Velvet antlers; hidden talents

Teenage Cancer Trust Christmas card picture

Santa’s sleigh: a picture drawn by a child supported by the Teenage Cancer Trust

You might remember that a few weeks ago I mentioned a new project, 26 Stories of Christmas. Well, the site went live yesterday for the first day of advent. Day one features my 62 word poem about the flying reindeer of Finland.

The 62 word poem, or ‘sestude’, is inspired by the fabulous drawing of Santa and his reindeer shown here.

Do visit the online advent calendar every day up until 26 December to see drawings by children helped by Teenage Cancer Trust and It’s Good to Give, alongside poems written by writers from 26. And if you feel moved to donate to either of these charities that helps children and teenagers with cancer, we’d be incredibly grateful.

Velvet antlers; hidden talents. My poem for 26 Stories of Christmas

Velvet antlers; hidden talents.
My poem for 26 Stories of Christmas

How not to pitch a film script

“Go on, pitch us a film!” That was the bold – and unusual – challenge from David Parfitt of Trademark Films to people from writers’ collective 26.

Wordstock festival run by 26

Writers pitched their film ideas at the Wordstock festival in London

Film production companies don’t normally hold X Factor style auditions for film ideas, and it’s rare for them to consider suggestions from people without heavyweight screenwriting credits. So the writers who made the shortlist knew just how lucky they were to get this opportunity.

Yesterday, seven brave souls stood up at a crowded Wordstock festival in Farringdon and gave it their best shot. Each had just five minutes to impress the producer who won an Oscar for ‘Shakespeare in Love’.

The stories were intriguing. We had opera, anarchist spies, a man abandoning London for the North, a contortionist thief, an eighteenth century love story, a travelling corpse and a cure for cancer.

From David’s feedback, we learned a lot about what production companies don’t want to see in a pitch.

Don’t do this

  • Don’t pitch your idea without knowing the central drive behind the narrative. Identify the key strand that will lead the viewer through the story.
  • Don’t keep the reader guessing about the genre. If it’s ‘darkly humorous’, is it more funny than dark?
  • If your film’s based on a book, don’t just describe the plot. Show how you’d approach it as a film.
  • Don’t forget the audience. Who is this film aimed at?
  • Don’t have a host of central characters. Narrow it down.
  • Don’t be unrealistic about how much you can squeeze into 90 minutes. Should this be a series instead of a feature?
  • Don’t give your film a name that’s already been used.
  • Don’t ignore it if a film with a similar theme has recently bombed. Explain why your film will succeed where others have failed.
  • Don’t think in decades, think in weeks. A ‘ticking clock’ is good in film. Rather than covering a lifetime, identify a key moment and use that as the pivotal focus for your story.

Despite these caveats, David liked several of the ideas suggested by 26 members. So if you see a film called ‘The Travelling Corpse’ on at your local Odeon in a few years, blame Wordstock.

Horror stories at Shoreditch Town Hall

Spider's web pic D&AD

Spooky spider’s web projected on the ceiling of Shoreditch Town Hall

It was the day before Hallowe’en – a suitably sombre evening for a night of horror stories hosted by D&AD. Shoreditch Town Hall was packed with people keen to hear terrifying tales of screw ups from ad industry insiders.

Here are five things I learned.

1. “The key to brilliant work is to have no fear.” Laura Jordan Bambach, D&AD President.

2. The best way to pacify an angry bull when filming a butter commercial is to stroke its balls. For two full days. Jane Gershfield, Executive Producer of Great Guns production company.

3. Make sure your website builder doesn’t use unregistered software for your site for Nissan at the 02. After 30 days, your site will stop working. Matt Wade, Co-founder of Kin interactive design studio.

4. “If you’re not suffering sleepless nights, bouts of nausea and self-loathing, you won’t do your best work.” Alexandra Taylor, multi-award winning art director.

5. The trick is to be scared and confident at the same time. As Mike Tyson said, “Before the fight, I’m scared to death. The closer I get to the ring, the more confident I get. Once I’m in the ring, I’m a god.” Sam Ball, co-founder of creative agency Lean Mean Fighting Machine.

Thanks to D&AD for a scarily inspiring evening. The conclusion? If you’re not scared, you’re not doing it right. And the path to success is littered with screw ups, so you may as well (wo)man up and enjoy the journey.

Teenage Cancer Trust Christmas cards

The other day I was sent this picture of reindeers pulling Santa’s sleigh. The child who drew it has cancer and is being helped by the Teenage Cancer Trust.

