The Art of Plain Speaking
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The Art of Plain Speaking

How to Write and Speak in a Way that Will Impress the People that Matter

Charlie Corbett

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eBook - ePub

The Art of Plain Speaking

How to Write and Speak in a Way that Will Impress the People that Matter

Charlie Corbett

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About This Book

This is a guide for anyone who wants to connect better with people in the workplace by speaking clearly and with purpose.

It is a result of five years at Charlie Corbett's consultancy, Bullfinch Media, where he helped convince executives that speaking plainly, thoughtfully, and behaving with humanity, is the best way to win business, boost morale and advance careers. It provides carefully detailed wisdom on how to write well, speak publicly and stand out in your job, as well as how to craft compelling communications, make the best of social media and handle the press.

The Art of Plain Speaking aims to improve the experience faced by many in the modern workplace, a world where senior management are entirely absent from the shop floor – replaced by indecipherable emails from HR – and where people speak in esoteric corporate riddles, believing that sounding clever is more productive than speaking clearly.

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1 How to come up with good ideas

Before you can become a good writer and communicator in business, you need to train yourself to be a good thinker. Clear and engaging prose is born out of a clear and engaged brain. The first question to answer then, before we come to the basics of good writing and communication, must be, how can I come up with good ideas? There is no point in being an accomplished writer or speaker if you’ve got nothing to write or speak about.
There are all sorts of workplace theories about how to come up with original ideas, many of which involve stultifying meetings that nobody really has time for. These brainstorming sessions don’t really work. They simply seem to be a good way for people who don’t have enough to do to keep busy and justify their salary. If you really want to come up with good ideas, and to keep coming up with good ideas, it’s important to understand that original thinking is a process. Good ideas for articles, commentary, campaigns or marketing drives don’t come to you as a result of a specific meeting designed for that purpose. The meeting should be seen as the very last step in the process.
Good ideas begin as seeds planted at obscure times in the fertile soil of your deep subconscious. The trick is being able to nurture those ideas and allow them to bloom. So, with that in mind, here are five habits to nurture if you want to develop a genuinely curious personality and regularly come up with original ideas.

1. Read

The most engaging and original thinkers I know are also the biggest readers I know. The biggest readers also tend to be the best writers. If you want to come up with original ideas and impress people with your searing insight and punchy prose, then read. And keep reading. Once you have the habit of reading every day, it will get easier and easier.
“But how on earth have I got time to do all this bloody reading? I’m far too busy at work. And when I do get home I’m too shattered.” Agreed. It’s a problem. I subscribe to about ten publications – both online and in print – and it is a daily struggle to keep up. That’s why you need a strategy. You need to create an easy-to-use reading infrastructure that filters news down to you in manageable chunks all through the week.
First and foremost, be ruthless in the daily emails that you receive. Cut out any email that is not directly related to your work. I suggest that you pick one or two daily email digests – a trade magazine and a national paper – that arrive in your inbox in the morning and are easily scanned. Make a mental note of anything interesting you may want to come back to later.
Here is what to read if you want to keep your mind full of fresh ideas but without making reading your full-time job:
• The relevant trade publication for your particular sector or industry. Pick only one. Don’t try to read them all.
• The Financial Times, daily, and The Economist, weekly (buy the print edition of The Economist). Both of these publications will give you a broad sense of what is going on in international politics, business and economics. If you live in the US, then read The Wall Street Journal daily and The Economist weekly.
• Twitter and LinkedIn: follow everyone connected to your trade or business and then use Twitter and LinkedIn as a news feed. Periodically check it throughout the day.
• A good fiction or non-fiction book – not in any way related to your work: keep it with you on the go at all times. Personally, I like books on history and wildlife and, as I get older and reflect on my own life’s various triumphs and disasters, biographies. This will make you interesting to talk to. Clients don’t always want to talk shop, nor do your friends and family.
Reading is the frontline of ideas generation. And the more you put into it, the more ideas you will get out of it. I do also realise that we all lead incredibly busy lives and, more often than not, reading is the first sacrifice we make. My advice would be to create for yourself an annual reading list. Every new year, I make a list of books that I plan to read over the next 12 months. They tend to be across subjects and disciplines, from literary classics to history books, business and biographies. I rarely get through it. Like all New Year’s resolutions, they tend to founder at the first fence. The point is not to read them all, but that you have awakened your mind to the possibility. And who knows, you might just find you work your way through the list after all. Just keep reading because, in the words of Evelyn Waugh, “One forgets words as one forgets names. One’s vocabulary needs constant fertilising or it will die.”

