Archive for the 'Research' Category

Nagging: someone must do something


If you haven't watched all 1001 of them, you clearly deserve to die anyway

During the UK general election, and afterwards, I thought I was reading an unusual number of comment articles telling David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown that they “must” do something. Once I’d spotted it, I couldn’t stop noticing that all of us are constantly being told what we must learn, deliver or promise. Governments were most often the recipients of this nagging, as were religions, and for less specific nags, “we” are constantly being told by columnists what we must do. And I haven’t even got to the things we must not do yet.

I checked to see if there was an increase in newspaper-based nagging. In British newspapers between 1990 and 1998, the frequency of headlines telling us we “must” do something declined gradually:

Then it started a long, steep climb. Now nags are twice as frequent as they were in 1998:

We must find out why. Someone must take the blame for this. Something must be done. Not that it will be: newspapers run many more opinion pieces than they did in 1998. They use them to attract commenters, which creates advertising revenue. Telling a person or group what to do is a quick way to start an argument and, in this context, all arguments are good.

Alternatively, as we become less patient and increasingly self-obsessed, we can just forget the column underneath the headline (most of us do that already) and personalise the experience. You could sign up to a genuine Daily Me, written by robot columnists, which is just a series of nagging headlines inspired by the newspaper we really care about: our Facebook wall posts.




That’s much more useful than telling me that I must not let slip the opportunity to provide a legacy from the 2012 Olympics. I live next door to the stadium, but I’m pretty sure it’s not me they should be nagging.

Meanwhile columnists are free to tell all sorts of groups what they must do in the certain knowledge that their instructions will be ignored. They are lucky that no one has decided yet that bossy opinion columnists must be paid by results, because they might as well write an article telling ice cream it must not melt.


Kate Middleton: common or commoner?

The official Royal Wedding pillbox, £25: they need to cover the costs somehow.

Why can’t I just be happy for them?

I learn from the PA Newswire that 9 January 2011 has been Kate Middleton’s last birthday as a commoner. I checked my watch, and it’s not the 16th century.

As an atheist who would prefer to live in a republic, let’s just say I’m as excited by the Wedding of our Future King as I was by the visit of the Pope. In an age when there’s less respect for the ruling classes than in the past, I thought I’d check how often the former student of £22,000-a-year Marlborough College and future princess Kate is described in the British press as a commoner, and how often the newspapers just come out and accuse her of being common.

The branding of Kate Middleton as a commoner began at the same time as the speculation about an engagement. When Kate and Wills split up in 2007, and afterwards, it wasn’t a useful description. Now it’s used to create a fairytale princess story: the commoner who won the heart of the royal.

People on the internet will tell you that being a commoner (breeding) isn’t the same as being common (class). But, usefully, the press can swap one for the other and wink-wink signal the same thing. Kate and Wills are engaged now, so the royalist press have to stop insulting her parents for obviously being far too poor, but it wasn’t always the case:

For example, from the Daily Telegraph in 2007:

Some of William’s circle would even whisper “doors to manual” when Miss Middleton arrived, in a jibe at her mother being a former airline stewardess.

There were even worse social sins, such as using the word “toilet” not “lavatory”, saying “pleased to meet you” rather than “how do you do?”, and “pardon” rather than “what?”.

It’s not that the Telegraph agrees or anything, it’s just saying. When they assumed Kate was William’s bit of rough in 2003 almost one in four stories asked if she was common. Fast forward to the end of 2010: since the engagement the description of her family as common has been ruled out. It’s lucky the press can put commoner in its place.

The power of positive thinking

Many people claim to me that journalists are only interested in bad news. Why can’t we write something happy for a change? Who wouldn’t want to read a story like “weather tolerable, light breeze”, or “mild work problem solved”?

I may mock, but those who want more happiness in their news might be getting your wish. the graph below is an index of how often the words “positives” and “negatives” show up in Factiva’s global major news stories database. I’ve taken 2002 as the base because, in 2002, there were about the same number of positives and negatives in the press.

As you can see, the graph doesn’t change much until the end of 2008. Then it whizzes up. The number of stories mentioning negatives hasn’t changed very much, but there are hundreds more stories mentioning positivity. We’re obviously learning to look on the bright side.

