Episode 221 – Writing like a journalist with Rachel Bridge

‘Ask yourself continually: is this boring me?… Because if you’re bored writing it, there is no chance that anybody is going to want to read it.’

Rachel BridgeFormer Enterprise Editor of the Sunday Times, Rachel Bridge cheerfully admits that she has the classic journalistic characteristics: a short attention span and incurable curiosity. Both, it turns out, are useful when it comes to writing readable business books. 

Fast, funny and fearless, this is a masterclass in cutting through the ‘showy-off wibble’ (technical journalistic term) and delivering the goods. 


LINKS:

Rachel’s site: http://www.rachelbridge.com/

Rachel on Twitter: https://twitter.com/rachelbridge100

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

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

PI-Q webinar: Customer Success – A matter of business life or death, 10 June 2020: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/pi-q-webinar-customer-success-a-matter-of-business-life-or-death-tickets-105026001598

See all PI-Q webinars and replay links: https://practicalinspiration.com/pi-q

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge Sep 2020: https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/

 Alison Jones:  I’m delighted to be here today with Rachel Bridge, who is the former enterprise editor of the Sunday Times, and the author of eight books about entrepreneurship, personal development, and smart thinking, including How to Start a Business Without Any Money, Ambition, and Already Brilliant: Play to your strengths in work and life.

 And her latest book, How to Work for Yourself, was inspired by the way that she herself has worked for many years as a writer, a business advisor, motivational speaker, she’s taken two solo shows, the Edinburgh fringe festival, which I think is great. And she has an MA in economics from Cambridge University.

 Welcome to the show again, Rachel.

 Rachel Bridge:  Thank you so much. It’s so lovely to be back.

 Alison Jones:  it’s great to have you back. And we were just saying off air, I can’t believe this: I looked back – you were here on episode eight, which puts you in some sort of inner circle, I think, of Extraordinary Business Book Club guests.

 Rachel Bridge:  Oh, thank you. I feel very privileged. It’s a bit like being sort of, you know, Google employee number four or something.

 Alison Jones:  That’s right. Nobody can take that away from you, right? I mean, that was four years ago. Almost exactly. Four years ago was May, 2016. And we’re speaking towards the end of May, 2020. I know it’s been quite the four years. Hasn’t it?

 Rachel Bridge:  Hmm. Gosh, that is extraordinary. Well, it’s lovely. Lovely to be talking to you again.

 Alison Jones:  Great to talk to you again. And actually I will just reprise very, very quickly because I love this story.  I happened to be at Waterstones with my children and I picked Rachel’s book off the shelf. It was one of, I think only two or three books by women on the business shelves, which struck me at the time as being, you know, pretty, pretty dreadful.

It hasn’t improved a huge amount since then. And I tweeted a picture of me reading it. I thoroughly enjoyed it, this was Ambition  and copied in Rachel, I found Rachel on Twitter and sort of said, I’m really enjoying your book. And so a beautiful friendship was born and here we are again. So it’s lovely ‘power of social media’ story, isn’t it.

 Rachel Bridge:  Yes, that’s fantastic. That’s really lovely. Well, thank you for picking up my book.

 Alison Jones:  Thank you for writing it. And obviously you’ve done an awful lot since then. And the world has changed, as we say, quite a lot between Ambition and How to Work for Yourself. So  just give me a quick whistle-stop tour of the last four years. How has your thinking and your writing and the world evolved as far as you can see it since, since we last spoke.

 Rachel Bridge:  Well, it’s a, it’s interesting, isn’t it? Because, I mean how to work for yourself, that’s something that I’ve been thinking about, talking about to people about how to tell people kind of what’s in my head really. and you know, pre-virus, there was a huge interest in people working for themselves.

 And that idea that actually technology can help you a lot, in working for yourself. So it’s been really odd. I mean, obviously I’ve been researching this book for the past two years and talking to people who work for themselves. So it’s very interesting now to see us in this situation where actually. you know, suddenly a lot of us probably are going to be working for ourselves, perhaps not in the circumstances we thought. So it’s been quite a journey of really looking at and understanding how, you know, how we all work for ourselves and how we can do that. And I think actually this, this current crisis is going to propel , it’s going to change, literally, the way that so many of us work and I could never have sort of obviously anticipated or imagined that, you know, that would be happening right now.

