Watches, Writing

Happy Birthday, M. Breguet

Today will pass in most people’s diaries with never a thought for the man behind so many elements of the watch on their wrist.  Abraham Louis Breguet was born 270 years ago today in Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

Automatic winding, tourbillons, gong-repeaters, more accurate escapements, better hairsprings, shock-absorbing escapements, lubrication-free escapements… Breguet was responsible for either inventing or significantly improving them all.

Yet, for a man who brought such ordered beauty to watchmaking, he lived and worked through some of the most chaotic and ugly times in European history.

Imagine. It’s the 1780s, you’re a French watchmaker and your work is not only being bought by Marie Antoinette but the titled and wealthy glitterati of the day. Even better, the French Queen is – in modern parlance – your brand ambassador, telling anyone who’ll listen that you’re the finest watchmaker in France, if not the world.

Cut to May 5 1789 and the start of the French Revolution. Proof, if ever it was needed, that celebrity endorsement can end up being rather more of a burden than a boost.

Welcome to Breguet’s turbulent life. As watchmaker to the rich, royal and famous, hanging around in revolutionary France was likely to cut Breguet’s career short in more ways than one. Being both smart and commercial, he packed his tools and headed home to Switzerland.

And that’s where he conceived the idea of his single-handed Souscription watch. It was a perfect idea commercially, horologically and democratically. Anyone could make a down-payment (a souscription) for their watch which allowed Breguet to keep his cashflow running and start making it.

souscription-1

Breguet’s Souscription No. 580 from 1800. Image from http://www.artcurial.com

The watches were simple (by Breguet’s standards), and were designed to be repaired by any watchmaker. You’d set the single hand with your finger or a sliver of wood and wind it through the hand’s centre. That’s because the barrel is in the middle of the watch with the balance and second wheel engineered symmetrically around it. No need for friction-generating motion work either. Genius.

You could even have your Souscription fitted with Breguet’s montre à tact system that allowed you to feel – rather than see – the time by touching tiny protrusions from the watch case.

62mm of simple, classical gorgeousness with so much history inside the case there’s barely room for that beautiful movement. The only thing better than owning one would be the chance to have met the man whose workshop made it.

Happy 270th birthday, M. Breguet.

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Writing

Cargoes. Updated.

Car goes.

British racing Jaguar from Surrey’s leafy verges,
Wafting home to pebbledash in sunny Haslemere,
With a cargo of brown envelopes,
And sherry and golf clubs,
Sandalwood aftershave and a crate of beer.

Gleaming blacked-out Bentley coming from the night club,
Growling through the avenues to a Mayfair mews,
With a cargo of blondes,
Brunettes, footy mates,
Gold Rolexes, paparazzi and a boot full of booze.

Thrusting little Audi with its foglights blazing,
Butting down the M6 to the sales away-day,
With a cargo of laptop,
iPhone, Boss suit,
PowerPoint, pointy shoes and bonus pay.

With profuse apology to John Masefield.

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Musings, Writing

An open letter to the Chancellor.

Today, George, you delivered your first budget as a Tory chancellor. Those who voted for you – the people who believed Conservatism was about a hand up, not a hand out and who run their own businesses – are now sitting shellshocked, wondering how they could have been so utterly gullible.  They should have realised that the die is cast at prep school when the scions of the seriously wealthy first realise the earth is theirs, their pals’ and everything in it.

Thanks to you, they’re instantly around £2,000 a year worse off.  That’s because they always believed Tories thought owner-managed businesses were a good thing.  How wrong they were.  As you dish out Corporation Tax and Inheritance Tax cuts to your City pals, the changes in dividend taxation means small business people feel the pain.  Overnight, they go from getting taxed once, through Corporation Tax, to twice; once corporately and then again personally.  And they’re the lucky ones.

Many of them got a full grant for a university education; one of the most reliable ways of getting up and out of the swamp. Today, they wouldn’t be able to afford it.  No more grants; it’s loans instead.  If they believed that education was about more than landing the plummiest job (no old boy network for them), they’d be screwed today.

But that’s OK. A university education only makes the plebs uppity. They should know their place, shouldn’t they, George?

