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David is the Creative Director at Radix Communications – a copywriting agency that produces content for technology brands.
How would you characterise your current work?
I’m the co-owner of Radix Communications, a specialist copywriting agency that writes marketing content for technology brands who sell to businesses. In short, I spend my days trying to make dull and complicated things sound simple and exciting. I write a lot of web pages, ebooks and blogs. Also, the occasional old-fashioned advert.
How do you feel about maths?
Conflicted. I’m pretty confident in the bit that I know (I can find my way around a percentage and help my kids with algebra), but I have a sense that maths is also this huge, mysterious thing that holds the universe together. And at school, that drop-off into the ocean – where the basic, functional maths I knew gave way to the open, creative world beyond – happened really, really fast. Suddenly, my A-level maths course was baffling me, and that was scary. I ran away to economics as fast as my little legs would carry me, and never looked back. Even as an adult, I’m happy to check numbers at work, but I’m always a little bit in awe of *real* mathematicians.
What is it about your work that is mathematical?
Most of the writers I know consider themselves “words people” and would shy away from numbers. That’s a problem; in the content we write, we’re often thrown spreadsheets of survey findings or product specifications and we need to find the story in the data, but relatively few writers are confident doing it, and it’s not like there’s anyone else for us to turn to. I catch a lot of errors, but I don’t know how it works at companies where the senior writer isn’t as confident with statistics. I’ve a feeling the world is full of inaccurate marketing because nobody in the writing or approval process knew the difference between a percentage and a percentage point.
How do you use maths, calculation or numeracy in your work? What tools do you use to help you?
See, even the fact that I don’t really know the difference between those three terms scares me slightly. But anyway…
The main things I use maths for is to tell a story, or to illustrate a point when I’m writing. If I can say something is twice as big, or how many Olympic swimming pools it is, that helps to make it real for the reader. If I can show something is clearly the most popular selection, that social proof encourages the feeling that it’s a sound or even default choice (is behavioural economics related to maths?). I don’t want to misrepresent anything, but I do want to make the point really clear and compelling.
Obviously, as a business co-owner I also need to keep track of the money, and how we’re performing against our various performance indicators. If we’re behind or ahead of our targets, it’s useful to know how significant that is – so run rates and things are very useful for forecasting and making decisions. Most of my colleagues do that stuff on spreadsheets, which is fine. They loooooove a macro. But I find it difficult to really see the meaning in a big wall of numbers. I’m more of a visual person, so I like to turn that stuff into graphs – it helps me to understand the relationships between the numbers much more easily.
Do you think maths is creative? If so, how?
I’m a little outside of my expertise here, but I think any kind of problem solving is inherently creative. The part where you have a challenge, and a set of tools, and you need to work out how to apply them to find the answer. Ironically, that’s also the part of maths I found I couldn’t do at school. Once I got beyond step-by-step instructions, it was scary.
Do you use or rely on any maths that you learnt in school?
Well, I’ve never been taught any other maths, so I suppose I must. Percentages, averages (median, mean and mode), graphs and charts, comparisons. Recently, I had to interpret a whole bunch of research into obstacles to good marketing content for a report, and that was pretty much as far as my maths would go. I still worry that a real mathematician will show up and tell me where I got it wrong.
Meanwhile, I’m trying to find the best way to compare the spread of productivity figures in our writing team (to see if they’re diverging or converging overall) and I’m sure there’s maths for that, but don’t even know where to start. Or who I’d ask.
Now I think of it, does anyone get taught maths for work? Aren’t we all just expected to crack on? It’s a lot like writing in that regard. I run copywriting courses, and I see senior marketers who have never actually been taught to write professionally, and still think you can’t start a sentence with “and” or “but”.
How would you change the school curriculum, if you had the chance? Why?
I don’t know very much about the maths curriculum, so I couldn’t speculate. Thankfully, both my children are bright enough that they rarely ask me for help with their homework (and I’d only make it worse if they did).
What I can say, as a professional writer, is that I’m a bit confused and disappointed by recent changes to the English curriculum. The sudden emphasis on defining elements of grammar feels a little pointless, and – in my view – does little to make anyone a more effective writer. Some of the terminology sounds as if it was made up on the spot. Suddenly, my kids were asking me what a “fronted adverbial” was and – despite an Oxford degree and 15 years’ professional experience – I had to go and look it up. (Here’s a clue: I put one in that last sentence.) It just seems very strange to me that memorising a list of jargon could help students develop communication skills and enhance their confidence with words.
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