Have you ever asked your GP if they are ok? I know what you're thinking: that’s not how it works. But after reading Also Human, Caroline Elton’s damning study of the medical profession in the UK, perhaps we all should.Read More
“Your silence will not protect you.”
I don't think I have read a more crucial line this year. It is discomforting and empowering all at once.
What makes this sentence even more curious is that it was written in 1977 by someone confronting their mortality in public for the first time. The author? A self-proclaimed “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”.Read More
Relax, this isn’t a Dale Carnegie-inspired manual for the socially inept. And I can't promise pop stardom either. But if you've ever wondered how ideas catch on, then read on. This is about how to find your audience and get noticed … for the right reasons.
As a copywriter, an editor and the producer at a polymath arts group, my enduring goal is to win people’s attention. From trying to write irresistible headlines to predicting the zeitgeist technologies of the future and agonising over the best way to package an unconventional project.
In the algorithm age, this should be easier to achieve. Data is abundant and real-time, which gives us clues as to where, why and how things happen. Want to know who is checking you out online and what they are most interested in? Then Google Analytics is still your best friend. By identifying popular searches and talking points, you could identify a hit before it happens. It could be your hit.
Netflix has famously used the viewing histories of customers to programme original content such as House of Cards, while Spotify is confident it already knows what we’ll be singing along to in six months’ time. (Leveraging this data as a record label could even be its path to profitability.) Even legacy companies such as Warner and CBS have been using "insight automation platform" SoundOut as their crystal ball for several years.
With so many clues flying about as data across industries and channels, there must be a formula for this kind of thing, right? If anyone knows, it is Derek Thompson, senior editor of The Atlantic. Last year he wrote a book called Hit Makers: How Things Become Popular.
It is a fascinating trawl through almost 200 years of media, technology and popular culture – told with acuity and good humour. We hear insightful stories about everything from Brahms, Bill Haley and Hero’s Journey mythologist Joseph Campbell, to Star Wars, Fifty Shades of Grey and the birth of brand Disney.
Thompson’s core thesis is that “familiarity beats novelty and distribution beats content.” In other words, the majority of us prefer familiar surprises because that inkling of recognition gives us a jolt of meaning. That’s point one. A good example is how writers try to catch the attention of film producers with high-concept pitches that have a certain level of “optimal newness”, as Thompson puts it. So Aliens is “Jaws in space” and Titanic is “Romeo & Juliet on a sinking ship”. This approach also applies to other industries. Think of Uber as “Airbnb for cars”. The "Uber for…" becomes the shorthand, and so on.
The chapter on repetition in the context of songwriting and speechwriting is very interesting, particularly for all you language students out there. Using famous examples of rhetorical devices such as epistrophe (repeating words at the end of a sentence as in Obama’s “Yes, we can”) and antimetabole (an inversion such as JFK’s “Ask not who your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”) he demonstrates how hooks hold power over us.
“There is good and bad in this,” Thompson cautions. “By turning arguments into spoken music – and making poetry out of policy – antimetabole and its cousins can make important and complicated ideas go down easily. But they can also wave a magic wand over frivolous and dubious ideas, turning something questionable into something catchy.”
Raymond Loewy is an important figure in the book. Thompson considers him to be perhaps the most significant commercial artist of the 20th Century, the man behind the Exxon logo, Lucky Strike pack, Greyhound bus, modern tractor, vacuum cleaner refrigerator… Loewy had a theory called MAYA (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable), which again highlights that tension between the new and the familiar, or neophobia and neophilia in Loewy’s words.
Thompson’s second key point burns the illusion of "going viral". Word of mouth is still a highly influential factor in determining what becomes popular. Those one-to-one moments. But, using Fifty Shades of Grey as his example (a book that first made its mark on mini-network fanfiction.net), the real amplification effect kicks in when traditional media outlets such as the New York Times and NBC’s Today Show broadcast to tens of million people. “A real virus spreads only between people,” explains Thompson. “But a ‘viral’ idea can spread between broadcasts.”
For all his promising analysis, Thompson does cop out a bit. There is no magic formula, just a brutal truth – “culture is chaos”. Hit making is often about timing and luck. Take Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’, for example. “Sometimes a rock song comes out on the radio in 1954, and tens of thousands of Americans hear it and don’t buy the record,” he writes. “Then in 1955 the song comes out again, for a slightly different audience in a new medium. The context shifts, a chain reaction of improbable events occurs, and [it] becomes the national anthem of rock and roll.”
Nonetheless, credit to the author for joining the dots with such authority and prime-time gusto. Thompson will have you jumping on to YouTube in seconds, unleashing a flood of ideas. One of them might just catch on.
Think contemporary art and this small corner of South-East Asia is not the first place that springs to mind. But a casual flick through Vietnam Eye – part catalogue, more book – will have you turning to the East and booking your flights in no time. Over the past few years there has been growing interest and anticipation around a groundswell of new talent, whose work is both visually striking yet deeply thoughtful and frequently provocative. The breadth of styles, often produced by one artist, is also really impressive.
But why now? And how did this happen? Editor Serenella Ciclitira, who founded the Global Eye Programme with husband David, gives important context in the introduction. "Reforms that took place thirty years ago in art education [known as "Doi Moi' or "open door"] have borne fruit, with a new generation who have been able to combine local concerns with a sophisticated awareness of international contemporary art. The growth of an international Vietnamese diaspora also meant that a number of artists, such as DInh Q Le, grew up with both a global and a Vietnamese sensibility."
