THE PLAIN TEXT GAZETTE – Issue 12, June 2005
* Blogs and business writing
* Powerpoint: why?
* Words we hate: and another one
It seems that our rant about straplines in the last Plain Text Gazette has had little effect. In the recent UK general election the two main parties had a battle of the straplines (or slogans, as I guess they should be called in politics) in which the only winner was irony. One assumes the ruling Labour Party chose “Forward not back” because any further moves to the right would be impossible; and to the left, unconscionable. And given the ghoulish mien and hardline stance of its leader, the Conservatives’ “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” made many people think “God, I hope not — I could get five years, minimum!”
Thinking nicer thoughts, late last year the British Council polled 40,000 people in 12 countries to ask them what were the most beautiful words in the English language. Allegedly, the top five of a ridiculously twee list were: mother, passion, smile, love and eternity. Nice concepts, but a credible list of beautiful words? Naaah. I reckon the whole process must have been subverted by a virus written by a Chris de Burgh fan. You don’t need a spurious survey to show that the English language abounds in beauty: any off-the-top-of-the-head list can do that. For example: cowslip, fleam, synecdoche, bollo*ks, malarky, scythe. If only we could get more words like those into corporate brochures.
In this issue we’re going to hold forth about Powerpoint (again), this time from a slightly different angle. We’ve done the ‘how’ of Powerpoint; specifically, how to escape from Powerpoint hell. But we’ve never done the ‘why’. Powerpoint: why? Read on. And finally, two centuries after they first appeared and five months after their discovery by the president-elect of the American Library Association , we’d like to offer some thoughts on blogs.
But before we do that, just a quick note to anyone interested that we have updated our ultra-minimal website to reflect the starkly beautiful brochures we’ve just produced. If you’d like one of these, by the way, please drop us a line.
Enjoy this issue.
Blogs and business writing
At nine million and counting, there’s a lot of blogs about. And I bet there have been as many words published discussing their significance (Lucrative online business model? New publishing paradigm? The Death/Rebirth of Journalism?) as have emerged from blogs themselves. For sheer grumpiness, though, it’s hard to beat the by now famous rant of American Library Association president-elect Michael Gorman. Goaded by attacks from bloggers for his not entirely unreasonable critique of Google, he wrote: “A blog is a species of interactive electronic diary by means of which the unpublishable, untrammeled by editors or the rules of grammar, can communicate their thoughts via the web.”
Written as it was in February 2005, this tickled me, as I’m sure it did the many people for whom weblogs are crucial discussion fora, fast-growing businesses, required reading, etc. etc. It typifies the reaction of a professional community to something that ‘democratises’ their skill. Just as the web was attacked in its early days for swamping people with unstructured information, much early huffing and puffing about blogs focused on the terrible consequences of publishing’s being made available to anyone.
As anyone in the blogosphere knows, such fears were entirely unfounded. Thanks to the savage Darwinism of the web, the bad stuff gets rapidly sidelined or ignored; and technologies like RSS mean readers can be highly selective. Bad blogs just sit there in cyberspace, unread.
And there’s the issue for businesses seeking to capitalise on the weblog phenomenon. The regular homily from the CEO, for example, will quickly end up in cyber-Siberia unless it’s interesting, controversial, funny; or preferably all three. But what’s the chance of that in most modern companies? As the Financial Times’s Lucy Kellaway commented on corporate blogs earlier this year: “If they are merely another conduit for sanitised corporate information, or exercises in executive vanity, they will go the way of the corporate mags, the voicemails and the company spam.”
Blogs, on the whole, have been great for writing in general. The intense public scrutiny to which they are subject forces up the quality of their content and acts as a superb bullsh*t detector. But to make them work in a business context, companies need to live dangerously and let their people let rip. Who’s going to rise to that challenge?
It’s nearly five years now since I left the corporate world. One of the many enduring pleasures of life outside the cube farm is the fact that watching Powerpoint presentations is at worst an annual, rather than a daily or weekly ordeal. This, I think, gives me and fellow escapee colleagues at Plain Text a healthy perspective on this most unproductive of business communication phenomena. Despite firm exhortations to our clients that Powerpoint presentations should only be used in very specific circumstances (the projection of diagrams or photographs, for example), we are still asked to edit and sometimes even write the wretched things.
Why does this make us so upset? Because once you’ve spent a few years ridding your system of the poison of Powerpoint, renewed contact with it makes you realise what an appalling communications device it is. And it makes you want to scream WHY??? at the otherwise reasonable people who shelter behind its nested bullet points. Sure, sometimes there are sensible answers to the ‘why’ of Powerpoint: “I’m an architect/a systems engineer/a designer/someone whose pitch needs pictures.” But a lot of the time, the answer to the ‘why’ of Powerpoint is: fear.
Fear that if there isn’t a big handout full of smart slides of bullet points and bar-charts, the management will be disappointed. Fear that without the slides, the speaker won’t know what to say. And fear that somehow, without a constantly shifting visual display to look at, the audience will feel short-changed. If you encounter anyone feeling this fear, or feel it yourself, just ask this simple question: think back to the most memorable presentation you ever sat through. What do you remember? The slides, or what the speaker said? Succumb to the fear that breeds a need for Powerpoint and your audience is less likely to remember you. Invest some time in preparing a great talk, though, and it’s your talk they’ll talk about. Not everyone has the natural ability of, say, Bill Clinton (whose hot ‘n’ heavy speech to a British political conference prompted a senior delegate to head outside afterwards for a cigarette, commenting: “I always like a smoke after being made love to”). Still, it should be within everyone’s power to talk about a subject with passion: and that’s worth more than any number of bullet points or flow charts.
So if there isn’t a sensible answer to the ‘why’ of Powerpoint, invest the time in crafting words rather than wrestling with slides.
Words we hate: another one
Stakeholder, n, meaning: ‘someone with an interest or concern in a business or enterprise’
We had a pop at ‘stakeholder’ a couple of Gazettes ago, but didn’t really give it a hard enough time. It’s spread like a pernicious weed; yet we managed perfectly well without it a few years ago. Yes, yes, we admit it’s useful in business, in that it serves to describe all those who have a ‘stake’ in a particular project. But there’s an implicit dishonesty in the word: calling people stakeholders seems to imply that all of their interests have equal status, whereas in reality they rarely do. It’s a word designed to make people feel important to a project when they probably aren’t. Limit its use to the description of people holding stock in a company; or those looking to finish off a vampire.
That’s it for this issue. As always, your comments, suggestions and rants are welcome.