Last week I mentioned the opening of St John’s Gospel: In the beginning was the word … I didn’t have the space to add the perennial writer’s question: But which words should I begin with?
It’s one that business writers, particularly, struggle to answer. How seldom in the world of work do we read anything that draws us in and engages us right from the opening sentence? On the rare occasions that we do, it completely changes the way we think about the organisation whose voice we’re hearing.
One of the great privileges of my working life is to sit on the board of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the world’s largest. I was glancing recently at last year’s annual review and I came across this from our 2009 guest director, Richard Holloway:
‘Annual reports tend to be jaunty affairs, celebrating past achievements, as the organisation in question strides confidently on into the future. Well, it wouldn’t be dishonest to adopt that tone in reviewing my own wild fling … as guest director this year, but it would be the wrong way to begin, so I won’t start there.’
It takes a lot of confidence to write an opening like that and Richard, a former Bishop of Edinburgh, now broadcaster, writer and chair of the Scottish Arts Council, is an exceptionally confident communicator. It’s also very personal, and he goes on to explain that his involvement arose out of the misfortune of our director, Catherine Lockerbie’s unexpected leave of absence.
But why should we be so unused to hearing a truly personal voice in the business world? Why do chairmen’s and chief executive’s statements, not to mention letters, brochures and mailshots, so often sound robotic? Whatever the reason, their opening words set the tone for what follows and frequently leave us as readers struggling to stay interested.
Richard Holloway’s opening does at least three things that more or less guarantee we’ll go with him. He pokes a little gentle fun at the genre, so we know at once that this is not going to be earnest (which is not to say it won’t be serious); he introduces a lively voice, his own, which is not that of the organisation, but which we know speaks for the organisation; and he tempts us with a question: why doesn’t he want to start with the jaunty view?
Personal as his voice is, this is nevertheless a piece of business writing in an important public document that reports on the affairs of our book festival to a very wide range of interested and influential people. I’m sure that any one of those who read the opening sentence would have felt compelled to read on.
The personal is almost utterly absent in writing in the public sector, if my experience of schools and the NHS is anything to go by. It is actively discouraged, as if 'I' were some sort of profanity. I've been trying to help several departments redesign leaflets and submit posters to conferences, and everyone is surprised that people stop and look at posters that are personal, that talk about failures as well as successes, and acknowledge the emotion with which we invest caring for patients and writing for and about them. I wish more openings were Holloway-esque! They would then be more accessible, and, potentially, more true.
Is it just about giving people the permission to write as themselves? Telling them the rules they thought they had to use to sound grown-up are not true? You'll tell me it takes more than that to change business writing, no doubt.What you say reminds me of giving people permission to "perform" when speaking in public. Or permission to engage with others: beam at someone in a queue, rather than nod vaguely. Permission to be alive?