By Charlie Mounter and Stephen Welch
Picture credit: Richard Nonas, swerve (of shore) to bend (of bay)*.
No profession has a monopoly on what it takes to be a strategic adviser. We’ve produced versions of our simulations for professionals in various fields: communication, marketing, HR and others. And we like to cast the net farther afield sometimes: we’ve had guest posts from government, from other countries, and from professional services consultants who all approach the ‘how-do-I-act-as-a-strategic-adviser?’ challenge in different ways.
Today we are pleased to publish another blog from our popular guest blogger, Charlie Mounter. Charlie is a professional editor and makes her living giving her clients advice on how to improve. And although her perspective is through the lens of writing, there are lots of tips on how to deal with tricky authors and help them recognise when they need to change their views: similar to the challenges other advisers face. In fact, she is inspired by perhaps one of the most tempestuous authors of all: James Joyce. With that as a starting point, she outlines what it takes to be a strategic adviser in the literary world.
(Disclaimer: James Joyce inspires her theme. And while I am no Stephen Daedalus myself, my first name and birthday — Bloomsday — give me a connection. So, without further ado, I pass you to Charlie.)
What would you do if James Joyce submitted you Finnegan’s Wake?
As an editor, I need to be alive to that thrilling (terrifying) possibility. A genius might break the mould; but in most cases, if a text is that difficult and confusing, I need to be able to improve upon it without aggravation. Nobody teaches you how to give constructive criticism; you have to work it out for yourself. Except maybe you won’t, whatever line of work you are in, because I am going to share with you in this blog post what I’ve learned so far. Read on!
Everything becomes easier if you have established a relationship from the outset: gain some trust, use a few personal hooks to get some conversation going – it doesn’t take much. Talking about the work’s objectives and anything they feel strongly or have wondered about keeps communication open and gives you clues about how to phrase criticism for them if and when the time comes. Some people can handle bluntness, while others need coaxing very gently and leading positively into solutions.
I always try to encourage the view that an author’s submission is a draft – a work in progress that we will polish together – and preface my responses with ‘if you disagree with any of the changes I propose, let me know and we can discuss.’ If you are new to the field, it is a good idea to consult a mentor or senior colleague before you deliver your critique, to check you’re on the right track.
It takes quite a lot of preparation to critique without blistering. You need to really engage with the work. Focus on that; acknowledge but steer away from feelings; be warm and present and listen, but do not patronise your subject by sugar-coating your messages. Identifying strengths to deliver a compliment sandwich only works if you are being genuine. If there’s nothing much to praise, focus on the outcome you are aiming for and the benefits of achieving it.
You can always be wrong, so you need to be open to negotiation, but only in a calm and considered way, going through possibilities. Provide examples of what you are looking for and share your way of looking at things. If everything needs completely working over, you might team up to handle changes, possibly recouping and reallocating costs. Some people might find you or your criticism untenable, in which case you might need to liaise with a separate authority, but I find these tips work in most cases.
The trick is to navigate between the author’s original style and clarity of purpose. And of course don’t forget that your ultimate goal is to get your client (boss, colleague) to agree with you: ‘yes I said yes I will Yes’.
Of course, stately, plump writing has its place. But it becomes much easier to give your client (boss, colleague, or James Joyce) advice if you follow Charlie’s tips: build a relationship, create trust, be collaborative, engage with the work, discuss, appeal to authority when required. These apply in many situations and it is surprising how much investment in nemawashi pays off in the long run.
That is how to avoid a “vicus of recirculation”.
* The title of this exhibition swerve (of shore) to bend (of bay)—taken from James Joyce’s ‘Finnegan’s Wake’—prefigures a mapping of Nonas’ sculptural place. Galerie Winter, Vienna