They’ll have come out of university and rather than enjoying a gap yah or an internship, they’ll have got a job. A shitty, badly-paid job (no old boy network, remember?) But they’ll have worked hard at it and clawed their way up a bit.  And worked hard at the next one too.  Then the next.  And the next.  And that’s fine, because they knew that no one could take what they achieved away. Until today.

This latest tax grab on those who dared to believe that they could make a go of running their own businesses is the worst.  Not because it instantly removes a chunk of their incomes, but because of what it means.

It may look, from the outside, as though they’re doing alright.  And, compared with most, they are.  But it’s precarious and a constant struggle.  They know that next month’s mortgage payment depends on capricious clients, unstable markets, luck and their own climb-that-bloody-hill determination. There’s no safety net, no employer to help out with sick pay, holiday pay, pension provision or benefits.  That’s fine too – their choice and they’re used to it.

But George, you and your pals have family fortunes and trust funds that mean you’re able to make mistakes. People like them don’t and can’t.

But even that’s fine too. they don’t want help from you or a Ma-Pa corporation. But what they do want is some acknowledgement that your world view – big houses, Pimms on the terrace and a maid to serve it – and theirs, are very very different.  And they want a little certainty; that someone like you can’t simply walk up, whack them round the head with a tax-filled sock and take a chunk of their income away.

George, you talk a lot about aspiration.  Plenty of people aspire and have been aspiring since they started.  But it’s bloody hard to keep at it when someone who’ll inherit a few million stamps their handmade Lobb boot on their head every time they start trying to get up.

You talked today about a level playing field.  But you’ve made it clear that means the rest of us doffing our caps as we cut the grass, not being allowed onto the wicket to play the game.

Aspiration. Tonight there are plenty of people thinking you don’t have a bloody clue what it really means.

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Writing

Storm in a (free) teacup

Diplomacy. The art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.

I thought of this when an email from Waitrose arrived today.  I am no great advocate of being rude to customers.  Neither am I fan of sugar-coating the truth.  Customers aren’t as daft as businesses believe.

Which is fortunate, as Waitrose must think its customers are a bit slow on the uptake.  They’ve just sent an email to Waitrose loyalty card holders that seems to reveal a little corporate unease about the free tea and coffee they currently enjoy.

This email, headed ‘Enjoying your free tea or coffee’, should carry one of those little red government-sponsored tags that warn about too much sugar in things.  It’s so sugar-coated and faux-sweet that hysterically-laughing dentists are jamming the switchboards of every Porsche dealership in the country.

OI, peasant! Swipe yer ruddy card!

OI, peasant! Swipe yer ruddy card!

It starts:

“As you may know, offering a complimentary tea or coffee while you are shopping with us is one of the ways we like to say thank you for your custom.”

OK, a little over-sweet perhaps, but my fillings only hurt a little bit.  And that’s just from the “…like to say thank you…” line.  I’d not noticed any other ways you like to say ‘thank you’, Mr Lewis.  But we’ll let that pass.  There is better to come.

Get a bucket handy before you read the next line. Seriously.

“Just in the same way as a friend might offer a hot drink when you visit their home, we think it’s what a caring business should do when a loyal customer shops with us.”

Told you.  I’ll wait while you recover.

The case for the prosecution cites adjective overload, the inappropriateness of a domestic analogy to a national retailer and the sheer yuk of ‘loyal’.  But this is not the poor whipped Waitrose writer’s fault, I suspect.  A paragraph like this is so internally-focused it can only have been written by someone whose seniority outweighed their writing ability by a serious factor.  It must have been someone on the board.

“That’s why we’ve come up with this short guide to help all our myWaitrose customers make the most of the scheme and to remind you about scanning your myWaitrose card. We hope that through observing this free tea and coffee etiquette, we can continue to offer a complimentary hot drink each time you shop with us.”

I’ll hold off contacting Amnesty about the blatant torture of grammar, but “observing this free tea and coffee etiquette”?  Really?  I’m calling you on this one, Mr Lewis.  I know a threat with menaces when I see one.  I either give you my customer data or you deny me my free coffee?  Right?  And you thought that the old ‘hot coffee’ close would keep people in the shop for longer.  Fair enough.

