment too.

Great speeches depend on great writing – body language, tone of voice, though a welcome support, won’t take you very far by themselves. Let’s not forget that despite his speech impediment, Churchill’s brilliantly written wartime speeches inspired the nation despite being heard as radio broadcasts – so much for the myth that words only account for 7 percent of a spoken message.

And finally, speeches don’t have a monopoly on rambling, embarrassing and dull – improvised presentations can be rambling, embarrassing and dull too. But I still contend that a well-written speech full of interesting ideas, language and imagery can still be one of the most exciting and inspiring experiences an audience can have. And if you harbour any doubts, take another look at Obama’s outstanding victory speech.


Why Ed Miliband’s Speeches Need More Heart

Ed Miliband continues to have trouble getting his message across, and he knows it. In the wake of a poor conference speech and a 2011 beset with difficulties he attempted to stop the rot by appointing a new chief-of-staff and speechwriter.

However, on the evidence of last week’s speech on the economy, things are going from bad to worse. It was billed as the relaunch speech that wasn’t a relaunch, which is just as well as it appears to have sunk without trace.

My fellow speechwriter, and friend, Max Atkinson questioned whether it was even accurate to describe Miliband’s address as a speech at all. Commenting on Twitter, Max wrote, “speeches like @Ed_Miliband’s today aren’t so much political speeches as lectures”. He went on to tweet, “speeches to non-partisan audiences (e.g. Miliband now) generate no applause and come across as very, very dull…”

Max’s observations get to the heart of the matter: speeches and lectures are very different creatures, and a speech that lectures its audience is invariably a bad speech. The problem is, that like many leaders on the left, Miliband’s speeches are infected by what I call the Enlightenment fallacy: a blind faith in the power of reason – and evidence – to affect people’s beliefs.

Miliband would do well to read Drew Westen’s insightful book on of the role of emotion in politics, ‘The Political Brain’. Westen makes the counterintuitive point that, in the first of the presidential debates with George W. Bush, Al Gore shot himself in the foot by using (accurate) facts and figures in an effort to undermine his opponent’s credibility. Bush’s riposte was simple and devastating, “Look, this is a man who has great numbers. He talks about numbers. I’m beginning to think not only did he invent the Internet, but he invented the calculator. It’s fuzzy math.”

Even now, if you view the debate from an Enlightenment perspective, Bush comes over as an affable, if somewhat dim, Average Joe, who is way out of his depth when it comes a grasp of the facts and figures of policy. So why is it that, despite Gore giving Bush a beating on all the rational arguments, this debate marked the beginning of a decisive shift of public opinion in favour of Bush?

The answer is that Bush’s persona helped him win the emotional argument. Despite being a scion of one of the US’s most privileged families, Bush succeeded in playing the role of an ordinary guy who understands, and sympathises with, the trials and tribulations of other ordinary guys who struggle each day to do the best for themselves and their families.

By comparison, Gore came over as a remote, privileged, East Coast intellectual who was more concerned with numbers than people. Bush was a regular guy you’d be happy to have a beer with; Gore, on the other hand, appeared to be part human, part calculator. Miliband’s advisers would do well to recall this debate next time they’re tempted to post a story about Ed being able to solve a Rubik’s Cube in one minute 20 seconds.

Ed Miliband’s bargain basement speech

Barack Obama’s greatest speeches are full of images and stories. Ed Miliband’s effort on Tuesday was piled with abstractions and cliches, taking us into the bargain basement of oratory.

“We need a new bargain…the big challenge of building a new bargain…the Tories aren’t building a new bargain” – how on earth do you build a bargain? In a speech criticising our materialistic society, the choice of language showed a tin ear. “Bargain” conjures up images of Poundland, not of an optimistic future.

At the heart of every great speech is a proposition: a clear and strong statement of what the speaker believes. Miliband’s speech didn’t have one, which is why it appeared to lack shape and purpose.

