Sunday 16 April 2017

The Art of the Familiar

The first book (only in full draft): The Art of the Familiar...

..Is a slice of life in London in the present day; it is a thriller with some unusual knobs on. As the reader soon gets to realise London is caught in the opening moments of momentous change marked by the presentiment of a storm that takes just three days to arrive: 

It’s a Saturday. Ben Walton, 27 years old wakes up early. For the sake of argument, it is September 2018. Ben is clever, self-conscious, articulate and reasonably comfortable in his skin. He lives in south London and has the world in front of him but today he is in a torn mood and apprehensive. Not happy in his work particularly, notably cynical about the state of play of the world, he is sensing that his three-year relationship with his girlfriend is foundering, perhaps has foundered…He is not particularly wedded to living in London much longer…and struggles to find a way to make sense of his life and give it purpose. And it’s still only breakfast time.

He decides to do something completely different and heads out of town, leaving the decision as to where to chance, but limiting himself to a 50-mile radius of the capital. Last moment he decides to take a bag with some clothes, and enough essentials for overnight if adventure serves him. He takes a nondescript towable travel bag; stows his passport too, decides to leave his mobile behind and then changes his mind. Finally, he goes.

What he doesn’t realise is that at this very moment, and courtesy of his own arbitrary action, he is about to become pinioned in a web of extraordinary danger, at the centre of which is a very powerful man; someone whose own ease and exceptional reach of control is in the process of being shaken to the core.

This is a thriller which builds to a novel of our times (state-of-nation) and the action takes place over just three days and ends a minute before midnight on Monday. At the end of the book I leave the reader waiting for more, wondering how to or where to turn the last page. I propose a chapter of the second book is appended to this one. The purpose is very calculated: to engage a massive audience because I deal with some major globally important issues, which form the context of this book.

As a tempter, the book unfolds how a few characters, but exceptionally few, know how to manipulate digital media and data to suit and construct their very defined purposes; data and media that would normally only be within the tight province of the banks and the Government. An alternative name for the book might be The Cyber Web, but the current working title for this book stands, I hope.

The arc of the narrative is a north/south axis – a kind of rough trouser crease between London and Brighton, ironed by the history of events and evoked by both roads and rails and real places. Given the speed, of events (sometimes exceptionally visceral) and their contemporary nature, the book is partly about the nature of safety – there are constant allusions to the thinness of doors. The book is frightening but in a careful way, with strong characters at work, mostly in turmoil. Alleviation of a kind comes from a nascent love story, strong sexual tensions while this is tempered by the sense that the hapless victims of this three-day event could be you.

This book is ready to read for selected publishers.

Thursday 16 February 2017

Does the message matter?
When you read something which is a bit clumsy does it bother you? Or when you see a word or phrase used incorrectly, do you feel mildly irritated? When a comma is used in the wrong place, or left out, does this make you slightly itch for the red pen? My feeling is that more and more people care less and less about slack or imprecise communication if only because there is so much of it – and the same mistakes are repeated like the bad habits they have become. It seems that provided we can all just about get the gist of the message then we are not overly concerned about how it is presented. And most of us are guilty in our daily outpourings of what might once have been considered horrendous verbal shortcuts or downright solecisms. 
If this is the case I suppose I should be concerned. Mainly because my profession as a writer for business and government, and for individuals who need or want things professionally written, would be considered of little or no importance. I would eventually have no use in a world which is quite happy to throw anything at the page so long as some of it sticks. I must admit I have noticed that among the people who would normally come to me in the first place to commission publicity, or to ask for something unwieldy to be rewritten or edited, there are more who are looking for something different, a new angle, a hook, rather than something that is clear, correct and easy to read. I have also noticed that there are fewer companies determined to adopt and adhere to a house style in their written communications. Some companies might even be baffled by the very idea.  
Fortunately, a commission to write something different, the new angle and fresh perspective, are fine by me. That’s what I like to do. But I also enjoy straightening crooked prose, putting rhythm back where the elastic has gone out of the beat and doing other things which used to be the domain of the old-fashioned editor.
My main argument to anyone out there who ever needs to describe their business, to articulate their skills and services, to launch a new model or a product in a competitive market, is that good writing helps them to be distinctive. Do it well and you will stand out from the majority who mostly do it badly.
In a competitive market, such as in a profession like accountancy or law, where much of what you have to offer bears a close similarity to the services of others in the same sphere, you need to strike the right note consistently to be noticed. You need to work hard to give assurance, demonstrate your experience, show your best side and engage people in the special story of your expertise. It is my hard-won belief that you also need to ensure that all those working for you pay heed to the clarity and tone of their communications, both to each other and to their clients.
I might well have answered my own question here. Yes, I think writing accurately and well does matter. We need to pay attention. We need to check and reread and try harder. Above all, we need to stop ourselves slipping into bad habits just because so many of them are widespread. 