And Mr Lewis is clearly serious.  He makes that clear in the next paragraph:

“…we will be asking myWaitrose members who wish to enjoy their free tea or coffee in one of our Cafés to also purchase a treat – such as a sandwich, cake, biscuit or piece of fruit. This change will enable us to continue to offer our customers the enjoyable service they expect.”

Interesting attempt to take the sting out of it by the use of the future tense – “…we will be asking…”  But it still can’t obscure what’s really going on.  No more nipping into the cafe, helping yourself to a Daily Fail and a freebie coffee and taking space that could be used by a proper, paying customer.  And since when was ‘a piece of fruit’ a treat, Mr Lewis?  Or a sandwich?  Come off it, old chap.

Once you’ve weeded out the weasel words, taken a geological hammer to the sugar coating and got to the real message, it looks like this:

“Dear Customer,

We’re sorry.  It was all a terrible mistake.  We didn’t realise that offering freebie tea and coffee would see us haemorrhaging profits like the French aristocracy in 1789.  The car parks are cluttered up with trashy old ’62 plate Evoques. There are people in training shoes and tracksuit bottoms calling the Partners “mate”.

It can’t go on.

For pity’s sake, we’re even giving away bean-to-cup to people who can’t pronounce ‘quinoa’ properly.  We’ve had to have our Financial Director resuscitated several times this week – and it’s only Wednesday.

This has to stop before we sink under a tsunami of free Columbian.

It’s simple.  Swipe your sodding Waitrose card – or get the butler to do it – before you help yourself to your free cuppa.  Or we’ll set the bloody dogs on you.  OK?

Yours, desperate for a way out of a very, VERY expensive customer perk but hoping no-one notices if we do it bit by bit,

Mr John Lewis”

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Writing

The best writing advice. Ever.

Sixty four years ago today, George Orwell died from tuberculosis in a London hospital.  Not only was he – in my opinion – the finest writer in English, in Politics and the English Language he left scribblers some of the finest advice.

Here it is…

George-Orwell-at-his-typewriter

George Orwell, doing what he did best. Changing people’s minds.

 

“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:

– What am I trying to say?
– What words will express it?
– What image or idiom will make it clearer?
– Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

– Could I put it more shortly?
– Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

One can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

– Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
– Never use a long word where a short one will do.
– If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
– Never use the passive where you can use the active.
– Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
– Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

I shall be waiting at the bar in the Moon Under Water this evening with two pints poured ready.

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Musings, Writing

The curse of sounding professional.

A while ago, I was amazed to get a letter from my bank telling me I was in credit on my credit card.  I came across it in an old file today – and it’s just as I remembered.

It was from a real person – Paula Stevens from Card Operations.  But it didn’t really sound like she’d written it.  Instead, it had that slightly remote, finger-wagging, milk-monitorish tone that banks sometimes unintentionally adopt.

Not a very good letter

It was also a bit convoluted:

“You may be unaware the bank requests you do not place your account into credit; this is stated in our Terms.”

I particularly liked the capitalisation of “Terms” – they must be ever so important if they need a capital letter. I also liked the implication of “You may be unaware…” – it’s always good to call your customers ‘unaware’; goes down well.

Instead, how about something like this:

“We’ve noticed you’ve overpaid your credit card account. Please call us and we’ll transfer your money to your bank account – or you could use it to start a cash or equity ISA with us…”

Simple. Easy. Understandable. And even an attempt to sell the customer something. Hell, why not?

But it got better…

“Therefore would you please contact us, supplying a UK sterling bank code and account number, so we may return these funds to you.”

I’m sure that Paula Stevens from Card Operations doesn’t speak like this. I’ll bet she’s good fun, enjoys a laugh, uses the word “money” more often than “funds” and would never call a customer “unaware” (although I’ll bet she thinks a lot of us are utter morons – and fair game, we probably are).

