The mind of the reader

The mind of the reader

Sensitivity to context has long been a cardinal virtue in writing, a prerequisite both in creative and business work. In the second part of this short essay on good writing I want to look at how creative writers address context, and how business communication frequently gets it wrong.

Business writing always starts with three (deceptively) simple questions about context: who are your audience, what are they thinking, and what would you like them to think?

Creative writers in contrast cannot really know who might be reading their work. You could say that one of the things distinguishing creative from commercial writing is that the former must to a large extent create its own context, set its own rules and expectations.

This hasn’t always been so. Limited literacy and publishing meant that pre-Romantic writers (and poets in particular) could assume that their readers were drawn from a much smaller group in society, whose tastes and expectations were easier to anticipate. Intelligent writers might still play with ideas of the familiar or unfamiliar reader, with the very specialised manner of speaking that is poetry, but the Romantic movement changed things. Romanticism might have preceded mass literacy, but it marked the beginning of a conscious attempt to seek a common language, held in common with ordinary people, reflecting a belief in the possibility of a shared experience that transcended class and circumstance. The post-Romantic Tennyson, certainly the first and still one of the few poets ever to become rich on the sales of his work alone, spent his literary career worrying about the relationship between the personal and the common, about what he could mean when he wrote the word “I” (not so much as a philosophical problem as an imaginative one).

This concern stayed with post-Victorian literature. TS Eliot wrote of “the escape from personality” offered by poetry. Towards the end of the 20th century a large movement within literary criticism went down a blind alley attempting to uncouple the idea of a writer-as-creating-intelligence from the (culturally conditioned) responses of the reader, apparently finding the cultural conditioning, the context, more interesting than the creativity (it is not). At the same time, outside these rarefied and stultifying critical airs, another cultural current elevated the status of the creative mind to an untouchable position, as if creative earnestness was enough in itself to command respect (it is not).

Good writers have had to think through and with these uncertainties.

Business writing faces what looks like a simpler task. It has a given context, however broadly defined that may have been. Indeed the definition will often be very broad, including diverse interest groups. It’s been said that if this definition starts to divide into primary and secondary audiences you’ve already doomed your communication to failure. This might be an overstatement but it underlines the importance of understanding exactly who you’re talking to, what it is you’re trying to do, which includes an understanding of what success would look like.

It’s fair to say that the poor quality of business communication all around us is rooted in a lack of proper thought about context.

It’s not too difficult to find examples of blatant bad practice, the times when a business seems to have decided it wasn’t worth worrying about polish or professionalism. It never seems particularly surprising when something like a railway station announcement is wrapped in mealy-mouthed verbiage (no surprise even if the announcement has been pre-recorded using a professional voiceover), so you’ll hear that you’re being watched by cameras “for the purposes of safety and security” when “for” would have meant exactly the same thing (why use one word when you can use four).

It’s not too hard to find examples of corporate jargon being slipped unreflectively into inappropriate contexts. Ironically sales and marketing people, who should be better aware of jargon than most, are often the worst offenders. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when in my local multiplex cinema I’m told I can buy popcorn or ice cream in the foyer “from the concession stand”. It’s true that being in the business I am I can work out what a concession stand is, but I don’t really know why I’m being asked to consider the cinema’s sub-letting arrangements rather being told how most easily I can spend some more money.

This misuse of jargon reflects a thoughtlessness about context. Other misuses around the idea of brand outside marketing audiences can have far more serious consequences than my irritation, but that’s a bigger topic.

These are stupid, blatant mistakes, but I’m more interested in subtler errors of judgement, which reveal something about the pressures on business-speak and why they need to be resisted.

Here’s a statement from Microsoft’s new CEO Satya Nadella, talking about the acquisition of Nokia’s mobile phone business, as reported on The Register IT news site.

“The mobile capabilities, hardware design expertise, and world-class manufacturing and supply chain operations they bring will help us drive innovations in devices to delight our customers,” Nadella said of the acquisition.

I wish Nadella well (and I use Microsoft products all the time), but one of the things he needs to do is find his authentic voice. I appreciate that as he took over he needed to reassure as much as excite, but his first letter to staff and the film released to accompany it had clumsy PR hands all over it, a story which sounded like it had been derived from true things about him, but which didn’t sound like he was saying it, or at least it sounded like whatever he thought he ought to say, rather than what he might have said left to himself.

“Authenticity” is an idea that gets knocked around quite a lot and amusingly enough in business minds can often prompt the question “how do I achieve authenticity?” The quote about the Nokia acquisition starts off reasonably enough, summing up the benefits, but then hits a jarring false note when he says this is all about bringing “delight” to Microsoft’s customers.

