AB Thinks  →  8th September 2022

The wonderful world of literature – a teaching moment

As a recent graduate in English Literature, much of my understanding of the world around me comes from books. On days when my commute is immeasurably dull, it can become a real life re-enactment of the curious people-watching often found in a Virginia Woolf novel. My sudden plunge into the professional world of London has been softened by the knowledge that Pip often felt confused too in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, and he turned out OK in the end.

But before I get too excited about books, let me bring the conversation back to communications. As someone who has read a lot of books, and listened to a lot of professors, I’ve had a lot of information communicated to me in various ways, with varying success. And in my experience, a lot of what I have learnt about ‘what makes good writing’ transfers nicely into ‘what makes good communication’.

So, without further ado, here are some lessons in communication that we can borrow from the wonderful world of literature.

Capture your audience’s attention. Quickly.
A librarian once told me if you’re not enjoying a book by the 40th page, you should leave it and move on. In today’s age, 40 pages takes far too long. Living in our world means a constant bombardment of information, some of which is useful, most of which is annoying and pointless.

Literature’s solution? Look no further than J.G Ballard’s opening sentence for High Rise:

‘Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building the previous three months.’

It was enough for me to be sold, and I read the rest of the novel based on that sentence alone. If you can capture that same level of intrigue and clear display of quality in your first few sentences, your audience is far more likely to read on and listen. Perhaps avoid such a shocking example as Ballard’s…

Don’t alienate your audience with jargon: speak your client’s language
One of my biggest pet peeves is corporate jargon. But aside from being a snooty English graduate, one of the most frustrating aspects of it is I often don’t know what the words or phrases mean.

Take this excerpt from Johnathan Swift’s The Battle of the Books:

‘Then Aristotle, observing Bacon advance with a furious mien, drew his bow to the head, and let fly his arrow, which missed the valiant Modern and went whizzing over his head; but Descartes it hit; the steel point quickly found a defect in his head-piece; it pierced the leather and the pasteboard, and went in at his right eye.’

Unless you have an intimate knowledge of ancient literature and 17th century writers, you’ll miss Swift’s rather clever commentary here on the debate to decide who was the greatest ever writer. I was utterly bewildered when I read this, and it wasn’t until the professor realised that every other student was lost too that he let us in on Swift’s rather clever message (which I still don’t understand).

Equally, your employees or any audience for that matter will hardly feel connected when you talk about ‘putting ideas in the thought fridge’. Don’t make them feel as puzzled and lost as I did in that fateful seminar. Find out what style your audience resonates with, and watch them respond.

For a nice example, just read this beautiful short poem by Wendy Cope. It communicates a lovely sentiment to an everyday reader and requires no decoding. It speaks our language:

The Orange

At lunchtime I bought a huge orange—
The size of it made us all laugh.
I peeled it and shared it with Robert and Dave—
They got quarters and I had a half.

And that orange, it made me so happy,
As ordinary things often do
Just lately. The shopping. A walk in the park.
This is peace and contentment. It’s new.

The rest of the day was quite easy.
I did all the jobs on my list
And enjoyed them and had some time over.
I love you. I’m glad I exist.

­-Wendy Cope

Print is dead. Long live print.
It’s a controversial statement, and as someone who loves a physical book, it’s a statement I make reluctantly. But the reality is literature and writing have evolved to fit the modern world. Communicating digitally has its perks and can sometimes be far more effective to tell a story than just a book alone.

Take a couple of Netflix’s popular releases in recent years: ‘The Queens Gambit’ and ‘Bridgerton’. Both were originally books but were transformed into TV series, a move which made them vastly more popular than they sadly ever were in print form. The same can be said for ‘Game of Thrones’, the ‘Bond’ films, ‘Jurassic Park’ and bizarrely ‘Shrek’; all came from books and went on to be far more popular on the screen. Sometimes, conveying an idea through digital media can bring a story to life for the audience.

An interesting way of looking at this is trying to imagine the fictional world of Harry Potter. Do you remember the world you imagined in your head when you read the books? Or do you picture Daniel Radcliffe and his fellow actors when you think of Hermione, Ron and Harry?

To conclude…
Studying words is great fun. Trust me, I paid around £27,000 to do it for three years.

More importantly though, understanding what makes certain sentences, phrases, speeches or books great is immensely valuable in the communications industry. Every book has its message, and any well-loved book will communicate to the readers exceptionally well. It’s precisely that level of communication that lies waiting for you to learn in the wonderful world of literature. And what better way to learn how to harness the power of words than to read some of history’s great writers?

Now, go forth and read!

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