Part of the work I do here in Moscow is teaching a couple of small, select groups of Russians how to write English. I say repeatedly that speaking is one thing; writing quite another. Speaking English with your own accent and idiosyncratic usage is rarely a problem as far as communication goes, and is often positively attractive. Who would have wished to “correct” the speech of Françoise Hardy or Agnetha Fälskog? But writing poor English cold on the page, with no personal warmth radiating across the table or bed, can be damaging. Hence the importance of style on paper.
There are a few basic rules which I have noticed make a vast difference to the quality of written English coming from non-native speakers. I won’t repeat them all here, but short sentences is probably the most important one, and it is closely followed by the avoidance of clichés and idiomatic expressions. You need a lot of cultural background to be sure you are using informal language correctly. It is much better to write without colourful effects than to use them inappropriately. At best that can be misleading; at worst it makes you a laughing stock.
And laughing is what many of the Russians I teach have done when I have drawn their attention to the passage highlighted in the post before this, “Crystal Balls and Chandeliers”. That prompted me to investigate further. I discovered that the author was a senior executive in Anglo-American, a huge mining company based, despite its name, in South Africa. I had previously assumed that he was a modest private citizen who circulated forecasts quietly to friends, and whose inept use of English, though educative on the perils of business-world clichés misapplied, warranted anonymity. So I did not mention his name.
|Clem Sunter: "scenario planner"|
But I wonder if he really is so wise in wanting to publicise his writing. He says somewhere in his massive output that he is “one of the country’s favourite speakers” and that “his presentation style is both thought-provoking and entertaining.” That may well be true. Clichés of the sort he specialises in have a habit of blending into one another over the course of a “presentation”, especially if after lunch or dinner, losing all definition and becoming little more than mood music. In print, however, they reveal a frightening absence of intellectual precision for one who claims to have run an important company.
Mr Sunter’s entire output seems to be written in the sort of language that I quoted in the previous post, and it is worrying that a person who appears to be taken seriously by large sections of the South African business community cannot write clearly. I believe that clarity of thought leads to clarity of language (or should do in people who have written fourteen books) and that chaotic language is usually in indicator of unresolved thought.
Einstein did not change the world by writing: “The Positive Energy Scenario is at a Constant Tipping Point with a Diverse Portfolio of Mainstream Mass and the Speed with which a Perfect Storm Scenario of Light can Travel from any given Chandelier to the Sand on the Ballroom Floor beneath it when Incremented by its own Value.” If he had, Max Plank and the boys would not have been able to take things much further and we would still be living in a world of high explosives, mustard gas and continual super-power conflict.
The fog gets even thicker when Citizen Sunter describes himself as a “scenario planner”. This in itself is misleading as he is really a “forecaster”—sort of. Perhaps that sounds too ordinary, or too clear for comfort since it might imply measurable outcomes which his words could one day be tested against. Scenarios are possibilities, and that implies uncertainty, especially when several competing ones are present. But you cannot plan uncertainty. Scenario planning is an oxymoron.
I am going to offer a free invitation to the next Glenfiddich whisky tasting to the clearest re-write of the following quotes from Mr Sunter’s website. Each one includes the word “scenario”:
“…much of the future is beyond your control and uncertain. The only way to handle it is to play different scenarios, examine their probability and impact and look at the options to seize the opportunities offered in each scenario and counter the threats.”
“Options can be divided broadly into two categories: adapting your own strategies and tactics as regards your own future in light of the changing odds of the scenario; or rolling up your sleeves and taking action—however big or small it may be—to reduce the odds of the scenario itself.”
“Recently, I had a discussion with a group from MIT in the US who tried to convince me that you can mathematically link the raising of flags on our scenarios to their probabilities.”
Those sentences are written here exactly as in the website. If you doubt that, feel free to check this link: www.mindofafox.com/latest-scenarios.php You will see many similar examples of this sort of stream-of-consciousness prose.
In the next, and final, post on this subject, I will analyse another passage of Mr Sunter’s with a view to making some positive suggestions about how he might improve his style on paper. In the meantime, my Russian students, and many others too, can congratulate themselves on their superior ability to write the language of Shakespeare, Wodehouse and Chandler when compared with a native-speaking product of Oxford University (and Winchester College!).