In conversation with John Simmons (Transcript)

Nick Parker:
So we’re here – take two, if I’m being honest – of a conversation with John Simmons, the first one having been ruined by my technological ineptitude! John, as you will almost certainly know, is like many of us a writer for brands and businesses. The also the author of three novels, co-founder of the Dark Angels writing workshops – “workshops” feels like it is underselling them – “the Dark Angels life-changing retreats and experiences”. And also, I’m not sure whether you mind me saying this, the grandfather of tone of voice.

John Simmons:
The grandfather. Makes me feel so young, Nick.

Nick Parker:
I’ve launched Voicebox as you know, sort of a method for helping brands figure out their tone of voice. And part of the reason for doing that was just to give a kick up the backside to the creative side of coming up with a tone of voice. Because it felt to me like lots of tones of voice were coming out pretty same-y. Which is something you talk about in your piece in the new Dark Angels book On Writing. So it felt like this would be a really good time to connect to those things.

I don’t think it would have been possible for me to make Voicebox even five years ago, but now there are thousands of brands doing really interesting things with their tone of voice. It just felt like it was an interesting time to take stock and to push things on a bit.

So it felt like it’d be a really good opportunity for a conversation about what was happening right at the very start of tone of voice. And because you talk about it in writing, we can talk about On Writing as well.

John Simmons:
Sounds good.

Nick Parker:
Let’s talk about how tone of voice all started, because you were right there at the start.

John Simmons:
Yeah. It’s a strange thing as I look back on it. And then I went to university, did the usual things, studied English Literature, wanting to be a novelist in the job – vacant columns. I couldn’t find an advert saying, “novelists wanted”. I worked as close as I could get to the world of writing and words, did some work in publishing then at an organisation called ‘Neddy’ [The National Economic Deveolopment Council] writing reports and short versions of reports on different aspects of British industry. So writing and business were coming together for me. As part of that, I’d started working with different designers and I really enjoyed working with designers because I enjoyed that different way of looking at things and the creative way of looking at things.

And I’m pleased to hear you say a creative approach to tone of voice that you’re trying to do with Voicebox and things like that. Because that was the frustration for me when it came to write Dark Angels. If I am the grandfather, grandfather of tone of voice, my God, what are my grandchildren doing? And what so many of them have been doing is trenching it as a sort of managerial, rather than a creative one. And I insist it has to be a creative tool, otherwise it’s pretty worthless really.

And, sorry, I’m jumping backwards and forwards in this. But while I was at Neddy, I started working with designers and I did work as a freelance on copywriting for their brochures and things like this. It was a very handy way of supplementing my paltry income at that time. And then I got a job partly through that with a design company that was called Newell and Sorrell. And Newell and Sorrell was a lovely creative agency. I still feel very affectionate towards it and towards the memory of it. And in the way of design companies, that time they talked about identity rather than brands.

We would do proposals and I generally, as the writer in the company, I wrote everything from proposals to press releases to the words that were in packaging for our clients and all that stuff. And in the proposals we would describe what we would produce for your new visual identity. And it would be half a dozen bullet points that would say a logo, colours, typefaces. It’s photography or illustration. And I started adding almost randomly this other bullet point that said ‘tone of voice’. Now what did I mean by that? Well, I’m sure I didn’t know to be absolutely honest, but it was me just saying a question that I asked later when Interbrand took Newell and Sorrell over. How do brands communicate? How do companies communicate if they don’t use words? And you can’t answer that question really, unless you acknowledge, well, yes, of course they do use words. And so if they use words, then isn’t it better to make the words actually mean something and to be as good as you can make them? So that was what I was trying to do. And by adding a tone of voice.

Nick Parker:
And you said an element of identity, but that time were clients not thinking really about the words, they were thinking about the visual stuff? But just assuming, making some assumptions that you’ll just do the words.

