I am the lighthouse,
Beaming through cracked phone screens,
Saving followers from jagged opinions and twittersqualls,
Silhouetting moral wrecks with righteous indignation,
Blazing down upon sunken souls,
Whose sharp-edged misery,
Might breach your moral purity.
I am the lighthouse,
I send my light and my truth,
Let me bring you to my pure shore.
I drive a lot. And I mean a lot. Over 20,000 miles a year. Most of it on the M3. So I listen to audiobooks. These days, I go through audiobooks like British governments go through elections: relentlessly.
So this is a run through of the books I’ve listened to this year.
The year in numbers
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, Sashi Tharoor
This book is the offspring of YouTube. When Tharoor spoke at the Oxford Union about the rapaciousness of the Empire, he became an internet sensation. Four years and six million views after that video appeared, this book pushes the same arguments in greater detail. It’s not a dispassionate analysis and doesn’t pretend to be. It is, however, a very well made argument.
NW, Zadie Smith
I’m not huge on fiction (which I know is a failing) but I will always make time for Zadie Smith. She writes about the parts of London I grew up in and her characters feel like old friends. NW is a series of short stories and every one of them is enjoyable. I highly recommend it.
Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell
I didn’t read this when it became a hit. It always sat on the list of books I really ought to read. I’m glad I got round to it. It’s deceptively simple. It’s engaging and it hammers home how much success is dependent on circumstance.
Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42, William Dalrymple
Dalrymple became a must-read author for me after I read his City of Djinns. He captures people and places in a way few others can. There’s an underlying enthusiasm that is infectious. This isn’t a book I’d revisit, if I’m honest. Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed a closer exploration of a bit of the history of a part of the world we hear about but few of us really know.
Becoming, Michelle Obama
If you don’t think Michelle is the best Obama, this book will change your mind. The overall impression I got from this book was one of honesty. This felt like a warts-and-all account. Obama doesn’t pretend to be perfect. She’s open about hard times and her feelings about them. This is the best book I listened to this year.
A personal tale of revenge and a spotlight on the violent side of the struggle for Indian independence. I really enjoyed this book. What really brought it home to me was how prevalent the tale is in Punjab.
The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream, Paulo Coelho
Another book I didn’t read when it was hitting the bestseller lists. Short. Simple. Yet deep, deep. Really deep. And excellently read too. I listened to it twice.
The White Tiger, Arvind Adiga
The dark side of India’s now spluttering economic boom. A bright but poor lad goes from village to city to murderer to entrepreneur. The characters are vivid. The story compelling.
Catch 22, Joseph Heller
I’ll admit I only listened to this because it was going to be on the telly. I’m glad I did. Would it be career limiting to say that the illogical catch 22 situations feel very relevant to modern corporate life (albeit with little to nothing of value at stake)?
SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, Mary Beard
I wanted to love this. I certainly learnt a lot. But it went on. And it jumped around. I think if I’d tried to crack it as a physical book I would have enjoyed it more. It requires and deserves your attention.
Winter Pilgrims: Kingmaker, Book 1, Toby Clements
An attempt at historical fiction. I won’t be repeating it.
This year, I worked on a special project. We worked lean. So I listened to this to get under the skin of the idea. It was good. I’m naturally cynical about books that generally fall into the “self-help” category, which I suspected this did. It was good though. It builds very much on the Kanban processes from Japan. It did make me think and I have implemented some of its thinking into my team permanently.
For the Record, David Cameron
30 hours in a car with David Cameron talking about himself. Ouch. Why did I do it? Well, I wanted to understand him a little better. And if I’m honest, it’s left me more kindly disposed to him than I was before. He strikes me as someone who is very kind to his friends, wants to do the right thing and, to a very troubling extent, is desperate to fit in. He also seems to want play fair. He’s essentially a caricature of a 1950s Englishman who struggled to control more modern opponents on his own side.
Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman
I thought Hindu myths were out there but the Vikings are on another planet. Amazing. strong. Loopy in the best way possible.
The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, William Dalrymple
This is the book of the moment. I purchased it in print. Got 50 pages in, couldn’t find time to read it, so I stuck it on in the car. A detailed look at how a pretty unpromising enterprise came to rule a sub-continent ina very brutal fashion.
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, Malcolm Gladwell
I’d recommend this book to anyone who’s a people manager. Do we really understand people when we talk to them? Too often we do not. This book has few answers but it makes you think and introduces some engaging ideas (I particularly love the “default to truth” concept). I dare you to listen to it and not think differently.
Another memoir. Quite a fun one. It’s light. It’s interesting. If you liked his weird weekends, you’ll like this.
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
I have to confess that I’m not a huge friend of Dickens. As a child I was forced, through a conspiracy between my mother and my English teacher, to read a Tale of Two Cities. Since then I’ve had a simmering resentment. The wound runs deep. However, people have been raving about the narration by Richard Armitage. Rightly so. It is excellent. I’ve not quite finished this one, but it is thoroughly enjoyable thus far. There are a couple of weeks left of the year so I’ve got a few hundred miles ahead of me. I’m confident I’ll get it finished by Christmas.
This has been an awful general election campaign. There’s been little positivity. And there’s a certain amount of election fatigue. Bluntly, the public have loathed it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it. There has been some innovation and there have also been some useful reminders of core skills.
Variations on a theme
We often spend ages painstakingly crafting the perfect set of words. The most elegant, flowy, engaging words. But why? Why don’t we produce 5 variations on a theme? Or 50? Or 500?
In the past, when PRs were drafting press releases to try and get their key messages through a journalist and a sub-editor and into print, it made sense to put together something taut and purposeful. But even back in those days, a release that was tailored to its target was always more successful.
With social media you create as many variations on a theme as you like, target them as you wish, see the performance data and adjust as necessary. This is not to say the you should produce the comic sans eyesores the Conservatives have pushed out. You should, however, go back to the PR mindset that a one size fits all approach doesn’t work. It wasn’t effective with press releases, it’s not effective with content.
While embracing variation is good, losing discipline is not. The Conservatives have relentlessly bashed on about getting Brexit done. They’ve given their campaign a single focus and whether you agree with them or not, you unambiguously know what they stand for.
Meanwhile, Labour have been equally clear that they are for the many, not the few. It’s an unapologetically clear call to change the way our economy works. Again, whether you agree or disagree, you know what they stand for. The choice is clear.
This is classic comms. Stand for something. Be clear about what it is. Stick with it. Hammer the same message home in a million different ways. Be relentless. Above all, be consistent. Don’t let the message jump around.
Synonyms for good and bad
This one is something most people intuitively know but few formalise it. Some things are good and some things are bad. And if you’re associated with good things, you are good too.
If you can create an association with something good, there is a reputational halo to be gained.
In this country, to most people, the NHS is good. That’s why political parties scrap over it like there’s no tomorrow. Being the party who’ll protect the NHS, makes you a good party. It’s the same with schools (good), police officers (good), fire fighters (good) and tax cuts for the average person (good).
A poor understanding of this relationship is why so much CSR is ineffective. Like politicians chasing votes, companies throw a lot of resource at supporting good causes in the hope that some of the good will rub off on their reputations. It rarely works. BP, for example, have supported the arts for decades and for little reputational bounce, albeit they have facilitated the creation of some amazing art.
The effort must go deeper because the prize is a valuable one. If you can create an association with something good, there is a reputational halo to be gained. The catch is that you probably have to be good, as well as building the association, for it to really work. There are no quick wins here.
You can’t get off the rollercoaster
This topic probably deserves an article all to itself. It is about the speed communication and our insatiable desire for it. Perhaps controversially, I believe the fault lies with us, not technology.
