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.

Monday 30 November 2015

Check it first

Have you ever had reason to regret committing a few words to print – whether an intra-office email, a snappy text sent too late to a client after a couple of swift ones, or a blog written in righteous anger?
The trouble is it is so easy to do; there are so many channels for half-baked words, pettish recriminations, even workaday emails that we fail to find time to edit. Like me, you might well have framed this kind of thought, “I truly wish I’d put in the word ‘not’ in that email to my best client: ‘Please be clear you do owe us for this extra work.’ ” Well, at the time, it was my best client.

Inevitably, I have to be extra vigilant. I am a professional business writer and I try hard to maintain extremely high standards; my job is not just to protect myself in this respect but to look after my clients. Even if the pressure of a deadline means I don’t have a chance to reread a piece in the cold light of the next morning, I most certainly build in time to do a measured edit. We have to check carefully and – without being anal or editing the baby down the plug hole – we should then check again.

This said, there are horses and there are courses. If I’m writing a matey note to a good friend I can afford to play a bit, muck around, drop my guard. Yet I still want the tone to be right and the message to be intelligible.

If, at the other end of the scale, I'm writing for clients who are trying to sell things or persuade important clients of their own to do things, my antenna must be carefully tuned and the various tools of my trade, intellectually and otherwise, must be sharp. I must be alert to my client’s agenda and voice; also to particulars such as house style, or the legal implications of certain statements. And, of course, however complex the story might be, and whoever the audience, I must be clear and engaging.

I should explain that a friend of mine waved this subject in my face the other day when she asked whether I thought standards of writing had improved or worsened with the advent of new technologies. She meant since emails and social media entered the fray. After a bit of a ponder I offered the opinion that standards might not actually have lowered, in terms of the nature of poor or ineffective writing – people were broadly making the same mistakes – but I’d definitely noted a hike in the quantity of poor writing.

It may be a cop out to say that because everybody is getting verbal dozens of times each day it is inevitable that there is more bad writing on view. But truly, I receive emails and texts, from friends and business colleagues alike, which take a few readings to be understood and where, in particular, it is difficult to gauge tone. Is he cross with me? Have I done something wrong? What meeting is he referring to?

A lot of this, sadly, is because people do not learn how to write effectively and seem to think it is unimportant to do so. A day’s good training could save years of pain.

My contention is that if you write more effectively you’ll think and act more effectively too: you’ll think more about what you have to say and you’ll act upon it. What’s more, you’ll develop the one thing that is so often missing in good and lasting business: trust. This is because you can be trusted to communicate information properly, and valued for the way you share it, research it and put it to work.

I have come to believe that the general muscle in business writing – reflecting business thinking – is considerably slacker than it ought to be. This might be the result of the great ease, the over-felicity, with which information is chucked about. Perhaps ideas and concepts that need a little firming up are passed around the place too soon or are too loosely wrapped to be useful. Perhaps our productivity is decimated by poor or unnecessary communication.

But here I’m wandering slightly towards another pitch.  My point is this: so much more could be done right now to improve the flow and effect of information if people checked what they have written before pressing the ‘go’ button. And, as part of checking, it would be useful if they tried to imagine how the reader is likely to receive it.

Tuesday 21 July 2015

How to write emails

This comes from the heart. How many times do you receive an email which, though not clearly stated, is for your information only? You trawl through it and wonder why you bothered. You have been cc’d on a list of people who may or may not have something useful or relevant to say about a particular subject, but every time the subject pops up, so comes another email. You start to ignore them and in doing so you overlook the one email which contained something relevant to you. It happens all the time and it is because of email overkill.   

Or worse – you receive a long-winded email that is so poorly punctuated that you have to read it three times to understand what it is about and what you are supposed to be doing about it. Another time you receive an email with a lengthy and rather confusing account of an item relating to a meeting or to a particular project. You marvel at the trouble that someone has gone to write this missive but you equally wonder why on earth this person could not have picked up the phone and talked the subject through in a quarter of the time they took to construct their email. More to the point the matter could have been resolved immediately, with one short call.