At its best, art is fascinating because it can reflect what's going on in a place and time, but also in the artist himself/herself. Surveying inner and outer worlds and pondering a compelling tension between the two. A country like Vietnam has gone through so much change over the past century, the effects of which are still contemplated to this day as Nguyen Quan explains in his essay.
"Pre-war artists were romanticists always in search of poetic and lovely objects. Resistance/war patriotic artists used their tools to look for realities and truths that were 'presumptively established' by the then ideological system. Doi Moi artists, instead, only embrace the quest for their own identity. Asking themselves the most important of all questions , 'Who am I?', they were able to resurrect the original and universal core of artistic creation. After the year 2000, this 'modern-style' confidence, arrogance even, was further backed by their willingness to provoke and challenge anyone to defined anything that was contemporary art-related."
A combination of international patronage, the burgeoning digital economy, restless ambition and pockets of healthy resistance have conspired to create a scene that is so hard to pin down. Here are a few favourites from the 75 artists included in the book. Many of these people will be part of a huge showcase exhibition that opens at the Saatchi Gallery this September.
I was a kid with a lot on his mind. Conscientious yet earnest. Exams were second only to pre-season fitness training in the list of things I most dreaded in life. Well that’s the standard school experience, isn't it? Yes, but there’s more to it than that. I was conditioned to define myself by intellectual ability from an early age. My family would often tell me how clever I was, which only ramped up the pressure to perform while my boisterous classmates seemed to cruise through adolescence without a care. And these were good schools by the way. Private schools where academia was taken very seriously. I often look back and wonder what I would say to my 15-year-old self? “Chill out mate,” for starters.
The assumption is that stress is bad for us. Our mood goes down, we feel increasingly irritable, we drink more, sleep less and age faster. Our world is one of increasingly burdensome demands and unrealistic expectations – at school, in the workplace, at home, online. Many of us simply can’t cope. The number of prescriptions for anti-depressants has doubled over the past decade (to 61 billion), while suicide – often linked to feelings of extreme stress – is the biggest killer of men under 49. No wonder meditation and mindfulness are big business.
So imagine my surprise when I attended a talk given by Ian Robertson, professor of psychology at Trinity College Dublin and currently a director of Global Brain Health Institute, advocating the benefits of being under pressure. He is the author of a new book called The Stress Test, which is the culmination of more than 30 years of research into neuropsychology. Like me, he’s been looking back on his life and thinking, “How could I have done things better?”
His starting point was Nietzsche and this quote:
“What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”
Robertson talked about an “arousal sweet spot” and trying to find that optimum activation point where we are challenged but not overwhelmed. He went into the science behind this state, clearly explaining that we are able to regulate the level of noradrenaline in our locus coeruleus by a simple act such as taking a few deep breaths. Or adopting a power pose and better posture to create a desired positive emotion (such as confidence) and improve blood flow to the front of the brain.
“Anxiety is excitement without breath” – Fritz Perls
We can also change the context of our brain’s arousal using words. He gave one delightful example of an experiment where two sides of a room were asked to calculate sums and perform songs in front of each other, preceding their test with one of two phrases – “I feel excited” and “I feel anxious”. The first group comfortably performed better. Robertson said the anxious group had a “threat mindset” while the excited grip adopted a “challenge mindset”.
The symptoms of both states are quite similar – increased heart rate, dry mouth, sweating, churning stomach. The key is being able to use this heightened sense of sharpness to your advantage and to reframe potential threats as challenges. In turn, you begin to notice signs of good things to come and can more easily recall good memories in the moment. For example, anticipating the thrill of nailing that presentation and holding a crowd rather than dreading the embarrassment of fluffing your lines in front of everybody. Robertson goes into more detail on this fight or flight phenomenon here. A little stress can be good, therefore, but not the chronic kind as this stimulates the production of cortisol, which is quite corrosive in the body, moving a person into a state of fear and avoidance.
“I can’t go on. I’ll go on” – Samuel Beckett
Another factor that profoundly affects the biology in our bodies is adversity. According to Robertson, 30% of genetics is inherited. The remaining 70% is “to play for”. He described the brain as a “highly sophisticated piece of hardware, with 100 billion neurons and millions of connections [synapses].” Software can have a profound effect on the performance of that hardware, so experiencing or undertaking moderately stressful challenges is a way of writing/re-writing that software.
Consequently, a person assumes greater control over their life and becomes more resilient in moments of adversity, thus being able to thrive in moments of stress. Compare a person that’s been cushioned and coddled as a child with someone that’s come from the school of moderately hard knocks and the former is far more likely to buckle than the latter. Apparently, it’s not good to tell kids how intelligent they are. Thanks mum.
One of the ideas that really tickled the audience was “being your own drug dealer”. Robertson was referring to the fact that successful people regularly reappraise themselves and set moderate goals. These stimulate the left-brain approach system, which encourages us to seek rewards while triggering the release of anxiety-tackling, mood-boosting dopamine. Being skilled in goal setting can help you get the best out of a given situation, as long as it’s balanced with right-brain avoidance activity and noradrenaline release. How you find that balance and draw the line between moderate and extreme stress can only come with trial and error.
Baffled by all this science? Ok, here are the key takeaways: