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Breaking news!

The Kindle version of Back to the Black …. how to become debt-free and stay that way (second edition) will be available as a free download from 1st – 5th March inclusive.

The promotion applies to all territories.

Here are the links to access your free copy during the promotion:

UK: http://amzn.to/2mjr2md

US / worldwide: http://amzn.to/2lg2PfV

 

Sherlock’s Hardest Case: How to Write an Unforgettable Best Man Speech

 

221b Baker Street

Image by hknong via Morguefile

Sherlock Holmes is wrestling with a difficult problem at 221B Baker Street. So problematic, in fact, that he sends an urgent summons for help to Detective Inspector Lestrade. As Lestrade arrives – with a full backup team, having left a crime in progress – Holmes, played by Benedict Cumberbatch on BBC-TV, holds up a slim book entitled How to Write an Unforgettable Best Man Speech. “This is hard,” he says. “The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”

If you should ever need to do that “hardest thing” and make a best man’s speech, don’t rush out to your favourite bookstore, be it Amazon or bricks-and-mortar, to find a copy of that book. Sadly, it doesn’t exist. (I say sadly, because that episode of Sherlock went viral and it would have been a fantastic piece of product placement.)

YOUR OPINION SOUGHT … wedding speeches on screen

A good friend told me that it would be an interesting exercise to analyse that now-famous speech, and I’ve decided to ask my readers for their opinions on it … and on other wedding speeches on screen, both TV dramas and feature films.

There are of course millions of real wedding speeches now on YouTube but I’m looking for fictional ones, because I believe that their lessons are more easily remembered. Benedict Cumberbatch, as Sherlock, has millions of fans (aka Cumberbitches), but that’s not the only reason for writing about his now-famous but fictional speech.

The other reason is that the latest series of the drama has just finished on BBC TV – personally I didn’t like the way they developed this last series but that’s just my opinion, though I know I am not alone – so maybe you fans are suffering withdrawal symptoms.

The Sign of Three: solve a crime or two, write a speech

This speech came, as any Sherlock fan will tell you, in an episode called The Sign of Three, broadcast in 2014. Sherlock has been invited to be Dr Watson’s best man, to his surprise and confusion. Simply writing it is, as he tells D.I. Lestrade, “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”

Your turn to comment!

So here’s the survey. What do you think of Sherlock’s speech? If you were planning a best man’s speech, what lessons, if any, would you take from it?

Here is a link to a video of the speech, via our old friends at YouTube:

That link takes you to almost the full speech, apart from a section at the beginning where Sherlock reads out the messages from absent friends; or, as he says: “First things first: telegrams! Well, they’re not actually telegrams; we just call them telegrams. I don’t know why. Wedding tradition, I suppose. Because apparently we don’t have enough of that already.”

This is all fiction, of course; but I think there are some useful lessons that can be learned from it. Do you agree? If so, what are they? And what do you think about what he does at the very start – reading the so-called ‘telegrams’ – which isn’t in this video?

If you want to see that part too, the only version I found on YouTube isn’t of great quality and has subtitles in Dutch; but here it is.

And for a final piece of background, here’s a transcript of an interview with Steven Moffat, who was Executive Producer of the Sherlock series and who wrote the speech, talking about this episode. He says he always wanted to see Sherlock as a best man. (That idea was his, not Conan Doyle’s:  in the original novels, Watson marries Mary Morstan between stories, off-screen so to speak). Moffat’s thoughts are very instructive.

Please post your comments: I’ll post mine soon. I will also post links to posts about this episode by other bloggers, so that you can compare your views with theirs.

WANT TO KNOW MORE?

That episode of Sherlock? It’s called The Sign of Three.

Other fictional wedding speeches from movies and TV dramas? I’ll be posting in coming weeks about other onscreen speeches. Watch this space!

‘Budget Boxmas’: Christmas gift-buying for thrifty times

christmas-gifts

Image from Morguefile

About ten years ago my two daughters and I started a tradition which has persisted to this day. We feel it has introduced more fun into our Christmasses; and we like it so much that we talk about it to anyone who’s interested. And quite a few who aren’t. We call it ‘Budget Boxmas’.

