Episode 388 – Writing powerfully with John Simmons

John Simmons‘If I’m not doing my own writing, I’m not properly thinking.’

You’ll be familiar with the idea of visual identity in branding: but what about verbal identity? John Simmons, director at Interbrand, recognised that the language you use as a business is just as important – if not more so – as the logo, colours and fonts. 

He also realised that most businesses were doing this badly.  

In this week’s thought-provoking conversation, he talks me to me about human-to-human business writing, the value of learning to write well, and the joy of it. In his Dark Angels workshops he delights in introducing business people to their own creativity and building their writing confidence. Because when we write well, we think well, and when we think well, we are powerful. 



Dark Angels site: https://darkangelswriters.com/

26 site: https://www.26.org.uk/

John on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/johnsimmons3/

Alison on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/the-alison-jones/

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge: http://proposalchallenge.com/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Substack: https://extraordinarybusinessbooks.substack.com/

‘Kickstart Your Writing’ Workshop January 2024: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/666359076937

WriteBrained: A 28-day exploratory writing adventure: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=writebrainedcourse

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

Alison Jones: I’m here today with John Simmons, who was a director of brand consultancy Interbrand, where he created the Verbal Identity discipline. He works with and writes about brands widely, and he’s the author of We, Me, Them and It: How to write powerfully for business, which has just been reissued in its 21st anniversary edition.

He co-founded the Dark Angels Writing Programme, which runs workshops in interesting places internationally, and he’s also a published novelist and poet.

So first of all, welcome, John. It’s really nice to have you here.

John Simmons: Thank you, Alison. It’s good to be here. Looking forward to the conversation.

Alison Jones: I want to start with the title. Here it is, if you’re watching this on video, We, Me, Them and It. If you thought that business books needed long words in the title, this is sort of the answer to that, isn’t it? Tell us about that title and the model behind it.

John Simmons: Yes, to be honest, I never quite thought of it in that way that it was using short words, but you’re absolutely right, it is. And I guess my thinking with this started with, well businesses generally weren’t using words… well, let’s say, I’m going back to the beginning of the century, if you like, when I was writing that book.

And most businesses, most organizations, used the third person. They talked about the business, they talked about the company, talked about, you know, the organization does this. And so it’s a very simple thing, I thought well, why don’t they talk about we instead of referring to themselves in this very distancing way of a third person?

And so I guess I went on from there, and I’m attracted to pronouns anyway because they’re so handy when you’re writing. And I put these pronouns together and out of it came a model and out of it came a philosophy of writing, I guess.

So We, Me, Them and It.

And, so by we, I meant the corporate perspective. I was looking at how we write and how we could write better. And so we, referring to the corporate perspective, but not in that ultra corporate way. I was always keen to make corporations more human than they often allowed themselves to be, because I think that’s very important. Because how do you engage with your audiences, with your customers, unless you share a humanity, a sense of humanity with them? So that was we, and also the thought that each organization is made up of a number of different individuals.

And so it’s best, I always think, for organizations to allow the individuality of their people to be expressed, which brought me on to the second pronoun, which is me. So obviously we are each individual human beings, but often at work, we find that aspect is suppressed. We have to be the company person. But if you’re to communicate effectively, I think you need to express your individuality, and if you’re able to do that, you connect better anyway.

Alison Jones: And indeed, at some level, remember you’re human. You have a lovely example of a sort of, I think it’s a civil service guy, and he said, clearly no civil servant actually read this to another civil servant as a human being. If they’d done so, they wouldn’t have written it.

John Simmons: Exactly, exactly, no, no and then, well, them is the third of these pronouns, and so, them, is the perspective of the audience, I guess, so when you’re writing, you’re always writing for someone, and you have to be aware of who you’re writing for. And so that kind of awareness needs to inform the writing that you are doing.

Now, I wasn’t saying use each of these three perspectives in equal proportions, or anything like that, but an awareness of each of them is important for you to arrive at the fourth pronoun, if you like, the it. So think of it as the content that you write, and you write it in a particular tone of voice.

And I guess to give you another metaphor, I think it’s a bit like going to the opticians, and you’re sat there in the optician’s chair, and you’re looking at this chart in front of you with letters of the alphabet of different sizes in front of you, and the optician slots in lenses into your glasses and plays around until you get them sharp, and I think of the we, me, and them aspect of it as a bit like those lenses that you can adjust up and down, in and out, to create the best, clearest vision for the writing that you’re doing.

