Build your world. The language of creation – part 2

Build your world. The language of creation – part 2

I must have been in high school, but I remember that night. As I lay in bed and counted lit windows on the apartment building across the street, I had this instant of clarity. I was taken with the thought that the world was large and I wanted to be aware. I even remember how I went through my mind searching for the word. Aware.

It all came back to me this morning as I was doing the dishes listening to Evan Puschak’s interview on Impact Theory. (Evan is, by the way, the creator of The Nerdwriter, one of the youtube channels I am glued to.) His version was that he saw all these things and wanted to know how they are all connected. And that’s the mother of all searches, assuming you don’t just wing it.

As with anything, once interest is established, it’s about the inglorious stage of skill building. It’s where you wish you’d deliver Oscar material but are, as Mr. Darcy would put it, so labouring under misapprehension. (That’s Bridget’s Mr. Darcy, by the way.) But then, once you’re into it for a while and peek at the heavyweights, you at least get a ball park of the game you’re playing.

I heard one of the greatest samurais alive put it as bluntly as it gets: “Keep at it and one day, maybe, something will open up.” And after a well intended beat he added “maybe.” I was in Paris, surrounded by some 1,200 aikido students, European, but well weathered. This was not a beginners class.

Oh, and by the way, with the hours that will go into it, your body, your determination, your mind may just not make it. You will ache and hurt, all for the long shot of grace falling on you. Eventually. A lot of planets need to come into alignment for mastery to live within you. It sounds gloom and doom. But once we established it’s not about winning, then it can be about doing it for the love of it.

 

Didn’t I say? I love building worlds. Going in, figuring them out and distilling them in crisp lines of copy. It is, mostly, a work that, if done well, goes unnoticed. The output is the show. But I am yet to find a creative who does not live with the agony of being deserted by whomever it is that whispers into our ear when we work an idea. As I am yet to find one who will not treasure it as, in Jerry Seinfeld’s words, the lighter moment of existence you want to be around.

There will be lots of how tos: listen to the same song on repeat, do the Morning Pages, immerse yourself in beauty and in as different universes as you can get, and I do all of them. Religiously. But ultimately, I’m a disciplined, well groomed organ for the vibe to resonate with. And I don’t care about winning. I care for it.

“You’ll be alone with the gods and the nights will flame with fire.” I guess that’s Bukowski for once-you-tasted-the-thrill-of-it,-there’s-no-going-back.

Build your world. The language of creation – part 1

Build your world. The language of creation – part 1

Wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me my favourite movie. A tough choice, but the odds incline strongly for Alice Through the Looking Glass. That movie works so well on so many levels, it’s hard to resist. I know you have long lists of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and Park Chan-wook’s Old Boy, and Nolan’s Dark Night and I understand. But at 2 AM, Alice wins.

Here’s why! It’s delightful, it makes super duper complicated time bending stuff look like play, it’s witty as hell (“I got time on my hands!”) and lands a biggie flawlessly: friendship wins the day. Not to speak of the perfectly understated “girls can do it!”. And all that makes me feel like walking into my favourite 60’s looking diner in London, ready for tea with my mad party of friends.

 

That ease, by the way, is a completely different story to produce. Head to the idea kitchen, where the piles of half torn thoughts, scratched promising opening lines and drama premises pile to the ceiling. Let the fried brain smoke guide you. It looks effortless because there’s none left to show. It’s all in there.

How do you make stuff like that? Other than you think and stare into some void in front of you, you mean? Well, you establish a universe. Here it’s Alice’s but with you, it’s yours. Your legal practise or coaching boutique or tech start-up.

And then you choose your building blocks. It’s the toughest job there is. But if you choose well, you’re there. You made it. And since you create this world for yourself, you may just as well steal, oh, scratch that, borrow from other worlds.

What do I mean? Ever wondered what Chanel chose? In a world of fluff and corsets, she chose masculine lines and comfort. The Romanesque purity and Baroque of the ceremonial garments in the monastery of Aubazine where Coco grew up. Jersey, a fabric so unworthy of couture they only used it in the military. Black, the colour of servants and mourning. Tweed. The camellia. The pearl. Those were her DNA. Her vocabulary of fashion. And then she mixed them again and again to make magic like the jacket, the little black dress, the bag.

Your universe, your website, your headline go after the exact same principle. You establish the universe. Fiat www.yourbusiness.com! You choose to populate it with your key building blocks: your camellias, your pearls and jerseys. And then you combine them again and again into your story, talks, pitches, presentation.

It’s what I listen for when I work with my clients, anyway. What’s his thing? What does she get back to again and again? What’s underneath all that? What’s this jersey I’m feeling right now? And it goes into your about page.