Alvin Hall and Christmas presents

Do you remember Alvin Hall, the American financial guru and author? He presented several popular money advice series on BBC2, from 1999 and 2003, and he first opened my eyes to the insanity of the Christmas gift-buying frenzy.

One of the programmes featured a couple who had a combined income of around £70,000 but had got into serious debt. Alvin established that one of the reasons was an addiction with buying expensive Christmas presents, and not just for friends and family but also for neighbours, neighbours’ children, etc etc. They started Christmas gift buying every September, sometimes even earlier, and I think they spent around £10,000 every year.

So Alvin Hall did a little experiment: he asked the couple’s two sons what they thought was the best thing about Christmas Day. The Christmas dinner with the family was top of both lists; the decorations; singing carols; seeing friends, etc.

“What about the gifts from your folks?” prompted Hall, because neither of them had included the gifts in their lists of favourite things. “Oh yes, they’re nice too.”

Then Alvin talked to the neighbours. Only a week after Christmas, he asked a few neighbours, who’d received quite extravagant presents from this generous couple, if they could remember what they’d been given. Sadly, the answer was no.

That little experiment, harsh though it might have seemed, made the case for me that spending lots of money on Christmas presents was not necessary, despite the blandishments of the advertisers.

Our family’s response

I moved to Bristol twelve years ago. My daughters used always to spend Boxing Day with me and Christmas Day with their mother, as she and I had divorced a few years before that. My cooking wasn’t in the same class as their mum’s; but the girls and I had lots of fun, with plenty of booze and plenty of songs, as they both love singing.

By the time they arrived at my place in Bristol on 26 December, the girls had already had lots of presents from their generous mother, their stepdad, grandparents and friends. They and I soon realised that what we all needed from Boxing Day (or Boxmas, as they started calling it) did not need to involve more expensive presents, some of which might be duplicated.

So we came up with an idea – actually it wasn’t mine, it came from a friend of mine. She and her kids had set a spending limit of £10, so we decided to do the same. However the details were not clearly agreed in advance, so I took it to mean you mustn’t spend more than £10 per item. The girls thought it meant £10 per person, which of course was far more logical.

So from the second year onwards we got our act together and the £10 per person limit applied. The result was an increase in creative thought around the gift buying process. Instead of simply throwing money at the problem, we became patrons of Poundland and of charity shops; also we would recycle gifts and we would make stuff. The girls became particularly good at making what they still call mix-tapes, although they are of course CDs nowadays.

Our thinking behind this ‘Budget Boxmas’, as we call it, was this: so often one receives gifts that one didn’t really want and certainly didn’t need. We are not on the edge of poverty but we don’t believe in wasting money. Good food and drink and each other’s company (and maybe singing) are the essentials of the festive season for us. Our musical hero Loudon Wainwright calls Christmas a “Retail Eternity” and this is our small rebellion against that. Of course our presents are in monetary terms trivial but we know that thought has gone into them.

Did you get anything that you didn’t want or need? You just give it to a charity shop … perfect!

 

Want to know more?

Alvin Hall TV series: http://alvinhall.com/television/television-your-money-or-your-life/

… and book: Your Money Or Your Life http://amzn.to/2gRRJ0L

My book Back to the Black … how to become debt-free and stay that way: http://amzn.to/2gHQzlc

How Leonard Cohen dealt with stage fright

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We mourn the passing of Leonard Cohen and rightly so. I can’t add anything new to the many excellent tributes already published about his poetry (because he was an established poet for some time before he also began singing and hence broadened his appeal and earning power.

I want to talk about an aspect of his performing life that many performers will sympathise with: his stage fright, or performance anxiety, or whatever you like to call it. We know now that fame and experience don’t necessarily get rid of stage fright: Judi Dench, John Lennon and Henry Fonda have all admitted to it, if I pick just three stellar names. Leonard Cohen’s was at another level and therefore the way he dealt with it was fairly drastic, at least it was at first.

I first became aware of this when researching a speech I was about to give at a Toastmasters International meeting and have in fact given many times since. My chosen topic was “what can we speakers learn from other performers, when it comes to pre-performance rituals?” I could have chosen actors or instrumentalists or athletes as examples of other performers but I chose singers; and popular singers in particular. Why was that? Because we know a lot about them and because Noel Coward was right when he said: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.”