Alison Jones: And there’s an obvious metaphor about avoiding blind spots in there as well. Yes, love it. The point…

John Simmons: …but we all have those…

Alison Jones: …and the point about them being short words, which I sort of started with as well, I do think that’s really important because, A, that’s really memorable, and especially when you draw it in the book, you it in the middle with the we and the them and me around it.

I was having a conversation earlier with somebody who’s like, yes, but I want it to have gravitas. You don’t, it’s not the long words that give you gravitas. I mean, maybe academics believe that, but if you’re in business writing, you don’t need highfalutin language.

John Simmons: Certainly not, you want to be understood, and you don’t want to leave your readers feeling absolutely baffled, either.

Alison Jones: You don’t want to make your customers feel stupid. That’s a really, really bad…

John Simmons: No.

Alison Jones: …business approach. Yes.

And what you said as well, about when you started writing the first edition of the book, which was back at the turn of the 21st century, really, you said businesses weren’t past tense using language well.

Do you think that’s changed? I’m not sure it has.

John Simmons: I’m not sure it has! Abject admission of failure on my part here! Yes, if only.

No, I think there’s still an awful lot of room for improvement. You must know this better than me, Alison, because you, I suspect you read a lot more business books than I do, and they’re not all brilliantly written.

Alison Jones: Yes, yes, no and often they do feel this sort of you know, clenched approach to making the language super grave, I want to say, you know, it’s kind of, you know, it’s got so much gravitas, it kind of falls over under its own weight, which is quite depressing sometimes.

Yes, and you make such a great…

John Simmons: if you strive for gravitas sorry, sorry I was going to say if you strive for gravitas, it just makes you sound pompous.

Alison Jones: Yes, nobody likes that.

John Simmons: That’s not, it’s not a good look, is it?

Alison Jones: It’s not a good look. And it often, I think, disguises or overlays a sort of lack of confidence almost, if you don’t quite know what it is you’re trying to say and really believe in what you’re trying to say, you obfuscate with… oh there, I just did it look, I use big words to kind of cover up the lack of clarity and people can see straight through that I think, yes.

Now what I was going to say was that you say in the book about and actually I just mentioned it with verbal identity as a discipline the fact that language is such an important part of brand and I think when people think about branding they immediately think visual elements. They think colors, brand colors and fonts and logos and so on.

So tell us what you mean about language being part of branding.

John Simmons: Well, to go back before Interbrand, I was in a company called Newell and Sorrell, and Newell and Sorrell described itself as an identity company, agency, and it was primarily concerned with visual things. It had brilliant, brilliant designers in it, and those designers were creating the logos, looking at the color palette, typefaces, selecting all these visual elements with great care.

And then Interbrand acquired Newell and Sorrell and Rita Clifton was brought in as the Chief Executive, and I had a conversation with each of the Newell and Sorrell directors, and I was talking to her about this question, and I said to her, well, how do brands communicate if they don’t use words? And she had a slightly startled look, with a little bit of panic, I think, in it because she couldn’t answer the question because brands have to use words, and it has to be an important part of the way they communicate.

And for me, there is no escaping from that. So if you’re going to use words, then surely you have to use the best words that you possibly can. And you have to be committed to communicating through the very best use of words that you can come up with. And so Rita nodded at me and said, okay, go away, do it.

And so I set up this verbal identity group as it became. Initially it was just two people. It was me and one other person. And so we called ourselves the Tone of Voice Group at first but then with two of us, it didn’t seem much of a group. And also Tone of Voice was something that I was talking about a lot, but nobody else seemed to be.

And in Interbrand, it was quite a managerial kind of organization as well. And they had their own bits of jargon, if you like. And I thought, well, I should probably create a little bit of jargon of my own so that I can gain greater acceptance.

Alison Jones: So they’ll take me seriously.

John Simmons: Take me seriously. So, you know, the people in the visual part of the company were talking about visual identity. So I simply said, well, there’s verbal identity as well.

And so I positioned them side by side as of equal importance and kept to it. I just carried on with that message and I think eventually the penny dropped and other people started adopting it and it became something of a norm in the branding industry.

Alison Jones: What do you… when somebody isn’t so conscious of words as part of the brand that they are communicating, the impression they’re communicating to customers. What is it that they’re missing? What does it matter that they have that verbal strand to the way they communicate?

