Oxtale Blog

Grammar rules we didn’t know we knew

25th July 2017

Just finished a fabulous little book – The Elements of Eloquence – How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase.  By English language guru Mark Forsyth, it’s been out for a while and on my reading list for a couple of years since I read an article on it from @mattandersonBBC.

It not only tells you that adjectives in English have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But it also highlights that almost every native English speaker is able to subconsciously re-order adjectives and adverbs in this way. Anything else just doesn’t sound right.

Even more incredible are the reasons for the exceptions.

As Mark says, Little Red Riding Hood may be perfectly ordered, but the Big Bad Wolf seems to be breaking all the laws of linguistics. Apparently it’s because it breaks another rule – the one that means we never listen to hop-hip music.

Mark says: “It’s the rule of ablaut reduplication which makes us say zig zag or clip clop. Reduplication in linguistics is when you repeat a word, sometimes with an altered consonant (lovey-dovey, fuddy-duddy, nitty-gritty), and sometimes with an altered vowel: bish-bash-bosh, ding-dang-dong. If there are three words then the order has to go I, A, O. If there are two words then the first is I and the second is either A or O. Mish-mash, chit-chat, dilly-dally, shilly-shally, tip top, hip-hop, flip-flop, tic tac, sing song, ding dong, King Kong, ping pong.”

Well who knew?

Social media and new ‘diplomacy’

17th February 2017

I caught the tail end of a radio show in the car today – Friends and Foes: A Narrative History of Diplomacy. I heard enough to warrant another listen back in the office.

It’s good stuff. The basic premise is social media is changing both diplomacy and democracy. Presenter Professor David Rothkopf points out how every single person in the world can now be connected, and that – on the whole – is a good thing. Social media creates more pressure on protagonists to observe initiatives such as climate change agreements and gives smaller players a voice they would not otherwise have. If social media had been around in the days of world-shaping events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, it could have facilitated a swifter resolution or better mututal understanding and less distress all round. Diplomacy in its true sense.

It also facilitates direct communication between leaders and their subjects when such messages have traditionally been distilled through the media and subject to the interpretation of reporters and editors.

Trump has embraced the opportunity to be the first world leader to use Twitter as his primary communication channel rather than just to augment what he says or does elsewhere. is this a good thing? In theory yes. In practice, no, because diplomatic it isn’t.

Trump clearly prefers Twitter because of his distrust of the media. But he is losing a huge opportunity with the content he tweets on a daily basis to his 25 million followers. A quick glance today shows the subject matter in his last 10 tweets break down as:

– lashing out at fake news or facts, leaks or suggestions (real or imagined) that he is lacking in any way – 6

– repealing Obama’s policies – 2

– reports on his own policies and what he is doing – 2

This constant need for validation, desire to be the ‘best, greatest or biggest’ and preoccupation with ‘being treated fairly’ is just getting in the way of the day job because it completely lacks any diplomacy.

One of the basic of media training is to focus on the story you want to tell. When you use 80% of your output for negative purposes, people will focus on those negative messages. You keep talking about being treated unfairly, then that’s what the media will report and what people who see your gripes first hand will talk about.

Trump may have something very real to offer in a fresh approach that can create a genuine step change in the lives of many Americans. But until he learns not to sweat the small stuff and use the truly diplomatic power of social media to cut direct to his audiences and recount what he really is doing to drive his policies forward, all we are going to keep seeing is petulance and ranting.

More lessons from the trump experience: debunking the ‘undebukable’…

5th August 2016

Those observing the Trump juggernaut with slack-jawed wonder from the sidelines might be interested in an insightful article today in the Washington Post, in which David Ignatius examines why Trump’s supporters appear impervious to criticisms of bizarre claims, U-turns, hypocrisy and complete absence of any credible policy. For those of us engaged in communicating science, this phenomenon holds some fascinating lessons.

The fault, Ignatius says, lies in how Trump’s allegations are being challenged:

– direct attempts to refute false information often backfire and lead people to hold on to their ideologically-grounded factual beliefs even more strongly

– if people feel attacked, they resist all the more

– people tend to accept arguments that confirm their views and discount facts that challenge what they believe

– repetition can mean people remember the assertion and forget whether it’s a lie

This flags some important lessons for influencers. People don’t like their preconceived ideas being challenged. We form a view of the world which feels intuitively right and when that is under threat, we close down.

And there’s the issue of what Jude Capper called ‘bad news bias’ when she was researching how best to communicate scientific facts to the public. It’s the assumption that a negative assertion is more important than a positive one. Indeed, one negative piece of information is sufficient to neutralise five pieces of positive information. Hence Trump painting a ‘dark picture of a violent, frightening America’ becomes irresistibly attractive to his followers.

So how do we counter these untruths which nevertheless ‘feel’ intuitively right to people we want to influence?

Ignatius observes:

– we’re more likely to accept information if it’s presented unemotionally, for example in graphs where we can form our own conclusions

– we will resist abandoning a false belief unless we are given a compelling alternative explanation – remember, nature abhors a vacuum!

– we’re more accepting if factual presentations are accompanied by ‘affirmation’ that asks us to recall an experience that made us feel good about ourselves – the power of positive association

Furthermore, basic media training already tells us not to reinforce negatives with repetition. And like Aesop’s fable of the North Wind and the Sun, gentle persuasion often works better than forceful arguments.

Lastly, when all else fails, Ignatius identifies one last tactic – leave well alone. He highlights what seems to be most hurting Trump in the polls at the moment: ‘self-destructive comments that trouble even his most passionate supporters’. He adds that ‘attempts to aggressively “correct” his remaining fans may only deepen their attachment’.

Sometimes, the best response is no response.

3 lessons pr can learn from ‘team trump’?

28th June 2016

An interesting article has popped up in PR Week about the things PR professionals could learn from ‘Team Trump’. Despite the lack of previous experience in politics, his PR manager Hope Hicks (previously worked for Ralph Lauren on fashion PR and modelling) is doing a remarkable job with what must be quite tough material!

One sentence rings particularly true: “There’s no way any business can avoid external criticism, but rather than shying away from it, comms teams should think about how they can ‘do a Trump’ and turn it to their advantage. This is particularly true of crisis comms, where a business’ reputation can be impacted more by how the PR team responds in the face of a crisis, than by the crisis itself.”

Agree. Just look at Sharapova…

New dairy guidelines show poor stakeholder management

18th March 2016

New guidelines published yesterday by Public Health England have almost halved the recommendation for our daily intake of dairy, cutting it from 15% of the diet to just 8%. This has baffled the dairy industry – and not just because PHE seems convinced we will gain the calcium we need from plant-based alternatives. The more confusing aspect is there seems to have been both little warning about this bombshell and scant information about the methodology used.

A quick glance at the British Dietetic Association’s calcium factsheet tells us that not only are dairy products a fabulous source of calcium, but if you want to get calcium from elsewhere, you pretty much have to eat oily fish including the bones, mounds of leafy green vegetables, or calcium-fortified products such as soya, cereal or nut drinks; not foods I can imagine high-risk groups such as teenage girls going a bundle on.

And do we really want to be consuming fortified products that need to be artificially sweetened – especially in light of a new clamp down on sugar in soft drinks?

But overall, the most baffling aspect of this whole announcement is the lack of engagement with the industry as these recommendations were being developed. I can understand the need to remain impartial and credible, but engaging with the industry, being transparent about methodology and addressing challenges respectfully are all part of building a robust position. PHE appears to have done none of these.