Taking down the tree…

Here’s a piece I wrote for Eastern Daily Press a year ago (before the world changed) all about the strange joy of taking down the Christmas tree.

Taking down the Tree

All things must pass.

It’s a truism that’s also the title of my favourite album by George Harrison.

You see, I am (a teeny bit) cultured after all.

Actually, if I’m being technical, all things don’t (in reality) pass – if ‘things’ are my 16-year-old self and the ‘passing’ in question was my GCSE Spanish exam.

Anyway, putting my deficiencies as a linguist to one side, I’m keen to discuss the end of the ‘Holiday Season’ and its most visible manifestation – taking down the tree.

Have you taken yours down yet? How do you feel? It’s difficult to describe, isn’t it?

Putting up a Christmas tree is a joyous occasion, filled with optimistic hope for fun times ahead. The tree will be the centre of merriment during this, most festive, time of year. Under its branches gifts find shelter until the morning of the 25th when they’re unceremoniously stripped of their wrapping paper and chucked into the two piles of present destiny: ‘Keepers’ and ‘Re-gifters’. It’s during their time under the tree that gifts are at their most exciting – perfect in their mysterious form. Like Schrodinger’s cat, they’re everything at once, the latest gadget, the perfect jewellery, the toy of the moment – it’s only when the box is opened that the spell is broken and the deodorant ‘gift set’ is revealed.

Anyway, all this special stuff – happens under the tree.

Christmas, in many ways, is like those impossibly perfect presents – our expectations are always too high, it can never live up to the hype. So, it can be a relief to get back to the normality of ‘everyday life’ post-Christmas, without all that pressure to follow one magical moment with another. Taking down the tree can feel cathartic, taking mine down certainly was.

A tree, as any parent of small children knows, is like a magnet for toddlers. With lemming-like disregard for their own safety, my two kids seemed to be exclusively focussed on pulling the prickly pine on top of them. My whole existence throughout all 12 days of Christmas has consisted of acting as a security guard for the tree – leaping into action at a millisecond’s notice before the whole thing toppled like a tinselly tower of Jenga. Thinking about it, bringing a dead tree into our homes for a month each year is just weird. Why did it start? The only reason I can think is this: the producers of ‘You’ve Been Framed’ invented a time machine and went back to the Victorian period, where they planted the seed of the tradition with Prince Albert, in order to ensure 1000 ‘hilarious’ tree-based clips for the home video show’s (endless) Christmas specials in the centuries to come.

I mean, what other explanation makes any sense?

I didn’t catch on camera any ‘Framed’ worthy clips with my tree this year, more’s the pity, the £250 reward the show gives would have been a welcome addition to my (sadly depleted) post-Crimbo bank balance. I was half tempted to pull the tree down on myself as I took it down – but I’m sure the producers would spot a faker a mile off.

So, it was with some sadness and some relief that took the tree down this week. Christmas over for another year, time to crank up towards Easter. But before all that, I have a task to complete: getting rid of unwanted presents.

First to regift, “How to pass GCSE Spanish” – 25 years too late. That boat has sailed.

Feliz año nuevo!

Taking down the tree… Chris McGuire, Eastern Daily Press.

Better Latte than never…

Here’s a piece I wrote for the Western Morning News a few years back about how becoming a sleep-deprived parent made me completey dependent on coffee…

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not coffee snob, far from it. I couldn’t tell an Arabica from a Robusta (I looked up the main bean types on the previously-mentioned search engine). I don’t mind if it’s freeze-dried, freshly ground or filtered through an old sock. As long as it’s black and buckling under the weight of its own caffeine, then that’s fine with me.

I’m well aware that coffee is no real substitute for genuine sleep. But when a decent stretch of sleep isn’t on offer, due to my baby son teething / having a cold / being hungry / doing a secret experiment on how long sleep-deprived parents can last before losing the plot, coffee is a great plan B.

They know me at my local coffee shop. I’ve gone from that annoying Lycra-clad cyclist (with footwear that sounds like tap-shoes), to that annoying pram-pushing dad (mumbling about night feeds and Old MacDonald).

