In Memory: Sir Harold Evans

A verb, in the active voice. We lost the greatest business writer of all time, the late, great, Sir Harold Evans.

“… with ‘demand media’ you never know whether a review of Swan Lake will conceal a hard sell about toenail fungus.”

— Sir Harold Evans

As 2020 thankfully and finally winds down, various pundits spill ink about the people who died during the year. The New York Times Magazine published a ridiculous list, “Remembering some of the artists, innovators and thinkers we lost in the past year.

The Times leads off with a hagiography to horrific political operative Linda Tripp. She’s the woman who conned her much younger friend, Monica Lewinsky, to engage in and document an affair with then-President Bill Clinton in an effort to subvert democracy.

While their inclusion criteria is ridiculous at least one exclusion is equally egregious. One person conspicuously and ridiculously absent is the late, great Sir Harold Evans, arguably the greatest business writer ever.

I write about business for a living. My case about Marvel is a bestseller and won the prestigious 2020 Case Centre Strategy & General Management case award. Other work has also done well. I’m working with the creators of Marvel Studios on a screenplay version, a biopic, and also a television series based on business origin stories.

But my work, and everybody else’s in this business, pales in comparison to that done by Harold Evans.

First, the boring stuff which, in Evans’ case, isn’t especially boring at all. Born 1928 to a working-class Welsch family, Sir Harold was the eldest of five boys. At 16, he was hired as a news reporter, a job he’d stick with to his death this past September at 92 years old. Between then and now, he worked as the editor of The Sunday Times where he thrived. Among other things, he busted government officials and drug makers for trying to cover up the severe birth defects caused by thalidomide.

Evans was eventually appointed editor of The Times after Rupert Murdoch acquired the paper in 1981. Like much of the editorial staff, he eventually quit under Murdoch’s direction.

He moved to the US in 1984 with his wife, superstar editor Tina Brown (they married at the home of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee). In the US, he worked at US News & World Report, the Atlantic Monthly, NPR, and as a book editor where, among other things, he purchased the rights to Barack Obama’s first book, Dreams of My Father. There was no surprise when Queen Elizabeth elected to knight him in 2004.

Most people, including me, became familiar with Evans’ name from two books he wrote that included paired television offerings, The American Century (1998) and They Made America (2004). Much to Evans’ surprise, the latter book spurred a libel suit by Tim Paterson, the man who pilfered a microcomputer operating system from Gary Kildall and sold it to Bill Gates for $50,000 where it became MS-DOS, Microsoft’s core product. Paterson lost the case allowing myself and anybody else to label Paterson a pirate and Evans a journalistic hero at an age when most people had long since retired.

Evans last book, Do I Make Myself Clear?, is nothing short of a tour de force about the importance of clear and concise writing:

Fog everywhere. Fog online and in print, fog exhaled in television studios where time is anyway too short for truth. Fog in the Wall Street executive suites. Fog in the regulating agencies that couldn’t see the signals flashing danger in shadow banking. Fog in the evasions in Flint, Michigan, while its citizens drank poisoned water. Fog in the ivory towers where the arbiters of academia all over the world are conned into publishing volumes of computer-generated garbage. Fog machines in Madison Avenue offices where marketers invent dictionaries of fluff so that a swimming cap is sold as a “hair management system.” Fog in pressure groups that camouflage their real purpose with euphemism; fog from vested interests aping the language of science to muddy the truth about climate change. Fog in the Affordable Care Act and in reporting so twisted at birth it might as well have been called the Affordable Scare Act. Fog in the U.S. Supreme Court, where five judges in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (2010) sanctified secret bribery as freedom of speech. But never come there fog too thick, never come there mud and mire too deep, never come there bureaucratic waffle so gross as to withstand the clean invigorating wind of a sound English sentence.

— Evans, Harold. Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters . Little, Brown Book Group.

When we write cases, blog posts, or even a movie — when I consult — our job is to clear away the fog while simultaneously explaining that, in business, the path between Point A and Point B is virtually never a straight line. Business involves people who, while they often pretend otherwise, create chaos which is then best understood through stories.

Some argue it is tools that separate people from animals. A quick internet search shows animals also create and use tools. I’d argue that it is instead stories that separate us from our furry friends. People rely, relay and build upon the work of others, which is best communicated through stories. Great storytelling is the reason virtually nobody picks up a traditional calculus or economics book and enjoys reading it whereas the biographies of mathematicians and economists attract the attention of millions.

Stories are the preferred way for people to relay information. Stories cut through fog. For example, most people don’t understand the world of mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations but bundle that same information into The Big Short and it becomes a New York Times #1 bestselling book and wildly successful movie.

Sir Harold Evans was, ultimately, a master storyteller.

Evans is an editors editor, a man who devoted his life to cutting through the ever-increasing fog that permeates our world, simultaneously blinding us to what matters while head-faking us to what doesn’t. He left behind the tools us mere mortals need to build our own foglights in an attempt to explain, even a fraction as well as he did, how the world works.

Happy New Year.

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