John Simmons:
Not even people like Waterstones for example, because Waterstones became a client. And we worked with Waterstones for 10 years and, if you think of a company that has to value words, then Waterstones really has to be. Yet they approached Newell and Sorrell and said that they wanted to refresh their identity. They’d been acquired by WHSmith and that was what was driving it. And so they wanted to look at their identity. They wanted to look at the logo so we created that two sided W for them and the strong use of black as part of their identity and where they were. What they were particularly interested in was the promotions and the marketing materials that would appear in the shops. And they just started to realise that actually they can get the publishers to pay for this marketing material. And so we created banners and all kinds of printed things that would appear in Waterstones bookshops everywhere. And tone of voice in the Waterstones context was really created with that kind of use in mind. And I’m quite proud of the work we did for Waterstones, I think it was very successful. And they had some wonderful people there who were my clients but have since become good friends. And one or two of them are involved in Dark Angels as well. But the basic system, if you’d like the tone of voice system, but we didn’t really call it tone of voice at all was seen on carrier bags. So the black carrier bag that they would put your books in once you bought them and you carry them out the shop and walk down the road carrying this advert for distance. And I selected quotations from books of all different kinds, and a connecting line between the quotation and, sort of, end line that was the selling line for Waterstones. So the first quotation I came up with, it’s still, my mantra for life is E M Fosters ‘only connect’ and the way the system worked was you had big quotation ‘only connect’ and then ‘books to make connections at Waterstones’ and another bag, another quotation. And we would always end with that ‘at Waterstones’ with a link to the quotation, the words in the quotation. And it was that kind of playfulness that Waterstones were demonstrating through that approach that said we love words, we love the words that are in books. So it was absolutely the heart of their brand as we were just starting to call it rather than simply identity.

Nick Parker:
Waterstones feels like a natural home for that sort of thinking. Did you find that all clients were as receptive or got the idea of tone of voice?

John Simmons:
I think you know the answer to that. No, it was a hard sell at times. It was, but you started to get a little win in very surprising areas. So for example, for me, one of the most important tone of voice jobs that I did was probably mid-nineties with a company called Air Products. And it was an engineering company in industrial gases company. And they make gases like hydrogen that they used in blast furnaces to increase the heat setting. And a whole range of other gases, but you know, compared to Waterstones the connection with words is far more tenuous. But I was lucky because I was working with a great client there and all good work, as you know, actually relies on finding a decent client, someone who gets it and someone who got, it was John Dodds who I now regard as a great friend and, and John brought me into Air Products to do this bit of work with one particular division and we defined the brand and we talked about the words and I came up with this line that was “tell me more”, and “tell me more” fitted them so well because it came up with conversations I was having with them. So I would sit down with their people and say, “Well tell me, how do you sell hydrogen?” or whatever it might be. And they talk about sitting down with a client and having a conversation about gas furnaces. And as well as I said, such conversations happen and the Air Products person would say, “Oh, that’s interesting. Tell me more” And so, all marketing as we both know is just based on establishing good relationships, know people and having those kinds of conversations that get you in through the door and establish that link more firmly.

Air Products became a good and unlikely example for tone of voice. But there were other big companies as well. So, you know, Royal Mail, Cable and Wireless, a lot of companies that have since gone out of business. Perhaps most famously, years later looking at my work, Guinness was just a wonderful one to work with. Not because they wrote an awful lot but there was such a feeling around Guinness. It’s a company based on legends. And, and so I, I was given this absolutely wonderful job by John Potter, who’s the guy was the Global Brand Director and he said “Well, we have defined the brand and it’s taken us over a year, and it was all the Guinness operations all around the world. Can, can you find the original Guinness stories that can now demonstrate that this brand essence we’ve come up with has always been there through 250 years in its history?”

Nick Parker:
A fine use of post rationalisation!

John Simmons:
Exactly. I dug around happy days in Dublin doing my research and brand essence they defined was “Guinness reflects your inner strength”. So I started with the founding story about Arthur Guinness and about Arthur asserting his rights to the Dublin water because they were charging him exorbitant rates and were putting them out of business. So he got on the barricades and said, “I’m having my water”. And so the Liffey water went into Guinness he eventually got the rights to use without charge and the rest is history. And so that was a great story but also demonstrated the idea of reflecting your inner strengths. Arthur Guinness had this inside him.

Nick Parker:
And this is a story that they’d forgotten?

John Simmons:
Yeah. They more or less forgotten it. So I found it again and told it in a way that was right for today. And there were another half a dozen stories, not quite as ancient as Arthur but 19th and 20th century stories and I wrote these and they were published in this little book that John Potter got Guinness to produce and issued to the brand team all around the world. And there you are. It was magical. Yes. This new brand essence, it’d always been that.