Why is this a false note? It’s because it sounds like it’s come straight out of a management book, and that’s a problem because it’s then being used out of context. While the creation of products that “delight our customers” might be a reasonable imperative for product developers (not least because few Microsoft products lately have offered that delight) it can only sound presumptuous as a more general statement. It makes it sound as though all is so well in the Microsoft world that the company can now focus on higher level pleasures rather than reworking the basics to get them right. Nadella knows that this needs to be done, and since in the real world he is overseeing changes to put things right he should be letting that real world guide what he says. It’s the old PR fantasy, that repeating something for long enough will make it so, but this can only be remotely feasible (and I’d argue even then is not desirable) when the people you’re talking to are not faced with directly contrary evidence.

Speaking as if readily available truths were not real is one of the most extreme examples of loss of context, a retreat into a kind of self-regarding bubble which pays insufficient attention to whatever lies beyond the self.

This imperative to think through context raises another important point about authenticity. In the world of sales, being a brash loudmouth might constitute a certain kind of authenticity, but if may not be the most effective way of getting people to listen to you. We need to find ways of being true to our own voices (and all of us have more than one) which at the same time respect the expectations and concerns of our audiences.

For instance any experienced copywriter will have been faced with briefs that demand “punchy” copy. There’s a time and a place for brevity, or even for words that hit hard, but there are as many contexts in which a gentler tone (which doesn’t preclude brevity) is likely to be better received: by and large people don’t like being punched.

A real concern is that someone who could be so unreflective and insensitive about the meaning of his or her words in a brief is not going to be able to distinguish good from bad copy written in response to that brief, and here must lie part of the explanation of why we all must contend with daily showers of corporate bullshit: there are too many unskilled people in the communication business.

This is not to suggest that business people need to be better artists. It wouldn’t be a bad thing perhaps, but it’s not realistic, and nor is it necessary. We need rather to remove business communication from the bubble it’s blown round itself, to connect it again to the worlds in which business people themselves live when they’re not at work.

Backward and forward

Backward and forward

The brand discussion will continue, but first a short diversion into the future of technology.

Something strange has happened. I pulled my lovely Nexus 7 tablet out of my bag and found the screen cracked, the touch sensitivity more or less destroyed. I don’t know how, have no recollection of any impact, and it was in a protective case.

But that’s not the strange bit. I then found myself thinking that when I replace it, it will be with a Windows 8.1 tablet, perhaps Lenovo’s new Thinkpad 8.

I like Android. I also have a Nexus 4 phone and I’m very happy with it. I don’t understand what commentators mean when they say Android is less intuitive than iOS. Yes, it’s not as inflexible as iOS, but everything works pretty much out of the box. You can then go on to set it up as you want, and it’s not difficult, and that seems a good thing.

So why am I now thinking that Win 8.1 is the way to go for my next tablet? It’s because I use it on my desktop machine.

Let me be clear. I adopted Win 8 on the desktop because I was curious and because I wanted the under-the-hood improvements, and because it was available pretty cheaply. But on my desktop, its shortcomings were very plain. The relationship between the “legacy” desktop and the full screen “modern UI” (MUI for the rest of this piece) was and is incoherent. I use a 23 inch screen as my main monitor and the MUI stuff made no sense on that screen size, so I stayed almost entirely within the old desktop mode, though I have to say I didn’t have any real problem with the Start Screen and the absence of the old Start menu, especially once I’d realised the power of the right click in the bottom left corner. But this highlights how botched the launch really was, with the conspicuous absence of any serious attempt to help you find your way around the changed features of the OS.

Version 8.1 improved a few things, though some steps were retrograde, but I won’t go on about that now.

Actually I don’t have a simple desktop. Like many these days I have a laptop, plugged into a bigger screen, with a separate keyboard and mouse, and over time I’ve been finding that the MUI apps work quite usefully on the second, smaller screen, so typically I might have the MUI version of OneNote running on the smaller laptop screen, while I work with my usual desktop programs on the big screen.

MUI is pointless on the big screen, but it makes some sense on the 15.4 inch laptop even with a mouse (albeit a mouse offering some touch functions). And that’s why I’m thinking it probably works even better on a tablet: I can see it’s far more sophisticated than Android, let alone iOS. While the selection of apps in the Windows store might be more limited than the Apple or Android stores, if you want to do serious work there’s most of what you need, and arguably more of what you’ll need for serious work than you’ll find in the competition. But then the real clincher is something that was always critical to Windows, and which we seem to have lost sight of it: namely backwards compatibility.

