Archive for the 'Links' Category



Living the dream

She may be a VIP, but he knows it's still a ridiculous hat

One more thing for Londoners to be proud of: we have Europe’s largest urban shopping centre! In his review of Westfield Stratford City Jonathan Glancey points out the over-use of “VIP” as a way of describing what’s inside – and, when VIP isn’t enough, Vue Cinemas reaches for “luxury VIP” to describe its facility.

There was a time when VIP had meaning – today’s picture is from the 1963 melodrama “the VIPs”, which was an peek into the privileged lifestyle of the rich and famous. In the film the VIPs are stuck in their special bit of London Airport. There’s fog. They argue. No one visits a Vue cinema. I don’t recommend it, but it’s fun to spot Orson Welles and David Frost in the cast.

VIP-creep is classic word hysteria: once your competitor claims VIP facilities, you counter-claim with your own VIP thingy. In nightclubs it often means a bit that’s up a step. In the area around Stratford City (I speak as a former resident), it generally means “not broken yet”.

In press releases, it’s about three times as common as it was a decade ago. It usually refers to something more expensive than other things. Economics dictates that the gap between VIP and non-VIP will eventually cease to exist: someone with a service that’s marginally better than basic – but worse than the worst thing described as VIP – can choose to use VIP to describe their product. They grab some of the tiny amount of residual glamour. This becomes the worst thing described as VIP, and so on.

The growth of “luxury VIP” is an idiotic attempt to reinvigorate the idea of commercial privilege. Between 2000 and 2009 it appeared four times a year in press releases. In 2010, it showed up 42 times. So far this year, 34 times.

Based on the things described on the internet as “Luxury VIP”, I’m looking forward to the remake of the 1963 film: the Luxury VIPs would star Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton and feature a cameo from Peaches Geldof. They are stuck at Heathrow, so they visit the multiplex, use a portable toilet, and hire a minibus. This is living the dream.

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Worst practice

Package of measures

At the weekend I enjoyed reading a review of the latest set of political diaries published by Chris Mullin, former member of parliament and lifelong plain speaker. In the latest volume, which covers the birth of New Labour and the 1997 election, he criticises the Gordon Brown – at that point a pushy shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer on the way up the political ladder. In the diary Mullin complains that Brown is spending every weekend trying to get on the TV news, “but having got there he has nothing to say beyond calling for a package of measures.”

The package of measures (PoM) promises so much – until you ask yourself what the person calling for it actually wants, and you realise you’re not sure.

(In one way, perhaps, Brown’s desire for packages of measures was satisfied in the ten years after 1997. An average of 2,685 laws was passed each year, more than in any other period. While Brown was prime minister, 33 criminal offences were created a month, including “Carrying grain on a ship without a copy of the International Grain Code on board “, and not nominating a keyholder for your burglar alarm.)

I checked to see whether Brown continued to be a prolific package-caller in government. Yes:

In the years 1994-1997, Mullin is spot-on. Brown called for (or announced) many more packages than Tony Blair while they were in opposition. After 1997, while Blair was prime minister, Brown showed PoM leadership in most years. Succeeding Blair in the top job, plus a financial meltdown, seems to have inspired a frenzy of late career measure-package-announcing in Brown, if PoMs can come in frenzies.

PoMs are hard to argue against unless you’re a complete contrarian, because they are sold as an outcome, not component by component – a “package of measures to…”, followed by a generally admirable suggestion. They’re the political equivalent of a Talk Normal business jargon favourite, Best Practice (BP). Calling for companies to adopt BP is a no-brainer, in that you don’t need a brain to do it. Claiming you follow BP is an impressive-sounding, though often empty, way to speak well of yourself.

BP-recommending has been on the rise since 1994, at least in the UK (it’s not nearly so popular in the US; I don’t know why). The red best-fit line shows that, since 1994, the rise in claims to use/provide/know/sell BP averages 34 per cent per year:

If you’ve been responsible for this BP inflation, I bring bad news. McKinsey has discovered that companies that adopt it often do worse than those who think for themselves. The optimal response to companies who chunter vacantly about BP might be the same as for a politician who calls for a meaningless package of measures on the weekend news. Switch off.

Three principles of Talknormalism

Evidently I am still getting the hang of the whole motivation thing

Delighted as I am to be mentioned in the Observer yesterday, I worry that some readers might get the idea that I am a grumpy negative old man who thinks everything was better before the internet was invented.

This is incorrect in more than three ways. I’m actually middle-aged and remarkably cheerful, all things considered. Taking into account the decline in the TN Joy Index, I’m looking comparatively more chipper by the hour. I’m such a positive person that I spent 5 minutes inspiring others by creating my own motivational poster (top) using the free app at Big Huge Labs. I encourage you to go there and make your own version to share with us. If I get a few in I’ll put them in a post and I’ll send the best submission a Talk Normal mug and a signed book (or unsigned, if you’d prefer). What an incentive.

I also don’t think we should be stuck in the past. “But what does he think?”, you ask. At risk of telling you all the good bits about the book for free, I’d like to point out the three principles of Talknormalism:

1. Try to be understood by everyone who’s listening. This takes imagination. For example: Professor David Crystal, who is a wonderful writer about the history of the language, points out that there are 400 million native speakers of English – and 1.4 billion more who speak it as a second language.

It makes sense to consider people who don’t speak English first, especially if you’re in business: their domestic economies are usually more successful than ours.

2. Stop trying to sound clever for no reason. Anyone can make complicated things complicated. It takes thought to make those things easier to understand.

