Saturday, October 30, 2010

How to make a news item - by the Daily Mail

On a long plane journey from the US to the UK a couple of days ago, I was presented with copies of two newspapers - The Daily Mail and The Independent. I browsed through them, and noticed the same story in each, about the most popular girls and boys names in the UK in the past year.

In the Independent, the story ran under the headline: "Oliver, meet Olivia: poll shows favourite names". The top five boys names were:

1. Oliver
2. Jack
3. Harry
4. Alfie
5. Joshua

In the Daily Mail, there was a different slant, under the headline "Now Mohammed topples Jack as No. 1 boy's name". Their list was:

1. Mohammed
2. Oliver
3. Jack
4. Harry
5. Alfie

Hang on a minute. The list is produced by the Office of National Statistics. How come they sent different lists to The Mail and The Independent? The answer of course, is that they didn't. The official list is the one printed in The Independent. The Daily Mail decided to add several variants of Mohammed together, including Mahamed and Mohmmed. For some reason, they didn't combine variants of John, such as Jon, Johnny and Jonny. They also fail to mention that it's long been a popular custom to give male Muslim children the name of their prophet.

Obviously, the Mail is creating a story by playing around with the figures (Mohammed was actually ranked 16th in the official list). But why? Could it be to feed the prejudices of their readers? I hope not. However, I wonder how many pub conversations are now beginning with the phrase "Do you realise that Mohammed is now the most popular UK name....?"

Monday, October 25, 2010

George Orwell's five rules of blogging

OK, George Orwell was never a blogger. One of the greatest ever writers died just over sixty years ago. However, his rules still hold good today. In his essay, "Politics and the English Language", he defined five rules of writing. Here's my take on them for bloggers everywhere:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Although these phrases are in common usage - "It's not rocket science", "Out of the box thinking" etc, etc., they have lost their impact. Try to be original to make the reader sit up and think, or don't use metaphors at all.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do. This is embedded in the brain of all newspaper sub-editors. It's just as easy (in fact easier) to convey a message in simple words as in complex language.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. People use "filler words" in speech all the time - "Actually", "To be perfectly honest". These words and phrases have no meaning, and no place in your writing.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active. Make your blog as easy to read as possible by helping the reader with simple grammar.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. I see this rule broken most often. English is such a rich language, there is no need to resort to another.

However, George also added a sixth rule:

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I agree, and think that the bonus rule is most important of all. As the song goes "If you can't say anything real nice, please don't talk at all, that's my advice". That doesn't mean you have to be nicey-nicey all the time, but name-calling and abuse is a poor approach.

Now, having set out the rules, I'm sure I'll break a few of them from time to time. So will you (and so did George). But as guidance for good blogging, I'm signed up to them.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Is digital culture killing live events?

Er - no. At least that's my opinion. Of course, I would say that, since I'm currently head of a profession that thrives on speaking to live audiences. But even within the world of professional speaking, the advent of video conferencing, holographic presentations and TED videos have suggested that the era of the live event is drawing to a close.

But consider other trends. There are more large concert venues in the UK than there were 20 years ago. Every band that ever existed seems to have reformed for sell-out tours (driven by the fact that digital downloads have made it difficult to make money from products). Many of the most popular TV shows (X Factor, Britain's got Talent, Michael Macintyre's Comedy Roadshow) feature live audiences. Summer festivals are thriving. West End theatres are full.

That's not to say that the web hasn't had an astonishing impact. What I find fascinating is the way in which the web has created opportunities for performers to generate a following, and drive audiences to live events.

Personally, I think there's nothing to beat the emotion of "being there", whether it's a Take That concert at the 02, a rugby international at the Millennium stadium, or a late-night gig in a comedy club. Long may it continue.

What say you? See it live, or see it digitally?