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Alan Barker
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Why do the signals keep failing between London and Reading? As we sit in the Dead Zone (somewhere around Slough), for the fourth or fifth time in so many months, I wonder: Why? Why? It’s can’t be a simple technical problem; if it were, they would solve it. (‘They?’) Perhaps it’s a complex technical problem. Of course, I have no idea of the answer. But somewhere in my head, as helplessness turns to rage, I can’t help feeling that the real problem is that someone, somewhere, is to blame. When we feel powerless to solve a problem, we tend to... Continue reading
Posted Jul 21, 2014 at Distributed Intelligence
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image: awsum-wallpapers In this post, I offered ten top tips for writing emails. And in this one, I put email into a broader context. Now I want to look at why email is so easily misuderstood, and how we might put things right. Studies have shown that we're likely to misinterpret almost half the emails we receive. According to Management Today, email provider GMX has found that 30% of us are regularly, and unintentionally, offended by emails at work. One reason is the sheer volume of email we have to deal with. More than a quarter of your day at... Continue reading
Posted Jul 7, 2014 at Distributed Intelligence
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I’ve been monitoring the growth of ‘so’ for a few months now. You know the one I mean: the ‘so’ that has leapt from being a conjunction to stand irritatingly at the start of our sentences. ‘So’: the new ‘um’. But an epiphany occurred the other day. We were a family group of ten, enjoying a significant birthday in one of the best restaurants in the land. The conversation was intelligent, relaxed and varied. Three twenty-somethings were ‘so’-ing predictably; but only when my sister-in-law’s brother – a GP, like me in his middle-aged prime – started to ‘so’ did I... Continue reading
Posted Jun 19, 2014 at Distributed Intelligence
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Download Speechwriting for diplomacy brochure In the age of the soundbite and the tweet, formal speeches remain one of the key tools in the diplomatic bag. And with good reason: speeches weld audiences into communities. They establish policy positions, influence perceptions and help to build consensus in a way that no other form of communication can. The impact of a powerful speech can endure for years. Speechwriting is often seen as a ‘dark art’. Why do some speeches succeed and others fall flat? How to avoid dull platitudes? How to say something meaningful and memorable? Diplomats come to speechwriting by... Continue reading
Posted May 1, 2014 at Distributed Intelligence
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Brian Jenner has done it again. The 8th UK Speechwriters’ conference, held last week in the splendid surroundings of Trinity, Oxford, proved once more that, although speechwriters may prefer influence to credit, they do enjoy coming out into the light and seeking out their own kind. Celia Delaney, our Chair and MC, established an atmosphere of fun and camaraderie within seconds. She opened with a gag and closed with a song. Unaccompanied. Which is more than I would dare. Two innovations caught my attention this year. The first was an open mike session, conjured through urgent necessity, which gave two... Continue reading
Posted Apr 5, 2014 at Distributed Intelligence
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A number of clients have been asking me recently about 'flow'. What is it, and how do we get into it? Think about an occasion when you were completely absorbed in doing something. Maybe you lost all awareness of what was happening around you. Maybe you lost track of time. Interestingly, you probably also lost any sense of yourself. (It's happening to me now. I can, as HAL said in 2001, feel it.) That's flow. The condition has been investigated in great depth by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Csíkszentmihályi (pronounce his surname “chicks send me high-ee’) began to study the... Continue reading
Posted Jan 31, 2014 at Distributed Intelligence
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This post is based on material from my new book, How to Write an Essay. Click on the book cover to download your free copy. Just as your essay's introduction should capture your reader’s attention and make them want to read on, your conclusion should make the reader feel satisfyingly that they’ve arrived. The conclusion should say: look, everything here makes sense. Everything fits together. And: everything here points to a new thought: one you, the reader, may not have thought before. That new thought needn’t be earth-shattering or radical; but it should be a valuable answer to the question... Continue reading
Posted Nov 18, 2013 at Distributed Intelligence
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The Roar of the Lion: the untold story of Churchill's World War II speeches Richard Toye Oxford, 2013 ISBN 978 0 19 964252 6 £25.00 20 August 1940. Winston Churchill visits No.11 Group Fighter Command with his military secretary, General Hastings Ismay. Throughout the afternoon, the RAF is battling the waves of German fighters crossing the Channel. At one point, every squadron has taken to the air, with no reserves remaining. According to Ismay: I felt sick with fear. As the evening closed in the fighting died down, and we left by car for Chequers. Churchill’s first words to me... Continue reading
Posted Oct 27, 2013 at Distributed Intelligence