 Alison Jones:  Yes, it is extraordinary. Isn’t it? Because obviously when you sat down to write the book, you were thinking very much almost from an aspirational point of view.  I love the way that you say, you know, when you talk to sixth formers now that they don’t want to go into the big firms, that they want to work for themselves, that that’s how they see their future unfolding.

 But actually it’s going to be a matter of necessity for so many people.

 Rachel Bridge:  Yes, exactly. And that’s certainly the big shift. you know, I was writing a book, with very much in mind, the person who was kind of stuck in their job, and really wanting to make that move, but not knowing how to do it. And of course cut to now, unfortunately, and in a few months’ time, I imagine, yes, it’s going to be very much necessity.

 So all the principles are the same. you’re just coming at it from a very different angle.

 Alison Jones:  So if somebody is listening to this and they fall into the necessity rather than aspiration camp, give them some hope. What, what would you say about working for yourself and why? Actually it might be the best thing that ever happened to them.

 Rachel Bridge:  Oh, gosh, yes, I can…

 Alison Jones:  Here we go…

 Rachel Bridge:  …give them hope. Yes. I mean, the reason I wrote the book is because it is the best way of working. I mean, I’ve spent more than two thirds of my working life working for myself. I absolutely love it. I find the freedom and the energy and the excitement and the control… I mean, I wouldn’t give it up for the world.

You know, it’s very, very brilliant fun working for yourself. So please don’t worry about that. anybody listening, it really is, very, very exciting, fantastic, life-affirming thing to do actually. and the one benefit weirdly enough, and I wrote about it in the book was, you know, when do you decide to do it, and of course the big advantage of having lost your job. is, you don’t have to decide to give it up , because actually that’s the biggest hurdle for people wanting to work for themselves is all, ‘But I’ll have to give up my job…’ If your job’s already given you up, you’re free to actually go for it, you know?

Alison Jones:  Yes, that’s a great Pollyanna reframe, isn’t it?

 Rachel Bridge:  Yes, absolutely. and what’s been so interesting actually in the past few weeks of this, of this crisis is talking to people about working from home. I mean, I’ve always worked from home , and I absolutely love it. You know, it’s all here. You don’t have to commute and seeing other people go, actually, this is quite nice. Actually, I can actually go through, I can actually see my children and my friends. I can actually see daylight. I can sit next to a window. I can get fresh air. You know, I can actually work in hours that I like to work. Not that someone else is telling me to. So all these, I don’t have to dress up, I don’t have to wear high heels, you know, I don’t have to put on a tie , and so yes, it’s a very, very exciting world to be entering into, actually, regardless of how you came to be entering into it.

 Alison Jones:  Yes. I couldn’t agree more. We all work from home and yes, it’s very much sort of watching the world wake up to how wonderful that is. It’s quite funny, but one thing that you do, as well as all the other things that you do – and my goodness it is, you know, it is quite a varied portfolio – is write books, you know, eight of them so far, and I’m pretty sure you’re going to carry on. Tell me a little bit about why that is, you know, what do books do for you personally and professionally?

 Rachel Bridge:  Well, I think it started out from the fact that I obviously have been a journalist for many years and it’s wonderful being a journalist, but it’s very, very ephemeral. You know, people are only interested in what you wrote yesterday or last week , and then it’s gone. So it’s literally disappeared in the ether and there’s no continuity. There’s no kind of, this is real. I can show you what I’ve written and actually I can delve into a topic in more depth. So it really came up… actually, I wanted to feel ,to hold it in my hand, what I’d written, and to be able to give it to someone and actually say, let’s have a chat about this, let’s have a conversation about this. You know, you can’t really walk around with sort of last week’s bits of Sunday Times, thrusting it into people’s hands, read this, you know, it doesn’t work like that. So it was very much almost actually the solidity of it, you know, books last, they really do. I mean, my first book was in 2004 and people, you know, very sweetly are still reading it and commenting on it. And, and, you know, writing about it, contacting me about it. And you think, Oh my goodness, that’s 16 years old now. And it’s still hopefully very relevant, but also it’s still got resonance. It’s still out there, what I was trying to say. So  that really excites me about books.

