The power of words

May 28, 2009

George Orwell understood the power of words. In his essay Politics and the English Language he warned of the dangers of political doublespeak which he said can make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.

I have no doubt that were he alive today, Orwell would be adding a message of support to the campaign to free the Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi who has been under house arrest for 13 years for opposing the military regime of Burma. The United Nations says that her detention breaches international standards of due process and fair trial.

Aung San Suu Kyi will be 64 on June 19. To add your message of support visit


Sorry no longer seems the hardest word

May 27, 2009

An epidemic of contrition has broken out. Politicians, Oxford poets, the press and big businesses are now queuing up to admit mea culpa for wrongdoings and previous behaviour.

In the past few weeks, high-street retailer M&S apologised to its customers for charging more for larger bra sizes, while the Evening Standard ran an advertising campaign expressing regret for printing too many negative stories and for failing to act as a cheerleader for the capital. (This campaign is particularly perplexing. As someone who has worked in local and daily newspapers, I know it is almost a point of honour among editors not to go public with a paper’s mistakes. Apologies, when they prised from a newspaper, are usually hidden on a left-hand page and well away from the front). And you cannot turn on the television at night without seeing a penitent MP admit a shameful error in judgment for buying a duck island or scatter cushions out of the public purse.

What’s going on? Do these expressions of sorrow herald the emergence of a new relationship between government and citizens, businesses and consumers; a relationship based on greater openness and responsiveness? Or is it a stratagem – at a time when sales are poor and share prices are tumbling – aimed at differentiating the brand from those impersonal institutions that have got us in the brown stuff and make things worse by refusing to admit their mistakes?

According to Darren Briggs from Flametree Communication, a firm with expertise in leadership communication, the power of the internet is forcing companies to face up to their responsibilities.

“The role of public journalists and the ability of people to mobilise into communities of interest make it impossible for companies not to admit when they have made a mistake or let their customers down. If companies did not show humility, customers can vote with their feet.”

Darren said he saw first hand the power of the consumer while working at Nike when a boycott movement spread across US campuses among students angry at reports of worker exploitation in the Far East. And he draws a distinction between those companies, such as M&S, which have a reputation for good customer service and wrongdoers for whom sorry is just lip service.

“Actions speak louder than words and people can tell the difference between a genuine apology and someone like an MP who is only saying because they have been caught.”

And, at the end of the day, it’s our choice whether we choose to accept such apologies.

Punctuation makes its mark on Google generation

May 22, 2009

Great news! The exclamation mark is making a comeback! Scorned by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but a staple of tabloid headline writers, the exclamation mark is back in favour thanks to it popularity with the Google generation and Twitter users.

A couple of years ago, US authors David Shipley and Will Schwalbe alerted us to the fuzzy feeling that multiple exclamation marks in an email can bring about in the recipient. “ ‘Thanks!!!!’ is way friendlier than ‘Thanks’ ”, they claimed, suggesting that grammar is a kind of chocolate sauce that can be poured over any correspondence. I am not best qualified to judge whether Thanks accompanied by four exclamation marks expresses a way deeper level of gratitude than a simple Thanks followed by a full stop. I imagine you would have to be one of those people who populate their emails with OMG, LOL and emoticons to grasp the full impact.

So much as so often depends on context. I admit to having used colon close brackets to share a joke with someone I know well, but I could never imagine concluding an email to my boss enquiring about my claim for a pay rise with thanks and multiple exclamation marks. Perhaps that tells you why I now work for myself!

But I am not : ( about the use of the exclamation mark in email. Like Lynne Truss author of the best selling Eats, Shoots & Leaves, I believe the written word is “adapting to the ascendant medium, which happens to be the most immediate, universal and democratic written medium that has ever existed”. This blog is evidence, if evidence were needed, of that truth.

Anything that gets people thinking about grammar and when to use it appropriately should be welcomed. And having just passed a high street store advertising a ‘Womens beach shop’, the sooner we revisit the issue of possessive apostrophes the better.

● An item in the foreign news section of the papers has underlined other dangers associated with Twitter. Police have arrested an IT worker in Guatemala who encouraged people via a 96-character tweet to withdraw cash from a state-owned bank. The Twitter community is fighting back and is organising a collection to pay the man’s fine.

Authenticity and how video killed Gordon’s star quality

May 17, 2009

As if Gordon Brown did not have enough worries, what with MPs’ expenses and that little matter of a global economic recession/depression/ice age (delete as appropriate), it seems the PM has also revealed himself to be a television flop.

In case you were busy sorting your receipts that week and missed it, Mr Brown was appearing on Number 10 TV to talk about his regret at young people’s reluctance to go into politics and his proposals for sorting out the thorny issue of MPs’ allowances.

Many unkind things have been said about his clear physical discomfort in front of camera, and his feints, fidgeting and facial tics, especially when trying to smile, are curious. (To me, he looks like an earnest headmaster auditioning for a part in the school play). Unfavourable comparisons have, naturally, been drawn between his awkwardness on television and the chirpy showmanship of the previous occupant of Number 10 who was able to work the camera to his advantage. History has taught us that television can be a harsh judge. Viewers watching the Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960 felt that the tanned and relaxed looking Kennedy got the best of the arguments, while radio audiences thought the outcome was much closer. We are left to wonder how Abraham Lincoln would fare in the YouTube age (perhaps his media adviser would suggest he blog his address at Gettysburg), or whether Jesus’ teaching in The Sermon on the Mount would pass muster if had to do it in front of Simon Cowell.

For communicators – and not just those working in television – there is something instructive in all of this which we would do well to learn from. Gordon Brown’s failing was not that he couldn’t tell his autocue from his sound boom but that he let himself be poorly advised and strayed into a world that is demonstrably not his metier. His message was lost in all his phony bonhomie and clumsy cheerfulness. We want to believe Gordon Brown is a serious politician, not a warm-up man for the church raffle. The authenticity is missing.

Alastair Campbell, the former Labour spin man, understands this and compares Gordon Brown with the Scottish chanteuse Susan Boyle. Speaking on his blog he says: “If there is a lesson from her success for politicians, it is authenticity. It is the only communication that works.”

So, the lesson for everyone whose job it is to communicate: if you are a fish, stay in water.