Ten ways small companies can show confidence

Small and Medium Enterprises make up 99.3% of all businesses in the UK, employ 15.2 million people, which is almost half of all private sector employment, and turned of £1.6 trillion [Figures: Federation of Small Businesses]. Almost 2/3 of all businesses are sole proprietorships. The nation as a whole can be enormously proud and confident of its small business sector, but the one thing which troubles small businesses more than anything—at least in my experience—is confidence.

Do not confuse confidence with brashness or bravura. Most would-be clients see through this quickly.

To a certain extent, a lack of confidence is essential to success as a start-up. If you just imagine that the clients will come and find you, then chances are the business will be short lived. At the same time, too much nervousness puts off the big customers, and these are often the people a new firm needs to win in order to survive.

Sometimes big potential clients have structured their business in such a way that you can’t break in, no matter how confident you are. Elaborate tendering procedures, ‘due diligence’ involving looking at your last three years of accounts (so, not for the start-up), or, worse, a process which is merely rubber stamping a deal already done over dinner or golf. These kind of experiences are confidence-sapping in themselves—it’s better just to recognise that there was never potential business there, and move on.

In most cases, though, a potential customer will size you up swiftly, and your confidence will play a key role in determining whether they want to go ahead.

Here are ten ways your business can exude confidence in what it does.

1 Only do what you do

Simple enough, but businesses with an ever-extending list of services give the impression that they are not really sure what they do. Often this list is a result of lack of confidence (and therefore reveals it), and a desire to cast a wider net. If a big company or high-ticket customer is eyeing you up, it is because they believe that you do one thing well that they need, not seventeen things badly.

Of course you are passionate about what you do, and can break it down into a dozen sub-components. You are much better off finding the one word that sums it all up, and saying ‘We only do…’ If there isn’t one single specific way to sum it up, consider whether you should simply not talk about the thing which doesn’t fit.

Have the confidence to do one thing well, not ten things badly.

2 Value your first customers

If you are a start-up, your first customers are not like your later customers. They are doing much more than simply paying you money to do what you do: they are taking a risk on you, becoming your ambassadors and advocates, your reference points and advisors. No amount of attending networking meetings or Chamber of Commerce events can unlock the real business networks in the way that word-of-mouth by your first clients does.

By this I do not mean that you should do lots of early jobs for free to get known. Customers are people who pay money for your work. Trying to refer a prospective customer to a ‘free’ client for a reference is like asking someone you’ve never worked for to give you a job reference: they may like you a lot, but a prospective employer will discard it.

What you do need to do is ensure that your early customers are satisfied, clear on what job you did for them, and happy to be referred to. It’s crucial you clear this up: will they be happy to be occasionally contacted by a potential client? Most will, but check. Are they happy to be listed on your website as a customer? That’s quite another thing. Website listings don’t do a great deal for credibility, but a client who wasn’t expecting to be listed and has a good reason not to be will not be happy.

Have a group of early clients you can confidently refer future customers to.

3 Have a one sentence explanation

Have you been to networking events where everyone gets a minute to explain what they do? I’ve not seen much high-value business change hands at those events, but the process of watching people do it is fascinating, and being forced to do it yourself is a valuable experience.

Some businesses can say exactly what they do in a single sentence. They could actually sit down after that, and would have achieved more than many others which spend the entire minute talking round the point. “We are _____, and we provide automotive components for the aftermarket”, “We are ______, and we fund the arts sector in this region”, “We are ______, and we provide universal healthcare from the cradle to the grave, free at the point of delivery.” These were all established organisations that I’ve worked for in the past. Two of them no longer have the brand name they had when I worked for them, and one of them has been substantially reorganised. Nonetheless, their simple one-line explanations have survived the brand changes and reorganisations. They are still very obviously doing the same thing.

How many sentences does it take to explain exactly what you do? If you usually begin with ‘it’s a bit complicated’, or ‘it’s actually quite hard to explain’, then you’ve already lost before you started. As a small business, there are absolutely intricacies which would take more than a sentence, or a minute, or an hour to explain. But is your business really more complicated than a multi-billion dollar provider of brakes, hoses, lighting, lamps, starter-motors, air-conditioning and suspension? Are you really harder to explain than an organisation which funds everything from pottery to theatre and film to poetry?

Back when I worked for a 45 person organisation, it was tempting to list out all of the functions so as not to miss anything out. Readers, listeners and (especially) journalists used to get bored after the third item. When I moved to work for the largest organisation in the western world, it became simply impossible to list everything. Fortunately, they already had their explanation of what they did: universal healthcare from the cradle to the grave, free at the point of delivery.

A confident and clear one-liner will do more to establish your business to the hearer than anything else.

4 A simple logo

Your logo is not your brand. However, your logo tells prospective customers a great deal about your brand. Go and look at the world’s top 100 brands (just Google it—there are several different lists, and it doesn’t really matter which you take). With a couple of exceptions which exist for historical reasons, the logos of the top 100 brands are extremely simple.

Someone once told me that, as a small business, they couldn’t afford to have the confident, simple-type logo that a big business has, because their logo had to work harder. Not long afterwards, they changed their name and logo. I’ve just googled them, and I guess (I hope) that they’ve changed their name again: of the revised name and logo, there is no trace.

The same rules of simplicity that apply to big companies apply to small companies. The loop of short term memory is 2-3 seconds. If your logo takes longer than that to go into someone’s mind, then it doesn’t go in at all. Distinctive name? Your logo needs to be no more than the word itself, like SONY. Ordinary name? A very simple, distinctive symbol can help. Like Apple.

People sometimes ask me if I can ‘do them’ a logo which will make people buy their products. I can’t (and, in any case, I’m a brand consultant, not a logo designer). No logo can do that. What a logo can do, though, is put people off buying your products. The typical person sees 3,000 or more logos a day. We know without having to be aware of it what a ‘solid’ or ‘professional’ or ‘established’ logo looks like. Better a dull logo that looks the part than a fussy logo.

A logo is merely a visual representation of your promise of experience—keep it clear, simple, and undemanding.

5 A plain business card

When I worked for the second-largest automotive aftermarket company in the world, I had a simple business card with just two colours and black. When I worked for the seventh largest organisation of any kind in the world, I had a business card with just one colour and black. There was a lot of debate about whether we should have cards at all. In both cases they were on thinnish, 250gsm card, plain, without illustrations.

