“There is nothing more notable in Socrates than that he found time, when he was an old man, to learn music and dancing, and thought it time well spent.” ― Michel de Montaigne
“One of the world’s greatest, oddest and most personal books” ― Alain de Botton
I recently began to reread Essays by Michel de Montaigne*, a book that reignited my curiosity when I first read it a few years ago. The Essays are a sixteenth century series of reflections across a range of subjects, a book whose iconic status lies at least as much in the style and approach of the author as its substance; Montaigne is often credited with inventing the essay form of writing, but the exciting thing about his work is how much you learn about Montaigne himself – the silhouette of his personality is sharply visible not only from the content of what he says but, more impressively, by his manner of articulation.
Let’s make one thing clear: His “essays” are not the typical sanitised, mark-seeking vessels currently spewed out by students all over the world (including myself back in the day). Montaigne considered the Essays as a form of introspection; a way to explore and test his deepest assumptions. By publishing them, he created a kind of autobiography that no longer exists: an autobiography which does not try to cover up flaws of personality; an autobiography which does not retrofit a desired caricature of oneself after the fact but ends up being a brutally honest account of who he was.
The Essays cover a broad range of subjects (a full list can be found here) including science, politics, philosophy and social convention amongst others but what makes Montaigne different is the personal and often intimate observations he scatters through his work. Almost nothing is free from introspection: interspersed with commentary on education, friendship and Seneca are comments on the regularity of his bowel movements, his lack of memory and his views on his penis to name but a few examples. However, let’s focus not on the content itself but the style of writing and the man himself for the lessons I take from this impressive work from one of my favourite writers.
These lessons are wide-ranging and I believe they apply as much to life as a whole as any specific area. That said, I believe there is a lot for me to learn from the way that Montaigne writes for my own blogging and my approach to startup, specifically around how I build relationships with readers and customers respectively. Whilst I’ve tried to distil my learnings below, I strongly recommend you read the book and take the full class yourself!
Be personal and transparent…
Admittedly, it helps a little that he is a thoroughly likable dude but I believe it is the fact that we get to know Montaigne as a person through his words that really endears him to us, much like the great characters from literary fiction. Through the prose we get a feel for Montaigne’s opinions – we get see his likes (e.g. friendship: “of a perfect society friendship is the peak”) and dislikes (e.g. ego: “… to have a too good an opinion of our own worth… is an unthinking affection with which we flatter ourselves”).
Contrast this with corporate blogs today that are tasked with building a brand “personality” but often appear to forget that true character and a compelling story require more than a perfect version of what you want to be. The lack of vulnerability and quirks around this perfect set of core values result in these blogs often feeling stale, one dimensional and, at worst, unreadable in the long run.
Alas, all is not lost; often behind the sheen of “professionalism” is a real, living, breathing company that is actually interesting – so write about that! An (undeniably extreme) example of getting personal with a business blog is Buffer’s offering and, whilst it might get a touch more personal than where larger corporates can be, I think it provides some general sense of direction on where things could and should go.
The same applies to personal blogging. In the startup world there are more personal bloggers than you can shake a stick at, but the best blogs are those which share personal experiences alongside providing insight. A personal favourite of mine is Andy Dunn of Bonobos on medium.com – see his post on the risk not taken for a particularly great example.
Personality is of course also a key tool in marketing and building brands. But surely a strong brand personality isn’t one that needs to hide behind celebrity endorsements that have nothing to do with the business they are in (I’m looking at you Accenture / Woods or you Gillette / Federer + Henry + Woods**) or a “fun” but very false story about how the product is made (see Twix left bar / right bar for a recent example). A strong brand personality, I believe, is one that is a result of a personification of the product itself and the people / processes involved in its production, like that of Zappos or Patagonia.
I’m trying to keep true to myself. Before I published my post on Passion Capital I got some feedback that I should cut out the suggestions I put in for improvement to their approach lest it annoy them but I decided to keep them in. In general, however, a look back at my previous few posts clearly demonstrates to me how tentative my writing was – it could definitely do with a dose more of my personality and that’s something I’ll try to deliver going forward.
… but not egotistical
To paraphrase the man himself, “even on the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottom”.
Although Montaigne writes about himself, his motivations are not the narcissism or ego-fuelled endeavours of many of today’s selfies (lamentably something that I’m at least partially guilty of myself on Facebook – my traveling photos are up there to share with friends and family but also (at least at some level) because I want people to know I’m the kind of cool guy that goes traveling).
His motives are precisely the opposite: Montaigne writes because of how ordinary he believes he is and tells people not to bother reading his book (“I am the subject of the book… there is no reason you should waste your leisure on so frivolous and unrewarding a subject”)! Of course you could argue, perhaps with some justification, that there is some ulterior motive but his style throughout is humble – as JM Cohen put it in the introduction of Penguin translation, Montaigne comes across as “modest, truthful and unprejudiced… [with] a sound knowledge of his own limitations ”
The point is this – writing about oneself does not need to be an exercise in narcissism. It can be a reflection of the good and the bad of who you are. This is also important for corporate / startup blogs and marketing campaigns – again, a “look how great we are” exercise will inevitably turn customers off in the long run and likely lead you to over-promise and under-deliver rather than the other way round.
