Posts Tagged 'Why we bother'



The price of freedom is eternal vigilance

amber lightFrom time to time, in order to protect ourselves from those who would subjugate us with needless conference calls and kill our spirit with pointless blue sky thinking, we need to be aware of imminent and terrifying threats to Talknormalism. That’s why I’m raising the Talk Normal Crap Defence Readiness Condition to CrapCon 2 this week, its highest level yet. Well, the only level yet. It puts us on guard that there are people who would destroy everything we stand for to achieve their aims. That’s why there is a little amber light in the column on the right. Ha! Take that, world.

The reason, of course, is the imminent launch of Windows 7 and the marketing drivel that accompanies it. Most software launches contain their fair share of meaningless aspirational twaddle spoken by paunchy men in casual shirts, but Microsoft has always outperformed the market in this respect. Older Talknormalists will recall the launch of Windows 95, which included displaying the Microsoft logo on the Empire State Building and sailing a four-storey-high Windows 95 box into Sydney Harbour (a feat of self-regard copied later on the Thames by Michael Jackson. Draw your own conclusions).

This is an image from that era which will haunt me for a long time:

You make a grown man cry. Indeed.

Fast forward 12 years, and for the launch of a product like Windows Vista most sensible companies would have coughed gently and stared at their shoes. Microsoft parked a stage in the forecourt of the British Library and put on a concert by The Feeling to Crank UP the Wow! (their emphasis on “up”) as fearful academics cowered inside and waited for guys in branded polo shirts to sod off.

You’d have thought that the evidence from the Windows 95 video would have warned the PR company not to do anything to encourage Microsoft employees to dance. Maybe permitting them to jig about self-consciously is less embarrassing than letting them speak? We’ll soon have plenty more evidence to help us decide. Until then, I wish you luck in the dark days to come.

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The Vincenator

Hail to the Vince. Let’s give thanks for the continued presence of Vincent Cable, MP for Twickenham, and 2008 Parliamentarian of the Year.

You might say that it’s not a vintage crop of parliamentarians right now; but I’ve noticed a new question in the last 12 months from the people on my media training courses. How can I sound more like Vince Cable?, they ask me, dolefully. The obvious answer is that you need to get a PhD in economics, work overseas and at a high level in international business, get elected to parliament while developing an independent set of opinions, work hard, mostly in obscurity, for a number of years, and then arrange some kind of global crisis in which you are an expert, but about which almost everyone else knows nothing.

Of course, if it was that easy, we’d all be doing it.

I was thinking about the Cable effect on Wednesday when I was listening to him speak at the Association for Qualitative Research Trends Day. He spoke for 45 minutes with (no notes) about the economic crisis, why British people are obsessed

Cable: in real life, surprisingly athletic

Cable: in real life, surprisingly athletic

with pets and houses, the role of markets and the nature of identity. Most conferences I go to make me want to stab my hand with a pencil. But we keep going back to these PowerPoint-crazed snoozefests, because every now and then a Vince Cable shows up.

So, to the original question: how do you sound more like the Vincenator? I came up with a list while I was listening.

1. What’s the problem? It’s more important to identify a problem accurately than to pretend you have all the answers. I think there’s got to be a some element of peril if you’re ignored. So when he warned us that the next British parliament might be run by a conservative government with no Scottish MPs, in conflict with a nationalist Scottish parliament and tells us “it’s an unsustainable tension”, you start thinking. He wasn’t saying there will be a war or anything, just waking us up. At least, I don’t think he was.

2. Not the usual stats. Did you know that in the recession, employment in the UK among pensioners had actually increased? That in many parts of London the average house price is 100 times average earnings? Neither did I. I could have looked the second one up, but Cable saved me the effort.

3. Now I get it. His stats don’t just sit there, they are part of a story. So he points out that UK public spending is 49 per cent of GDP and that taxation is 35 per cent and sinking: “Scandinavian type public spending supported by American levels of taxation.”

4. Small-BIG-Small. Take a small point, explain the big picture, then explain how that affects something else personal. Moving between big and small is the mark of someone who really knows what they’re talking about. So Cable riffs on bonuses and MP expenses, gives some insight on how we rightly feel the world is unfair, and warns it will seem even more like that when entitlements that we expected (free university education, for example) are denied to our children.

5. Bite the hand that feeds you. You only root for an underdog when your underdog bites a bit. “After I made my speech advocating a mansion tax I went to the press room and there were about 50 of them and they were like piranhas. Then I realised almost all of them have £1 million homes”.

