Saturday, October 19th, 2013
Halfway through Tom Wells’ magnificent Jumpers for Goalposts, Danny plucks up the courage to tell Luke he’s HIV positive.
Luke, to the disappointment of Danny but perhaps understandably, is scared shitless and heads for the door.
Luke, a rabbit-in-your-headlights-scared-of-the-spotlights librarian, has cocked up his exit through the changing room door many times before in this play, and it’s always raised a ripple of laughter from the audience.
Now that Danny’s detonated his HIV secret, though, the bodged exit is the most poignant piece of slapstick I think I’ve ever seen.
It forces you to consider laughing, but lets nothing come out.
And so I spoke about its unexpected power with some of the cast after the show at the New Wolsey Theatre on Wednesday evening.
Quite rightly, they said that tragedy is often dappled with surreal funny moments, and people’s tics and traits can’t necessarily change in times of darkness.
And I’ve been thinking about that, and am reminded of when my nan died.
It was peaceful, I think. She died at home, which was nice because she liked being at home. And she remains the only dead person I’ve ever held hands with.
I remember sitting in her living room about an hour after she passed.
Obviously my dad’s pretty upset, and I’m trying to be all strong for him like the eldest son is supposed to do in these situations, but I’m yet to grow into this role properly. I feel too young, immature and unworldly. I think I need to stop wearing trainers; that might help to increase my empathetic gravitas.
So the time comes for Dad to call the funeral people.
See? I told you I’m not cut off for this stuff. I’m calling them the funeral people like they’re The Shoe People but with deathy overtones.
Anyway, I can’t imagine there’s anything that prepares for you the time you have to phone a complete stranger and tell them that your mum’s just died.
But on that warm Sunday evening, that’s exactly what my dad had to do, in front of all us.
He dialled the number and lifted the handset to his ear. The room fell silent.
(I was going to write deathly silent in that sentence. But I think the phrase is safer in these parentheses.)
“Welcome the Co-operative. We’re experiencing a large volume of calls at the moment but somebody will be with you as soon as possible.”
I smiled at the fucking absurdity of it. How large a volume had really chosen this Sunday night to slip into the ether?
To this day I can’t work out whether the recording was the final insult or a strangely soothing slab of the mundane amongst all the tissues and memories.
Anyway. Jumpers for Goalposts has a run in London soon. Go see it. It’s full of really funny bits you’re supposed to laugh at, too.
Wednesday, August 21st, 2013
Counting dice is easy.
You roll a six. You roll a four. You roll two fives.
It’s easy for us because we take a shortcut to the answer:
We don’t count the dots on dice.
We simply recognise the patterns.
But young children count the dots. (Thanks to my friend Jaz’s mum for telling me this.)
One, two, three, four, five!
This is slow. It is tedious.
Teaching them the patterns isn’t easy. But it is a massive step forward in their cognitive development.
Patterns help us draw conclusions or reach answers faster. Smart people put their experiences into patterns. And then they dive into these patterns to solve similar problems. Super smart people can abstract sets of these experiences into theories, trends and frameworks. And then teach others.
So maybe it’s time to spend a few hours with your recent experiences.
Are you still counting dots? Or can you understand the patterns?
By recognising the patterns, you’ll be able to make good decisions faster. You’ll know where it’s worth spending your time and energy. And you’ll know what’s a lemon the moment it arrives in your inbox.
Well, then you have to keep rolling the dice.
Monday, June 24th, 2013
“Quarter past two on the sixth of January okay for you, sir?”
“Yes. Wonderful. Thank you.”
I smile wryly and walk out of the door into a grey June afternoon.
And so my first meeting of 2014 is booked. It is with him, the dentist, and her, the hygienist. I like him; he and I want the same thing: to get this over and done with quickly. I think she likes to pull my lips around and watch me wince.
Anyway. 6th January 2014 at 2.15pm goes into my diary.
Bloody ridiculous. But how many other companies have such an impressive sales function?
Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013
Last week, I had a chance conversation with a couple of wedding DJs at a networking gig. I’d been talking about branding, and they asked if a small business like theirs could ever be considered to have a brand.
