We start our Dark Angels courses with a simple but illuminating exercise. We ask everyone present to name a favourite word. The resulting list allows us to make the point that we have a relationship with words that goes well beyond their simple meaning.
This week, for example, ‘onomatopoeia’ and ‘hippopotamus’ were two of the words offered on a workshop I was running. Why did you choose that word, I asked the participants. Because of the way it sounds, answered one. Because of the rhythm, said the other.
From the beat of our mothers’ hearts to the sweep and tug of the furthest planets, rhythm is a constant in our lives. We find life and energy in rhythm. We also find familiarity and safety in it. And as my students demonstrated, we’re naturally responsive to rhythm in language.
In the meaning-obsessed world of business, the ‘non-essential’ qualities of language tend to be excluded. The writer’s palette remains a dreary monochrome, the voice a dull monotone. And if some kind of pulse does creep in it’s less likely to be for purposes of enlivening the writing, more likely to be out of fear that if you don’t say the same thing three times, people will think you’ve only done a third of the job.
‘Design, develop and implement’ is a favourite, beloved of the strategificators and initiative-creators who populate the modern business world in a great droning swarm. But as rhythm goes, that string of three verbs has all the charm and subtlety of a hammer hitting a thumb. And as for meaning, why in God’s name would you design something if you didn’t intend to develop and implement it? What happened to good old-fashioned planning, anyway?
Many of the recent obituaries of Michael Foot quoted his observation that ‘the men who do not read are unfit for power’. He was right. Great leaders know that the best writing, and speaking, combine clarity of meaning with an awareness of all those ‘non-essential’ qualities of language: sound, rhythm, colour, texture. And how else can you nurture that awareness but by reading?
My own version of Michael Foot’s epigram would be this: the men and women who do not read are unfit to communicate. And yet… it seems that our students do read. Another of our exercises is to ask them to talk about a favourite novel. This they invariably do with enthusiasm, conviction, even passion; and with full awareness of the power and nuance of the language they’ve been exposed to.
So what’s going on? Why do they feel they have to shed that sensitivity like an overcoat each time they approach their office doors?
To be continued, diddle-de-dee…