The truth is not everything has to be emailed and the more that is the less people will take any notice. Another hard truth is that emails can lure you away from much more important business. “I’ll just check my emails” is one of those permanently heard sentences and it normally means that the speaker disappears for the rest of the morning.

Since the advent some twenty years ago of emails, these marvels of relatively modern technology have transformed the way people work, mostly for the better. The fact alone of being able to send data-heavy documents in an instant to colleagues, suppliers and clients justifies the use of emails. But like any form of communication, if you use emails too much, improperly, without clarity or particular purpose, you will find that when your name pops into the in-tray it is given scant regard.

The first rule about writing an email is checking whether you need to. If you have a few questions to ask a particular person, why not crack them all in one go – and get the answers into the bargain – with a phone call. It’s also a way of communicating that is friendly, sociable, assuring and quick. You can write an email at the beginning of the day and sit for the rest of the day with no reply – so one piece of the work jigsaw is missing. Multiply this with several emails to which you expect responses and you can find yourself in a senseless waiting game. By comparison, the phone is quicker, chummier and more effective in many instances. Or pop round and do a face-to-face. Takes a moment and shows willing.

Here’s another thing. While it is true that something written down is retrievable and can be offered as proof of a communication, this does not mean that you need to show proof of everything you have written or thought or done by committing it to an email. The sparer you are, the more effective you will be and the more people will take notice.

Another and last thing – writing emails is thought by some to be a bit like a conversation: very easy going, so let’s not worry too much about punctuation or grammar. But the more people slip into this slightly slapdash approach the more possible it is to confuse your audience or to hit the wrong note, usually without any idea that you might have done so.

Just think about tone for a moment. When you talk directly to someone your tone, your mannerisms, the inflections in your voice, the look in your eye can all be picked up by your interlocutor. Together, these factors frame the tone of the discussion. Take away the visual aspect and just talk on the phone and you can still set the tone of the communication in the way you speak. But when you write a direct message be aware that it is all too easy to adopt a position that you may think is friendly, easy and appropriate yet your audience might read it an entirely different way.

My argument is that good writing – simple, direct, clear, spare and to the point – works timelessly on your behalf. The more you do it and the more you resolve to stick to good practice and high standards of writing, the likelier you will be to make emails work for you.  

Wednesday 13 May 2015

How to sell the sizzle

I came across a url the other day, through which took me to an ancient film of a happy salesman in a suit with a flip-board - a film hailing from 60 years ago. Rather like the presentation of the man himself, the film was simply done, crisp and clear and made a lot of sense.

It extolled some real wisdom about how to sell anything:

If you have a chance, visit this website and type in any of the following:

1. Don't sell the steak sell the sizzle

2. Don't write - telegraph
3. Say it with flowers
4. Don't ask if - ask which
5. Watch your bark

These were the tips being touted as useful in 1955; they're worth unfolding a little.

Don't sell the steak sell the sizzle

Advertisers do this day in day out, if they're good. They try to correlate the best and juiciest associations with the product they are selling to the audience they aim to engage. 

Don't write - telegraph

It's not the words; its how you put them across using any medium but focusing on the three essential messages you wish people to hear.

Say it with flowers

Be positive assuring and make sure you are offering a gift of some kind direct to the bosom of your audience.

Don't ask if - ask which

This is fundamentally important. To maintain the positive  notes so far you must offer a choice of either this product or that, this model or that one. Don't say "if you buy this you'll be happy ever after". That'll give you away as a pushy salesperson. Just say, "You can have this brilliant thing for this price or this brilliant thing for this price".

Watch your bark

This is about delivery and presentation; use your most assuring voice, smile and be happy, be sure you look bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, smart and well groomed; and don't try to apply pressure for a single moment, just explain yourself happily.

Sixty years old and the messages could be well learned in any organisation today from barrow stall to major corporation.

Saturday 18 April 2015

My Word is My Bond?

This is about trust and money. Big, small and indifferently large into the bargain.