 Alison Jones:  Yes. I know exactly what you mean. There, there is a fish shop wrapper tinge about newspapers. I mean, you know, though we love them, they haven’t got that sense of permanence. What do you think it means in terms of changing how people see you to be we’ve from a journalist to an author, and it’s not a case of what’s better or something, but just, you know, how do they, how are they different?

 Rachel Bridge:  It’s funny. the people are very, um, what’s the word in awe is not the right word, but they start to take you a lot more seriously when you’ve written a book, and certainly when you’ve written several books because,  I think they can see that you, you know, you can string a sentence together, but also you could hold an argument for more than a thousand words.

and that idea, I mean, the great thing about it, because you do have the freedom and the bandwidth almost to delve into a subject properly. I mean, just take the topic of how to work for yourself. You know, you can write a fairly jolly article for 800 words , but it isn’t really going to even scratch the surface and actually to, to have the freedom to write whatever it is, 50, 60,000 words on the topic shows yourself and other people that actually,  you’ve already thought about this and you really hopefully know what you’re talking about by the end of it, and I think that really resonates.

 Alison Jones:  That sense that actually you’ve gone deeper here. And, and do you think, I mean, the habit of mind of a journalist is very much ‘what’s the hook?’ and capturing the headline. How do you adapt your habit of mind to produce a book that has the impact that you want?

 Rachel Bridge:  I don’t think I really adapt very much. I think I’ve always been somebody who gets bored very quickly. I’ve got a very short attention span and I think that’s probably true of all journalists actually. You know, you’re excited by something on Tuesday and by the time it comes to Thursday, you’re over it. So I write my books almost for the sort of person that would be reading. It would be me if that makes any sense. You know,  if I’m not going to be bored, then they’re not going to be bored. So they’re fairly pacy, my books. I mean, people often get in touch to say, you know, I sat down and I read it in one go, or, you know, I read it in a couple of goes because  it’s not difficult to read.

 I hate books that you have to read a sentence four times to work out what they’re trying to say. I can’t stand that, you know, I haven’t got the attention span for that. So that real sort of immediacy of, is it readable? Is it interesting? Is it useful relevance? You know, but  it’s very much, I suppose, a journalistic style of book, really. All of mine are.

 Alison Jones:  And we’re all very grateful for it. It is lovely. It’s so clear and easy to read. I remember reading Ambition within a day or two. Yes, and this one’s similar. Yes. It’s terrific. And tell us  how you do that. So we want to  lift up the hood and go… okay, so we know that it is a good thing to write in a way that engages people’s attention, in a way that’s useful and all the rest of it, you know, nobody’s going to argue that, it’s motherhood and apple pie, but how do you do it? How do you make sure that your writing ticks all those boxes?

 Rachel Bridge:  Well, I think the first important thing is to ask yourself continually, is this boring me? Is this bit boring me and you know that because when you’re writing it, you kind of go fill in this bit later, you know, or you leave gaps for the sort of history or the background base or the delving or whatever it is.

 And if you can’t be bothered to write it, or you’re really having to force yourself to write it, cut it out. You know, that’s a really clear sign. It shouldn’t be in your book at all. You just cut that whole bit out. because if you’re bored writing it, there is no chance that anybody is going to want to read it.

 And I think the second thing is , just in terms of layout, you know, keep your sentences short. I mean, I go through my entire, every book chopping sentences you know, you don’t want a long sentence, you get to the end, you for a life of you remember how it started or why. so short, punchy, not stupid just for the sake of it, but just so that actually, you know, it makes sense and it doesn’t go on.

 And I think the third thing is just to organize your thoughts in a very clear way. So all my books have got, you know, I’m not using necessarily bullet points, but, you know, as if you were writing in bullet points or, you know, here’s three things to think about, here’s five things to do, here’s  seven important things, you know, not even necessarily numbering them, but actually breaking stuff up. So you’ve got one clear thought per paragraph. I think that’s really important.

 Alison Jones:  I really liked the way you ended with those. The 10 things – here’s your ten top tips, you know,  if you read nothing else, read this and it’s it. When you’re scanning the table of contents, that’s immediately what you’re drawn to, isn’t it because it’s finite and quantified and  your brain kind of seizes onto it.

