27 John Terry vs Charles Darwin

Posted in Uncategorized on FebruaryThu, 25 Feb 2010 23:41:20 +00004125pm10 24 PMpThu, 25 Feb 2010 23:41:20 +000041Thursday 09 by nielsendinwoodie

If you ever doubted the validity of evolutionary theory – Darwin, Dawkins etc – then you only need to listen to some of the most highly revered members of our society to have your faith in that theory renewed. I refer, of course, to Professor John Terry and his fellow academicals of the green sward, who repeatedly confirm the philosophical construct that they in particular, and therefore by association the rest of us in general, are descended from fish. Because frequently at the end of the day they are gutted.

Other souls will tell you they are over the moon. All the while denying any missing link to cows among their family members, or a liking for green cheese. Their version of events can be discounted on grounds of excessive optimism.

We are living in the last days of Rome. We are spoilt and sybaritic and we know it. We recline on tasselled couches of indigo velveteen and press buttons that summon visions at will. We are the peanut-munching crowd. Thumbs down on the philosophers, goodnight Cicero. Thumbs up to bread and circuses and wall-to-wall tittering celebrities and brainless footballers who are paid truly obscene amounts of money for chasing a ball around like little dogs and for whom ethics is a place near London with great nightclubs.

You’re in a good mood this week.

I apologise. It’s just that I’ve had a pretty tough few days, what with worrying over how poor Professor Terry, Archbishop Kay and Old King Cole will cope with the split. The split infinitive, I mean.

What? What split infinitive?
Now that genial TV host Vernon Kay and international superstars Terry and Cole (stop sniggering at the back) have been introduced to the idea that texting sex messages and photographs to anyone female in Chelmsford isn’t exactly the partnership their wives were hoping for, they’ve checked in for six long days of remedial therapy.

But this is no ordinary retreat. Not one where you sit around a campfire with Amy Winehouse, singing songs and discussing why crack hasn’t been a better friend to you in the past. This is no picnic with Ant and Dec giggling like marionettes. This is punishment and instruction. This is a total mental sauna. This is a forceful regimen that addresses the power of the frontal lobe (don’t look for it in your underpants, boys) so that the discipline of grammar makes a better man of you.

For the next six days, Ashley, JT and Vernon will learn everything they didn’t learn at school. First, the naming of parts – verbs, nouns, asbos, adjectives. Second, how most of these parts work together harmoniously in a sentence. Third, wait a minute what’s a sentence again? Fourth, forget about split infinitives, they’re as useful as your auntie’s antimacassars. Fifth, why does any of this matter?

Good question. Getting your point over’s what matters, isn’t it?
Yes, it is. If we are toads and the best we can do is stick our tongues into any available crevice. There are no official statistics on this, but it is not architecture or technology or politics or Morris dancing that describes what differentiates humans from the other vertebrates: it is language.

It is the extraordinary flexibility of available vocabulary, used simply for the most part and sometimes subtly, that makes our thoughts vivid in someone else’s mind. This is the human triumph. What we mean when we talk about good communication is the ability to convey an idea in a way that actually engages other people and makes them think.

Saying we are gutted or over the moon is a crime against humanity because it’s a crime against language. Using trashy second-hand clichés picked up like teenage fag-ends off the street tells whoever we’re talking to that we prefer not to really think, prefer not to genuinely engage. We’re already too busy thinking trash so any old pre-made phrase will do.

And how this relates to business is…?
Suppose I am a potential client and I invite you to build me a school. I am really concerned that the children in my care benefit from new opportunities. They come from pretty deprived backgrounds some of them, but new educational thinking suggests that we can improve their chances by designing schools that respond better to the way children learn. So I ask you via an Invitation to Tender to tell me how you would approach that challenge. Suppose this, amongst other verbiage, is what you send me in reply:

Our wealth of experience in value engineering state-of-the-art innovative solutions in a wide spectrum of disciplines is embedded in our culture and enables us to hit the ground running to ensure that our clients receive highly specific best practice guidance at all times in the interface between ourselves, our integrated supply chain partners and all relevant third parties, including, but not limited to, the key stakeholders involved.

As a potential client, this insults my intelligence. What I infer from this coil of nasty management-speak, this steaming pile of corporate cliché, is that whoever wrote it does not have an original or genuine thought in their head. They certainly have a bucket of snake oil behind their back. But personally I am (… how shall I put it?) extremely disappointed, because I was hoping to be excited by what you had to say.