Teenage Cancer Trust Christmas card picture

Santa’s sleigh: a picture drawn by a child supported by the Teenage Cancer Trust

It’s all to do with a new writing project that brings together copywriters like myself from writers’ group 26 and children supported by the Teenage Cancer Trust and the It’s Good 2 Give charity.

The writers were asked to write a sestude – 62 words – inspired by children’s pictures. The sestudes and pictures will go live in an online advent calendar starting on 1 December.

In the meantime, you can support the work of the Teenage Cancer Trust by buying Christmas cards of the sleigh design, as well as cards featuring a Christmas tree and Santa in a jaunty submarine.

Teenage Cancer Trust Christmas card

Buy Teenage Cancer Trust Christmas cards featuring Santa’s submarine

The Teenage Cancer Trust does some amazing work, helping children and young adults to receive care from teenage cancer experts, in surroundings tailored to their needs.

Read more about the charity’s specialist work and read young people’s stories.

If you’d like to know more about Edinburgh charity It’s Good 2 Give and their work with young people with cancer, check out their website.

And watch this space to discover more about my 62 words on the flying reindeer of Finland…

Christmas tree card from Teenage Cancer Trust

Christmas tree card from Teenage Cancer Trust

Soak it in a pond, soak it in the sea

I caught the Stradivarius exhibition at the Ashmolean on the very last day. Had forgotten all about it until the curator, Jon Whiteley, popped up on the Today programme, talking about how people behave in museums. He told the story of someone who came in to show him a violin, convinced it was a very rare Stradivarius. Even more rare because it was made in Czechoslovakia, which didn’t exist in the 18th century.

So I rushed along to catch the show before it finished. Because who knows when I might need to identify a Strad? It could be me, sitting there in an internet cafe, being offered a violin for 100 pounds by two shady characters who’ve just stolen it from a Korean violinist in Euston station. And, in that highly likely scenario, I need to be able to recognise the quality of the instrument, so I can buy the violin immediately and return it to its owner. But not before unobtrusively taking a photo of the thieves so the police can set detectives on their trail.

So in case it’s you, not me, in that internet cafe, here are some of the things to look out for:

  • Asymmetrical f-holes
  • A black, worn-away edging around the scroll
  • Twiddly bits (base bar and pegs) added by Vuillaume in the 19th century, possibly
  • The tiger glow of Cremonese varnish
Distinctively asymmetrical f-holes

Distinctively asymmetrical f-holes

The exhibition was extraordinary. I loved the workshop and the display where you could see how violins are made. The scroll carving, in particular, was fascinating.

And there was a wonderful example of a letter from Stradivarius, one of only two in existence. Written in a shaky hand, it apologises for the late delivery of a violin to an unknown buyer.

I also enjoyed the language used by Charles Beare, the violin expert, in one of the videos. According to him, no one will ever be able to divine exactly what makes Stradivarius’ instruments so special. “You can soak it in a pond, you can soak it in the sea,” he says. “We’ll never really know.”

What a wonderful expression: ‘soak it in a pond, soak it in the sea’. Scientists have tried all kinds of methods to unpick the magic of Stradivarius, from chemical analysis of wood shavings from instruments under restoration to x-raying violins to establish the precise thickness of the maple and spruce components. Beare’s phrase conjures up an image of immersing a Strad in salt or fresh water – a transgressive and shocking idea – and still being none the wiser.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/86507982@N00/with/2321961290/

Venice Lagoon – with pre-soaked wood
Photo: Katie Homan

But maybe there’s another link between Stradivarius and Beare’s inventive expression. Joseph Nagyvary, a biochemist at Texas A&M University, believes that some of the wood that Stradivarius used may have previously been waterlogged, soaked in the water of the Venice lagoon. Apparently woodcutters sent the logs down river from the forested regions of Northern Italy and the Navy took their pick first, so subsequent buyers were looking at wood that may have been lying in water for months.

Soak it in a pond, soak it in the sea, soak it in the Venice lagoon. The truth or just another layer of varnish on the Stradivarius mythology? We’ll probably never know.

Once upon a housing estate

Since Procter & Gamble hired Jim Bangel 40 years ago and made him their official ‘Storyteller’, the profession of ‘corporate storyteller’ has become increasingly mainstream. Storytellers now pop up all over the place, not just in their natural habitat – marketing and advertising – but in oil and gas companies, the automotive sector and software firms.