During my son’s sporadic daytime naps, I often sit in the café, nursing a latte and watching the other caffeine users arrive for their ‘fix’. The customers range from an eclectic selection of stressed parents through to what I’ve come to know as ‘normal’ people – although normal may be pushing it. The other day, one man insisted on being given a latte without milk. “But that’s an espresso, sir!” said the barista, as politely as she could. “No, no, no,” he replied, increasingly irate. “I want a latte without milk!” So that’s what he got. A lonely espresso shot at the bottom of a huge paper cup. Another man, quite brazenly, opened his duffle coat and poured an entire container of sugar into a pocket. I can only imagine that anyone having a hot drink at his house, would find the sugar a fluff-laden affair.

There’s no doubt that coffee makes people act oddly! Or is it that odd people drink a lot of coffee? I think that, in my sleep-deprived state, I fall into the latter category.

In fact, the only coffee I won’t touch is the coffee crème chocolate that always lingers when everyone has eaten their favourite soft centres at Christmas. I sometimes wonder how sleep deprived I’d need to be before considering a nibble on one of those?

Let’s hope I never find out.

‘Tall, dark and strong’, Chris McGuire West Magazine – Western Morning News

For the full piece, click here.

The day I met the REAL Santa Claus

As we all start to feel that little bit more festive, I thought I’d share what happened when I met the REAL Santa Claus…

They say you should never meet your heroes, but there are some opportunities you can’t refuse: like interviewing the REAL Father Christmas.

Here’s what happened…

I’m led by an elf (whose name I didn’t catch – could it have been ‘Squeaky’?) through the vast workshop complex here at the (rather chilly) North Pole. ‘Impressive’ doesn’t begin to describe Santa’s HQ, candy-striped elves fill every nook and cranny doing anything from painting rocking horses to soldering tablet computers (I make a mental note to consult an elf next time my laptop plays up. Although I’m not exactly sure how I’d get hold of one, they don’t use social media ‘It’s bad for your elf’ says one rather smug fellow).

Lovely as the complex is, I can’t ignore the strange smell in the air. Eventually I bring it up and I’m informed the sickly odour is emanating from Santa’s reindeer: ‘They stink,’ says my nameless guide. I must say, I’m relieved it’s the deer and not Santa with the issue – discovering that Father Christmas has a record-breaking case of B.O. would have been too much to bear. Feeling slightly nauseous due to the stink from Santa’s flying friends, I’m glad of the distraction when we finally arrive at Santa’s office. Face to face with the man himself, I can’t help but smile as he welcomes me with his trademarked cheeriness.

‘It’s our busiest time of year, of course. It’s tiring,’ says Santa, opening a can of a popular fizzy drink. ‘Caffeine helps,’ he says between slurps. ‘I used to drink full-fat, but frankly it was having an effect on the old waistline.’ Santa slaps his tummy, which I can confirm does indeed wobble link a bowl full of jelly. ‘No, it’s diet drinks for me now. Probably not the best for you, but at least they mean I can fit down the chimneys… or most chimneys at least!’

The day I met the REAL Santa Claus, Eastern Daily Press

For the full piece, click here.

Meeting author Tom McLaughlin

Interviewing Exeter’s own Tom McLaughlin, the amazing children’s author and illustrator, was a genuine pleasure. Tom is a lovely fella and was on a high that his book had just been read on CBeebies by another famous Thomas…

“It was definitely supposed to be today.

From my limited interactions with Tom McLaughlin (40), I didn’t expect him to be late – he just doesn’t seem the type. I decide to send a text message. Nothing too pushy, just a gentle nudge:

“Hi Tom. Are you still OK for our meeting? Best C.” 

A reply lands.

“Yes, I’m here too.”

The penny drops. Who’d have thought there were two branches of the same coffee shop in central Exeter? I race through town, thinking I wouldn’t have made a good secret agent or prime minister (two of the roles the stars Tom’s children’s books themselves in) with organisational skills as bad as mine.

Finally united, we exchange notes about babies as I search for a notepad in a bag overcrowded with wet wipes and teethers. Tom’s partner, Elle (34), I learn, has just given birth – their first child together.

Down to business, there’s no way of avoiding that Tom is currently part of a social media sensation. He grins. “I got an email a while back, but wasn’t allowed to tell anyone.”

Tom’s book The Cloudspotter was read on CBeebies by none other than the smouldering star of of Taboo and Peaky Blinders, Tom Hardy. The internet went crazy about it. “I remember tweeting,” Tom says, of when the embargo lifted. ‘I said Tom Hardy is reading my book on CBeebies. This is the coolest sentence I’m ever going to write.’”