Nielsen Dinwoodie
business messages people remember


26 A reason to have faith in the younger generation

Posted in Uncategorized on FebruaryFri, 12 Feb 2010 10:50:46 +00005012am10 24 AMpFri, 12 Feb 2010 10:50:46 +000050Friday 09 by nielsendinwoodie

“When you’ve finished that letter, Miss Remington, send a telex to the Nairobi office and collect my safari suit from the dry cleaners.” Miss Remington loaded a carbon paper triplicate onto the roller and set her fingers to work. That sweltering afternoon in the typing pool, her horn-rims sat heavily on the bridge of her sweet thin nose. My God, when are they going to invent the fax? she sighed.

It is one of the more delicious contrivances of our age – the information age, according to palaeontologists – that all it takes on a Sunday evening of casual eBay activity is for your home wireless broadband to begin flashing a trillion nanoelectrons through the dark fibres and suddenly you arrive, in half an eyeblink, back in 1972.

Back to the days of hopeful youth when, wild-eyed with discovery and oblivious to all but the latest Cream LP, you cast the mores of your parents onto the jokepile of history, along with the mantlepiece trinkets, the porcelain spaniel, the little Chinaman pulling a rickshaw turned in matte black wire.

Now you spend hours on eBay trying to find that trash again. Ok, not the sausage dog draught excluder that didn’t quite make it into the Design Museum. But, as the past disappears further down the tunnel, you find yourself wondering whatever happened to this or that piece of tat, each one a cipher of who you were back then.

And there is no lost object more precious than my old typewriter. An Olivetti Lexikon 80, heavy as a bus and never a line out of kilter. It came home one day when the typing pool in my father’s office went electric and changed my life. A teenager with a sudden purpose, I typed volumes of sleuth stories and heartfelt poems that the world is still not ready to accept. The steady mechanical resistance of the keys helped regulate my racing thoughts. Tippex came in paper strips not bottles.

Look, if this is just some meander down memory lane, I’ve got other places to go.
Point taken. My theorem approaches. It occurred to me, watching my own teenage children this weekend engage in personal text message marathons and five hour sessions updating their 1,382 close friends on Facebook with regard to how Sophie Pluke Year 12 is like well minging, that never before in civilisation has so much writing been produced. So much writing!

Not exactly Shakespeare though, is it?

Well, it is the privilege of every generation to accuse the next of intellectual weakness and low moral standards. Has been since Cain, if not Abel, turned out so wrong. Certainly, Sophie Pluke is the cause of Broken Britain. Yet, however linguistically crp our children’s txt mssgs are, it cannot be gainsaid: the kids is suddenly all about writing.

The last time young people were writing as prolifically as this, they were called Shelley and Byron, not Chel and Ryan. It’s a miracle. It happens only twice a millennium.

Naturally, my theorem acknowledges that quantity and quality traditionally exist in inverse proportion to each other. It is true that my daughters and their pals do not have the benefit of a lumbering typewriter to add thoughtfulness to their thoughts – their fingers dart over miniature keypads like electric eels. But the quality of their writing may improve, as they come to invent the CVs they’ll need if they’re ever to find a job.

Meanwhile shouldn’t we just be heartened that people still find words are valuable in their lives? Our children are clamouring to communicate, and this should not be taken for granted. Remember the recent alternatives – in descending primate order – grunting Goths, glued-up punks, hippies stoned out of their tree.

And how this relates to business is…?
Interesting how the demand for training at work changes with the times. In the 80s, you couldn’t run enough courses in negotiation skills (“Got any dirty tricks, mister? How do I screw the other side?”). In the 90s, it was back-to-back workshops on constructive teamwork and partnering (“We are delighted to collaborate…”). For the past ten years, communication has been the must-know.

Now that Blackberrys have descended and taken over the planet… forcing humans in a two-hour stand-off today on Wall St to prove they know the alphabet… hacks like me are suddenly being quizzed on life’s burning issues, such as: what’s a comma really for? Who’d have thought it? Rampant Nanotechnology Heralds Resurgence of Semi-colon Debate. You read it here first.