For centuries, people have clamoured for gossip and tried to be the first to receive the news. The Economist’s Tom Standage provides a glimpse into our addiction and the varied pace and style of information sharing through the ages in Writing on the Wall. I highly recommend reading it.
Journalists used to joke that Sky News was “not wrong for long”
That innate desire for speedy news has also been conditioned by the same news media who now struggle to keep up with social media. In the UK, for decades the BBC was the only real game in town when it came to broadcast news. When Sky News launched in the 1990s it had a strategic challenge: how do you beat the authoritative news source? The answer was that if you couldn’t be more accurate than the BBC, you had to be faster than it. Sky was “first for breaking news”. Journalists used to joke that Sky News was “not wrong for long” as it ran with whatever information it had and then backfilled facts as they came through.
The other thing that came along with Sky in the 1990s was 24 hour rolling news. So along with the push for speed, there was now a need to always have something to report.
We had near enough two decades of constant bombardment with information that was corrected as more facts became available. That was pretty good market building for social media.
Speed isn’t going away. PRs will need to continue to adapt.
Old habits die hard
One of the recurring themes of this election has been the importance of tactical voting. The UK is seeing record levels of people considering switching their vote from the last election. According to Ipsos Mori, around two in five people (40%) might vote differently to how they usually would.
This is a powerful reminder of the power of habit, of repetition, of doing things because that’s just how you’ve always done them. These norms and defaults are hard to break. It has taken a divisive referendum and two quite nasty general elections for just two in five Brits to consider changing the way they vote; something they only do every few years or so.
How much harder is it for companies to change longstanding consumer patterns? It is a timely reminder that winning over customers or shifting opinion is hard graft and you need to play the long game in order to achieve it.
Once someone stumbles on a good idea, copycats are inevitable. This could be because effective ideas are hard to come by. But it’s also because most creative ideas, when distilled back to their core elements, can be applied across a range of ideas.
In this post, I’ve come up with 11 variations on the theme of Tax Freedom Day.
What is Tax Freedom Day?
Tax Freedom Day, calculated in the UK by free market think tank the Adam Smith Institute, is the theoretical calendar day when a country’s national income is reaches its tax take. It works on the idea that every penny earned up to that point is paid in taxes, and any money the nation earns after that, it keeps.
The idea is simple: it’s just taking a proportion of one thing and applying the same proportion to the calendar year.
It’s been replicated by others. The High Pay Centre think tank calculates Fat Cat Pay Day, which is how many days it takes a FTSE 100 chief executive to earn the UK’s national average wage (usually about four days if you’re interested).
Variations on the theme
So how else can this idea be applied? Here are 11 variations.
- Fuel Freedom Day
- Vin Liberte Day
- Proper Pint Day
- Full Measures Day
- Zero Hours Free Pay Day
- First Penny Earned Day
- Teetotal Day
- Fasting Day
- Cost of Basics Day
- Emergency Services Day
- Overservicing Day
When you’ve paid a year’s worth of petrol/diesel taxes. From here on you’re only paying for the actual fuel.
When you’ve paid the duties on bottles of wine. From here on you’re just paying for fermented grape juice.
Like the wine, but on your pint.
Like the pint, but on your scotch or vodka or gin or…
When those on zero hours contracts have earned money equivalent to the standard benefits and entitlements of those on permanent contracts.
When the average worker has earned the monetary equivalent of all the unpaid overtime British workers put in.
When the average Brit has drunk a year’s worth of recommended units of alcohol.
When the average Brit has consumer a year’s equivalent of daily calorie allowance.
The day when the average British person has earned enough to pay for gas, electricity, water, broadband and their phone.
The day when national income reaches the point where we’ve earned enough to pay for the police, fire and ambulance services. I suspect this day would fall much earlier in the year than many realise.
Finally, one for the consultants out there, the day when consultancies have billed the equivalent of all the overservicing they put in on client accounts.