I remember once having a conversation with an old friend of mine, an academic, and he was lamenting – as many people of my age group tend to do these days – about the seeming inability of young people to read anything longer than a paragraph. In fact, he complained about the inability of anyone to read properly.
“I mean us academics, we read for a living, so we know that we have to get it right. We spend a lot of time reading, so we know it is time consuming and difficult. But everyone wants to have it easy and on a plate, and it is the writer that gets the blame if it’s too difficult, or too hard for them to get in one go. They should read it again and again until they understand it thoroughly.”
I found this rather strict, and rather pompous. Surely it is the fault of the writer, not the reader, if a dense academic text does not reveal what it is supposed to be saying more or less immediately. The written word is often weaponised to shoot down – or at least build an impenetrable barrier against – the reader, as if the writer wanted to protect the sacred ground they possess. I wondered if my academic friend had been stung by the fact that his own papers – few and far between in the writing I must add – were not the groundbreaking, game-changing articles that he perhaps he imagined they would be.
This complaint is not just confined to academia. Sharing a coffee one day with a shipowner friend, he too aired his frustration at the difficulty he had in getting some of his employees to fully process the information that came in long texts. “Oh, I missed that,” was the response when questioned why the most important part of the message – buried somewhere in the middle – was ignored. “Why can’t they read it properly, and if they don’t get it, read it again?”
I am no stranger to the written word myself of course. I suffer from tsundoko, a Japanese word describing the art of buying books and never reading them. It’s a pleasant affliction that I am in no hurry to cure. A recent visitor to my flat asked me whether I had read all the books I have out on my shelves (there are a lot). This immediately caused me to adopt the, well, pompous attitude that the serious reader takes with someone who, well, probably has a life. I pointed out that yes, I had read the majority of books on my shelves, but there were also books that I wanted to read, books that I should read, books that other people have said I have to read, books that were to given to me as presents and haven’t had the heart to throw them out yet although I will never read them, books that just look good on the shelf, and if I am absolutely honest books that I might pretend to have read to make me look good but I have never got beyond the first few pages.
I read a lot of other things too, not just books. I read the news, emails, market reports, articles, the odd academic article when it interests me and various physical magazines and newspapers when I can get my hands on them. I also have a soft spot for legal reports and judgments too. This range of material requires different types of reading from skim reading – where the knack is just to focus on what is important – to the deep immersive reading that the best books, fiction and non-fiction – and poetry I should add – demand, and reward.
It is when, however, that I have an offer or a contract to read that I notice a real change in my reading style. It comes in three stages: the skim read first to identify price, delivery, subjects, and other points of fundamental importance, secondly the deep, interrogative read, checking every word of every line, forcing myself to plough through otherwise familiar terms to spot the landmines, grammatical errors, or ambiguous or devious sentences, and then finally what I call the comparative read, when I check it with standard forms, or other offers or contracts I have used in the past, and also check it for internal contradictions. Once I have gone through those three stages I feel in control of the text as I have absorbed it and understood its nature and meaning. If this sounds a bit pompous too, I’m sorry, but to answer the charge let me try and explain why it works for me.
My mind – as opposed to my brain – works differently from everyone else’s. This is not a great claim for superior exceptionalism; everyone’s mind is different from everyone else’s. I just find that unless I can feel the nature of the text I cannot negotiate it properly. This sounds very pretentious I know, and miles away from the hard-edged rational cut and thrust of negotiations that outsiders think we brokers practice. But in every offer and counter-offer, even draft contracts, there are strong points, weak points, ambiguous points and points that can be used as pivots for leverage and for advantage. I will admit that these are not always appreciated rationally at the time, but sometimes they are brought into the game almost instinctively during negotiations, as if my subconscious knew the value of them before my rational mind understood their utility.
The deals that I consider have been the most rewarding for me were not those that paid the most commission but those from inception to delivery that gave me the most intellectual and emotional satisfaction, when foresight and consequent action led to a perfectly reached conclusion, and avoided most of the bear traps along the way to delivery. And to take it to even higher levels of pretentiousness, it is deals that have been concluded with grace and guile, anticipation and ruthlessness, aggression and consensus, when everything falls into place by the final phone call that make my life as a broker ultimately worthwhile. These happen rarely enough, but if I look back on my career, those deals happen when my counterparties have been of a – let’s say – higher quality.
But they have only happened when I had full awareness of my own and my counterparty’s weapons, that is to say all the information to hand, and in particular the wording of the terms and conditions of an offer. I prefer – like the old school sale and purchase shipbroker that I am – the full terms offer to the “subject further terms to be mutually agreed” one, because I want the negotiations to lead to a final and binding agreement as soon as possible. I also want to be able to have anything of use at my disposal. I don’t – and my apologies to my learned friends – like leaving the wording of the contract to be agreed by the lawyers once the main commercial terms have been settled. It is not a good idea to leave a deal in the air – or rather delaying the contract’s effectiveness – until a later stage, when events beyond our control can alter the parties’ intentions before a deal is properly concluded.
I believe that a shipbroker at the very least should be able to conclude a binding contract without guidance or intervention from a lawyer, but by the same merit it should be able to withstand the scrutiny of a lawyer and to lead to smooth and successful performance without collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions. This is not to say that lawyers do not have their place. Brokers need legal advice as much as anyone, if only to protect them from themselves in the rush to conclude a deal. The best balance is with shipbrokers working in a team with lawyers so both brokers and lawyers act together, on the advice of the other, not against each other. And in my mind the best teams are made up of legally minded brokers and commercially minded lawyers. This, however, is a rare combination.
It seems then that I have proved my academic friend right after all. The draft offer, counter-offer or contract should be read again and again until it is fully understood. After all, this – in my world at least – is about commission, and commission is important. Lessening your chances of doing a deal by avoiding something seems to me to be a little stupid. Indeed, the times when – for whatever reason – I have not been in possession of all the relevant information and been comfortable with it have led to frustration, both professionally and to the conclusion of the contract itself. I know this from bitter experience, self-inflicted experience.
But the onus should not just be on the reader but also the writer of draft offers, counter-offers and contracts. Having the chance to create the first draft puts you in a position of power, and however much it is amended or altered, the essence of what you wanted to say, how you wanted to act, remains. And by creating that position, you are immediately in more intimate possession of the feel of how negotiations will go, because you have chosen the battlefield itself.
I have met, worked wirth and negotiated with many brokers in my long career as a sale and purchase broker. The best, and most successful, and the ones I most respect are those that don’t just have a good nose for a deal, are not just good at making and maintaining relationships, are not just the most persuasive, are not just the most aggressive, are not just the best negotiators, but also those that have an ability to read the terms of an offer or counteroffer and negotiate with knowledge and wisdom in order to get deals concluded and quickly. This mythical super-broker does not exist of course, but we all have strengths, and some of the ones I have mentioned are part of the personality the person was formed with. However, in order to get better at something, instead of trying to become someone you are not, perhaps it is better to work on something that you can improve and that is also to your benefit. Reading properly and thoroughly will always be rewarding, and if you have reached this far in this blog, you have already proved my point. You can do it.