Apple has always ignored this concern, and for the niche it appealed to, this was liberating, enabling Apple to develop simpler more efficient code and apparently simpler modes of working. But Windows has always been about the ability to run the applications you were using before you upgraded, and still need to run. So when it comes to productivity, to the ability to do serious work, any shortcomings in the Windows store are far outweighed by the continuing presence of the Windows desktop world. Certainly, these programs will not have been optimised for touch, but if you have a stylus that’s not too much of an issue. (I also have a very good Microsoft Wedge keyboard, which I’ve been happily using with my Nexus 7.)

Windows 8.1 is still a bit of a mess, but it is beginning to look like a mess with a purpose and I’m sure that over the next few years the mess will be tidied up. I imagine that if I do buy a Windows tablet my current usage pattern will be reversed, that I’ll spend most of my time in the MUI world, clicking back into the desktop when I want. What’s compelling is the idea that I can take a computer out with me with good battery life, access to all my current files (because I keep them in various cloud storage services) and use my preferred productivity programs, with seamless font and layout compatibility, for not much more money than a netbook. Android and iOS are nowhere near being able to offer this.

The only fly in the ointment is that rumours about the next edition of Windows suggest it may split more distinctly into desktop and tablet editions. The rumoured thinking about the desktop seems fine (that you’ll be able to run MUI apps in a window, as you can already with third party utilities); I only hope they don’t disable the tablet edition’s ability to handle legacy programs, because that was never the problem.

With hindsight it seems clear that Windows 8 was produced in a panic, and was not really ready, but in many ways it was a justified panic. We are clearly moving towards tablets, hybrid notebooks and touch interfaces, though I believe a fully windowed environment will continue to be compelling for serious work. Microsoft is fortunate in that its installed base (particularly in the enterprise) gives it not only a sales cushion, but also a strong reason for users to stay within the Microsoft system. It doesn’t then matter too much if sales of Windows and Office no longer constitute the company’s basic cash cow; as the concept of cloud services matures there are more promising and sustainable revenue streams available within the eco system, even without the hardware or advertising revenues that Apple and Google respectively can count on. Good grief – at this rate I might even end up with a Windows phone.

The best writing tools

The best writing tools

This blog is mostly about pretty high minded things, but it can’t hurt occasionally to deviate into the practical.

I make my living as a commercial writer. I’m old enough to remember typewriters, and though I had one at college I hated using it. Correcting mistakes (and I made a lot of mistakes) was just too cumbersome and the results unpleasant. I looked into computers as a possible way forward, but it was another five years or so before PC-based word processors began to be available in a useful and affordable form. But when they were, that changed everything for me.

I discovered Microsoft Word. It was a DOS program, white characters reversed out of a dark screen, and menus that worked well with a mouse. At the office (an ad agency) we were forced to use Word Perfect, but I always preferred Word, and its market triumph when it moved to the graphic environment of Windows only vindicated my preference.

I looked at alternatives: AmiPro, Star Suite (which became OpenOffice) but nothing threatened my allegiance to Word, until Microsoft launched Office 2007 with the notorious ribbon. It wasn’t the ribbon itself that put me off, though as a power user familiar with Word’s menus I didn’t find it particularly helpful. But I use styles all the time for formatting, and for reasons best known to itself Word 2007 buggered up style management.

OpenOffice seemed the obvious alternative, but there was much I didn’t like about it. Its interface design was ugly, and simple but important functions like a word count were buried in menus (you could with some effort customise the interface to make things better, but back then it took quite a lot of work). Its compatibility with MS Office documents was far from perfect, and because I need to exchange documents with clients using Word, this seemed a show stopper.

Reluctantly I persisted with Word. Then two or three years ago, having been taken over by the unsympathetic Oracle Corporation, most of those working on the OpenOffice project went to a new project, LibreOffice. Things began to move fast enough to rekindle my interest, while in Microsoft land with each new iteration Word just seemed to get worse, less flexible, and often harder to use.

LibreOffice became my tool of choice, particularly its writing module, which is the component I use all the time.

I’m writing this in the upcoming 4.2 release. It has fully incorporated and begun to refine the “sidebar” from the now discontinued IBM Symphony (itself a fork of OpenOffice). The toolbars in Symphony were an incoherent and inflexible mess. In LibreOffice the sidebar shows Microsoft how the ribbon should have been done. What’s more, because it’s placed at the side of the window it makes much better use of the widescreen aspect ratios of most modern monitors.

