There’s no such thing as a mistake

At the start of jazz great Herbie Hancock’s autobiography, he describes a mid-60s gig with Miles Davis at a Stockholm concert hall. The band’s playing hard, the audience are going wild, the atmosphere’s electric, Miles is about to unleash a devastating solo, when:

‘I play a chord that is just so wrong. I don’t even know where it came from – it’s the wrong chord, in the wrong place, and now it’s hanging out there like a piece of rotten fruit. I think, Oh, shit. It’s as if we’ve all been building this gorgeous house of sound, and I just accidentally put a match to it.’

A sticky workshop moment

That quote came back to me once, when I was getting yelled at during a two day tone of voice training session.

It was for a small group of corporate letter writers, the people who reply to complaints and deal with problem customers. The company’s new tone of voice was meant to revolutionise their writing. Instead, they experienced it as an imposition from above, ignoring some of the real pressures and issues they faced.

And they let me know this in no uncertain terms.

Inspiration from a great

I remembered Herbie Hancock. For a moment I too felt that I’d completely screwed things up. So what happened next? Well fortunately, like Herbie, I had Miles Davis to inspire me:

‘Miles pauses for a fraction of a second, and then he plays some notes that somehow, miraculously, make my chord sound right… What kind of alchemy was this? And then Miles took off from there, unleashing a solo that took the song in a completely new direction. The crowd went crazy.’

As a brilliant improviser, Miles knew how to respond to the moment in just the right way, whatever was happening. Herbie goes on to say:

‘As soon as I played that chord I judged it. In my mind it was the “wrong” chord. But Miles never judged it – he just heard it as a sound that had happened, and he instantly took it on as a challenge, a question of How can I integrate that chord into everything else we’re doing?’

Improvising a new path

So, I took the same approach. I didn’t judge, I integrated. And I realised that it was actually a fantastic moment. Everyone was being absolutely and completely honest with me (if at quite high volume). They were sharing some very important reasons why they weren’t able to write well. And the workshop’s real purpose was to improve their writing.

So we turned the workshop on a dime, diving into the structural and managerial issues the team faced. That let me feed some genuinely transformative points back to senior management. Then we went back to the tone of voice.

Together, Miles, Herbie and the group taught me a very important lesson – Don’t judge, integrate. As long as you can find productive new ways of moving forwards, there’s no such thing as a mistake.

The process is the point

So in my ever-continuing quest to be a more dynamic, energetic consultant, I’ve joined one of the local gyms. In practice, it actually means that – on a reasonably regular basis – I’m actually a pinker, more puffed-out consultant, but we’ll get there.

Yay Gympop!

While training, I’ve been very struck by the gym’s vision of health and fitness. There are screens everywhere. When they’re not playing Dynamic Upbeat Pop Videos (Gympop seems to be an actual genre) they’re broadcasting information about healthy eating, walking wherever you can and generally maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

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It’s very clear that the gym owners see working out as actually quite a small part of a healthy lifestyle. Of course, it’s a very important focal point – but what you do before and after your exercise session is vital too. The workout they’ve set me up with reflects that too. I spend as much time warming up and warming down as I do actually lifting weights.

A word from my Dad

My Dad – being a golf nut – has his own sporting metaphor for this kind of thing. He often talks about the golf swing. He’ll point out that the moment when you actually hit the ball is a tiny part of the whole process. And it won’t go right unless you’ve got your stance, your grip, your backswing, your downswing, your follow-through and a dozen other things under control.

Silhouette of Man Playing Golf during Sunset

And as I was working away on a cross-trainer the other day, it struck me that that’s true for writing as well. Whether I’m writing a book or working for clients, getting the words down is actually a very small part of the process. In a business writing context, that translates into many different things.

Plan wisely

Before you even start writing, you need to define your brand personality, and be clear about your tone of voice and content strategy. And then, for each new document, you need to create a clearly defined brief. That’ll guide you through your first draft, help you focus feedback and help whoever’s signing your writing off understand exactly what they’re agreeing to.

adult, book, business

It’s like planning your trip before you set out. If you don’t do it, even a journey that should be really simple can become an endless slog. But if you’ve worked it all out, you’ll get where you need to be smoothly, easily and with hardly any getting lost along the way.

Beyond the keyboard

Thinking about it, it’s realising that that turned me from a writer into a consultant. I want my clients to end up with excellent words, created with minimal stress and hassle. And so together we have to think through all the whole writing process, which stretches far beyond the actual typing.