Footnote: What happened to my old Olivetti Lexikon? Like a fool enthralled by the space race, I dumped it in a skip during the optimistic purchase of an early Amstrad computer, when Alan Sugar was an attractive foetus. Confirmation of personal stupidity. And then, six months ago, I saw my old typewriter for the first time in twenty years. Where? Sitting majestically on a plinth in the Design Museum. No sausage dogs in sight.

Nielsen Dinwoodie
business messages people remember

25 It’s ok at home, but not in the office

Posted in Uncategorized on JanuarySat, 30 Jan 2010 17:36:55 +00003630pm10 24 PMpSat, 30 Jan 2010 17:36:55 +000036Saturday 09 by nielsendinwoodie

Some things are hard to explain. The purchase of bathroom towels is one of these things.

I don’t mean to intrude into your personal space here, but for the purpose of what follows you do need to know that in the flat I share with the Canadian blonde in London’s bijou W9, bathroom towels come in only two colours: warm charcoal and cool chocolate (that’s grey and brown if you’re common.)

When her brother came to stay last week, fine man that he is we gave him a towel. It’s the least you can do for these people. Canadians, as you probably know, are the cleanest people on the planet. Public fluoridation results in teeth you can see from Venus, they believe in queues, respect traffic lights and detest Americans. A towel is the least he deserved.

Except I couldn’t remember which colour we gave him. Charcoal or chocolate? And so in the bi-chromatic mist of a temporarily shared bathroom – which towel was mine not his, as I stepped out of the shower?

It’s well documented that in 73% of similar cases, the first morning you use the grey towel, the second morning brown. You’re getting it totally wrong exactly half the time. Why? Because you can’t remember. And also because it probably doesn’t much matter between friends.

And how this relates to business is…?
Because it does matter between you and your clients.

Oh right, doing deals in the sauna now, are we?
If you wish. The image of two greased-up bankers grappling with birch twigs while discussing interim bonds does conjure up the current plight of Reykjavik. But I refer to something more mundane.

I refer to a sentence I found in the verbal morass of a BSF bid that I am currently editing. Don’t know what a BSF bid is? Picture a transit van crammed with two years of lever arch files and you’re pretty much there. All of which paper could, of course, be boiled down to: “Chose us, we’re a bit nicer than the other lot” with a sensible price attached. Goodbye to months of hair-pulling for a hundred people and more. But this is a government-funded initiative, so interminable hoop-jumping is required.

Anyway, here’s the sentence that relates to those colourful towels. “Our Principal Design Advisor will consult with the Principle Education Adviser on the best options for the school.”

Ok, people get confused by principle/principal, and the adviser/advisor thing keeps serious word geeks awake all night. But can you explain how it’s possible for someone to spell the same word two different ways in the same sentence? Dictionaries still exist. What’s a client to make of a document where the writer’s solution to a spelling dilemma is to lump something down they know must be wrong – especially when trying to win work in the education sector?

That’s like using all the towels in the bathroom at the same time – and then leaving them on the floor for someone else to pick up.

That someone is people like me. As editors, we’re here to help. But if you want real value from us, perhaps you could three-line whip your people with Icelandic birch twigs every Tuesday afternoon to proof their own work and so give editors more time to spend on creating concision and persuasive benefit for the bid. This observation applies to all business writing. Spell it out: it’s a matter of principle.

Nielsen Dinwoodie
business messages people remember

24 The Pomegranate Imperative

Posted in Uncategorized on JanuarySun, 17 Jan 2010 01:59:06 +00005917am10 24 AMpSun, 17 Jan 2010 01:59:06 +000059Sunday 09 by nielsendinwoodie

Ok, are we over the snow yet? Had enough of winter wonderland? Over the big freeze that made the UK weather satellite picture look like one of them classy white fireside rugs you can buy at B&Q to pretend you’re cuddling a polar bear while guzzling down the entire Quality Street hamper and having your toes tickled by Lorraine Kelly, so it is?

Welcome back to this blog. Or, possibly, welcome back to work, if you’ve just made it in from Reading for the first time since a week past Tuesday.

For a nation so besotted by Dickensian workhouses blanketed in snow and black-draped in wizened widows (the obvious modern version is ITV’s Dancing on Ice, where celebrity ice hags sob into their tutus between commercials), it’s surprising that Britain just doesn’t have a clue how to do winter with any self-respect.