6. You sow before you reap. Any bugger can tell you now that liberalised markets and the pursuit of risky profits were destructive for Northern Rock. But only Cable can say that he was leading a campaign against demutualisation of building societies 10 years ago. Anyone can be wise after the event, but the high ground goes to people who were wise before it. To do that, you have to have opinions today that don’t follow the herd. This is thought leadership, not what everyone else pretends it is.

For all this, and for helping to show that it is appropriate to admire bald men, Vince Cable is today’s inductee into our Hall of Fame as a Hero of Talknormalism. I’ll put him in the list and send him a mug to celebrate this achievement: a reward that makes others seem mere trinkets. Of course, if he doesn’t say thank you, I’ll put up a post saying how over-rated he is. He’s a politician, he’d understand.

Citizen journalism isn’t always A Good Thing

From an excellent story in this month’s Atlantic Monthly magazine:

The collapse of journalism means that the quest for information has been superseded by the quest for ammunition.

Mark Bowden, the reporter, investigates what happened when Judge Sonia Sotomayor was nominated to the Supreme Court. Immediately all the TV networks possessed the same package of video of her seeming to make extremist comments. Bowden tracks down the blogger who unearthed the videos and the advocacy groups that disseminated them.

On the face of it, blogger does the legwork that journalists don’t and gets a story is a good-news story about internet culture. Anyone who complains about citizen journalists doing their job must be a bitter old-school journalist, you think.Atlantic

I say: not so. Bowden makes two points:

1. When journalists do not have the time or the skills, someone else will step in to provide ready-made stories. The lack of resource in journalism means these stories go straight on to the page or the screen, and so are effectively endorsed by the publication.

2. The people who do it have their own agenda:

Work formerly done by reporters and producers is now routinely performed by political operatives and amateur ideologues of one stripe or another, whose goal is not to educate the public but to win. This is a trend not likely to change.

And that’s the important difference. Most citizen journalists, advocacy groups, public relations companies are not motivated by the desire to get to the truth, but to deliver a point of view. No problem: it’s their job to work backwards from a conclusion (Or, for citizen journalists, it is their vocation). It is the job of the reporter to check whether that conclusion has any value.

And so professional journalists must take some responsibility. For years we have been pleased to have stories fed to us like baby food, complete with partial research, friendly quotes and conclusions. We can’t suddenly complain when we realise that it has made us into the advocacy industry’s gimps. Now, thanks to forces beyond our control, many newspapers, news stations and magazines are no longer set up to check the stories they report.

Judge Sotomayor was confirmed, but the damaging news clips of her led on every major news station. In his feature Bowden checked the context and discovered that the clips, far from being the secret confession of a deranged idealogue, contained little of interest and nothing new. That is, until they were taken out of context by a politically-motivated blogger and presented to the media, who didn’t bother to check them.

If you’re in the business of winning approval for your clients, this is good news. But in the long term this culture of advocacy is dangerous. We no longer have any idea who is shaping the news at any level, and as citizens we can never know enough to separate good research from carefully-disguised bias when we watch or read the news. Bowden concludes about this type of media that:

Today it is rapidly replacing journalism, leading us toward a world where all information is spun, and where all “news” is unapologetically propaganda.

When that happens, ultimately we all lose.

Friday afternoon: Free mugs and pictures of naked people

ClothingOptionalSanFranNote: there are no naked people in this blog. I’m messing with you. But, if I get a flood of traffic, it’s full frontal all the way from now on. There’s 70 million blogs out there: it’s a war for eyeballs, as the experts tell me.

Meanwhile I note from the stats that the page on Talk Normal that everyone looks at is the one that promises free mugs, so at the end of the week I need to explain how the process works in a bit more detail. If you’re thinking: can I have one of Tim’s mugs? the answer is…

Of course you can.

But you can’t have one yet. Not until you have earned it! Here is the scenario: one day in the future I’m going to wake up and realise that I can’t think of a thing to write. Maybe I’ll post a bogus lament for the passing of the golden era of journalism or start criticising erroneous use of the hyphen, stuff that I know little about and care about even less. When that happens you have my permission to take me out to a patch of wasteland and beat me with spiked club.

To avoid this type of physical harm I’m going to need your help. If you tip me off for a story or give me ideas or request things you want to see, I will occasionally pop a mug in the post in return. It’s community thing.

