My reading list…

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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 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:

…and more to come soon(ish)!

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“Ambitions and crimes” – when Scientologists tried to overtake a mental health charity

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“We are faced with the Government threat of total obliteration on the grounds of pressure from psychiatric front groups, whose ambitions and crimes are notorious, who cure nothing, who seize and kill and to whose monstrous violations of human rights the Government remains knowingly and wilfully blind. We are being forced to fight back, to defend ourselves from complete obliteration. We do not want to do so.”

Freedom Scientology, International Edition No.1 – cited by Rolph, C.H. (1973). Believe What You Like: What happened between the Scientologists and the National Association for Mental Health. Andre Deutsch Limited. p 44.
Believe What You Like by C.H. Rolph
Believe What You Like, by C.H. Rolph

The ‘psychiatric front group’ described above is the National Association for Mental Health – NAMH – now known as Mind, the best-known mental health charity in the UK and the largest independent mental health NGO in the world (according to Wikipedia).

This statement was one of many pot-shots that preceded a far bigger battle in the High Court in the late 60s-early 70s – a battle that could’ve obliterated Mind, years before it had even adopted that name.

And, oddly enough, the head of the anti-NAMH army in this strange-but-true story is the father of one of the most cherished British fantasy novelists of the modern era.

The following is a very short version of the story told by C.H. Rolph in ‘Believe What You Like’, and quotes liberally from the book.

Since basing himself in sleepy Sussex, L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology movement had been confronting the UK mental health establishment for about a decade when the face-off with NAMH began in 1969.

L. Ron Hubbard
L. Ron Hubbard

They co-opted arguments against psychiatry, the ‘myth of mental illness’ and the ‘medical model’ of mental health, they raged against ECT (electro-convulsive therapy) and all forms of brutality in the system.

Of course, a lot of this was right – at this time ECT was over-prescribed and given without anaesthetic*, and there are still valid debates about the extent to which mental health problems are treated too biologically, atomistically, or with casual over-reliance on drugs.

In the sixties no-one, least of all NAMH, were arguing that all was rosy in the world of mental health treatment. However, Scientologists’ good points were mixed very liberally with the most extreme of accusations and views. The following are from the in-house magazine Freedom Scientology (as quoted in BWYL):

“A psychiatrist kills a young girl for sexual kicks, murders a dozen patients with an ice pick, castrates a hundred men. And they give him another million appropriation. One can only conclude that psychiatric terrorism is not limited to the families of mental patients. It must extend all the way to the top. Extortion, kidnapping, murder — these are crimes. Yet where are the Security Forces? Thousands of miles away tending to other people’s business.

[…] There are no insane. There are only the physically ill. ‘Insanity’ is a non-existent malady invented to mystify and horrify the public. Any person who looks or acts irrational is either: (a) physically ill and in suppressed pain and agony or (b) is in terror at being declared ‘insane’. There is no illness one could call ‘insanity’. To ‘treat’ it by electric shocks or brain operations is only to brutalize a person suffering from easily recognizable medical symptoms or to confirm his terrors.”

Trying to separate the reasonable from the bizarre in this literature is a bewlidering experience. As Winston Churchill said of Stanley Baldwin, “he occasionally stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened”.

In fact the picture of NAMH that emerges from the late sixties is a bit bewildering itself. It was winning a lot of praise – an August 1969 article in Hospital World declared that since being formed by the merger of three bodies in 1946 (the year the National Health Service Act was passed), NAMH:

“… has developed from a polite, re-assuring body, uttering words of comfort to all those involved with mental health, to an organisation which is now firmly on the side of the patient and not at all scared of speaking its mind when the need arises”

However a modern reader of Believe What You Like is bound to be shocked by the language used by the Association (my emphasis):

“The Association’s declared aims are:  To foster a wider understanding throughout the community of the importance of mental health in all relationships of everyday life, and to encourage and promote the establishment of treatment and training facilities for adults and children suffering from mental and nervous disorder, or who are mentally subnormal, or who have behaviour problems.”