Nick Parker:
And so there’s an interesting thing there about you. It feels to me like there’s quite a strong connection for you between tone of voice and stories. I hesitate to say storytelling cause that’s become such a brand word. But that’s sort of what it is, isn’t it?

John Simmons:
Yeah. And, stories are important. They always have been and always will be. That’s such an integral part of human nature. Jamie Jauncey, my Dark Angels partner has written a chapter in Dark Angels On Writing where he starts really with, with human beings in a cave telling stories. At the end of the day’s hunting and painting pictures on the walls of the cave. It does go back to that. It’s the way that we understand the world, is through stories. And I think it’s also the way that brands can understand themselves and explain themselves to their customers through stories. And as you say, it’s been hijacked a bit, in the same way the tone of voice has, by the managerialists among clients. And, and so there’s a danger that you squeeze the ideas that are fresh and vivid out of it by trying too hard to put it into a mould that isn’t necessary. It’s natural mould. But you know, this is the mould we’ve decided it’s going to fit.

Nick Parker:
I think that that’s really interesting. That what are creative ideas or creative tools becoming managerial tools. I often think with tone of voice, a client will say they want a tone of voice, but it can mean several different things. It can mean, you know, we’re looking for something distinctive, a creative spark. Like that’s it at its best, what can we do to bring alive this brand, which is doing something interesting in language in a way that sort of compliments everything else and is sort of unique and interesting?

Sometimes they just do mean can you just make us more basically readable and human. They just need some basic skills. Quite often there’s a sort of a continuum between those two things. But the idea of brands as distinctiveness or a sort of basic hygiene.

John Simmons:
Yeah. Well for me, it all started with the thoughts coming from like design company background to the, you know, you want your logo to look different from everybody else’s, you want your colours to be distinctive. And so for me, tone of voice was added in as an element, as a way of differentiating yourself from everybody else. So trying to create a verbal style if you like, that would at its best, really become distinctive. And then, as you say, other people started to see. Oh yes, it’s that tone of voice and we could do some of that because you know, we can improve our writing a bit. And there was a phase… I’d been doing some work with Boots and Boots had their own internal tone of voice manager and he’d introduced their tone of voice, which was described as ‘clear, warm and fresh’. Which is fine, but you point to me any kind of differentiation that will come out of that tone of voice. I mean, every single company needs to be clear, warm and fresh.

Nick Parker:
And it’s only distinctive if all your competitors are being really terrible.

John Simmons:
Yes, yes. Or being almost wilfully different. Anyway, it should be the absolute base point. Clear, warm and fresh. Which means, yeah, we will try to write simply, we were trying to be friendly with you and we’ll make it seem like a nice experience to encounter us. And so that’s all fine. And I don’t really object to that, but it’s not really tone of voice at its best. It’s not really going to differentiate you. And that’s what I was referring to when I’ve referred in the chapter of Dark Angels On Writing to not being all that happy with some of the interpretations that come along since. And I’m not trying to be snobby about it or anything, but I do absolutely believe that for tone of voice to succeed it needs to come from a creative source. So we’re writers. So we would say this, wouldn’t we? But I absolutely believe that a brand’s tone of voice needs to be guided by proper writers. Not by someone who’s a Project Manager and being put in charge of it and is driving it from a some purely process point of view. There needs to be a spark of imagination in it. And it’s that spark that will then differentiate rather than following the voice guidelines: how to be clear, warm and fresh. So be something else. You can even be outrageous and you set out lots of possibilities in your Voicebox for the way to take this. But it will become different if a proper writer is involved in it because the writer will be challenged by this and want to get away from the old formulas. Because that’s not really what we do.

Nick Parker:
That’s really interesting because it’s, you know, at the heart of Voicebox I’m saying, you know, there are, I think there are 11 primary voices. They’re sort of styles of writing really. And then I realised I also had to add a lot in about this isn’t a checklist. It’s not a, you know, it’s not, we can’t just go, “Yes, we’ll have 20% of that and 70% of that” and magically it’s done. These are starting points to make your work stronger, to get you thinking in different ways, and you’ve always got to be looking for that magic. But as well, you’re never going to be able to just find that by ticking the boxes.

John Simmons:
Well, in a similar way, you can reduce the whole world of stories to how many stories are there actually in the world. And I think Christopher…

Nick Parker:
Christopher Booker says seven?