Great oratory opened the doors of the White House to Obama. If Miliband is to follow a similar path, he should sack his language experts and get hold of an accomplished wordsmith.

(This piece appeared in the London Evening Standard newspaper on the 29th September 2011)

How to be an outstanding communicator

The message from recruitment agencies, employer surveys and the like is familiar, loud and clear: you must be an outstanding communicator if you want to get to the top of your profession. Technical audit skills and practical experience are, of course, essential, but they will only take you so far up the greasy pole; to make it those extra few slippery feet to the very top you’re going to have to find a way of transforming yourself from a good communicator into an outstanding one.

Keep it simple

Outstanding communicators distinguish themselves by the way they use language. The first thing that strikes you when you listen to an outstanding communicator speak is the simplicity of their language: they use words you can understand in a way that makes it easy to follow what they’re saying.

But simple is hard, and takes courage. It takes courage because it goes against the grain of workplace communications. In organisations, language is often used as a protective veil whose main purpose is to cover the speaker’s back rather than enlighten their audience. A concoction of jargonistic words arranged into convoluted sentences is an effective way of covering up ideas that are half-baked, obvious, or trivial.

Many people mistakenly equate this kind of overcomplicated, difficult-to-follow language with cleverness. The following example – though satirical – makes the point:

“Undue multiplicity of personnel assigned either concurrently or consecutively to a single function involves deterioration of quality in the resultant product as compared with the product of the labor of an exact sufficiency of personnel.” Masterson, J. and Brooks Phillips, W., Federal Prose, 1948, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina

What effect does language like this have? It intimidates, it excludes, it frustrates, and, ultimately, it wastes time (and therefore money!). It embodies everything that is the antithesis of outstanding communication. It is puffed up, self-serving – and, in the final analysis, like the emperor’s new clothes it leaves its author looking naked and foolish. Translated into the language of clarity and simplicity, the same gobbledygook becomes:

“Too many cooks spoil the broth.”

Beyond plain English

Clear, plain English is an essential part of good communication. It is the language of instructions that are easy to follow, intelligible contracts, and business letters that read as if they’ve been written by an articulate and sympathetic human, not a machine. But outstanding communicators, although masters of plain English, come into their own when they move beyond it.

Clear explanation is the forte of the good communicator. But clear explanation alone isn’t going to be enough to persuade people to vote for you, or to inspire them to follow you into the heat of battle. You need something more: you need to be able to communicate in a way that appeals not just to minds, but to hearts as well. When Barack Obama began his bid for the US presidency in 2007 he was a rank outsider, an unknown. It was the power of his oratory that opened the doors of the White House to him. Writing back in 2008, The New Yorker’s George Packer wrote that, moments after listening to Obama’s New Hampshire campaign speech, “the speech dissolved into pure feeling, which stayed with me for days.”

Warming up your language

Modern neuroscience has demonstrated conclusively that we feel our way into decisions. Numerous case studies have shown that people with damage to the parts of their brain responsible for emotional reactions are unable to make decisions at all. It seems that the rational mind working by itself dithers endlessly as it weighs up the various possible reasons for taking one course of action rather than another.

So, to be an outstanding communicator you have to begin by engaging people’s feelings. Once people care about what you’re saying, you have their attention. And the key to making people care is your choice of words. Words are the wrapping for your communications, and if you want your audience to unwrap what you say, you need to warm up your language.

The notion that words can be warm or cold might sound strange, but let’s test it out by returning to the piece of gobbledygook I quoted earlier. Like a lot of organisational speak, it’s crammed full of long words of Latin origin: words like ‘multiplicity’, ‘personnel’, ‘assigned’, ‘concurrently’ and so on – I‘m sure you get the drift.

Imagine for a moment that you’re at a friend’s party and you find yourself chatting with someone you’ve never met before, over a glass of wine. How would you feel if your new acquaintance (another Latinate word) spoke to you using long Latinate words. I suspect that, like most other people, you’d experience him as distant, cold and, given the context, weird.