Like most people, I have a collection of business card holders which contain, I suppose, about 300 cards. It’s instructive to look at them. The more confident the business, the simpler the card. Gold type embossed on ultra-heavy card, printed on both sides with a photo or illustration is a sure sign that the business owner is trying too hard to be noticed.

Printers do not help in this. They are always happy to talk the customer up to a heavier grade of paper, more colours, more design, perhaps an unusual cutout or a double card.

A simple card, with your logo very small in the minimum number of colours (which should be one—otherwise your logo is too fussy: see previous point), your name, contact details, and whatever other details are legally required, is enough. Any more than enough is too much, and marks you out as a lightweight. If they need to know more about your company, they can look at your website.

A plain business card shows you are ready to do business. Anything more suggests that you are desperate.

6 An informative website

Web-designers scorn what they refer to as ‘brochure-ware’—websites which are no more than an electronic representation of your company brochure. However, for the vast majority of businesses, the website should be the online brochure and nothing else.

90% of people visiting websites are doing so for contact information. They want to talk to you or email you. Clearly you can’t occupy 90% of the space with this information. Nonetheless, if they get what they want on the first page, it is much better that they ring or email you, thereby initiating a business contact, than that they get drawn into your pages of exciting content.

What should a website contain? More importantly, what should it achieve?

If I am considering buying from your company, I need to know three things. First, do you provide the services I require? Second, do you look like the sort of company I can rely on? Third, how do I contact you?

It must be obvious from the site what you do. Your one liner which explains your company should be on there prominently. Any other text, which perhaps supports your credentials, goes into further detail, or whatever is needed, should clearly flow from that one promise. If the thoughts do not smoothly flow from one to the other, delete whatever jars.

The style of your website will give the viewer the information they want about whether you can be relied on. Does it contain out-of-date information, or dated information which has not been updated for some time (or, worst, which was frequently updated and then no longer is)?  They will immediately wonder if your company is still trading, or if it is any more than an occasional hobby. Does it contain spelling mistakes or poorly thought-out text? Most people are happy to overlook spelling mistakes in long form articles like this one, but if there are mistakes on your front page, in titles, menus, or other parts of the site that should be structural, then they will assume that this is an overall reflection of the quality you provide. Are there dead links, badly rendered graphics, squeezed logos, illegible fonts or error messages? These are immediately off-putting.

I was looking at a web-designer’s own page for a client the other day. It was almost entirely blank, with just a single box in the centre stating that he was a web-designer, his contact details, and a link to a satisfied customer’s website. Without anything else to distract me, I emailed him, and an hour later we were putting together the project.

Most businesses lack the confidence to do anything that simple, but, like everything, simplicity states confidence, and fuss reveals nervousness.

The one area your website can stand out is in the photography. My simple rule is: never use stock photography. Not only do you run the risk of a client recognising the image from somewhere else, but stock photography just looks fake. Most of it comes from the USA, where everyone has perfect teeth and non-European dress sense, as well as implausible tans. More to the point, stock photography will never represent the business you actually do.

How do you shoot your own images? Well, if at all possible hire a photographer. If you can’t afford that (perhaps economise on those business cards?) then get a photography student who needs something for their portfolio. Hire models. Get it set up properly with lights and a location background. If that’s out of the question, then spend a day taking pictures of what you do on an iPhone. Even iPhone pictures (don’t use the flash) which are of your business will be better than stock pictures which are not of it. Intention in pictures is everything. Figure out what you want each one of them to communicate, and shoot one picture per idea. Then use only the best three.

A simple website which communicates what you do, why you can be trusted, and how to contact you is a powerful statement of a business that can be relied upon.


A URL is a Universal Resource Locater. It’s your web address and the domain for your email address. At about £5 a year, you absolutely cannot afford to be without one.

Essentially, if I get a business email from a gmail address, then I know I’m dealing with a one-person show. What’s more, it’s a one-person show that is not yet sufficiently established to have its own website and email server. If I get a business email from a hotmail address, then I assume I’m actually corresponding with a teenager. If the email is from a .aol,, or other internet provider address, then I assume it’s from someone moonlighting from their regular business. This doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t work with them. There are some very talented teenagers, and there are moonlighters who will take on a project they find interesting at a price far below the worth of the work they are going to do.

That’s the rub, though: hotmail, gmail and provider email addresses suggest a hobbyist. I doubt they’ll have insurance, since a typical £500 a year sole-trader business insurance is 100x the cost of a URL. I doubt they’ll actually be making backups, as the cost of a backup system is 50x a URL. It probably isn’t their full-time job (though a local garage, for example, might still be using a provider URL), so I might suddenly hear that they can’t do what they promised for Wednesday, but might be able to fit it in by October.

All this will be factored into the price I am willing to pay, as well as into the amount of hand-holding I think I’ll need to do to get the job done right. If I have exacting requirements, I’ll go somewhere else: I’ve been burned too often by people who say they can do a website, but entirely ignore the brand specification. What they meant was, they can do a website, as long as it looks like all the other websites they’ve done before.

Getting your own URL and having your emails come from [email protected] demonstrates to most customers that you are a ‘proper’ business 

8 Good paperwork

Do you have templates for your estimates, quotes and invoices? These don’t need to be physical—actually, that would be quite unusual these days. They do need to be consistent, look the part, and, above all, satisfy the bookkeepers. If dealing with a large organisation, expect them to want to know all kinds of details before they pay your invoices. If they don’t get them, quite possibly the finance director will call whoever booked you into their office and give them a telling-off. I’ve been in that position as a result of the payments office querying the invoice. It’s not a nice place to be, and I never ordered from that company again.

There are some rules for your paperwork if you are a limited company. If you are VAT registered (and many potential buyers will judge you on whether you are or not) then you must satisfy all the VAT requirements on your invoice, including sequentially numbered, dated invoices showing your VAT number and the VAT breakdown.

The NHS does a very good template of what it requires from an invoice. As Britain’s largest organisation, chances are you’ll do some work for the NHS at some point. What’s more interesting, though, is that the NHS has among the most stringent requirements for information disclosure on the invoice. In other words, if you work from their template, everyone else will be satisfied.