I’d dispute that. Tom McLaughlin’s written some very cool sentences in his books – or funny ones, which are, surely, the same thing. It’s not for nothing that Tom’s often compared with David Walliams.”

The Story Teller, Tom McLaughlin interview for West Magazine

For the full ‘West Magazine’ (Western Morning News) piece, click here.

Mum’s the word…

Over the years I’ve interviewed quite a few high profile people. One of the most inspirational amongst their number was Sarah Turner, known to the world as The Unmumsy Mum.

Her realistic and hilarious approach to parenting drew me to her writing, I was glad to discover that in ‘real life’ she was just as good company as I’d imagined.

The morning we meet, Sarah Turner couldn’t have been more ‘on brand’ if she tried. Waiting in an Exeter coffee shop, I receive a message telling me she’s going to be late – one of her boys is unwell, causing problems with childcare. As someone who’s read Sarah’s laugh-out-loud blog ‘The Unmumsy Mum’, and the bestselling book of the same name, this is all too perfect. Of course she’s grappling with a very unglamorous parenting problem! In a parallel world, a branding consultant might suggest running significantly more than ‘fashionably late’ to reflect her brand. But Sarah is about as far from branding and spin as anyone I’ve ever met. What I experience is her reality – not a PR stunt. Sarah’s having a nightmare morning and I’m part of it – for real.

Sarah Turner’s, often startling honest, blog about raising her two sons, has resulted in a generation of parents (including me) religiously following her glamour-free escapades. When Sarah (finally) arrives, endearingly apologetic about her tardiness, she launches into an enthusiastic explanation of how, after her eldest son, Henry, was born, she became frustrated by the representations of parenting online. “None of it resonated with me at all. It was either really jokey, or it was just the glossy edit. The Instagram version – too aspirational. That’s what I thought parenting would look like and it just didn’t.”

It’s clear that Sarah passionately believes a rose-tinted image of parenting is damaging to new parents. “It’s really harmful because, when you’re feeling low, and you’re thinking ‘I’m not doing anything right! ‘My child is broken’, ‘Why won’t they sleep?’ ‘Why do they hate me?’ (…) You’re knackered and you’re scrolling online for stuff that might make you laugh or feel better, but it made me feel ten times worse. It was all: ‘You may be struggling, but don’t forget to cherish this moment, because you won’t get it again!’” Sarah continues: “If you’re feeling any level of guilt or inadequacy it’s just heightened by wall to wall images of moment cherishing where you think ‘Oh, I’m really screwed in comparison to this!’” These frustrations proved a catalyst for Sarah: “I thought: ‘I’m just going to write something’…”

Chris McGuire ‘Mum’s the word…’ West Magazine, Western Morning News

To read the full piece, click here.

Hoff the record…

I’ve never been one for regrets.

That said, there is something I regret not doing during my career as a studio producer: I wish I’d taken some photographs with the celebs that I met.

It may sound a little pathetic, but I often find people look at me like I’m making it up when I discuss the time I did a shoot with Julie Andrews, Warwick Davis or The Cheeky Girls (OK, they believe me on the last one). The thing is, back then nobody had camera phones (not really) and taking photos with ‘The Talent’ just wasn’t done.

Despite all that, I really wish I’d taken a photo the morning I spent with David Hasselhoff. To add a bit of perspective, I was OBSESSED with Knight Rider when I was a kid. I mean totally and completely hypnotised by this show.

I talked into my watch (in reality my bare wrist, as I didn’t have a timepiece) just like David’s character, ‘Michael Knight’.

I talked to our car (leading I’m sure to my parents being concerned about my mental health) just like David’s character ‘Michael Knight’.

I even had a weird situation at a parent-teacher meeting, where my mum and dad asked about my classmate ‘Michael’ – who they’d never met, but I wouldn’t stop going on about. This led to much confusion from the teacher, as it transpired I didn’t have a friend with that name at school. Finally, they discovered I’d been so obsessed with Hasselhoff’s alter-ego that I’d come home from school and tell my parents I’d been playing with him all day.

Basically, for a large part of my childhood, I lived in a fantasy world with David Hasselhoff at its centre.

So, fast forward many years, and I can’t quite believe I’m standing on the studio floor next to The Hoff himself. My 7 year-old self would have passed-out with joy, I was just about holding it together. ‘David’, those of us who have worked with The Hoff get to call him that, was spending the morning on our show to publicise The Spongebob Movie – in which he had an extended cameo.

