My Tattooist of Auschwitz Lesson

A petite mother of 4 from Eastern Europe prompted me to write this article.

I have been meaning, for some time, to write about the benefits to be derived from reading books.

I am a voracious reader and always have at least two books on the go-one on my Kindle and one audiobook on my Audible app.

Until I met Kasia I was going to argue that one of the great benefits of reading is you can learn from the mistakes, learnings, and experience of others. Others who may have had completely different experiences, or others who had similar experiences to you, or who had trod a path you wish to travel on.

The lessons you can learn from great historical figures, from autobiographies of men and women who have fought and won and lost great struggles, from ordinary people who have faced and fought enormous personal challenges, from geniuses, from deeply flawed individuals are of immense value.

Starting a business, a political movement, trying to effect change, change the law, practice law-no matter what your task of passion is you can learn from the mistakes of the others. The others who walked that path before you.

Back to Kasia, though.

I am listening to the Tattooist of Auschwitz on Audible at the moment. It is a fabulous, uplifting, inspiring true story of a Jewish man, Lale Sokolov from Slovakia, who was forced to work as the Tattooist in the Auschwitz concentration camp during the second world war.

What is inspiring about the book is the number of incidences of people showing kindness and love to their fellow inmates in the most appalling circumstances you could possibly imagine. It is difficult not to imagine yourself in such a situation and wondering whether you would behave with the same dignity and nobility and kindness as some of the characters, including Lale, in the book.

I will never have to worry about the answer to this question, thankfully.

But it was a question that was in the back of my mind when Kasia came into my office unannounced. She wanted help with an application to the Student Universal Support Ireland [SUSI] on behalf of one of her children.

My first reaction was to tell her she needed an appointment.

But my next reaction was to ask ‘what would Lale do in this situation?’ What was that I read in the Tattooist about Lale trading jewellery and cash taken from dead prisoners sent to the gas chambers for food which he then distributed to the most needy.

And the answer was obvious: he would have helped her.

I’m glad to say I did, too. I’m no angel, no Mother Teresa but I was pleased I did the right thing. I tried to help her.

It turned out her husband had left her, and she was looking after the children on her own. And the first child had done well enough in the leaving certificate to be awarded a place in third level education. She needed help with the SUSI grant.

You can find many things in books: lessons, truth, ugliness, beauty. The reasons for reading books on a consistent basis are, to my mind, so self-evident as to not warrant explanation.

But listening to the Tatooist of Auschwitz and Kasia walking into my office in the same week gave me another illustration, if any was needed, of the stunning power of books and the lessons to be learned if you are open to them.  

Words Meaning More Than Their Ordinary Meaning

I was watching the championship hurling match between Kilkenny and Cork a few weeks ago and the true meaning of words and language hit me.

The game was on RTE and, if my memory is accurate, the hurling pundits were Henry Shefflin, Anthony Daly, and Ken McGrath from Waterford. McGrath was a great hurler, one of the best ever never to have won an All-Ireland medal, played for Waterford for at least a decade, and won 3 All Star awards.

What McGrath had to say after the match was won by Kilkenny sent a shiver down my spine.

Kilkenny were not fancied to beat Cork. Cork were knocking on the door to win an All-Ireland for the last few years and many people had a quiet fancy for them to win it this year. Kilkenny, on the other hand, were seen to be in transition and Brian Cody was trying to build a new team that would get them back to the top of the hurling pile.

Kilkenny played well in the first half, but the game was in the balance and it was still all to play for at half time.

But the young Kilkenny team came out in the second half, played with real steel and skill and won easily in the end.

Anyone who loves the GAA and hurling in particular look forward to the banter in the studio between the experts, the hurlers who in the recent past strode the hurling pitch like giants until time came calling.

When Ken McGrath was asked for his comment, he said something like,

‘I grew up in Waterford city and was envious of our neighbours up the road (referring to Kilkenny) but today’, he said with his eyes lit up and bulging and shaking his head in awe, ‘these are men. Real men.’

Ken McGrath, ex Waterford hurler

Only a hurling man truly understood how big a compliment this was.

Only a GAA man recognised the real value of what McGrath had said, and knew what McGrath meant, and knew the picture he painted was far larger than the sum of the 5 words he had uttered about the Kilkenny hurlers.

A hurling or GAA fan, steeped in the legend of the games and the hero worship of his own personal heroes down through the years, knew exactly what Ken McGrath was talking about.

