Monday, 18 November 2019

NARRATIVE MATTERS

The meeting rooms of the business world are full of executives talking about their “story” and the “narrative flow” from one set of results to another. Often their version of events sounds like a child accused of telling “stories”. Stories are the PR versions of the truth; spins on selected facts. As an ex-advertising man myself I recognise this world.

So too did Charles Dickens who said:
“Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait”


But that’s the problem, as Prince Andrew may find out; and I’m still not sure why he did that interview on TV on Saturday night. The trouble is he’s just stoked up the furnace. We are now waiting for more. The story that won’t go away has been dragged from the back of the cupboard.


And what was Boris thinking of? He is the story right now and he needs to control the plot. Instead he hung himself out to dry by appearing with the BBC Breakfast Time presenter Naga Munchetty who wanted to know if he’s ‘relatable’. Pundits say, as word, it’s a “modern peculiarity”. She was never going to go easy on him or even be sensible but he got tetchy instead of aloof, amused or even asking her: “are you all right? You seem a bit tense. Don’t worry. Let’s talk about things that really matter to voters.”


Venice. The Venice we love. It’s just been flooded really badly. The ‘aqua alta’ occurs every year but last week it was ‘aqua-molto-molto-alta’. It’s not a new story; bad floods have happened six times in the last century. What I love is the esprit de corps of the Venetians, they way they buckle down and the way they publicise their bravery and indomitable attitude. They tell their story so well and so vividly that the money floods in after the water. Every time.

When I read the, admittedly rather variable, reviews of a restaurant in Tooley Street in London called Story I wasn’t sure if it was quite me. It sounded fanciful and pretentious (apart from a rave review in the Guardian).


That story and the real story in my experience weren’t the same. This small, relaxed and beautiful place, strangely fashioned from a large public lavatory (there’s a metaphor here about the world in which we live) was everything you want. Tables far enough apart for no neighbour intrusion, attentive and charming service, enough waiting for the story of the meal to unravel smoothly.

After the canap├ęs which they called snacks – all unusual and brilliant – there was a snail ravioli (yes, I had my doubts but they were dispelled to the extent of my saying – “with pasta like that I could eat a plateful”). A plate of wonderful Agnolotti followed as if they read my mind. The meal was a sensational sensation and a great story too.


It made me laugh, it nearly made me cry (with pleasure), it made me wait (not too long) and made me want to return. It was very relatable.

Monday, 11 November 2019

ANY CHANGE?

On the anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down 30 years ago, let’s reflect on how radically our world has changed. In 1989 we still smoked wherever we wanted certainly in restaurants – just imagine. The Dow Jones averaged 2,510 whilst on Friday night, November 8th 2019 it closed at 27,681 – a mighty change.


But it’s not this big-money story that matters so much as the small one. A spokesman of HSBC recently said the cashless society was imminent, that ATM machines were history. I snorted and crossly asked my radio, now used to being shouted at in the morning, especially when Martha Kearney is interviewing someone, “what about people who are old and poor?”

What about people like me?


But over the past month something bizarre has happened. I find I’ve stopped giving money to homeless. Earlier in the year I was handing out around £10 a week in cash to familiar faces to whom a friendly “hallo” with lots of eye contact was probably worth more than the couple of £1 coins I gave them. But since the end of September I’ve had no coins in my pocket. Everything had been paid for in a contactless transaction with my card. 

Just imagine. Change like a shadowy, crepe-soled thug has sidled up and mugged me. I am a cashless Hall. Trouser pockets previously heavy with coins are now sleek and neat.

And change has happened to “vaping” and “fracking”.  We’ve learnt vaping can seriously damage you with  ‘flavourants’ like diacetyl being lethal. And now after a succession of micro-seismic ‘events’ from energy firm Cuadrilla’s fracking trials there was a recent quake close to Blackpool of 2.9, shaking houses. For the election season even the Conservatives are saying it’s over for fracking (although they privately think it’s a fracking shame.)


Just a few days ago a friend said I’d changed his mood by describing a school that had inspired me….”it was a distillation of the spirit of learning” I said. I’ve had a similar experience with our medical practice with its team of bright, healthy-looking doctors and nurses. Our world has not changed for the worse – it’s changed dramatically for the better but you need to look hard enough and celebrate the good things.

A remarkable shift in society’s attitude is towards wealth. Bill Clinton talking about what mattered in the US Presidential election of 1992 said “the economy stupid”. And it was. And he won.


