I80pxtreehad to look it up. Its called ‘semantic saturation’: that weird thing that happens as a word is repeated and repeated until it, and its meaning, has been all worn out and all becomes non-sense. You probably did this when you were small. You know, chanting ‘strawberry jam’ over and over again until it was just a squidgy mess in your head. Jam, in fact.  A small person was playing this in the café today. Rather smartly, in a post ironic sort of way, with the word ‘why’. (And wow, what a patient mum. Respect.)

I raise it because I think that ‘semantic saturation’ is happening in regular life with regular concepts. Particularly when reading the same dwindling vocabulary’ found in the yards of books and articles concerned with business / management / strategy advice.  For example, there have been a lot of articles about ‘asking the right questions’ recently. These questions must be powerful, they must be smart, they must be focused, they must be meaningful etc. etc.

Being an eldest child that immediately puts me in ‘I must learn and master or I fail’ mode.

Yet the real advice here is probably terrifically simple.

Isn’t it just to remember to think ‘is this normal’? Or ‘why are things this way?’ Isn’t it just to ask……’why?’

Just as I was wondering whether this was really rather lightweight advice, I came upon an interesting interview.  The New York Times has just shared the result of some time – so rarely granted – with Jony Ive of Apple. (There is a lovely style to East Coast journalistic interviewing which I think always brings back the goods – the ‘well, I didn’t know that’ school of enquiry)  And what a gem. The interviewer, Ian Parker, visited Ive in Apple’s Design Studio (article). He was shown a covered corridor that linked Ive’s office with Job’s.  It wasn’t until this visit, this interview, that Ive discovered that no other buildings were linked in this way.

So if the toppest of top designers – whose designs have changed all our lives can forget to think ‘ Is this normal?’ I think a) this suggests that the advice to remember to ask ‘why’ is not so lightweight after all, and b) we might allow ourselves a little holiday from our stay on the self punishment block. Don’t you think?

Now, 1,2,3..strawberry jam, strawberry jam, strawberry…



On a hot day in 2010 I wandered into the new Apple Store in Covent Garden a whisker before closing time. I still don’t know exactly why, but I found I had a mischievous desire to prove someone, anyone, wrong. The setting was so beautiful, so self consciously groovy, so perfect; the interest and publicity had been so impressive and adulatory. Grrr.

Light was still glinting off the English oak and York stone as a young man with both appearance and manners of great beauty approached. The blue of the Apple T shirt suited him perfectly.  “Good evening m’am, may I help you this evening?

I pulled my Blackberry out of my pocket and exhibited it.

Apple products in Penny Hunt's blog
I’m not sure…

He smiled, magic-ed his own Blackberry into the air, and explained

Oh we like to make sure we use everything. Don’t worry. I’m sure we can help”.

And so it began, a lesson in how to think differently that I have never forgotten. (A lesson brought to mind today by a radio programme featuring one of the greatest thinkers in the development of Artificial Intelligence, Maggie Boden)

The beautiful Apple man invited me to sit down at one of the beautiful trestle tables, positioned alongside three beautiful Apple devices, and to talk about how I used my then current (not beautiful) laptop.

Pastries drawn b y Penny Hunt

The experience was how I imagine it would be ..sitting at the pastry table in a café nearby while the pastry chef listens patiently and attentively to how I toast old sliced bread. But pastries are completed, finished. What the Apple man would introduce was the idea of potential.

He gestured to one of the devices and summarised how it would fulfill all the needs I had described. The second device was positioned as the next step, a way of completing those functions in an easier, more satisfying way, to free time to do other more interesting things.

And the third, I asked? Realising now that we were echoing the structure of oh, so many fairytales. “Oh that’s where it all really starts. You see you cannot know what you will do with that until you have begun to explore. It will make things possible that you haven’t even imagined yet.

My immediate take away lesson from that day was simple: to make a point of using new tools, to try out new equipment, for the simplest of tasks, just to see what would happen. (Well, if Lucien Freud can do what he did by changing the width of his paintbrush…). The deeper lesson, found in the area of Artificial Intelligence, is that the study of computational processes helps us understand more about the psychological processes involved in ‘creativity’. Is creativity magic? If not, there will be scientific explanations.

Chess with Penny Hunt

What sorts of creativity are there?  Maggie Boden virtually invented ‘computational creativity’, and was the perfect storm of talents so to do, having studied medicine, philosophy and psychology. Her view is that 95% of creative processes are either combinatorial – putting together unlikely ideas to form a new one – or exploratory – using an existing way of thinking but applying new structures.

The other 5% ? Transformational – where rules are dropped or altered and infinite possibilities then become possible. Rather like a new algorithm generating new options.

It leaves me with an important question. Does sitting at the café pastry table and eating them all count as transformational, or combinatorial creativity do you think?


Penny Hunt and Change Chemistry logo imageThe waiter flew across the café bearing a double espresso with a mixture of reverence and triumph, and replied to my (heartfelt, it had been an early start) words of thanks with one word – ‘awesome’. He was energetic and kind, the coffee looked pretty good, some sun was squeezing itself through the gaps in the East London shutters, and all seemed pretty well with the world.

But. Awesome?  pblog3 Words pretending to say something else would continue to tumble through that day.

Let’s gyre and gimble a bit and see what’s going on.

