So here we are in the middle of… well, what is it? You could say it’s a recession, but that hardly seems to fit the severity of what’s hit us. Some say it’s a depression, and it’s also a regression to boom and bust. Mention bust and we’re plunged deeper into another story of Marks & Spencer saying sorry for selling bigger bras at bigger prices.
It seems to me that the ‘recession’ means it’s time for a rethink. Companies will, of course, be doing the conventional things in recessionary times – they’ll be cutting costs (sacking people) and putting off investment until they reach what they hope will be better times in 2010. But what about now? There’s a mood for change in the air. Everyone is saying sorry for past mistakes – even the Prime Minister and MPs are being forced into it. If we can say the hardest word, perhaps other words could come more easily.
The rethink we need should start and continue with businesses’ approach to language. If you lined up those sorry bankers, the ones at the heart of the financial crash, you would find they all speak and write the most ridiculous form of business-speak. People who have left the City and transferred to other areas of business are now beating their chests and asking ‘What was I doing?’. They’re happy to have left a world where the words that once seemed so powerful are now exposed as meaningless. For years, the City lived in a macho bubble of pumped-up jargon. Now the City emperors have been shown to have no clothes and no words of any value either.
It’s not just about jargon. Often they’ve replaced jargon with a patronising language that is corporate-bland at best, ingratiating at worst. Here’s a snatch of prose from the Royal Bank of Scotland™ (apparently) in the same year that it announced a record corporate loss: ‘With Business Lifeline you’re only a telephone call away from our team of experienced bankers. They have broad knowledge of working with all sorts of companies and can give your business an edge in today’s challenging trading environment.’
These people might be creative accountants, but they’re not creative writers. My point is not that this extract is so appallingly bad, but that it’s just so dull. It’s written to a formula established before Sir Fred Goodwin sent their world crashing – and we don’t trust that language any more. But, you might argue, we don’t need creative writing, we just need plain speaking – we need people to keep saying sorry.
Sorry, I’ve had enough of that. It’s easy to say sorry. We’ve now got enough corporate apologies to last a lifetime, so let’s move on to the next stage of the rethink. Let’s set about creating a new language for the different kinds of business that need to emerge in the coming months. Right now we’re living on an impoverished diet of plain words, a verbal gruel, but we need something richer and more sustaining. We need to add flavour and nutritional value to the words we write if we’re going to come through this situation feeling better and fitter than before.
So, of course, the language of quantitative easing has to go and we need more qualitative stimulation in our words. We should use words knowing that they matter. If we start to care more for them, they will help us more. And if we use them with precision as well as imagination, we’ll avoid sinking back into a world where the banal nostrums of Goodwin are treated as the wisdom of Nostradamus.
How to set about this? We have to stretch ourselves to find this different way of looking at the world through words. In my new book I’ve set myself the task of rewriting a standard piece of businessspeak in 26 different ways. I’ve rewritten it as a fairy story, a song, a graphic novel, detective fiction, Shakespearean sonnet and lots more besides. You might not end up writing your new business prospectus in alliterative verse, but you will learn an awful lot in the attempt. And there are probably phrases that emerge, as well as insights from seeing those same old business ‘challenges’ in a totally different light.
So here’s the challenge to us all. Let’s write differently, let’s write better. The next time you write a new business proposal don’t go for the usual template, don’t just cut-and-paste from a previous document. Think about it afresh. Think about an idea and the individual words you can use so that each word reinforces that idea. Creative finance has had its day – it’s time for more creative writing.
John Simmons is author of ‘Twenty-six ways of looking at a blackberry: How to let writing release the creativity of your brand’, published by A&C Black, priced £9.99, and director of The Writer