John Simmons:
Seven. Which I, I’ve seen it reduce further by some people to three, you know? So that’s only true if you take it at the, the grand overview of things.

Nick Parker:
Strategic Plot analysis might tell you actual stories you would listen to and tell. Definitely.

John Simmons:
And what really works with the stories is the detail that you put into a story is the characters you put into it. And they’re always bound to be different. And that means that that story there would be different from that story there.

Nick Parker:
Two things on tone of voice. Firstly, you started calling the language thing, “verbal identity” to match visual identity, which I thought was an extremely helpful way of thinking of it. Giving those two things equivalence.

John Simmons:
Well to explain how that came about. So Interbrand took over Newell and Sorrell, I think it was in 1998, something like that. And to be absolutely honest, Nick, it wasn’t a happy marriage really. There were some great people Interbrand. There still are great people in Newell and Sorrell. No longer are because the business doesn’t exist anymore. But culturally, wasn’t really a perfect fit yet. Interbrand came very much from that process-driven way of going about a brand’s development and creation. And so they didn’t really get this whole creativity business. We had some excruciating meetings when they put the two companies together and they put the senior teams from both companies in a room. It was somewhere down in Richmond or somewhere like that in a hotel. We were locked away for three days and more or less told, “get on with it, be nice to each other”. And there were some very funny things that came out of that and, and you know, doing exercises, “what do you think they think of you?” And then sharing these, these things with each other. But it, it became clear to me that there was this whole cultural divide and Rita Clifton had come in and she’d been appointed as the CEO and she’d come in from outside from Saatchi and Saatchi. And so she could assess the two previous organisations and how to forge them into one. And so she had conversations with each of the directors of the two businesses as we came together. And the conversations went along the line of, “well, what have you been doing and what do you want to do in the future?” And so I said to her, “well, I’d been sort of running a team, a design team, which was all well and good, but I’m not a designer. And the thing I’m really interested in is the language”. And so she said, “fine, go off and do it”. Because she recognised it was an area just not covered at all.

And so I went off with one colleague, Mark Griffiths, who I recruited to my team at Newell and Sorrell as a writer. And Mark and I set ourselves up as the as the tone of voice group, which was strange because it was a group of two. And people didn’t really understand this tone of voice thing, but they did understand that brands had visual identities. So, purely for internal reasons, I created this term of verbal identity, which seemed to me to make it inevitable that you would look, if you were looking at a rounded idea of identity, then you would look at the visual, but you would also need to look at the vocal and it would play some side by side as of equal importance, at least.

Nick Parker:
Great bit of rebranding of tone of voice.

John Simmons:
I guess it was, yes. Anyway, that, that then started to get traction as they say at Interbrand and Rita saw there was something growing here. So I’d sort of double my team to four. And Interbrand had started out as a naming company originally. So Interbrand had this young team of namers, about a dozen people who all young and graduates from Oxbridge mainly. But they were all phenomenally clever. They were really bright. And so they put the namers in with our verbal identity bit and, and the namers all loved what the other lot were doing.

Nick Parker:
You got to write whole sentences. Paragraphs!

John Simmons:
Yeah, it was really wonderful. And you didn’t get turned down because you know, you’d come up with the word that means “death” in Mandarin. So yeah, they started getting really interested in this as well. So the whole idea of verbal identity started to really blossom as a result of that. And naming was still there, and I still say that naming is a part of verbal identity. And I always, always quote a book I was reading at the time. Which was by Ruth Ozeki. It was a novel and, and a character in it says, “How can you say just a name? Name is very first thing!” And it is, name is the very first thing, you know, for any brand you encounter will almost certainly be first through the name and that name will establish some kind of personality for your brand and it follows logically then the personality with the names suggests should always be reflected in a way that we use words. So that was how verbal identity came about. I didn’t really stick with it although others have since because I had invented it for internal use in Interbrand rather than something…

Nick Parker:
It wasn’t really your tone of voice.

John Simmons:
It wasn’t! But, you know as me trying to come up with a bit of internal jargon because I thought, “Well this, this is a business, that understands its own jargon and it’s comfortable with that. So let me invent it.”

