Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Talk Normal

All posts from: December 2009

Avoiding the question

Mon, 21 Dec 2009


People had excellent specs in the 1980s

I’ll be updating occasionally until the new year, but meanwhile click on the link to use iPlayer to catch up with Jon Sopel’s 15-minute nugget from Radio 4, “Avoiding the Question“, about how politicians do everything they can to avoid giving a straight answer to a straight question.

I wish the spokespeople that I meet would not try to copy the politicians that they heard on the radio that morning. Please stop doing this, not least because you’re not very good at it. In my experience it goes like this:

Spokesperson: While this type of tittle-tattle may be of interest to a small group of journalists back in the real world what we should be talking about are the enormous strides that we have made this year in delivering a world-class inkjet printer cartridge replacement service under enormous and frankly unreasonable pressure from people like yourselves.

Me: So you’re not going to tell me your job title then?

Two reasons to listen: Dr Peter Bull, a psychologist from York University, has identified 35 different ways that politicians use to avoid answering a question. And Daniel Finkelstein recalls the story that Dr David Owen once fell asleep on TV. The interviewer asked what he thought of the point that Geoffrey Howe had just made. He woke up and said:

"That’s not the real issue in this election."

changed the subject, and carried on. Now that’s a class act. Just please don’t copy it.


My Katie Price Boob Job Shame

Fri, 18 Dec 2009



You’re meant to be looking at the books

Though Radio 4’s Thought for the Day is still out of bounds to those of us who don’t have a religion, the god-botherers at the BBC can’t censor Talknormalism’s Christmas Message to you:

As this is a time of year when we buy things we don’t need, it is the perfect time to tell the story of Katie Price’s decision to acquire larger breasts, my influence on her decision, and how those iconic breasts inspired Talk Normal.

Many years ago, Jordan (as she was then) was an up-and-coming young topless model, and I was asked to appear on the same TV programme as her. It was an after-the-pub Friday night show put out by Meridian TV, and my job was to explain how to log in to the internet to watch amateur webcams, empowering a generation of drunk men to scour chatrooms for an internet friend who might take her shirt off after hours of pleading. For some reason the researchers had called the editor of Guardian Online for advice on this noble pastime, and the Guardian (understandably not wanting to soil itself, but correctly assuming I’d do it for £60 cash plus train fare) suggested me.

Jordan had been booked to do some flirty links for the show while wearing tiny clothes. It’s a good job they didn’t get our scripts mixed up, though she could probably have done a decent job with mine.

Anyway, someone had broken something on the set, so we all sat in the green room for a few hours while men with hammers fixed it. There was a glum American stand up comedian and a guy who rode muddy motorbikes for a living. Jordan’s Gladiator boyfriend Ace was there to keep her company while we tucked in to the free booze and crisps backstage. Comedy, motorbikes, muscles, partial nudity, chardonnay and modems. That was the 1990s for you. Crazy, crazy days.

And so it came to pass that, after a few glasses, Jordan asked us all her opinion on whether she ought to have a boob job. At that time her breasts were what a certain type of web site calls natural, though it wasn’t the first adjective that popped into your head when you met her. She was thinking about it, she said, because a newspaper had offered to pay for her breast enhancement on the condition that they got an exclusive right to photograph the results. It seemed like a good offer to her. Ace stared furiously at the Doritos and said “I always tell Katie she’s got quite enough already”.

When it was my turn to speak, I planned to say, “What are you thinking? You’re hardly out of school! The tabloid press will turn you into a human freakshow! You already look like a pencil with two tennis balls sellotaped to it! Are you mad?”

Instead, when she pointed herself at me and said “what do you fink? Should I have them done?”, I looked at my feet and said, bravely:

Oh I dunno.

I don’t know who paid for her boobs in the end, but the next time I saw her in the newspapers she was a much bigger woman. Maybe, in reflective moments, when she contemplates the sadness of being made to eat bugs in the jungle by vengeful reality TV viewers, she thinks, “why didn’t that bald nerd I met all those years ago in Southampton warn me it would come to this?” I’m sorry, Katie.

It is this failure of nerve that resolved me to do what a blogger should do at all times: to speak truth to power, no matter how many product marketing managers, marketing communications consultants or brand ambassadors I upset. That is why without Katie Price, we wouldn’t have this fragile and precious thing we call Talk Normal.

