And now on with the sporadic blogging…
I gave a presentation recently that referred to three books I’ve found particularly useful – and afterwards was asked if I had a recommended reading list on my blog. Well, I didn’t until now! Here are some books that have somehow helped me professionally, and were also simply interesting and rewarding. For each, I’m listing a summary, a choice quote or two, and something about how I’ve used it. I will also try to update this post from time-to-time with more.
(Quick aside: here’s a tip about reading on the Kindle – I create Highlights and Notes on the Kindle all the time but until recently found it very hard to access them easily. Now I’m using a website service called Clippings.io which organises them in a much cleaner and more accessible way so, if you’re also a habitual Kindle clipper, check it out.)
Books covered so far:
- Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years by Tom Standage
- The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction by Nate Silver
- Time to Think by Nancy Kline
- Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff
- Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee
- Also a special ‘best bits’ post about Switch, a really useful book by the great Chip and Dan Heath.
…and more to come soon(ish)!
Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff
My rough summary: If you’re a ‘progressive’ (American for lefty-liberal, I think…) then you need this book. In fact, the Democratic party in the U.S. did need it, then Obama did a pretty good job of using it to win. If you wonder why people don’t seem to take in the facts when told some emotive untruth by (any) extreme wing, this will help you understand why, and what you can do about it. And the answer is in deep but easy-to-grasp issues of ‘frames’, metaphor and language, not ‘out-do your opponent at their own game’ – a timely lesson when the Labour party try to boast they are “tougher than the Tories” on benefits.
- People do not necessarily vote in their self-interest. They vote their identity. They vote their values.
- Unlike the right, the left does not think strategically. We think issue by issue. We generally do not try to figure out what minimal change we can enact that will have effects across many issues.
- The media does not have to accept the right wing’s frames. What can a reporter ask besides “Do you support gay marriage?” Try this: “Do you think the government should tell people who they can and can’t marry?” Or “Do you think the freedom to marry who you want to is a matter of equal rights under the law?” Or “Do you see marriage as the realization of love in a lifetime commitment?” Or “Does it benefit society when two people who are in love want to make a public lifetime commitment to each other?”
- When the facts don’t fit the frames, the frames are kept and the facts ignored. It is a common folk theory of progressives that “the facts will set you free.” If only you can get all the facts out there in the public eye, then every rational person will reach the right conclusion. It is a vain hope. Human brains just don’t work that way. Framing matters. Frames once entrenched are hard to dispel.
How I’ve used this book: I’ve written elsewhere here about Lakoff and love his work – haven’t read enough of his other books though, and hope to get really stuck into the linguistic side.
Time to Think by Nancy Kline
My rough summary: I needed this book, and still do – in the right (or wrong) circumstances I can talk all the legs of several donkeys and tend to interrupt people when I’ve had a (supposedly) good idea! Time to Think helped me to shut up and listen a bit more, but I still need to work on it. This is a book about how to help people gain insight, ideas and confidence through listening – great book for anyone in the workplace. And, guess what, the way people act in The Apprenticeis not best practise.
- One of the best moments in meetings like this is the sudden new flash of an idea across someone’s face in the middle of their own sentence. Knowing they would not be interrupted, they have relaxed somewhere, they have loaded up their hearts with a bit more than usual self-esteem and they speak. As they speak, they have time to hear themselves. They think because they speak. Often it is in that same moment, when the adrenaline-infused, self-promoting listener, desperate to interrupt, suddenly deflates with a thud.
- This training of men to be real men by denouncing much good human behaviour is based on the assumption that these human characteristics are somehow female. And the key thing boys and men are told never to do is get themselves confused with a woman.
- Timed Talk at a Glance – Do these things without fail: Set a timer for three minutes. Take turns talking, three minutes each. Take as many turns as necessary to resolve the issue. Do not interrupt each other or take over each other’s turn, no matter what. If you don’t need all of the time in one turn, save it for your next turn. Stop talking the instant the timer goes off. …The Timed Talk process is not just for fights. It also fuels creativity. It progresses ideas.
