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.

Passion and sincerity

Passion and sincerity

This is the first of a two part essay on aspects of good and bad writing. Because it straddles my cultural and business blogs I’ll be posting it in both (it is identical in both).

Commercial and creative writing demand quite different approaches to ambiguity. When Mark Antony hears the news of Cleopatra’s (overstated) suicide he says, with the tragic vaingloriousness that has marked his character throughout Shakespeare’s play

Unarm, Eros, for the long day’s task is done,
And we must sleep.

The double sense of the word “done”, spanning the distance between something that’s complete and something that’s simply over underlines the common tragedy of human aspiration, our dreams of attaching to our lives the potent meaning of a project that might be accomplished, rather than the meaningless drift of our daily efforts cut short by death.

Writers working in poetry or indeed any other kind of creative form relish such ambiguity. It offers a way, to paraphrase TS Eliot’s remark on English Metaphysical poetry, of suggesting in one experience other kinds of experience that might be possible. Or as Geoffrey Hill quoted approvingly from John Crowe Ransome (I’m relying on memory for this)

In the cry of a woman deserted by her lover is a whole history of civilisation.

Language not only helps us connect to each other. It offers a common ground which reaches into the past, evoking associations and ideas that may colour or even transform our sense of the present. Ambiguity, the power of a word or phrase to mean more than one thing, makes these connections. Creative writers embrace this power, nurturing it and shaping it, calibrating its limits in different ways for different contexts, helping us re-imagine the familiar and so experience it differently.

Commercial writing by and large must do the opposite. Commercial writers must assume only limited interest among their audience, and so a very limited attention span. Whatever needs to be said must be said quickly, must have an immediate impact. Ambiguity becomes a distraction, or even something to be feared (summoning unwelcome associations).

Commercial writing also has a very different relationship to cliché. In creative writing cliché is the kiss of death, the dead hand, so to speak, but in commercial writing cliché is often enough a first resort. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Cliché can comfort with the ring of the familiar: give it a little twist and you have the familiar ringing with a different tone, which is a sure way to catch attention quickly. It’s why so much advertising copy trades in reanimated cliché and catchphrases. It’s not art but it is effective. We can enjoy the wit, however trivial the selling exercise, and indeed art writing can play with similar effects.

But there is a vicious side to the comfortable familiarity of cliché, in the way corporate bodies wrap themselves in hackneyed language as though this could mark their status as a serious player.

The worst, most obvious example is the overuse of “passionate”.

Perhaps we should blame Tom Peters, who once suggested that managers should have “A Passion for Excellence”. The book was successful and influential, to the point where managers started doing what they often do, using an apparently attractive word wherever they could as if saying it often enough would make it so.

It’s usually rubbish of course, which is the first problem. Claiming you’re passionate about something is a very big claim, so you had better be sure it will be consistently borne out in your behaviour. A business which on the one hand says it’s driven by shareholder value (as most publicly quoted companies have done in the last twenty years) can’t really expect credulity when it also claims to be passionate about something else: it’s true you could always make an argument that the pursuit of a particular uncompromising excellence in your products was the best way to create shareholder value in the long term, but for the most part in those last twenty years a long term view has not been available.

You can’t claim to be passionate about something if it can be compromised by financial pressures.

There’s also a potential mismatch between the claim and its object. The UK sandwich retail chain Pret a Manger claims to be “passionate about food”, but you can’t say that without evoking the world of haute cuisine. As sandwiches go Pret’s products are of consistently good quality, and I imagine the Pret management is rigorous about maintaining standards, but snail porridge this is not. It’s not even interesting bread (which I imagine would be impractical at this scale). What’s more I can’t imagine any true fanatic would be happy to serve or drink coffee from a paper cup.

“Passionate about food” is intended to position the business as one you can trust for its quality. Such trust depends on the reality of your performance, and the irony is that by and large Pret delivers that performance, but the overclaim about passion undermines its positioning rather than reinforcing it.

This is a common aspect of cliché: people reach for cliché because they think it will be immediately communicative, readily understood, but when we read such a hackneyed claim we’ll usually understand something different, that the business isn’t serious about what it says.

This seems pretty obvious, but it’s an insight that’s made no difference to common practice. “Passion” and “passionate” have spread like a rash across business-speak, to the point where if you really are passionate about something, you need to find a different way of expressing yourself.

The familiarity of cliché is problematic because when we reach for cliché we signal that we’ve stopped thinking about things we need to think about. This is a general problem, as notable in journalism as business writing. For instance journalists writing about someone with cancer often suggest that the person is “battling the disease”, but this is somehow to suggest that disease puts us at war with our bodies, and feeds the general dread about cancer. Having seen cancer treatment close up I can say this is a seriously unhelpful way of thinking about what’s going on. Chemotherapy in particular wreaks a kind of violence on the body, but that’s coming from the cure, not the illness, and a cancer patient usually needs to find a way of accepting that treatment rather than fighting it. “Battling” suggests a false agency as well as a dubious way of looking at ourselves, our bodies. It promotes a misleading idea of what can or should be done in a context where truth can make a difference between life and death.

Because business writing needs to be direct and immediate (given the likely limited interest of any audience) there is only limited scope for creativity: it can’t explore the potentially rich allusiveness available through ambiguity. It can still be alive and vibrant, but this requires as close attention to meaning as creative writing, albeit for a different end. It means being alert to cliché as well as permissible jargon, the latter requiring a constant thoughtfulness about the context in which your words will be read.

This much should be basic, but that thoughtfulness is too often conspicuous by its absence in business communication, which means that instead of drawing your readers closer you can only expect to push them away.

I’ll say some more about the imperatives and problems of context in the next concluding instalment on this subject.