How do words get into the dictionary?

Usage and abusage, defriending and impacting…

“It’s a bit of a what?” said my friend to me. 

“Schlep,” I repeated. And repeating myself and explaining the word gave me a chance to say it over and over.

There’s something about schlep I find hugely appealing. It’s the sort of word you can roll around in your mouth and really sink your teeth into.

And because it’s not much used in the UK, it often provokes a quizzical eyebrow. It comes from German via Yiddish, and I picked it up when I lived in South Africa, where it’s in common use.

As a verb with an object, it means to carry something heavy (I schlepped my shopping to the car). Objectless or as a noun, it refers to a difficult journey (It’s a schlep to get to Gatwick – which is what I said to my friend).

The very next day, I had an IM ping-pong with a client about whether impact could be used as a verb – which is what I’d done in some copy.

Now I’m the first to admit that I’m a Grammar Nazi, but sooner or later, you have to accept that a usage has become the norm and you’re better off not fighting it anymore. So I don’t. But my client is keeping up the struggle just a bit longer, so in the end we plumped for affect.

Schlep and impact were very much on my mind as I recently watched a talk by Anne Curzan, who’s professor of English at the University of Michigan.

She’s a language historian who’s been on the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel for over a decade, and host of a radio show called That’s What They Say.

Curzan talks about the people behind dictionaries, and the never‑ending tussle between definition and usage. 

If you’ve ever perused a document, you might be surprised to learn the primary definition of the word. And if you’ve never been hangry or called somebody adorkable, you’ll add two more words to your vocabulary.

And maybe you’ll think twice the next time you use decimate.

What makes a word “real”? is entertaining and enlightening, with some unexpected discoveries. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

[If you’re reading this in an email, click here to see the talk on]

The art of listening - and why it's not all about you

Going with the flow, letting it go and staying out of the weeds

I had dinner with a friend a few weeks ago.

We’d both forgotten it was Valentine’s Day, as it figures on neither of our radars. So we were were surrounded by couples gazing adoringly at each other, and our candlelit table was strewn with rose petals.

The waiter obviously thought we were together, and greeted us with a knowing smile. Amused by his mistake, we decided not to burst his bubble.

As we ate and chatted, I realised that ours was one of the few tables where there wasn’t an uninvited guest. For all around us, as far as the eye could see (and the restaurant was long, narrow and packed) were couples one or both of whose faces were illuminated by the glow of not just a candle, but a smartphone. 

Now my friend and I both have phones – in fact we’d arranged to meet via WhatsApp, as phone calls are so yesterday – but we never have them on the table when we meet up. Instead, they’re tucked away safely in our pockets, out of sight and out of mind.

And that makes a big difference, as we’re not distracted when we talk. We’re both present in the moment (three years on, I’m still on the mindfulness kick) and we have better conversations because of it.

But it’s not just that we have no distractions. He’s one of the few people I know who actually gets how a conversation works: the give and take, the listening and talking, the to and fro.

And that’s perhaps no surprise, given that he worked for years as a broadcast journalist, getting people to open up and tell their story.

Which leads me nicely to Celeste Headlee, whose talk on TED has already racked up almost 7 million views. 

You can see why. 10 ways to have a better conversation is amusing, waffle-free and highly practical.

The veteran radio host says you should forget everything you’ve been told about how to talk and listen (“It’s crap!” she says bluntly, to an amused audience). Instead, she gives her top tips based on decades of experience.

You’ll find out what Buddha said about having your mouth open, why it’s a bad idea to pontificate, and how conversations are like a mini-skirt. 

For anybody involved in communication, this talk is a must. Whether you’re in conversation with a client, a case-study interviewee, your marketing agency or a prospect – or even a friend over a table of rose petals – you can use these simple techniques to great effect.

At a fraction under 12 minutes, it’s a presentation that walks the talk, obeying the last of the 10 rules: be brief.

I hope you enjoy it.

[If you’re reading this in an email, click here to see the talk on]

How to connect with a stranger (or a prospect)

Beautiful interruptions, unexpected connections and shoes as a secret weapon

Connect with a stranger

As I settled into my seat on the London-bound Eurostar at the Gare du Nord early last year, I was feeling sad and happy in equal measure.

I was leaving Paris after three wonderful months, and would miss it terribly. But at the same time, I was returning to friends and family, and to my old familiar routine back in England.

I’d almost abandoned my madcap idea to temporarily decamp to the City of Lights, when I had a chance encounter online that changed everything.

One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was installed in Montmartre in a spacious des res, whose owner had fled south to the sun to escape the European winter. 

And so I spent three months meeting new people, following new routines, and exploring new possibilities. From the stranger I spoke to on the outbound Eurostar journey to the chap I bumped into in the boulangerie, from the South American translator to the reiki healer, my life had been full of chance encounters and mind-broadening experiences. 