A lot of bullshit is written about branding. In my opinion, brands are simply stories that we align with our lives. (Much in the same way we like to think of our favourite songs as being about our lives, so the strongest brands nestle into our hearts and minds too.)
And just as every song we like doesn’t have to be some of kind of life-affirming orchestral extravaganza, so brands that make us smile, laugh or stop in our tracks can come along for the ride.
Anyway. Back to the wedding DJs. I got the impression that they loved music. And people who really love music tend to have some strong opinions on stuff they hate. So I told them that they should charge double to play certain artists or songs that grated.
“Imagine that!” I enthused. “Your website, with a deadly serious statement saying that if you wanted Lionel Richie played as your first dance, the hire cost would be double.”
I stand by this idea.
It’d make people laugh, it’d put some people off, and it’d make some people book with them instantly.
More importantly, it’s a story that’ll people will remember and spread. It’s great PR fodder, too.
The wedding DJs that won’t play any old shit isn’t a very good strapline, but defining what you’re against often gives people a clearer definition of what you stand for.
And in a world where people seem afraid to say negative things in their communications, picking a fight makes people choose sides.
You with us? Or against us?
You needn’t pick a fight with an entire sex (Yorkie) or everybody else in your marketplace (Asda). Choosing your enemy can be a little more subtle.
One could argue that Nike’s enemy is lethargy, Lucozade’s is tiredness and Facebook’s is solitude.
So stop being so nice, it might do your brand some good.
Monday, May 20th, 2013
The San Marino Suckerpunch happens when you focus on you, and not them.
It’s not that you’ve been negligent. Quite the opposite, in fact. You’ve busted your balls getting things straight; fixing things up. All with good intentions.
But those good intentions have made things straight and fixed them from your point of view.
And now you’ve left yourself open for the suckerpunch.
It’s going to hurt. You’re going to cry like a teething baby. But you’ll learn.
It is November 1993, and England are about to kick off an important World Cup qualifier away to San Marino.
San Marino, it is fair to say, are minnows.
They have been playing professional international football for just eighteen months. England, by contrast, reached the semi-finals in of the World Cup a little over three years ago.
It is David vs Goliath. And that’s good for England, because in order to qualify for the next World Cup, England need to beat San Marino by a margin of seven goals.
Seven goals in ninety minutes is a big ask.
But San Marino are so bad – it’s possible, is the general consensus. England need to be strong, to play at a high tempo, to use their wingers and get the ball in the box for Ian Wright and Les Ferdinand.
Come on, England!
The ref blows his whistle.
San Marino kick off and begin what turns out to be their only attack of the game.
A stray pass find its way to Stuart Pearce, who can only muster the most pathetic of back passes to goalkeeper David Seaman.
His pass doesn’t reach Seaman. Instead, it is intercepted by Davide Gualtieri, who sticks out a leg and scores his first and last international goal.
The scoreboard indicates fewer that ten seconds have been played.
Back in England, a million fucks are shouted at a million televisions.
I was put on the canvas by the San Marino Suckerpunch last week.
We were pretty confident about our new product as it was put in front of a potential new client. We’d spent ages testing, refining, redesigning, re-testing, re-refining, re-redesigning etc.
Too long, in fact.
So long that our focus had unintentionally drifted from our potential customers to our product.
Just like England had become obsessed with how many goals they needed to score (and seemingly forgot they were playing a competitive international), so we had lost focus on the job our customer was trying to do.
And just like England, it took around ten seconds for our product’s weakness to be exploited.
I was crestfallen.
The product worked as we’d intended it to; it worked perfectly with the dummy data we’d fed it. There was – as far as we could see – no problem at all.
Except dummy data doesn’t have holes in it – because it’s too easy to fill the gaps.
We needed holes.
We thought our product was working because it required all this data, and if it didn’t get it the data it required, it wouldn’t let you continue. Our product would be full of “good data”, we beamed.
And we failed.
We failed because our customers weren’t using client-side form validation in the real world. They were writing down all the details they decided were necessary.
So their data had holes.
Sometime they had an address, sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes they took phone numbers, sometimes they took an email. Sometimes they had titles, sometimes they went by their first names.
The customer’s real data didn’t fit our models of their data.
This rendered our app awkward at best, unusable at worst.
We’d been hit by the San Marino Suckerpunch.