- Prize the quality of your attention Listen as if your leadership life depended on it. It does. When you make mistakes, listen to the effects of them. Apologize. Correct them. Appreciate five times more than you criticize. Stop competing with your colleagues. Encourage their excellence. Trust that your own will be evident.
How I’ve used this book: Again, I need to use this more – I have tried to give my attention better to people, especially people in my team at work e.g. leaving room for people to think/talk more about what’s on their mind in staff meetings.
The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction by Nate Silver
My rough summary:From the man that predicted a safe win for Obama when others foretold defeat, a book that makes probability interesting and isn’t just about politics, or the rise of ‘moneyball’ baseball stat-heads in the game – it covers all sorts of areas and make you consider if you would wear a sandwich board declaring your predictions.
- In many walks of life, expressions of uncertainty are mistaken for admissions of weakness.
- We focus on those signals that tell a story about the world as we would like it to be, not how it really is. We ignore the risks that are hardest to measure, even when they pose the greatest threats to our well-being.
- Perhaps the only greater threat is the risks we think we have a handle on, but don’t. In these cases we not only fool ourselves, but our false confidence may be contagious.
- At the turn of the twentieth century, for instance, many city planners were concerned about the increasing use of horse-drawn carriages and their main pollutant: horse manure. Knee-deep in the issue in 1894, one writer in the Times of London predicted that by the 1940s, every street in London would be buried under nine feet of the stuff.
- When we play poker, we control our decision-making process but not how the cards come down. If you correctly detect an opponent’s bluff, but he gets a lucky card and wins the hand anyway, you should be pleased rather than angry, because you played the hand as well as you could. The irony is that by being less focused on your results, you may achieve better ones. [CC note: I like how this is a rational, game-playing extension of Stoicism’s ‘don’t worry about what you can’t control’ philosophy.]
How I’ve used this book: Not enough! It’s one of my most annotated books and is filled with vivid stories that illustrate tricky concepts. Mostly it has helped me feel more able to stop making assumptions, or question assumptions.
Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee
My rough summary: In Hollywood Robert McKee is so famous for his crotchety screenwriting masterclasses he was portrayed in the film Adaptation. In some ways he is the Grandpa Simpson of story skills, but with the wisdom of a real guru. His understanding of advanced techniques are not only relevant to budding film-makers, but anyone who cares about making a story have real and lasting impact.
- Literary and story talent are not only distinctively different but are unrelated, for stories do not need to be written to be told. Stories can be expressed any way human beings can communicate.
- …select only a few moments but give us a lifetime.
- Each tale you create says to the audience: “I believe life is like this.” Every moment must be filled with your passionate conviction or we smell a phony.
- …the source of all clichés can be traced to one thing and one thing alone: The writer does not know the world of his story.
- Limitation is vital. The first step toward a well-told story is to create a small, knowable world.
- Genre conventions are the rhyme scheme of a storyteller’s “poem.” They do not inhibit creativity, they inspire it. The challenge is to keep convention but avoid cliché.
- The function of CHARACTER is to bring to the story the qualities of characterization necessary to convincingly act out choices. …For this reason the phrase “character-driven story” is redundant. All stories are “character-driven.”
- William Goldman argues that the key to all story endings is to give the audience what it wants, but not the way it expects.
- You do not keep the audience’s interest by giving it information, but by withholding information, except that which is absolutely necessary for comprehension.
- Think of all the bad films you’ve sat through for no other reason than to get the answer to that nagging question. We may make the audience cry or laugh, but above all, as Charles Reade noted, we make it wait.
- Writing from the outside in — writing dialogue in search of scenes, writing scenes in search of story — is the least creative method.
- If I could send a telegram to the film producers of the world, it would be these three words: “Meaning Produces Emotion.” Not money; not sex; not special effects; not movie stars; not lush photography. MEANING: A revolution in values from positive to negative or negative to positive with or without irony—a value swing at maximum charge that’s absolute and irreversible. The meaning of that change moves the heart of the audience.