2. Talk to people

I don’t know about you, but I often find myself thinking – as I peruse the latest offering from my favourite columnist – how on earth does she manage to write so well and with such apparent depth of knowledge? “It was only last week,” I say to myself, “that she wrote with such confidence and élan on the intricacies of French foreign policy in the later 19th century, drawing superb parallels with today’s government, and yet today she can write with the knowledge of a committed expert on procreation in crustacean communities living in the North Pacific. Just where does she get these ideas from, and how does she garner all that knowledge so quickly?” The answer is very simple. She doesn’t have all this knowledge and insight, but she knows someone who does.
When I was a journalist, I found myself at least once a month completely out of my depth and having to come up with ideas on totally obscure and seemingly dull as ditchwater topics, about which I knew nothing. And yet I always managed to track down an expert who – in a matter of minutes – could tell me all I needed to know. And even if I did think I knew the topic, a few phone calls would furnish me with a completely new angle on it.
As a means of getting clued up quickly, picking up the phone – or better, a face-to-face meeting – is a far more efficient technique than spending hours trawling Google for long, ponderous research reports and white papers. A single phone call to an expert will equip you with ideas, new angles on old themes and, crucially, the best place to find the most relevant and up-to-date information. Next time you need to write a blog or produce a podcast, and your mind has turned to treacle, just track down an expert and give them a call. That is a very specific way to come up with ideas. And it works too.
More generally speaking, if you want to keep that rich fertile soil of your mind topped up with nourishing fertiliser, then talk to all people from all disciplines about all things. Never turn down an opportunity to take an interest in someone. Ask their opinion. Bounce an idea off them. It could be a duke or a dustman; the big boss, or the boy who makes the tea; your dear old grandma or the old soak at the corner of the bar in the pub. Everybody has something to offer when it comes to ideas generation. Tom Wolfe, the author of The Bonfire of the Vanities and one of 20th century America’s literary giants, summed it up when he told The Paris Review in 1991:
I might as well be the village information-gatherer, the man from Mars who simply wants to know. Fortunately the world is full of people with information-compulsion who want to tell you their stories. They want to tell you things that you don’t know.1
Also, don’t be afraid to think out loud. There is no such thing as a bad idea. People spend their lives keeping silent in meetings because they are afraid of looking stupid in front of their peers. We’ve all done it. But the truth is, the only genuinely stupid people in the world are the people who keep quiet. By doing so, they remain stupid. The second most stupid people are the ones who scoff at other people’s ideas. Never forget that.
One good way to approach idea generation is to adopt the practices of a journalist. Ben Wright edits The Daily Telegraph’s business section. On top of his incredibly busy daily editorial schedule, it is his job to come up with a constant stream of fresh ideas for news stories and articles. In fact, his livelihood depends on his ability to be original. So how does he do it? “It’s hard to come up with good ideas at work,” he says. “I can’t remember the last time that I had a good idea sitting at my desk and staring at my screen. The whole setup is almost tailor made to stifle creativity.” Curiosity, he says, is the key:
You need to gather raw material – either overtly on specific subjects or, better, obliquely and continuously – by reading lots and talking to interesting people. Nurture a kind of omnivorous curiosity about the world around you and relentlessly ask questions about it. Leo Burnett, the founder of the global ad agency, said: “Curiosity about life in all of its aspects, I think, is still the secret of great creative people.”

