How to get stuff done.

July 15th, 2019


Operation Osprey original plans

I’ve spent a lot of time in an old cardboard box recently. Thankfully, not suddenly homeless, but researching the beginnings of osprey conservation in 1950s’ Scotland. The box contained 30 years of typed correspondence, proposals, schedules and reports detailing the development of the RSPB’s plan to protect the first ospreys to nest in this country for over 40 years. Over the course of five weeks I squeezed the contents of the box, alongside that of several books and the stories of key characters from the time who I interviewed, into the ‘project room’ in my mind. There my internal Saga Norén reviewed, grouped and connected it all, eventually distilling it into the themes and written content for a new exhibition, celebrating 60 years of osprey conservation, at RSPB Abernethy. The story I uncovered is fascinating and worthy of more attention but that’s for another place and time. What I’m interested in exploring here is something that struck me hard about how things got done back then and what we might have lost in the intervening period.

The reams of typewritten papers were invariably without mistake, which when you consider the absence of a delete button on a typewriter, indicates some sort of drafting process was involved. The character of the writer bounced off the page, I quickly got to know who had written what before getting to the signature at the bottom. Complicated instructions or ideas were explained and communicated eloquently with nuance and often humour. Replies proved that messages were received and understood, the achievements of ‘Operation Osprey’ a testament to good communication. You would think that with such antiquated and time-consuming comms technology – few people were even ‘on the GPO’ (ie had a telephone) – no-one would actually have had time to do anything, but au contraire! The letters brim with activity: buildings being erected, stores being bought, cables and barbed wire being laid, habitats watched, birds recorded (in mind and bum numbing completeness), meals prepared and eaten, long-distances travelled, people met with and persuaded into things, groups organised, positions advertised and more. I found myself wondering if there was actually more time in a day 60 years ago. Google told me no, Einstein would probably tell me yes.

Looking carefully, I realised that what I liked best about these well-constructed notes of yesteryear was, quite simply, clarity. Bar telegrams for emergencies, posting a letter was the only comms channel available, typing them up required a time investment that also facilitated getting the communication right. This clarity freed everyone up to get on with what was to be done. In contrast I thought about how we communicate today – so fast, so multifarious and so convenient and yet… often brilliantly unclear. Predictive text errors; small screens reducing our ability to review a piece of communication as a whole; tones-of-voice in rapidly tapped SMS misunderstood, sometimes with disastrous consequences; distracting alerts and intrusions from other channels; insufficient bandwidth during a web meeting resulting in information missed and flow interrupted. All these aspects conspire to complicate and confuse our communications, and it seemed to me, from inside my cardboard box, that the digital comms revolution has sold us a puppy, sacrificing clarity for speed and convenience, but that the time speed should have saved us has been eaten twice-over by the lack of clarity caused by those very ‘benefits’.

Let me explain that I am not a belligerent Luddite, or a Hoxton Hipster with one eye on my Punkt phone and the other on my fixed-gear, penny-farthing propped up outside the artisan coffee shop I am working from, I’m not even a romantic antediluvianist hankering for a time long-lost when we scribed diligently on parchment with a quill. I do, however, work from notebooks (which I write in with a pencil) and I value the anchorage and fullness that the physicality of a piece of paper brings to the information on it. In a world where adopting new technology seems to spread through us like a fashionable rash it can feel down-right disobedient to look piercingly at its true value. But if there’s one thing the success of osprey conservation in the UK that was born from the typewriters of a few geographically dispersed protagonists 60 years ago can teach us, it is surely that if you want to get stuff done, clear and focused communication is absolutely central. Beware distractions.


  1. Spot on! I spent years promoting new technologies – some facilitate good communication but a lot of them don’t. Like you I favour committing my initial thoughts to paper.

    by: Eileen Peters on 15th July 2019 at 7:57 pm


    • Perhaps the biggest surprise about paper is that using FSC certified paper turns out to be great for the environment. Properly managed forests grown for paper pulp are full of trees that help us to combat global warming and are a sustainable source of income. There’s also the fantastic nonsense of obsolete media exterminating your information that is of course completely avoided by using paper.

      by: shaell on 16th July 2019 at 5:05 pm


  2. All so very true Alleese

    by: Annie on 15th July 2019 at 10:11 pm


    • Thanks Annie

      by: shaell on 16th July 2019 at 4:59 pm


  3. I concur.

    Sadly, our vocabulary is no longer as rich, or varied due to these new communication platforms. In addition, I would argue that as a result, society is no longer as patient. Which I believe has contributed to a decline in good manners.

    by: Ajay Ahluwalia on 16th July 2019 at 1:47 pm


    • Lol!

      by: shaell on 16th July 2019 at 4:04 pm


  4. A very good point about putting the thought into clear and good communications to leave the space for getting all that stuff done we need to do.
    Point taken and now I’m off to do some stuff!

    by: Kat on 16th July 2019 at 4:15 pm


    • It feels kind of embarrassing that we have to learn this again – oh, you’ve gone already!

      by: shaell on 16th July 2019 at 4:56 pm


  5. Interesting read Alice, with all the communications tools out there it is always good to reflect and rely on the basics that have always been proven to work effectively and efficiently. This helps us filter through the noise of non-productive tools out there and simply helps us get shit done! Its great knowing that you are able to integrate old school with the new school which produces awesome content for your clients!

    by: Jeffrey on 23rd July 2019 at 1:40 pm


    • Hi Jeffrey, thanks for this thoughtful addition to my old school finding! Of course you and I have been working together through Prezentor. As a communication tool for smarter sales and marketing, it holds a unique place, and one of the reasons I love to use it and recommend it wherever I can is that, in a way that’s surprisingly similar to the typewriter, it champions clear thought. Helping clients realise the simplicity of a sales or investment message and backing it up with relevant interactive data makes for the best most engaging content. There’s a time investment in getting it right, but then – boom – everyone has what they need to get on.

      by: shaell on 23rd July 2019 at 3:53 pm


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