I excluded sports stories from this on purpose, because I had chosen the jargon noun “positives” (the thing that footballers “take”) rather than the more common adjective “positive”. There are few setbacks so appalling, no disappointments too depressing that a news story can’t quote someone taking positives from them.

The news business is changing: it is less about what’s happening, and more about how people feel about what just happened. These reactions may not be informed or relevant, but they’re certainly easier to report quickly. It is news for the Facebook generation, because we can all get involved. Not only have we taken the positives, we’re evidently not ready to give them back.

Show me the remuneration

I know not everyone had wine but we're still five Euros short

Justin Webb tweeted from Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday morning:

Can’t talk simple this am: pay becomes renumeration and softness emollience. coffee please

Several people tweeted while he was at the coffee machine to tell him that the word he was looking for was remuneration, but I sympathise with Justin. I didn’t realise that renumeration meant “counting something again”, and not “earned money”, until I was about 30 years old.

I still have trouble saying and typing the word. More embarrassing, I have similar problems with the word laboratory. It’s a good job I never worked for the chemistry press, or my peers would have split their sides when I asked questions at press conferences.

Justin and I are not alone with this remun/renum mix-up: journalists have used renumeration when they mean remuneration around 100 times a year for the last 10 years (You have no idea how long this blog is taking me to type). On 23 August, Chemical Week made the same error. Ha! Who’s laughing now, chemists? Wearing your white coats, reading your trade paper in your labra-, lobaro-, your places of work.

If you suffer because you can’t say or spell remuneration, I don’t care, because – unlike nucular – it’s a pointless word that doesn’t need our respect. It’s a classic case of word obesity. Take Justin’s advice and say pay instead: problem solved. Everyone understands what you mean and you don’t sound pompous. Both my 1965 edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (I write as if I have copies from other years), and Essential English for Journalists agree.

If you decide to use “pay”, you’re not following the trend towards increasing word obesity. I made an index of the relative frequency of remuneration against pay (both in articles also containing the word job) from 2001 to 2009. The data is from articles published in North America and Europe:

The complicated word is twice as frequent as it was in 2001, but “pay” is almost unchanged in frequency. Most of the growth in use of renumer-, remuren-, that word has happened since 2007. Perhaps it is because we are rarely more than a day away from a story about what bankers are banking for themselves, and “pay” doesn’t seem grand enough for their piles of unearned income and bonuses.

Maybe the word we use to describe income should have at least as many letters as the income has digits, which means that only cleaners without visas and bloggers earn “pay” these days.

What about the rest of us? For Talknormalisers who want to feel special about pay, I’d suggest describing it as compensation. It’s still a pompous way to talk about money, but I like it because it sounds like they gave us the cash out of sympathy.

Role players

On the evidence of this headline, my job is half way to being a soap opera

I was scanning the comments to this excellent blog post about how our jobs are getting worse. One of the commenters asked: “When did a job become a ‘role’?”

My guess is, about the time that we started to think of ourselves as the romantic leads in a heroic work-based melodrama, which is about when we started to treat CEOs as philosophers and action heroes rather than businesspeople. Graduating from a job to a role implies we are acting the part rather than just doing something. We’re important enough to have an image.

As in any soap opera, in business not all roles are equal. Some hams overact to get attention. For example, a dedicated Talknormalist passed me details of Steve Lundin at BIGFrontier (“Our event archives provide a walk through the wild west days of Chicago’s burgeoning technology scene”), who is apparently the company’s Chief Hunter and Gatherer.

He’s certainly playing a role. You might have an opinion as to what that role is; I’ll let you come up with your own description.

Research on Factiva shows that, in UK work-related press articles, the roles-to-jobs ratio changed dramatically between 2001 and 2007. In 2001 there were about 10 jobs for every role. In 2007, the number of roles peaked: there were only four jobs per role in the press. Then, when the recession hit, the ratio declined to seven jobs per role. The higher this graph went, the more we were writing about roles:

Compare the shape of the graph with the Office of National Statistics estimates of UK employment and UK vacancies during the same period:

Best to be cautious when drawing a conclusion from this, because more or less every economic graph goes up between 2001 and 2007 and then goes off a cliff. But I’d guess that, when everything seemed exciting and full of promise, we fantasised (and were told) we had an important role. When we were fired, it was from our meaningless jobs.

