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General

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!

JCBs in the basement??

This blog post first appeared in the Somerset County Gazette.

We are in the middle of building chaos at Chez Wall. Not that anything has actually started yet…no brick has actually been purchased, no sod literally cut. But I am juggling the demands of planners, building regulators, surveyors, CAD operators, mortgage providers and various craftspeople in an attempt to get it all done at some point before I retire.

The children are being helpful by telling me how they want their new rooms decorated, and planning a time capsule that we can put beneath the extension. This will allow their grandchildren to see what life was like in the early 21st century and marvel at the references to strictly come X factor, 5SOS and the fact that life is, these days, apparently all about that bass.

Much as I complain, I recognise that we are lucky in Somerset to have the options of building stuff.   In London, where I lived for the first 35 years of my life, there is now officially no room. You cannot build up as the planners won’t let you, and you cannot build out as you’d be in your neighbours lounge.

So people have started building down. There is a real trend in building new rooms in the basement. Homeowners (I guess at the wealthier end of the spectrum) who have been refused planning permission for a traditional above ground extension are instead hiring companies to dig out the foundations under their house; creating new vast rooms underground where gyms, swimming pools, granny flats and the like can be safely inserted.

They do this using JCB diggers; they dig down as they go, making the space and kicking out the soil behind them.

But when they’re done, you have a problem. It is very difficult to get a JCB out of what is now in effect a deep hole. In fact, it costs more to do this than actually buy a new JCB. So they don’t bother. The JCB is buried as part of the new foundations and the builder gets a new toy for their trouble.

Dozens of houses across London now have a JCB digger buried beneath their basement.

This fascinates me. In centuries to come archaeologists will dig down and find these magical buried monsters. They will no doubt assume that we worshipped the creatures, or maybe that they were a servile species kept in the cellar until their usefulness was over or perhaps that we were attacked by them and these are the remains of the vanquished.

Either way, it’ll no doubt be the subject of many a TV documentary. And of course presents a significant challenge to me and the girls as we try to make our Taunton based capsule half as interesting…..

Why Harry Potter will decide the next election.

This post first appeared in the Somerset County Gazette on October 30th 2014.

My kids love Harry Potter.

Perhaps I should be a little clearer: my kids love Harry Potter with a passion and commitment that would shame the most devoted ascetic, the most pious monk and the most die hard West Ham fan. They adore, revere, obsess about and utterly devote themselves to the strange boy with the pudding bowl haircut and glasses that are just a little bit too big.

My 12 year old has devoured the books so comprehensively and repeatedly over the last few years that she no longer reads but recites them. And her 9 year old sister is working her way through the series with the appetite and ambition of a wannabe X Factor finalist, impressively never confusing her Sirius from her Snape, her Bartemius Crouch with her Bathilda Bagshot. Any car journey is now full of the mellifluous tones of Stephen Fry, coaxing us through the complex narrative with an assurance that is strangely bewildering, and certainly absent from the shrill voice of my sat nav.

This has never bothered me. I am not concerned that they will start putting spells on their friends, or concocting potions to ward off, or attract I suppose, potential suitors. I have never been worried that they will run head long into the wall at Kings Cross station, or want to own an owl.

But I was hugely encouraged recently to see a report showing that readers of Harry Potter were more likely to be political active and liberally minded. The Professor of Political Science at the University of Vermont, Anthony Gierzynski, researched almost 1200 graduate students. He found that across the board and regardless of other influences, Potter fans were more tolerant of diversity, less supportive of tactics such as torture, more sceptical about ruling powers and more eager to participate in the political process.

It is not a new idea that literature influences our thinking, but this is surely a step forward. With Halloween this week there is a danger that we can adopt the dark arts as an excuse for tricking, scaring, hiding away and even despairing of our world. In fact, as the great Dumbledore himself says: “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light!”

Happy All Saints Eve!

Narrative – why stories work and statistics don’t

When the Robots take over

This article first appeared in the Somerset County Gazette on 4th September 2014.

I travel a lot for work, and stay in a lot of hotels. This used to be fun, but to be frank the novelty soon wears off. Hanging around on your own in a town a long way from home is not a great night.

But I find ways to cope: I have my little routines, and the hotels I stay in get to know them. So whenever I am in the guest house in the midlands that has become a second home, the team know that beyond a “good morning” I prefer to be taciturn in the morning. I read my paper; I work through a plate of meat the size of Durham (hospitable lot in the midlands) and drink gallons of tea. I don’t talk.

Until recently. I was at breakfast, contemplating the day ahead and perusing the latest transfer news when I noticed a middle aged man sitting at a table near me. He was smiling in that way people do when they want to initiate conversation; a sort of half embarrassed and overly polite grimace grin.

I smiled back wanly and carried on reading. But he didn’t give up and after a few more extravagant smiles he coughed and said “anything good in the paper?”

