Last year my wife’s anniversary present to me was a writing course. The title was ‘Persuasive Writing’.
Demonstrating the continuing empathy that causes female colleagues of mine to tilt their head to one side in appreciation, she had thought it would be useful for my work, and for this blog.
And it was. Trying out different modes of writing taught me a lot. There’s a lot to be said for being set exercises you wouldn’t normally try.
We examined speechwriting. We experimented with horror stories to create fear. We looked at structure and style, and dfferent reasons for writing. It was fantastic, and helped me realise just how quickly you can create a world, and how careful you need to be to sustain it.
And it started with one of the best ice-breaking exercises I’ve ever done.
In pairs, each of us shared our five-minute potted history, which the other wrote up in one of two styles we’d just looked at as a group. We then read out to the class each effort at parody, to much amusement.
My partner had to tell my back story a la Mills & Boon. I got Raymond Chandler.
Now I love Chandler. I’ve read quite a bit, normally on sunny and relaxing holidays in Italy. There’s something heatsoaked laidback and sunbeaten about both the prose and the setting that just fits.
And there’s something about having children that has made this kind of synesthetic indulgence nigh on impossible in recent years.
Somehow, though, this year I managed to read a couple of novels. I am very pleased about this. The children notwithstanding this is no mean feat for me these days.
The books both had for me a Chandler connection. James M Cain is in the same noir firmament as Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and his telling of Mildred Pierce’s saga had the same dry wit and ironic Californian eye as Marlowe.
And I also – finally – read No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy.
Year by year I’m realising I love McCarthy’s books. If James Ellroy took Chandler’s ‘hard-boiled’ ethos to the extreme, McCarthy took the sparse story-telling nous and spliced it with the western to create something wonderful.
It’s like he’s trimmed off about 90% of what he could’ve said. It’s all plot-driven too – the focus is on things that happen, not mood or emotion.
At first you’d be hard pushed to describe the characters you’re reading about. You can feel their shape but not who they are.
As a narrative tactic it’s risky. Very little is explained. You don’t get told what people look like, even. The people feel like stereotypes. But what at first leaves you feeling left out slowly draws you in.
The more you read the more you know these people. Cut-outs become flesh. You realise the words on the page are like precipitate – they’re what’s left when these lives have been boiled down to their essence. The writing contains everything, but it’s the reader that fills in the gaps.
It’s what McCarthy chooses to leave in and leave out that is the key.
You’re only told what the characters do and say. Not what they think or feel.
There’s almost no interior monologue. You have to inuit motivation. What people have done makes them who they are.
McCarthy is interested in deed and action, not thoughts and feelings.
Because deed is where the insight lies. Deed is where people reveal their genuine character.
As I return to work from holiday I always want to retain something as I re-enter and acclimatise.
Alongside the usual stuff this year I shall also be trying to keep McCarthy with me.
I won’t be re-creating that ice-breaker exercise. I’m not going to start posting in pastiche.
But I am going to try to think a bit more like him when dealing with clients, colleagues, audiences.
I’ll try not to confuse over-explanation with persuasion. I will try to tell stories in ways that let an audience fill in the gaps. Focus on simple and specific description and avoid the easy but unhelpful conceptualising we planners are often guilty of.
But more than that, I’d like to emulate his almost ideological obsession with what people do. I’ll try to be more disciplined. Researching not what people say, but how they live their lives. Mining insight about values and intent and fears and loves from the way people respond to events and other people around them.
Not what they tell us in focus groups and quant studies.
This means thinking like someone who’s job it is to represent the actions of people in made-up situations in ways that seem credible and truthful. Like a novelist. Observing, meeting, watching, studying. Writing down what you see so you don’t forget. Keeping a log of behaviour and actions and reactions so that one day it becomes a useful reference point. Understanding the specific actions that happen around a service or a place or a product and working out how to create, minimise or bypass them.
Maybe then it won’t just be the writing that becomes more persuasive.