That day I had fulfilled a lifetime’s dream and written a script for The Hoff, I mean ‘David’, to act out. It was a skit based around Baywatch, where all the presenters of the show were dressed in orange swim gear, watching on as the wonderous Mr H saved the day.

So there I was, with David, saying to him:

“OK Mr Hasselhoff…”

“Please call me ‘David’…”

“OK, ‘David’. What’s going to happen is this. When it’s your cue line I’ll tap you on the shoulder…”

“On the shoulder?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“Like this.”

I tapped him on the shoulder. David frowned, then grinned.

“Maybe you should try it like this,” he said, mischeviously.

He jabbed me between the ribs with a finger.

“Or like this…”

Hasselhoff poked me again. We both roared with laughter.

It was then that I realised I was having horseplay, for that’s what it was, with the legendary David Hasselhoff. My 7 year old self would have happily died and gone to heaven.

As it was, composure was quickly regained and ‘David’ did the scene perfectly – hitting every comedy cue he was given.

The man was, and is, a total legend.

So, back to my original point. I’d have loved to have my photograph taken with my friend ‘David’. But it didn’t happen.

I regret this for two reasons:

  • To have the momento of meeting a childhood hero would have been great.
  • To have captured the look on the face of one of the show’s presenters: Mark Felgate. Mark is a wonderful comedy talent, who (I found out later) was as big a fan of Mr Hasselhoff as me. Sadly, for reasons of comedy, I’d dressed him in a Pamela Anderson-style high cut orange swimsuit. It wasn’t the way Mark had dreamed of meeting his hero, in fact, it became a moment he’d rather forget. Sorry Mark.

There are those who have mocked Mr Hasselhoff and his claims of bringing down the Berlin Wall with his song ‘Looking for Freedom’. As someone who worked with ‘David’ I’ve no doubt he had a major role in the ending of the Cold War.

David wouldn’t have needed a digger to destroy that wall, he could have brought it down with a well-placed prod.

On Pointe

Here’s a piece I wrote for Western Morning News, published on April 1st (that’s important). In it I explain how the fates have conspired to make me a middle-aged Billy Elliot…

He handed me his card.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he cried, full of emotion.

I didn’t know what to say, so I just smiled.

“Really, you have poise, grace… everything. I couldn’t take my eyes off you!”

I blushed, slightly worried.

“So you’ll think about it?”

“OK.”

“Good. Chris, let me tell you, today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

Yes this week, while rather drunkenly dancing at a friend’s wedding, I was spotted by a scout for the English National Ballet. I’m going to be their newest star.

Granted 37 is, for many without my ability, quite an advanced age to begin a career in a tutu – yet this didn’t seem to concern the ballet folks. I was, as they put it, ‘this generation’s mature Billy Elliot’. After doing a little research, I’ve discovered that many of the Britain’s great dancers were discovered in a similar way to me. Wayne Sleep was dancing to Agadoo in Cleethorpes when he was first spotted, whereas Darcey Bussell’s ballet career began when she was a Redcoat in Skegness. Both were well over 40. I seemed to be in good company…

On Pointe – West Magazine April 1st Column, Chris McGuire

To read the full piece, click here.

‘Smize’ like you mean it…

They call it ‘Smizing’.

You may never have heard the phrase before, but I’m pretty convinced you’re already an expert at whether people are doing it or not.

To ‘Smize’ is, as Tyra Banks of American’s Next Top Model fame informed us, to smile with the eyes.

No, I haven’t lost the plot, bear with me.

Communication, we all know, is a complex thing; filled with thousands of tiny nuances that can completely change the meaning of any interaction. A recent awareness of the importance of ‘Smizing’ has really brought home to me the need to be authentic in the way we as individuals, businesses and brands communicate.

What am I talking about?

One of the ways the pandemic has changed our lives is the advent of the facemask. I’m all for masks as a method of fighting the spread of COVID-19 19, but there’s no denying covering our mouths and noses has had a major effect on the way we communicate. Put simply, it’s now incredibly difficult to see a smile. The simple action of pulling back our lips and showing teeth, as a method of indicating friendship and empathy has been largely lost to us.