Still, it was a surprise to discover a corporate storyteller who works for housing associations. Appropriately enough, I met Rob Doyle at Story, a once-a-year one day jamboree devoted to storytelling in every form: film, song, animation and art, as well as fiction.

Rob Doyle would like to tell you a story

Rob Doyle would like to tell you a story

Here Rob talks about how he came to be a storyteller, and shares his wisdom about how to use storytelling to make a difference.

Why do people love stories?

It goes back to humanity’s origins. People used to pass on information sitting around a fire telling stories either about where they wanted to go or what they’d done, using their imagination. People tend to forget facts and figures but they remember stories and empathise with the people in them. We’re just addicted to stories and always will be. There’s something magical about stories and storytelling is about bringing some of that magic into the grey world of business and government.

How did you become a storyteller? 

I worked as a journalist for many years and was looking for a change. I saw an advert for a not-for-profit housing organisation looking for a storyteller. We met and liked each other, so I started working there and developing the role. This was a new idea at the time. They wanted to be innovative and use their communications strategy to stand out from similar organisations. They had big ideas and thought that storytelling was the best way to get those ideas out there.

What did this job involve?

Usually, housing organisations let the world know about their work by sending out press releases with lots of facts and figures and quotes from the Chief Executive. Instead, my job was to tell the story of the company through the voices of its customers. So if they’d spent money doing up a community centre, I’d find someone who’d used the centre and interview them to find out how the new facility had changed their life.

Listening is crucial for storytellers

Listening is crucial for storytellers

It wasn’t superficial at all. I’d talk to them and ask about their life story to build up a picture of who they were, where they were from, the challenges they’d faced and their life and loves. Then I’d tell their story and mention – almost in passing – how the organisation had helped them.

How did the organisation use the stories?

Sometimes we’d get a newspaper or magazine feature out of it or something in the local tv news. But I developed a storytelling portal – a website that was filled with written stories, audio files and video footage. The stories could be long or short. The idea was to keep up a constant narrative, going from one story to the next, with the underlying message being that the organisation cared about its customers and lived up to its values and mission.

What did the interviewees think of it all?

Customers absolutely loved it. That’s why this is such a good strategy. They’d probably never had an opportunity before to tell their life story to people. When someone sat down with them and showed an interest, took down everything they said, they revealed things that they normally kept to themselves. Of course, some didn’t want to tell their story. But nine times out of ten, it made people feel good about themselves. Usually, once they started talking, they couldn’t stop. That’s where the power of the story comes from.

What kind of problems did you have to overcome?

There was a bit of resistance to the idea at the beginning. The people at the top of the organisation got it, but the people in the middle were less keen. I had to demonstrate the value of storytelling a lot of the time.

A good story needs both light and dark moments

A good story needs both light and dark moments

Also, I had to show that a story has to contain both the light and the dark side. It can’t just focus on the positive. One time, I was talking to a man who lived in an area that had become really run down before the housing organisation helped to turn it around. He told me that his next door neighbour had killed himself with a shotgun. Some people within the organisation thought it was too controversial to include that detail.

But I convinced them we needed to tell this as part of a story about the triumph of the human spirit.

What are the crucial elements of corporate storytelling?

You have to take all the techniques that you’d use in fiction – conflict and suspense etc. – and use them to take people with you on a journey. I’ve got an MA in Creative Writing so that, together with my journalistic background, really helped me.

Psychologists at Washington University in St Louis tested people as they were reading stories and discovered that they had a definite effect on the brain which seems to encourage us to relive similar experiences and in that way understand real-life experiences better. So by using fiction techniques, you can help bring that same dynamic into play and encourage people to relate stories to their own lives.

How can stories convey a corporate message?

You have to be clear about what you’re trying to achieve. In my new role, I’m working for a housing association that’s challenged by welfare reform and the bedroom tax. Our aim is to encourage people to seek help if they can’t pay their bills. We’ve created a range of stories about what people fear and how they’ve coped with the changes so far. This brings the issues to life because other people can see those stories and empathise with the person telling the story. They think, ‘I’m like that.’ It delivers a positive message, but not in a bland, corporate way.

Get your message across through storytelling

Get your message across through storytelling

Is it worth a try?

Storytelling is a very powerful way for businesses to get their messages out there. Businesses need to get into a more show business frame of mind, thinking about how their communications can entertain and delight people. And once you get going, the results are incredible. It helps get your messages out there and helps you become more connected to customers. If you’re thinking of trying storytelling, take the plunge, because it really does work.