Good paperwork helps you keep your business records and it helps your customers keep their’s. It shows you mean business.

9 Something physical

Customers like something they can touch, and having something can give you a lot of confidence in talking about your business. This doesn’t have to be something you give away. In fact, anonymous promotional items of the pen, squeeze ball or mug variety are liable to do more harm than good. Pens stop working after a while, but remain on people’s desks, constantly associating your business with bad pens. Squeeze balls are things people squeeze when they are cross. Many (though not all) promotional mugs are printed with a low-quality dye-sublimation process, and the print fades and wears off as they are washed. If you’re going to do a mug, do a really good one: I have one from the competitor of a company I rebranded which is just gorgeous. However, if you can’t afford to give away something really good, don’t give away anything at all.

People are much more interested in handling your stock in trade than they are in getting a free pen. Work in braking? Take a brake pad with you, or, better, a full caliper assembly. Work in photography? You could take along a camera, but what about taking along a compass, and explaining the importance of getting the shadows right? At some fundamental level, the notion that ‘a bad workman blames his tools’ is embedded into our psyches. The flip-side, that a good workman is known by his good tools, is just as powerful.

One of my first clients, a stationery company, has had paperclips made in the shape and colour of their logo. If you are going to give something away, giving something away which is physically reminiscent of your brand, is useful, unique, and fits with what you actually sell is infinitely preferable to something from a promotional catalogue.

What if the thing you sell is entirely virtual? I sometimes take along an example of a previous client’s work. Very occasionally I’m actually able to point to a previous client’s work already in their office (I love those moments). Sometimes that isn’t appropriate. My UK award-winning stationery rebrand does not have much relevance if I’m pitching to run a health campaign.

However, you can physically visualise your ideas. For one pitch, I took along printed-card 3d models of the shapes I was using in my PowerPoint presentation. They got passed around the table for a long time. Logically, my strategy models are no more likely to be useful and effective when presented in 3D 200gsm card than on a projector screen. Nonetheless, their credibility is much higher.

I once took along a strategy model of a tetrahedron which I had made from plastic pipes (B&Q) and elastic (wife’s sewing box), sprayed blue (car paint), to a make-or-break meeting during my first six months with a new organisation. After I left that organisation, ten years later, one of the directors told me that she still remembered it, and did I still have it, because she would like it in her office if I no longer wanted it.

Physical evidence of any kind gives the customer more confidence, and it gives you more confidence in presenting it.

10 A trademark

Is your brand name a trademark? If it isn’t, there’s a real chance that someone will come along and claim you are poaching on their territory, or, worse, will create an eerily similar brand name and steal half your market. You think this is rare? It’s much more common that you’d imagine.

A UK trademark costs £200, if you use the Intellectual Property Office’s full service, where they advise you on whether it is trademarkable or not before proceeding. If you want to take a risk (I wouldn’t) you can do it for a bit less.

Clearly, owning a trademark give you a little bit more confidence. It also allows you to get URL squatters off the domain name that you want if they don’t own a trademark that would give them an equal stake in it.

However, what is more important in terms of confidence is the process that takes you there. Is your name and logo, or just your name, worth £200? If it isn’t, what hope do you have of ever presenting your business confidently?

In preparing for a trademark, you are forced to look at it again. Was it something your graphic-design-school cousin did for you? It may be a lovely piece of design, and yet not be appropriate to your business. Was it a name you came up with in order to be like some other company in your sector? If so, it may be too close for you to be allowed to trademark it. Better to find out now than be forced to rebrand when your business really takes off. Is it, actually, something you’ve always been meaning to change, but never got round to? Knowing that your business identity isn’t quite good enough saps your confidence every time you talk about what you do.

Most businesses could do with considering a rebrand after the third year, or after they’ve turned over about a quarter of a million in total. This doesn’t mean that they should rebrand. What it does mean is that they have now done enough business to know what their customers are like, what is unique about their approach rather than purely incidental, what works and what doesn’t. For some, that will mean a tweak, for others brand re-engineering. For yet others, starting again from scratch.

If you’re in this position, then do the ‘should have called it…’ test. If people even occasionally say ‘you should have called it {name}’, once they know what you do, or you are left saying to yourself ‘I should have called it…’, then it’s almost certainly time to rebrand. You don’t want to be too clever about this: if there’s a genuine ‘should have called it’ candidate name, and that name isn’t already trademarked by someone else, then that’s the name you want. Your company logo will be determined more by the name than by anything else: find the simplest design which represents that name with just one unique visual element, unless the name itself is already unique.

If there isn’t an obvious ‘should have called it’ name, but you have a sense that something is wrong, then it’s time to get some more in depth advice from an expert. As with most forms of expertise, the costs of doing so are vastly less in the long run than DIY, or than persisting with a brand in which you don’t have confidence.

Contact [email protected] for advice on SME, public sector and major enterprise branding.

Don’t let the grammar nazis get you down

Don’t let the grammar nazis get you down

Why Does Your English Let You Down? Advert

Long running Guardian advertisement

Been corrected by someone on your use of English? Had a sentence which you thought was right changed round? Someone may have been kindly helping you, but it’s also possible that you’ve fallen prey to the Grammar Nazis (which, apparently, is the only time you can describe someone as a Nazi without being un-PC).

Years ago there was a regular advert run on the front page of the Guardian (yes, THE Guardian) which began “Are you ashamed of your mistakes in English”. This was triply ironic, because i) the Guardian is generally read by people who are liberal-minded and favour descriptive rather than prescriptive grammar and lexicography, ii) the Guardian at that time had the highest reading age of any English national daily (though lower than the Scotsman), so if you were reading the Guardian then you probably weren’t making that many mistakes and, iii) the Guardian itself at that time had the reputation of being the newspaper most subject to typographical errors.

The gold standard for Grammar Nazis (who I shall define as people who take delight in correcting grammar, especially when not asked to do so) in the UK is the Oxford English Dictionary. It has everything going for it — Oxford, the spiritual home of pedantry world-wide, English — not American English, or International English, or British English, but plain ‘English’, and Dictionary, which, since Samuel Johnson is a word which resonates with authority, officialdom and, above all, definition.

However, this is a gold standard which is seldom referred to — and there are good reasons why this is.