But what makes ‘friend’ a warmer word than ‘acquaintance’, and ‘many’ a warmer word than ‘multiplicity’? Well, here’s a clue: say the word ‘acquaintance’ to a young child and they’ll give you a blank look. But follow it with the word ‘friend’ and their eyes will light up as the word conjures up an image of someone they love.

Words like ‘friend’, ‘cook’, and ‘dog’ are common everyday words; and, like most common everyday words, their origins lie in Old, and Middle, English. These also happen to be the first words we learn as children – they mark our entry into the realm of language, and verbal communication. Our relationship to them is a visual one, because our first encounter with them is one of pointing, touching or physically interacting with the thing they represent. They embody that magical moment when things become words.

Visual language

By contrast, words of Latinate origin are latecomers to the English language party – both historically, and in the language acquisition of an individual. This explains why a word like ‘dog’ brings to mind an image, while a word like ‘canine’ probably doesn’t. Outstanding communicators favour words of English origin because they are warm and visual – they help other people ‘see’ what you mean.

A quotation ascribed to Winston Churchill offers a good rule of thumb for choosing warm, visual words: “broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.” It’s no accident that the final lines from one of Churchill’s most famous and stirring speeches (“we shall fight on the beaches”) is full of “old words” – “beaches”, “landing grounds”, “fields”, “streets” and “hills”.

The multisensory power of concrete language

Latinate words are cold and abstract; Old English words are warm and concrete. Concrete words aren’t just visual, they are multisensory – they engage all our senses. When Churchill used words like “beaches” and “fields”, he knew that they would invoke a variety of sensory responses in his audience: the sight of the sand and the azure blue sky; the sound of the waves lapping on the seashore and the shriek of the gulls; the smell of the sea; the salty taste on their tongue; and the feeling of warm grains of sand on the soles their feet.

Advertisers constantly exploit the power of multisensory concrete language. They don’t try to sell us just any old generic chicken. No, it’s not just chicken: they tell us it’s actually farm-reared, organic, golden Wiltshire farm chicken. Carefully selected picture words like these are designed to give us an experience – one that appeals to our tastebuds and stomachs, as well as our intellects.

Outstanding communicators don’t tell, they show. Statistics are abstractions that leave us cold. If you want to bring home the full horror of a natural disaster, you don’t talk about the thousands of people who have perished, and the unimaginable scale of the humanitarian disaster visited upon those who’ve survived. Instead, you put the disaster into a human context by making it concrete, and you do this by focusing on the story of a single family.

Story and metaphor

Study after study shows that people are very poor at understanding risk. And disasters like the financial meltdown and the BP oil spill raise the question of just how effective risk experts are at communicating what they know about risk to non-specialists. Outstanding communicators understand the limits of statistical data – they know that in most instances it just goes over the heads of a lay audience.

The most effective way of communicating risk is to get people to feel it, and the way to do this is to use story and metaphor to create an imaginative experience of what the risk is like – one that make sense in terms of what people already understand. To most lay people, a statistic like: 50 million acres of rainforest are cut down every year, doesn’t mean too much. It doesn’t sound good, but it’s far too abstract for a non-specialist to grasp.

Most people don’t know what an acre looks like, and they certainly have no experience of quantities as large as 50 million. On hearing a statistic like this neither their brains nor their emotions are engaged. So the chances of keeping their attention are slim at best. Al Gore faced the problem of communicating this statistic in his campaign to save the rainforest, and being an outstanding communicator he chose to dramatise the statistics by transforming them into a story-like metaphor.

This is how he did it:

“We lose one acre of rainforest every second. Imagine a giant invader from space with football-field sized feet, clomping across the rainforests of the world – going boom, boom, boom every second. Would we react? Well, that’s essentially what’s going in the rainforests right now!”