- The first draft of anything is shit. — ERNEST HEMINGWAY
How I’ve used this: These skills can go into everything from a blog post or email to a long video piece. But outside of content made by organisations, I want to get something of these skills out to charity supporters, so they feel more empowered and able to tell a compelling story that will change attitudes and never get forgotten.
Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years by Tom Standage
My rough summary: This is an informal history of peer-to-peer communication, hypothesising that we coped just fine without mass media for about 2,000 years until industrialisation, newspapers and broadcasting centralised everything – but now, thankfully, we are coming out of that blip in human history.
- Socrates complains that writing undermines the need to remember things and weakens the mind, creating “forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.” [CC note: I love how this suspicion of how people are being adversely affected by the ‘technology’ of written language portrays Socrates as a Baroness Greenfield of the ancient world]
- [of telegraph operators in late 19th century] Such was the sense of online camaraderie that some operators in remote places preferred to commune with their friends on the wires than with the local people. Thomas Stevens, a British telegraph operator stationed in Persia, shunned the local community in favour of telegraphic interaction with other Britons. “How companionable it was, that bit of civilization in a barbarous country,” he wrote of his telegraphic friends, most of whom he had never met and were thousands of miles away.
- But during 1922 the number of broadcasting stations in the United States had grown from fewer than twenty to nearly six hundred. “The art itself is advancing very fast,” the report observed, “and the ultimate effect of broadcasting upon the economic, social, religious, political, educational life of the country and the world, is comparable only with that of the discovery of printing 500 years ago.”
- After a one-hundred-and-fifty-year hiatus during which the person-to-person aspect of media was overshadowed by centralized mass media operating on a broadcast model, the pendulum has swung back.
How I’ve used this book: I was already very taken with the idea that User Generated Content (UGC) was ‘taking over’ – this book supported that idea in general and gave historical evidence for it. So (as with many others here) I’ve mostly used it for droning at people about my pet subject!
A quick aside: Do words like objectives, strategy and tactics seem hard to define sometimes? Try this – you’re on a quest. On board a vessel to a specific destination. The vessel is hit by strong tides and all sorts of natural forces outside your control. But the crew have been trained and carefully posted to various stations on the ship. Each time you face that weather, you try to keep on course. Perhaps what seems like bad weather is in fact good, sometimes the conditions propel you faster to your goal. The objective is the land you’re heading for, your strategy is your overall approach to sailing the ship, and the tactics are the individual measures you take to complete the journey.
“….movie theater owners realized that if they cut out the middleman, their profits would skyrocket. For many theaters, the transition to selling snacks helped save them from the crippling Depression. In the mid-1930s, the movie theater business started to go under. “But those that began serving popcorn and other snacks,” Smith explains, “survived.” Take, for example, a Dallas movie theater chain that installed popcorn machines in 80 theaters, but refused to install machines in their five best theaters, which they considered too high class to sell popcorn. In two years, the theaters with popcorn saw their profits soar; the five theaters without popcorn watched their profits go into the red. Eventually, movie theater owners came to understand that concessions were their ticket to higher profits, and installed concession stands in their theaters.
What can charities learn? For health or social charities in particular it’s about getting your offer where the people who need you are, regardless of whether you think they ‘should be’ there, or should already know, or whatever that tiny assumption or prejudice is. Samaritans are already advertising on the ends of station platforms. In mental health this could mean making sure there are leaflets at every GP surgery called ‘You can talk to your GP about mental health’ (to reach people who feel ashamed about bringing up their feelings with a doctor), or trying to reach the communities of young people on networks like Tumblr who post self-hating messages – which is one thing we are trying to do at my work at the moment.
Or – heart health messages on the side of heavily-sugared cinema popcorn..?
The death of Robin Williams is making me ruminate about mental health and how charities like Mind (who I work for) communicate about it. The following is me trying to make sense of things – it’s probably not coherent, I might delete it, oh well…
- The death of anyone from suicide is a shocking, horrible tragedy.