You know what I do when I can’t hear it? Two things: I either ask more questions or I go watch Alice Through the Looking Glass again. Just to resharpen, calibrate and clean my instrument. It’s how I know I’m in tune and ready to rock with you.

What Vivienne Westwood wants you to know

What Vivienne Westwood wants you to know

And what she told me. It’s been a while since, and I’ve really been meaning to tell you, but life got in the way. (It’s actually been giving me pains in the gut, as I rewrote the to do list on fresh new notepads. Not that it’s been that long ago, I met her in September ’16, but I’m a note taking queen, hence the rewrites).

Today I get to tick that off as done, and celebration is on the way. Before, though, let me tell you what she said to me. Obviously, not just to me. The setting was The Kenwood House Garden’s perfectly manicured lawns. The event was The FTWeekend Live Festival, pretty much a Ph.D. dissertation into how to spend your money. (They even had one of the seven lineups of speakers titled just that: “How to spend it”).

The rest was a collection of newsy delicacies for the sophisticated FT reader. Solid stuff, if you ask me. (Although I would not go for the “How to avoid banker style” talk. I am in no danger of that. I did go to “How to identify a lost masterpiece” and learned a fabulous art detective real story, although I am not their buyer avatar. And I didn’t go to “How to plan a disgracefully decadent retirement” either. It cannibalised with “An Audience with Vivienne Westwood”, and you see, I had come all the way to London for that. (My friend of then 20 years and good ideas fairy had invited me so how could I resist. She’s the one with the delicate smile and navy striped tee.)

And so we went to the tent where the fashion dame was to hold court, expecting good fashion thoughts. In exchange, she served an assortment of insights on climate change, rotten financial systems, and praise and calls to arms for all intellectuals. And then, at the end, when I eventually managed to go to her and ask a question, she cast her spell.

She touched briefly on her religious upbringing and lightly exemplified the (playful and brilliant) intellectual game behind some of her most iconic fashion, only to get to the how tos. She encourages friends to hold little intellectual activist cells in their universities, an homage to the “little hermits with their poems.” She calls for an Intellectuals of the World award. She calls for NGOs to challenge the government and for Greenpeace to unite with Oxfam. She wants you to think.

In fact, at the beginning of the talk, I’d gotten a flyer calling most of the planet uninhabitable land as soon as the rising temperature went beyond the tipping point. On the back, it carried a succinct explanation on The Rotten Financial System, detailing how central banks control the economy by creating and owning debt. How politicians serve the central banks and the monopolies. And that she preached from the bankers’ lair. Vivienne Westwood is one gutsy lady indeed.

Did I mention she doesn’t read the news? She reportedly only goes for The Week, but not much is interesting, she said to an amused crowd. Somebody does give her reports on social media.

Does she have advice for your designers? “A lot of people are in fashion that shouldn’t,” she said unperturbed. And no, she’s not looking for people good with online statistics. She’s looking for taste and judgement. She wants you to “go to art galleries, and read, and teach yourself because the schools won’t. You need the talent. And then you make something that gives people a real choice, not and addiction. Make something that is worth making. That’s sustainability. A dress is hundreds, if not thousands of decisions.”

She went on to describe one of her unique abilities: cut with industrial methods. Unlike others, she will not drape dresses on mannequins with pins. The result will be something that shows you have “taste and culture and might be someone interesting to talk to.” And powerful. “The woman looks powerful,” she added.

“NGOs have to change their behaviour now. Join something!” she concluded, before stepping into a crowd of beaming fans (of which I was one), eager to ask questions. Here’s the thing. As I watched her I had a million insights and ideas of what to ask. As I got close to her, I realised they had all betrayed me. So when I got my turn, I mumbled something about how great it was to hear her lay out her creative sources of inspiration and her reasoning. I was getting back to the question on advice for those starting out, etc.

And then she looked at me and said: “I want someone who understands what I’m doing.” Praise is good, but not quite. Understanding who they are and how the logic flows, ah, that’s, oh, so rare and precious. And then I realised that’s exactly what I will do for my clients. I will pull the sense like needles out of thought haystacks and lay it out nicely in crisp sentences for them and the world to get and enjoy.

PS. I found the pics on the FTWeekend website. I would credit a photographer if only I had a name. Not the last one, that’s by a Vivienne Westwood groupie. We look after each other.

Is this you? Then I’m your Jane.

Is this you? Then I’m your Jane.

Who’s the one you want to be with? And if you’re thinking ‘I didn’t know who you were with’ Godfather thoughts, you’re not far, minus the ethical dilemmas. I mean who are those you can never get enough of? Because working with them gets you in the zone, is sheer delight and pays the bills. A tall order, but humour me.