Putting it all together

Gore’s transformation of a dry statistic into a story metaphor that helps people experience as well as understand the enormity of the situation, exemplifies all the elements that make an outstanding communicator. From the outset, Gore doesn’t allow his expertise to act as a barrier between himself and his audience – after all, the word “communication” originates from a Latin word meaning “to share”.

Rather than blinding them with science, he puts himself into his audience’s shoes and looks for a way of helping them understand what they don’t know (the statistic) in terms of something they’re familiar with (football fields and B movies about invaders from space). He uses familiar, short, concrete, visual words – and he makes the simple complex without compromising its integrity.

So the key to transforming yourself into an outstanding communicator is to make your language as visual and concrete as possible. And the best way of doing this is to heed Churchill’s advice and go for short, everyday words, rather than difficult-to-understand long ones. Always think carefully about who you’re speaking to, and never allow your expertise to shroud your message in fog. Finally, use story and metaphor to bring what you say to life – and always remember that outstanding communicators move hearts as well as minds.

(This article was published in August 2010 in the Chartered Institute of Internal Auditors’ magazine. Shortly after it appeared, the IIA’s Keith Labbett – Head of Audit at British Waterways – invited us to give a two hour interactive plenary session on ‘Outstanding Communications’ to the IIA’s South West Conference, which we did on 12th May 2011. Delegates loved our session and found it both stimulating and practical.  We could do something similar for your conference, so please get in touch if you’d like to talk things over.)

This metaphor ain’t dead, it’s just restin’

Judging from a list of the ‘most annoying clichés’ in the English language compiled by the Plain English Campaign – one of the greatest examples of modern oratory might never have seen the light of day, if they’d had anything to do with it.

For the most part their ‘most annoying clichés’ list is unexceptionable. It contains many of the usual linguistic suspects: words that are misunderstood and misused; words and phrases that are used as fillers to bulk up the vacuous and trivial – like literally and the fact of the matter is; euphemisms – like to be perfectly honest and I hear what you’re saying; professional jargon that has spilled over into everyday use – like the economist’s value-added; slang expressions that have been flogged to death – like awesome and 24/7; and confusing slang – like diamond geezer (confusing because in US English geezer means an old person, especially an eccentric old man).

So far, so good. But I begin to feel uneasy when I notice that nearly half their list is populated by metaphors like move the goalposts and glass half full (or half empty). Metaphors like these are condemned by the plain English brigade because they breach George Orwell’s famous dictum: “never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

The dictum comes from Orwell’s Politics and the English Language – an essay, published in 1946, about the causes of and possible cures for the decline of the English language. I share with advocates of plain English an admiration for the essay’s incisiveness and brilliance, but I part company with them when it comes to deciding which bits of Orwell’s advice matter most.

Politics and the English Language contains many riches – unfortunately, this particular dictum isn’t one of them. At best, it’s a spur to original thought and expression; at worst, it’s an unattainable, and unrealistic, ideal. A newly coined metaphor – one that perfectly captures a familiar experience and helps us appreciate it in new and insightful ways – is always welcome; but even the most gifted writers and speakers only manage a sprinkling of such felicities in their writings and speeches.

Even if such an ideal were attainable, I suspect that a piece of writing using only unfamiliar metaphors, similes, and other figures of speech, would be utterly exhausting and challenging to read. After all, inventiveness stands out best against a background of the familiar and predictable.

What worries me more is that Orwell’s most interesting insights about metaphor don’t appear to figure in the Plain English Campaign’s edicts about what constitutes good writing, speaking and thinking. In the essay, Orwell’s principal concern is the relationship between words and thoughts, and his main criterion for diagnosing the health of a piece of writing is whether its words reveal thought, or obscure it.

The great enemy of clarity is abstraction. Orwell’s advice is to put off using words for as long as possible “and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures or sensations,” because it’s always tempting – and far easier – to miss out this demanding first stage of writing and let words do the work of choosing your meaning for you. Orwell is unequivocal on this point, “…the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.”