Thursday 9 February 2017

Beware the dreaded apostrophe!

Beware the dreaded apostrophe!

I've just seen it again. The apostrophe used in the wrong place and sticking out like a banana in a bouquet of roses – actually it was part of an otherwise thoroughly intelligent article which also had three or four literals, all in the space of fewer than 600 words. All of which is totally unnecessary. Rule number one must surely be, please check what you write: it represents you, your skill, your company and what you are offering.

But the worst point is the use of the apostrophe when all you need is a plural. In this example, the offending item was the term Call To Action, denoted as CTA. There's nothing wrong with this so far, but then you really must not continue the story by referring to "CTA's"; it should simply be written as "CTAs".

I've seen this increasingly common mistake everywhere, even printed on expensive signage on the front of large retail and trade premises: "Top of range BMW's at great prices". I ask you. It's like saying 1960's instead of 1960s. When you are advertising for PAs do you write PA's? No, because in the latter instance the apostrophe would either denote possession as in 'The PA's pen dropped with a loud clang as she walked towards the office door', or an abbreviation of the verb 'is' or 'has', as in 'The PA's the one you should be talking to'. If you want more personal assistants, what you are looking for is more PAs. If you want to explain how to make your Call To Actions effective, please don't refer to them as CTA's. 

It is just slack. It is also slack to let an otherwise useful and informative article be published without checking it thoroughly first. Believe me when I say your words as much as your actions and services make you credible. Even today, when so many rules are broken and less heed is paid to good writing, the quality of your communications is one of the first things that a potential customer will notice. It starts the journey to engage people's trust. 

Saturday 6 August 2016

Normally, I write specifically about writing. Today, after a bit of a long haul job (apologies to my two followers!), I am writing about the fundamental importance of double-checking what you write online, by way of - I hope - a simple example. Any comments are welcome.

Barclays, Lloyds and Santander – O, for a missing zero!

Two weeks ago, on a Friday, I made an immediate online down payment through Barclays, my bank of 43 years, as an advance to cover materials for work carried out by John Smith, a builder who had already put in two or more days’ work excavating and constructing a base for a new garage.

Using my trusty Barclays PINsentry and equipped with John Smith’s account details, I entered: the account name, John Smith B1; a six-figure sort code; a seven-figure account number placing a 0 in front, as instructed for seven-figure account numbers; and finally a reference for my own use (in this case ‘John Smith Garage Base’).

The next day we went on holiday for a week, returning on Saturday to an excellent completed job. On the Sunday of that weekend my partner made a payment representing the completion of the work required. She too placed the 0 in front of the seven-figure number, as required by the system.

On the Tuesday morning of the ensuing week, John Smith, who was by now working on the next section of the work required told me that no money had reached his account: not the advance I had successfully paid, nor the completion amount for part one of the work schedule.

To my horror, and certainly to John’s horror – we all know that sick feeling don’t we, when our worst fears are realised? – it turned out that John had missed out one of two consecutive noughts in his account number when he had handed me the paper with his clearly written details.

Thus, I had by all appearances created a new account number with most of them in the same sequence exactly as the correct version – which had two consecutive noughts in it, rather than one. 

I hope you’re with me on this; the two zeros were near the end of the account number, in 5th and 6th place. I should emphasise that each transaction, separated by nine days and duly administered through Barclays’ and Lloyd’s respective systems, was entirely successful from our end. We thought no more about the payments, having made them, and were given no reason to have the slightest concern. In my case, in particular, the mislaid money was not returned, nor reported as an error in my transaction even though a full eleven days had elapsed since I had made the first payment to the point at which I learned of the problem.

I, in the absence of my partner who was out at work, was very quick to inform her of what happened. I went to her office. As an estate agent she had several meetings with prospective buyers to honour and other calls on her time during a very busy period, which meant she was not able to get to her bank, physically or otherwise, until just after 2pm. By then, accompanied by John Smith, I had already spent the best part of an hour, initially being looked after by a cashier and subsequently talking directly to a Barclays ‘global’ (or something) operator who in polite and friendly (but distant American-sounding) tones, told me that I would receive a letter in five working days, which was the protocol for the ‘mispayment investigation’. This would be followed by an investigation report which might be in a further period of some 15 working days.

Somewhere, possibly, it seems, a button had been pressed and the rest was down to digital inevitability wrapped in anxiety, on the part, at least, of John Smith, my partner and me. I didn’t get the impression so far that any bank was much concerned with anything but to move me away from the queue. Meanwhile the data-seeking digital missile is ponderously towed to its silo.

To my surprise, I was also told that the name of the account holder was irrelevant in the system itself because it was not cross-checked in the system. Whether the cashier who told me this was right or not I still do not know, despite a three-quarter hour follow-up call which involved retelling the entire story – eventually. I find it extremely hard to believe, in a system that won’t let you make a correct submission without the bank account payee’s name, that the name is to all extents and purposes irrelevant.

