Dark Angels in Conversation Sept. 2016


John Simmons & Richard Pelletier

Founder John Simmons chats with associate partner Richard Pelletier

It’s now 13 years on – how do you feel about Dark Angels?

When Stuart and I first talked about a residential writing course aimed at business writers, we probably had quite limited ambitions. I guess we had in mind ‘copywriters’ and, coming from that background as well as ‘branding’, there were tricks of the trade we could share – as well as rebel a bit against the dead jargon of branding.

As it happened, particularly during our first course in Devon that I later described in one chapter of the book Dark Angels, it turned out to be so much more. What we discovered is that ‘writing’ is just a means – but what a means – to tap into the deepest emotional wells inside us. And by doing so you explore yourself and produce writing that connects powerfully with others – in business writing, in all forms of personal writing, and that actually the boundaries between those ‘genres’ are artificial.

Does that make sense from your more recent perspective?

I think so, yes. The curious bit about the whole experience is that it appears designed to invite ‘copywriters’ in for a fresh look at business writing and to travel into some other realms as a means of exploration. The beautiful thing, of course, is the point you’ve made. It turns out that the boundaries between personal writing and business writing are truly artificial. Whether it’s realised at the time or not, I think the power of the immersion is the lit fuse—the slow, steady dawning of a realisation. That in spite of the fact, we’re not ‘teaching’ per se, there comes a deeper connection to one’s self and others through words and writing. And this applies to every kind of writer. It’s powerful stuff.

Small bore political fictions have become massive whoppers. The 350 million per week going to Brussels; and the great fantasy wall across the southern US border are two cases in point. Epic lying is the new normal.

What do you think this might mean for how brands communicate? As writers, what should we be thinking about in terms of guiding our clients in a world where trust is so low, and the propensity for the gargantuan lie is so great?

It’s no surprise that the Big Lie works. The Nazis knew it was effective, and no doubt it will continue to be so. But personally, and from the point of view of brands that want to be liked and admired, truth is always the better option. The best brands are built on the authentic, knowing that it’s commercial disaster to be caught out telling lies – whereas politicians have a shorter term objective of winning the next election. As consumers, we respond to authenticity in a brand, which builds over time, and as writers, we should always aim for that, if only to sleep more easily.

It seems to me too that exercises like ‘Seven deadly sins’ that we do in Aracena are the best antidote to corporate humbug – just expose it by laughter. But other exercises tap into other emotions. Do you find that Dark Angels is about enabling people to explore a wider range of emotion – and to enjoy that in the words they use?

You’ve teed this one up rather nicely, John. Yes, no doubt. Although ‘enjoy’ might be a tricky word here. Dark Angels is kind of a lovely stealth operation. “We’d like you to write 10 lines that begin with…” and time and again, writers take pen to notebook and travel to the deepest, most tender part of themselves. With a bit of guidance, a few prompts, and some sensitive, caring souls, writers can surprise the hell out of themselves. I think this is why we keep hearing, “this was life-changing.”

So…David Whyte is an English-Irish poet, philosopher and a corporate consultant. His corporate work began when a CEO said to him, “The language we have in that world is not large enough for the territory that we’ve already entered.” At a recent Dark Angels gathering, you mentioned that David Whyte and his work may have inspired the creation of Dark Angels. Tell me more.

Back in the late 90s, I went to a couple of workshops by David Whyte, and I read his book The Heart Aroused, based on his time as a poet-in-residence at Boeing. I found his reading mesmeric and I took encouragement from his experience. It seemed there was a role for ‘creative writing in business’. I’d already started running my own workshops using techniques from fiction and poetry, and this seemed like validation of the approach. Now, 20 years on, I see it not as a possibility, but as an essential for a 21st-century business. After all, businesses now recognise the need for creativity to thrive in the current world. Words are the most available creative resource we have. All businesses can use them more creatively to connect better with all the people they need to connect with.

We’ve had a good few days in London. You’ve had your first experiences as an associate partner running a Dark Angels course in Spain and Strawberry Hill. As you now fly back to the US, what would you say to a corporate client – does this approach work? And because, as you know, I love a constraint, can you answer in no more than 50 words?

There’s no doubt about it. For any business, the clearest path to new relationships begins with a deep investigation into how they use words. Dark Angels helps corporate writers unleash the power of words—in an authentic voice—to serve the brand. Days of miracle and wonder often follow.