Now, however, across our society wealth matters less to people than happiness. In the “work: life balance” story, life is winning. In my recent book the people I interviewed who’d started up their own businesses had not done it just to get rich. It was to create a better business, one with values, a sustainable future and something that they enjoyed.

Any change? We are changing more radically than many have imagined. When asked what matters in an election now, many people will say trust, purpose and a better world. That’s not so stupid is it?


“Start-ups Pivots and Pop Ups” by Richard Hall and Rachel Bell is published on October 3rd by Kogan Page. The antidote to doubt and gloom. And definitely not a scam.




Monday, 4 November 2019

WHY RISK-TAKING NEEDS TO BE SENSIBLE

Many people grumble that we’re living in a snowflake world where excitement is being removed from our lives by a Health and Safety obsession. It’s as though safety is an effete thing and as for health – well, bring me my Capstan Full Strength and a Melton Mowbray Pork Pie. Smokers cough? Nah! That’s a manly growl.


In fact we live in a more civilised world now where, in general, we are more attentive to other people’s feelings and vulnerability. We are not snowflakes; we are more sensible . Apart from cyclists some of whom operate by weaving between traffic, riding on pavements and ignoring red lights. But we need to protect them from their own audacity.


With 18,000 cyclists injured on our roads last year I calculate, as a driver, that if they hit me I might get a dent but if I hit them they bleed. So I always, sensibly, give way to them and constantly look in my wing mirrors.

Recently the Oxford Union forbad clapping and loud applause to avoid risking upsetting people who are stressed by loud noises. Instead they allow jazz-hands which is waving your hands around like a Gospel singer. Stupid? Well, so the world seemed to think, as did I, until I thought about it a bit more .  The world is getting noisier and organisations like Quiet Mark who’ve done a lot to make it smarter to be quieter know you don’t have to whoop, whistle and shout to say “I love it”. But it should have been quiet-hands not jazz-hands and then we’d have approved.


The risk business was close to home when our local community firework event traditionally a truly splendid and lavish affair was to have taken place on Saturday November  2nd. The Met Office ‘Yellow Warning’ of strong winds was downplayed by some who sought better forecasts from other sources, hoped the storm would pass over and that, hell, maybe we should just go for it anyway.


The fact that our insurance would be void if we’d carried on regardless met with a discontented grumble about how in the good-old-days people were more hardy and adventurous. After all they didn’t have insurance in the Second World War, did they? I fantasied about a conversation that wasn’t actually had:

“Do you remember that year we had a hurricane? We carried on then.”
“Was that the year Harry got hit by a rocket...”
“Yeah. And lost an eye.“
“Yeah that was the year. Right eye wasn’t it?”   

Health and safety experts are really awful at communicating their messages. Most of what they do is based on calculating how likely an accident would be to happen and how serious it would be if it did occur. In other words they do good, sound risk assessments.

That sounds like common sense. But when it’s announced in a petulant and  didactic tone of voice we turn off, get rebellious and a bit stroppy. Make it sound sensible and we listen.

Monday, 28 October 2019

THIS BROKEN AND UNHAPPY WORLD

Was I dreaming or did I hear these words in a recent sermon at church? Depressingly the church tends to focus on bad news rather than on the exciting and triumphant.

The media has had an increasingly doom-ridden attitude towards our educational system. People tell me we are short-changing our children and that we are to blame.

Baloney.


This week we went to see a new school. It’s new,  in a building which opened for business this September.  No. Change that to “opened for the joy of learning”. We were blown away by the stimulating atmosphere.


I thought back to my school which I actually enjoyed. Dame Alice Owens. Founded in 1613 , in the Angel, Islington. Now relocated to Hertfordshire country side as a “partially selective” comprehensive it’s the second most successful comprehensive in GCSEs in the UK. My memory is of a slightly Victorian place where anger and scholarship were in control. It was not a place of much laughter.

In this school there’s a lot of laughter and smiling. I remembered my schooldays (“if I see a boy smiling I shall stamp on him.”)  Classroom after classroom here were crammed with infographics and stimuli. It even made me want to go back to  school and learn again. This place just made learning seem fun.

In a history classroom there was a slogan on the wall allegedly from Marilyn Monroe

“Well behaved women rarely make history”.

So here was a sense of humour and even a sense of mischief. Yet the discipline in the place is surprisingly tough. The sense of right and wrong and detention is very clear.

The acid test was that I wanted to be here learning especially things I had in my youth avoided,  like geography , physics and music.