John Simmons: I think they’re missing something from two different directions, if you like. They’re missing achieving a greater effectiveness in the way that they communicate with other people, and particularly with people they want to influence and persuade. But they’re also missing something from their own personal perspective, because they’re not experiencing the sheer joy of using words in a playful way. And for me, that is absolutely vital.

I think you become a better writer when you really learn to enjoy using words. You enjoy the very process of writing. And that then becomes a motivating thing for you to carry on getting better and better and it becomes you know, it becomes something of a wheel that goes around and around and it goes faster and faster and gets better and better as you go on.

Alison Jones: Well, the phrase that came to me immediately as you said, that’s flow state. It’s Csikszentmihalyi, isn’t it? It’s that sense that you, when you’re writing well, you’re writing well. The stuff that comes out of it is good and it’s good and it makes you feel better, yes.

I think one of the issues, and it’s interesting that you call the group Tone of Voice group initially as well, I have a theory that words have been downgraded or overlooked or sort of downplayed because, it’s Mehrabian, isn’t it, who did that research that said only seven percent of the message is carried by the words, which of course is absolute nonsense and you know he’s stood up and said this as well: where there’s a conflict with the meaning and the tone of voice, then the tone of voice wins out. But I think that so many people have kind of absorbed without question that thing that, you know, language is only seven percent of the message, that they’ve almost forgotten that actually it’s a key part of the message, really.

John Simmons: It is. And even if it were true, which we agree it isn’t, seven percent is still quite a sizable chunk.

Alison Jones: It’s a lot to leave on the table, isn’t it?

John Simmons: It is, yes. So, the tone of voice is sort of strange really. The way I often explain it is just from a story from my childhood, really. So my grandmother who came from a perfectly ordinary background would come over to our house for Sunday dinner, for Sunday lunch, you know, and we had a telephone, which was for her absolutely new technology, and her other daughter, my aunt, would ring while my nan was there for a conversation with her on the telephone, and the rest of us would sit in the room, and we would overhear this conversation with an almost unrecognizable voice coming out of the mouth of my grandmother.

She would…

Alison Jones: …her voice…

John Simmons: …own voice. And then she’d come back in the room and she’d be back to being my nan again, you know, and people can put on that posh tone of voice. And I think a lot of businesses do that. It’s what you were saying about gravitas, you know, why do they do it? They want to make themselves, in some inauthentic way, sound something that they’re not.

And I think authenticity is an important thing as well. You have to be who you really are, rather than pretend you’re something that you’re not.

Alison Jones: Well, I wonder how your Nan would have got on with AI because that talk about authenticity and also flow, I think there’s something really interesting about the way that so many people are delegating their writing to a chat generative, like chat GPT or something similar to that at the moment.

 Do you have any thoughts on what they lose through that or what they gain through that indeed?

John Simmons: Yes, I can think of a lot that they lose personally

Alison Jones: The act of not doing the writing themselves.

John Simmons: Exactly, yes, exactly. And that, I think what comes out of AI, I mean, I don’t want to knock it too much because I’m sure it will all settle down and we’ll learn to live with it and we’ll come to some kind of understanding of where it works best.

But the danger is that it makes everything a bit bland. It makes everything of one level somewhere in the middle. And no doubt it improves a lot of cases of bad business writing. But because of the way it works through the algorithms, it’s a bit like making soup where you put lots of ingredients in and then…

… you put it through a sieve and then you put it through another machine and it becomes something that is bland and probably does you good in the sense of, you know, warding off hunger, but it’s not that tasty.

 And so for me, as a writer, you’re trying to create the kind of soup that people taste and think, wow, that is delicious.

Alison Jones: My friend used a similar metaphor that the stuff that AI generates is this sort of the cognitive equivalent of the stuff they put in chicken nuggets, which I thought was a great way of putting it as well.

John Simmons: Yes, absolutely. Yes, it’s just like literary junk food, really, but you know,

Alison Jones: But that is interesting because that whole, the focus that you have on me as an individual speaking to you, the customer as a human being, I think the people who can nail that with their human intelligence rather than artificial intelligence, will have a superpower in the years come.

John Simmons: Yes, I hope so.

Alison Jones: Yes, I hope so too, that’s what I’m betting on.

John Simmons: Well, for me, I always think there are a number of writers who’ve been asked this question, how do you write and how do you think, and actually, the two are so close together.

Alison Jones: Writing is thinking.

