Johnson, Writing, Briefing and Orwell..

It’s been a little while since I updated here. A combination of laziness, work bits and bobs and just not really having much to say has meant I’ve left WAM well enough alone.

Anyway, after going to see a lecture at the LSE by Steven Johnson (which was excellent – he’s very good value) on the topic of his new book, all about where good ideas come from, sparked a thought.

Recently, I’ve been getting a tad fed up with the use of buzzwords in the communication industry. ‘Glocal’, ‘Agile’, ‘Transmedia’, ‘Platform’ – all of these make me wince whenever they’re used.

Yes, most are shorthand for a bigger thought, but I don’t find them particularly helpful.

And there was one thing that Steven Johnson referred to – the need to make your ideas as easily understandable as possible, to increase the size of your network. Basically, ensure that what you’re saying can be understood by many, to increase the likelihood that it’ll be picked up, adopted and shared.

Jen, my colleague at work, pointed to a T.S. Elliot essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, which asserts the need of creative work/ideas to have some nod to the tradition in which it is born into, in order to be understood and be accepted.

And, after reading that, I began to think about the odd good idea I have when I write briefs. Without exception, the best thinking happens (or, indeed, the best selling to client) when complicated things can be translated into simple language, which can easily be shown to be spreadable – people read it, and it leads to a debate or a thought from it.

Not something which is self evident (I’m looking at you, Transmedia) and has a word attached to it which confuses the 95% of the world that don’t work in comms – and some of those who do. When words like that get accepted, I think they lead to exclusivity, and not great ideas.

Now, I don’t mind words which coin something brand new – but they should be able to be understood from the get-go. Otherwise, I don’t think Planners are doing their job, which is (partly) to synthesise complex topics, encourage lateral thinking, new, useful ideas and, ultimately, behaviour change.

So, I decided to have another look at my writing Bible, George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’. If you haven’t read it, stop reading this and take ten minutes to sit down, have a cup of tea and pore over it.

Like Richard, I’m a very big fan of George Orwell, and thought it was worth splicing in some of his thinking with Johnson’s lecture, and what we know about Eliot. This next quote is a great introduction to how to write decent briefs (especially propositions, for my money):

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: 1. Could I put it more shortly? 2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?”

And, next, Orwell continues to explain (much, much better than I can) about why using lazy, shorthand phrases is wrong:

But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.”

The last point is crucial. Certain industry buzz words don’t help foster innovation or lateral thought – they have the effect of confusing most people, and acting as lazy shorthand, not helping people express what they mean. For my money, if you have to explain it to your creatives, account team or client and it’s not clear, take it out. Simpler and shorter is almost always right, not academic and perplexing. You aren’t doing your job if it requires a BA in Cultural Studies to ‘get it’.

In his essay, Orwell also does a neat job of explaining just how you can express what you think is a good idea. Interestingly, it’s not always found within language, and this next passage is fascinating:
When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally.”

In short – think about what will best sell your idea. What combination of pictures and sensations will most easily lead to your idea being sold? Don’t simply risk using the comms word of the day.

To bring this back to the Steven Johnson lecture, he talked a lot about the ‘Architecture of Serendipity’, environments that take advantage of the slow burning nature of ideas, that make the connections between people. Comms agencies need to not quash these thoughts, not impose artificial environments (I’m looking at you, lazy briefings and brainstorms) which don’t help.

You can see in your mind’s eye, can’t you? A planner with no time, cobbling together some of the latest shorthand buzzwords, confusing the creative/account team, and pissing in the well of inspiration.

Those three writers are why I have a natural tendancy to dislike whatever the comms word of the month is. I like analogies, because they tend to do the sensation and image part much better than an ‘Agile’ or a ‘Platform’, which already lead you to the wrong places.

I’m aware of the need to coin a term, but most, I don’t think, are that helpful. The lazy definition of a planner as ‘the smart one’ encourages this, in truth. Heck, just look at the Big Society – it reads like it was written by a bunch of planners with not enough time.