3. It’s about attitude, not rules. I would guess that there’s a lot of bad punctuation, in Talk Normal. Were I to be put to the test, I would not be able to remember grammar rules with which to make your writing more elegant, um, with. Therefore, if you want a set of rules to follow, try this book instead. I’m also not against new words and phrases; I make some up on this blog.

Talknormalism doesn’t look back to a fictitious golden age and ask that we preserve it; but we can do a better job with the language we have today. That’s why we need to see your motivational posters, fellow Talknormalists.

The buck does not stop here

No one likes a blame culture. Especially when you’re the one taking the blame.

While News International flip-flops its way through the phone hacking palaver – offering various explanations of exactly what it was doing, who did it, and whether the evidence has been successfully deleted – one of the few things that most people agreed was adroit was Rupert’s personal apology (see right). We remember it because it has the word sorry at the top. You can argue that he is only sorry that they got caught, but you can’t dismiss the power of the apology.

Of course, it’s one thing to ask your advertising agency to write “sorry” on a piece of paper, it’s quite another to say it out loud. That’s why James Murdoch used a beautiful weasel phrase to describe the closure of the News of the World and any illegal phone hacking. Having got his sorrys out of the way at 3:30, phone hacking and its consequences quickly became a matter of great regret, so that he can get into the technical stuff instead:

Elsewhere in the scandal, Yates of the Yard went further. His impersonal regret was extreme:

Antitalknormalists use the Matter of Regret (MoR) when they are nominally in charge and bad things happen. They want to look concerned, just like ordinary people, while subtly emphasising their lack of individual responsibility. They want to stay on the outside, sadly shaking their regretful heads and tutting ritualistically, going along with the crowd.  This is especially the case when the crowd wants that head on a plate.

Transforming your apology or blame into a generic MoR means you keep a career-maintaining distance from the problem. It skips over who’s to blame and why it happened.

In the UK the MoR is also such a dull phrase as to be handily unreportable in most cases, because it provides no insight beyond the obvious: it’s like saying that something made you unhappy because it is sad. It has been quoted in stories in the UK papers more than 10 times in a month only twice – probably because if that’s the best quote in a story, it’s probably not much of a story. It was most popular in September 2010, when it was a matter of regret for the boss of Waterstones that demonstrators stopped Tony Blair doing a business-boosting book signing tour in his shops. That’s until July 2011 when, as we have seen, many of the people involved in phone hacking news stories were fond of using the phrase. Go figure.

MoRs imply a devolved responsibility that everyone can share but no one takes, and so they transform apology into a generic blanket of mild sadness. MoRs sit in the News International tactical toolbox alongside matters of profit and matters of political influence, ready to be used when they really want to say “don’t blame us”.

Making a crisis out of a drama

Richard M. Nixon said "Life is one crisis after another". Sort of depends whether you help to cover up a break-in at Democratic National HQ while you're president of the United States, but you see his point. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The first four words of the 2011 US debt ceiling crisis don’t imply immediate peril – its parent, the global financial crisis, has a much more virile name. But, as we found out last weekend, debt ceiling negotiations really can cause a crisis.

We like a good crisis; and they’re easier to live with if they’re just a problem dressed up in a dramatic news story. In the last week alone, a quick Googling reveals that Everton, the world’s biggest wave farm, the entire Isle of Wight, a lot of bees, the Hindley Residents’ Association, middle class marriages and The Poetry Society are also in crisis. As far as I know these are not all the same crisis, though if I was a proper blogger I’d at least find some way that they’re all linked to the World Trade Center Building 7 conspiracy crisis (I’m not providing a hyperlink to that one).

Also in the news this weekend the tiger population, Argentine football, the island of Cyprus, Spanish and Italian bonds, and fuel users in Norfolk are also at what we must now call crisis point, which means they should join the crisis queue in the next week. It’s not a great time if you’re a poetry-loving, Everton-supporting, middle-class married bee about to go on holiday to Cyprus, but at least the break means you won’t be worried sick about the Isle of Wight for a few days. You have enough on your nectar-laden plate, my stripy be-stinged friend.

I was always told not to make a drama out of a crisis, and the overwhelming number of non-crisis crises that we have created, recognised, or just announced so that we can fill inside news pages during the summer (I’m looking at you, residents of Hindley) means that poor old “drama” just can’t keep up, so that problem is solving itself. A Google Ngram (screenshot below) shows that the respective frequency of crisis and drama in literature was roughly equal until the 1960s. Then crises began to get more popular, while the level of reported drama stagnated.

In some ways, this is a pity, because calling something a “crisis” adds a level of almost military dignity to something that’s usually anything but dignified. For example, if we remodelled this weekend’s most popular crisis as the 2011 US Debt Ceiling Drama it would capture the flavour of hysterical soap-opera that some of the politicians involved seemed to relish. If we were stricter on what could be called a crisis, then we could also recategorise the rest of the non-crisis crises – based on impact, location and duration – and give them more accurate descriptions. I’d like two levels, one called palaver, and an even less serious one called kerfuffle; you are welcome to suggest your own.

The ironic death tourism pitch

Geddit? You'll find some excellent spoofs of this poster at Political Scrapbook

Kudos to excellent politics blog Political Scrapbook for continuing to cover the insensitive advertising campaign for tourism in Tunisia (an example above, taken from the blog). I despair: some dim advertising creative said, “Hey lets subvert the 219 deaths and years of torture and stuff by making it, you know, funny”. And then some equally dim executives approved them.

Is there now nothing that we consider inappropriate as a way to sell things? If any of you clever kids in the sales business thinks this is ok, please explain below.

i no your gunna like dis

Thanks to talknormalist The Finch for this page of Facebook spelling and grammar errors, and the excellent putdowns that result. The moral: time spent spellchecking is time well spent. Another moral: Facebook friends are not always your friends.


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