I’m a firm believer in the immense value of reading and I’m not sure I can recall any book, no matter how poor, from which I have not learned something. I’m reading the definitive Sherlock Holmes collection at the moment and, surprisingly, I have come across a few unexpected gems.
In the ‘Sign of the Four’, for example, Holmes tells Dr. Watson that he has a ‘peculiar constitution’ in that he can work prodigiously without getting tired but what causes him tiredness is ‘idleness’.
I know what he means for I have the same inclination myself-it is seldom work itself that causes me fatigue but boredom and ‘idleness’ as Holmes describes it.
At the beginning of the book we encounter Dr. Watson observing Holmes injecting himself with cocaine. Holmes explains that when he has a riddle or mystery to solve his mind is occupied and pleasingly engaged. But when he has no riddle to solve he turns to cocaine for stimulation.
I was never a huge Sherlock Holmes fan but my opinion is being altered by a small number of unexpected but astute observations in each of Conan Doyle’s novels I have read to date (a ‘Study in Scarlet’ and the ‘Sign of the Four’).
Check out the reviews of books on Amazon. You will find it
worthwhile and you will find some surprises.
For example, a book like “To Kill a Mockingbird”, with 3,664 reviews and an average of 4.7 stars out of a maximum 5. Yet 2% of its reviews are 1 star.
Of the 3,664 reviews 73 people gave it 1 measly star.
“Bleak House” by Charles Dickens, a classic book by any definition, and one of the finest books ever written concerning the law, has 3,760 reviews with an average of 4.4 out of 5 stars.
Yet, 4% of the reviewers give it 1 star.
Pick your own favourite book and check the reviews; you will
find that at least 2% of reviewers will give 1 star for the best book you have
Do a search for the greatest book of all time and a Guardian newspaper list gives the number 1 slot to “Don Quixote” by Cervantes. Head over to Amazon.co.uk and you will find that the reviews show that 8% of reviewers give it 1%.
What can you take from this?
When you get a bad review from a client or customer, or
critical comments online, or unfair criticism, remember that even the very
best, the towering greats in any sphere of activity, are getting 2% of customers
to opine that they are crap.
Nobody can serve everybody; just remember this the next time
you receive an unfair review or criticism or someone doesn’t like your blog
post or YouTube video or service or product.
This is not an excuse for bad service, however, and if the
criticism is valid you should be thankful for the person taking the time and
giving you the opportunity to improve.
The older I get the more I recognise the power of story and
Take a look at the world in the last few years and the
stories that were successfully told:
The story Trump told the blue collar workers in
the ‘rustbelt’ states in the US during the 2016 presidential election
The story Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and
colleagues told to the public in the United Kingdom during the Brexit
Perhaps you have told a compelling story yourself in the
last few years. Maybe you have been telling one all your life.
We tell stories to persuade and influence. Stories are powerful
and the human mind is particularly receptive to story.
The story we tell ourselves, our family, our friends and
colleagues, the Workplace Relations Commission, the Labour Court, Civil Court,
Criminal Court, our boss, our schoolteachers, the voter is a powerful tool in
whether we will succeed or not.
And when it comes to a dispute, regardless of the venue in
which it will be held, the dispute can be boiled down to at least two competing
versions of events-two stories.
Whose story will prevail? Whose story is the most
compelling? Whose story will the adjudicator ‘prefer’?
I was at an excellent event recently UCD. It was a competition
for PhD students to explain in plain language, to a lay audience, the research
they were carrying out.
This is not an easy task given the level of complexity of
much of the research, and the associated language and science vocabulary.
After each presentation the expert panel of judges asked a
few questions of each of the PhD students. One young man presented his interesting
research on feeding cocaine to rats as part of a project to look into cures for
One of the questions from a judge was how the student would
persuade industry/business get involved and finance further research into an
apparently exciting area. The reply of the student, who would have had no forewarning
of the questions, replied, “I would show them the data”.
However, I fear that was the wrong answer because data alone
won’t sell anything; story, combined with data, will do the trick, however.
Story is one of the most powerful, and underutilised or
badly applied, tools we have at our disposal. We need to use it wisely.
And the first story we need to concern ourselves is the story we tell ourselves.
P.S. Proud to write that my daughter, Rebecca, won that competition.
It’s amazing where you will learn stuff if you take the time
to observe closely. Let me explain.
There’s a man on YouTube with his own YouTube channel.
Even though the views he espouses are, to my mind, pathetic,
odious, chauvinistic, right wing, misogynistic, and repulsive I have learned
something from him.
Before I share what I have learnt it is noteworthy that he
has over 100,000 subscribers, the vast majority of whom are men. He is a mature
man. Not only is he mature, he looks mature, too, for he has grey hair and a well-trimmed
grey beard and lives on his own.
