For the last nine years I’ve sat on the board of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the world’s largest literary festival. It has been one of the most enriching experiences of my working life, and every year as August comes to an end, I leave the magical, tented enclosure of Charlotte Square with my head full of ideas and my language sensors rinsed and refreshed.
Ten days ago at her farewell party, Catherine Lockerbie, our remarkable outgoing festival director, told this story. One afternoon she was hovering by the queue in the book-signing tent following a reading by the Chilean-American writer and human rights activist, Ariel Dorfman, who had been speaking movingly about freedom of speech and the horrors of the Pinochet regime. Reaching the front of the queue, a tall, distinguished-looking man stepped forward to shake the writer’s hand and said, in a North American accent, ‘Sir, you have agitated my heart.’
Catherine later learned that he was a banker who, following this encounter in Charlotte Square, had quit his job in the world of finance and gone to work for an aid agency.
That, of course, is the power of language well used, of the word thoughtfully chosen. It can, and should, agitate the heart. And to do so is not the sole prerogative of ‘creative’ writers. Agitating the heart is the essence of all effective human communication, and many of the world’s more successful organisations know it. It’s how they inspire loyalty and commitment among their customers and followers. It’s also where their lesser brethren fail so singularly, with language that wouldn’t agitate a millpond, let alone a human heart. And there’s a corollary: if an organisation shows so little conviction in the way it speaks, one can’t help but wonder how much it has in what it does.
The answer seems simple: before you can agitate other people’s hearts, you have to agitate your own.
dear one with truthful tongue and both fire and rose in the heart. Thank you. I won the Keplies prize and with agitated heart thanked the children that over and again asked me – their storytelling auntie – to tell them stories. And knowing people like you – who in the big world of 'being adult' manage to retain something of wonder and goodness – some gift from child.
So enjoying this sharing of yours, Jamie. Especially The Difficult Second Blog. As someone with lots to both learn and 'unlearn' about speaking to the agitatable heart I look forward to what unfolds here. Also thank you for the book.
On words of the heart, one has always had a magical sound: Bagamoyo – in Swahili it means ‘lay down your heart’ A village in Tanganyika, it was a trade centre for slaves and ivory, as well as the starting point for Burton, Speke, Stanley and others; from there they moved out to find the source of the Nile and great lakes of Africa. David Livingstone’s body lay there waiting for the high tide to come in and take him to Zanzibar. The name has a magic, in its sound and the beauty of its meaning – what that is, no one knows – the despair of the slaves passing through ? a place of rest for the porters ? or just ‘being at peace, ceasing to strive’ ? In the Egyptian underworld, the dead came before Anubis who weighed their heart against a feather, representing Ma'at, the goddess of truth and justice. Any hearts heavier or lighter than her feather were rejected, those whose weighed exactly the same, travelled on to paradise. Three things that can be done to the heart – agitate it, lay it down, weigh it against the feather of truth. Furthermore these ideas are just as applicable to business as any other aspect of life, in the same way as what you said about kindness last week. Honesty, integrity, fairness – might be rare but they do make you stand out. Those MPs held up as honest in the Parliament fiasco, a handful out of some 600, how impressive was that ? And all of these qualities have to be expressed in words – written and spoken. Those who bother to take the trouble to do so will reap what they have sown.