The enemy within

"Firmly grasp large-scale revolutionary criticism"

It’s not fair to blame everybody for the amount of crap that plugs up our inboxes. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a few people ruin it for the rest of us. This table of jargon that I compiled from 2009 press releases demonstrates it:

What’s can it mean? Read across the row. There’s a 3.7 per cent chance that a press release will use robust. But, if it also describes something as next generation, it is three times as likely (10 per cent) it will chuck in robust as well. And if it describes something as next generation and flexible, now there’s a 17 per cent chance you will find robust in there as well.

In short, the more jargon you use, the more you’re likely to use.

We get to the silly situation where, having described the product or service – or, I’m willing to wager, the solution – as next generation, flexible, robust, world class and scalable, more than a quarter of press releases chuck in easy to use as well.

I have three explanations why the press releases might need to call on “easy to use” in this situation:

1. It’s really important for sales: the company thinks that something which is next generation, flexible, robust, world class and scalable might sell badly because we worry that we won’t find the on switch.

2. Ease of use is not an obvious feature: if you can’t even write a press release that ordinary people can understand, it’s unlikely we will believe you can make a product that ordinary people can use.

3. Once I watched a TV report on how they used to typeset Mao-era Chinese communist newspapers. Because the Mandarin alphabet has a basic vocabulary of more than 3,000 characters it was easier for the typesetters to keep entire ready-made Cultural Revolution jargon phrases at hand, like the one at the top of the page, and just assemble the daily paper from the revolutionary brainwashing twaddle kit with a few names thrown in.

When we close our minds we tend to rely on empty, grandiose phrases to please authority. Of course in the West we’d never do anything like that, because here we are free to choose which words we use. Apparently.

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Core value judgement

Obviously I looked younger in those days

I know the exact moment I decided to give up playing rugby. I was being carried off the pitch on a stretcher with blood pouring out of my head, and one of the prop forwards patted me on the leg and said, “Well, Tim, looks like your journalism days are over”.

Whether or not you find this joke funny probably depends on whether you think rugby is a noble pursuit for tough people or 80 minutes of institutionalised assault. To tip public perception towards nobility and away from criminality, the English Rugby Football Union has just done what the establishment usually does in these cases: made a big statue.

At least when the Victorians did this, they usually had the subtlety to try and hide their hidden agenda. The RFU, with all the subtlety of a prop forward, decided to call the latest addition to the Twickenham furniture the Core Values sculpture. Why now? I looked it up: “Two years ago the RFU put together a task group to run an extensive consultation exercise. The Core Values project – the first time a sport has set out to define its value system in formal terms – identified the following principles…”

Speaking as a big fan of Rugby Union, it has always had hypocrisy as one of its unspoken core values. The game was proudly amateur when my dad played, and you were banned if you were even suspected of taking money to play – so his club secretly stuffed money in his boot instead.

There have been a lot of people bragging about their core values recently: companies in the US and UK are about three times as likely to claim in their press releases that they have core values as they were in 2000, as the graphs below show.

But where, I thought, are we most likely to find an increase in these core values? I thought it might be good to look for the phrase in press releases on military procurement. Defence contractors discovered many more core values during the period between 2003 and 2006 – which is an improvement on the 1990s, when they didn’t mention core values at all. I shaded the area during which BAE Systems was investigated over accusations of corruption (In 2010 it admitted false accounting and, in a settlement, agreed to pay £257m criminal fines to the US and £30m to the UK – but the company denies bribery).

Banks, however, had a core value growth peak much earlier. This time I shaded a period which covers the Senate Committee of Finance’s investigation into Enron and the complicity of banks in the creative accountancy that took place.

But the real stars of the core values show are in the securities business. They didn’t make much noise about core values in the past: again, not a single mention of the phrase in the early 1990s that I could find. But they are making up for it now. You are now about six times as likely to read a securities industry press release that mentions core values as you were in 2000.  I’m not going to insult you by pointing out which relevant period I’ve highlighted in the final graph:

Of course, my simple measurement doesn’t explore what those core values might be. A few weeks ago I spoke to  Dr Doug Hirschhorn, who is one of the top trader coaches in the world. I asked his what the values of his trainees are: “These people get paid an obscene amount of money. They are not curing cancer or creating new ways to feed people. It draws the sort of people attracted to sensation-seeking,” he said.

The sensation-seeking search for obscene personal wealth is a core value, I guess. I’m also guessing that it’s not the core value mentioned in those press releases.

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