I have not paid much heed to his back story or what he has
said about his living arrangements, but I gather from the titles of his videos
that he lives alone and has been through a great deal of relationships and a
divorce or two.
He gives advice to men about love, women, relationships,
what it means to be a man, why feminism is to be attacked, and spreads a lot of
nonsense bordering on misogyny. But his subscribers love him and see him as the
father or grandfather many of them never had.
So he gives this purportedly home spun, worldly advice about
all types of things to do with life, especially from a man’s perspective. He even
has a video on how to smoke a pipe and he has guys asking him questions about
smoking pipes, tobacco, and so forth.
In 2019, for young men to be getting advice on YouTube about
the benefits of, and techniques for, smoking a pipe is mind boggling.
Because this guy, from time to time, just sits there thinking
about choosing the right words to speak and puffing on his pipe. Not in any
He waits until he is ready, until he has the right words,
and he doesn’t edit or cut out the natural contemplation or thinking or ‘dead
space’ or choosing of the right words to articulate what he wants to say.
His self confidence in this regard is stunning because the
most natural thing in the world for most of us is to either fill the space with
some words, somehow, or edit it out before uploading the video to YouTube.
And his YouTube subscriber count continues to grow and grow
inexorably with his subscribers and viewers giving him the most positive
So, it’s amazing what you learn when you are watching closely with an open mind, even if you find the individual or his views anti-diluvian and odious.
The connection between the simplistic thinking demonstrated by Mary Lou McDonald’s carrying of a banner “England get out of Ireland” in New York on St. Patrick’s Day and the crude, one-dimensional thinking which led to riots in Derry at Easter culminating in the death of Lyra McKee is discernible.
Yet that connection did not prevent Mary Lou from holding up
an LGBT banner in Derry when speaking about the tragic loss of the young woman’s
tragic death whilst condemning the killing.
I envy the individual who, without the need for coarse or vulgar or oversimplified language, or the need for vocal stumbling and stuttering and ums and ahs and vocal fry, can fully articulate his views on a topic about which he feels strongly.
For example, if I tried to explain my opinion of how odious
and repulsive an individual Donald Trump is I get so tongue tied that I do one
of two things:
I refrain from entering upon the question at
I revert to bad language and verbal and vocal inarticulation.
I am tremendously frustrated about this, and it’s not just
Donald Trump that causes this-no, anything about which I feel strongly has this
I want to conquer this problem, if not entirely, at least to
Unfortunately, this problem developed years ago when I was
going to school and I have never had the desire to do anything about it.
I do now, though, because I appreciate the value of crystal-clear
communication through the use of cogent, well chosen, appropriate, accurate
thoughts and words. I hope it’s not too late; I don’t think so if I work at it
but the first step in addressing the problem is to recognise it.
The next step is to do something about it, and I suspect,
but may stand corrected, that the first step may be to articulate the thoughts
and feelings in words. I say ‘may’ because there is a danger that the two
disciplines-oral communication and written communication-are completely
different and one will not necessarily be improved as a consequence of
improving the other.
From time to time I fantasise about writing blog posts in
the style of Dickens or Tolstoy or Dostoevsky.
I write a good deal of content for consumption by people on
the internet who have limited, and narrowing, attention spans.
To counter this I have employed a technique which writers
for the internet, bloggers, and content marketers are advised to use. This
involves short words, short sentences, short paragraphs, and lots of white
One of the objectives of this technique is to make the content
as snackable and accessible as possible. And I know it works because people frequently
tell me they love reading my stuff, that I make it easy to read and understand,
and so forth.
This is not an accident for this is precisely what I set out
But sometimes I dream about writing a blog post in one or
two long sentences-in the style of Charles Dickens, for example.
And I imagine throwing in words that are not short and
simple and have only one syllable. But words that are difficult, obscure, rarely
used but appropriate for the situation. Words and phrases like ‘dissipation’, ‘urbanity’,
‘agreeable’, ‘disagreeable’, ‘displeasure’, ‘much engaged’, ‘prodigiously’, ‘melancholy’,
‘admonition’, ‘withering scorn’, ‘much occupied by his sagacity’, ‘unreserved
intimacy’, ‘unquiet spirit’, and so forth.
Maybe one day, for the sheer hell of it, I will ‘fall to
prodigiously’ and break loose.
Using story is one of the most effective ways of communicating and persuading.
A story can be as short as 3 seconds, or as long as a lifetime.
The video below is a 5-minute story and you will probably recognise the 3 “acts” or “stages” in it. Making this video is the product of a challenge I set myself on a Saturday morning in April: make a story out of something ordinary around my home on an average Saturday.
If you need to influence or persuade, and let’s face it-who
doesn’t, you will probably benefit greatly by thinking about how you can use
story in your aid.