Samuel Johnson’s original plan for a dictionary, which you can read in his ‘Plan’ was to fix the English language once and for all. It was round about the same time that the Cardinal Richelieu (yes, THE Cardinal Richelieu) created the Académie Française for the exact same purpose. In the ‘Preface’ to the Dictionary, however, Johnson admits that the task that he set himself was impossible, and also nonsensical. Johnson’s final dictionary described how language was used, rather than dictated it.

This has never stopped people from using it as such, and the New English Dictionary started at the back-end of the 19th century, and later retitled to the Oxford English Dictionary has been used in exactly the same way. This is ironic because the OED (or NED to some) is a dictionary on historical principles. Its aim is to define a word by its first use with a particular meaning.

Ferdinand de Saussure, the founding father of modern linguistics, argued that de définir, c’est de délimiter — to define is to delimit. In other words, we know what a word means by placing bounds around it. This is the origin of the linguistic concept of lexical and semantic field.

One of the first things I learned in first-year linguistics was that linguistics is a descriptive rather than a prescriptive study. Actually, I already knew that having done a year of field-work in a non-school language learning programme. Although the 19th century philologists might have disagreed, the thrust of virtually all modern linguistics is exactly that. As importantly, the people who write dictionaries come from that school of thought, which is why they introduce new words every year, and, when called upon to give an authoritative view on the ‘actual’ meaning of a word, always begin by explaining that a word is defined by its usage. The dictionary merely describes that usage, and is always out of date.

Not so the Grammar Nazis!

A few years ago, as part of an online community for young adult writers and people writing for young adults (I am one of the latter), I was challenged on my grammar by a correspondent. Numbers, he argued, must always be written out, except when they are over one hundred. I asked him where he had got this from, and he told me that his teacher, who had a PhD in English, had given it as a firm and unalterable rule, and she knew more than I did (almost certainly true, but irrelevant).

Somewhat taken aback, I contacted a Cambridge fellow (in case it was Oxford that had led me astray). She concurred with my though: in most writing, she would expect to see numbers over ten written in numerals, but under ten written out.  The conversation online never got anywhere (they rarely do), but I was on the look-out subsequently for use of numbers in writing.

For fiction, it appears to be fairly common to do exactly as he said, especially in reported speech. Journalists are taught (I didn’t know this, but now do) never to begin a sentence with digits. If the sentence has to begin with a number, it must be written out. However, when reading or writing something technical, the arbitrary distinction between under and over ten (or a hundred) does not work. Imagine that I am writing about a study where 72 people took part, of whom eight refused to answer question five. Writing about technical writing as I am doing now, this looks fine, but in a technical piece, it looks bizarre. On the other hand, if I were writing theologically about the twelve disciples, it would seem equally bizarre to use ’12’ on account of the number being above ten. Blakes 7 is always Blakes 7, notwithstanding the missing apostrophe, and Babylon 5 is always Babylon 5.

What’s the correct answer? Whatever looks right, and is consistent. This is where ‘house style’ comes in. Every newspaper has one, and every business that is concerned about its brand ought to have one, because while the choice of 12 of 12th March for the date is one you can make yourself, it looks scruffy if the two oscillate within a document.

For written English, that which makes the eye stutter is wrong, that which it smoothly accepts is (analytically) acceptable.

But what about grammar? Some people would say I shouldn’t have begun that sentence with ‘But’, or included the contraction ‘shouldn’t’ in this one. And yet we do this in real life. ‘However’ doesn’t get you away from the problem, because it is just as abrupt as ‘but’. Do we really want to have to write ‘Nonetheless’ or ‘Notwithstanding the foregoing statement’ as a frequent start to a sentence? No.

I recently read an article in which someone explained the difference between ‘further’ and ‘farther’, and why it was important not to show yourself up by getting them mixed up.

They were wrong.

‘Farther’ is a less common spelling of the word which, etymologically, has exactly the same root as ‘Further’. If you look on Google Ngram Viewer, you will see that in 1800, further and farther were used just as much as each other. Today, ‘Farther’ gets used about 1/10th as often as ‘Further’. People who want to make an artificial distinction as to when you use which one are welcome to. You are welcome to ignore them.

There are genuinely misused words in English — ‘Procrastinate’ means to delay, but ‘Prevaricate’ means to lie. They get mixed up so frequently that you can no longer know which one of the two a person means when they use it — something once exploited during the Thatcher administration for making an easily retractable accusation in the House of Commons. ‘Affect’ and ‘Effect’ usually have a different meaning, and, usually, ‘affect’ is a noun while ‘effect’ is a noun or a slightly pompous verb. However, ‘Affect’ in psychological literature is a perfectly decent noun. In fact, you are completely entitled to use any noun as a verb and any verb as a noun, provided that the person you are trying to communicate with understands it. The result may be ugly, but it isn’t ‘wrong’.

This concept of ‘wrong’ is a piece of semantic driftwood which the Grammar Nazis seem to have picked up from the beaches of language without quite understanding what it is for. ‘Wrong’ has a moral weight which ‘incorrect’ doesn’t. There is a subtle, pervasive sense that when someone uses ‘wrong’ grammar that they are in some sense involved in something which is immoral. Ironically, many of the people who spray ‘wrong’ around in this way would defend other people’s rights to choose to live their lives in any way they want — just not their grammar.

What about ‘fewer’ or ‘less’. To the grammar pedant (and especially the fully-fledged Nazi), ‘fewer’ relates to things which are countable, while ‘less’ relates to things which are measurable.

But where does this distinction come from? In the 1880s, ‘fewer people’ is about three times as frequent in literature as ‘less people’. Today, the difference is about ten times. Most of us would accept that ‘fewer people’ is better than ‘less people’, but at what point did ‘less’ become ‘wrong’? The answer, of course, is that it is not wrong and never has been. However, constant use has led us to see ‘fewer’ as correct, and ‘less’ as a deviation.

The pedant definition, though, does not stand up consistently. If Oxford Dictionaries are a guide, ‘less’ is more commonly used when comparing numbers on their own, even when, logically, it should be fewer. ‘Today there are sixty-thousand members. Six weeks ago there were less than fifty-thousand’. I tweeted this, and someone came back to me to say ‘fewer’. Nonetheless, as a number on its own, fifty-thousand takes ‘less than’. You can’t write ‘fewer than’ without giving it a ring of conscious pedantry, which is as unwelcome as ‘poor’ grammar.

Forums or Fora? Focuses or Foci? I pitched this question to my mother, who is a classicist. The Latin plural is, in each case, as given: Fora, Foci. But, she pointed out, using those plurals sounds hopelessly affected. Google Ngrams (again) tells us that until the 1920s, ‘Fora’ was the most common term. Between 1920 and 1930 they were level pegging. Since about 1932, ‘forums’ is more common. Today, there are five uses of ‘forums’ for every two uses of ‘fora’. Is this just a reflection of the rise of American English? Google Ngrams can search in just one dialect. Sure enough, we see that ‘fora’ stayed ahead until about 1978, but, since then, ‘forums’ has been the more common term, albeit only by a 4:3 margin.

Nobody in British English used ‘focuses’ until the 20th century. During the 1970s, ‘focuses’ became more popular than ‘foci’, and now outstrips its use by 8:1. The same is true for American English, except that the crossover point came in the late 1960s, a decade before.

You can still use ‘Fora’ and ‘Foci’, and in particular contexts they are a better choice. If you are writing about Romano-British marketplaces, ‘fora’ may serve you better. If you want to tell people that you have been on several ‘web fora’, you are either doing it for comic effect, like calling the web ‘the inter web’, or you are creating comic effect whether you want to or not.

I’ve seen people get cottered up with ‘grey’ and ‘gray’, trying to create different contexts in which they are correct. There is no difference — at least, not in British English — ‘gray’ has been the minority version since before 1800. In American English, the opposite is true. ‘Gray’ is the common version, but ‘grey’ is still there, although the two crossed over during the 1820s.

What about ‘who’ or ‘whom’? When I was a student, ‘whom’ was essentially dead. We were told it was not necessary to use it for the accusative of ‘who’. Thanks to the work of Ross Geller in Friends, ‘whom’ is back on the Grammar Nazi hit-list. My rule is simple: if it sounds affected or pedantic, don’t use it. But that’s just me: you can do whatever you like.

Spelling, grammar and word choice are important. Most words have just one spelling. In most contexts one particular word is definitely right, whereas a word that sounds similar is entirely wrong. ‘There’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’ are never interchangeable.

There have been numerous projects to reform the English language, of which Webster’s is by far the most famous and the only one that really got anywhere. The apostrophe, for example, confuses most people. It especially confuses auto-correct, which changes ‘its’ to ‘it’s’ and back again seemingly at random, meaning that you now have to go back and check your txts and Facebook updates lest you be perceived to be illiterate. Grammar Nazis will explain in great detail why the apostrophe is used for the possessive in nouns, but not in pronouns. The reason always given is that the apostrophe represents a contraction of ‘his’, as in the phrase ‘Sir Martin, his sword’, whereas there is no contraction in the pronoun.

This is an attractive and popular explanation, demonstrating the hidden logic behind English grammar. It is also entirely bogus. As any first year Old English student can tell you, the Anglo-Saxon genitive adds ‘s’ or ‘es’ onto a word. The same is true in Dutch and Frisian, our most closely related languages. Regular readers of this site will recognise the famous proverb from the Durham book, Nu hit ys on swines dome, cwæð se ceorl sæt on eoferes hricge. (Now it’s in the swine’s judgement, says the man on the boar’s back). Do you notice that neither ‘swines’ nor ‘eoferes’ have apostrophes? We, the English, have been talking about and writing ‘swines’ long before the *Grammar Inquisition told us that it should be ‘swine’s’. That doesn’t make the modern usage of apostrophe wrong, it’s just an illustration of the fact that it’s usage that determines ‘correct’, not something intrinsic in the logic of language.

I do not wish to judge the Grammar Nazis harshly: everyone could, indeed, benefit from their written English being pristine. My problem is that the Grammar Nazi is not some kind of freelance proofreader helping out the poor and ill-educated. Grammar Nazism is generally unsolicited, and it is, in my experience, simply wrong about 10% of the time. Correcting someone’s use of ‘gray’ does not improve their text. Demanding ‘fora’ rather than ‘forums’ isn’t helping anyone, and insisting that one house style is superior to another simply displays ignorance.

Are you ashamed of your mistakes in English? You shouldn’t be. Are you ashamed of your constant tendency to correct other people’s? Well, that’s another matter.

I just looked myself up on My advice? She doesn’t

Ever wonder how people feel confident to write you eerily personal emails, or ring you up and talk as though they are your best friend? Well, apparently, this is one of the things psychopaths are good at. But now you, too, can be good at it, through an equally eery website called

Signing up is very simple — they are so confident that you’ll like it that they don’t even want  a credit card number up front, which, naturally, makes you much more confident to try it. After a few brief intros, it allows you to start looking people up. If the web knows a lot about them, it will offer you a profile which it would claim is perhaps 95% accurate. You can improve the accuracy by answering questions about the person.

Of course, after you’ve looked up your work colleagues, friends, partner etc, which is a sort of emotional-intelligence version of watching reruns of your favourite TV shows on Netflix, the most fun thing to do is to look up yourself.

So, I looked up myself.

Some parts of it are very accurate.

For example:

When speaking to Martin (it recommends): use self-deprecating humour, emphasise the future, and don’t trust that he will follow specific verbal instructions. Well, ok, that’s me. On the other hand, it also says Don’t ask him to explain something in detail. I suspect that this recommendation is aimed at winning my trust. How little do they know! As anyone who knows me will attest, I love explaining things in detail. In fact, my enthusiasm for explaining things in detail goes far beyond most people’s enthusiasm to listen.

When emailing Martin (it goes on): use an emoticon, write with short, casual language and abbreviations, don’t ask him something that will require a long, thoughtful response. Don’t provide lots of detailed information and instructions.

Say what? If you are reading this, and intending to write an email to sell some product or service, may I advise you of the following things. First, do not use emoticons. If you want to text me or converse by Facebook, I’m fine with emoticons. In an email? Seriously? Likewise, unless the abbreviation is NHS or possibly BBC, do not use abbreviations. Overuse of TLAs (Three Letter Abbreviations) is one of my pet hates. Short, casual language? You’re welcome to. I also revel in the long, baroque, exotic sentence, replete as it is with the frisson of the sub-clause and and extended chiasmus, perhaps supplemented by iteration and closing with a cadence. However, whatever you do, do not address me in short, casual language as if you are my best mate unless I actually know you. I will simply press the Junk button.

