26 Fruits


The direction of travel

My fellow dark angel Jamie Jauncey wrote in his blog last week about the various historical influences that have brought us to the current state of business writing. He listed the industrial revolution, Victorian legalese, 20th century military command and the MBA culture among others. All interesting and plausible reasons for the state we’re in.

One other reason occurs to me. It’s the pretence of objectivity demanded by a variety of institutions: the academic world, civil service, local government, corporate governance. The charade that it’s professional to rely on facts not emotions, that it’s best not to write a strong opinion.

I ran a workshop last week at The Writer where we looked at a piece of ‘professional’ writing containing this phrase: “We are not unconvinced by…” It’s the language of one professional not wanting to criticise another but expecting you to read between the lines. A professional game is being played. Such language appears in review paper, meeting minutes or annual report. It’s Yes,minister’s Sir Humphrey writing to Sir Humphrey with a knowing smile.

In the same workshop I asked people to write a short piece about something they felt strongly about; to show an opinion. Automatically the language changed from that of the managerial cult of objectivity. Language fell naturally towards personal pronouns, active verbs, short words, strong rhythms, alliteration, verbal games. Language of emotion; convincing, persuasive, engaging.

The managerial world often tries to avoid that kind of language because managers find it hard to manage people’s emotions. Actually they find it hard to manage people, it’s much easier to manage a machine. The machine does what you tell it to do. So the corporation prefers to speak to you as if you’re a machine – in a Gradgrind way, educating you with that narrow, unsustaining diet of ‘facts, facts, facts’.

It’s no way to behave. We can go in one direction or another at work, it’s up to you as the manager or the managed. But it’s your choice of words that sets out the way you’re going. It’s all part of lifelong education, and it has to be built on encouraging people to be creative.

This is the direction I’d like us to go – if you haven’t watched Sir Ken Robinson’s Ted talk on creativity, try it now. Thanks to Stuart Delves for reminding me of it


3 Responses

  1. This makes me think of Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’ and a slight paraphrase for you John: “Nor shall my pen sleep in my hand, till…” Salutations. Thanks to Oliver Vellacott of Indigo Vision for the link to Sir Ken Robinson’s uplifting and moving speech.

  2. Mary Clark says:

    How much of this stems, too, from our trip through the cattle chutes of modern ‘education’? There is very little emphasis placed on creative thought/problem-solving/negotiating, all things you need inventive, personal language for. The emphasis is on conformity.

  3. It’s so true that our choice of words sets where we’re going, a lot of other things do too; body language, self-esteem and the way we interact with others. The ability to find language to communicate with a group whilst making individuals feel valued and listened to is a true gift.

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