The Swiss invented skis. The Swedes invented Saabs. We invent excuses for not getting to work.

Come on, take the holiday, mate.
Ah, how lovely to know you’re back again, vox of the populi, not lost forever in a snowdrift. My point, and you may share it, is that for every individual in Yorkshire strapping on a couple of old wooden tennis rackets from the loft as snowshoes, there were a hundred people two doors away looking to file a chilblains suit.

Chilblains, what’s that then?
Sore toes. Previously a natural consequence of seasonally chilly weather. But now, officially, a rare condition of social deprivation brought on by your local council not providing you with free cashmere socks twice a week.

And where were you when others were choking on snow?
Sitting in the whiteout blizzard, car heater dispensing warm anaesthesia, when my reverie drifted back to winters past. To the days when people didn’t shrink and shrivel at a flurry of snow. Need to drive to Penrith via Antarctica in 1963? No problem, ma! Just bang on another reindeer pully, stick a shovel out the back windae and away we go! These days we’re worried that Waitrose might run out of pomegranate juice.

Carbound and foodless, snow plastering the windscreen, my thoughts turned to Delia Smith, stranded in her comeback career. Poor anaemic Delia. Being surgically devoid of personality, she is several TV museum rooms away from those modern pop-up tarts of the kitchen whose fame resides not in their stove skills but in the way they dish their offer up. We don’t watch Jamie or Gordon or Nigella for recipes. We watch them to hear how they talk, see how they behave.

And how this relates to business is…

In any decent business, you’ll find the people at the top have vibrant personalities. They express them as an act of leadership. It’s risk-taking and inventiveness that shows you possess a pulse and captivates the audiences who are your employees and your clients.

We have one life. As Keith Floyd demonstrated lately.

In every marketplace, it’s personality that wins. If the content’s good on every stall, it’s your style that seals the sale.

Pomegranates may seem a bit twanky, but just try scooping those extraordinary little red jewels into the cornflakes of a shivering morning. It could be your first step of the New Year on the ladder of success.

Nielsen Dinwoodie
business messages people remember

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23 May contain nuts

Posted in Uncategorized on DecemberSun, 20 Dec 2009 17:04:55 +00000420pm09 24 PMpSun, 20 Dec 2009 17:04:55 +000004Sunday 09 by nielsendinwoodie

As an important high-flying business communication consultant, I am regularly booked into some of the best hotels available to humanity. Last night, the Premier Inn Warrington.

Fair enough. But if you were alive in any cinema in the 1980s, and if you and Mary from the dairy ever had your lips parted by the fire brigade during a double bill, you may remember from the widescreen adverts that Warrington was the proud home of Vladivar Vodka. A gallon of the stuff may be your best friend if ever you chance to visit.

From the name, I take it the Premier Inn is the best gaff in town. It’s certainly ideal if what you’re looking for is an endless series of notices, rules and forms of instruction, laminated and shoved in your face, just in case you were a total idiot in need of information to increase your health, safety, well-being and personal enjoyment throughout your stay. Examples follow.

Towel rail may get hot
May? I have been standing here holding it for an hour. When will it decide to get hot? Is there a particular day of the year when the spookily possible heating up might happen?

Did you know..?
Yes, I did actually. Because every hotel I’ve stayed in since 1993 has left a sign in the bathroom to say that leaving my towels in the bath will waste 50,000 litres of detergent. So how come the room never smells that good? And yea there will be gnashing of teeth and terrible fissures in the rock and Gideon will ascend mightily out of the wee drawer beside the bed and smite thee for thy hygiene. Don’t worry, I’ve used so many hotels and so few towels that I sponsored a seat in the dress circle for the entire Copenhagen Climate Change Conference.

May contain nuts
Formerly a warning found only on foodstuffs, now has wider use. All manufacturers of everything now stamp a nut warning on every item they produce. Washing machine not working? May contain nuts. New shoes painful? May contain nuts. These signs are designed to prevent the general public from engaging a battalion of ambulance chasers in shiny suits (“100% Lawyers, 100% Compensation” thunders the daytime TV ad). As a by-product, squirrels are now investing seriously in UK industry.

Caution! Towel rail can get hot
Can as well as may? Under what circumstances? When I make the personal decision to switch it on? Thus causing horrific heat rash trauma to the tip of a finger? An injury that only 100% Lawyers with airbrushed hair can convert into the holiday of a lifetime in Miami.