No further analysis was needed.

How Do You Reconcile the Writing Style of Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway?

I discovered Ernest Hemingway a few years ago. That was mainly thanks to my study of ‘copywriting’ and trying to write well for web visitors to my various websites/blogs. The advice was straightforward, and easy to follow provided you followed some simple rules.

The rules focused on using short words, short sentences, short paragraphs and making it as easy as possible for the greatest number of people to read my blog posts. That’s where Hemingway came in because he was held up as the leading proponent of such vigorous, muscular, frills free writing. If you were in any doubt you only had to read his novella, ‘The Old Man and the Sea’.

Then I discovered Charles Dickens. It took a while to wade through the first Dickens book I read, ‘Bleak House’, but I soon appreciated Dickens’s genius. This genius was, in my view, founded on his stories, his storytelling, and the unforgettable, vivid characters he created in his books.

When I think then about the difference between Hemingway and Dickens, I struggle to reconcile the chasms of difference between the two styles. Sometimes I resent having to ‘dumb down’ and write in a way that makes what I write easy to read, understand, and scan. Sometimes I would like to write a blog post in the Dickens style of writing.

I doubt, however, that the piece would be read. The attention span of web surfers is short and getting shorter and you had better make your stuff easy to consume or you will not be read.

And the main purpose of writing is to get read, at least by the people for whom you are writing and catering.

One thing I can say with confidence: writing in the ‘Hemingway’ style has the most profound effect on readers. I have had people come to see me from all over the country and many of them have referred to my writing and even go so far as to quote some of my own stuff back to me.

Meanwhile, I want to improve my craft and continue learning and communicating with the greatest number of people who may have concerns with which I can help.

Thinking About Starting a Podcast

I am considering starting a podcast. Turning over in my mind the pros and cons.

I don’t want to start one that I would not be happy to put my name to, that I could not have some pride in and want to say, with some justified satisfaction, ‘I made this’.

The starting point in my thinking, which I have set my face against for some time, is the success of my YouTube channel and the steady growth in subscriber numbers, increasing amount of comments, engagement, good feedback, compliments, follow up legal queries to the office, and, ultimately, consultations/clients.  I was thinking about how feasible it might be to extract the audio from many of my best, most popular videos and simply publish the audio as a podcast. This would be an easy way to start and a good ‘repurposing’ of existing content I created and own.

It would be easy, too, to create an ‘intro’ and ‘outro’ track and custom edit the audio for each episode of the podcast. And much of the editing could be done on my existing Camtasia 2018 software which is my video editing software and with which I have become more comfortable and proficient.

Some of my videos-those which rely on slides or images-would not be suitable but lately a huge number of my videos, which have been very well received, are simply ‘talking head’ type videos with me speaking directly to the camera on my Galaxy S9 mobile phone either at home or in the office.

The reason I have set my face against starting a podcast for so long is that I have done everything in terms of content creation and digital/social media marketing that one person could reasonably do and I have a concern about spreading myself too thin in trying to take on too much.

I am a one-man band after all and I think you would be genuinely surprised that I create all the content-blog posts, videos, slideshows, images, social media posts- and do all the digital marketing myself, completely solo.

Having said that I am now making videos with great ease in a short amount of time and a great deal of efficiency and my own ‘system’. By this I mean to say that most of the videos I make are done with one take and only take ten minutes or thereabouts. A few more minutes editing and uploading to YouTube and Facebook and I am easily knocking out a video in 30 minutes maximum.

There are some obvious benefits which might flow from a podcast, benefits such as new leads, new clients, and the benefit of acquiring and developing new skills in communicating. Anything that helps me to improve my ability to communicate is something that I would embrace vigorously for I am a huge believer in the power of communication and the acquisition and improvement of communication skills.

I have not decided one way or the other yet, and I will do a little more research about it, but I know and understand the basic skills in podcasting and I am an enthusiastic consumer of podcasts and audiobooks because they are so convenient to consume as I go about my ordinary life-for example driving to work, jogging every evening, mowing the lawn at the weekend.

All of these times I now spend listening to audiobooks or podcasts. If podcasts have slowly but surely become part of my everyday life I think it is a reasonable assumption that other people, whilst exercising or commuting or walking the dog or engaging in other ordinary everyday activities, are finding and enjoying podcasts too.

