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You don’t have to do valentines

I’ve never been a fan of Valentine’s Day.

Don’t get me wrong, I like to think of myself as romantic. I love flowers; I like the little gesture that means a lot; I am not averse to candlelight and good food.

But the trouble with Valentine’s Day is the pressure. You simply must be paired up, happy and “loved up” or somehow you are a failure. This one day out of 365 it is essential to be in some kind of idyllic relationship. And the pressure is significant. Cards everywhere, red hearts in every shop, roses and soppy music wherever you turn.

This has two effects

Firstly, for those people in relationships it creates yet more stress to be the perfect partner. It is almost impossible to live up to the hype and be a wonderful valentine. And relationships in the modern world are tricky enough without this added pressure.

And for single people it can be a difficult day. Whether they want to be in a relationship or not, it seems as if the world and the media are shouting at them for being alone.

Why does this matter? Surely it is just a way for the card manufacturers, the flower sellers and the restaurants to drum up business. Well, yes and no.

Researchers in the US recently reviewed over 200 studies into loneliness that looked at 4 million individuals. What they concluded was quite shocking. They found that loneliness and social isolation pose a greater risk to public health than obesity.

Dr Holt-Lunstad of the Brigham Young University of Utah said: “There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators. With an increasing aging population, the effect on public health is only anticipated to increase. Indeed, many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a ‘loneliness epidemic’.”

To be blunt, loneliness kills.

So maybe the huge and over dramatic emphasis on Valentine’s Day is not helpful, simply exacerbating the loneliness that many people feel.

At Healthwatch Bristol we are launching a campaign “You don’t have to do Valentines!” Feel free to celebrate it if you want, but don’t feel that you have to. There is nothing wrong with being on your own, or being with a partner but ignoring the whole thing.

So keep an eye on our twitter feed that will celebrate lots of great things that happened on 14th Feb throughout the years, and use #youdonthavetodovalentines to tell us what you are doing this year.

And me? Well, me and daisy will be sitting on the sofa, cuddled up, watching telly.

Blog - You don't have to do valentines 2

Why elephants make for good politicians.

I am reading – about a year after everyone else – the George Lakoff book about framing: “Don’t think of an Elephant”.

His opening point is that if you tell a group of people not to think of an elephant, the first thing they do is…think of an elephant.  It is almost impossible not to.  The very mention of the word conjures up an image that we are stuck with for the rest of the conversation.  This is called framing.

Political campaigners understand how powerful this is.  Why does Theresa May keep going on about “strong and stable”?  She knows she will be mocked, but even when people are mocking her they are saying the very words, the very issues, that she wants the election to be fought on.  So we take the mickey out of her for saying “strong and stable” and allow the framing of the whole debate to be led by her.  Clever.

It would be even better if the words had a visual resonance.  If she said “strong as a (insert very strong thing here” and “stable as a (insert very stable thing here)” then the pictures are planted in our brains and are even harder to get out.  A sober ox perhaps?  No perhaps not.

This is why the republicans always talked about “ObamaCare” and not the real name “Affordable Health Care”.  Same bill; very different image.

So when we communicate, whether it’s to advertise a product or promote a campaign, we need to think about framing.  If we are talking to a staff group about the need for economies we need to emphasise the opportunities this will bring and the competitive edge it will give us.  So we talk about becoming lean and fit; fighting above our weight; getting back to our core values.  We don’t talk about cuts, or closures or losses.

The actual policy still needs to be right of course.  Much as it pains me to say it, the greatest PR in the world cannot cover up a rubbish plan.  But a good plan can be enhanced and a weak one mitigated if we get the communications right.

So the next time you plan a communication, think about how you want to frame the debate.  Do that before you say anything.  Afterwards, it may be too late.

Admit it, you still have an elephant in your mind.

Family Friendly Stand Up – tougher than you’d think…

I am hardly the most experienced of stand ups. Before last Saturday I had done three gigs – a total of about 24 minutes standing up in front of strangers trying to make them laugh. Admittedly this is 24 minutes more than most people, but still not really a career.

But I knew the basics.

First, start with a couple of bankers; a couple of lines almost certain to get at least a giggle. This calms everyone down, reassures the audience that they are not going to have to worry about you, and then you can drift off into the more bizarre and log winded stories.

Second, even if inside you are shaking like a new and over enthusiastic belly dancer, make sure you exude confidence and calmness. Otherwise your audience will sense your fear. Like animals, they can smell it.

Thirdly, mock the place you are in, or better still, the place nearby that they will all mock. Doesn’t need to be funny; does need to be geographically accurate.

But last week was different. Bridgwater’s Got Talent. A talent contest which I’d been invited to enter. The only comic on the bill, I was surrounded by ludicrously talented young people. I was, literally (and I am using literally literally here) more than twice the age of anyone else on stage. Including the compere.

And being a family gig I couldn’t use my tried and tested material about bodily fluids and the negative consequences of maleness. I also could not swear. To add to the challenge I was on at 745 in the evening with an audience that wasn’t really drinking.

So judge for yourselves, but given the circumstances I was grateful for the polite laughter and not disappointed that I didn’t get the much sought after wave after wave of laughter as one gag segues beautifully into the next and the crescendo of guffaws gradually hits a high point at exactly the right moment. The nirvana for comics; the moment that banishes the self doubt for at least half an hour, or until the valium and vodka kicks in

So thank you Bridgwater; a fun evening and good lesson for me. But I doubt you’ll be devastated to hear that I probably won’t be back! Or if I do return, it’ll be as a belly dancer.