Please wait here to be seated
Many people who enter restaurants these days are incapable of recognising what a table looks like. They therefore require to be escorted to one. Otherwise, they will end up guzzling a full English breakfast while sprawled like seals in the middle of the floor, thus constituting a trip hazard for other residents. Look for this sign in crumby, under-staffed, low-end business hotels. (It’s amazing. You actually do see fully formed adults standing around for five minutes in an empty restaurant at 7.45am, before a serving child in some scuzzy attempt at a uniform comes and points a finger at a piece of cloaked MDF and says, “Just to let you know? We ain’t got no foie gras today?”)

Thank you for your custom, we look forward to welcoming you again
So you have written a sign to say this? Instead of just making it happen? Why not check if they have signs like this in hotels that people enthuse about to their friends.

And how this relates to business is..?
You know exactly how this relates to business. And so, as the soft and lovely flurrying snow bedecks the whispery streets here in Dickensian London and the year behind us floats away, it’s time for a break.

A Merry Christmas to all My Readers. All 1,457 of you (according to Google Analytics), including you three in UK.
It’s a crazy world. See you in the glorious dawn of the new decade, my friends.

Nielsen Dinwoodie
business messages people remember


22 Signs of the times

Posted in Uncategorized on DecemberThu, 03 Dec 2009 19:04:41 +00000403pm09 24 PMpThu, 03 Dec 2009 19:04:41 +000004Thursday 09 by nielsendinwoodie

One eager reader writes from his phone to inform me that this blog has become his “portable curmudgeon”. Portable cannot be denied.

As a communication consultant constantly on the move, I am dedicated to analysing and improving the way we get our messages across to one another. So I have been scooting around, innocently gathering examples. Of what? Of the contemptuously condescending public signs and announcements that continually belittle the collective intelligence of the people of our fair and favoured land. In particular, the travelling public. Examples follow.

No Smoking
No kidding. Really? “We would like to remind you that smoking is not permitted in any part of the aeroplane, including the toilets.” This is a vital message. Surveys have found that a staggering 94% of air travellers in 2009 have not heard of the global embargo on smoking on planes imposed 17 years ago and indeed believe that smoking offers a wide array of health benefits. This is why you always see people on planes huddled together near the galley helping each other through the cold turkey trauma of not being able to cup a stub in their yellow-stained palms, as the big bird trundles along the runway.

No Spitting
This sign was originally sited on the top deck of Glasgow trams (1914-1965). Spitting was a popular activity then among city folk, but it became necessary to outlaw the sport when cigarette manufacturers realised that people were spending too much time gobbing and not enough time furiously smoking cigarettes, which was permitted on the top deck of trams. Today no one in Glasgow smokes, so there is no need to ban spitting any more. It’s really slippy up there.

If you see anything suspicious, please report it to a member of staff
A general purpose reminder that the world is flat, the moon is made of cheese, distrust is the safest option and paranoia by far the best way of keeping the civilian population acting like rabbits on a lamping expedition.

Any unattended items may be removed and destroyed by security forces
Forces? In which dystopian novel are we now actually living? These scripts are seriously darkly Orwellian. At St Pancras International today (as every day) the above message was tannoyed every two minutes. We didn’t have “security forces” two months ago.

Passengers with luggage are reminded to use the lift
Reminded? If I’ve been told once I’ve been told a thousand times. Because some woman with a tinny voice says it every time anyone passes a motion sensor on the platform bridge at Luton Airport Parkway. If you are lucky enough to be waiting endlessly for one of First Capital Connect’s premium uncancelled services, you will grow fond of her voice. Or cause a passenger incident.

If using the stairs, hold the handrail and take care
People are finding it increasingly difficult to remember how to walk these days. Thank goodness the woman with the tinny voice is here to help again. A special Luton Airport Parkway DVD of safe walking techniques for valued customers is available online. Surprisingly, it offers no advice on how the handrail should actually be held. This omission provides a potential insurance claim goldmine for the clumsy. Take care, won’t you?

And how this relates to business is…?
Written rules remove the need for personal responsibility. All those haranguing signs and announcements above rob us of the dignity of commonsense.