Nick Parker:
Oh, interesting. And the second thing I wanted to ask was, so I basically want to check a story with you. I always tell my clients that in the history of tone of voice. Orange mobile phones was one of the first brand to have somebody whose job it was to, you know, to have tone of voice and their title or head of brand language, whatever was, is this true? I mean, I know you worked with Orange.

John Simmons:
Yeah, yeah, no, we, we, we worked with Orange. It was in the early days of the Interbrand and Newell and Sorrell. So as it became caught in the first few years after the merge, from the naming company, but there’s a bit of bad naming. And, but were then working with Orange. And it’s absolutely true. They, they, they did have someone, and I, I can name it because I’m still in touch with them. Like many of my old clients, I regard Margaret Oscar as my friend. And Margaret was there in charge, I’m not sure exactly what her title was, but Head of Brand Language sort of fits the overall description. And Margaret was doing that. And then we obviously had conversations and by then I’d written with me them and it was my first book there were some examples in that were actually quite close to Orange, what we’ve done with Cable and Wireless for example. And Orange weren’t doing real good things. And when they came along, it was a breakthrough in the mobile phone industry at that time, which was still quite young as well. But the visual styles certainly set them apart with that sort of black and white photography and the strong use of orange and, and just the name, the name was genius.

Nick Parker:
I remember seeing the ads and thinking, “What on Earth is this? What is this for?”.

John Simmons:
Yeah. But not a sight of a mobile phone. And so that was really good and the language became important. There was a lot of the language that was clear, warm and fresh. If I’m being absolutely honest.

Nick Parker:
Well, I suppose they were differentiating themselves in a way from their biggest competitor, which was BT, in the domestic phone market, which were at the time was incredibly formal and bureaucratic. So clear, warm and fresh type of voice was a distinctive thing.

John Simmons:
In that market. And it worked for them. You know, it’s become harder over the years, particularly in the mobile phone area. And you know, we’ve both done work for Three for example. And I’m not trying to put that work down, but it’s less of a difference between Orange as it was and Three, as it later came. Then there was, as you say, between BT, old bureaucratic, nationalised industry effectively and Orange that came along and “Wow, what’s all that then?”.

Nick Parker:
It feels like that’s always moving, isn’t it? There was a time when being clean, young and fresh was enough to be distinctive. Now it’s not, and it’s either, you’ve got to find like some brands find a really distinctive and unusual voice and it suits them for other brands, it just feels like too much. But then so I think particularly about there’s an insurance company called Lemonade in the US who changing the insurance industry and one of the things they’re doing is changing the language of the policy. So it feels like there’s a really interesting thing, like it’s a new, it’s an area that there’s never really been cracked before, so it’s not a particularly distinctive voice. But it’s in a very unusual place. And again, it’s like, “Well this is really interesting”.

John Simmons:
Well we got a lawyer in among our Dark Angels, Craig Watson quite brilliant and such a funny man and brilliant writer. And Craig has written a chapter on the T’s and C’s, how it works and how you can, what you can do with them because that always has been a challenge. The, problem and part of what you’ve exemplified there. The problem with tone of voice, verbal identity, whatever we choose to call it has always been that someone comes along and does something that is different and get spotted and then generates this whole crowd of imitators and you shouldn’t do that. You know, it’s like when Innocent came along and we were all so in love with Innocent because that was really different. But then every brief that we seem to get from clients would say, “Oh, we going to sound like Innocent”. And so, why? You’re an Accountants, why would you want to sound like a smoothie company? And so that continues. I think that sort of, I’m almost unthinking imitation of, “Oh, we like that” or “Can we have that?”.

Nick Parker:
And there’s something really unforgiving about language. Because that happens in visual identity all the time. I see as something becomes trendy, you know, sort of flat design or whatever it is, and then everyone does it. And that sort of feels like it’s just what’s happening and it doesn’t feel as bad somehow as just copying somebody else’s voice because there’s something much more, I don’t know, connected to the ideas, I guess connected to the way you see the world in the language.