I was struck by these infographics I kept on seeing and the stress on timelines, context and facts. Me, I love facts which are the GPS of learning, helping you get to the right place to appreciate the good things like Mozart’s genius.


As a recent author of a book on start-ups I was also surprised and pleased to find  brilliant wall charts on “What is an Entrepreneur?” in one of the corridors, So not just academic but with one foot firmly in the real world.

In the end there was a relaxed atmosphere pervasive with the thrill of learning that none of the naysayers about the teaching profession would normally  have conceded possible.

I imagine there are many schools in the UK like this, designed to create delight and astonishment in the power of bringing out the best in young people. Our world is not broken and unhappy – there are many places doing inspiring work and it’s our job as apostles of optimism to find them and celebrate them.

Anyone coming here is lucky. Excited teachers, good food, excellent facilities but most importantly we think their pupils’ potential will be realised in such an environment.  And that’s what matters.

“Start-ups Pivots and Pop Ups” by Richard Hall and Rachel Bell published on October 3rd by Kogan Page. The antidote to doubt and gloom.


Monday, 21 October 2019

THE DEATH OF THE SALESMAN

“When you're lying awake with a dismal headache
And repose is taboo'd by anxiety……
For your brain is on fire, the bed-clothes conspire
Of usual slumber to plunder you:
First your counter-pane goes, and uncovers your toes,
And your sheet slips demurely from under you.”


This was me– the song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Iolanthe’ filled my head plus a ‘new’ line
“and self-loathing corrodes your judgement”

This is unusual for me. My nights are normally full of enjoyable slumber and dreams in which I perform impossible missions with sang froid and daring.... but not on Saturday morning at 3am when I woke cursing, writhing and perspiring.


I was suffering as so many are with a nasty dose of acute brexitis and this was made much worse by an attack of gulliblonia as I suspected I’d been duped the previous day by a fast-talking, persistent salesman on the phone and I’d failed to say “no” or been dismissive to him. When I got out of bed my worst fears were confirmed. My broadband contract with BT was being cancelled and replaced with a cheaper deal with EE (their sister company with whom they’d merged) and I had, suspiciously, only one day‘s cooling-off period.

There are two rules I follow.
i) Never buy anything at the door or on the phone or from any cold call salesman.
ii) And always take your time. “Sign now or the offer goes” is the sales ploy of a desperado.

On this occasion with the lame excuse of not feeling very well I’d failed on both rules. Hence that self-loathing.


So I phoned BT. Mo is in India at one of those call centres and is a star. Brilliant English and a sense of humour. She told me not to worry. BT and EE were the same company and I’d been sold a perfectly reasonable deal. What, she wondered, was my problem? I explained the high pressured sales-spiel and the short cooling-off period irked me and that I knew something was wrong. She giggled when I talked about the sales patter and conceded those “sales guys” were really motivated to hit targets.


“So this deal is OK with a better router and half the price and it includes the BT TV deal as well?” It appeared not. That was the flaw. I told her my wife would be very unhappy if our TV went down whilst I was in the office chortling at cheap super-high-speed broadband. She giggled again and said she was totally with my wife.

So I cancelled the deal.

At the back of my mind I recalled a radio phone-in where a guy changed his mobile-phone provider to save money in response to a cold-call and it went horribly wrong. No reception and a lost/cancelled phone-number which he explained was on all his literature and his fleet of vans.


So if it sounds like a salesman on the phone terminate the call. Always.

“Start-ups Pivots and Pop Ups” by Richard Hall and Rachel Bell is published on October3rd by Kogan Page. The antidote to doubt and gloom. And definitely not a scam.




Monday, 14 October 2019

WHY RIOTS FAIL

Only an idiot would refute scientific evidence about global warming. Their issue, the deniers say, is we’ve had such cycles of change before in the world’s history. Maybe but not so pronounced nor that correlate so closely with global industrial activity.


So what are we doing about it? Sir David Attenborough has done more than most to open our eyes and minds and, quietly in the UK, we’re doing quite a lot - rather more than anyone else. Nothing to be smug about though. However we represent about 1% of the world’s population and just 0.2% of the world’s landmass so, whilst we can set an example, we can’t make a real difference.
It was nostalgic watching ‘Extinction Rebellion’ doing their thing last week. It brought back memories of the ‘Ban the Bomb’ marches in the 1960s, the miners’ strike riots of 1984, the Poll Tax riots of 1990 and the London riots of 2011. The voice of the people getting louder, increasingly intolerant (but as ever rather ineffective.)