Getting the words down is a very small part of it all; like the golf swing, and like my workouts, it’s the whole process that makes the real difference.

Brand learnings from ‘Super Mario Bros’

So there’s a lot you can learn about how important good brand writing is from 1993’s failed ‘Super Mario Bros’ movie.

OK, bear with me here.

Dennis Hopper nails it

The reason I’m bringing up one of cinema’s more epic turkeys is this article about its troubled production. The shoot looks tough to live through, but it’s great to read about. In particular, it’s hard to beat Dennis Hopper’s epic two and three quarter hour rant about:

  • the poverty of the script
  • the inexperience of the directors
  • the iniquities of Hollywood in general

I wouldn’t pay to watch the movie, but I’d love to see that rant. Especially because Hopper was surrounded by 300 baffled extras (except when he broke for lunch, still ranting) and dressed as a humanoid dinosaur.

Image result for dennis hopper super mario bros

And also, he nailed the big problem that sunk the movie.

Of course, lots of inexperienced directors have made great movies despite the difficulties of Hollywood. And making a ‘Super Mario Bros’ movie wasn’t actually such a crazy idea. Films like ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ and the various Lego movies have spun cinematic gold from very similar material.

The problem was the script

The script’s first version was by ‘Rain Man’ writer Barry Morrow. But something about his road-tripping mismatched brothers story was a little… over-familiar. After another false start, producer Roland Joffé brought in the Max Headroom team. Their cyberpunk dystopia wasn’t quite right either.

British comedy legends Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (who’d written everything from ‘Porridge’ to ‘The Commitments’) then worked on it. The directors loved this draft, but the film’s financial backers didn’t. So, just before the shoot, they had the co-writer of ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’ produce a final version.

Apparently, it wasn’t bad.

Image result for bill ted excellent

Unfortunately, nobody told the directors about this final version. It came as a huge shock on the first day of filming – they almost walked out. Perhaps they should have done, because the shoot was a disaster and the film was one of the 90s’ biggest flops.

And all of those problems began with the script.

No clear vision

After all those rewrites, it didn’t express a single clear, powerful vision for the film. And without that, all those incredible talents – Bob Hoskins, Dennis Hopper, some of the world’s finest special effects people, the producer who’d just made ‘The Killing Fields’ and ‘Chariots of Fire’ and so many others – had nothing to bring them together.

So everything fell apart.

In both film-making and business, words are where a clear, powerful vision comes together in a way that everyone can understand, buy into, and act purposefully and creatively on.

If you can agree on the words that describe what you’re all going to achieve together, and if you can make that story clear, compelling and easy to understand, then you’re off to the best possible start.

And if you can’t – well, just go and watch ‘Super Mario Bros’.

How to practice being surprised

I’m part Brand Strategist, part Science Fiction author. Sometimes they’re very different worlds, but sometimes I learn something in one part of my life that’s very useful in the other. And the other day thinking about science fiction helped me realise something very important about prediction, and then about brands.

Tomorrow’s not what it used to be

When you’re an SF writer, people often think you’ve got a shortcut to the future. It can get a bit embarrassing, because in fact nothing dates like technology. Everyone had an iPod ten years ago. Twenty years ago mobile phones had only just stopped being bricks. And the very latest record player from the Eighties? It’s an artefact from a different time.

And that creates problems when you’re writing about tomorrow. The future’s the one place we’re all headed towards, all at exactly the same speed. And, because time always passes, when your readers sit down to read your SF book, they’ll be closer to the future you’ve invented than you were when you were inventing it. And that can make anything you’ve got wrong very easy to spot indeed.

Look at famously excellent SF movie ‘Blade Runner’, for example. It’s set in 2019. Now that we’re actually in 2018, it’s very easy to see that it’s not actually very accurate. Nobody in the film has mobile phones and none of them use the internet. We don’t have flying cars (an ongoing tragedy) or almost-human robots. And Los Angeles doesn’t look anything like Ridley Scott’s urban hellscape, which is actually quite a relief.

All the possible futures

So, if SF doesn’t predict the future, what’s it actually for? Well, ‘Blade Runner’ is still a great film to watch. Of course it tells a very human story, about love, mortality and loss. But it does something else very valuable. By showing you a world that’s not actually tomorrow, but is different from today in some pretty surprising ways, it helps you practice being surprised.