Again, I’m not sure if the long, thoughtful response is for your safety or mine. If you want a long, thoughtful response on something that I’m not actually interested in, then, no. But, on the other hand, if you want a short, snappy response, it will still be no.

I love detailed information, and I really, really like the instructions to be precise if I need to follow them. On the other hand, if you’re telling me how to get somewhere, just give me the address. I have Sat Nav, as does almost everyone. Only try to explain the route if there is a reason why Sat Nav will get it wrong, and explain carefully that that is why you’re doing it.

When working with Martin (it now tells me): Recognise his achievements verbally. Well, purr. Yes. Please do. You can also tell your friends, write articles in the local paper, and include a chapter in your forthcoming book. Confront conflict in person, rather than via email. Indeed. I’m not sure what ‘confronting conflict is’, but, generally, I would recommend to everyone in all situations that you are more likely to resolve things face to face, and more likely to make them worse by email.

Don’t expect a long time to earn his trust. Don’t take time to work out logical conclusions. I’m not sure how to take these. If you are emailing me out of the blue, you do, indeed, have very little time to earn my trust if you want to avoid my internal ‘Junk’ button. I’m a little hazier about ‘Don’t take time to work out logical conclusions’. Certainly, don’t labour the blindingly obvious. As authors remind themselves, RUE — Resist the Urge to Explain. On the other hand, don’t pitch me something that doesn’t make sense. Seriously, just don’t.

When selling to Martin (its next section) Focus on the future plans for your product. Yes, definitely. I will want to know if your company is still going to be around in two years time. Use hyperbole to make a point (“This is the best product in the world!”) I fear CrystalKnows was designed by Americans. Notwithstanding my own personally ebullient nature and constant desire to enthuse people, hyperbole of the ‘this is the best product in the world’ kicks me straight into a rather biting British sarcasm (see What shall we do with irony). I know I shouldn’t indulge in it, but I do.

What is baffling me slightly here is that the profile begins with — see above — Use self-deprecating humour (don’t take act like you take yourself too seriously) [sic]. How does that fit with telling me that your product is the best product in the world? We move on. Don’t worry about asking for permission before calling. That’s fair. Well, it’s sometimes fair. Do your research first. I remember the time that someone from Google Advertising rang up to explain that with Google, my organisation’s services could be much more widely known. I explained I worked for the NHS. The caller, who claimed to be calling from Manchester (though it may well be from a different Manchester) was quick enough to say “oh yes, the NHS is a good company, but think how much better known it would be with Google’s help”. He didn’t make the sale. Don’t leave detailed voicemails. Actually, don’t leave any voicemails. This has nothing to do with my personality. For some reason O2 is unable to provide voicemails on my current phone. On my previous phone it allowed me to set them up, but, living in a rural area, it wasn’t actually possible to retrieve them. Provided that your phone leaves a number, I will try to ring you back. Otherwise, I will delve into the TuGo app to try and hear what you had to say, but it’s not exactly reliable.

It comes naturally to Martin to… (it now tells me) Make a quick purchase decision. I’ll often consider something for a year or so, and then make up my mind in less than a minute. So, half right. Focus on deep, close relationships rather than high quantity. Oh dear. I do have some deep, close relationships, that’s true. I also love meeting new people. Some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met have been on trains (a former England netball captain, a TV presenter, a film director, an ontologist (yes, they exist). I have 1,337 Facebook friends, and, yes, I am secretly and guiltily proud of this figure. Trust someone quickly. Yes, or not trust them. Make a decision more quickly than most people. Often true, often not. It depends on the evidence.

It does not come naturally to Martin to… Review all of the facts before making a big decisionMake decisions based purely on logic. Have a well-organised desk. Pay close attention to all of the details. Half right. I did, for a short space in my career, have a well-organised desk. Then my boss took me on one side and suggested this wasn’t entirely appropriate and gave the impression I had nothing to do. I have not made that mistake again. Most people who know me would say I don’t do details, but when we did the Myers-Briggs tests I came out borderline between Sensing and Intuiting. It depends a bit on what the issue is. When it comes to ‘making decisions based purely on logic‘ I would agree, very few decisions can be solved by logic alone. I would be very troubled, though, if I made an important decision and it turned out that it was not logical. As someone who checks three different train routes and eighteen prices before deciding how to get to London, and considers as the likelihood of having to cancel before buying an advance ticket at a discount, I’m really not the type to say ‘that looks the most fun, let’s go for it’. And that definitely goes for reviewing all the (available) facts before making a big decision.

You may be saying that CrystalKnows has got more right than it gets wrong. You’re probably right. For a piece of software that just looks at my LinkedIn profile and then tries to marry it up with other things about me on the web, it has sketched a fairly accurate caricature of the kind of person many people think I am.

The problem, though, if you are about to hastily scurry off to CrystalKnows to assist you in penning that all important email to me about buying a new photocopier, changing my house insurance or signing up with your employment bureau, is that all of the guesses it got right and wrong were eerily (that word again) similar to the way that salespeople have been ringing me up for years.

With the exception of the Google guy, who was badly briefed, salesmen have tended to fall into three distinct groups.

Type 1 are the hopeful but under-researched. When I worked in Communications in the NHS, I used to get regular calls from people who wanted to sell me telephone systems. A reasonable assumption, you might think, but in NHS terminology, Communications has a very specific meaning, and it has nothing to do with telephones, which are usually run by Information Technology or by Estates. Some of these people could be awfully persistent, but, ultimately, there was only one way the conversation could go: I didn’t have the authority to negotiate phone contracts, nor the expertise.

Type 2 — who could have been working off the briefing given by CrystalKnows — are the chummy, over-familiar people who use the telephone version of emoticons. “Hello Martin,” they often begin, “how are you today?”  If they were Americans, they got a free pass on that one, because everyone knows that Americans have to engage in social niceties first (there was some incident with a load of tea at a party once, and I think they have been on their best behaviour ever since). For anyone else, the conversation has immediately taken an irreversibly terminal direction, unless I actually knew them with the same degree of intimacy that they were implying by the warmth of the telephone manner.