Stranger danger

So when a woman came trundling down the aisle sighing heavily under the weight of her many bags, I somehow knew she was destined to sit next to me.

And so she did, after wondering (incorrectly) if I’d taken her window seat. She was clearly in a foul mood, muttering to herself as the train pulled out of the station.

Two-and-a-quarter hours of this, I thought. And then I decided to act.

“Vous aimez les mots croisés?” I asked her, pointing to her crossword book. “Ça m’a l’air vachement compliqué, celui-là!” And indeed the puzzle did look fiendishly complicated, with few black squares and mind-bendingly cryptic clues.

That was enough to get her to smile and start a conversation.

Two-and-a-quarter hours later, we pulled into St Pancras in London, still talking. We’d ranged across a wide variety of subjects, from teaching to city living, from happiness to startups.

As we entered the arrivals hall, she hugged her waiting daughter (an expat startup owner) and introduced her to me. Before leaving, she gave me her card and invited me to her farm in France.

And the moral of the story? Talk to strangers. Connect. Find a point of interest and use it as a springboard for a conversation. 

Not just on trains, but on your website. Not just in boulangeries, but in your e-books. Not just in alternative bookstores over the reiki titles, but in your newsletter.

Which brings me around to a TED talk I watched last week.

Kio Stark’s Why you should talk to strangers transported me back to my Paris experience, and reminded me that it doesn’t end when you return home. 

She’s not talking about marketing, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t apply. She says we should use our senses instead of fears, perceptions instead of categories, and start thinking of people as individuals. She talks about ‘beautiful interruptions’ and ‘unexpected connections’, which is something we all hope our marketing efforts will do. 

You’ll find out why it’s easier to smile in Asia than Denmark, and why shoes (or their virtual equivalent) may very well be the secret weapon you’re looking for, hot on the heels of dogs and babies.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

[If you’re reading this in an email, click here to see the talk on]

How to scale successfully - and avoid 'systematic collapse'

Elephants, cities and companies. And what they have in common…

Think of one of your favourite suppliers. I don’t mean big brands, but small ones. The boutique PR agency or the web-hosting company you use. Or anybody who’s ‘small enough to care, but big enough to cope’ (in that time-worn marketing phrase). So they’re in that happy space between being a mom-and-pop shop and a big, faceless supplier.

How would you feel if they got bigger? How do you think they’d cope? How do you think you’d cope if you were the supplier?

As a company scales up, the dynamics change. I thought about this as I watched a TED talk recently.

Theoretical physicist Geoffrey West of Santa Fe University has some fascinating insights on scalability. The really striking thing is that it’s governed by a universal law: plot size against resources required and it’s entirely predictable.

The same is true of animals, cities and organizations. So the graph looks the same for an elephant, New York and a Fortune 500 company. The interesting thing is that the relationship is ‘sublinear’. So when organizations double in size, resources only need to increase by 75%. And at the same time, revenue increases by 15%.

In other words, you get economies of scale.

So does that mean that continuous, scalable growth is a given? Not quite. Because sooner or later, West says, companies (and he and his colleagues studied 23,000 across the US) face ‘systematic collapse’. What saves them from that collapse, and takes them onto the next growth curve can be summed up in one word.


It’s a thought-provoking presentation. Check it out and maybe it’ll help you think too (as it did me) how to avoid systematic collapse. I’m innovating even as we speak. 

[If you’re reading this in an email, click here to see the talk on]

Want to write great copy? Tell a great story.

Pull them in, make them care, keep them reading. Here’s how…

Just the other day, I was struggling to find a way into a case study I was writing. The facts were compelling enough, and there was a happy ending (there always is with case studies – didn’t you know?) but something was missing.

And then I realised what it was. Involvement.

Involving the reader by connecting with them. And the very best way to connect with somebody is to tell a story, which is exactly what I did. Except here’s the twist: I let somebody else tell it for me. 

I called up my client’s client, and ask them to start at the very beginning. Tell me in your own words, I said, and that was all it took. Quote after quote poured out of their mouth. The story was so engaging, and on such a personal level, that I barely had to write it up. I just interwove facts with the quotes and the story came alive. 

I was reminded of that when I watched a TED talk by Andrew Stanton of Pixar, responsible for Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo and countless other films.

In The Clues to a Great Story, he talks about having a singular goal from the first sentence to the last, and about obeying the greatest story commandment: make me care. (Sound familiar? It’s also the greatest copy commandment.)

He also talks about starting with the ending (which I regularly do with copy) and holding back something (ditto). Along the way, he drops in some great quotes, including “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once your know their story,” and “Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty”. 

His talk is packed full of great advice for anybody who writes anything. And yes, that includes case studies. Enjoy. 

[If you’re reading this in an email, click here to see the talk on]