And what I realised about prediction. On one level, it’s impossible. Nobody knows exactly what will happen next – just ask the pollsters from the last election. But it can help you get ready for what might happen next. And that’s a very important thing to do.

To do that, you need to define the best of what you are now, about the genuine, constructive value you bring to the world around you. Then you test it out. You think about all the different tomorrows that could happen – most very sensible, some completely nutso. And you work out how you’ll bring the best of yourself to bear on all of them.

And whatever it is that always works, whatever it is that always makes the world better not just for you but for the most important people around you – that’s what you build your brand and all your brand comms on. Because you know that, whatever unpredictable things happen, it’ll always help you make the best of them, for you customers, your colleagues and for you.

A film making masterclass

Last night I went to the launch of the British Council’s Film Collection. It was a wonderful evening – great to see the films, and very satisfying to see a process I helped begin back in 2009 come to such marvellous fruition. I’ve blogged about it all in more detail over at allumination, where I’ve also picked out three of my favourite British Council short films.

But I wanted to post ‘Island People’ here, too. It’s a marvellous film – culturally fascinating, but also a masterclass in how to pack an awful lot of information into a short, highly watchable package.

And there are many more equally good films to explore over at the archive. They’ve been released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, so you’re free to play with them as well as just watch them. Enjoy!

Distraction is the mother of invention

I’ve just been planning out a ‘creative writing in business’ workshop. As part of it, I’m going to be sending people out for a slightly random wander round the neighbourhood. That might seem counter-intuitive – people usually think of workshops as being tightly planned and very focussed – but in fact purposeful self-distraction is key to the creative process.

I tend to think of it as letting your subconscious go to work. Whenever I’ve got a creative problem to solve, I start by gathering as much information as I can. That’s a very conscious, rational process. I want to learn as much as I can about whatever it is I’m looking at, and I want to know that I’ve learned it.

Say, for example, I’m coming up with a new name for a car. I’ll find out as much about the car as I can. I’ll try and understand what makes it unique, and what sort of people are going to be driving it. I’ll dig up information about its competitors, too. And I’ll do some more general reading, to help me get to grips with the way people are talking generally.

All that’s very helpful. But it’s only a starting point. I tend to think of it as a creative brief for my subconscious. Once I’ve briefed it, it needs some space and time to go to work. And that’s where the distraction comes in. It’s there to occupy the more superficial parts of my mind, so the deeper bits get all the time and space they need to do the job.

So, I might noodle around on the internet. I might go and make myself a coffee. I might take a stroll round the block, or go for a run. Anything that stops me thinking too directly about the problem tends to work. That’s when I find that the really good ideas tend to pop up.

In fact, that’s how naming a car worked the last time I had to do it. I’d had a couple of days of research, and I’d blasted out some basic name ideas, but none of them were really doing the job. So, I decided to leave it for a bit and cycle home. And that was the best thing I could have done.

The right name popped into my head while I was waiting for some traffic lights to turn green. I didn’t want to forget it, so I called up my voicemail and left myself a reminder of what it was. And then, back home, for a nice relaxed evening knowing that I could head back to the office the next day and know that the job was done!

Writing speech for brands

It struck me just now that the best way of writing for brands is to see your words as speech, not prose.

That came out of thinking about the difference between writing for brands and writing fiction. I’ve always separated them by saying that, when I write for a brand, I’m trying to sound like someone else, and when I write fiction I’m trying to sound like myself.

But in fact, when I’m writing fiction I’m never just talking in my own voice. Stories are built on characters, and characters spend an awful lot of time talking to each other. So, whenever I’m telling a story, I’m actually working hard to sound like several other people at once.

And that’s what made me think that writing dialogue a lot like writing for brands. In both cases, I’m trying to understand and communicate a coherent personality, one that’s entirely separate from my own. And that, I think, is going to be quite a useful insight, both when I’m writing and when I’m teaching writing.

First of all, it’s a reminder that brand communications are more effective when they’re pitched in a more conversational tone of voice. A formal, blandly corporate tone might share information, but it can’t share emotion like speech can. And – of course – emotional engagement is core to any effective piece of brand writing.

And secondly, it’s a reminder that we live in a world where any brand’s audience can very easily go online and start talking back. Any piece of brand writing can start a new conversation, or become part of an ongoing one.

That means, every time I write for a brand, I need to be thinking about what’s already been said about it, how what I write is going to fit into it, and how I’d like people to reply to whatever it is I’ve just said.

Nicholas Negroponte in conversation

Nicholas Negroponte‘s an avuncular man and an incisive thinker. Yesterday I went to see him talk at TechHub in Old Street. I noted some of his comments – they’re in quotes below. I’ve added my own thoughts, too.

1. Going with the dynamic flow

Early in his career, Negroponte realised that ‘the future of computer science is in the applications, not in the science’. Applications release outputs into the wild. Their meaning comes from how they’re actually used, not what they are or what they’re planned to be.

Flipboard‘s a practical example of that. ‘I think Flipboard is more profound than Flipboard understands’. It’s the application of the application, not the application itself, that makes the difference. Success is a dynamic by-product of use, not a static end-product of design.

That fed through into his investment strategy. ‘The idea almost makes no difference. It’s the person, not the idea… time and time again I’ve seen good ideas fail and bad ideas make lots of money’. It’s not what you’ve got but what you can do with it that counts.

2. Learning the children’s new world

In the remoter parts of Peru, Negroponte’s seen his One Laptop Per Child project lead to children teaching their parents how to read. Children are experts in dealing with novelty and hard-wired to learn languages fast. OLPC reverses the traditional parent-child relationship.

‘Many of the kids sleep with their laptops…’ When the laptops break, they’re very reluctant to hand them back for repair. They won’t let go of the broken laptop until the new one is in their other hand. This is symbiosis. The child sees the laptop as a permanent, non-negotiable component of self.

In the western world, ‘I don’t know of any child between six and twenty six who has read a newspaper… (they’ve) abandoned long-form reading. The concept of boredom has gone. If you’re not doing something, your thumb is.’ What technologies have our children fused with? What are they trying to teach us?

3. The politics of OLPC

It’s easier to seed more autocratic countries with laptops. One person can get behind the project and make it happen. I asked him about the problems of dealing with more democratic countries. He defined the difficulty as bureaucracy. ‘In a bureaucracy, if things go wrong you get the blame, and your boss gets the credit’. Risk aversion breaks progress.

OLPC put the Koran on the laptops it sent to Afghanistan. This is the only time that they’ve supplied them with content. Because of this, the Taliban haven’t taken any of the laptops away from the kids. ‘That was purposeful and worked magically’.

There’s ‘very little theft, very little abuse. The worse you get is an older sibling who didn’t get one of the laptops because they’re older than the age group’. I wondered what it would be like to be one of those, trapped in the middle as your juniors become fluent in the new world, and then start teaching your parents how it works.

4. What’s the significance of Social Media?

Social media creates ‘a general feeling of your voice meaning something… it’s heard, it’s meaningful’. Its multiplicity breaks autocracy. Negroponte cited the various Middle Eastern revolutions as examples.

OLPC is a subset of social media. I wondered about the various autocrats pushing laptops out to their children. What did they understand themselves to be doing?

The killer app is other people

I’ve just spent part of the day experimenting with the Zen void that is Color while wandering round London. I found no traces of anyone else in Color’s virtual world; it was like LARPing ‘Waiting for Godot’, only with added futility. I ended up having flashblacks to the beginning of ’28 Days Later’, and getting worried about zombies.

The whole experience made me wonder if Color is in fact a brilliant piece of conceptual sleight of hand, it’s hidden purpose being to remind us that technology means nothing without humanity, and that the ultimate killer app is – and always has been – other people. I for one was profoundly glad to step out of Color’s empty space and into reality which, as ever, has 100% uptake from everything that lives.

The you-ness of business

I don’t often get inspired by by business books, but I have been by 37 Signals’ rather wonderful Rework. They describe it as being about their experience building, running and growing (or not growing) a business.

It’s at once easy to read and very challenging. More importantly, it feels very personal indeed. This book was clearly written by people who’ve lived what they’re writing about, and are now really enjoying sharing it.

In fact, that sense of the personal is one of the book’s key themes, and one that really resonated with me. Rework does a great job of reminding you that you’re in business to be you, and that your success will stand or fall on nothing other than your you-ness.

Pour yourself into your product and everything around your product too: how you sell it, how you support it, how you explain it, and how you deliver it. Competitors can never copy the you in your product.

Words to both live and work by, tho’ – if you follow the 37 Signals’ ethos – there can be much less difference between the two than you might think.