It seems throughout the book that ‘mentally subnormal’ generally follows ‘mentally ill’ in the list of whom NAMH exist to support. And Rolph’s proud boast that “in 1950 it established a home for mentally confused old ladies” is so quaint as to seem like something from an old Ealing comedy. 

So, in the late sixties NAMH were a vicious ‘front group’ in Scientological eyes, all the while using language unpalatable to us in the 21st century – and they had enemies in the contemporary medical fraternity too. Not least when they placed ads in the national news to rail against the Ely scandal (about a hospital whose staff was found to have been abusing patients and stealing):

“…one angry hospital doctor telephoned the NAMH to say that, but for these unfortunate press advertisements, the public might soon and decently have forgotten the whole Ely affair.”

With shushing doctors on one side and Scientology on the other, it seems NAMH could hardly win. But the worst was yet to come.

The head of the anti-NAMH Scientologists wasn’t really L. Ron – he was the leader of the movement of course, but isn’t the active figure in contemporary reports about this battle. Instead, the UK Press Relations Officer, David Gaiman, seems to be the ‘General’ leading the charge. (Incidentally, one of David’s children, who was about nine years old at this time, is Neil Gaiman, the tremendously accomplished fantasy writer.)

Saint Hill Manor, the Scientology HQ
Saint Hill Manor, the Scientology HQ

David Gaiman was used to making statements to the press about the Scientology movement in the UK. At this time the Home Office was scrutinising the movement for signs of ‘cultism’ and sometimes took action – for example banning over 800 overseas Scientologists from visiting a UK conference (which was in Croydon, so arguably doing them a favour). For every real or perceived slight, David Gaiman would retaliate in the press. In 1968 he told The Daily Telegraph that “their British membership was then 150,000” and:

“In England alone we take £64,000 a week, excluding the sale of books. Our world-wide turnover runs into millions. Unless we are blocked by the Government we plan to open three offices in the Midlands, one in Southampton and another in the West Country. Our London offices have had to be extended. Either we go into hiding or we push ahead. We have chosen to fight.”

Even with Home Office resistance, you can do a lot with 150,000 members and a ton of cash. Such as overwhelm the membership of another organisation like NAMH…

“There was a sudden increase in the numbers of people joining the NAMH, and many of their two-guinea postal orders bore the date stamp of the post office either at East Grinstead or at Store Street, Tottenham Court Road (where the scientologists had a bookshop and a recruiting centre). For some years the average rate of applications for membership had been between ten and fifteen a month. On 7 October 1969, the figure suddenly shot up to 227 […] there also began to arrive some formal nominations of people not then known to be scientologists for high office in the NAMH, including that of Mr David Gaiman (who was known) for the Chairmanship. The Association promptly took legal advice and called upon 302 recently admitted members to resign their membership.”

It was NAMH’s decision to force the resignation of all that October ’69 influx – which, it turned out, included some ‘legitimate’ applications as well as hundreds of Scientologists – that led to a perilous battle in the High Court.

It might be worth stopping to reflect now on what Mind would be like now, if it had been overwhelmed by Scientologists in the late sixties. It seems possible that the existing membership would’ve left en masse and formed a new group. At least we know those close to the organisation would not have taken it lying down. In response to a letter to members from David Gaiman:

“‘Will you please note’, wrote one lady from Cornwall on 9 November, ‘that I for one will immediately withdraw my membership of NAMH, and cancel Christmas card orders, advising others to do the same, if the scientologists in any way at all gain control or one of their members is elected Chairman.’  ‘It seems to me’, wrote a member in Bradford, ‘that basically your letter is ingenuous and naive. I am well aware of current conditions in mental hospitals and criticisms that are currently made.’ And he went on:  It is true that much change is still needed. If NAMH is not aware of these matters then I as a member shall use my small influence to make my own criticisms. To suggest that some sort of ‘take-over bid’ to assert one’s own point of view can be the answer is to suggest a course that is unlikely to do other than destroy a voluntary body of some influence and prestige.”