It seems to all come down to credit in small businesses in the UK. Everything is fine until the dredit check and then you know, sadly, that despite the immense and knowing trust you have with your bank manager, the credit check says no. It does this because as a small business it is inevitable that you have had to try and enjoy some flesh of working capital on the bones of your business - where banks are concerned: you've tried borrowing as you used to in previous decades, but the computer says no.

This equally applies to business large and new, old and timely, via Experian and other credit checkers. Where every other business is concerned, everything to do with available money is so short-term that 'they' only check for the last year of your business, if you are extremely lucky. Usually three weeks of a bad time is enough. Then it's definitely no. Go elsewhere or die; it's on the State.

This is decimation by numbers, defecation by elephant; but nothing as easy and good as the last two kennings.

It is not easy to describe what banks do to the very people who make them work, except execrable and all anagrams pertaining to this last word. Ex-Crab EEL, for example!

In their past lives it is just possible that this form of non-usury usurpation was not much different to the slime-mongers I once fished for in the Ex Estuary. Happily.

When I had the privilege of writing, or at least in part designing, the Lord Mayor of London's speeches, back in 1988, Sir Christopher Collett (Glover) and the City he rightly loved operated on the age-old motto, My word is my bond.

I so operate - and "always will I fit the glove"*.

*The Mark of the Fool, Outpost Publications, Giles Emerson, 1977

PS. Limited edition of 600, I'm afraid.

Thursday 16 April 2015

What happens to you happens to me

As a father of children and a husband too, I have found it useful to make my commitment and support, particularly the latter, absolutely clear. When my eldest daughter was young and visiting me at my home in the Shropshire borders, after a painful separation with her mother, I once said to her, “Just remember, when you are thinking of me, I am thinking of you.” 

It’s a simple kind of assurance and might fetch all kinds of response in a five-year old’s mind. A little gentle and occasional repeating might have helped the idea to take hold.

But what is the extent of the idea? Actually it is massive. To a Christian, for example, it might be a way of understanding one’s personal relationship with God, the imputation being that God is the father and this is what he might wish to say. No harm in thinking this at least, for anyone can think anything about God at any time and – as Christian belief lets us imagine – He’s there to respond.

To a manager with a few very real people to manage, the idea but not the same words might be translated another way. You can think of what words to use. There are many versions one might figuratively employ to get this kind of supportive message across. 

For example, if I don’t understand you, you don’t understand me. If I don’t offer you guidance and support and show you the ropes, then vice versa – for the guidance and the teaching between any two people is always reciprocal.

Or, if you are a young man contemplating a punch in the face in a difficult situation, you might bite your lip and battle down your fear with the thought that if I punch him, I will also punch myself. 

Note the slight change of key in this curious song; I’ve moved from the mutual to the self-reflexive. This is because a progressive way of learning how to be human in a difficult world is first to learn, then to absorb the learning, and perhaps, when recognition of some kind of truth dawns, to take it to heart.

Saturday 4 April 2015

An Ode to Cameron: 

Working families

I sometimes feel that David Cameron has got hold of the megaphone by the wrong end. 

Working families? Need I say more? There are families all across Britain; some work hard, some live hard but few play hard. And despite the fact that we have a prime minister who, most certainly, by dint of his profession and multiple achievements, works very hard indeed, I wonder at his perspective.

There are those among us who work very hard without the love and rife of family life – they have nothing and no one but they may have work; or they have nothing and no one and no work or too little truly to make ends meet.

This, our beloved country, is full of single people; some may be sufficiently wise and accomplished, and God-given, to love and cherish their singleness and endeavours; some may not be so happy and not all, as said, may be working, many for reasons not of their own making or, as the saying goes, beyond their control.

Every living being – and not just hereabouts but all about this very singular sphere – works hard to survive in his or her own way given their circumstances, life choices, lot, and aspirations; and whether or not they are part, apart, partitioned, patriots, parrots, purposeless or parboiled.