- If news like this makes people pay attention to mental health issues, who normally wouldn’t, organisations and people with influence must try to see how they can use that focus to reach and help as far and wide as they can.
- People find it hard to ask for help. It can be an agonising thing to contemplate, let alone do. Successfully encouraging someone to say “I need help” might be a life-changing good.
- …but many people don’t get decent, prompt help when they do ask. The ‘world’ of treatment is riddled with inequalities and unfairness.
- Celebrities’ experiences of mental health are usually not representative in many ways, when income such a factor in treatment options and general wellbeing.
- Mental health problems are non-discriminatory in general (thought there are links between some diagnoses and demographics).
- In general, attitudes and other responses to mental health in daily life are getting better. Just look at how far we’ve come. People are great.
- Things are bad. People think depression is a ‘selfish’ put-on. People are idiots.
- Mind and other mental health charities are here to give help, identify and close gaps, find new ways of providing support. We want people to turn to us.
- …but we’re not perfect, we can’t do it alone and we cannot answer every call. Which is why we ask for support and constantly focus on getting more people in power to put mental health on the same footing as physical health.
- Mental health organisations like Mind need to thrive, because “we won’t give up until everyone affected by mental health problems gets support and respect” (our vision).
- And therefore mental health organisations’ ultimate aim is to stop existing – when everyone who needs support and respect is getting it.
* – …I don’t think these statements contradict each other – but sometimes, some of them are hard to reconcile.
This is my favourite fable. When something seems difficult at work, I try and apply it. I have Grandpa Simpson-ishly repeated this tale over and over to younger colleagues. It’s worth repeating, it’s a brilliant way of thinking about problems.
“the trick is to use this problem to solve itself”
(Many thanks to Tom Stuart of Codon.com for this post of his which found the quotes I was looking for. It’s also generally a really, really good blog post.)
This is about the late Douglas Adams writing the original radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. As Tom Stuart says, “He wrote the radio series by the skin of his teeth: budgets were small and deadlines were tight, so he was writing each episode immediately before it was recorded, and each episode was recorded immediately before it got broadcast.”
Douglas Adams himself tells it this way:
“I carelessly thought that it might be fun to have Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect thrown out of the airlock of a Vogon ship without spacesuits, just to see what would happen. Unfortunately, of course, if anything was going to happen, I was going to have to think of it. I got very stuck.
The problem was the sheer improbability of every solution I came up with. [The answer] came about through watching a TV programme about Judo.
If you have a problem, said the instructor on the programme, such as for instance a nineteen stone [man] in pyjamas trying to beat you into a pulp, the trick is to use this problem to solve itself.
If you can trip or throw or deflect [him] as he hurtles towards you, then the fact that he weighs nineteen stone quickly becomes his worry instead of yours.
So — I thought — if my problem is one of improbability, let’s use Improbability to solve the problem, so just for the heck of it I invented the Infinite Improbability Drive, and gave myself a whole new thing to write about.”
I’ve used this a few times in small ways at work. When I was working for Rethink Mental Illness, we discovered a seam of awful bigotry about schizophrenia through Google autocomplete (Google ‘schizophrenics should’ and see how Google thinks you’ll want to end that, based on other users’ searches). The idea was to raise awareness by pointing it out in a piece of campaign material – but it was so distressing we decided not to. However, the very fact we had to pull it from the main campaign could be used to make a more general point about stigma around the illness – as occurred in this piece written by my brilliant ex-colleague Rachel Hobbs. In any story, including the non-fiction told by charity communicators and campaigners, being faced with a impassable obstruction can often be used to make another, different – perhaps better – story.
So if you get stuck, remember the judo throw!
Kintsugi – repaired with gold. A visual metaphor for why mental health problems should not be a source of shame – perhaps even the opposite.
Storytelling? Storytelling is hyped-up by communicators (especially in charities and non-profits) – but it’s nothing more than a joke.
And there’s fish involved too. And a goat.