He argues that “the sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image”, and the measure of a metaphor’s effectiveness is its power to assist thought “by evoking a visual image.” When a metaphor loses – or begins to lose – this evocative power, Orwell describes it as dead, or dying.

But many commonplace metaphors would be better described as dormant, rather than dying or dead, because all it takes is a nudge to remind us that they’re napping, not comatose. As you lower a metaphor like, “I wouldn’t like to be in her shoes” into its grave all it takes is a slight prod to have it miraculously sitting up in its coffin: “the thing about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is that you need to take your own shoes off first.” I find it difficult to imagine reviving a metaphor like “he’s in a bit of a rut,” in quite the same way.

This is because the ability of words to conjure up images arises from their origins in the physical world. Ralph Waldo Emerson said “language is fossil poetry.” It’s just that you have to dig a lot deeper for the origins of some words than others – those buried deepest tend to be the ones we encounter later in life. A metaphor based on a familiar word like ‘shoe’ is going to have greater evocative power than one based on a less familiar word like ‘rut’. ‘Shoe’ is one of the first words a small child encounters; ‘rut’ isn’t.

As always, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Barack Obama’s inspiring acceptance speech is jam-packed with the kinds of everyday metaphors that prop up the Plain English Campaign’s ‘most annoying clichés’ list. A cursory glance at the transcript reveals a string of crimes: “a man who campaigned from his heart”; “without the unyielding support”; “the unsung hero”; “our campaign was not hatched”; ”a determination to heal the divides”; and I could go on.

Language has changed a great deal since Orwell wrote his essay; the gap between spoken and written language narrows with each passing day. The Plain English Campaign’s condemnation of the commonplace metaphor betrays a lack of sensitivity to the poetry and evocative power of everyday language. To get the best out of words you have to love them, not distrust them. And when it comes to rules about good English it’s vital to use your personal and aesthetic judgement to respond to their spirit rather than their letter. Orwell encapsulated this spirit perfectly in his final rule: “break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

My BBC Radio 4 ‘Word of Mouth’ interview

In July 2010 I got a call, out of the blue, from a BBC radio producer. An article I’d published way back in back in 2007, with the catchy title, In Praise of Jargon, had caught his eye.

He was working on an edition of BBC Radio 4’s Word of Mouth – a series about words and the way we use them. Having read my article, he couldn’t believe his luck – he was sure he’d found someone foolhardy enough to appear on radio and argue that business language isn’t nearly as bad as it’s painted.

He had, of course. And a few days later I found myself alone in a tiny, airless basement studio in BBC Brighton, with only a headset and microphone for company. Chris Ledgard (the presenter) was in a BBC studio in faraway Bristol, from where he would be conducting the interview.

I’m a big fan of Radio 4, and I often drift off to sleep at night listening to its podcasts on my phone. So it was a slightly surreal experience to find myself in this stuffy closet of a studio, listening to the restful sound of Chris’s voice coming through the headphones, while doing my damnedest to stay awake and focus on his questions.

But just as the interview was getting into its stride, the sound of drilling started up. I took my headphones off, and discovered the racket was coming from the other side of the studio wall. Chris called Brighton, and I went upstairs to see if I could help.

Eventually the source of the noise was traced – and the drilling came to a halt. An apologetic, and embarrassed, Chris Ledgard asked if I’d mind doing the interview again.

The second interview went even better than the first, and we finished it without interruption. However, just as I was about to leave, a barely audible voice emanating from the discarded headphones on the table asked me to hang on. Chris could hardly believe it, but apparently the sound equipment in Bristol was playing up and it looked as though our second interview had gone up the spout too.

It’s possible to have too much of a good thing. We were both a little tired, and going over the same ground for a third time took the edge off our conversation. On the plus side, the third interview was completed without incident, but it wasn’t a patch on the previous two.

Fortunately for me, the producer, Miles Warde, managed to cobble together the broadcast interview from rescued bits of the first two interviews. The programme was first aired on 10th August 2010 and the reaction to it has been very positive. So my blushes were saved – and my budding broadcasting career lives to fight another day!

