Stephen Bayley: Nice one, William. You can't beat a snappy slogan

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The Independent Online

William Hague wants his senior colleagues to think of ways to convey their "core messages" in six words or less. I think he is right to insist that, in future, the poets, ideologues and intellectuals of his party should cut the long-winded demagoguery and distil the most complex of policies into slogans of haiku-like intensity.

William Hague wants his senior colleagues to think of ways to convey their "core messages" in six words or less. I think he is right to insist that, in future, the poets, ideologues and intellectuals of his party should cut the long-winded demagoguery and distil the most complex of policies into slogans of haiku-like intensity.

Compression is a discipline. It is what engineers call a virtuous circle; the mental processes involved force a beneficial clarity upon message-making.

A mere six words may be a bit of a struggle, however. The memorable "life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" from Thomas Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration of Independence is 25 per cent too long by the Hague convention. And in French a nice concision is more elusive still. The revolutionary " Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité" is the executive summary of what was originally the windy, and less stirring, " Unité, indivisibilité de la République, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, ou la mort".

The Emperor Charles V, who posed for Titian and presided over what was to become the European Union, understood the niceties of foreign relations when he explained: "I speak Italian to my courtiers, French to my mistresses and German to my horse."

Certainly, German has technical advantages. Travellers on Europe's old railways were given multilingual safety advice. While in English it was necessary to say something like "Generally speaking, and if you don't mind us saying so, it is considered rather dangerous to put our head out of the window", in German you could do it with an implied click of the heels and a mere " Nicht hinauslehnen!" Frederick the Great summarised his world-view when he told his officers " Mehr Sein als Schein" (Be more than you seem).

Because advertising operates to the severe discipline of getting paid fat fees rather than to the lazy dynamic of the election cycle, its practitioners more urgently find solutions to the problems of communications than politicians.

Next time Ann Widdecombe is agonising about the philosophical subtleties of legalising giggle smokes, she might consider the brilliant service done for eggs by Fay Weldon, who said we should "Go to work on an egg" (six words precisely), and for flour by Peter Mayle: "Nice one, Cyril" has secured his place in history.

These might be mere tag-lines, but the old Saatchi & Saatchi managed a magnificent political précis of socialist employment policy in their "Labour isn't working" campaign.

Alas, their successors at the M&C Saatchi agency did less well with the Dome's "One Amazing Day". There are lies, damn lies and optimistic three-word copylines.

Politics is an ugly business, and the rambling, sub-literate articulations of most politicians betray, as George Orwell knew, a fundamental dishonesty and confusion in the minds of the rambler. Hague's welcome inspiration is, I suspect, founded in his own experience as a management consultant. It's often said (if less frequently realised) that, in business, most propositions can be contained on a single side of double-spaced A4 with big margins.

When Eliot Noyes was called in by IBM's Thomas Watson and asked what was wrong with the look of the world's first computer corporation, the Harvard-educated, Gropius-inspired architect calmly gave the four best words of design consultancy ever: "You would prefer neatness." They did.

We would all prefer neatness in political monologues. Clarity and honesty as well. So Hague is right. And I can recommend some style advice a university tutor gave me: "When you have written something, cross out all the bits you are most pleased with." Mind you, If I'd done that here you'd have nothing to read.

sb@opinions.demon.co.uk

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