MS Office compatibility still isn’t perfect: page headers and text boxes particularly can cause problems, so I keep a copy of MS Office to check and refine these elements when I need to share a document with a client using the docx format. But I never do the initial work in Office. It’s too clunky. I can’t see myself ever buying another MS Office licence, and LibreOffice rather wonderfully is free (you can always make a donation).

LibreOffice Writer is in many ways superior to MS Word. You can configure almost everything about the way it looks, the colours, the icons, and the visible toolbars. There is still a full screen view so you can work without any visual distraction on your text (something Microsoft abandoned for no apparent reason with the advent of the ribbon). Style and template handling is simple and effective, and there’s a very useful navigator feature which gives you an overview of the different elements in a document (headings etc) and lets you move easily between them (Word 2013 has finally caught up with this feature).

Here’s a quick guide to the customisation I like to apply. Not all of these elements will be possible in versions earlier than 4.2 (though most of them will). You can download it from www.libreoffice.org, though at the time of writing you’ll need to go to www.libreoffice.org/download/pre-releases/ to find version 4.2 (I’ve found the release candidate to be stable, though the final version should be available soon).

  • In the View menu, uncheck the Ruler, Text boundaries and Field Shadings. In the toolbars uncheck the “Formatting” toolbar (it’s largely replicated in the sidebar, while other toolbars will appear automatically in the sidebar when you’re working on a picture etc). Enable the Sidebar.
  • You’ll be left with the standard toolbar at the top of the screen. I usually edit this (right click in the toolbar and choose “Customise”) to reflect the way I actually work. For instance I use keyboard shortcuts to cut and paste, so there’s no point in having those functions in the toolbar.
  • From the Tools menu go to Options, then select View. Under icon size and style choose “small” and “Sifr” (finally LibreOffice has a modern icon set, though it could still do with some refinement on the sidebar). 
  • Still in the Options menu select Personalisation, then Own Theme. You’ll be taken to the Firefox themes webpage. Find one you like (I’m using one called Abstract Black), go to its page and copy the web address, then paste it into the box in LibreOffice. Click OK … 
  • Still in the Options menu select Appearance. Choose an Application background you like (I use Grey 7). Also deselect Object boundaries, (unless you want to see a line around them). 
  • Still in the Options menu under Language settings/Writing Aids, disable grammar checking. Like all grammar checkers its views of your sentences are often debatable to say the least, and I find it more irritating than helpful. Then look at English Sentence Checking for some useful options about word spacing, quotation marks and apostrophes. Choose the options that suit you. 
  • Finally under the Options/LibreOffice Writer/Basic Fonts menu you can change the default fonts for your documents. I used Charter BT at 10.5 for body text and Zapf Humanist at 14 for headers. 

You can also set default fonts effectively using templates. You manage these from the File/New/Templates menu, which allows you to import templates you may already have created, and set one of them as a default. I use a customised standard template to set fonts, line and paragraph spacing. I have other custom templates for letters and commercial copy with different headers and page elements.

Other programs, platforms and thoughts
LibreOffice Writer is my preferred tool for most of the documents I need to create. It is a good cross-platform solution that runs on Windows, Apple OSX and Linux and if you use its native Open Document Format you should find perfect fidelity across those platforms.

Sadly ODF is not really supported on Android (or iOS as far as I know). On my Android tablet I’ve found by far the best writing tool is Mobisystems’ OfficeSuite Pro, which can now display ODF files, but doesn’t let you edit them (although you can always copy any text into a new document and then edit in docx format). I hope this situation changes soon, but for the moment I have to save my LibreOffice work in the docx format so I can edit while away from my desk.

Most of the recent development in MS Office has been about enabling collaborative document creation via the cloud. This is largely irrelevant to the way I work, and it’s also the emphasis of Google Docs. I found the latter fine for very basic text creation, but too limited to be anything but frustrating in everyday use.

On the other hand there’s Literature and Latte’s Scrivener. I use it for creative writing, because I find it helpful to use a different software environment from my commercial work, and it’s a fantastic tool. It de-emphasises formatting to help you concentrate on text creation, with a number of features to help you gather and manage your research materials, as well as tools to help you keep the overall structure of long documents visible and flexible. You can achieve most of this in LibreOffice too but Scrivener keeps things tidy and always at hand. Once you’re happy with your text you can “compile” it for final formatting in a word processor, or indeed for direct export to e-publishing formats. It’s inexpensive and well worth the outlay if you’re producing long or complex multipart texts.