We all have times when we talk crap to avoid saying what we know to be true. My Christmas wish for you is that, the next time you are faced with what philosophers call the Jordan Boob Dilemma (JBD) in your work, don’t mumble about challenges and facilitation and win-win scenarios while thinking “that is a truly terrible idea”. Honour Talknormalism by saying what you think, as I should have done all those years ago.

Happy Gifting Season.


The end of days

Sat, 12 Dec 2009



Too many dates can be confusing

I’m not sure if you noticed that on 19 November we celebrated International Men’s Day. I was surprised: what with being paid more to do the same job, possession of the TV remote and no requirement to wear high heels, every day is essentially Men’s Day. Except for 8 March, of course, which is International Women’s Day – which, despite being a holiday on half the planet, British men ignore every year. Maybe we’re just doing the pretend-to-forget thing, like with anniversaries, birthdays and Valentine’s Day.

Unaware of the correct way to celebrate International Men’s Day, I checked on every ignorant journalist’s go-to resource: Wikipedia. The entry from 2008 tells us only that “University of Kent students celebrated International Men’s Day at Mungo’s Bistro on the university campus”. I can’t imagine how I missed that item on the news.

Thanks to the vacant minds of some people in marketing departments globally, every day is basically International Something Day (ISD). Competition for ISDs is so intense that some are Trade Marked. Imagine if a rival band of angels decided to steal International Angel Day (TM) for example. On the other hand, you’d have thought that the angels among us would have been able to sort this out amicably.

The food business is a great creator of ISDs, because it encourages us to buy things to eat when we’re fat and not hungry. If you like bacon, chefs, sushi, beer, pickles, waffles, picnics, cachaca, fruit or goats, there’s an ISD for you. I’m not sure if you are meant to eat the goats or save them on International Goat Day, but take it from me: they’re really tasty in a curry.

Causes love an ISD, and have grabbed special days for ozone, the Poles (just one for both North and South), democracy, mountains, nurses, blondes, lighthouses, bogs, the dawn chorus and ponchos. Even jugglers have an ISD, which makes me want to slap them even more.

Like the nude charity calendar ISDs have also become a joyless way to commercialise sex, so there are ISDs for whores, fetishes, kissing, orgasms… and firefighters.

And of course there’s the niceness industry, equally divided between making us better people and the need to sell us things that exploit our self-loathing and consequent desperate desire to improve. For this try International Hug Day, or the ISDs for understanding and jokes or, for those who like to celebrate the truly meaningless, International Awareness Day.

Then if you are one of the few people on the world for whom a PR company has not created an ISD, why not simply piggy-back on someone else’s: "In celebration of International Waffle Day, Radical Breeze is offering discounted packs of their software for MacOS X… “Every year on March 25th, people around the world eat waffles. Lots and lots of waffles. Stacks of waffles,” stated Bryan Lund, president of Radical Breeze. “This beautiful day must be commemorated. And what better way to do so than to offer stacks of great MacOS X software for a low price?”

Then there’s the merely baffling. I’m hoping that the first International Accreditation Day (9 June 2009) will not be the last. Who could possibly miss the opportunity to take part in "a global initiative jointly established by the International Accreditation Forum (IAF) and International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC) to raise awareness of the importance of accreditation-related activities."

Instead of this piecemeal approach, let’s get organised and sell off the calendar properly, day by day. It would give the people who organised International Organizations Day something useful to do, and it might show us how important accreditation really is. We’d have to ring-fence important stuff like  Christmas and International Weblogger Day (oh yes, we have one too), but the others should just go to the highest bidder, no more than one day per group. Then we could stop messing around with greetings cards and parades and make some serious money out of celebrating the anniversary of nothing in particular by marketing 365 separate franchises and suing the hell out of each other. In this case every day would be International Lawyer’s Day (currently limited to 5 April), but that’s a small price to pay.

If you work in some brass instrument public relations capacity and you were the person who scheduled International Tuba Day for the first Friday in May because you were flat out of ideas and nobody cares about tubas, this might seem like bad news. In PR, one of the few reasons to create an ISD is that nobody owns the days of the year: your ISD may be pointless but it is very cheap, so clients like it.

Global capitalism solves this problem. A clever entrepreneur could pick up one of the cheaper days and resell it at an affordable price moment by tedious moment, so 3am to 4am on May 18 can be international Kilt hour, rather than the entire day it is given currently. Nobody want to celebrate the kilt for an entire day, not even kilt manufacturers. And for pointless imagination-free PR-driven celebrations of nothing (whoever came up with International Crochet Day, I’m talking to you), two minutes a year ought to be more than enough.


