I have been spending a lot of time in Croydon lately. I must stress I have nothing against Croydon as a place, or the people who live there, some of whom I have been working with most productively, hence my new familiarity. Nothing against it at all, just .. well maybe there is something to be admired in the vision of the council fathers to build an entire new city centre with no distinguishing features at all, to give planners free reign to explore what happens when you play LEGO for real with actual towers and blocks but no rules or scheme in place to inhibit the concrete chop-suey that evolves. Spending a lot of time with engineers and architects discussing, of all things, place-making, in what must be surely one of the anti-place-making capitals of the world.

So I am on a train leaving Croydon, bound for Gatwick, and I am leafing thru a freebie newspaper, bored enough to seek distraction in the property to let pages whereupon I see an apartment somewhere up for grabs which is proudly proclaimed as being ‘Only 24 Minutes From Croydon!’ .

My first thought; am I the only one thinking that’s not far enough?

Second thought; why so precise? Not 20 minutes, not half an hour, but 24. What’s going on, there’s a conspiracy ..

Third thought: the late great Gene Pitney and his famous song, would he emote through his tremulous warble quite so convincingly about 24 Minutes From Croydon as 24 Hours From Tulsa. Possibly, I think, if he’d seen the place.

Don’t you love it when someone offers their best with a flourish and it backfires spectacularly? Or maybe just backfires. Obviously when it’s not you yourself, but who doesn’t smile when they see a notice of second hand items – ‘Wedding Dress for Sale – Never Worn’ kind of thing? We all have a radar for this, don’t we, and they keep on coming.

Take this last New Year. The Wallace family entertained a guest; my father-in-law, 70 years old, French, speaking not a word of English. Arriving late and without luggage, bags gone astray somewhere between Marseille, Paris and Edinburgh airports. Cue unexpected and mounting stress over the next days as we tried to influence the situation via frequent and strident calls to the Service Air desk. Cue lots of broken promises, scant information and missed deadlines. After three days the fate of les valises was not only our sole topic of conversation, but a metaphor for everything going wrong in modern society, Brexit, and the declining standards of the Eurovision Song Contest. Startling parallels and insightful analysis were expounded and developed, or developed as best as I could in my wine-aided pidgin French. Of course, a philosophy lesson wasn’t the only support I offered my wife’s father in these troubled times; more than once I suggested taking him to Marks and Spencer’s to pick up emergency essentials. This was waved away. The fault lay with the baggage handlers, we would not give in, my support was appreciated.

It turned out my support was more literal than I realised.

Lunch, day three. Wine. My father-in-law offers a comment about my underwear. He finds it very comfortable. Did he really say that? To my horror, he confirms and compounds. Extraordinaire, he says, shifting in his chair as if to display some of the new range of movement available to him thanks to my pants. I turn to my wife. What was I meant to do, she shrugs in Gallic fashion, Can’t let him go without? I’m lost for words, wouldn’t know what to say, even in English. And it has been meant as a compliment for me to enjoy…

So; a backfiring sales pitch, a left-field faux pas. What do they have in common, and how do you avoid making them? Well, firstly you’ve got to recognise where they come from to start with, and that is the overwhelming pressure to communicate and the human desire to impress. Language and strutting your stuff are closely linked. When cave-dwelling Neanderthals first got round to expressing themselves verbally and invented the first words and language you can bet it wasn’t to ask what was for dinner or to discuss the Neolithic weather, no. More likely What do you think of this fur-lined jockstrap? Even if they were wearing each other’s too.

Avoiding mistakes? You just have to have a loop in your brain that considers how what you are about to say/write/tweet will be received, rather than how you can pull it off with a flourish. This doesn’t mean permanent self-analysis and self-censorship, on a sentence by sentence basis. Far from it. It does mean however, giving serious thought, once in a while, to how you want yourself or your organisation to be received over time, i.e. what is the overall story you are trying to build, and does what you have in mind add to that or cut across it. Which of course means giving some thought to that overall story itself.

I’m a communications guy. I’ve worked successfully with some organisations in my career, unsuccessfully with others. The older I get I realise the difference between the two is usually dependent on the level of engagement from the people at the very top in what are the three lines of our corporate narrative. If they are not engaged, and have delegated the drawing up of this month’s key messages to someone menial in the err Comms Department and he/she is desperately drawing up a list of random platitudes that look suspiciously like fridge magnet poetry you know you are on a loser. Which is not to say the CEO should be drawing up the list, not at all. What should be happening is someone lower down the line is compiling a limited number of self-evident bullets based on the narrative he/she knows is endorsed at the very top, and then using their skills to set these in the context of the month’s performance and challenges. Otherwise it’s as abstract and open to interpretation as 24 minutes from Croydon. The top guys at successful ones set aside time to do this and fully inhabit the process. The unsuccessful ones are usually heard to say things like ‘It’s obvious, goes without saying’. The very worst will declare that ‘If I need to tell you that, you shouldn’t be in your job’.

Something compelling and authentic? Every organisation, initiative and individual has this at their core, you just have to look for it. It only takes a little investment in thought and time. You can fast-track through a Narrative Workshop but that’s only for those committed to success. Fridge magnet poetry remains an option for others.

Yes, there is more and more pressure to communicate as channels multiply and expectations soar. But don’t just add to the noise and be stung when it goes wrong. Think about you story. And if you are wearing someone else’s pants, pay attention to how and where you break the news, particularly if you don’t want the unwitting pant-donator to splutter his wine on hearing it.