The argument for exhorting urgent action is strong.  But when the extinction rebels get going with their japes they make me dislike their cause.  They’re simply so annoying that they neutralise my conscience. They are as idiotic as those denying their cause. What a pity that they get it, and so many of us, wrong. And how ironic that those schoolchildren taking time from school to wave their “Save the Planet” banners meet in their thousands and then depart leaving, would you believe, mountains of litter and plastic bottles.

Extreme language and thoughtlessness is the stuff of social media. It has a strangely shouty quality about it. Enoch Powell’s notorious “rivers of blood” speech in 1968 produced howls of execration. Now threats of killing them, to those who disagree with other people seem almost commonplace.


When Andrew Neil interviewed an extinction rebel on TV last week she said banning the use of gas for cooking, driving cars and flying by 2025 were an acceptable trade-off in trying to reverse climate change . This extreme position, leading as it probably would to our becoming a mediaeval country again, would be impossible to enact.

There are certain uncomfortable truths, in addition to those Al Gore talked about, that early apostle of describing the perils of climate change, not least the fact that this world is healthier, wealthier and more content overall than it has ever been. We have made so much progress. But, yes, we have become far too greedy for growth and swung that dial too far.


The climate change rebels are presenting their case so badly as to make it noisily inaudible. Most politicians today go over the top – Donald Trump lives in a racing, spluttering first gear. Our own Parliament is full of rage.

But words matter. Calm, thoughtful argument matters. Riots, vituperation and violence aren’t the right tools for a balanced discussion.


The rebels have a strong story but super-gluing themselves to planes obscures that story.


“Start-ups Pivots and Pop Ups” by Richard Hall and Rachel Bell is published on October3rd by Kogan Page. The antidote to doubt and gloom.


Monday, 7 October 2019

VIDEO KILLED THE RADIO STAR...

This single by the Buggles went to the top of 11 international charts including the UK in 1979. The lyrics concluded as follows:
Video killed the radio star
Video killed the radio star
In my mind and in my car
We can't rewind we've gone too far


I was thinking about it last Thursday as our book on start-ups was launched and Co-Author Rachel Bell and I sat in a sound recording studio in Hammersmith doing a series of Radio interviews.

Radio wasn’t of course killed by technology, which this curiously elegiac pop song suggested. Radio’s listening profile is remarkably consistent remaining at just under 50 million weekly individual listeners throughout the current decade.

Have you ever done it? Headphones on, red light showing you’re on air, a tiny studio the soundproofing in which gives you illusion of being deaf.  And then you’re nearly on air…


“I’m Fiona, Terry’s producer you’ll be speaking to him in just 20 seconds”
You hear a long forgotten pop song blaring through your headphones  - Video killed the Radio star…ooh ah – which fades
“We have with us today Rachel Bell and Richard Hall who’ve written this book ‘Start-ups, Divots and Prop Ups’ – I got that wrong didn’t I – sorry guys - well what’s it all about?”


Just for a moment you have no idea. Your mind blanks. You are not sure you’ve ever written a book. You recall Jeremy Paxman who had a walk on part in The Edge of Reason, the Bridget Jones film and who found it utterly terrifying, literally struggling to walk and talk at the same time.

Or there was the time a taxi driver called (say) Ted Davies waiting in BBC reception hearing a bossy PA calling  “is Professor Davis here?” He raised a tentative hand and was rushed into a studio to be interviewed by someone like Martha Kearney about a recently published  report on something esoteric like black holes in space and earnestly trying his confused best:
“That Wapping High Street can be a black hole in the rush hour”…

The mind is a funny thing. You hear a voice – not your own surely – higher, rougher, slightly aggressive with a nasty sardonic chuckle. It’s talking very fast and quoting people you’ve never come across. You sound rather pleased with yourself. It’s all rather ghastly.
“Thanks Rachel and Richard that was great”…”Thanks Fiona” you croak.

 

I have a recurring nightmare of finals at Oxford and discovering I can answer nothing, have read all the wrong books and am staring dry mouthed in horror. This happened to one candidate I heard about who taking things into his own hands shouted “you bastards” and ran up the Examination Hall to attack one of the examiners.

The reality was all the radio stations were very professional and slick. The interviewers were charming, helpful, mentioned the right title of the book and got the best out of us.

Video killed the Radio Star? Not last Thursday it didn’t.

“Start-ups Pivots and Pop Ups” by Richard Hall and Rachel Bell is published on October 3rd by Kogan Page. The antidote to doubt and gloom.