What, then, is the right end of the megaphone? It's the bit, surely, that starts with the quality of an idea and ends with vital simplicity, spreading itself of its own accord. 

What then would I advise a politician to do when he seeks re-election? Look and learn, listen and learn, act on your learning, grow in your understanding, do something from your heart and the full passion of your being - none of which starts or ends with policy. Imagine your life is a day - and look forward to the next.

Thursday 5 March 2015

Add flair to your dash!

Are too many dashes used in writing these days? I’d love to know what you think. For my part, I love dashes and I believe that their proper use can pep up a sentence and helps to emphasise parts of it that might otherwise be overlooked.

But – just as an aside – don’t you like the word ‘dash’? It has a certain freedom and quick spirit about it and runs nicely into the word ‘dashing’ which is equally cavalier, playful and charming. That’s one of the marvellous things about the English language generally, that if you take a word out and hold it up against the light it will often sparkle with meaning and might well be added to the growing box of your favourites.

Enough of such asides; my brief purpose is to look at the use of the dash – so onwards.

You might notice that modern novels are full of dashes. It has been suggested (mostly I think by cynics and pedants) that, because many modern novelists are illiterate, they use the dash to save themselves the trouble of deciding whether they should use commas, semi-colons or brackets to isolate their subordinate clauses. In fact, the dash is a very useful and perfectly legitimate punctuation mark if used sparingly – it can break up a sentence to allow you to emphasise your point without appearing too repetitious.

You can use dashes in a similar way to brackets:
e.g. After the performance – the last of the season – the ballerina retired to the country.

I think this example clearly illustrates where a dash is in fact preferable to a bracket. As a rule, if I am ever tempted to use a bracket I first ask myself, do I need this extra phrase, this additional information? When I do need it because it is useful information, adding colour to the sentence, I normally find that it reads better and is more noticeable used between dashes than cubby-holed in brackets. Many readers see bracketed material as of secondary importance, or information that might otherwise be in a footnote. And they may be right.

When used in the way exampled above, two dashes – one before and one after the extra phrase – are needed, as with brackets. When the phrase comes at the end of the sentence you only need to have the one dash – as in this ending.

Here’s another way of using a dash:
e.g. She gave a magnificent performance – no one could equal her.

In this example a colon might have been used instead of a dash but the effect would have been rather stilted and formal.

So dashes are worthy. But do be especially careful not to overuse them. Paragraphs littered with dashes look clumsy, can be hard to read and actually do tend to betray a lack of knowledge on the writer’s part of appropriate punctuation. In particular, be careful not to use more than one additional phrase, marked by a dash, in one sentence. This will seriously promote confusion because a reader will never know which parts of the sentence are supposed to relate.

e.g. He turned away – the interview was over – and walked towards the window – the light had now faded – sensing that he had failed in his efforts – he would have to try something else.

This said, the dash is sometimes legitimately used to link a series of connected phrases:
e.g. The autumn trees were a splendid sight – splashes of red – sudden glints of gold and silver – a carpet of russet brown beneath the trunks.

While this is not incorrect, it is unusual. In my thinking, it is preferable to use one initial dash and then link the other phrases together with commas.

As in all things, as writers we need to think of achieving the right balance and this is a visual as well as syntactical and also rhythmical quality. Over and under-use of punctuation trips up and spoils the balance. So enjoy your dashes but don’t spray them on your prose like confetti.

That’s it – must dash!!

Wednesday 25 February 2015

Ode to the semi-colon

Who am I to try and halt the clearly unstoppable flow of changing attitudes and practices when it comes to the use of English? I sincerely believe I am not pedantic and I enjoy watching changes in English use and idiom, additions of new words and new ways of using old words. It’s part of a process that has made English such a rich and fertile, interesting and often beautiful language, used the world over.

But there are times when I look at otherwise perfectly ordinary sentences and I wonder why they are so poorly punctuated. Actually, I’m being a bit coy here. I don’t wonder so much as quietly tut under my breath. The reason for these solecisms is clear: that less emphasis is surely placed on teaching the correct use of grammar in schools today than used to be the case. It is quite possible that this, in turn, results from a diminution in numbers of people who study the classics, particularly Latin where grammatical accuracy is paramount in the construction of verbs, tenses, agreements and so forth. 

