In the grand scheme of things, I have two skills I can fall back on that I think will always be useful. The first is helping people use computers, and the second is my ability to write. When I say write, I mean write quite well. Some aspects of how this skill developed are obvious – the amazing Maggie Richard, my English teacher at Frodsham High School in Northwest England – taught me to write critically, but with humour too – she’d have us roaring with laughter at Jane Austen characters (Mrs Elton, in Emma, stands out). Yet I didn’t get straight “A”s in English or anything.
It was a more industrial moment that turned me into a good writer. In the mid 1990s I was propelled into the IT industry with the task of writing press releases. Like many industries this one was full of jargon and people who wanted to use jargon to sound more sophisticated, more important or, most often, to baffle people into spending more money than they had hoped to. But I was having none of it and just wanted to explain things better. Within a few years I’d gained a reputation amongst my peers for being able to nail something down in a few paragraphs. I remember a 1997 performance review by my boss, who made it clear the main reason he hadn’t fired me was that I could write better about really geeky stuff (digital imaging sensors anyone?) than the other people in the company. He thought I was a bit of a loose cannon otherwise.
I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’ve spent time over the past month with my friend James Byous from California, who can write songs, and sing them too – really well – while playing the guitar. When I say really well, I mean he can melt a room, with soulful meaning and a voice that somehow manages to mix Jonny Cash and Freddie Mercury. With a bit of John Lennon rasp thrown in for good measure. Actually it’s no one else’s voice – it’s James’s voice.
All this, for me, is the difference between flying transatlantic in a bumpy, vibrating piston engined 1930s plane, versus stepping for the first time onto a Boeing 707 jet in 1960 and soaring above the weather at 600mph. This profound ability brings so many skills to the fore – an ability to interpret and understand how you feel about yourself and about others, a confidence to reveal and structure these feelings and ideas, a belief that your writing is strong enough to stand alongside the very greatest work by other very famous people, and a determination to be heard and understood – to grab people by the heart and take them with you.
This revelation has caught me at an odd moment. This summer has been without doubt the most extraordinary of my life to date, with lots of new sights, sounds, experiences, and people. I’ve felt the most “me” that I’ve ever felt. But I’ve somehow felt unable to capture or express the experience in writing – up to now. Maybe there’s an argument that sometimes a writer can’t write and take in really big experiences at the same time. I admit to being a classic boy who can’t multi-task – try having a conversation with me when I’m driving, and it will be hopelessly fragmented, for example. My car doesn’t even have a cup holder and I really don’t care. Drinking coffee on the move is beyond me. So maybe writing about my summer while experiencing it has been more than I could deal with.
And maybe I’m reaching the point where I’m ready to start writing again.
My friend and colleague Mark Nitzberg and I were chatting last month, while he drove me through Berkeley in his Prius – while conducting an investor call and taking me to Target to buy a tent for Burning Man… (Nitzberg is a boy who can multi-task). I was explaining to him my increasing sense that the function I preside over at Akvo – “Communications and PR” – has basically two components. “Communications” is describing what you do as an organisation really well, and “Promotion” is pushing that communication out in front of people with deliberate targeting. I said that I felt we did pretty well at the first component but this was the first job I’d had where I was trusted to rein back on the latter.
“Ah,” said Nitzberg, while easing through a 4 way stop junction, “So maybe it’s the case that COMMUNICATION + PROMOTION = COMMOTION.”
(Which is an example of how Mark nails things that others can’t.)
For those of us who have lived through the whole transition of personal computers from being things to write documents on (and then print off and post to others), to amazingly powerful global communication devices that fit in our pocket (and will soon be on our wrists, and in our glasses), this brings up the issue of restraint. It’s possible to carpet-bomb people with everything you do, but in the end it destroys credibility, deafens (and loses) the person at the other end and leads to the creation of all kinds of banal content designed to attract attention. A lack of restraint leads to commotion.
Thomas Bjelkeman and I have long coined the term “discoverable communication” for how we approach things at Akvo. It’s about making what you do visible to people who want to follow it, and making it easy for people to drill down through the layers, when they want to get to know us. It’s about subtle ongoing publishing that does not intrude, but rather intrigues, or simply interests people every now and again. I don’t need everyone to understand exactly what we do, but I want to make sure that if someone needs to understand what we do, they can quickly do so. And I want everyone else to feel comfortable that we understand what we’re doing and feel good about that.
When I was a kid my nanna and grandad had this plastic game called “Hoopla”, which my brother and I loved playing. It was a simple plastic cross, that had five posts sticking up. You threw small hoops and tried to get them to hook onto one of the posts. The winner got the most hoops landed right.
So often I witness the profound failure of organisations to embrace new ideas, with bureaucrats putting up barriers to resist change. And those of us who are creative and expressive are meant to devise yet another tedious proposal, playing by somebody else’s rules, ticking off their checklists, circling endlessly in their bumpy clouds, to achieve the outcome that we see as so obvious and inevitable. It’s professional Hoopla.
I feel sure deep down that our success will be rooted in being honest and open about what we do, laying it out for all to see, explaining it based on facts, but doing so in a way that inspires. But I’m left with the curious sense that those who cannot write well, who cannot nail down and express ideas, build a machine that forces those who can through hoops, while they make their careers out of judging ours. I think that’s something we need to rebel against.
Posted on 16 September 2013.