All together now

Tue, 8 Dec 2009


I’m in the middle of writing a book about the epic fails of capitalism (a project that’s got much bigger in the last 12 months), and in the part of the book that deals with mergers – a rich source of epic failure – there’s one that stands head and shoulders above the rest: AOL and Time Warner.

When we were doing the research into the press coverage of the merger, one thing stands out: the number of reporters who faithfully wrote down that the two businesses would capitalise on their synergies, without really asking what those synergies might actually, you know, be.

Synergy is a weasel word for making people redundant and selling the buildings that they worked in, and also a vague placeholder for we want some of their stuff to make our stuff work better. In the first case, using it avoids awkward words like redundancy that make people glum, and in the second, it avoids actually telling us what they are going to do.

It’s now pretty clear that AOL-Time Warner needed a lot of the first type of synergy, because there was bugger all of the second type.

I went back to the Factiva database to see whether there are more businesses claiming synergy these days, and there are, big time. I searched in the European and North American business press, and compared the number of articles mentioning mergers with the number mentioning mergers and synergies too. M&A volumes may be at their lowest for five years but the synergy bubble never bursts. Mentions of synergy are 402 per cent up in the last 30 years, and the rise has been wonderfully consistent:

In just over 30 years it has become five times as likely that a business will describe a merger as providing synergies (or, at least, that this lazy rebranding will be reported in the press).

It might just be that synergy has just become a vogue word. But I think it’s also due to positive word bias, which is far more of a problem.

To explain: every M&A deal has some rationale beyond a pooling of capital and saving on letterheads. The benefits can be difficult to explain, easy to question, or impossible to measure accurately. Three reasons not to go into too much detail if you want to push it through quickly – especially if you’re directly or indirectly incentivised to make the merger work. If you want to create momentum in the media or among shareholders and employees (and in your own mind) it helps to give the benefits a positive-sounding, catchy, go-for-it name.

That name is synergy: code for the things we don’t really want to talk about right now. It won’t make your merger work any better, but it might make more people believe that it will. And if your reward comes more from the deal than the messy aftermath, it pays to talk about synergy.


Black letter law

Mon, 7 Dec 2009


I don’t care what you think: I like several lawyers. They can be witty, interesting people. They hold conferences in nice hotels and sometimes ask me to speak. Usually they’re polite afterwards. But if you’re editing copy for them, they don’t half make you earn the money. Lawyers write like badly-programmed jargonbots. Here’s a paragraph that I was asked to fix up a while ago for a business magazine:

"Section 217 of the Companies Act 2006 provides that (except in the case of a bona fide termination payment) it is unlawful for a company to make payment to any of its directors by way of compensation for loss of office, or as consideration for or in connection with their retirement from office, without particulars of the proposed payment (including its amount) being disclosed to, and approved by ordinary resolution of, the members of the company."

No, I don’t either.

I’ve learned that it is basically pointless offering advice to lawyers on how to write like a journalist. Maybe that is because they’re earning ten times as much as me, so it’s understandable if they don’t really see an urgent need to adapt to my way of thinking. It’s more useful for me to pass on a few tips on how the rest of us can write like a lawyer:

1. If you don’t want to be easily understood, Latin is always better than English.When writing for a general reader I can tell you a priori that inter alia it’s your erga omnes right to stick in a few phrases in a language that they don’t understand, just so they know who’s the daddy. After all, nulla poena sine lege. I have no idea what I’ve just typed.

2. Qualify every statement no matter how meaningless. A rule of thumb: never use less than four clauses in each sentence, and don’t use full stops when there are perfectly good commas going to waste. If you used short sentences then people would be able to read your article out loud to peasants; and then poor illiterate people would understand your argument and your status will be forever compromised.

3. Ultimately, sit on the fence. Real advice has to be paid for, so make anything written for non-payers look like you’re going to help them right up to the last sentence – then don’t. Useful final-paragraph phrases for appearing to be helpful while being no bloody use at all include telling us that we should keep a watching brief rather than actually do anything, or that we might also give careful consideration to something you haven’t previously mentioned, or that we could usefully keep abreast of whatever it is that you’re supposed to have made us abreast of in the preceding six paragraphs. Not many people will complain, because few of them will have made it this far anyway.

4. Use the passive voice where at all possible. It will be seen that this may possess utility. Paragraphs should be drawn up by the lawyers concerned only after careful consideration of this advice. Articles composed in this fashion will be credited with education and poshness – by other lawyers, anyway. Other people ask why you are writing in this weird way. Ignore them! Or should I say: endeavour to ensure that they are ignored.