Grammatical slackness pervades a lot of our communications. Emails are often unpunctuated; sometimes to the extent that you have to read them several times before you are reasonably clear about the message. The worst offender (apart perhaps from the hair-rending annoyance of apostrophes used to signify plurals) is the lack of or the proliferation of commas. Alongside that, in easy order, is the conspicuous absence of semi-colons sometimes balanced precariously by their improper use.

Why are commas and semi-colons important?

Years ago, when conducting an effective writing course, I used an example taken from a report in the Daily Telegraph to illustrate how and why commas are needed. The piece was entitled ‘For the want of a comma’ and is short enough to quote:

“A missing comma in British Rail instructions resulted in the demolition of the waiting room at a Scottish station listed because of its Victorian elegance. Now East Lothian District Council has ordered the waiting room to be rebuilt.

“The waiting room at Drem, near Haddington, was rapidly stripped of its rare fittings, windows, lavatories and roof.

“Then someone took a second look at the instructions from the British Rail management board in London and discovered the mistake.

“The crucial sentence in the board’s list of facilities to be preserved included the words “Drem station bridge”. As a result only the footbridge over the line was earmarked for preservation. Later engineers realised that a comma was missing and the requirement was to retain “Drem Station, bridge…etc.”.

That’s an extreme example of when not to forget to use a comma. Mostly, the appropriate use of commas and semi-colons helps you to understand weight and emphasis; it tells you what part of the sentence refers to what other part – and it conveys the meaning more effectively.

I asked some colleagues whether they were happy with their own use of commas and semi-colons and a common response was that they weren’t quite sure when to use one instead of the other. Just in case it is useful, here’s a simple illustration from part my own effective writing course.

The comma is a punctuation mark used to indicate a slight division between different parts of a sentence and to indicate a small break in the continuity within the sentence. The comma marks a break that is less emphatic than that shown by a full stop or semi-colon. We use commas in the following circumstances:

1. To separate items on a list:
e.g. he packed his socks, shirts, underwear…
But no comma is needed before the final item in the list if a conjunction or a linking word such as ;and’ is used:
e.g he packed his socks, shorts and underwear.

2. Between two clauses when the subjects of the clause are different:
e.g Jack found a bottle, and Jim bought some food.
But if the subject is the same, no comma is needed.
e.g. Jill walked quickly and reached the top of the hill.

3. After a subordinate clause or a participle phrase when it is followed by a main clause:
e.g. when the train arrived, it was ten minutes late. Or, having run all the way to the station, Jim found he had plenty of time.
But if the main clause comes first, no comma is needed:
e.g. the ten o clock was ten minutes late when it arrived.

4. To cut off exclamations, parentheses, etc. from the main sentence:
e.g. Oh, what a pity you didn’t catch him! Naturally, he wanted to see you. He didn’t like, or didn’t seem to like, the film.
But we’re just scratching the surface with these examples. There are so many more of them.
Let’s look briefly at a way of distinguishing between the comma, the semi-colon and the full-stop. Take these three approaches:

He went outside, it was snowing hard. (incorrect)
He went outside. It was snowing hard. (correct)
He went outside; it was snowing hard. (correct)

The most common mistake in modern writing, in my view, can be seen in the first of these examples – i.e. using a comma as a break when actually a semi-colon or full stop is needed to give the right emphasis. Out of the three examples, my preference is for the semi-colon for the simple reason that a stronger break than a comma is needed to demonstrate two activities (going outside/snowing) which are separate but related.  Semi-colons allow you to bring in some subtlety in your sentences. Just banging down commas is anything but subtle by comparison and will blunt your meaning.

Here I am gently lowering myself from the saddle of my hobby horse with apologies to all of you who already know how to use a semi-colon; how it strengthens your style.