In praise of jargon – a defence of the apparently indefensible

Despite its bad press, could management-speak actually turn out to be a good thing?

According to a YouGov survey, management jargon is choking the life out of meaningful communication in the workplace. Senior managers think it’s harmless enough but most employees want to see the back of it because they feel it creates barriers and misunderstandings at work.

But what exactly are they objecting to? Management jargon ranges from abstract words and phrases to playful, pictorial metaphors. At the abstract end of the spectrum we find terms like ‘lean processing’, which give away few clues as to what they mean. Nowadays, we’re all fairly familiar with the idea of a ‘paradigm shift’ but a first encounter with it would have been totally bamboozling to someone unaware of its origins in the philosophy of science. But things get even worse because these abstract words and phrases generally commit a further abomination: they act as euphemisms. Employees are ‘de-hired’ and workforces ‘downsized’ rather than sacked; facts are ‘spun’ rather than distorted, and so on.

The bad stuff

It seems to me that abstract terms like these represent all that is irredeemably bad about jargon. Unlike technical language, they lack precision because they are often arbitrary and random in origin. What’s worse, because they are incomprehensible to the uninitiated, they make people feel excluded and inadequate. All this contributes to a climate of mistrust and confusion in the workplace.

The odd thing is, in the reports about the YouGov survey, abstract jargon hardly gets a mention. Instead, the finger of blame points towards the opposite end of the spectrum – the concrete end – where we find image-rich words and phrases. This is the place where metaphors congregate, and they are generally recognised as indispensable tools for effective communication.

The power of metaphors

If you need persuading, think of how Churchill’s brilliant metaphor of the ‘iron curtain’ changed the way his generation, and subsequent generations, perceived the Soviet Bloc. A metaphor like this expands the boundaries of everyday language and is creative in the sense that it makes us see a familiar reality in an entirely different way. What is more, as well as delivering information to our intellect it also stimulates our various senses, making the whole experience more memorable and persuasive. The ‘iron curtain’ is concrete because it makes us feel as well as think.

So if metaphor offers such a great opportunity for enhancing workplace language, what is going wrong with serial offenders like ‘think outside the box’, ‘push the envelope’ and ‘shoot the puppy’? A healthy metaphor, like the ‘iron curtain’, conjures up a mental image that illuminates and enriches meaning. In the words of George Orwell, “the essential value of a metaphor that works is the link it forges between the image it creates and the experience or thought it encapsulates.”

What metaphors run out of steam

But if the picture a metaphor creates is ambiguous, or bears no relation to the meaning of its words, it is definitely not working. For example, take ‘push the envelope’. I asked two friends what they thought it meant and got two very different answers. One gave the correct definition – ‘improve performance by moving beyond current limitations’ – but the other thought it meant some kind of bribe.

When I asked them how their image related to their definition, the friend who’d given the correct one struggled to connect her image  (a man pushing out from the inside of a giant envelope) with the meaning. Interestingly, the other friend had no such problem because his image of a man pushing an envelope full of money fitted perfectly with his mistaken explanation.

In fact, the expression ‘push the envelope’ originated in the US Air Force test pilot programme of the late 1940s. It refers to the technical limits – envelope – of a high-performance aircraft. A graph measuring the performance of such an aircraft would appear as a steadily rising slope that would then fall off rapidly as the aircraft exceeded its capability. What might have started life as a visual metaphor for a small group of professional specialists– the graph – has very definitely never been a visual metaphor for the rest of us. In truth, ‘push the envelope’ is really a wolf in sheep’s clothing: an abstract jargon phrase disguised as a concrete metaphor. Its visual quality is based on a misunderstanding of the technical term, envelope. The lesson is clear: take special care when importing jargon from specialist fields into the workplace.

