Lessons from Kurt Vonnegut: writer, cultural commentator, PR man

For the uninitiated, Kurt Vonnegut is acknowledged as one of the most influential, controversial and popular novelists of the twentieth century. Like many people, I suspect, the first thing I read of his was Slaughterhouse Five, the satirical, soulful book he wrote about World War II and the bombing of Dresden.

It stayed with me for a long time, as did the repeated refrain within it, “so it goes”. Three simple words that accept and dismiss everything simultaneously, or, put more crudely: “Shit happens, and it’s awful, but it’s also okay. We deal with it because we have to.” 

Then, years later, I stumbled across references to the master’s thesis he wrote while studying anthropology at the University of Chicago.

Within it, he suggests that a main character in any story has ups and downs that can be plotted graphically. “The fundamental idea was that stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads,” he said. 

Here’s a quick clip of him proving the point…

And a detailed graphic, of his initial concept. 

Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories

by dky718.

More recently, I purchased a copy of And So It Goes, the 2011 biography of Vonnegut by Charles Shields. It transpires that before his writing career took off, he was a public relations executive at General Electric (GE).

GE saw in him the skills of an experienced newspaperman who could write exceptionally well, pitch story ideas, network adeptly and think creatively. In his new job, he “learned to really love industry and commerce – I liked what they were doing, the product was so good.”

He would write in his spare time and eventually, after plugging away with little recognition, he found his voice and subsequent public acceptance.

The rest, as they say, is history: a prodigious output that included 14 novels, five film scripts, four short story collections and five collections of essays. By the time of his death in 2007 (at 84) he was revered as a counter-culture icon.

So what lessons can we learn from Vonnegut?

  1. Do what you love and love what you do. You’ll be all the more successful because of it. But remember that life is hard and not always easy, so accept it with humour and spirit.
  2. Recognise there isn’t that much that’s new (or shiny, or first, or fastest). Campaigns come and go. It’s often the way they are expressed and executed that makes the difference between success and failure.
  3. When ‘targeting the consumer’, as he put it, use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel that time was wasted.
  4. Give those you’re communicating with as much information as possible, as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves.
  5. And finally, to quote Vonnegut himself: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” 

With apologies to the great man himself, thanks for reading this article.

  • Kelly Bennett is the founder and managing director of corporate communications consultancy One Plus One. This article was first published on Linkedin

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