This is not easy to ignore. I sighed internally, gave up on ever finding out if Spurs were planning to sign an unknown Swedish centre back and made some vague comment about football.

He told me his story: weather bad the previous night, decided to stay at the pub, heading home today. But with a tedious inevitability we moved onto a slightly more challenging agenda.

“The military – they are years ahead of us you know. Everything we have, they have really advanced versions. Their technology is so powerful, really frightening. We’ll never find out but they have robots and stuff that can do just about anything.”

So far so good. Interesting enough, if a little Hunger Games for my liking, but certainly not threatening. He leaned in closer. For a horrible moment I thought he was going to nick my bacon.

He whispered conspiratorially: “The thing is, after a while they are going to realise they are more powerful than us, aren’t they?” It took me a moment to understand what he meant.

“The robots will realise that we need saving from ourselves and they’ll take over. To stop us killing the planet and each other. Stands to reason. We programme them to help us and automate our lives, make us safer, but they’ll take over. Where will we be then?”

I nodded, trying to create a respectful yet authoritative distance between us. After an acceptable delay of about 30 seconds I looked at my watch, made my apologies muttering something about meetings and headed off.

I walked to the car laughing. Robots? Taking over? I activated the car’s auto start. Realising they know more than us? I switched on the sat nav. Changing things to keep us safe? The car’s speed and distance limiter kicked in, making sure I couldn’t hit anyone. Automated decision making? The blue tooth chose a track I liked. Technology taking over? The cameras showed me the space behind as I reversed and the automatic handbrake released itself. It’ll never happen?

Honestly, the things people believe.

Top Tips for a PR campaign (part two)

Having sorted 1- 5 on top tips for a PR campaign, lets take a look at 6 – 10.

6. Sounds silly but you really do need to know what you’re talking about. Vague ideas of “raising awareness about stuff” or “bring our offering to market” just don’t work. The old naff tricks are the best: if you had 15 seconds in a lift with a potential investor, what would you say? Can you sum up your product service or whatever in a few lines? Me? I “use communications strategies and media management to help grow your business”. Not Pulitzer stuff I grant you, but at least you know what I think I can do.

7. “Tell em what you’re going to tell em; tell em; tell em what you told em; tell em again.” Repetition may be rude at dinner parties but is necessary in PR. It is not good enough having the best slogan and the sharpest marketing line unless people walk away with it. I am told that no one listens until they have heard something for the 7th time. Makes sense to me. This is why I am now at…

8. Don’t lie. Another obvious one, but you’d be surprised. And by lie I also mean don’t exaggerate to the point of obscurity or embellish to the point of perjury. If your message isn’t very good, then don’t spin it, re visit it.

9. Use real language. Don’t use abstract concepts (unless your company is “Abstract Concepts Inc.”). Use concrete images and active words. For reasons too complicated to explain, if you use the passive tense, a puppy somewhere dies.

10. There is no ten. Sometimes you need to break the rules

So good luck with your PR campaign. And if you want help, please feel free to call me for a free chat.

The Play’s the thing…

This blog post first appeared in the Somerset County Gazette.

It is play season in my daughters’ school.

I don’t mean that the kids are just playing all day now that SATS are done. Perish the thought.

And I don’t mean that the educational establishment has given up the long battle and finally agreed that Minecraft does in fact count as an exam subject and so can happily fill the school day.

No, it is time for the thespians to emerge; for speech to be enunciated in a slightly forced way as if speaking a new language for the very first time; for makeup and cross dressing to be brought firmly, fairly and non-judgementally into the mainstream.

It is the year 6 play.

We have had months of rehearsing, long evenings of line learning, and the CD on constant repeat so that the same songs rattle round my head as if a careless neurosurgeon had lost his iPad with the setting on “Disney songs”.

Finally, Aladdin was performed this week.

And very good it was too. The jokes were hardly Jimmy Carr (no bad thing) but generated a guffaw or two. The story was well known but still dramatic. The action was fast moving, and performed without a safety net. Everyone remembered their lines, and no one froze. Some songs were genuinely moving, and voices shockingly good. The crowds cheered and clapped and paid their £2.50 without a word of complaint.

A few of the parents got involved too spending happy hours setting up lighting, running long leads, plugging things in and shouting “one two” into mikes as if the whole experience had robbed us of the ability to count any higher.

What did I learn?

Well, the small parts are the ones that really make the play. The principles do a great job, but it is perhaps the actor with one line, or just one action to bring props in at the right moment that impress me. These are the things that make it all professional and slick.

Teachers do give up their time freely to direct, act, sew, paint, coach and support. Not a big surprise to many I guess, but in my day I’m pretty sure they were all down the pub by 4.

And much as I may mock, an ensemble piece of theatre does bring out the community spirit in us all.

What I didn’t learn is how in fact to find a genie. The lamps in our house are all suddenly well-polished, but no puff of smoke and no wish in sight. But I’ll keep trying: the show must go on.