Awesome might be a clue. How we use words is bound to change and develop. It can be fast. Jeremy Bullmore once mused in a speech to advertising folk….how speedily the word ‘procurement’ had changed from being a ‘word of the night to a word of the day’.

A well known trope – historians still can’t quite agree which words were actually involved – is that St Paul’s cathedral was greeted and appraised with the words ‘awful’, ‘amusing’ and ‘artificial’ when it was formally completed 1711. And quite right too. These words (then) meant awe-inspiring, amazing, and a triumph of construction skill.

Cathédrale_St-Paul_-_coupoleA plausible and human language life cycle.

But change can take many directions. ‘Awesome’ must have become faint with overuse to appear at the delivery of a cup of coffee. The articulate curmudgeon Ian Martin observes a more cynical form of overuse happening to ‘sorry’, as the word becomes a sort of aggressive dignity supporting weapon. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/15/sorry-stop-apologising-ian-martin

I haven’t been paying enough attention. Time to be more alert to the awesome/sorry effect.  OrwelI did warn us with 1984’s Newspeak where a shrinking vocabulary leads.

So of course, once attention is paid, awareness increases, and more data appears. (A process with which my clients experiment).

Two girls at the next table clatter and chink their cappuccinos. One is chattering, one is listening. Except she isn’t, she’s texting. So she says ‘absolutely’ to pretend she’s heard.

A voice on the radio talks of a ‘consultation process’ – to confirm a construction investment decision already made.  An article about Apple marketing catches my eye. It talks of the consumer advantages of owning an iPhone 5. Such a lucky person will apparently be able to access the Apple ‘ecosystem’ of apps.

Does the word ‘shop’ pop into your mind, too?

And it matters. It’s not just that it becomes harder to extract meaning. As these words and expressions (‘put it out there’ was heard minutes later from the two girls) become more ghostly and vague, several things happen. An emotional gap between speaker and listener begins to open up. A temporary anaesthetising affects both participants (no brain activity needed while these ghost words are in the ether). In that space, trust and connection begin to lessen. Where does it lead?pblog2  We will lose the ability to make real contact with each other. “Absolutely” isn’t really fooling anyone. Each of us can feel when no real connection is there.

Businesses will lose our trust. At some level, we know that ‘ecosystem’ is just a glossy (clever) hyperbole too far.   I suggest we start a ‘love some words’ week. It will help look after our relationships with each other. Especially in business.

Because if this weaseling continues, we shall have to go back in time to reclaim some words that can work for us again.

I don’t believe a shop is an ecosystem. A brand that chooses to talk to me like that is just going to become ‘yonderly’. *

* yonderly emotionally distant 13th century English geond .



Penny Hunt and Change Chemistry logo image

Splashed through the delighting deluge and made it to the café. We were all in the Truman Show that day – completely at the mercy of whatever the Christof / Ed Harris producer character felt like throwing at us with his machinery and hidden cameras.

Safe now with an espresso.

I’m seeing everything through the lens of technology at the moment. It’s because of a strange coincidence yesterday.Penny Hunt's drawing of cafe culture and the wisdom of effective listening

In this very café a heart-stopping drama unfolded. The beautiful girl of a couple of weeks ago (her interview went brilliantly by the way) appeared to have lost a child. Shock. Fear. Cries to curdle a cricket bat. Primeval cries.

But the loss wasn’t a child.

The loss was her ‘phone.

Has it happened to you recently? I mean – since the addiction really took hold?  I could see her point of view (lets talk about empathy another time).  My own experience, but days earlier, had been of a stricken sinking feeling on realizing that the ‘phone was on the kitchen table while I was at the ticket barrier. The wrong side,the commitment side. By the bottom of the escalator I had fast forwarded through the stages of grief – denial, anger, negotiation, intense sadness and then finally acceptance (Uncannily like the quick change of weather forms in the Truman show, come to think of it). Except the last stage still wasn’t real. Acceptance took longer. I felt naked and lost and cut off. Part of me, a very important part, was missing.

What is this all about?

In Philip Pullmans Dark Materials the characters’ daemons are physical representations of part of the soul. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dæmon_(His_Dark_Materials) There are now online quizzes where you can identify what animal form your daemon would take.

Clever Mr Pullman. So it turns out they’re not just animals but also fruits – apples and blackberrys.

This sense of loss is profound. Something really is happening to us, fast.

We now spend 1 in every 12 waking minutes online in the UK http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/brits-spend-one-in-12-waking-minutes-online-8863661.html.

The University of Maryland researched attachment to our devices as long ago as 2010 and heard from students asked to be without their phones for 24 hours phrases like ‘ most horrible experience in my life’, ‘lost part of myself’. 70% quit the study. http://theworldunplugged.wordpress.com

So while wonderful opportunities and connections and inventiveness are unfolding and made possible by our new daemons, we also develop the characteristics of addiction, and lose access to other parts of ourselves.

During my day of ‘phonelessness, I experienced the strange but dimly-remembered sensation of thoughts leading on to other thoughts, rather than being interrupted by the urgency of attractive new stuff on the ‘phone. I know I became more attentive to the people I saw that day, too. The listening, the conversation, the connecting, got richer and better.

In the café the drama was still full of energy, but gradually reaching that acceptance stage.  Our heroine was twitching but settling into her chair in a ‘that’s how it is’ way.

What are you going to do?” asked her companion
I guess we’ll just talk” she answered with the first laugh of the exchange.

So the listening and connecting began.