My singers and their rituals were Chris Martin of Coldplay, Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, Beyonce, Elvis Presley and … wait for it …. Leonard Cohen.

When I wrote that speech Cohen was over 80 and was still performing. However he used to suffer badly with stage fright. His strategy was twofold. He recited Latin chants with his backing singers and he drank a whiskey.

The whiskey (or whisky, if one’s preference is for that spirit to come from Scotland, or rye from his native Canada, rather than Ireland or the States) is not unusual but Latin chants certainly are. Leonard Cohen truly was unique.

ARE YOU WORRIED ABOUT CREDIT CARD DEBT? PUT IT IN WRITING

DX6516_2905414b[1]“The amount UK consumers owe on loans and credit cards grew by £1.9bn in March 2016, the highest figure in 11 years, driven by a sharp rise in spending on plastic.”    (The Guardian)

If personal debt really is increasing again at a worrying rate, then a growing number of people could soon be facing the stress of a debt crisis.

For anyone facing this kind of problem, debt advisers might say things like this:

  • Don’t ignore the situation. Open the demand letters, make a list of the balances.
  • Always respond to every communication from a creditor. That shows you’re serious about dealing with the situation.
  • Make an offer. Explain if you can’t offer more.

To those basic steps, I’d add another:

  • Always communicate in writing. You’ll have a record of what was said and agreed; and it’s less stressful than dealing with creditors on the phone.

Avoid the phone

Many years ago I was in that situation, when my small business failed and I owed money to 26 creditors. Negotiating with all of them took a long time but eventually I came through it without permanent scars on my sanity (as far as I know).

I always negotiated in writing, never on the phone.

Dealing with a creditor on the telephone is stressful. My voicemail took a lot of the strain (what a great invention, whether you have an actual machine or a service from your phone provider) but if a creditor left a message I always responded … in writing.

Intermediaries

One of the complications that I occasionally encountered was the involvement of intermediaries. Some were bogus law firms which were actually departments of the creditor company, with stationery designed to give the impression of being a genuine law firm, in order to intimidate.

When dealing with intermediaries of any kind, I was always extra-polite, working on the assumption that they hadn’t been fully informed, so I would write things like: “maybe you don’t know, but in the letter of so-and-so from your client …” and I’d enclose or attach a copy of the previous correspondence.

Not keen on writing letters? Help is available!

You might say that writing letters (or emails) is not your strong point. That’s no problem, because lots of debt management organisations can help you. For example, here in the UK, Citizens Advice Bureaux are all over the country and their advice is free and impartial. They helped me greatly. The other major nationwide debt advice charities are StepChange and National Debtline. There are also many local not-for-profit advice providers: for example in Bristol, where I live, there’s Talking Money. There’ll be one near you.

Buying time: it helps your negotiation

The other benefit of working with one of the debt advice charities, or any adviser, is that it creates a little distance between you and the creditor and it buys you some time. So, if a creditor calls you rejecting your offer and gives you a counter-proposal, you can say (politely, of course!) “thank you; but could you put that in writing, please, because I have to refer it to my advisers.”

Letter templates

Templates for standard letters / emails are available from some of the organisations I mentioned above. You can also find templates in my book Back to the Black.

Want to know more?

This article is an extract from my book Back to the Black … how to become debt-free and stay that way. http://amzn.to/2e9KOfG

 

Are you a Scrooge or a splurger … or both?

champagneWhen I launched the second edition of my book Back to the Black … how to become debt-free and stay that way, we had a party. The subject of debt is serious, of course, so we felt a little frivolity would be good. The party – sorry, launch event – was chaired by my good friend, the author and journalist Debbie Young, and she came up with a great idea to get everyone involved.

It seems that many of us save money by making small economies on necessities – ‘Scrooging’ – but then immediately blow much larger amounts on luxuries – ‘Splurging’.

So we invited our audience members to give examples of how they’d done exactly that. Nearly all of them were happy to accept the challenge.

THE CHALLENGE

 Our question was this: “please share your best money-saving tip … and then confess your worst extravagance.”