The Court proceedings are not exactly Grisham-esque for tension, but feature an amusingly stereotypical ‘baffled and patronising Judge gets the wrong ends of several sticks’. Mr Justice Megarry became fixated on the fact that NAMH hadn’t returned the membership fees of those excluded, not realising that this was exactly the matter in contention and that the Scientologists didn’t want their money back, they wanted the Court to ensure it was kept as part of their membership.

‘We don’t want the subscriptions back, my Lord’ [said Mr Peter Pain QC for the Scientologists] ‘we want membership. And this was no “take-over bid” […] At the end of September the NAMH had 1,776 members, plus or minus fifty. If 150 or so scientologists join a body with 1,750 members, they are outnumbered twelve to one.’  ‘But a hundred London scientologists’, said the Judge, ‘will be more eloquent than 1,000 country members.’ [my emphasis]

Ah, those country members, bless them! In the end, even Justice Megarry saw the lack of merit in the Scientologists’ case and ruled against the ‘new members’. All was back to normal. Well, nearly… For their part, David Gaiman and others continued to try and wind-up the mental health charity. For example, in the 1971 NAMH conference, the Scientologists played a tape from a secretly placed (and apparently very high tech, for the times) unit in a light fitting, in order to disrupt proceedings.

David Gaiman was ‘delighted’ with this. Quite possibly NAMH were too – that at least these lavish pranks were easier to ignore than being invaded and then sued by a completely inimical group with millions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of UK supporters, at its disposal.

The year after that 1971 conference, NAMH became MIND, and then lower-case Mind – and I work for them so I’m biased, but I think it’s a fairly good thing we weren’t destroyed by Scientologists.

* - Some people are surprised that ECT is still performed today, but it is currently seen as a 'last resort' for people with chronic and debilitating depression, it is administered with anaesthetic, and some have said that doing it has saved their life.
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Reading list: Don’t Think of an Elephant!

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41DvTi8ZG4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_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.

Some quotes:

  • 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.

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Reading list: Time to Think

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Time-to-Think-Nancy-Kline1Time 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.

Some quotes:

  • 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.

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Reading list: The Signal and the Noise

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the_signal_and_the_noise_by_nate_silver_book_cover_001The 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.

Some quotes:

  • 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.

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Reading list: Story

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storyStory: 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.

Some quotes:
  • 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.

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Reading list: Writing on the Wall

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writing on the wall coverWriting 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.

Some quotes:

  • 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!

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A picture of strategy

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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.

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What popcorn means for charities

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popcorn-boxes-scoop-box-xlPopcorn is a lesson in vertical integrationWhen film was young, the cinemas hated popcorn sellers, who were kept well outside the premises. Eventually, however….(according to The Smithsonian)

“….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..?

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A list of non-contradictory* statements about mental health

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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.

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Getting unstuck: Douglas Adams and the judo principle

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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 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!

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Storytelling is a joke

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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
Dear supporter,
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.

Screen Shot 2014-11-28 at 19.05.47

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.


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6 Golden Rules for Managing Out-of-Hours Social Media

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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.


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Rapoport’s Rules (Rapoport not Rappaport!)

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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.

Then I Google for Rappaport instead of Rapoport (because I keep remembering Time Bandits actor David Rappaport instead of Anantol Rapoport) …and basically get a bit cross with myself and Google.

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)

  1. 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.”

  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

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Charities and the genius in the crowd – Slideshare

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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’.

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Metaphor and mental illness

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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.

In mental health, the term ‘mental illness’ is controversial – this is from ‘Thomas Szasz’s Summary Statement and Manifesto’:

“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.

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Me and the Asda ‘mental patient’ advert

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This originally appeared on the Charity Comms blog in October 2013 when I was still working at Rethink Mental Illness as Digital Manager - I am now Digital Manager at Mind, the mental health charity. 