The same type of people, as often as not, make reference to having talked with my boss and been recommended to me, to the good work I’ve been doing, to my past projects, and so on. Exactly as the profile suggests, they don’t expect to need long to win my trust. As often as not they will use hyperbole. They very often talk about the future prospects of their product.

These are the people you can emulate if you use the profile that CrystalKnows gives you about me.

In twenty-five years, I have never bought anything from these kind of people, though I have — and I know I shouldn’t have — allowed some of them rather a lot of rope.

Type 3 are the people who have actually managed to sell things. They tend to be quite soft-spoken, have a very specific offering, and they always have data to back it up. Generally speaking, these conversations have gone one of three ways. Sometimes I tell them that it’s not an area we’re considering, for reasons which they couldn’t have worked out by decent research (otherwise, type 1). Sometimes I tell them that we’re not considering that particular product or service at the current time, but would be glad to have their information on file, and would they send us something. Just occasionally it turns out that this really was a Type 2 person, who wants to take me out to dinner, send a free gift, come to my office, and so on. More usually, the Type 3 person is very happy to send their materials, confident that when the time is right, we will buy. They have often been right. The third thing that has happened — not too often, but often enough to count — is that a Type 3 person rings up with something which we are interested in. We immediately want information, data, and, almost certainly we’ll want three quotes. They run the risk of giving us all the information we need to make a purchase decision, and that decision then going to someone else. That’s a risk a Type 3 salesperson is willing to run.

I have three maxims on which I buy, and if you follow these, you don’t need CrystalKnows, or a psychopathic salesperson of Type 2 who is able to generate pseudo-empathy with hundreds of people a day.

They are:

  1. One buyer, many suppliers
  2. You get the suppliers you deserve
  3. You can get a small discount on the market value by asking for it, and a bigger discount if you are an expert buyer. Anything more than that, and it falls into the category of ‘if it sounds too good to be true…’

Which brings us back to CrystalKnows. Because, really, it does sound rather too good to be true…


The Dress — or why colour workflow matters

So, you’ve seen the coverage covering the internet about a dress which is reputed to be white and gold, or blue and black. People have extremely strong opinions about it. A lot of ‘science’ has been talked about it, or, rather, journalists have approached some scientists and written down some of their remarks. The reality is a lot simpler, and is something that anyone who is serious about taking photographs has had to work with a long time ago.

Essentially, the human eye is a combination of a bio-optical lens and retina, and some highly developed brain functions which interpret it, which works very strongly with short and long-term memory to interpret images correctly. If you look at eye motion studies, you see the way the eye’s (very shallow) focus point darts around something, building up a picture in memory which becomes what you ‘see’.

A camera, by contrast, merely captures whatever falls onto the sensor, be it exposed film or RGB photo-diodes. If you have a digital SLR and you work with RAW files, then the RAW files contain the exact information captured by the sensor.


Even a RAW image isn’t quite as raw as you might imagine. Naturally, no computer image can be ‘seen’ by the naked eye without interpretation — it exists, after all, only as electronic impulses which would normally be interpreted into 1s and 0s. When you ‘see’ a JPEG file, or a TIFF, or a RAW, you are seeing the results of a very sophisticated process of interpretation.

A JPEG or a TIFF has the interpretation ‘baked-in’ — the Red-Green-Blue values translate straight to the screen, which means if the screens colour-space is different from the file’s colour space (more on that in a moment), you will see a colour shift. A RAW image, though, also contains information about white balance, which includes colour temperature and tint.

What is colour temperature?

If you take a black body and heat it to a particular value, you get a particular colour. These values are quite high. Ordinary daylight, the kind emulated by electronic flash, is 5600 K — a temperature you would never normally encounter on Earth. However, because it gives an objective definition, colour temperature (in K) is used to define how reddish or blueish the illuminating light is. In addition to colour temperature, you also get tint shifts — early fluorescent lights, for example, always turned everything green.

Using its automatic settings, your camera should correctly record the right white balance, which is then transferred with the RAW file, and baked into the JPEG. If you’re using a smartphone camera, you will never touch the RAW — the only file you will get is the JPEG.

It should, but, quite often, it doesn’t.

Your eye (bio-optical + brain + memory) is highly adept at adapting to the illuminating light and thus correctly seeing the ‘true’ colour of something. Even so, the golden light of the hour before sunset and after dawn is golden because your eye does not entirely adapt. This is partly because your eye is taking more than a thousand samples a minute as it roves around, building up not only a picture of what you are looking at, but also the other things around it.

The camera only gets one go, and it has to guess, using its memory, what parts are ‘white’ and what parts aren’t. A sophisticated dSLR will have a substantial amount of pre-programmed scenes to help it in this task. A smartphone, no matter how sophisticated, has fewer. Even the best dSLR — I’m thinking of a Nikon D800 — doesn’t get it right all the time, which is why many photographers prefer to shoot in RAW and fix the images in post-processing if the white balance isn’t right.

What kinds of things cause poor white balance?

Essentially, a combination of mixed lighting and difficult to identify surfaces. If you are in a room, and the light is on, and there is also sunlight streaming through the window, you won’t notice anything odd. On the other hand, if you are driving home and the windows are lit, you will see the cheery glow of yellow-orange light. In the room, your eye has correctly assessed all the different kinds of shadows, and used memory to identify the ‘true’ colours of things. Driving home, you see the much bluer than normal light coming from the sky, and the window in a cheerily contrasting yellow-orange, because the colour temperature of incandescent lights is much lower than evening light, and even the modern LEDs are balanced to replicate that.

If you take a picture in a room with mixed lighting, you will see that areas illuminated by sunlight will appear blueish, and areas illuminated by electric light appear yellowish. This is most obvious in the multi-coloured shadows that you get, which can be yellow, blue or even green, depending on what kinds of lights you have, and how strong they are.

The camera has to make a guess at what the ‘correct’ colour temperature is. What it can’t do is assess the entire situation and see the colours ‘correctly’ notwithstanding the predominant light falling on them. The eye gets that right, the camera doesn’t.

You can fix this, if you have the patience, in Lightroom (for shadows), Capture One, or, best of all DxO, which has a mixed lighting feature. You can even mask out layers in Photoshop.