Who both have the same parent.
And it could all have a sad ending.
First, the goat…
‘A tourist is backpacking through the highlands of Scotland, and he stops at a pub to get a drink. And the only people in there is a bartender and an old man nursing a beer. And he orders a pint, and they sit in silence for a while.
And suddenly the old man turns to him and goes, “You see this bar? I built this bar with my bare hands from the finest wood in the county. Gave it more love and care than my own child.But do they call me MacGregor the bar builder? No.”
Points out the window. “You see that stone wall out there? I built that stone wall with my bare hands. Found every stone, placed them just so through the rain and the cold. But do they call me MacGregor the stone wall builder? No.”
Points out the window. “You see that pier on the lake out there? I built that pier with my bare hands. Drove the pilings against the tide of the sand, plank by plank. But do they call me MacGregor the pier builder? No.
But you fuck one goat …”
Storytelling is joke telling. It’s knowing your punchline, your ending, knowing that everything you’re saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal, and ideally confirming some truth that deepens our understandings of who we are as human beings.’
Now imagine an email that goes like this…
“Subject: Locating a missing fish
The orange clownfish (Amphiprion percula) is widely known as a popular aquarium fish. Like other clownfish (also called anemonefish), it often lives in association with sea anemones…”
Does that ring any bells? It’s the email that the Dad in Finding Nemo would have sent if he was represented by an organisation of bad joke-tellers and bad story-tellers.
Finding Nemo is a story about the power of story. The reason why Nemo’s dad finds his son is through sharing his simple, moving story across the oceans, until it eventually reaches Australia.
Nemo’s Dad’s story, and the film itself, and the goat joke, share the same principles. They’re personal – told by and about individuals, not faceless groups. And they use the power of anticipation to pull the audience from one end of the story to the other.
The goat and the fish are even more intimately related that that – as I said earlier, they have the same parent. The goat joke reproduced above is told by Finding Nemo’s writer/director Andrew Stanton in this TED talk about storytelling. (And if you read this far because you wanted to know what the hell I was on about at the beginning, he’s going to give me a storytelling gold star!)
‘When you’re telling a story, have you constructed anticipation? In the short-term, have you made me want to know what will happen next? But more importantly, have you made me want to know how it will all conclude in the long-term? Have you constructed honest conflicts with truth that creates doubt in what the outcome might be? An example would be in “Finding Nemo,” in the short tension, you were always worried, would Dory’s short-term memory make her forget whatever she was being told by Marlin. But under that was this global tension of will we ever find Nemo in this huge, vast ocean?’
So what is the sad ending? In microcosm, the power of anticipation is the key factor in clickbait. (And if you don’t know what clickbait is, you simply will not believe it! Check it out here!) Clickbait is possibly devaluing the currency of anticipation. It uses unresolved tension as shiny wrapping around a cheap toy. So maybe this heralds a future where we are crying out for communications that blether on for paragraphs about extraneous detail, barely ever get to the point and then don’t even have a proper
…However, for the time being until that Ballardian hell arrives, Finding Nemo (the story, and the story within the story) demonstrates that a story which uses anticipation-power, as well as the personal touch, can be rewarding and effective.
The problem with social media is it works anti-social hours…
I’ve written a piece for CharityComms about managing out-of-hours social media. Go on, look at it!
(Someone on Twitter actually said it was the most helpful social media article they’ve ever read, which is possibly the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about me in a professional context. And, yes, I am humblebragging.)
That’s all I’ve got really.
Here’s a photo of two ponies wearing cardigans.
This is half blog post, half Post-It note to myself – because I keep talking to people about Daniel Dennet’s reference to Rapoport’s Rules for argument or criticism, and forgetting what the bloody things are.
Thankfully at some point I find the post written by the wonderful Maria Popova here!
Everyone should read her blog, but just for my own sake, here are Rapoport’s Rules in big bloody letters for my own future reference – and perhaps others.