John Simmons: How do I think? I write. Yes, I write to find out what I’m thinking. So if I’m not doing my own writing, I’m not properly thinking.

Alison Jones: Yes.

John Simmons: And that’s going to be the danger of AI. We delegate our thinking to someone else. But in the mistaken pretense, we’re just… delegating, outsourcing a particular skill. We’re not, we’re losing the whole ability to think creatively as part of that trade.

Alison Jones: I think that’s beautifully put. I hadn’t heard it put so well, actually. That’s a really powerful articulation of it. I’m really interested as well in the way that you write differently. So you obviously professionally, your background is business writing. It’s verbal identity and branding and so on.

You’re also a poet and a novelist. How do those interweave in your own writing?

John Simmons: Yes, I love all kinds of writing. I’ve really enjoyed writing my business books. I enjoy writing for other companies in the branding world. And I love fiction and poetry. And I enjoy, in each of those forms, I enjoy… playing around with words to try to get them in the best possible structure, to get them in the right order, to put them in a way that is going to be as powerful as possible.

And I’ve always loved, you know, I love fiction and poetry. I do a lot of reading in that area, and I always have, and I’ve enjoyed observing the way that great writers write and the way they use words. I thought, well, why should they have it and not the rest of us? You know, these are great techniques that they’re using, and they shouldn’t be confined to poetry.

You know, there are poetic techniques that are really effective rhyme, alliteration, the use of repetition, the way that you create pauses, the way that you create balances in your writing, all these things you can learn from poetry. And I’m certainly not saying, you know, next time you’ve got an annual report to write, let’s put it in verse or anything like that.

Alison Jones: Although…

John Simmons: …you can, well, it would be quite a nice thing to do.

But you can use these techniques judiciously, let’s say, to use a long word. And select the way that you use them. And of course the other thing that unites all these different forms of writing is just stories. So storytelling is something that is so natural to each of us in the way that we write and the way that we understand other people.

And stories are really important for brands and companies because they need to tell their stories well, and they need to use words as part of that. By the way, I’m not doing down the visual side of this because all my career I’ve worked with designers and I’ve enjoyed working with designers visually, but I’ve tried to make my words as visual as possible as well, because…

Alison Jones: To create pictures in the mind.

John Simmons: Yes, exactly. And so, I think the combination of words and images together is the most powerful form of communication that you can achieve. Go for that.

Alison Jones: And I love what you say about essentially the craft of writing that novelists, poets, these are people who take the craft of writing very, very seriously. And you can learn a lot from them, which you can bring back into any kind of writing. And that’s a little bit how Dark Angels works, isn’t it? I’d love to hear a bit more about that.

John Simmons: Yes. Dark Angels, after we made them I started writing other books, and the third book on writing for business that I wrote I called Dark Angels. And here’s an example of the way that poetry has fed into my business writing because Dark Angels title was really inspired by my reading of two particular writers, Philip Pullman with his Dark Materials trilogy. And John Milton, who I’d studied at university and Paradise Lost. And so I thought, oh, Dark Angels is a lovely ringing phrase. But what I meant by it was not… not the heavenly angels, and not the infernal angels that Milton sent down to Hell but something in the middle. And what’s in the middle is humanity. Here we are, and we’re susceptible to influence from… up there or down there.

But in the middle is where humanity comes in and what distinguishes us as human beings is our creative ability. So Dark Angels is my code word if you’d like for human beings because I believe that we are all creative. Often people come on workshops and they say to me, Oh, I’m not at all creative.

And I say, Oh, yes, you are. We all are. And we can all become more creative, if we just allow ourselves to be. It goes back to what you were saying earlier, Alison, about people lacking self confidence. People generally do lack self confidence in their writing. So through the Dark Angels workshops I run, the main objective is to build people’s confidence in their own ability to write.

Alison Jones: And that playfulness…

John Simmons: And they enjoy it.

Alison Jones: …is so important there, isn’t it? If you feel you’re going to be judged, if you feel like you’re performing when you’re writing, where’s the fun in that?

John Simmons: Yes, yes, and so we try very hard to make people feel this is a safe space. They are included, they’re allowed to fail. You know, there’s that Samuel Beckett quote about fail, fail again, fail better. It’s great, you can take risks in a sort of safe space, Dark Angels workshop situation and you’ll be amazed at the results.