Or maybe you might decide to write something on your blog about Talk Normal like There’s a new blog in town and it’s one I think we should all be reading and make the time I put into this experiment worthwhile.

Or you’re going to help me prepare podcasts and videos for the site.

But you might have plenty of mugs already and don’t like helping other people. You were probably attracted by the word naked and are still clinging to the faint hope of finding something here that’s Not Safe For Work; if so, these mugs might be more your speed.

Formula for failure

If N is the number of column inches, R is the relevance to current news obsessions, I is the importance of the academic whose name is attached to the press release and is a greek character that I introduced to make the whole thing look like it came from a university rather than the desk of a public relations consultant, then the formula for press coverage of a made-up scientific formula is too depressing to invent.

I’ve just been at the British Science Festival where journalist, author and enemy of chiropractors everywhere Simon Singh presented Why Journalists Love Stupid Equations and Other Problems in the Media. If you have been under a rock and so missed the stupid equation trend, over at Apathy Sketchpad there’s a collection of the Telegraph’s miserable Formula For stories. Also, the same blog’s collection of PR-concocted science from the Mail, and then there’s the Sun story on the formula which tells us if a boob line is too low – which, as Ben Goldacre points out, doesn’t even work. Idiots. You can read more detail about what Singh had to say here.

I declare an interest: a few years ago I was called in by a PR company to work out why the newspapers had stopped printing stories for their price comparison web site client. The answer: because all they did was make up increasingly asinine formulae for the tabloids, freesheets and women’s magazines. At the time they were desperately pushing the formula for a perfect bargain (I’m not making this up), which had half a dozen variables to consider, and eventually gave a number between 100 and 700 which you had to compare to a table of results. You were meant to use this calculation while staring into a shop window FFS, and they couldn’t even be bothered to (or didn’t know how to) make it come out as a percentage.

I suggested to Singh that naming the PR companies who rely on this guff might act as a deterrent. “Problem is, if you name them, then people who want to get in the papers are going to say, fantastic, we should go to that PR company,” he pointed out.

Like an internet survey of 23 people, or a the story of how some type of vegetable will save your from cancer, the fake formula offends me because it is cynical lowest-common-denominator PR. It offends me because as journalists we all know this is crap – but we publish it anyway. And it offends me because we assume this is all the science that readers can tolerate without their heads exploding while they’re reading the paper.

News you can trust

No one does business news as accurately as hero of Talknormalism The Onion. The story behind

MediaLine employees stood with mouths agape Wednesday as they witnessed the very moment at which project manager James Atkins attained complete mastery over the fine art of meaningless corporate doublespeak.

is here, and the story that gives us

“The way Skip looked right into that camera and said ‘annihilation’ with perfect enunciation—I’ve been in the news business for 14 years, and I still got goose bumps,” Salters said.

is here.

I could post about a hundred more, but it’s better if you discover stories like Nation Ready To Be Lied To About Economy Again or JPMorgan Chase Acquires Bear Stearns In Tedious-To-Read News Article in your own time. Well what are you waiting for? It’s Friday.

Why Talk Normal?

Sometimes I’m asked to provide media training. I enjoy the job, but it’s not without problems.

The biggest is that the companies I train are, accidentally or on purpose, teaching their staff a strange language that sounds like English, but isn’t. They often talk about synergies, leverage, solutions, facilitation, challenges, issues, action items, low hanging fruit or win-win scenarios, all words that we wouldn’t use outside the meeting room, because we know it would make someone punch us.

We dress up ordinary tasks as if they are somehow significant. We don’t ask people to do something, we reach out to them. We don’t arrange a call, we set up a bridge, as if we are the magical engineers of interaction – interacting, of course, used to be called talking to each other until we decided that wasn’t a sufficiently important description for the magic that occurs during a conference call.

And so I’ve set up Talk Normal to help me put this right, in a small way.

Talk Normal is, I hope, a resource for people I have media trained, and a taster for those who I will train in the future. I hope also it will stimulate some conversation about how we communicate in business, if only for someone to tell me I’m wrong. I can take it. As a freelance journalist, it’s my job to take a bit of a kicking occasionally, and blogs where the comments are a bit tasty are always so much more interesting.

It is not an instruction manual, so if I put a comma in the wrong place or split an infinitive, you can point it out to me, but I will probably ignore you.

I will stick to a few rules, in the next post.


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