David Berstein: Putting in a good word

David Berstein advises us to listen and examine the words of a brief carefully. You could find an anagram of a brand name that makes it work on many levels

I’ve just received a mailing from The Fourth Room, an A-Z, a stimulating collection of insights on creativity, innovation, vision, brands – meat and drink to a columnist. The consultancy describes itself as a group of senior creative strategists. The book illustrates their philosophy. In a covering letter, Michael Wolff, [Fourth Room’s] founding partner of imagination (whom I’ve known since each of us had a head of hair) pointed me to his favourite letter in this alphabet, L for Listen: Listen is an anagram of silent. I was hooked, not just because I’m an anagram fan, but because intelligent and active listening demands complete and quiet attention.

This is certainly the case at a briefing. I used to advise consultancy teams to listen intently to the client’s opening words, to write them downí all of them, with the exception maybe of ‘good morning’. The full significance may not be immediately apparent, but, remember, he has been preparing for this moment and is keen to get his thinking out of his head and into yours. Your participation at this stage – other than for the purposes of clarification or confirmation – should be minimal. Think about what he’s saying, not what you intend to say. Time for that later. And above all, don’t echo or paraphrase. A nod is sufficient to indicate comprehension and reassures the speaker that your ears are open.

Listen. Pay attention. Take notes. Then later examine the words used: why this one rather than another? A specific word should fix a specific meaning. No two words convey the exact same meaning. Synonyms aren’t identical. For example, how does the client refer to others in the market – as competitors, rivals, the enemy? Terms indicate mindsets. Metaphors are even more revealing. Take product launch. What type of launch: naval or space? The imagery and implications are quite different: dockside or launch pad, hull or three-stage rocket? Or you’re discussing taking a brand into a new area. One can call it brand extension, using a building metaphor, and refers to brand architecture. The other calls it brand stretching, the metaphor is an elastic band and the success of the project seems less assured.

As Naom Chomsky says, ‘Language is a mirror of the mind’. I pinched that from Alan Fletcher’s The Art of Looking Sideways, his magnificent magnum opus and masterclass. Phaidon’s blurb is spot on: ‘It is an inexhaustible mine of anecdotes, quotations, images, curious facts and useless information, oddities, serious science, jokes, memories – all concerned with the interplay between the verbal and the visual, and the limitless resources of the human mind’.

Twenty years ago I asked Fletcher to define design. ‘A mental utensil,’ he replied. His book is one huge mental utensil. It is virtually impossible to read a page without stopping to re-read, make a note or compare a thought with your own experience. I had just lost a battle with my computer when I turned from the hostile screen to the comforting page and read: ‘There are differences between machine and mind. Computers can think, but they can’t wink. They can’t convey the wealth of information provided by a look, a nod, a shrug, a smile or a twinkle in the eye.’

Fletcher has, not just a facility with, but an obsession with words: their look, shape, meaning, relationship with others and with foreign tongues, their long-forgotten origins and their constituent letters. So within its 500-odd pages Fletcher finds room for a few anagrams. This is after all a book about seeing things differently, one of the key definitions of creativity which Fletcher cites.

The best anagrams are those that chime. Bedroom/ boredom. Schoolmaster/ the classroom. And reclaim. There’s only one place you ever see that word – at the airport carousel waiting for your luggage. It’s an anagram of miracle.

My own personal anagram I owe to a colleague, another besotted with words, Rex Audley. When asked to judge an ad, leaflet, logo, brochure, whatever, I need above all to feel that it’s branded both physically (for example, the name is registered) and psychologically (for example, the tone of voice is coherent with the brand’s personality). The question I ask is ‘is brand evident?’. I explained to a researcher last year that this was an anagram of David Bernstein and received an e-mail the following week with an anagram of the anagram. ‘Is brand evident?’. If not, ‘advert is binned’.

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