Who’s your ideal client? I got the question a million times in B-school. It makes words come out of me like shaky paintbrush strokes in the hands of a diligent first grader. Someone with an idea. Which is pretty much 7 billion people. If you ever got nailed on that question, you recall the feeling with scalpel precision: eyes to the ceiling, ducky, pumped lower lip, sighs and cheese crackers.

Wait, I got this. An entrepreneur who has an idea but it’s not worked out yet and they need someone to word it out and pour it into product. So is that like a new fried chicken recipe? Well, only if the fried chicken is made of words. I work with entrepreneurs who have an idea for a word-based product or service to lay it out nicely on the page and make it fly.

And who might that be, if you don’t mind? They’re idea fire starter club members like coaches, tech entrepreneurs, energy lawyers and green investment advisors, or social changers. UNICEF is one, as is a small start-up in crypto. Still wide, so let’s trim it on the sides a bit. What do these guys have in common?

They know their stuff really well. They don’t really call themselves that, but they’re innovators. They’d be the rock stars of TEDx if they went [, although they’re clueless about that.] They do pretty conceptual work that needs to be translated into simple messages a 4 year old would understand. That’s the ultimate test, by the way. If you can’t do that, it won’t work much.

How they present themselves and their work needs to make flawless sense. Did I say why? Oh, because they’re good people. And they’re driven to die empty. And I love making them irresistible.

So how’s this? I help good people with good ideas move them from their head onto the page and into the world. If what keeps you up at night is making the best fried chicken in the world, I’ll get your fried chicken recipe out of you and out there for people to order.

I got a call yesterday. He sounded lively, if a bit uncertain how to start. He cleared his throat and asked if I knew anything about his work from our common friend. And then he blurted out: “I feel I can do more. I’ve done all these projects [i.e. a worldwide revered school, a health centre for the elderly, among others]. I have more to offer. I just don’t have the consistency [in communication] and I don’t have the blueprint.” Imaginary hearts ballooned out of my phone. He was the one. One of them, anyway.

Your website is a puzzle. A conversation. Shall we play?

Your website is a puzzle. A conversation. Shall we play?

“My website is so old it’s not even funny. Can you redo it? Just write something about me on it.” I get tons of calls like that. Sure, I can. The thing is, you’ve got the words already, I just have to get them out of you, give them whatever your client thinks is a killer outfit and serve them on a silver platter. I’d love a look at your brochures etc., but they’re not your mind. And that’s who I need a date with, actually.

So yes, we’re playing games. First I play the detective. Once I figure you out, it becomes a puzzle. I put together pieces I already worked out in stage one. And yes, it’s fun. (Unless you set your mind on something and I have to sell you what you want and give you what you need. You know the saying, too. You say it under your breath about your clients all the time.)

When I say figure you out, I’m not the MI6, by the way, or your secret agency of choice, though I’ll take the James Bond glamour. It’s just that your work, your idea is made, like anything in this word, of some DNA, which replicates over and over. I have to figure that out, pretty much as you spin wool into thread, word by word, line by line, and then knit them into a conversation: your website.

Which brings me to the chase: when you go shopping on the high street, what do you do? Well, maybe you see a window intriguing enough and you go in. Which is when someone says hello and offers to help you find the shoes, the bag etc. You engage them or rather do your thing. In either scenario, you look around, maybe try something, ask a question, possibly buy something and then leave.

Your website is the online shop, or at least the online showroom. It will have to accompany whoever walks into your store through the whole thing.

The landing page needs to be catchy enough to get them to stay. Your bits and pieces of copy and photos put together will have to be the space someone will want to spend seconds or minutes more with, enough to get to and click on some almighty button, i.e. the shop assistant: would you like to try that (work with me for a free hour)? Want to see something cool (learn more)? Would you like to get that today (buy now)? Would you like to get our special offers in the mail (subscribe to our list)?

Whatever words will land on your website, they have to sound like an easy, frothy, juicy, touchdown-y sales conversation you would have with your coldest-to-hottest prospects.

As soon as we frame it like that, we just write dialogue sets (yes, only your lines show):

  • do they just need enough to get into the door and want to spend their time with you for a second (name the movie it’s from, I’ll give you a free hour, no kidding)? That the Home page.
  • do they want to know about the shop (because they need reassurance they’re in the right hands)? That’s the About page.
  • do they want to see how you’ll turn rocks into rockstars (because you’ve done it a million times before)? That’s the Sales page.

Like I said, DNA, replicated in puzzles over and over, plus some magic sauce. Easy peasy Japanesey. (I heard Stephen Daldry on Alec Baldwin’s Here’s the thing – a great podcast, by the way – say whoever likes and is good at puzzles, can make a good director. Ever tried to put together 1,000 pieces of Bruegel’s “Hunters in the Snow”? Pure nerdy delight.) Book me when you’re ready. I’ll be over there at the puzzle table, with a tea and a biscuit.

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