The joy of lex (icography)

This blog post first appeared in Somerset magazine in 2015.

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I like words. First; last; in-between: in my mind they’re all good.

I have my favourites: “onomatopoeia” just sounds right and “edgy” appears, well, edgy. “Somnambulant” makes me feel drowsy even saying it, whereas “vibrant” is a little disturbing if said too loudly. I spent most of my university years describing things “ontologically” or arguments as “ontologically sound”. Somehow I managed to achieve a theology degree without ever really understanding what ontology actually was. But it seems to fit anywhere. Whatever it is, it’s great.

But even though English is a rich, resonant and colourful language, you have to go to the continent to get the true richness of words. Some foreign words are just so packed full of meaning that they are very difficult to translate, even though we will all recognise the feeling or concept they try to convey.

Take Spanish for example. “Sombremesa” means the period of time after a meal when you have food-induced conversations with the people you have shared the meal with. Perfect. And we have all been there.
Or Italian. “Culaccino” is the mark left on a table by a cold glass. Nice. Just writing it makes me thirsty, and longing to book a holiday.

Russian is a little more edgy (see what I did there?). “Pochemuchka” sounds a little harsh, and when you realise that it refers to someone who asks a lot of questions, in fact probably too many questions, the harshness takes on a sinister feel. Polonium anyone?

But my absolute favourite, probably because it seems to happen to me a lot, is far closer to home. In Scots there is wonderful word: “tartle”. It describes beautifully that panicky hesitation we all experience just before you have to introduce someone whose name you should remember but can’t. Social oblivion and worse looms.

So the next time you relax somnambulantly into a sombremesa with your friends having experienced the joy of a culaccino filled lunch without a pochemuchka in sight, just remember that you have the joy of words to thank. Ontologically anyway.

A creative mess

This blog post first appeared in Society magazine in February 2016.

February 14th is, of course, a very special day in the calendar. It is a day many of us look forward to with anticipation. It celebrates the greatness of life; the triumph of hope over pain; the possibility of happiness and the ending of misery.

On 14th February 1929 it is said that Penicillin was discovered.

Penicillin is a drug that we now take for granted, but it has saved literally millions of lives. Before its introduction there was no effective treatment for infection. Hospitals were full of people with blood poisoning contracted from a cut or a scratch, and doctors could do little for them but wait and hope.

As with many truly revolutionary discoveries, this one was by accident. Alexander Fleming worked at St Marys in Paddington. He returned from the First World War very aware that infection and bacteria were as great a killer as artillery. He was determined to find a chemical that could stop the rot.

Fleming was very disorganised. His lab and office were a mess. One day late in 1928 he was trying to clear up a pile of petri dishes that had been left about. He noted that on one dish a mould had formed, and around the mould, the bacteria had been killed. This was a breakthrough. The next year, on Valentine’s Day, he announced his findings and a few months later published a paper and wrote a report with his findings. Unfortunately, no one took much notice.

It was another ten years before a team at Oxford picked up Fleming’s work and started more development and testing. By the end of the Second World War, 650 billion units of penicillin were being manufactured every month. Infections were being treated effectively, and lives were being saved.

So, this February 14th, if you are tempted to tell your partner that they need to clean up more often, or put things away, or perhaps wipe clean all the surfaces. just pause and think. If it wasn’t for a disorganised, war weary scientist, many of us would not live past 50

Happy Penicillin Day!

Working With The Media

Narrative – why stories work and statistics don’t

Writing Press Releases (“quote…unquote”)

Now that we’ve covered introductions and the structure of a press release, breathing life into a story requires the human touch.

Quotes bring people into a story and, by definition, give it personality.

Adding at least two quotes – ideally from two different people – about a third of the way into the text and again, towards the end, allows you to introduce different perspectives on the idea at the heart of your story. (more…)

Writing Press Releases (order, order!)

With introductions out of the way, (see below) we can move on to the second part of our look at what makes good press releases.

Like news stories, good press releases tend to adopt a standard journalistic structure, widely known as the ‘inverted pyramid’.

Essentially, this means thinking of what you’re writing as fitting into a triangle where the bigger, wider part is at the top and the point is at the bottom. (more…)

Writing Press Releases (part one!)

Most of the news we read, see or hear in the media every day, starts life as, or includes content from press releases in some shape or form.

Whether they inspire the story, provide a different perspective on it, give the right of reply, or add a position statement, they remain at the heart of the public relations toolbox.

Over the next three blog posts, I’ll cover some basic tips and advice on writing press releases, starting (appropriately enough) with introductions.

Every story must have a beginning, a middle and an end. The trick is getting all of them – or at least a flavour of all three – into one sentence.

Traditionally, the beginning of a news story (and that’s essentially what a press release is) has to cover the five W’s:

  • Who the story is about
  • What is happening (or has happened)
  • When , Where and Why

So, that single sentence of 20-30 words (ideally) has a lot of heavy lifting to do, in covering the essential facts, as well as being engaging and lively copy.

This also illustrates why a press release has to have an angle – a single idea that provides a hook and gives the narrative shape.

Imagine trying to sum up the entire plot of a complicated movie like one of my favourites, The Third Man, with all its twists, turns, character points and themes in just one line (try this synopsis for starters: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Third_Man#Plot).

But key events from the plot or elements of it can be encapsulated in a sentence covering all five W’s. For example:

Writer Holly Martins began a personal investigation into the mysterious death of his childhood friend, Harry Lime, in Vienna, today.

Not exactly Graham Greene but you get the idea: 20 words long and, at 132 characters, just the right size for a Tweet, too.

Keep an eye out for part 2.