The other problem the camera faces is that it has to guess what white is. Unlike your eye, which knows what colour the curtains are, the camera tries to make an assessment based on predominance. If the entire image appears to the camera to be yellowish, then it will lower its reference colour temperature, in the belief that the room is yellowish because of a yellowish light. In my living room, with its butter coloured wall paper, yellow Flemish sofa and gold Flemish curtains, it’s not likely to get it right. More sophisticated software can guess based on more information — skin tone and sky tone, for example, but it’s never perfect.

What about The Dress?

Some people see The Dress as gold and white, others as black and blue. What’s the truth? The truth is that you can’t possibly tell from that picture which it is. If you load it into Photoshop, you will see very clearly that the colours which appear ‘white’ to some people are blue, and the colours which appear ‘black’ to other people are brown, mud, or gold. The dress is blue and gold, at least, according to the picture.

But — the eye doesn’t like that. Your memory has many dresses stored within it, and also many objects seen in different lights. In direct sunlight, all shadows are blue, but the eye corrects them to the right colour. Why? Because sunlight has a much lower colour temperature than blue sky, but is much stronger. Things appear to be in shadow when the sun’s light does not fall on them directly, but only as reflected through the sky. Your eye is well-used to correcting this, which is why things don’t appear to change colour as they move in and out of shadow, only luminosity.

Lacking reference cues, some people’s eyes light on the ‘white’ of the dress and interpret this in the same way as white in shadow. This causes the eye to interpret the brown part as a rich gold. From that perspective, the dress is then white and gold.

However, the eye is not satisfied with that. It continues to look at the picture, and notes that the colour cues of the other lights in the picture don’t suggest that the dress is in shadow out of doors, but rather is indoors, in low-colour temperature lighting. This means (to your eye) that the ‘white’ area is not white at all, but a much stronger blue than it would appear. In that case, the ‘brown’ must be much bluer as well, which moves it into black.

If you stare at it long enough, you may well see the dress shift from gold and white to black and blue, and back again, as the eye struggles to get the information it wants from the rest of the image.

This is made worse by the fact that the colour in the image is fairly obviously degraded. Fifty years ago your eye wouldn’t have known what to do with that, but in the internet-age we’ve seen enough bad JPEGs for our visual memory to be busy making sense of them.

Solving it with colour workflow

Assuming you actually wanted to represent the colours correctly, for example because you were doing a fashion advertisement, how would you go about this?

With some difficulty. Every step of the way is fraught with colour danger.

However, this is how it’s done.

First, before you shoot the picture, you shoot a Grey Card — not just any grey card, but a specially printed and frequently replaced card which is a known value of grey. If you have the time, you actually then set the camera’s white balance to that. If the lighting changes, you shoot the grey card again.

Actually, there’s a step before that, which is to get rid of all mixed lighting, or, if that’s not possible, to put gels on your lights so that all the lights balance. On a photo-shoot, you’ll quite often see blue gels over lights to match blue sky, or blue gels over incandescent lamps to match the colour of the studio lights. Additionally, studio lights are usually sufficiently powerful to overpower indoor lighting, and are colour balanced to match outdoor light.

Second, you shoot in RAW, and when you come to process the images, you first set the white balance using your image of the grey card, and then apply that same balance to all images, irrespective of what the camera recorded.

You are still not out of the woods. When you come to view the images, you need to view them on a colour calibrated monitor capable of displaying the colour space they are saved in. Colour space? That’s an electronic description of what the screen and other devices are to interpret the values, because each different kind of device has different kinds of colour its good at displaying. Photographers might prefer to shoot in ProPhoto, but the screen likes to show things in sRGB. You just have to bear this in mind, and have the profiles set up correctly. Calibrating the monitor, though, is something you need a measuring device for. X-Rite makes the one I use, and I calibrate my monitor and my printer fairly regularly. Not only do you have to calibrate the monitor, but you have to calibrate it for the light in the room you are in. Again, your measuring device will do this if you specify it, but, if you turn the light on (unless it’s daylight balanced) you’ll need to recalibrate, or use a different, saved, calibration.

You are still not out of the woods. If you want to send the image to a friend, just give up on the idea of colour fidelity. Unless their monitor is also colour calibrated, they will see whatever their combination of monitor and viewing conditions think they should see, which definitely won’t be what you’re seeing. Worse, if they view it on a mobile phone, the colour gamut which the phone can display may be very small, or the colours over saturated, or too bright, or too dark.

If you want to print it to your laser or inkjet printer, you need to calibrate them first. The same device should do this. I you’re sending out to be printed for a leaflet or magazine, or (even worse) a billboard, then you are unlikely to get an opportunity to do a proper calibration of their output (though, if you’re clever, you might calibrate from a previous document you did with them). If you also want to use your photo on TV, then that’s a different calibration again.

Print is particularly difficult because it’s done in Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black dots, rather than in Red, Green, Blue luminous pixels. The computer will handle the conversion, but it’s never exact, and CMYK print will always look duller than on your screen. Acclimatising yourself by looking at a previous piece of print and the photos used in it on screen is still the best way to get over this — let your eye, with its vastly superior processing power, do the work.

Even then, the viewing conditions may still skew the colour for you.

All this is what is known as Colour Workflow, and it’s bread and butter for anyone involved in photography, graphic design or print.

Back to the The Dress

Needless to say, absolutely none of that work was done for The Dress. For a start, it’s mixed lighting. Then, the exposure is fairly well off, but you can’t tell if the image is over or under-exposed. The camera’s software has worked hard to interpret the RAW RGB and put it into a JPEG, but this just makes things worse, as a JPEG file compresses the image using its own guesses about the image. Finally, the image has been viewed on millions of smartphones and other devices, of which only a handful will be calibrated. Turn the brightness up, it’s going to look more like gold and white, turn the brightness down, it’s more blue and black. If you’ve spent a lot of time looking at images, you’ll see two things: first, the real colour of the image is blue and brown, and, second, the real colour of the dress could be pretty much anything, since the possibility of a tint shift means it could actually be yellow and orange, or green and mauve.

And finally

For reasons which I generally only understand for the five minutes after I’ve just read the technical articles explaining it, digital cameras just don’t capture mauve or purple at all well, usually shifting them across to blue.

One thing only is certain: the makers of that dress are going to be getting a lot more sales.

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