This story is just one of a trillion reasons why Tim Berners-Lee deserves to stand alongside William Caxton and James Watt in the history of human connectivity.
A little over five years ago, on 9 March 2011, an email arrived in my inbox from Seattle. It said:
I discovered you while poking around the inter tubes looking for a picture of john simmons. Just want to say that I like your site and approach. Your site is so refreshingly simple — and quite appealing.
If I had several lives I’d want at least one of them to consist of hanging around and working with the likes of Simmons and yourself.
To backtrack another dozen years, I had first come across John when a friend gave me a copy of Telling Stories, his first book, published privately in 1998 by Interbrand Newell & Sorrell for whom he was then working. Within a few pages I realised that here at last was someone saying all the things I had been thinking about the way businesses communicate but had never quite managed to articulate.
A year or two later I met him when he came up to speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival about his new book, The Invisible Grail. I chaired the event and spent time with him exploring our mutual interest in language and stories. Little did I know then that within two years I would become one of his two partners, along with Stuart Delves, in the programme of creative writing in business courses that we went on to name Dark Angels, after his subsequent book.
Just yesterday, Dark Angels and its two predecessors, We, Me Them and It and The Invisible Grail, were republished as the Dark Angels Trilogy (the title being a reference to Milton’s Paradise Lost and the idea that the source of our creativity is our flawed human nature). Much of what John writes about in the trilogy has over time made its way into our courses, but the books take his ideas to a wider audience than Dark Angels ever could. And so they should, for they stand as a manifesto for direct, human language and simple, compelling stories in the world of business.
It’s easy to bash business speak, to hold it up to ridicule along with the dreary, self-serving statements of fact that so often pass for stories in business. But John’s books offer real alternatives, based on his many years’ experience as a writer for businesses of all stripes, and latterly as director of verbal identity – a concept, along with tone-of-voice, that he more or less invented – at one of the world’s biggest branding agencies.
He understands better than anyone that there is a conversation to be had between consumers and brands, customers and organisations, indeed a transaction to be undertaken, that goes far beyond any commercial consideration. People connect with brands and organisations that tell them stories they relate to and believe in, stories that offer them ideas that chime with their own life choices and view of the world. Those stories can only be told with words that have honesty and warmth and humanity at their heart – that is to say the true language of storytelling.
And on that note, back to the story of Richard Pelletier and his email – as a result of which, today, he does indeed hang around and work with John and me and Stuart, albeit most of the time virtually since he still lives in Seattle. But he has been over here three times since 2011 and is now almost the furthest-flung of our nine new associates (pipped only by Mark Watkins in Canberra).
Today, to mark the re-issue of John’s books, he posted his own version of the story of how he became a Dark Angel, entitled Tread Softly. You can read it here and I urge you to do so because it is quite simply a beautiful and passionate piece of writing which is not only a tribute to John’s work and ideas, but also the embodiment of all the values that Dark Angels hold dear – of which, primus inter pares, stands connectivity.
You can order the Dark Angels trilogy direct from the publishers, Urbane, here.