5. Favour obsolete words. Keep a stock of aforementioneds, hereinafters, forthwiths and herebys, and use them to give your prose the authentic feel of the 18th century.

6. Most important: never take advice on this subject from people who are not lawyers.


Pizza Muco Caldo

Mon, 7 Dec 2009


Talknormalism also takes in the appropriate naming of foodstuffs on menus. At least, it does now:

four cheeses

Fine dining on Delta

This is what Delta Airlines rather fancily calls a quattro formaggi pizza (that’s four cheeses). Maybe someone at Delta thought the name was exotic. I checked on the back of the packet, and indeed it does have vanishingly small amounts of four different cheeses listed on the ingredient panel. So Delta is not breaking any laws, unless it’s against the law to serve foul-smelling warm goop to starving passengers trapped in a small metal tube thousands of feet above freezing water who don’t have any choice.

As you can see, I still ate it. Don’t blame me. I’d been on the plane for seven hours.I was institutionalised. I’d have eaten a microwaved gerbil if they had served it to me. In fact, I’d probably have chosen it in preference to this.

If I named this pizza, I’d have gone for something more honest like pizza muco caldo*.

* Translation available here.


Worse than nothing

Mon, 7 Dec 2009


For a feature I’ve just written for Research Magazine I’ve just been chatting to David SpiegelhalterProfessor of the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge about how we present statistics. He admits he shouts at the TV when they use statistics that scare or confuse you without helping you.

The professor would rather we stuck to presenting statistics, where possible, as what would happen to a set of people (10, 100, or for rare events, 1000): for example, according to the Office for National Statistics, for every 1000 people who died in 2008 around 330 died from circulatory (heart) disease – and only five in transport accidents. 

I don’t understand why magazines and newspapers – and marketing departments and think tanks – don’t have a house style on how statistics are presented – for example, insiting that spokespeople qualify “up by 20 per cent” statements with what the expected outcome would be in terms of death, or Euros, or gnus (plus a confidence limit). Newspaper style books have pages about the correct title for a judge and whether you can use aggravate as a synonym for irritate, but I’ve never seen one with instructions on comparative statistics. Maybe it’s because the people who compile style guides know a lot about the meaning of words, but less about the meaning of numbers.

It’s not as if the “for every X people” stat isn’t visual enough. For example, I can give you the interesting (and true) statistic that for every 10 people who come to Talk Normal from a search engine, two have searched for either naked or naked people:

Two from ten

Try this article from Joanna Blythman in The Herald called Scientists must not dictate on public health matters (better leave that job, it seems, to Joanna Blythman). While complaining about Professor David Nutt, she tells us that scientists think their knowledge "is superior to other types of knowledge we might bring to bear on our decisions, such as intuition, experience, observation, or even common sense."

Even when they have used all four, plus scientific method too. She’s a skilled polemicist: "The huffing and puffing of Nutt and his indignant allies has obscured the fact that whatever the rest of society thinks or knows about cannabis…"

Note: thinks or knows. As in, if Joanna Blythman thinks something, and has used intuition etc, then she knows it, so it must be better than anything a scientist has boiled up in a laboratory. Especially if she agrees with you.

It doesn’t stop her throwing around a few stats at the end to make her point that the only scientists who know about statistics are the ones who produce statistics she likes. For example: "Now we learn, once again from bona fide scientific research, that pregnant women taking folic acid supplements are up to 30% more likely to produce babies with asthma. Yet still the folic acid lobby is arguing that we should press on regardless with blanket fortification of bread and continue to advocate supplements during pregnancy…"

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how to use statistics to confuse people. Quite apart from the fact that she neglects to point out that the research isn’t from a random sample and shows a weak correlation, that a lack of folic acid causes spina bifida and other problems, we don’t have a chart that shows the effect of this up to 30% as an outcome for 1000 babies born today. We can’t draw one, because so far this research doesn’t tell us enough with enough certainty. On the other hand, we know a lot about the damage caused to babies by poor nutrition during pregnancy.

One of the problems with the presentation of statistics in the press is that you can always slice the results to be more dramatic then they really are, and that suits a speak-your-branes columnist like Blythman. Even journalists who don’t know much about numbers know how to do this. And so I can’t help thinking that in-house standards for newspapers on how they present statistics about are far more important than pages of rules on how to refer to the wife of a marquess or an earl*.

* marchioness and countess, respectively. Pointless as it is, the second one’s good for pub quizzes.