Rachel Bridge:  Yes, exactly. And I do think that whole idea of having one thought per area. And if it, you know, why is this sentence even here? Is it actually being useful? Is it actually telling us something interesting? Because if it’s just some old showy-off wibble, you know, to show how fabulously you’ve researched your topic or how many long words you know, it’s just going to kill it stone dead. You’ve just got to ditch it. There’s actually , and I’ve never really found the source of this, but there was some  famous writer that basically said kill your darlings.

 Alison Jones:  Yes, I think it’s Hemingway. Isn’t it.

 Rachel Bridge:  Possibly. yes. And just basically all those sentences and it’s quite heartbreaking really, but the sentence is you love the most are the useless ones, you know, they’re too fancy or they just don’t say things in the right way.

 You’ve got to be brutal. You’ve really got to be brutal and kill anything off it. it’s not needed.

 Alison Jones:  And of course, ‘showy-off wibble’, is that atechnical journalist term?

 Rachel Bridge:  Literally. Yes.

 Alison Jones:  So going to nick that, brilliant. I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a minute. Rachel: there are hard yards in writing a book, aren’t there. I mean maybe there aren’t for you. Maybe you do just sit down with it all clear in your head and write it, but how do you push through that? The sort of, I remember Joanna Penn using the wonderful phrase, the saggy middle, which resonated with me very strongly.

 But you know, if you have got that kind of focus on being interested all the time, isn’t there a risk that you just don’t push through to the end, that you don’t get through that? In a sense, you’ve got to do the kind of thinking through and getting through that, the messiness and the lack of clarity, to come out to the side so you can deliver it to the reader, haven’t you?

 Rachel Bridge:  Yes. I mean, I think it helps to start right up front to have a really clear idea, and that’s why a lot of my books have almost, it does what it says on the tin sort of titles. So you’ve got, you know, How to Work for Yourself. Yes, there’s no ambiguity there. How to Start a Business Without Any Money, again, you know, you really know what you are trying to say here, and you know who your audience is and you know, where you want to get to by the end of the book. Um, so there is that very clear sense of what you’re trying to say. I think the other thing is don’t worry about writing it in the right order.

 I know that sounds silly, but I often end up moving chapters around at the end, and you know, actually putting it in a better order. So you actually write the bits you’re wanting to write on that day. If that makes sense, don’t feel you have to writing from logically or in the order that it’s going to come out. because you know, that might change anyway. So if you wake up thinking, gosh, I really want to dive into this bit of the book, then do it, because your writing will be so much better for it , if you’re actually writing the thing you want to be writing about that particular day, and then you can just reorganize it the end .

 Alison Jones:  I’m going to do that. You have to have a table of contents kind of upfront that you’re working too, don’t you?

 Rachel Bridge:  I suppose so, yes. I mean, when you’re writing your proposal, you’ve already put down your 10 to 14 chapter headings and your chapter contents. So you’ve already got a very clear sense where, you should really have a clear sense of what is going to be in the book. so I suppose the one… and then, you know, as you go along, you might find that she goes up a bit. So for example, my book, How to Start a Business Without Any Money, very clear sense of what it was about, but actually about halfway through, and I think this was the making of the book, I thought actually, why don’t I start a business without any money? And that was it. That was quite late on, that thought, actually.

 Alison Jones:  I love that, I know you’ve got your little mugs and stuff…

 Haven’t you.

 Rachel Bridge:  Yes, got my entrepreneurthings.com, got my mugs, got my bags. and so that’s actually weirdly enough came way after the whole commissioning and writing process , and that was just really going on a journey with the book. And that’s why I feel very fond, particularly fond of that book. And I think it’s, you know, certainly resonated with other people that actually I’m going on a journey with it, but it was quite literally it wasn’t planned in any way. It really, really was. I was going on a journey with a book. So I think, I suppose the other message perhaps to take out of that is let your book take the lead, and be a bit free in actually,  where’s this book going? and I think that the book is so much better for, you know, having that kind of personal experience in there.

 Alison Jones:  And actually the experience – I want to pick up on that. Because I love that experiential slant that you give to stuff, that the book, isn’t something you closet yourself away and do, it involves.,yes, starting a business without any money, going on stage at the Edinburgh Fringe, you know, talking to people who’ve done it, it’s that experiential bit.