I mean, people come out of workshops absolutely floating on air, the transformation that they are able to go through. And my mission in life has been, I want more people to experience that exhilaration that I feel with words. And as you were saying, you know, the flow, sometimes you can write and you don’t notice that the time has passed. You’re so deeply absorbed in it. And that’s such a wonderful feeling in itself. And let’s all have more of that.

Alison Jones: Amen to that, yes. Brilliant.

I’m almost scared to ask you this, but I’m also really fascinated to know what you’re going to say. I always ask my guests for their single best tip. It’s a bit greedy, I know, because you’ve given loads already, but if there’s somebody, particularly in a business book situation, because that’s really the focus for this podcast, and they’re just starting out, and they’re full of the self doubt and the fear and the sense that actually the words aren’t doing what they want them to do, what would be your best tip for them?

John Simmons: Ah, well, just trust yourself. And part of that is this wasn’t from a business book, it was from a novel. It was a novel by E. M Forster called Howards End and the epigraph to it was ‘Only connect!’ when he wrote that, he didn’t imagine that a very esoteric quiz show would be called that on television.

Alison Jones: Oh, and weren’t you the person behind Sherratt and Hughes putting that on their bags as well, weren’t you? Was it Waterstones by that time?

John Simmons: Well, it was Waterstones by that time, yes. And it was the first one I chose to go on a Waterstones bag. I love the thought of people walking down the road with books inside a bag saying, ‘only connect’. And that’s what books do, isn’t it? Whether it’s a business book, whether it’s a novel or poetry or whatever.

Books are a brilliant way to connect one person to another person, in fact a whole universe of people, and that’s wonderful. So I would say my tip is only connect. It’s something I’ve adopted as a mantra for life, but extend it, particularly for the business writing world. I say only persist. Because I think the need to keep at it is something that you need to have, you need to keep going, and you need to keep reinforcing your own self-confidence. I mean, think it through, show it to other people, involve other people. People are always flattered to be asked, if you say to them, I’ve just written this chapter of a book, will you have a read?

And they will, and they’ll give you good comments on it, that will make it better.

So, only persist.

Alison Jones: And that’s another form of connection as well, isn’t it? It’s not just connecting with the reader, it’s connecting with people who can help you make this book better all the way through the writing process. Yes, love that.

John Simmons: Absolutely.

Alison Jones: And I wonder if it’s going to be E. M. Forster. I’d like you to recommend us a book, please, John.

John Simmons: I’m going to recommend someone who I think was one of the greatest business writers of the 20th century, a man called David Ogilvy, and when I read his book, I’ve got it here. I’ll hold it up.

Alison Jones: The Unpublished David Ogilvy

John Simmons: Well, of course it was published, but originally it was put together by people in Ogilvy and Mather, the business that he’d founded on his 75th birthday.

And it was a collection of his writings that were internal memos. They were sort of, you know, a salesman’s guide to selling the AGA cooker. Things like this. Very, very business situations that he was in. But I found it brilliant, not just in terms of inspiring me to want to write better, but also in terms of running a team. He’s absolutely brilliant on that, on the way he relates to other people and is generous to other people as well. And so I think managers can take lots of lessons from David Ogilvy, not just in his use of language, but in his managerial skill.

Alison Jones: Yes, it’s a great recommendation. And he was very hot on writing as a key business skill as well, wasn’t he? He said that the better you can write, the higher you will go in Ogilvy and Mather, a lovely quote.

John Simmons: Absolutely. Yes.

Alison Jones: And John, if people want to find out more about you, more about your books, more about Dark Angels, where should they go?

John Simmons: Well, there are two websites for organizations that I co founded, and the first is called… Dark Angels that we’ve talked about a bit. So the website for that is darkangelswriters.com.

The second organization is called 26. It’s a writers organization. Why 26? Well, there are 26 letters in the English alphabet and when half a dozen of us were getting together to form this, it just and we were all writers, so it appealed to our sense of humour to name a writer’s group after a number. And so the website is www.26.org.uk. And it will give you a lot of information about, well, less about my writing, more about the writing of the members of this group, who are all writers in the business world.

So I think people who are writing business books need to be interested in the very craft of writing, as you’ve talked about it, and that organization is a way to improve your craft in a very effective, easy going way.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. Thank you so much.

I will put those links up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com if you didn’t manage to get them down just then.

And John, what a pleasure it was talking to you today.

Thank you so much for your time.

John Simmons: Thank you, Alison. I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been good to talk to you.

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