FOR SEVEN years, I was a creative director, then strategy partner at the language consultancy The Writer. I worked for people like BT, RBS, PwC, BBC and Spotify, and I worked with them at all levels – from CEOs and leadership teams to Heads of Brand, HR and Legal, to people in direct day-to-day contact with customers.
I’ve seen how words work (and how they don’t) at just about every level of brand and business. Among many other things, I’ve written speeches for CEOs, trained government ministers, and helped develop the world’s largest tone of voice programme.
Before all that, I worked in magazine publishing as a writer, editor and graphic designer. For five years, I was the deputy editor of The Oldie magazine. I wrote and edited several non-fiction books during that time, too.
Getting your story straight in writing – actually pinning down exactly what you do and why you do it, longhand, in sentences and paragraphs – is incredibly powerful. Every time I work with clients on their 'story', the process uncovers unexpected and exciting things. You're never really just 'telling the story'. You're almost always breathing life into your strategy, sharpening up your brand, working out what your propositions should be... and a thousand other things. You just can't get that mix of brand, strategy and business development any other way.
Corporate jargon is like a pantomime villain. We find it reassuring to tell ourselves there's a bunch of idiots out there who just don't get it. That might have been true 20 years ago, but most people these days understand that being clear and sounding like a normal human being is just more effective all round. But that still doesn't change the fact that it's just hard to do well. Because communicating well – especially about complicated or abstract things – needs you to be able to take a step back from your own thoughts, to think like a reader who doesn't know what you know, and to have the time and headspace to let the fog clear and the connections form. As well as a knack with metaphor, analogy, rhetoric, and a good turn of phrase. All of which are difficult, especially when things are busy and the deadline's looming. Which is always.
Simplicity in writing often gets a bad press as 'dumbing down'. We don't tend to have the same feelings towards other forms of simplification. We wouldn't call Harry Beck's tube map, for example, 'dumbed down'. Perhaps it's because we often need our writing to be both simple and at the same time, convey more subtle shades of meaning.
I'm fascinated by the connections between simple systems and smart thinking. I get a bit obsessed with things like heuristics. And questions like 'would it be possible to make this website interesting using just one font and one photograph...?'
I’m also interested in how we acquire complex skills.
And particularly unusual ways of learning then. I've experimented on myself several times. I’ve become a passable pianist, an OK rock climber (despite a terrible fear of heights), and a determined (but hopeless) marathon runner. I’m currently seeing if it’s possible for someone who’s tone deaf to learn to sing (so far, amazingly, yes!). All this stuff has helped me design my workshops.
I've always been a short story writer. My book The Exploding Boy and other Tiny Tales has what's known as a 'cult following'! It got some great reviews and made it on to a couple of ‘books of the year 2012’ lists.
The first writing job I ever had?
I was a cartoonist for Viz.
Interview by Sam Richardson.
Update: Writing 'About' pages is difficult (that's why I did mine as a Q&A.)
I also tried asking Google Autocomplete to help. Here's what we came up with together: