Taste the Moment

We tend to live locked-up in our left-brain controlled critical world. Is it any wonder that we find it so hard to let go and experience the world around us and live in the moment?

I noticed when my son was around a year to 18 months old and he suddenly able to move around, stand up and reach out to explore this strange universe he found himself in. When he came upon something to investigate (like the washing machine), he wouldn’t just stare at it. His first reaction was to get his lips and teeth onto it. Smaller objects were even easier to get in his mouth. It wasn’t that he was hungry. It was his desire to taste.

This was really because taste was his primary sense that helped him experience and make sense of the world. Ours tends to be mostly visual, if we bother to look at all that is. He would want to taste, to smell, to touch and see the object. He wanted to understand it, to feel it, to consume and to be part of it.

A child knows how to live in the moment.

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Thinking on the Eastern side of the Brain

Learning Mandarin is very likely to give you an economic advantage in the years ahead. Recent research has shown that it could help you in other more surprising ways too.

A six-year German-Chinese research project has shown that Chinese brains work faster than western ones. The Chinese students were better at processing information intellectually and quicker at memory tests. But when it came to simple reaction time tests, the Europeans were better. The researchers believe that it is because of how the mind has to process the more complex Mandarin and Cantonese languages than the Roman alphabet. Mandarin has about 50,000 word characters. A knowledge of 3000 would be needed to read a newspaper. A well-educated person may know around 5000. To complicate matters further Chinese languages are phonetic. A vocal change can dramatically change the meaning of words. Mandarin has four tones, Cantonese has eight.

It’s also thought that there is less difference between the left and right hemispheres of the average Chinese brain compared with the average European brain. This is perhaps due to the very visual pattern recognition nature of the language which requires a more even balance of the traditional left and right brain specialisms. European languages are much more left brain dominant.

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Music for Pleasure

A colleague of mine, Alan Stevens, recently wrote in his (excellent) newsletter that he’d been converting his old vinyl LP records to digital files on his PC and commented on his nine year old daughter’s astonishment that they had music ‘on both sides’. It reminded me of the fact that new technology and new ways of doing things are usually more convenient, but not always better, or more fun. Listening to a vinyl LP (or 45 rpm single for that matter – which can be exhilarating) is a totally different experience to listening to a CD or iPod. I would say that it’s a better experience and this is why:

First of all the sleeve is bigger. At 12″ the photos are nice and big and the sleeve is satisfying to hold as you listen to the recording. Care is needed taking the record out of the sleeve impressing upon you the value of what you hold in your hands. You need to slowly lower the needle into place, it can’t be rushed. The sound of a vinyl record is an analogue of the actual sound that was recorded. That means it’s almost exactly the same. This is not true with digital playback which is a sample of the original, it misses data out. True audiophiles can hear the difference and will tell you that CDs sound ‘cold’ compared to the truer, warmer sound of micro-groove vinyl.

But I haven’t mentioned the best bit yet. The record only lasts about twenty minutes or less, even though these are ‘long players’. Then you have to get up, walk across the room and pick the needle up and turn the record over. This has a massive impact on how music was presented and listened too. Artists had to arrange the records with a great opening track and closing track on both sides, like two acts of a play. It also means that you don’t put a record on and then wander off, you actually have to be there and listen to it. You’re involved in it, it’s interactive.

When the record industry sold us shiny CDs they were interested in making a lot of money in the short-term, by re-selling us what we already had, more than they were interested in the quality of the music or the concepts of the album and single . But by changing the listening habits and making music more convenient somthings were lost.
For example, it’s only now, with the concept of downloads that the idea of buying one song (ie. a single) has come back into play.

We all seem to succumb to the marketing messages and the thrill of the new. New technology is like electricity, fire or money – neither good nor bad. It’s what you do with it that counts. Does a high-tech solution always add to the human experience? Or is it better, sometimes, perhaps on a sunny day with a picnic by the river, to open up a hand crafted wooden box to reveal a wind up gramophone which, without contributing any CO2 to global warming, will play a thick shellac disc at 78 rpm and the sounds of musicians and singers who knew nothing of mp3s and downloads, will fill the air. Let’s not give up on an experience for the sake of convenience. Keep your records, keep your CDs and keep downloading. There are times and places for them all.

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So Why Can’t We Be Polymaths?

In this age of specialisms and niching, we’re all told to be good at something (see last issue). But by that many people usually mean for us to be rubbish at everything else. We’re streamed and channelled in our education system to hammer home the messages that we can study science OR the humanities, be an artist OR technician, languages OR mathematics etc.

Like many others who came through the state school system in the UK, I was frustrated that I couldn’t do German because I was doing Physics. The system wasn’t flexible enough for that combination of subjects so they had separated the sciences and languages out. The school was obviously unaware that German was the language of physics (until the aftermath of the second world war), just as French had been the language of Chemistry a century earlier. So I chose the science route and amazed my fellow students and teachers by my magical ability to draw. It was almost as though their brains were shortcircuiting, ‘You can draw and yet you study science? That does not compute!’

This pigeon-holing is dangerous to our creativity. Creativity is a whole-brain activity. A truly creative person is both artist and scientist. The greatest scientific discoveries were made by individuals who thought visually, as an artist thinks and had the imagination necessary to push out the boundaries of what was possible. Harry Kroto who was awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1996 loved graphic design. That helped him create two dimensional data into a 3D model of carbon-60. (Interestingly enough my degree dissertation was involved in analyzing a tiny, tiny bit of this work). Scientists who understand aesthetics, beauty and form have a creative edge. The greatest artists knew how the physical world worked for them to be able to create form from chaos.

So why can’t we be polymaths (person of wide ranging knowledge or learning)? If we want to be creative individuals with something to offer the world then I’d say that it is imperative that we become whole, both artist and scientist.

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I’m Having a Laugh

All humans in all recorded cultures have the ability to laugh, to find something ‘funny’ and have what is generally called ‘a sense of humour’, that is the faculty to perceive comedy. It’s part of being human.

Some people are nervous about putting humour or comedy in their presentations. There’s a joke in the public speaking world that says you should only use humour in your presentations if you want to get paid. This reminds us how important it is in a presentation to appeal to the audiences emotions. Comedic elements are more memorable than dry facts and that use of comedy in education aides retention of information. This could be borne out by the way teenage children are able to recall word for word comedy routines from television comedy sketch shows and sitcoms (like Monty Python, the Fast Show or Blackadder) but are not so able to do so with dry drama and struggle to remember anything from more formal presentations.

But comedy is totally subjective and its success depends on a variety of factors such as the setting, culture, language, delivery and context. This is why in most cases ‘jokes’ should be avoided as few jokes transcend all barriers to appeal to others without extensive translation or explanation. For comedy to work a shared history is also needed between the comic and the audience.

An excellent way of increasing your creativity and lateral thinking capabilities is to analysise what you find funny (or what you find unfunny where others are laughing!). Take a joke and break it down, see how it works, what does it play on, what information is needed to ‘get the joke’?

There are a few key concepts that categorise comedy which include incongruity, repressed desires or fears and an establishment of superiority.

The concept of superiority is perhaps the most primordial form of comedy with humour derived from failures, weaknesses or deformities or either the comedian or another group. This also forms the basis of ‘slapstick’ (physical comedy and clowning) where the audience laugh from relief at someone else’s misfortune or idiocy. Repressed fears and desires have been a common feature of both the sexist joke (such as jokes about ‘the wife’ or ‘mother-in-law’) as well as homophobic and racist jokes which play on peoples fear of the unknown.

It’s clear to all but an idiot not to use possibly offensive material in your presentations. The rule is – if it’s possible an interpretation could offend – leave it out. The same goes for using profanity. Although a staple diet in most stand-up clubs, big business deals have been lost because most people do not want to hear rude words in a business context. One story goes that when a speaker was turned down for a training session he explained that he would obviously take out the swearwords from his material for that particular client. The client replied that they wanted to book a trainer who didn’t have swear words in there in the first place.

Incongruity of either language or action involves the surprising, illogical or unexpected juxtaposition of ideas or situations which are often referred to as ‘surreal’. The comedian Vic Reeves is possibly the ultimate expression of this type in his UK 1990-91 television programme ‘Vic Reeves Big Night Out’ which was so incongruous that it divided the nation into those who gave him comedy god status and those that thought it was shoddy rubbish. Witnessing ‘Noodles the Comedy Duck’, an obvious glove puppet regurgitating prawns when one of the ten commandments was recited or listening to a man with a stick wearing a paper helmet covered in complaints to his local ombudsmen about coloured lights coming out of his taps requires a certain lateral thinking mindset in the audience. One of Reeves’ catch-phrases was the interesting “very poor” which confessed the obvious shoddy nature of the presentation which added an extra ‘in-joke’ to the faithful which drew them in even more.

Memory plays an important role in comedy. The comedian Harry Hill’s trademark routines involve setting up an enormous number of running gags with seemingly no point to them, only to refer back to them much later in the act. An example is he would mention that he saw three bunches of roses available for sale for a pound. Much later he would say, incongruently, in the middle of another story, “great big bunches they were” and then much later, again out of the blue, “three bunches for a pound? Where’s the profit margin in that?”. The comedy comes from the fact that the audience feel pleased to have been able to be ‘in’ on the joke, having remembered the references from earlier. This works because Hill is imprinting each chunk of gag using deep processing by getting the audience to question its meaning and look for a correlation with something he may have said earlier. He’s playing on the shared history concept.

Humour is useful because it allows the audience to relax into behaving as a single unit were laughter can become contagious. In many ways the comic works a form of hypnosis on the audience. Being a group, the audience will take greater risks and may even feel comfortable ‘heckling’ or participating where they would not in a non-comedy or less collective group.

As mentioned earlier, humour enhances creative problem solving. Other claims have also been made of the physiological effects of observing or listening to comedy such as the strengthening of the immune system, increasing pain thresholds and reducing stress. It has even been found to reduce ageing.

All good reasons to look into livening up your presentations with humour or going to see some stand up yourself – for the sake of increasing your income and improving your health!

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Business Unusual

I started my own business on 12th September 2001. That’s right, a day after 11th September 2001. On that fateful day I was flying back from the Caribbean after a two week holiday and had just landed at Heathrow when the first plane struck the North Tower. The next day I went back to work to find the company had gone bust. Completely unrelated to 9/11, but certainly a very strange and un-nerving couple of days.

I was creative director of a mutimedia firm. Don’t let that title throw you, I wasn’t on the board and I had no insight into the accounts or general finances of the company. My job was mainly to manage and do the jobs in the studio. I did know, however, that the boss had recently employed a friend of his on something like £42k as a senior programmer for whom there wasn’t very much work for him to do. I knew that the value of the work coming in couldn’t possibly cover the salaries going out which had been propped up with loans secured against the boss’s house.

The company had been set up ten years earlier to build bespoke PC systems that were used for multimedia presentations. Most of that market had disappeared due to the advancement of PCs and the availability of straightforward software like Powerpoint which virtually did the job for you. Why spend thousands on a bespoke system when you could pay hundreds for an off-the-shelf one that was better?

I saw my role as attempting to guide this outmoded company into the much richer vein of design-led graphics. The company could easily pick up branding, print design and of course web design as well as still doing high-end multimedia such as CD-ROMS which were still in demand. My team created a new identity and marketing campaign along with a brilliant (if I don’t say so myself!) website, that I was sure could have attracted press attention, if not awards, if it had been launched.

But the boss had put the brakes on. He just wasn’t comfortable with ‘creativity’ and ‘design’. He wasn’t comfortable with newer technology, especially the new iBook that our programmer bought. It was able to do exactly the same job that the bosses hot-wired custom built editing suite could do, except that it was faster and didn’t take up half the office. The boss wanted to be fiddling with PCs with their cases off and discussing servers over a pint of ale at lunchtime.

While I was on holiday I had come up with more marketing ideas and the concept of a ‘sub-brand’ that could be used to sell the new design portfolio without appearing to impact on the more staid and traditional image the boss wanted to cling onto. I did a lot of thinking about creativity and how it can be used to solve companies marketing and branding challenges and came up with ideas for names such as ‘Ideas Workshop’ and ‘Ding!’.

So it wasn’t exactly a complete surprise that the company was no longer in business when I got back.

The next day I started my own company and began to put all the ideas I’d come up with into practice. Sometimes you need a kick in the teeth to actually take action and get on with things.

Why did that multimedia company fail? To an outsider it appeared to have everything going for it. Except for clients of course. Inflexibilty, stubborness and fear of change were characteristics of the boss. Not being able to see the bigger picture, to understand where the market was moving was another. The downfall came because of a lack of creativity and a fear of creativity and doing the same things and expecting better results.

Once, perhaps, creativity was a luxury, but not now. Now you have to be creative in business.

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