Digital Panhandling Is Not a Marketing Strategy

If you are running your own small business and it is heavily dependent on spamming your friends on the various social media platforms to buy your stuff you probably don’t have a real business.

You almost certainly need to reconsider your marketing strategy, assuming one was generous enough to consider such unwanted, uninvited interruptions online as a ‘marketing strategy’.

Because you will soon run out of friends.

Social media marketing has the capability of being of enormous benefit to the development and continued running of a successful business. But the way you use social media is vital and it is easy to take what appears to be an easy option to just tap up your friends.

This is no more than a form of digital pan-handling.

Adding your friends to groups on social media or messaging platforms with a view to hitting them up repeatedly to ‘buy my shit’ is lazy and unimaginative.

Seriously.

What you need to do instead is deliver value up front, in advance to build awareness of you, your brand, and your product or services.

This is a simple, effective strategy but needs thought and hard, consistent work.

The alternative is the destruction of whatever chance you have of building a business and the loss of friends.

Writing As Art

I have been labouring under the misapprehension all my life that a sentence must have a verb. Master McDyer told us this in the national school in Enfield when I was in 5th class. ‘Hogs grunt’, he would say, ‘that’s a sentence’.

I have just finished a book called ‘The Elements of Eloquence: How To Turn the Perfect English Phrase’ and the author, Mark Forsyth, points out that this is not the case. And some of the examples he gives come straight from the first chapter of the first book I ever read from the author who would later become my favourite.

The author was Charles Dickens, the book was ‘Bleak House’, and the first sentence in that book goes as follows: ‘London’.

And then the book proceeds for a further 384 words, or thereabouts, without a verb. It describes the fog in London at that time, the fog being a metaphor for the law. The fog was everywhere, all pervasive, enveloping the city, stifling London during Michaelmas term, if memory serves me well.

The fundamental hypothesis of Forsyth’s book is that words and writing are not only for communicating but also for the creation of art. He argues that the popularity of the ‘plain English’ writing championed by, amongst others, Ernest Hemingway is not the only way to write and even if you have nothing to say you can say it well with beautiful writing.

He makes the valid comparison between writing and clothing and the acceptance (by most of us anyway) that clothing serves other purposes in addition to the purely functional task of covering the human anatomy and keeping us warm.

So it is with writing and language and words.

The book is not a white knuckle ride or a page turner by any stretch of the imagination. But if you like words, if you place a value on words and how they are laid out and used, if you have an interest in rhetoric the ‘The Elements of Eloquence: How To Turn the Perfect English Phrase’ is worth the few bob I paid on Kindle.

And like virtually every book I have read, no matter how apparently boring or useless or didactic or lecturing or smart alecky, there is always one or two gems you can pick up. Like diamonds in a pigsty. And that is certainly the case with this one.

How to Speak Like a Leader

How to convince and persuade by the use of words is something that fascinates me. Regardless of whether the words are written or spoken the power to move other people with your choice of words and formulation of what you wish to say has been evident from time immemorial.

From Aristotle’s ‘Rhetoric’ (also known as ‘the Art of Rhetoric’, ‘On Rhetoric’, or a ‘Treatise on Rhetoric’) to Adolf Hitler to Martin Luther King to Winston Churchill to Barack Obama, the ability of a speaker, through the judicious use of words and some basic guiding principles, to make a change is clear.

Recently, I came across a video on YouTube from Simon Lancaster which sets out 6 rhetorical devices to allow you speak like a leader. Here’s the video

The 6 tools he identifies are

  1. 3 breathless sentences (eg ‘Veni, Vidi, Vici’)
  2. 3 repetitive sentences (‘we will fight them on the beaches; we will fight them on..’)
  3. Contrasts (between what you are advocating for and the situation if you do nothing)
  4. the use of metaphor
  5. exaggeration (Donald Trump is a successful exponent)
  6. a rhyme (‘if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit’ used by defence counsel, Johnnie Cochran, in the OJ Simpson trial)

These tools can be used in many situations where you wish to convince or persuade, not just in speeches or wishing to sound or speak like a leader.

And they are tried and tested for thousands of years since Aristotle first gave us the tools of rhetoric.

I touched on some lessons we can learn from Aristotle when it comes to communicating in this video:

Why I Rarely Answer the Phone

I rarely answer my phone.

The reason is because I find it inefficient and wasteful of the scarce and decreasing resource of my time.