Why sounding ‘professional’ is a disaster

It’s not Paula’s fault. Somewhere along the line, someone’s told her she needs to sound ‘professional’.  In most businesses, that means sounding a bit like a cross between a robot and a traffic policeman.  Replacing short, everyday words with long ones.  Using too many of them. Nailing them together in sentences that stretch off into the distance with more clauses than Santa’s family.

It’s the difference between being literate and actually communicating.  The whole ‘sounding professional’ thing is getting in the way of being understood.  It’s no good being literate but ending up with stuff that communicates about as well as a page of Linear B.

The corporate process doesn’t help either.  Paula drafts a letter and it all makes sense.  It goes to her manager, who changes a few things, rewrites a paragraph and sends it on to her manager in turn.  She does the same thing.  Then the letter goes to the Compliance and Risk department.  They add in the various bits of required FCA wording – word for word – and change a few more things.

How professional is it when the poor old customer has a gnat’s chance of understanding the end result?

I know enough customer services teams to know that they’re not like this.  They give a big fat damn about their customers and doing right by them.  The customer service advisors who’ve come in on Christmas Day – off shift – to fix problems.  The ones who’ve got into their own cars after work, driven forms to customers’ houses and helped them complete them – on their own time.  Most people go into customer services because they’re interested in helping customers.

So – here’s a challenge… There are so many brilliant customer services people behind the bars of that opaque, jargon-ridden, convolutedly structured, difficult language.  It’s time they escaped.  I’ve started the first tunnel – who’s with me?

 

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Musings, Writing

Dialogue or broadcast? Where’s democracy going?

The way we communicate has always changed. We’ve discovered and harnessed new media time and again – all the way from cuneiform to computers. But the newest change is possibly the most powerful and is already starting to change the way we’re governed, sold to and employed.

Actually, that’s not quite accurate – yet. What the ‘social revolution’ has done is move communication from a broadcast, monologue process to much more of an obvious dialogue.  At least, in some places.  It seems that this council in the Prime Minister’s constituency has just about moved on from employing a town crier with a bell.  “Oh yez! oh yez! Hear ye!”

Encouraging local democracy?

Encouraging local democracy?

Communication between organisations, governments and businesses and those they serve has nearly always been on a broadcast basis. The politician has spoken, unchallenged apart from perhaps an interviewer, and people have listened. Or not.  The business has advertised and people have bought. The only ‘dialogue’ has been at the ballot box or the cash till.

Broadcast vs Dialogue

It’s all been about broadcast – the sender of the message simply sends and the grateful public receive. And broadcast is fine. There are times when it’s essential. But some of us have been talking for years about how broadcast has insulated those who govern and sell to us about how they really need to communicate.

Communication needs to be about dialogue. But one side of that dialogue – the reader’s – has been silent – until recently. That means corporations and governments have been able to speak and write almost as they liked. Today, corporates, organisations and local authorities and governments are still struggling with the democratisation of communication.

Out of their depth

It’s tragic watching them on Facebook; businesses shouting to an empty room about how great they are. Baffled MPs and councillors ducking under Twitter onslaughts. Local authorities wondering why they get social media abuse, not involvement from people in their areas.

People are interested – so how do we engage them?

It’s not that people aren’t interested. The growth in single-issue and local pressure groups shows that, in fact, people are MORE interested in politics, business, government and society. But they’re turned off by the way these organisations communicate with them. Just listen to almost any politician trying to defend herself on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions. It’s not dialogue – it’s blocking monologue. It’s not communication, it’s communication’s antithesis.

And it is rooted in a past where those in authority knew best. Now, those governed are as likely to know just as much as those governing. And they’re becoming much less shy about telling them so.

So, for the first time, communication really IS about dialogue. And the dialogue is showing that people aren’t interested in the big issues that the politicians are – they’re interested in the local issues that affect and hurt them. And they want to get involved.

Harnessing the power of dialogue for society

There aren’t easy answers about how government and business can involve these newly-articulate stakeholders, but, imagine the knowledge, information, wisdom, perspective and depth they’d tap into if they could harness social media’s potential for dialogue and did. And, bluntly, to achieve any sort of inclusive, progressive politics and commerce, they need to.

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