What about a metaphor like ‘think outside the box’? The reference is to a well-known puzzle in which someone is challenged to connect nine dots, arranged in a square grid, using four straight lines that must be drawn without the pen leaving paper. The only way of solving the problem is to draw some of the lines outside the border of the grid (or box). For years, management consultants and trainers have used it as a  somewhat flip demonstration of the need to question our assumptions in order to think more creatively.

I suspect that many of us are unaware of the origins of ‘think outside the box’ but this has not stopped the metaphor working. Each person’s image of the box will be different but the general sense of the image is clearly related to the meaning of the words. So what is wrong with this metaphor? Well, like a lot of metaphors it is exhausted from overuse. Nowadays, it is so familiar and hackneyed that I’m certain very few people see anything much when they hear it. Metaphors are like vegetables, for best results it’s important to keep them fresh and grow your own wherever possible. For all its many faults, ‘think outside the box’ still has a lot more going for it than the abstract entreaty to ‘think creatively’.

The way forward

Finally, let’s look at a relatively new coinage that is novel enough to demonstrate the rich qualities of a metaphor that still has something to offer. The term ‘data rape’ refers to how easily our privacy and security can nowadays be invaded by people gaining access to our personal information without our knowledge or permission. The allusion to date rape is shocking and distasteful but it vividly captures the sense of personal violation we feel at the thought of strangers plundering our personal records and taking advantage of us, particularly when we’re not conscious of it. It makes a serious point but like many of the best metaphors, the wit of the ‘data rape’ pun is dark, but clever too.

So next time a colleague uses a metaphor that doesn’t produce a clear picture in your mind’s eye or that you just don’t get, challenge it! (You never know, you might find that they don’t know what they mean by it, either.) And look out for fresh, new metaphors that really help get your message across – don’t overuse them though or they’ll quickly lose their energy and power.  Most importantly, let’s make an effort to create work environments that encourage people to come up with their own metaphors – it’s a great way to improve communication, develop creativity, bring people closer together in the workplace and have some fun.

Showcase your idea, service or product for free

If a tree falls in the middle of a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Philosophical niceties aside, it doesn’t matter how good your idea, service or product is – if no one sees it, it might as well not exist.

In a world dominated by social media and the internet, the golden fleece of visibility is the viral video. Creating an online video that others enjoy, and want to share, is the communications equivalent of winning the lottery.

But can a viral video be made to order? Is there a magic formula we can follow that will enable us to produce one? Of course not, because a viral video, by definition, is always going to be something that stands out from the crowd.

Creating viral videos may not be an exact science, but it’s not an entirely random activity either! When we worked on our ‘Busting the Mehrabian Myth’ animation we intended to create something that would appeal to specialist and non-specialist alike. In line with our communications ethos, we attempted to make an animation that was engaging, persuasive and memorable.

Almost a year later, I think we can claim a modest success. ‘Busting the Mehrabian Myth’ has been viewed nearly 30,000 times in less than a year – which is pretty good going for a niche video about a relatively obscure piece of communications research. And when we started working with our client on ‘The Project Manager’s Story’ – the custom video I blogged about last week– we had the same aim in mind.

And yesterday the client who commissioned ‘The Project Manager’s Story’ called us with some encouraging news. She had just sent the animation to Project Manager Today – one of the industry’s leading magazines – and they liked it. In fact, they liked it so much they immediately posted it on their website and offered her the chance to write a piece about her company, which would feature the animation too.

So what is it about our animation that opened the door to such valuable free publicity for our client? I have a hunch it may be more than just the cartoon element…

Here are a few of the tips we give our clients when we begin the process of writing a script with them – they don’t add up to a comprehensive answer, but they’re a useful start:

The gift
Offer your audience something of genuine value – with no strings attached. Share a useful technique or insight with them – or simply set out to give them an enjoyable and amusing experience.

Keep it Simple
Turn the fact that you’ve only got one or two minutes to make your point into a positive advantage – think of the video as your online elevator pitch. Step outside your professional/specialist mindset and put your audience first. If your video can hold the attention of a twelve year old, you’re probably on the right track. Keep your language simple and visual – and avoid jargon!

