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.