In the early part of 26 ways of looking at a blackberry, John Simmons tells the story of the genesis for his new book. He was sitting on a plane, headed for a writing course in Spain that he was due to co-lead, when the idea for the book sprang into his mind, almost fully formed. Desperate not to lose the moment, and not feeling free to disturb his slumbering neighbour from unsweet Ryanair dreams in order to reach a notebook in the overhead locker, he could find nothing other than a Starbucks receipt upon which to catch his moment of inspiration.
It’s a marvellous metaphor for the entire book, which is all about constraints, a theme for business writing that has been one of John’s guiding principles for the past ten years or so.
As he says, it’s an obvious thought that all business writing is rooted in constraint, because everything starts from a client brief. However much the writer dares to challenge, stretch and work their topological magic, the brief is still the brief, and it’s within those limits that the writer must pick up his pencil and go to work.
For John, though, this way liberation lies, and the joy of 26 Ways is the exploration of the boundaries of constraint and the permissions and opportunities that lie within them. The structural device for this exploration is to take the familiar format of the annual report, in this case a mythical company (Technology Holdings) that John created for the purposes of the book, and then to find 26 constraints that force him into reinterpreting the report in different ways.
Speaking to a full audience in the Nancy Knowles lecture theatre at the Globe Theatre on 7 May, John told the story of a number of these versions, and read two excerpts from the book. The format of the evening was run with John in conversation with 26’s Martin Lee, followed by an open question session. As lecture theatres go, the Globe’s is remarkably intimate, and the evening had a feeling of a fireside chat, contributing a lot to the charm of the occasion.
Throughout the book, John uses anecdotes and illustrations from projects spanning his full consulting career, from Guinness to the London Underground, by way of Cross Country trains and many more, together with various 26 assignments. As one story layers upon another, there is a quietly building sense of momentum, and the suspicion gradually dawns that the book has the feel of a major review or summary. When asked about this during the evening, John revealed that 26 Ways is almost certain to represent his last book on business writing, principally because he feels that with this book he has essentially laid out everything that he feels about the subject. That being the case, it was a fascinating opportunity to ask him more about his career and find out exactly how he’d ended up becoming the founding figure of modern business writing, or verbal identity, to use his own chosen phrase.
In responding to this request, we heard about how he spent the first ten years of his career in the civil service, but, desperate to move on from that, found himself increasingly drawn to the world of design, to which he was tangentially connected. In the end, Newell & Sorrell took him on in the – to him – unlikely and ill-defined position of Project Manager, but in reality fulfilling the role of being John Sorrell’s assistant.
The transition into a fully fledged championship of verbal identity happened gradually, almost by stealth, but was accelerated through publishing landmark books, such as We, me, them and it and also through working with clients such as Waterstone’s that gave him full license to explore the role of words and language in business.
In telling this account, John had his audience fully engaged. One of his most penetrating observations was in saying that the thing that pleases him about modern business writing is that there is growing respect for the power of story telling. To that point, the power of his own story telling is at a very high order, and before questions he concluded by reading a couple of excerpts from 26 Ways, both of which were variations of the base text, as John refers to the mythical company’s report. One of them, appropriately given the venue, was a Shakespearian sonnet version, while the other sprang out of the idea of Technology Holdings’ origin story, to illustrate the importance of a sense of place in business writing. And indeed, as the different interpretations of the original annual report copy build one after another, a company that starts out (in the reader’s mind) as a convenient device for John’s constraints, ends up being a fascinating source of interest in its own right.
Before disappearing off to the bar in time-honoured fashion, there was one final twist on the night. Each person found a copy of the base text on their seat, and John’s final challenge to the audience was to write their own version, perhaps in the style of an author they particularly like or respond to in some way, and to send it back. The entries are to be judged, and one fortunate individual will receive a free annual subscription to 26 by way of prize.
Perhaps the final word could go to his editor, Lisa Carden from A&C Black. Asked about what it was like to have John as an author, she said “He’s the only author I’ve ever worked with who submitted his manuscript before the deadline, and without needing a single word or punctuation mark corrected.”