Here are the answers we got:

  • “Looking for the double-points deals at Tesco … but then using a store card (with an APR of over 30%) to buy clothes.”
  • “Buying at charity shops or getting stuff from Freecycle … but then buying a piano when I didn’t have anywhere to put it.”
  • “Buying most of our food (and all of our drink) at Aldi … but then buying a BMW for my business.”
  • “Using a ‘My Waitrose’ loyalty card to claim a free coffee and newspaper if spending more than £10 at the weekend … but then spending far more than that £10 minimum.”
  • “Going to the M&S bakery after 6pm to stock up on reduced bread and cakes to freeze for later … but then staying overnight at the Waldorf Astoria to attend a wedding, when I could have stayed at the Travelodge.”
  • “Refusing to pay £1 for a bus-fare, even in the rain … but owning several pairs of shoes that cost more than £150 each.”
  • “Calculating the total cost of credit before buying anything on a card … … but then buying a new motorbike.”

These were all good; but the winning entry on the night of the launch combined a Scrooge and a Splurge in one short and elegant phrase:

“Champagne with out-of-date food.”

We thought that deserved a prize.

THE BOOK LAUNCH

The launch event at which this fun idea was kicked around was for the second edition of Back to the Black. It was held at the Bristol branch of Foyles’ bookstore.

We offered a prize for the best Scrooge & Splurge idea. In keeping with the theme, it was a toy car … a Bentley, of course. Also in keeping, the drinks and nibbles  were all sourced from the aforementioned Aldi. (For readers who are not UK-based, that’s a German-owned budget supermarket.)

THE MORAL OF THE STORY … AND A NEW BOOK

Scrooging and Splurging, even within minutes of each other, is very understandable. I do it myself. But I know that there would have been no point in extricating myself from a debt crisis (which I did in the late ‘90s, as I relate in Back to the Black) would have been pointless if I’d then got back into debt. So I have to be sure that my Scrooge incidents outnumber the Splurge incidents.

“Scrooging and Splurging” could also be expressed as “enjoying life, while keeping the finances in order”. This and many related topics will be featured in my next personal finance book.

Its working title is Staying in the Black and I plan to launch it by the end of the year.

WANT TO KNOW MORE?

Back to the Black … how to become debt-free and stay that way is available to order at all good bookshops.

Both Kindle and paperback editions are also available on Amazon: http://amzn.to/1aILhD6

 

 

 

 

Muhammad Ali and what he can teach every public speaker

muhammad ali pinball machine_i am the greatestThe world mourns Muhammad Ali; and rightly so. How many sportspeople will have the eulogy at their memorial service given by a former American president? But that is what is about to happen today in Louisville, Kentucky. At his peak Ali was one of the most famous and most recognisable people on the planet; he was loved especially here in the UK, partly for his boxing and partly when we saw his sharp wit on his famous interviews with Michael Parkinson. He may have been untutored but the intelligence was ferocious.

I’m not writing about his boxing, because it’s all been said by people very much more qualified than I. This is about his positive attitude to life and to events, which must have been a contributory factor to his success

We cannot all be boxers, or elite sportsmen of any kind. We can’t all have the ability to improvise humorous replies as fast as he could. But if you ever have to prepare for a potentially stressful occasion – a speech, a stage performance, a difficult meeting – there are two important and practical things you can learn from him.

Self-talk

Firstly, and famously, we remember how he talked about himself: “I am the greatest!” He started doing this before he became world champion. Later in life, when questioned about that phrase, he said: “yes, I said I was the greatest  … even before I was.” Some people – especially here in the UK – put this down at first to arrogance but now, I think, we know better than that.

In an interview, Ali said he first got the idea from a wrestler called Gorgeous George, with whom he shared a platform at a promotional event early in his career. Gorgeous George was not a particularly successful wrestler but increased his popularity by telling jokes and saying “I am the greatest!” Ali heard that and immediately began to copy it.

What’s the lesson for us, particularly if we come from a more self-effacing culture? We probably won’t say “I’m the greatest”; but we could at least avoid the ‘self-sabotage’ of saying to ourselves and others: “I’m not much good at XYZ.” If you tell yourself something often enough, your subconscious mind will start to believe it, whether or not it’s true. That’s something that the young Cassius Clay understood very well.