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And so to the main business of the European Speechwriter Network conference, on Friday 20 September. (Notes on the pre-conference proceedings are here.) Here are my selected highlights. Denise Graveline, our capable Chair, set the tone. (Check out Denise's website, doing its bit to redress the gender imbalance that has damaged the world of public speaking for - how long?) English – the conference language on this occasion – is not one language but many. (Cue customary jokes about American and English.) When we say “I’m speaking your language,” we don’t just mean “I’m speaking your native language,” but “I... Continue reading
Posted Sep 22, 2013 at Distributed Intelligence
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The French apparently have a favoured descriptor for the European project: la construction. The metaphor seemed apt last Thursday evening, as the European Speechwriter Network opened its conference in the Residence Palace in Brussels, currently being renovated for use by the European Council. (Estimated completion date: last year...) Having negotiated the tarpaulins, scaffolding and concrete heaps, we settled down to a searching conversation about the role of language in fostering Europe’s future, with a man who is helping to create both. As an opening session, this set the bar high. Luuk van Middelaar is a political philosopher impatient with scholarly... Continue reading
Posted Sep 22, 2013 at Distributed Intelligence
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Photo by mnadi A very good blogpost by Athene Donald set me thinking the other day, about writing policy papers, position papers, committee papers, and other kinds of persuasive document. She was responding to this article by Stian Westlake on the Guardian Political Science blog. Both pieces concentrate on matters stylistic. Athene Donald quotes three key suggestions from Westlake’s piece. Neither glibness nor prolixity make for useful advice. (I think it should be ‘makes’ – but let that pass.) Clarity, brevity and a sense of narrative are all important parts of good advice. “It takes an eagle eye,” comments Professor... Continue reading
Posted Sep 10, 2013 at Distributed Intelligence
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This post is based on material from my new book, How to Write an Essay. Click on the book cover to download your free copy. This is the first in a projected series of posts designed to help students produce better essays. People seem to find introductions really hard to do. One of the reasons may be that you think you have to write it first. But you don't. Leave the introduction (and the conclusion, but we'll do that another time) until you've finished the body of the essay. You know that the introduction has to be good, don't you?... Continue reading
Posted Sep 4, 2013 at Distributed Intelligence
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The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson Edited by Harry Mount Bloomsbury 2013 ISBN 978 1408 1835 26 £9.99 On my beside table, I currently have a copy of Mark Forsyth’s The Etymologicon. It’s one of a fast-proliferating breed of book: designed to look more like books than books, with extra thick pages, big type and textured covers. Sort of hyper-real books. Not-quite books. Waterstone’s counter yesterday was awash with them. Boris Johnson reminds me of this kind of book. He’s a not-quite politician. When he was appointed shadow Arts Minister in May 2004, his response was: "look the point... Continue reading
Posted Aug 30, 2013 at Distributed Intelligence
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Rhetoric: A Very Short Introduction Richard Toye Oxford, 2013 £7.99 ISBN 978 0 19 965136 8 At the heart of Richard Toye’s excellent new book is “the problem of meaning and intention.” Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. How can speakers be confident that the audience will be persuaded? (Think of Blair at the Women’s Institute conference in 2000.) Can we decide what, exactly, a speaker means? “This is what seems to fascinate us,” he writes, “although pinning it down is infuriatingly difficult.” Difficult, partly, because we can’t argue without using rhetoric. When Kennedy famously said: “Ask not what your... Continue reading
Posted Aug 20, 2013 at Distributed Intelligence
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Think of chairing a meeting as being like air traffic control. The participants are all flying their kites. Your job is to keep the airspace clear. We all know that groups go through a four-stage life cycle. (If you don't, Google 'tuckman group development'. It's an old model and a great one.) Groups in meetings are no different. So the way you lead the meeting will depend on where the group is in the life-cycle. Lead the group in two ways. Task leadership - clarifying objectives, setting parameters, guiding the group in its thinking - will tend to dominate the... Continue reading
Posted Aug 15, 2013 at Distributed Intelligence
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Every meeting has an agenda. No, really. Every meeting has one. Or more. Some of them hidden. The agenda may not have been written down, discussed or even thought about. But the agenda exists, all the same. And whoever controls the agenda controls the meeting. The most effective agendas are public and written down. If there's no public agenda, the meeting may be hijacked by private agendas. Result? Confusion, frustration and failure. The final responsibility for setting the agenda is the Chair's. After all, it’s the Chair who is calling the meeting. Keep it simple. The more complicated your agenda,... Continue reading
Posted Aug 15, 2013 at Distributed Intelligence
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There are three roles in most meetings. Chair. Participants. And - well: what do we call them? I suppose the most common term is 'minute-taker'. But the minute-takers I meet usually do so much more. They prepare the room, the papers, the equipment - and the jammy dodgers. They liaise with Chair and participants. They take notes in the meeting and write up a record after it. I'd like to call these stalwart professionals 'administrators'. The administrator is principally responsible for taking an accurate record of the meeting: what happens, what is discussed, what is decided and what actions are... Continue reading