In the absence of the traditional smile, we look to other non-verbal cues to indicate subtleties in of communication: tone of voice is one, hand gestures are another. For me, the ability to indicate a smile with your eyes is central. It’s one of those things that is incredibly difficult to fake. We all know people who smile with their mouths while their eyes indicate they’d rather be somewhere else, doing anything else. Without the mouth, (a much easier indicator of a traditional smile) to fall back on, many of us are now looking to the eyes to show the authenticity of the communications we’re having.

Anyone who can’t Smize, in Covid-19 ridden 2020, is at a distinct disadvantage – their eyes indicate a real or perceived lack of commitment to their communication.

It struck me that being able to pick up on subtle intricacies of communication isn’t just limited to ‘reading’ someone’s eyes. When we engage with content, whether that be social, traditional marketing or B2B, are we picking up practically imperceptible hints that the message is inauthentic? Most of us would find it very difficult to describe the difference between ‘Smizing’ eyes and those which don’t engage, but somehow, subconsciously, we pick up and interpret these cues. It’s the same with marketing content.

It’s too easy for a brand’s blogs or social feeds to fall into the trap of going through the motions. As Eric Morecambe once said, they are playing “All the right notes, just not necessarily in the right order”.

For me, it’s essential to take a step back from the content we create and attempt to look at it with the eyes of someone who isn’t invested in its success.

Does it engage?

What do I mean by that?

Put simply, is it the type of material that I would actively connect with, even if I wasn’t initially attracted to the product or service it promotes? Does it have a life of its own? Is it attractive, funny, or thought provoking outside of the ‘job’ it’s supposed to do?

If our content doesn’t engage in this way, I’d suspect that (like someone who can’t Smize) it has many elements of good communication, yet something blocking an authentic connection.

Next time you write, read or view a bit of content, ask yourself this question:

Is this content Smizing at me?

Write about what you know?

“Write about what you know.”

Common usage

That’s what they say, isn’t it?

It’s one of those truisms that is so widely disseminated nobody ever stops to think if it’s actually good advice.

Personally, as a concept, I’m not sold.

Why?

Well, it seems to me that people writing about ‘what they know’ can get too close to their subject.
If, like many content creators, you’re writing about a subject that you immerse yourself in 24/7 you can easily lose objectivity.

Before you know it you can’t see the wood for the trees – meaning that you’ve lost sight of what makes your subject of specialism, of expertise even, engaging to the average person ‘on the street’.

Too often, when I talk to a business’s in-house experts, I find they’ve lost their sense of wonder at what they do. They’ve become stuck in the minutiae of expertise, kept up at night pondering detail which, ironically, would send the uninitiated reader (or customer) to sleep.

The ability to step back and calmly assess how to tell your business’s story to your customers is vital. Which bits does your demographic NEED to know about? What will ENGAGE with them? What will leave them COLD? This process needs the input of someone with no vested interests. Someone fresh, an outsider with an interested, but not partisan perspective.

Think of the times when you’ve struggled to write your own CV. It’s bloody difficult.
Why?
Because it’s yours and it matters a lot – to you.

Then think of how much better your resume sounds if you allow a friend to write it. With their fresh perspective they can cut through to the interesting bits of your story – without becoming bogged down in the detail.

So what am I saying?

I’m not anti-expert. Far from it. What I am is pro-perspective.

When I write for your business I don’t bring baggage.

I don’t pretend to be the expert in your field – you are.

What I do is work with you to communicate the best bits of your organisation’s story in a way that is engaging to people who may not know what you do, but given the chance, might like to learn.

The most effective content is, in my view, created by someone who isn’t writing about ‘what they know’.

Know what I mean?

Hairy Dogs for Nick Toons

I’ve always loved animation.

Over the years I’ve worked on developing and scripting several animation projects for both TV and business.

‘Hairy Dog Stories’, the series of shorts I originated, scripted and produced for Nick Toons, will always have a special place in my heart.

These funny little vignettes see ‘Arnold’ (a shaggy sheep dog) ably assisted by ‘Toby’ (a spritely terrier) on their daily routine – ensuring all lampposts and trees in their patch are properly marked with, ehem, ‘scent’… During this activity, which takes place with almost military precision, Arnold tells his young companion the tallest of tall stories.

Each ‘Hairy Dog Story’ is filled with Arnold’s unbelievable adventures, from having a picnic with the Queen to becoming the first dog is space.

Created by Zoo Film Group, for Nick Toons, these shorts always makes me smile…