One of the summer’s popular movie thrillers, “The Ghost Writer,” shows the exploits of a hired scribe helping to complete the memoirs of a former British prime minister loosely modeled on Tony Blair. Many viewers familiar with the hard labor of good written communication likely laughed (or wept) at what has to be one of the movie’s best lines. “All the words are there,” says the jet-lagged ghostwriter upon reading the fictional prime minister’s bulky first draft in a bleak Nantucket beachfront home in winter. “They’re just in the wrong order.”
In real life, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s new autobiography passes that first test of good writing: Getting the order right. That can be a surprisingly daunting task. In business communication, in particular, “getting the order right” has nothing to do whatsoever with narrating events, facts or ideas along a sequential, orderly timeline. The challenge is to order them in a non-sequential way that shows how a strategic vision and strong core values translate into a credible action plan expected to produce results. And keep it clear and interesting, by the way.
Though I am still in the early stages of “A Journey: My Political Life,” it is confirming several other rules of effective public communications. The other day I downloaded the Blair book on my Kindle because I always admired the man’s oratory and wanted to sample his ability to write in long form. (Yes, I would actually tune in to “Prime Minister’s Questions,” on occasion, to watch Blair joust with such exquisite verbal perfection during the weekly debate.)
Let’s set aside the politics; not take up the demonstrations at book events; nor debate the Blair legacy. Let’s view the book to note things done right by a great communicator and shrewd politician who captured the imagination of a generation in his own country and in the world.
First, among his most colorful recollections, Blair reveals the secrets to his debating and public speaking prowess: Relentless, at times agonizing preparation and rehearsal. Anxiety before; decompression after. He reveals an investment of time and emotional commitment that will surprise many. But his descriptions of the hyper-prep that went into these political debates will resonate with other political, business and institutional leaders who go about the difficult work of effectively addressing audiences and moving their thinking. No matter how good the order, how good the script or talking points, nobody then “wings it.” Nor did Blair.
Second, the book has an authentic voice. It sounds like the former prime minister. Whether or not you agree with his version of history, he and the editorial team that he acknowledges up front are doing a first-rate job at capturing a believable voice. Yes, they’ve let in some horrible business clichés, and some flagrant consulting-speak. But sometimes tossing aside the rulebook and letting the speaker be the speaker or the writer be the writer buys much-needed credibility.
Third, the book is pacing well so far. Words don’t languish on the page. The sentences are not burdened with excess baggage; the reader can see the subjects, verbs and meaning with clarity. Somebody is bothering to edit. Let’s hope there really is a special place in Heaven for the brave souls who can look at a draft of favored wording and actually say … “sorry, not good enough” … to towering world figures, captains of industry, great politicians and others where a little bit of pride might possibly be involved.
I’ll let you know if I change my mind or hit some sour notes as I make my way through the balance of “A Journey.”
We’ve been busy at Hillenby this summer helping our own clients to do things like get the order right and find their voice, but I’m making progress on some weekends. Right now, it’s worth the read for anybody interested in that phase of recent history or studying the inside moves of a gifted communicator. Stay tuned.
Published September 16, 2010