Use metaphor
Translate your specialist knowledge into everyday analogies that are capable of conveying the idea and feel of what you’re saying to a non-specialist audience. It may seem counter-intuitive, but in our experience fellow professionals/specialists appreciate this approach too – think of Project Manager Today’s enthusiastic response to ‘The Project Manager’s Story’.

And finally,
Tell a story
We all love a story – and stories are a great way of shaping content, and making people care about it. The classic problem/solution – headache/aspirin – narrative structure can be an effective way of creating interest in your product or service.

Whether you’re writing a video/animation script or working on your elevator pitch, if you apply these tips, it’ll give your message a fighting chance of distinguishing itself from the competition – and, who knows, maybe you’ll be lucky enough to produce something that infects your audience and goes viral!

Going for Laughs in a Speech is no Joke

A joke is a blunt instrument. If it works, there’s laughter; if it flops, there’s an embarrassed silence. A misfiring joke can can spell disaster for the rest of your speech.

The public persona – or ethos – created by your speech can also be compromised by the use of jokes. After all, jokes aren’t meant to be taken seriously and – by implication – neither are the people who tell them. We use phrases like, “it’s just a joke,” or, “I’m only joking” to play down the consequences of things we say and do. And if we don’t respect someone, we describe them as “a joke.”

But if jokes are to be avoided, what are we left with? The answer is wit. Wit is a rapier to joke’s bludgeon. Wit is a sophisticated intellectual compared to its naive country cousin, the joke. Wit isn’t bothered about making you laugh, it has a greater ambition, it wants to make you think.

Wit is the ability to find just the right words to express similarities between things that would usually be thought of as very different from each other. And when wit hits the mark, humour – even laughter – often follows in its wake, but is never its main purpose.

Winston Churchill was a man noted for his wit; and following his humiliating defeat to Clement Attlee in the postwar election of 1945, he unleashed his scathing wit on his victorious opponent. The two men were opposites. Attlee was slight, very quiet and unassuming, and had the look of a pen-pushing minor bureaucrat; while Churchill was a big, outgoing man with a larger-than-life personality.

Churchill famously quipped that, “an empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street and when the door was opened Attlee got out.” The juxtaposition of ideas is startling because on the face of it a person and an empty taxi don’t appear to have much in common. But Churchill’s metaphor perfectly expresses the idea of insignificance.

A criticism packaged into a witty image is great way of making sure people remember what you say because images are very effective mnemonic devices. And when a witty image captures an essential truth about a person or real situation, its impact can be incisive – as well as long-lasting.

A recent example, from November 2007, is Vince Cable’s witty criticism of Gordon Brown in which he reflected on Brown’s, “remarkable transformation in the past few weeks from Stalin to Mr Bean.” Brown had only recently taken over as Prime Minister after Tony Blair’s resignation, having previously been Chancellor of the Exchequer.

During his ten years as Chancellor, Brown had established a reputation for being decisive and authoritarian (Stalinesque). When he took over as Prime Minister it wasn’t long before he faced a critical decision about whether or not to hold a snap general election. He prevaricated (Mr Bean) and almost overnight he undermined his image as an iron Chancellor.

Vince Cable’s remark summed up Brown’s fall from grace in a witty juxtaposition of two very different images. The consequences for Brown were dire – the remarks were to haunt him to the end of his premiership, and hasten it.

The following day, writing in the Guardian newspaper, Simon Hoggart described Cable’s attack on Brown:

A great howl of laughter seemed to fall from the very ceiling. Even Labour members desperately tried to hide their amusement from the whips. Apparently many stab victims feel no pain at first, but know how much it will hurt later. This one is going to hurt.”

And it did hurt! Cable’s witty hatchet job did produce plenty of laughter, even from Brown’s embarrassed supporters – but it was certainly no joke!

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