Learnings from a Twitter storm

Asda’s ‘Mental Patient’ fancy dress costume controversy started as a flurry of tweets and morphed into a spirited fightback against the damaging impact of mental health stigma.

It showed that charity campaigns are no longer just dreamed up in meeting rooms and pushed out to the waiting general public. They can just happen, brought into existence by the audiences themselves in an amazingly exciting way.


As a charity, we’re used to reacting quickly to emerging events. This often means connecting people with information and support online; we’ve also done things like live tweeting during potentially controversial mental health programmes. Then there are days when news of Asda’s stunningly insensitive Halloween outfit – comprising a torn, blood stained shirt, plastic meat cleaver and gory facemask labelled as a ‘Mental Patient Fancy Dress Costume’– hit the national headlines.

On the evening of 25 September we were preparing to release a report about the fact that thousands of people with mental illness are dying needlessly every year. It was called #LethalDiscrimination because of the way the issue is being overlooked – little did we know that mental health discrimination was going to dominate the news agenda in quite the way it did. After 10pm, our associate director of campaigns alerted me to the fact that a Halloween costume was being discussed on Twitter. “Everyone will be running away from you in fear in this mental patient fancy dress costume,” went the product description.

I was at the train station on my way home, hurriedly loading up the Asda webpage and tweeting as I went. One way of dealing with a breaking situation like this would be not to say anything until various colleagues are consulted. I suspect what stops some charities from engaging fully with social media is a fear of saying the wrong thing – an attitude that might suggest our role is primarily to lead supporters by taking careful steps forward.

Responding to our Twitter followers, I asked them to bear with us while we absorbed the news and asked Asda what was going on. Any fear of ‘saying the wrong thing’ was not applicable – our supporters wanted to know what was going on too.

We at Rethink Mental Illness, our mental health charity ally Mind and the Time to Change campaign we run together – all released statements and provided interviews to the press.

There were people who identified the anti-ASDA outcry as ‘political correctness gone mad’. This was quickly refuted by the spontaneous emergence of a #mentalpatient hashtag, which saw people with mental health issues sharing everyday pictures of themselves to make the point that ‘mental patients’ are, as Rethink Mental Illness chief executive Paul Jenkins said, “not a strange group of other people locked away at the fringe of society.”

Both Rethink Mental Illness and Mind retweeted the photos throughout the day – stigma confronted and confounded by the creativity of individuals. The consequences of stigma are nothing to dismiss: as Paul said, “the sense that others may fear you can be the last straw.”

We hoped to boost the grassroots campaign and inspire confidence with a #mentalpatient snap of our casually-dressed colleague Lizzie ‘photoshopped’ into the original ASDA product page. The Facebook post was our most successful ever, reaching 150,000 people and motivating yet more people to join in the #mentalpatient fun – and it was fun!

As the dust settled on Friday, we received an email from a creative agency referring to the previous day’s events, seemingly hoping to secure business from us. They talked about how they could help “educate our audience”, which struck me as an increasingly archaic attitude – especially in these circumstances. What we at Rethink Mental Illness are doing on social media is holding a conversation. We’re chatting with some of the most highly-qualified people in the whole of the mental health world – our ‘experts by experience’. Increasingly we’re finding that our role is to simply empower them and amplify their voices. What the Asda protest should demonstrate to any organisation – charity or otherwise – is just how inspiring and influential your audience can be.


Since writing this I’ve spoken about the rise of User Generated Content a couple of times at conferences, and you can see the slides of one such presentation right here: Charities and the genius in the crowd – Chris Cox

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“Do something, so we can change it”

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Brad Bird’s anecdote of Gower Champion, the theatre and film director of the 30s, who walked into a theatre to see the cast just standing around on the stage, the choreographer just sitting there in the second row with his head in his hands. Gower goes “What’s going on?” “I just don’t know what to do next”, the choreographer goes. Gower replies “Well do something, so we can change it!


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