I love stationery. When the girls and I walk through John Lewis and the jewellery sparkles on our right, the three of us turn our gaze left toward the pencils, pens, and notebooks that beckon us with their blank slates and barrels full of potential. Along with curiosity, honesty, imagination and courage, I have taught our children the beauty of writing tools. We have all breathed deeply in the spines of new blank books.
Ours is a genuine and personal affection. For a long time, though, i didn't realise that choice of writing instruments could be amongst the elements I check for reinforcing (or undermining) my brand.
The point occurred to me one summer when my daughters dug out an absolute embarrassment of a pen out of some forgotten drawer in our house. It’s covered in gold and silver diamond shapes, with a tacky metal angel perched on the clip. They were in awe when it emerged, as if they’d found forgotten treasure. When they were four and eight, they thought it was beautiful.
But I took one look at it and knew that I had to destroy it, before it could destroy me. If I ended up with that thing as the only pen I had in a business meeting, I’d lose all credibility as a writer without ever writing a word.
Another time I was on my way to meet a business owner to talk about his website. Going out the door, checking I was prepared, I found I had a decent enough disposable financial-services company pen. But in the meeting I found that just putting it on the table turned the energy in the meeting: I learned my client was aggressively anti-corporate, and I spent two-thirds of our time together trying to persuade him that I wasn’t there to standardise, institutionalise, or otherwise take over his company. That’s what he’d seen from big businesses, and just by my using this biro, he by extension he applied this expectation to me.
My favourite pen story, though, was when first joined the corporate communications team at Aviva. The team wrote for the top directors and had access to company strategy and secrets before anyone else, and they took a certain amount of their identity from closeness to the top. As the new girl on the floor I had to demonstrate my right to be there, and a pen gave me a brilliant Crocodile Dundee-style moment.
My first day I sat down beside a very pleasant chappy (who later became a friend), and he started off the team’s usual game of establishing the pecking order. He tried to one-up me through university degree, a game of Who-Do-You-Know, and even talking about our kids’ schools. Finally he gave it up as a draw. We were equals. No fun in that, but at least we knew.
We turned back to work. He picked up a pen—the same little reliable, disposable biro that a few years later nearly lost me my client.
“I love these pens,” he said. “Do you have one of these? They just write great, and they keep going for ages.”
For once in my life my timing was perfect. I remembered the lovingly-sheathed sword of a pen that I had in my handbag. (My husband worked downstairs in the team that sells to very, very rich customers, and he’d passed it to me). This was more jewel than quill: embossed with the company logo like a tiny coat of arms, it was a work of art, laid in a velvet-lined box. When you opened it up, light shined into the darkness, and the voices of angels sang. Or near enough.
“You call that a pen?” I asked. “This is a pen.” The lid floated open, and I saw the reflection of precious metal glinting in his eyes. I’d established my place there with my own skill, and then sealed it, like Arthur pulling his sword from the stone. Except it was me, taking a pen out of my bag.
In reality it meant nothing. But in the office full of stationery-loving writers, it meant street cred and respect.
Where do these lessons about my writing instrument and my brand leave me?
To be honest, in my work at home, I’ve gone back to good old-fashioned, six-sided, wooden, rubber-tipped pencils. I can get to grips with a twelve-pack of freshly-sharpened No 2s.
A pencil is tangible, with its own smells and feel. It wears away as I scratch across the page, so I know I am making progress, and I know I need to take a break.
A pencil doesn’t presume to know everything the first time around – it leaves room for change, exploring, and making mistakes.
And a pencil’s soft lead can create shades, nuances, and shadows on the page.
When it comes to being a writer, the pencil’s depth, perspective, and insight are how I want to be.
So our pen isn’t actually very often going to lose us business – but the decisions we make about all our equipment, associates, and behaviours add up to that impression that clients make of us. It’s a lesson we all need to consider as we set our branding strategies – preferably drawing them out on a big piece of paper, with our writing instrument of choice.
What are some of the little things you've done that have made all the difference? I'd love to hear about them - get in touch with me on www.whitedot.co.
Member since: 23rd September 2013
I’m Director and Shop Manager of Kett's Books, a social enterprise bookshop in Wymondham, and I write the White Dot Business Writing Blog. Life in the bookshop keeps the business writing advice real.