So by all means design with data.
But make sure it’s real data.
Best of luck.
Wednesday, April 10th, 2013
Every now and then I go to the pub with Richard.
Richard is twenty-ish years older than me. One of the good guys; successful, kind, and understanding of Springsteen’s greatness.
I sometimes wonder if Richard is a hallucination of older me. But I’m pretty sure he’s real – I’ve met his kids.
One evening in the Fat Cat we were talking about the important stuff. Y’know, life and purpose and family and all that.
Richard said he’d decided that it was all quite simple: we are here to love and to be loved.
He’s right, of course. But every now and then those words resonate a little louder. Like today. Because tomorrow one of my best mates is getting married.
I’ve known him for twenty years. (Fuck, my eyes are watering a little bit.) And I’m on usher duties with another of my childhood friends.
Like most people, I love a wedding. They’re cheerful occasions. Obviously the free alcohol tends to help, but somebody’s special day also helps you to realign your own compass.
I’ll hold my wife’s hand a little tighter in the church. I’ll probably give her a really big kiss at some point in the evening. I’ll think about our daughter and all the joy (and occasional pain) she’s brought us.
And I’ll realise that I’m lucky. That I’m doing alright. That perhaps this life isn’t one big mystery.
It’s actually quite simple.
Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013
They’re only mistakes if you don’t learn from them, right?
I fell into the trap of thinking important and urgent were pretty much the same.
After all, they both involve the need for things to be done.
Important things need to be done because they’re important.
And urgent things need to be done because they’re urgent.
The truth is that these two words aren’t similar at all. They’re enemies.
The good guy here is Important. He arrives on a horse, dressed in white with a really important sword. Or something.
Urgent is no panto villain. He’s much more dangerous. He’s out to suffocate Important, and won’t stop till …
Arse-about-face personification aside, the truth is that most urgent stuff is bullshit.
It’s not urgent at all. It’s just a high priority of somebody else. Chances are that person is avoiding the important stuff.
They avoid important stuff because important stuff is invariably difficult. It’s painful, hard work. And it’s often without short term reward.
Urgent provides quick gratification: “It’s urgent? Okay, I’ll get on to it straight away.” … “Hey! I did that urgent thing for you!”
No gold stars for you.
Problem is there’s always something urgent. An endless stream of email with exclamation marks in subject lines.
And while you’re busy doing urgent stuff, the important stuff gets left behind.
Don’t let that happen.
Monday, January 21st, 2013
To get better at email:
1. Reply right now. I’m already interrupted. If I don’t know the answer right now, then the email should explain just that.
2. If a paragraph has more than two sentences, you’re not making yourself clear.
3. State what you want. Perhaps in bold.
4. Make your point and press send.
5. Just as email can distract you from doing good work, work can distract you from writing good emails. Make time.
Monday, January 7th, 2013
It’s nice to think great ideas come from a magical place where unicorns snort rainbow dust while listening to Engima’s Return To Innocence.
But the brutal truth is that’s where the crap ideas come from.
Because the crap ideas are quasi-psychedelic brain jitters that usually start with “it would be really cool if …”. Except, of course, it wouldn’t be cool. It’d just be silly and pointless and shallow. And probably involve a Google Maps mashup.
The good ideas come from boring places. Where smart people can communicate the product benefits, understand the consumer’s attitude towards to the brand and the marketplace, and appreciate the limitations of the company’s time, money and resources.
What brilliant communicators, creatives and marketers do is turn this seemingly dull information and turn it into insightful snippets, powerful strategies, and bollock-grabbing creative tactics.
So by all means let your imagination run riot. But pick a cause other people will care about, a location where you can generate maximum destruction, and weapons that’ll do a thorough job.
And then tip off the press.
Saturday, January 5th, 2013
“In reality, a brand only ever exists in the minds of consumers.” – John Hegarty.
Sure, you can patent your products and trademark your logo. But your brand? Sorry, that belongs to everybody.
And if we, the general public, are in control of your brand — and enough of us form the same opinion — we can be a powerful force for better or worse. Just ask Skoda.
The irony here is that once you accept you’re not in control, and focus on the things you can control — your products, services, and communications — the better your chances of building a great brand.