Following her meeting at Lloyds local branch, my partner was given exactly the same kind of information – basically they could only provide an answer to their investigation in some 20 days’ time. Bear in mind her concern about this, because the missing money from her account was some 500 per cent more than the amount I had sent into the ether.

John Smith then went to his bank, Santander, owner of the sort code, which was thankfully correct and which, within the general banking system, denotes a bank branch in a specific physical place – in John’s case, somewhere in the Aylesbury area. He told his woes and was given some assurance, again thankfully, that bearing in mind the extreme unlikeliness of there being two such very similar accounts belonging to one local branch, it was probable that the ‘system’ had slipped the dosh into a back pocket until someone rang its doorbell. This at least was some assurance towards the end of a very fraught day; a day in which I lost most of my working time as a commissioned writer while the builder lost his entire day. And all we were left with was uncertainty. Uncertainty is the latest fashion trend promoted on summer catwalks: the higher the couture the more difficult the decisions, even for the very rich.

In an ideal payment system what certainties would we most of all like, as pertains to a case like mine? I think they are these:

First, that the money is returned in full, with the lightning speed, if not within a day or two at the very most. Therefore, and as part of the first process, a transaction in process to the wrong account number would not be ‘completed successfully’, but is reported immediately – as in the immediacy of the internet generally with a fast connection – as an error. To us.

Second, that we do not have to pursue endless hidden and hopeful electronic corridors to find a person to talk to us about the progress of any enquiry in such a way that every time we knock, with our customer presence, on the door of own money, we are treated as strangers and have to explain ourselves as if we are passing urchins begging for a scrap.

Third, and most hopeful, is that true and real, dynamic, knowledgeable and human personality is uppermost in all dealings and transactions, whatever our financial status.

I’m betting there are countless other possible requests. Clearly we have years and years before we get vaguely close to this systemic utopia, for currently we are all bound by a system, here in little old 2016, which leaves the rats to feed on the children, our eyes averted as we sit at our screens.

Thursday 31 December 2015

Deliverables for 2016

Finally, this old brontosaurus rex has manteshelved laboriously into the 21st century. I admit that ‘deliverables’ is a useful word – used properly. My problem over a few years now has been that when people use this word they too often seem to be worrying a saucepan on the kitchen floor like hungry dogs: they think that anything at all involved in the pursuit of a target is somehow part of the deliverables. So the process becomes confused with the needed result – the outcome or target – being pursued.

If I have a business-like resolution for the New Year – that shiny, polished and minty thing starting tomorrow – it is not to concentrate on the ‘what’ question, so much as the ‘how’ question. The how is about process, the ‘what’ is mostly to do with the deliverables. (In truth, this is the last time I shall use that word in this piece, probably.)

When it comes to communications strategies, the process in all things business is critically important. It concerns how we use our people and our funds effectively; it is the mechanism for reform, improvement and change, for redefinition, reinvention and stimulation of all the parts of a reasonably well-oiled machine.

That makes it all sound easy to accomplish, and it can be depending on how well the internal communications mechanism marries with the brand and all other aspects of external communications. I’m not going to use terms like social functionality, stakeholder engagement, reporting profiles and other such isms of business-speke. They will only confuse unless they are hard-fixed in a proper business diagram.

But let’s look briefly at the process.

By asking how we will achieve something, the question presumes you have a particular goal or a set of goals. They may be tactical, as concerns outwitting competitors; operational, as concerns the way you deploy your resources; and strategic, describing how these two factors build towards your vision for the future. If by chance you have not mapped out these three factors by the last day of December 2015, it might be worth getting the pencil or flip chart ready, pretty soon.

To meet the goals you need a process or set of carefully interwoven processes depending on the size of your company. For example, regular monthly checks against your business plan to measure actual versus desired results, budget spend and other er…achievables…is a very worthy process in pure business terms. How, whether and when you communicate your progress is also important to build into the programme. This part – this process of communication – should be part of the definitive plan. Do it well and everyone feels they are contributing to clear goals; do it badly and no one knows what to do, when to do it and whether what they have already done is worth anything to the organisation.

Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone felt they had achieved something useful at the end of each working day? Too often your main resource – people – are out of the loop and spend copious amounts of unnecessary time running round in circles. That is not just a factor of poor supervision or management, it is because too many people are not party to the tactical, operational and strategic decisions. However, if you happen to be spending fat wads of cash on knowledge management you might be barking up the wrong tree; there is a big difference between managing what you think people ought to know and what they really need to know, which is whether they are doing well or badly. An appropriate smile is worth a thousand emails from semi-detached bosses in adjoining seats. One approach is sterile and back-covering; the other is human and purposeful.