For me personally, taking the ego out of writing is bliss. It means I can write to learn. I can write to see how I can improve my thinking. I’m new to blogging (and to writing more generally) so I’m in the process of building my skills and style and, frankly, up until now I’ve been shit scared about what people think about how I write and what I choose to write about. The biggest lesson I draw from Montaigne is that as long as I write honestly and write for myself, what you people think is an ancillary benefit – the real reward should be what I learn about myself: “I do not care so much what I am to others as I care what I am to myself”.
Take time to reflect
In an age where the world moves as quickly as it does, many feel the need to share their thoughts as soon as they arrive in their heads, as if there’s some sort of one-in-one-out door policy on their brain – a process that, if we are honest, can often lead to banality. I believe that Montaigne effectively combines spontaneity with deep reflection in many areas and it is this that allows his thoughts to endure and remain relevant more than four hundred years on.
To put it into the context of writing, we live in a world where there are many things competing for the attention of readers which in turn makes (forces?) us try to be the first out there to respond and report, often with the most shocking headline. However, I believe a considered view delivered later can pack more of a punch, and is the mark of a heavyweight. Taking an example from my past, an equity analyst who races to be the first to report on results of a company may get a conversation with the hedge fund manager, but the analyst who will win more business over the longer term is the one who delivers the best insight. Admittedly, we also live in a world where short termism often trumps the long game, but this is a different post for a different day.
In life I’m as guilty as anyone (probably more so) of an instinctive reaction to a situation and, though this is fine, I’ve often found that with hindsight my initial action was not the correct course of action. At the moment I’ve not come into a situation with my writing where being fast is important but I hope that if and when I do, I can keep calm and take a step back to deliver the right message – something I will definitely be keeping in mind.
Treat your readers (customers) with respect
A good piece of writing takes you on a journey. A great piece of writing takes you on a journey and makes you feel like you’ve learnt things you never expected to learn. Montaigne’s style and deference to his readers means that you float along with his thought processes but there are often moments, turns of phrase, that make you stop and think. This works because he treats readers with respect – he assumes intelligence but does not make his language complex (ok, aside from the slew of Latin quotes) which makes you want to come back for more.
Where this point about respect gets really interesting for me is when you start looking at business models. There are many examples of businesses that either forget or intentionally ignore the intelligence of their customers. Some examples that spring to mind are:
- Daily deals and other discounting businesses which show the percentage saved against some pie-in-the-sky rrp rather than the price on amazon or (even better) the cheapest available price for the same item on the web. People can do a quick google search!
- The myriad of products making health claims that make a nice headline but ultimately don’t stack up.
- Sofa and clothing companies that offer perpetual sales. First-time viewers of the advertising of these businesses may be amazed by prices but in the long run people will readjust the price point in their head.
Again a theme of long term vs. short term emerges, and I get the impression that the above businesses are playing more of a short term game.
I truly believe that the companies and organisations which treat their customers with respect will ultimately flourish over a longer period of time; some examples of great companies and organisation I’ve personally thought treat customers well include:
- Zappos (in the US) (again). Admittedly not a revelatory example but a 365 day, no quibble returns policy means that customers are treated like adults rather than criminals. Add this to customer service well ahead of anything else typically seen and you get the unreal customer loyalty numbers that Zappos sees. Of course you and I know that there is more to the Zappos business model than this (e.g. top notch employee relationships and supply chain management) but customer respect is the heartbeat of the business
- HUKD, a company that makes its money from affiliate links but still allows its members to mention quidco and other cashback sites. I always click on the links on HUKD and not the cashback links because I believe HUKD provides a valuable service. Blog post on this great business model to come soon.
- The BBC, which publishes articles and programs critical of the BBC. At best they can be considered to maintain journalistic integrity, at worst it can be seen as a cynical act as they know that these criticisms will be published elsewhere in any case; either way they are better off being self-critical!
Don’t get me wrong, you can no doubt make great money by building a customer relationship without respect at the core, but you cannot build a great business. The time constrained world we live in means that there will always be consumers that cannot test the voracity of your claims and therefore deliver opportunities – it’s just they won’t come back when they feel the lack of respect. This may be fine for you if you aren’t expecting repeat business, for example street hawkers who target tourists.
What treating customers with respect delivers is a great business; you build a real relationship with your customers where you look for repeat custom and, ultimately, brand evangelism! To do this one needs to take a longer term perspective on the economics, but I believe the result is a more robust business in the long run.
In terms of my personal writing style, I know it needs a lot of work and I really welcome any feedback on this. I think my audience needs to judge whether I get anywhere close to the lofty standards of balancing intelligence with complexity like Montaigne (I suspect I’ve got a long way to go). When I decide on which startup idea to pursue I hope I do build a model that is built on mutual respect with my customers.
I’m about 100 pages in on my re-read of Essays and am thoroughly enjoying it and picking up on things I never did the first time. I discovered Montaigne via Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton, which is also a great book and worth a read. Finally, thanks to GoodReads for helping me with some of the Montaigne quotes in this piece.
As ever, please let me know your thoughts. What are your thoughts on the Essays? Are there other similar writers you think I’d enjoy?
* Full disclosure: this is an amazon affiliate link so if you click on it and purchase the book I’ll make about 15 pence – affiliate links were something that I needed to test for a recent course completed on Digital Marketing – I hope @howardvk will give me some much needed bonus points for this! The book is actually available for free online so I don’t advise you to buy it in any case
** Just two particularly memorable drops in an ocean of marketing mediocrity. Sorry to pick on you specifically.