John Simmons:
I think an interesting aspect of tone of voice as a phrase that I’ve always thought about and I always have, well not always, but frequently referred this example in, in workshops that I do and it’s just sort of, sorry my dear old Nan, wherever she is now, but no longer with us. But she was born actually late Victorian times. And so when she was growing up, the telephone was absolutely new technology to her and she never quite became comfortable with it. So when my Nan used to come over to us on a Sunday for Sunday lunch, and that would involve a phone call that was set up to my Aunt. So my Mum and her Sister, we would get my Nan talk on the phone to my Aunt who was on the other side of London and we’d sit in the other room and we listened to this voice coming from the hallway where the phone was. And we think to ourselves, “Who’s that speaking?” Because my Nan would put on a posh voice, you know? Whereas what I think, as we’ve all become accustomed to the telephone, what is really interesting about it is that you can take a call from someone, and even if their name doesn’t flash up on your phone, you can recognise who that is speaking to you as long as you know them reasonably well, they’re not a complete stranger. But you listen and you recognise the tone of voice of that person. There’s just something about the character of the voice speaking to you. And if you do that with the language here, you should be able to do it as well with the language that you read as well as hear. And that’s a big challenge because there are millions and millions of people out there and can we all be that distinctive. A smaller number of brands perhaps, so that you’ve got more chance of making a brand truly distinctive. But it does come out of the individual personalities of the people who make up the brand.

Nick Parker:
And that reminds me, there was an interesting thing isn’t there? Because we can spot that, to get philosophical for a second. We call it family relations, but they’re easy to spot and hard to define. That is why, to your point about it being a creative skill, that’s where it takes a creative ear or a creative eye, a creative hand because you can pick up on that, you know it’s there and you can then probably also replicate it or do it in different ways, but to try and pin it down. It’s really hard.

John Simmons:
Absolutely. It is hard. But that, that’s where for me in the last few years of what many people in the business world will probably regard as a bit suspicious, actually has worked fantastically well. Because I started writing novels. And so when you’re writing novels, you have characters and how do these characters speak? So you have to write dialogue for the characters. And dialogue, when I started writing the novels it was probably the most difficult thing that you had to do. It is a hard skill. And so I did it and I got better at it. I would think. So as my novels have gone on, I think each of them has got better. Purely in tone of voice terms that you’d find a particular tone of voice for individual characters. And so I’ve learned an awful lot from that. And my fundamental belief behind Dark Angels is that we can, as business writers, learn from things like fiction, from poetry, from memoirs, whatever, from the writing of those forms to put them into what might be seen as our bread and butter. And what pays the bills that then might subsidise the fictional writing that you do

Nick Parker:
And does it work the other way, do you think? Is the stuff from your business writing, marketing, writing, tone of voice work, the commercial stuff, that has helped you as a novelist.

John Simmons:
I think absolutely. Yeah. I think it’s that discipline that you take from your commercial writing because your commission is there to write a piece of so many words. So you know, having those word count disciplines is really handy. It is also that your given a brief to write something. And effectively what you’re, you then start to do when you start writing a novel is give yourself a brief as well as, so you find that you’re writing a novel, following a brief and, and elements like structure, it seems to me have become increasingly important in both aspects of my writing. But that has really just come out more recently as, not a blinding flash of light, but as just as something that has become much more established in my head as important in whatever kind of writing it that we’re doing. So it might be the structure of a Twitter message, for example, but for, that’s not necessarily in this order, but you always have the beginning, the middle and the end and you need to think about each aspect of that. And I think a commercial writer has that sort of ingrained in them and they do it quite naturally because they know the clients and you’re going to paid by them if they get that right.

Nick Parker:
In fact, it reminds me, Phillip Pullman talks about that, doesn’t he? About the, the difference between structure and tone. At the 11th hour, you have a flash of inspiration about the structure. You can quite easily take the middle and put it at the end or take a bit from here and put it in the beginning and structure’s very flexible. But if you decide you want to change the tone of voice, you can rewrite the whole thing. I think that’s really interesting.

John Simmons:
Yeah. Yeah. Well, as you know, Phillip Pullman talked to us on the Dark Angels course and the most amazing thing I thought that came out of his talk to us was that he was on draft 17 before the idea of the demons came. I mean that was a real surprise.

Nick Parker:
An idea that feels so fundamental to those books.

John Simmons:
Can’t imagine those books without the demons. Really.

Nick Parker:
And that was connected to a thing he was talking about, about if you can find ways of getting your characters to talk to themselves so you can hear as readers, which I thought was amazingly useful and interesting.