Enough for the moment. What I have avoided mentioning here is what I do to help businesses communicate better. Find out more on my website. Call me if you need help; tell me what you want and ask me how I might achieve it.


Tuesday 22 December 2015

Why we must stay in Europe

It was a big day. The first of January 1973, when we formally joined what was then called the   European Economic Community (EEC). I wonder how many people remember the 40th anniversary of the moment – a Ted Heath with laughing shoulders moment – when the then Conservative Prime Minister signed us up, lifting his cap to the French hilariously in their own language. “Nu sommes tray tray herruh detre party de la marshay comah”.

If you’ve not heard of him, yahoo Ted Heath. He was a wonder on stilts, loved his music and was good with sail boats of all kinds. Bit grumpy sometimes but good at what he did, when he applied himself. Three-day week. We loved it.

Talking of sailing, of course, there has been much water sous la pont since then. Forty-two years and still counting.

I suppose we must ask: ‘What have the Europeans ever done for us’? John Cleese in the guise of an advanced zealot could tell you [‘Life of Brian’ – if you haven’t seen the film, see it!].

What indeed? Nothing really. Apart from the Working Time Directives and the Social Charter, the one stipulating that we really do not have to work more than 48 hours a week, legitimately, for our employers; the other making the whole concept of Care possible and worthwhile?

Hmmm…but we might have coped in both quarters pretty well on our own without being European Members. N’est ce pas?

Alright then, what else has Europe done for all of us? Well, apart from seed-funding thousands of EU Member infrastructure projects making it possible for other countries to grow their trade base and do business with us; not much else. Oh… Apart from Human Rights Charters, Agricultural policies; massive leverage in global decisions; oversight and insight, and sharing in each other’s nascent and actual problems; mutual understanding, appreciation and the development of twinning, the exchange of food and cultural activities, sharing and co-funding of Art, Architecture, Acting and Archaeology – before even we get to the second letter in the alphabet. Apart from making it possible to join our mutual military might so we could play boots on wings to do some selective rooting out of such problems as exist currently in the Middle East. Apart from presenting each other with leadership and a few more shoulders to cry on as well as to support us. 

Crikey, I’m running out of words to describe this behemoth.

I should add, submissively, that I am massively proud to be English, Scottish and an eighth Japanese; and European to my follicles. Yes, I know these are difficult times but I am sadly pleased that so many people are upset by the biblical exodus of so many others in search of a warm hearth and hospitality – who need a bit of TLC and plenty of shelter.

Are we not lucky with our troubles, and foolish with our hopes? Are we not fortunate enough? If we want more of what we have for ourselves, and should we get it, would it not be like the froth of a cappuccino, drunk in a breeze? Easy to refill if you have the coin.

But I digress; it’s often the way when you have the privilege of time to think, rather than the rat of now and of need gnawing at your stomach. The tears of children elope into the middle distance on our European tellies. Pour quoi? Ce n’est pas necessaire, je crois. Europe can solve it and I believe it will.

copyright Giles Emerson: 22 December 2015

Friday 4 December 2015

Windows in poetry!

Like a stack of wooden industrial pallets, this blog might run round in circles, catch on or fall flat in the wind. I see these pallets where I sit through the window, wood framed by wood as I pick and scrabble in my mind for words.  

The idea is that you think of a poem you like, know, or have just browsed for online, which is about windows or which puts windows in the frame of the poem – so to speak.

It might be a whole poem about windows of the soul or it might be just a very apt and well observed line or two from a poem. The theme is windows, so it could be about anything; the window you look out of when you think or dream, the windowless ruined castle, the windows on the wharf-like structures by the big rivers and ports. 

So many different views to take into account.

You can do humour, puns: anything, say, to do with glass, mullions, wood or UPVC. Take that last as an acronym perhaps and do us a poem: Here’s an example for the genre we are inventing:

Under the washed and wind-bent tree
Poppies framed beyond the lea
Voices silenced by the view
Caught my eye: the thought of you

You see where the acronym is - it is good to give your thoughts and words a frame sometimes, a limitation, the security of four walls with one opening.

You might use the idea of the green stain of moss on white plastic as an image of decline. 

You might have a favourite song in which the image of windows is part of the lyric. You might have a child’s poem about a house with windows that look like eyes. You might see a window in the skies of your imagination and use rhyme and beat to bring the thought to life. You might think about the frosted rime that hoars the winter window in the day and melts in cosy Christmas homes. Enough of this, enough of pomes. It’s now your turn to burn the run to Christmas with some cheer, and turn your pen to us and let us hear.

We seriously do want your thoughts, and who knows how they may be rewarded if you come up with something marvellous.

Just write to us in the comment window box. Or catch us on Twitter or Facebook. A like is alike to a window, painless until glazed.