 Do you deliberately weave that in? Is that just something that you do because you have a short attention span, you know? How does it work?

 Rachel Bridge:  I suppose, I just kind of want to climb inside my own book to a  certain extent. And I do see these books as being very much, you know, undoing my head and just taking all this stuff out. So, with How to Work for Yourself, it was clearly always going to be partly about me and my experiences, because I just feel like that’s almost the most pure book, actually just getting everything out of my head.

 So I think for me personally, I do like getting involved in my own books. just because sometimes I feel like I’ve got something interesting to share. I mean, I would never want my books to be all about me , you know, it’s not as sort of me, me, me thing , and I think the key element of all my books is they have a huge number of real life case studies.

 I do love talking to people for my books and interviewing them and going to see them and all that. I mean, in the current How to Work for Yourself, I’m trying to think, it’s probably about 20 to 25 people in there with their own stories. So I kind of see it like a sort of big melting pot really of all different bits, you know, you’ve got your case studies, you’ve got a bit of me, you’ve got a few maybe statistics in there, a few anecdotes :  you just shove it all in because actually all of those things can really sort of bounce off each other.

 Alison Jones:  Just shove it all in. Brilliant. I think… do you know what, talking to people about their stories is one of the best reasons for writing a book, isn’t it? It gives you an excuse to ask people questions.

 Rachel Bridge:  Oh, God, it’s fantastic. And particularly for How to Work for Yourself. I mean, God, how nosy, I mean, it was brilliant, I found out exactly how much everyone earns, how hard they work, where they get the work from. I mean, fantastic. You know, that’s just the best excuse to just delve into somebody’s life and ask all those nosy questions that you don’t feel like you can.

 Alison Jones:  You see, and you say this completely unselfconsciously, but actually this is a huge mindset shift for a lot of people. And I think coming from a journalistic background, you do it sort of naturally without thinking about it, but starting from a place of curiosity, it’s so much more fun and empowering and starting by feeling that you, what you have to do here is demonstrate that you are the expert.

 Rachel Bridge:  Yes. Now that is a good point because I’m not the expert and I’ve never set myself up as being the expert on, I don’t know, starting a business, or working for yourself or whatever. And I would never want to be, ‘Oh,  listen to me, listen to me.’ What my job is, is to find out what we can learn from other people. So with my entrepreneur books, it’s what can we learn from successful entrepreneurs?

 So I’m like this kind of filter, you know, they’re out there with their ideas. I’m actually sort of making it, you know, easy to understand, easy to read or channel all that and out pops something that will hopefully help somebody at the other end. so yes, that’s a very good point. And I think it’s very important to be clear on: what is your role here? Are you trying to be the expert? Because that would never feel comfortable to me. Or actually, are you telling other people’s stories? Or are you trying to  make sense of the world? I suppose that’s a key element for me.

 Alison Jones:  Yes, I love that. So, Rachel, I mean, I’m being a bit greedy cause you’ve given us loads already, but if I asked you for your best tip for somebody who’s writing their first, rather than their eighth or ninth business book, what would it be?

 Rachel Bridge:  Well, I think don’t get overwhelmed, you know, I think there is that sense of, Oh my God, I’m writing a book! and Help! And, you know, ‘I must do it in a certain way’, or ‘I must read all these, you know, advice columns on it’ or, or ‘I must structure…’, you know, I think you have to do it in the way that you want to do it and feel comfortable with it.

 And even if you don’t quite know what that is, don’t be afraid to experiment. So for example, and this is going to kill you, but I found that I’m at my most creative really early in the morning. I mean, stupidly early in the morning. And I just love , you know, waking up and actually writing for two hours before anyone else is up.

 Before anyone in the world is up, it makes me feel brilliant. because I’m really clear thinking, whack it down. And then you’ve got the rest of the day to sort of think up nice ideas. And then if you add more to it, brilliant. But if you don’t, you’ve got your time in. Now for some people that will be hell, that will be hideous to do that. So don’t, you know, I don’t want anybody to go, Oh, I’ve got to get up really early now. You know, that’s just how it suits me. Other people might find they work better in the afternoons or they work better in the evenings or whatever it is , but just give yourself the freedom to experiment a little and don’t panic.