Let’s talk a bit about On Writing. So there are, there have been, I think over the last couple of years, an incredible crop of really good, really useful books about copywriting. Tom Albrighton’s book on copywriting. There’s a book by Glenn Fisher called The Art of the Click, which is very good about talking about digital writing. But it feels to me like On Writing is a completely different sort of book. It’s not a sort of practical “how to” book about writing and copywriting at all. How, how do you describe it? What sort of book is it?

John Simmons:
Well I think it’s a book, less about practicalities of how to do it than about inspiration to want to do it. And so, and that would apply to any kind of, of writing. So that, but leaving aside the fictional writing, just to focus on business writing because that’s what Dark Angels On Writing is all about. The 12 Dark Angels partners have each chosen for a chapter to write about an aspect of writing or a genre of writing that is important to them in their commercial work. So Claire Bodanis, for example, is the queen of annual reports. So Claire naturally writes about how to write an annual report and that’s really valuable because what she brings to it is this absolutely deep knowledge of how to get an annual report out in the sense of there’s a process, but also how to retain some kind of spark as well in in the language. Mike Geoghan who works as a banker in Ireland, he’s written about financial communications and he brings his deep knowledge of that. And so these aspects are really important in saying that, well if we’re talking about On Writing, it’s not just one size fits all. There are all sorts of different perspectives involved in this. And that’s what we’ve got in there. And when we mix in with it and you were one of the contributors to this. We ask 12 people that we really rate as writers in the business world or in the world of work, perhaps more accurately, because education is part of it as well. We ask them to answer the question, “why do you do what you do?” So it’s a fundamental question of purpose. We would probably ask about every brand and you know, conversation we might have with people inside that brand would include a question like that. But it’s quite unusual for writers to actually ask themselves that question. And, and we got 12 fascinating and really diverse answers to that from people like yourself and from Dan Germain and Will Audrey. So we covered the field, but I guess what unites them all is just this belief in the creative power of words.

And I think Dark Angels On Writing is a manifesto in a sense, but it manifesto makes it sound too dry. I think it is a hymn of praise to language and to the power of words. And we’ve gathered them together. We have examples at the back of the book as well, a selection from Dark Angels Alumni to show the kind of writing that they’ve done on a Dark Angels course. And I love that section of the book. I just got people like Rob Williams who was on a Dark Angels course about 10 years ago and then went on to be a screenwriter. Ah, quite a famous one now with the victim that was on BBC a couple of months ago. And so it’s just a book about the possibilities of writing, saying, here’s this extraordinary thing. We’re surrounded by words. We’re all, you know, 99.9% of the population aren’t going around saying, “I’m not a writer” because the question doesn’t arise, we think. But actually we are all writers. We’re all sending messages in one form or another. And how are we doing that? Well, we’re doing that perhaps more acutely with the takeover of our lives by mobile communications because we will call our individual styles and I’m all for that. You know, there’s a sort of sniffy strain. We started with, “Oh, text messaging is terrible”. It’s going to devalue the language would be the end of everything but is good about civilisation. No, I think it’s great because it encourages in individuality and it’s a better way for communication between people.

Nick Parker:
I had a client tell me a story not long ago when he started in his job in sort of probably late nineties. He said, well, if he wanted to write to a customer, you had to get permission from his manager. And it was like a special day. It was Writing to Customers Day. He’d get his golf ball typewriter out or his word processor out and this thesaurus and it was a big deal. And he’s like, and now, you know, emailing a thousand times a day, I’ve got a blog on connecting with customers on Twitter. It’s like, at some point over the last 20 odd years, I don’t know when it happened that I became a writer. I think that is happening to more and more people and it’s less and less seen as an another thing connected to the English lessons we had at school. Now it’s more just about connection.

John Simmons:
I think if I were to try and sum up what happens on the Dark Angels course, for example we gather people who were all rather nervous when they come along and we quite understand, that that’s fine. We were soon able to overcome that nervousness by creating the right atmosphere. But the thing that happens on a Dark Angels course is that from the beginning to the time they leave at the end, at the end they are saying, “I am a writer”. And there’s that recognition with a very it’s a powerful thing. If you’d got that inside yourself and you say, “I am a writer”, then the whole world is before you.

Nick Parker:
I think that feels like a perfect point to finish. John Simmons, you are a writer. Sign yourself up to a Dark Angels course. Buy yourself a Voicebox! Get yourself a copy of On Writing! Thanks very much, John.

John Simmons:
Thank you, Nick.