Predicting and visualising the outcome: creating ‘future history’

So Ali was the greatest, and he told himself so. He also used another very specific method of training his subconscious to expect the best, by creating what he called his ‘future history.’

When a new fight was arranged and he attended a press conference to announce it, immediately afterwards  he would excuse himself, go up to his hotel suite, draw the blinds, and just sit down and relax, breathing deeply, and create a mental picture of the end of the fight.  More than just creating a picture: he even used to predict in which round he was going to win; he would get into that level of detail.

And he would create this picture of the end of the fight: opponent flat on his back; referee raising his own arm; Harry Carpenter climbing through the ropes with a microphone.  Then he would freeze-frame that picture and carry it around for the next two or three months until the day of the fight. That was his version of what’s sometimes called ‘creative visualization’ but I prefer the term he himself used: ‘future history.’

So how could Ali’s method be tailored to your needs? What’s your equivalent of that knockout moment? This is where you go back and remember what is your purpose in giving the speech, or whatever performance you have to give. Then you can create your own picture of a successful outcome – by your own definition; nobody else’s. For example, if you’re speaking at a wedding, your picture could be of the smiling bride appreciating what was said, an enthusiastically applauding audience, etc. Those kinds of mental pictures can help you anticipate the day ahead with pleasure rather than dread.

A man who transcended his sport.

Me? I was never a fan of the brutal sport of boxing; but I was always a fan of Muhammad Ali. Like everyone else on the planet, I watched him every chance I got, whether he was fighting or just talking. He dominated his sport, changed attitudes to minorities, and lit up our lives.

 

Warning for Wedding Speakers … the Clock is Running Now

Bridal couple against clock face

Bridal couple against clock face

They say that every picture tells a story. They also say a picture is worth 1000 words. Of course ‘they’ could be wrong; but I now believe the truth of both sayings. You see, I coach speakers; and I’d recently set up a Facebook page for my forthcoming book The Wedding Speaker’s Handbook.

I needed what Facebook calls a ‘cover photo’; that’s the one that goes right across the screen. So I went immediately to morguefile.com, my current go-to site for finding royalty-free pictures. Or at least reasonably-priced pictures. I typed in the search term ‘weddings’ (no flies on me, no sir). And sure enough there were many pictures that could fit the bill, because if there is one thing that weddings reliably produce (apart from happy families, I hear you say), it’s lots of beautiful photographs.

The clock face

However, I then found a wonderful photo of a bride and groom silhouetted against the background of a large clock-face. That clock-face was back-to-front, so you could imagine that they had been shot inside Big Ben or some similarly impressive clock. So I downloaded that picture; by the way it was taken by a photographer and digital media blogger called Ricky Ochs, from Colorado, to whom many thanks.

The questions

Why do I like that picture? It’s because, when I have a decision to make, I have a favourite rhyme which goes like this:

“I keep six honest serving-men.
They taught me all I knew;
Their names are What and Why and When;
And How and Where and Who.”

(Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling)

Answering one or more of those questions – which are, of course, open questions – usually helps me decide.

Here’s what I take from that rhyme, for anyone who is going to speak at a forthcoming event, particularly a wedding. Of those six open questions, you certainly know the Where and When. If it’s a wedding, you probably knew the time and the place very well in advance. In fact the idea for The Wedding Speaker’s Handbook came about when a friend first asked me to help him with a speech for his daughter’s wedding; it was more than a year before the big day. And that sort of lead time is not uncommon.

So Where and When are questions that are generally set in stone a long time in advance. Carrying that information around for a year or more is a potential source of stress for the speaker. So what can you do to reduce your stress, if you are that speaker? The answer, briefly, is that you have to start your planning process now, because it is never too early to start planning a wedding speech. And the remaining four questions in that Kipling rhyme will help the process.

In summary, the picture tells a story for wedding speakers; but it also tells a story for me personally. For those speakers, it’s this: from the moment that the date and venue for ‘The Big Day’ have been booked, the clock is running. It’s running for whoever is planning the wedding – whether that’s the couple themselves, or their families, or a professional wedding planner, or a combination of the above – and it’s running for the speakers. How will those speakers use the time?

For me the clock is running too, if I’m going to get this book ready for the publishers on schedule. Back to work!