Rapoport’s rules (as quoted by Daniel Dennett in Intuition Pumps)
You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
I gave a presentation to CharityComms in early 2014 where this presentation was called ‘An amplifier not a mouthpiece’ – I thought it might be useful to upload it to Slideshare with a slight name change and some notes on the slides.
One thing I think is worth noting – my presentation and the events it describes around the #mentalpatient hashtag (written about elsewhere in this site) pre-dates the spontaneous, user-led #nomakeup selfie phenomenon.
(April 2014 edit ..and #stephensstory!)
Please excuse the odd styling and fonts in this – side-effects of exporting/importing files between Mac and PC, which is always ‘fun’.
A jumble of thoughts… I’ve been reading a lot of George Lakoff recently. He shows how metaphor dominates our language and behaviour. Here’s a bit of Wikipedia:
Metaphor has been seen within the Western scientific tradition as purely a linguistic construction. The essential thrust of Lakoff’s work has been the argument that metaphors are primarily a conceptual construction, and indeed are central to the development of thought. He suggested that: “Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.”
And also, at a less fundamental level, he talks about how language frames work in politics:
The phrase “Tax relief” began coming out of the White House starting on the very day of Bush’s inauguration. It got picked up by the newspapers as if it were a neutral term, which it is not. First, you have the frame for “relief.” For there to be relief, there has to be an affliction, an afflicted party, somebody who administers the relief, and an act in which you are relieved of the affliction. The reliever is the hero, and anybody who tries to stop them is the bad guy intent on keeping the affliction going.
Which I think can perhaps be interpreted both as ‘choice of language has a huge impact on our thinking’ and ‘language is enormously imperfect as a system’. To put it crudely, many we are forced to use a flawed system to do important things. Perhaps this underlines how intent is paramount in discourse: use these tools as best you can and you should be forgiven for errors, but use the quirks to achieve corrupt aims and deserve condemnation.
Sadly we can’t read minds to confirm the intent, so people with good intentions can be seen as baddies… and that’s why people who are actually on the same side argue with each other on Twitter.
“Myth of mental illness.” Mental illness is a metaphor (metaphorical disease). The word “disease” denotes a demonstrable biological process that affects the bodies of living organisms (plants, animals, and humans). The term “mental illness” refers to the undesirable thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of persons. Classifying thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as diseases is a logical and semantic error, like classifying the whale as a fish. As the whale is not a fish, mental illness is not a disease. Individuals with brain diseases (bad brains) or kidney diseases (bad kidneys) are literally sick. Individuals with mental diseases (bad behaviors), like societies with economic diseases (bad fiscal policies), are metaphorically sick. The classification of (mis)behavior as illness provides an ideological justification for state-sponsored social control as medical treatment.
This seems to equate metaphor with error, and implies that the mere fact of something being ‘metaphorical’ is the problem. But saying you feel ‘up’ or ‘down’ is also metaphorical, while far less controversial. In fact, Szasz actually uses the word ‘feelings’ for internal emotional states in this statement, and it’s strictly speaking a metaphorical term – he’s not talking about touching anything physically.
However it also talks about the metaphor being an idealogical justification – to me, this is the key issue and a Lakoffian one. The issues is not that ‘mental illness’ is a metaphor, but that it’s – arguably – a bad frame. Now I’m not actually sure myself it’s a 100% a bad frame – for instance some people seem to benefit from thinking of themselves as ‘ill’. The charity I used to work for, Rethink Mental Illness, were criticised for using the term and explained that it
…puts mental health on a par with physical illness, which helps people who don’t know much about mental illness to understand how serious it is
Anyway, if this is a bad frame, I personally don’t think it’s used en masse to deliberately perpetuate “ideological justification for state-sponsored social control” but more because – as Lakoff might suggest – we are surrounded by and immersed in metaphor, for things standing as other things. Sometimes the symbols fail us in one way, but succeed in others, and it’s a matter of striking a balance. ‘Mental illness’ might be a controversial term but I would argue that it’s no ‘tax relief’ when it comes to who uses it and why they use it.