3. Rest

A field that has rested gives bountiful crops, said the Roman poet Ovid. And he was right. Once you get in the habit of reading a lot and talking to people, then ideas will come. I promise. They just may not come when you want them to come. You cannot force an idea. Just because you are sitting in a meeting room with the specific purpose of coming up with ideas, it does not mean an idea will be forthcoming. In fact, I find it has the opposite effect. Whenever someone senior turns to me and says: “Hey you. You’re supposed to be a creative type – what do you think?” I tend to freeze up. My brain shuts down and all I can think of is panda bears, or something equally bizarre. No. Like an ill-trained spaniel, a good idea does not come when you call it. What you will find is that, like the dog, you can call it all day to no avail. But just when you’ve given up all hope of ever finding it, and sat down to read the newspaper, the idea will turn up unexpectedly and settle on your lap.
It’s no surprise that Archimedes was in the bath when he noticed and understood displacement (Eureka!) or Isaac Newton was resting under a tree when he stumbled on the theory of gravity. They’d been working all day, no doubt, and taken a bit of time out to relax. It is only when the brain is given a chance to digest the information you spend the day filling it with, that it can produce an answer. After all, the brain is a muscle. And it needs rest as much as your legs or arms do.
Some of my best ideas have come to me while out on walks, lying in bed or even during some mundane daily task like posting a letter or making toast – times when my brain is in automatic pilot. I very rarely think of something original or witty to say when I am put on the spot. It’s hugely frustrating, but also normal. It was known as carriage wit by the dandies of the eighteenth century. Why? Because they only seemed to come up with some sharp rejoinder or sublimely apt response to an insult when they were in the carriage on the way home from the ball. And so it is with everyone.
This may sound controversial in the age of 24-hour news and competitive busyness but, if you really do want to become an original thinker who regularly impresses people with their sharp ideas, then find time to rest your brain. I cannot stress the importance of this more. Here’s Ben Wright again:
Get away from your desk – to the gym, for a walk, or just to the water cooler. It is amazing how often ideas strike in these moments. Like the lost key that only turns up when you stop looking for it. I’m sure that psychologists have theories for why it works like this. I only know that it does. Your brain – or mine anyway – seems best able to make the associative mental leaps that comprise really original ideas while it is engaged in some other – usually physical – task. So you should also always carry a pad and pen. Have one beside the bed. You’ll need it to catch the lightning whenever it decides to strike.
In the short term, take regular breaks during the day and not just at lunchtime. I mean it. Nobody is too busy to leave their desk for ten minutes. And make sure you do something entirely unconnected with your work. At lunchtime, my recommendation is this: take an hour, a full hour, and not a second less. And do not, whatever you do, eat at your desk. If you genuinely want to be a better thinker, ideas person, and all-around good employee, strike from your mind the idea that the only way to do this is by sitting at your desk staring at a flickering screen. Quite apart from the damage it will do to your eyes, it will turn your brain to porridge.
One good way to rest in a way that will really boost your creativity, is to meditate. Not that long ago (in the average UK workplace) any suggestion that an employee might head off at lunchtime to meditate would have been met with shrieks of laughter and derision. Not least from me. “Look at John, off to contemplate his navel. What a wally!” I might have said. But times have changed, and so have I. The new morally improved, less cynical version of me makes sure he grabs 15 minutes each day alone in a quiet place (try a local church) just to sit still and clear his mind. It is much, much harder than you think. In fact, it is a real art. But don’t worry, there are plenty of books and websites designed to help you to master it. The ability to meditate or be mindful is critical not just to ideas generation, but your own sanity too. Personally, I see it as a 15-minute break from myself. And I feel so much better for it.
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase carpe diem about ten thousand times in your life. It is one of the most overused and most commonly misunderstood phrases in the history of aphorisms. People think it means seize the day and then manically rush about jumping out of planes or making plans to scale Mount Everest. The truth is the absolute opposite. Horace, the Roman poet who coined the phrase, was a follower of the epicurean way of life. And the very last thing epicureans ever want to do is to seize anything. Epicureans like to appreciate the good things in life that are readily available all around us. The more accurate translation of carpe diem is, taste the day. I recommend that we all spend a bit more time tasting the world around us, and leave the seizing to other people.
Outside of the daily grind, over the longer term, make sure you take at least one full two-week holiday per year. It works wonders for creative thinking. The most creative period of my life was the period after I had taken a month off work to get married and go on honeymoon. For 30 glorious days I had no blackberry, no phone and not a single work-related call to deal w...

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