The business equivalent is the whole nine yards shelf of QA procedures that nullify the notion of thinking for yourself. No one I know in business loves those things. That’s from CEOs to purchase order clerks. So why do we still have ISO?

If your company has a method statement for how to open envelopes to avoid paper cuts, maybe you should cut and run.

Every successful organisation knows that a tick box exists to be ticked and forgotten. They then get on with the dynamic principle upon which every good business operates: how can these brilliant people we’ve employed increase their own job satisfaction by exploiting their own initiative and so add to the commercial benefit for all?

Nielsen Dinwoodie
business messages people remember

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21 Wordsworth was rubbish at Sudoku

Posted in Uncategorized on NovemberThu, 19 Nov 2009 23:19:48 +00001919pm09 24 PMpThu, 19 Nov 2009 23:19:48 +000019Thursday 09 by nielsendinwoodie

I get hundreds of letters every week begging for money. My daughters are nothing if not persistent. Two are at university and therefore perpetually penniless as a result of having to attend all those extra night-classes led by Professor Funkalicious. The third is still at school and just thinks money is cool. She is an early adopter.

What is the best way for parents to redistribute their meagre wealth these days? Simply giving in to claims of child hunger is one way. However, I prefer to use a couple of slightly more externally verifiable KPIs in deciding which of my kids to keep alive: when the begging letters arrive, I assess them for lucidity of sentence construction and accuracy of punctuation. Txt msgs? If the entreaties are not dispatched with the flourish of a quill pen on crisp oyster vellum, then there ain’t no dough for the Lady Gaga show.

You’re lying for comic effect, I suppose.
Thank you for noticing. But I was remembering yesterday, for all our dreamy nostalgia about being young and free, how really crap it was to be young and poor. You knew exactly how much better life would be as a kid if you had that new Scalextric chicane, and what you got instead was a parental treatise on the benefits of delayed gratification.

Parents and children always live to a different agenda. While parents treasure their children’s childhood, the kids themselves want cash. We want to preserve their innocence, they want to live in Argos. By the time they’re into double figures, they’re already budding consumers – shackled by the patronage of pocket-money and dreaming of fiscal freedom.

Gordon Brown thinks 16-year-olds should get the vote. I think twelve is the right age. Not to vote but to start experiencing properly the financial reward principle that’ll inform the rest of their lives. How about we link financial reward with education and pay children against their performance at school? By we I mean the taxpayer. By pay I mean in hard cash, as well as buckets of praise.

At last, proof of certifiable madness.
You think so? Education is a service industry, and the customer it serves is society. When new adults arrive from Teenage Central and leave their rank little hoodies at the door, we want them fully operational in social skills. Feet off seats etc. But we also want them clever.

To most children, school is primarily an arena for personal and social discoveries. Who am I? Who are my friends? These are questions more vital to any adolesecent than What symbol represents potassium on the periodic table? As adults, we’ve forgotten what it’s like. Imagine if we had to sit in a room all day while a bunch of old people made us learn things that we personally couldn’t give a damn about. Like line dancing. For our own good.

How many adults do you know who recite Wordsworth while figuring out Sudoku? By the age of twelve, kids have already jumped off the arts/science fence onto the side that suits them. What is the point of trigonometry if you’re a linguist? Why study syntax if biology’s your future? Why not let them specialise earlier, drop the subjects that make them feel dumb and incentivise them properly for becoming better earlier at the subjects they actually enjoy. The government’s EMA scheme already gives some 16-19 year olds £30 a week just for turning up at school. They need a dose of profit-related pay, them kids do.

And how this relates to business is…?
I wonder how well we educate our people at work and help them grow. How well do we construct a curriculum of job tasks and personal development that motivates them and encourages them to motivate themselves? Do we understand their interests? Do we think of them as individuals? Or do we treat our employees as children, who ought to do what they’re told?

Maslow and Herzberg (the Jedward of management gurus) were always spouting that money is a feeble motivator compared to the glow of personal job satisfaction. That’s true without a doubt, especially when you’ve acquired enough Scalextric. The worrying thing for most businesses, in terms of employee job satisfaction and therefore employee performance, is the actual number you come up with if you perform this simple test: look around you now and calculate how many of your colleagues are glowing. Dare you! Double dare you do it!

You probably won’t need a differential equation for the answer.

Nielsen Dinwoodie
business messages people remember

All posts also at www.dinwoodie.net