 You don’t actually have to write every day , if you’ve lost the plot, quite literally, you know, if you  literally can’t work out what you’re doing, you just take a bit of time out, maybe go interview somebody, talk to somebody, do a bit of other reading, you know, just don’t, you know, you do have time. Time is on your side, whether or not you’ve got a deadline, even a tight deadline to write book. You’ve still got time to take a day out and to not panic because you can’t write books when you’re panicking.

 Alison Jones:  Yes, you can’t do much of anything if you’re panicking really, can you? That’s brilliant advice. Thank you. And of the books that you’ve read. I mean, clearly you’ve got a lot of your own to choose from here, but if you’ve got to do somebody else’s, what book would you recommend that people read? Which one has particularly struck you recently?

 Rachel Bridge:  Well, I have to say I’ve been rereading this book, on my shelf, I love it. It’s called How to Get Rich by Felix Dennis, who was a very successful entrepreneur and started up a publishing company , and it’s very interesting because he has clearly written the book himself and it’s sort of, you know, warts and all, no holds barred, it’s not gone through any PR or any sort of tidying up. And it’s fascinating actually. He just says it like it is really, so it’s really interesting. And even to the point of, you know, why do you want to get rich, you know? What’s the benefit? It’s not that great. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

 And, and, you know, if you do want to start with this, this is going to be really hard and it’s going to, you know, it’s going to suck your soul and, you know, make difficulties, you know, with your relationship with people because you never see them, you know, all that sort of stuff. It’s fascinating. Anyway, it’s absolutely fascinating.

 So I, I never really read books twice, but this one I have, and I’ve kind of written all over it , circled bits. Particularly interesting. I mean, listen to this and just, what is the most precious thing in life that, which has cancer by easy for me it’s time. And you just go, Oh, okay. It’s given me something to think about there.

 Alison Jones:  Fascinating. Never heard of it. Never heard of him. I find it hilarious that somebody should write a book called How to Get Rich when they’ve started a publishing company. I’m not sure I trusted the advice really ..

 Rachel Bridge:  But he ended up being worth about 900 million pounds. So he didn’t do too badly from it.

 Alison Jones:  Clearly worked for him. I’m… right.

 Rachel Bridge:  I mean, you know, it was a few years ago. I wouldn’t recommend anybody starting a publishing company now. This was, you know, a few years ago…

 Alison Jones:  Well dealing with… to be honest with you, there’s the old joke in publishing – how do you make a small fortune in publishing? You start with a large one.

 Rachel Bridge:  Yes. Yes, exactly. But yes, it was just very interesting. And quite a unique take on the whole situation.

 Alison Jones:  Oh, that’s fascinating. Thank you. Never heard… I love it when I get a completely left-field recommendation like that. Brilliant. And Rachel, if people want to find out more about you or about all your books, more about the extraordinary range of things that you do, where should they go?

 Rachel Bridge:  So I have a website which is Rachelbridge.com. I’m also on Twitter at Rachelbridge100. That’s it. Isn’t it.

 Alison Jones:  No, I think, you know, people know how to Google, people know how to use  websites. You want to find… and I do love how you actually really, it feels like you’re very genuine, ‘Tell me how you get on. I really want to know’, which I thought was a really lovely way to end the book.

 Rachel Bridge:  Oh, yes, no. I genuinely want to find out how people get on. In fact, I put my contact details at the end of every book and I had some lovely emails from people telling me, and actually a couple of people have ended up in the next book because of contacting me and telling me what they were up to.  For me, the publishing of the book is the start of the process really of actually being in touch with people and helping them and finding out and all that. So, yes, I love it. I absolutely love it when people write to me and I always write back, I find that really helpful for everybody.

 Alison Jones:  That’s brilliant. Wonderful. So nice to talk to you again, Rachel, see you in another four years, yes?

 Rachel Bridge:  Absolutely

 Alison Jones:  You’ll be on about your 20th book by then. I reckon.

 Rachel Bridge:  Oh, my goodness. And you’ll be on episode, what, 2000… .

 Alison Jones:  Oh, don’t… Touché!

 Rachel Bridge: Wonderful. Thank you so much. Really nice to speak to you again.

 Alison Jones:  Thank you. Bye.

 

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