It is interruptive, too, of course, and I can be caught off guard and I run the risk of responding or reacting to what the caller has to say without considering all the facts first. This is a risk I can easily avoid by not answering the phone.

The caller can, of course, leave a message either on my voicemail or with whoever answers the phone in my office. This gives me a greater degree of control. Control of my response, control of my time, control of my emotions.

And anything that gives me a greater degree of control over a controllable is a ‘good thing’ in my book. Because there are so many things that you cannot control and come out of left field.

Another problem with the phone is the social niceties and norms expected in a phone call: the small talk, chit-chat, the ‘beating around the bush’ that’s expected.

It does not require a complex calculation to discover that if I do this countless times each day and each day in a week I will be spending my time like a sailor on shore leave.

Not going to happen.

Synchronous communication

The other big problem with using the phone for conversations is that it is synchronous communication. This means both me and the other party must be present at the same time. This is rarely likely to be convenient for both of us.

For example, this week I departed from my usual practice and tried to speak with another solicitor on the phone to return his call. This involved both of us ringing each other at least 3 times each day for 5 days running to discover on each occasion that the other one was ‘in a meeting’ or otherwise engaged.

I can understand this-that is why I rarely use the phone for calls. I much prefer to use it, if at all, for asynchronous communications-for example message or email.

Asynchronous communications

Asynchronous communications involve communication which does not require both parties to be present at the same time. For example, email or written message.

This is the type of communication which I prefer and use all the time.

It is tremendously time efficient and allows both parties to get to the point immediately, communicate the message, and not require each other to be present at the same time.

The usual niceties that you might get dragged into when communicating by phone can be avoided, too.

Time efficiency

I’m a solicitor and I am immensely jealous of my time, how I use it and spend it.

Let’s face it, I sell my time (and expertise) in small chunks.

Please understand, therefore, if I don’t answer your call or if I am unavailable or I am engaged or in a meeting. It’s not personal, just business.

I am simply conserving the most precious commodity of all: time.

P.S. I answer all emails.

This Might Not Work

Travelling east towards Dublin in the old N4 at Moyvalley you will see a piece of waste ground just off the main road. It is in front of what used to be ‘McGovern’s’ pub and just before you see ‘Fureys’ pub on the left.

It is an area of approximately a half acre, I would guess, and a few weeks ago a guy pulled in and set up a mobile catering business. He had a mobile food van which opened up at the side and from which he dispensed coffee and food likely to be popular amongst road users, especially truck drivers and anyone happy to plug a gap in the appetite in the most convenient way possible.

I don’t suppose any of the legalities of planning permission or food regulations were at the forefront of the mind of the entrepreneur who started the service.

As I drove past every morning and evening on my way to the office in Enfield I was silently rooting for him, hoping it would work. I always root for the ‘man in the arena’, the small guy or girl, the start up, the brave ones who have a go and try to build a business that will at least sustain them.

As you would expect the first few days were quiet and I saw him waiting for commuters to give him a try. Gradually, he got busier and things were looking up, appeared to be improving.

It’s now two weeks later and the only sign of him is the discarded ‘fresh coffee’ signs in the ditches approaching where he set up and started his business.

Anyone who has started a business knows things can go well or badly but one thing is certain: you need a bit of fortitude and commitment to make a go of it. Two weeks doesn’t seem long enough, in my view.

But the bottom line is ‘this might not work’, and you had better keep this in mind when you are starting a business. That’s the bad news.

The good news is you can start again.

Besmirching the Tricolour

Something I’ve noticed lately on certain social media sites, such as Twitter and YouTube, is the use of the Irish tricolour in the profiles of certain individuals who hold views ranging from xenophobia to racism.

These keyboard warriors, most of whom hide behind a fake name, feel free to spout hateful bile about the State, immigrants, and people with whom they disagree from the safety and comfort that a fake profile on YouTube or Twitter can offer.

The tricolour is supposed to symbolise a coming together of two traditions on this island: Catholic and Protestant. It is supposed to stand for peace and inclusion, not putting up barriers and the creation of division between Irish people and non Irish.

The backward looking fools who wrap themselves in the tricolour under these circumstances besmirch it.

In the recent past we used to sneer at the Brit who wore Union Jack shorts on his Spanish holidays.

Now we have his Irish, digital counterpart poncing around on Twitter and Facebook with hateful antediluvian, neanderthal comments about Longford being overrun with immigrants or becoming like Birmingham.