Posted Aug 15, 2013 at Distributed Intelligence
This ebook supports the work we do on the Kairos one-day course, Effective Business Writing. If you want to improve the way you write emails, letters, briefing papers or short reports, these notes are for you. Download EBW_blogmanual_2013 The ebook doesn't contain everything we do on the course (well, I don't want to give everything away for free...). In particular, it contains no practical exercises. And you don't get the stimulating conversation. But you might find these notes useful, nonetheless. If you want to know more about the course, take a look at an outline. Continue reading
Posted Jul 25, 2013 at Distributed Intelligence
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On 23 May 2013, I ran a session during the May Fayre at the Directory of Social Change in London. Thanks to Chrissie, Annette and all the good people of DSC for their help. 'How to Solve (almost) Any Problem' introduces the problem-solving philosophy and practice that I developed in the book of (almost) the same name. You can buy copies of the book from Amazon. There's a Kindle edition, too. The slides for the session are here. Download DSC_How to solve_presentation_blog Continue reading
Posted May 21, 2013 at Distributed Intelligence
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On 23 May 2013, I ran a session during the May Fayre at the Directory of Social Change in London. Thanks to Chrissie, Annette and all the good people of DSC for their help. 'Leadership Outside the Box' looks at how to embed innovation in our organisations: what it is, why we can't ignore the need to innovate, how to create a sustainable innovation strategy, creative competencies, and a few thinking techniques that can help us cross from operational thinking into innovative thinking. Much of the material in this session is based on my book, The Alchemy of Innovation. The... Continue reading
Posted May 21, 2013 at Distributed Intelligence
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Another inspirational conference from the UK Speechwriters' Guild, in association with the European Speechwriter Network. All hail to Brian Jenner for continuing the good work. Today's proceedings, ably chaired by Phil Collins, aimed to explore the international dimension of speechwriting. But another theme that emerged during the day was the relationship between words and physical expression. Edmée Tuyl crystallised the theme in her unusual and provocative presentation, Dancing on Words. Edmée trained as a ballet dancer before becoming a speechwriter; she asked us to consider how we might express words and phrases by physical movements - much to the embarrasssment... Continue reading
Posted May 16, 2013 at Distributed Intelligence
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These are some notes based on my session at the International Speechwriting Conference, held in London on 16 May 2013. Download Alan_Barker_Three_modes_of_appeal Thanks as ever to the redoubtable Brian Jenner of ESN and the UK Speechwriters' Guild for making it all happen. I'm also running The Essentials of Speechwriting for ESN on 6 June. You can book here. Meanwhile, here are some highlights of the session. Any speech is made up of three key elements: speaker, speech and audience. Aristotle suggested that speakers persuade audiences using three modes of appeal, based on those three elements. Ethos persuades by the appeal... Continue reading
Posted May 14, 2013 at Distributed Intelligence
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A colleague has just asked me about readability statistics. People don't always find them on Word; and when they do find them, they don't always know what they mean. So here's a quick guide. First, find your statistics. In Word 2007: When you have opened a Word file, with lots of text in it, go to 'Review'. Click on 'ABC Spelling and Grammar'. In the dialogue box, click the 'Options' button (bottom left). In the next box, tick the box marked 'Show readabiity statistics'. Click 'OK'. Now run the grammar check. At the end of the process, a set of... Continue reading
Posted May 14, 2013 at Distributed Intelligence
This is quite a long post. But I've broken it into six manageable chunks, as you'll see. Scroll your way through: you'll soon see how it's organized, and you'll find what you're looking for. The best presentations live in the minds of their audience. Many of us, however, have to present on dry, abstract topics. We know we have to bring such subjects to life; but how to do it? Slides? Maybe. But computer-generated slides have been sold as aids to make the presenter's life easier. And that's not the objective here. The objective is to make the audience's life... Continue reading
Posted Apr 4, 2013 at Distributed Intelligence
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Helen Sword: Stylish Academic Writing Harvard University Press, 2012 £16.95 ISBN: 978-0674064485 This is a guide for the willing. If you seriously want to make your thesis, dissertation, paper or journal article more readable, you'll find plenty of inspiration here. “Elegant ideas,” says Helen Sword in the preface, “deserve elegant expression.” She subscribes firmly to the style-and-substance view of language, established by Aristotle with his distinction between logos (a text’s content) and lexis (its style), and Quintilian with his separation of res from verba. Erasmus would feel at home with this book. Style, according to this approach, clothes ideas. Ms... Continue reading
Posted Mar 4, 2013 at Distributed Intelligence