It’s also cross-platform, available on Apple OSX, Windows, and with a beta version for Linux. You can find out more at http://literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php

Getting it wrong

Getting it wrong

Why do we get things wrong? Obviously we get things wrong when we have only partial information, or we have to make a judgement about unpredictable forces, and that kind of mistake isn’t particularly interesting. On the other hand it’s apparent that we can often get things wrong because we’re half-blinded by our prejudices or other desires. This happens all the time in our personal lives, and it’s often the stuff of tragedy, but it’s more interesting (or at least important) when it happens on a political or business level, when in some respects leaders should always be trying to think beyond these personal drivers.

I’m curious how an organisation like Microsoft, with huge resources and smart people, could have got it so wrong with Windows 8.

To give credit where it’s due I think Microsoft’s judgement, that using touch screens (on phones and tablets) will have a creeping influence on how we interact with computers, is correct and ahead of the rest of the market.

This much is comprehensible, but the resulting product is not. Microsoft clearly recognised that it would need to offer some semblance of its traditional desktop so as not to alienate its huge (and conservative) business constituency overnight, which makes it all the more surprising that it then seemed determined to force all users at every turn into its new touch friendly (and very immature) “modern UI”. Anyone could have told them that this was a big and unnecessary mistake (and many people did): it would have been a trivial thing to let users choose which environment they wanted, and let them stay there while carefully introducing convergent features.

What’s puzzling is not that Microsoft got the execution so wrong, but that it was incapable of seeing what was obvious. Note that this is not the usual problem of disruptive change and market leadership (highlighted by Clayton Christiansen back in the late 1990s), where the incumbent has too much invested in the status quo to adapt to change. Microsoft was reading the writing on the wall, and understanding what it meant, but as if paralysed by Christiansen’s insight it chose to act as if there was no status quo (and still executed very badly even in those terms). CEO Steve Ballmer has paid the price in his forced early retirement.

On on a different level, how did that usually shrewd political operator David Cameron get the parliamentary vote on a military response to the Syrian crisis so wrong? The Tories apparently blame Ed Milliband’s change of heart, but if Milliband wobbled it was because he was trying to take the public and parliamentary temperature, and when he had done so came down firmly on the side of non-intervention. This wasn’t duplicitous: it was the right political decision. Again what’s surprising is that Cameron hadn’t worked this all out for himself in advance, and so been much more cautious in his rhetoric. As it was he seemed transfixed by his admiration for Tony Blair’s calculated performances on the international stage, ignoring the obvious truth that what Blair did over Iraq has become axiomatic for political duplicity, and a total failure in its avowed aim to protect British security.

Cameron survives for the moment. On a bigger stage Barack Obama has been quietly humiliated by the wilier Vladimir Putin, largely because Putin had the advantage (through no virtue of his own) of being substantially right. Obama gave himself a problem he did not need to have, and Cameron went along with it. Again, what’s interesting about this particular crisis is not that the situation was hard to read. Everything was pretty obvious. The blinding factor seems to have been the self-image of some of the actors involved.

Leaders in any walk of life are fallible: this is hardly news. But it’s become worth saying because we seem to have settled on a view that leaders are distinguished from ordinary folk by their ability to read situations with unusual insight, and make the big bets successfully. This might be true of some very exceptional individuals, though even here we need to consider how much of a part luck or circumstance played (Churchill was the man of the wartime hour but a pretty hopeless peacetime politician). Indeed it is hard to name a great peacetime leader in British politics in the last hundred years. The two people with the sweeping self-belief to change the political climate were Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and in both cases their legacy is of unmitigated wrongheadedness.

It seems more likely that the best leaders are not like near-omniscient demigods: they are good team builders, who have learnt how to listen and empower others.

These things are valuable skills, but they are not so uncommon. The damaging cult of the Great Leader in Western business and politics has been embedded by the emergence of a self-serving leadership caste, who tell us that their unique talents require unprecedented financial rewards. This seems part of the same blinding self-image that urged otherwise intelligent people, from Ballmer to Obama, to close their eyes and ears to what sat plainly in front of them and caused them to lead badly (though in a truly grim irony, Ballmer’s resignation, a tacit admission of serious failure, immediately rewarded him with millions of dollars as Wall St welcomed the news and boosted the Microsoft share price).

Leaders are as important as they have always been, or more accurately leadership is as important as it’s always been, and that distinction matters because it detaches leadership from the cult of the individual. We need people of vision to take us forward, but note the plural: the vision is unlikely to emanate from any one person. We need this detachment of vision from the idea of the visionary, not just for better leadership, but better governance across enterprises and politics.