Rob’s storytelling tips

  •  Be authentic. Tell the truth.
  • Write about the dark side too – don’t whitewash your story.
  • Sit down face-to-face for the best results.
  • Be a really good listener.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask the right questions.
  • Go beyond the facts and figures to get people talking about themselves.

Language: with extra chilli sauce

‘Arrange the langoustines on top in a wigwam fashion’. This instruction caught my attention when I was cooking dinner the other night.  I’ve never made a wigwam of langoustines before, but this was an admirably clear piece of stage direction. Of course, if the shellfish had been alive it might have been tricky. But as it was, the cooked langoustines perched together perfectly, holding claws on top of the risotto.

roger_portrait

Roger Horberry: language wrangler

When I went to hear Roger Horberry give his ‘Pimp my Words’ talk at the Language Consultancy Association the following day, the langoustine wigwam matephor/simile* sprang to mind.

Soundbites from a Grand Sherpa

Roger says he’s an enthusiast rather than an expert on figures of speech, but frankly, that’s not true. As well as being a highly respected copywriter and prolific author, Roger is the Grand Sherpa of the Metaphor Mountain. The Purple Prince of Paradox. And quite possibly the High Priest of Hyperbole.

Here are a few soundbites from his talk:

  • Irony just is, whereas sarcasm usually has a purpose.”
  • Chiasmus adds instant profundity.” (Chiasmus uses mirroring e.g. ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going’.)
  • Paradox creates a mental double take. It makes you slam on the brakes.”

“Figures of speech are not widely appreciated or understood,” says Roger. “But they add spice and seasoning to our everyday words. They’re the chilli sauce of language.”

A thrilling journey from anadiplosis to zeugma

Roger took us on a whistle stop tour through figures of speech, from anadiplosis to zeugma (but not in that order). His talk was all about using language to create little jolts of verbal electricity to capture people’s attention.

Uncle Fester

Living in shame and the suburbs

We kicked off with zeugma, where a verb or adjective applies to two or more nouns. As when Uncle Fester from the Addams Family said: “I live in shame and the suburbs.”

Next up, anadiplosis – repeating the last word of a preceding clause to create a list. So we have Yoda saying: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

The third example was tmesis, where you split a word or phrase apart and add an extra word for comic effect. For example, “abso-bloody-lutely”.

Entry level word play

According to Roger, some figures of speech are relatively easy for anyone to pick up. His entry level figures include metaphor, simile and alliteration.

Coke_open_happiness

Open happiness. Not literally, obviously.

“Metaphors and similes are word pictures that are tailor-made to create striking images in a reader’s mind and pack plenty of meaning into a minuscule space, making them useful if your word count is restricted,” says Roger.

A metaphor makes an implicit comparison between two unconnected items. Recently, journalist Caitlin Moran described Twitter as the Electric River, which created a wonderful image of people throwing tweets into the water and watching as other people’s thoughts flowed past.

In contrast, a simile makes an explicit comparison between two unconnected items, and is usually signalled with the words ‘as’ or ‘like’. The best simile I’ve come across recently is “as happy as a rat with a gold tooth”.

Flying Fish

Alliteration: don’t come a cropper with a carp

Alliteration is the repetition of the initial consonant, as in ‘Guinness is good for you’, ‘Beanz meanz Heinz’ or, my favourite, ‘Fend off Flying Fish’ – an Illinois campaign about protecting yourself from jumping Asian carp.

Taking an idea for a walk

Roger showed us a wonderfully written example of prosopopoeia, more commonly known as personification, which involves attributing actions and character to inanimate objects.

Three sisters

Personification: the Ellipsis Sisters aka Dot, Dot and Dot

In a series of ads for Penguin Books, punctuation marks come to life and become characters in short stories. The Three Ellipsis Sisters do everything together, but have a bad habit of leaving conversations hanging…

This reminded me of a brilliant story by my friend Sean Murphy. In The Tale of THE, a definite article decides to leave the safety of his own paragraph. His grandmother tells him he just needs to find a nice noun and settle down, but he ignores her and sets off to seek adventure outside the margins.

The power of two; the magic of three

Roger talked about so many figures of speech, it would be foolhardy to try to name them all. But let’s finish with parallelism, one of my personal favourites.

“Parallelism is the copywriter’s friend,” says Roger.  “It involves presenting two or more parts of a sentence in a similar way to give the whole a well-defined, regular form.”

The bicolon is also known as ‘the rule of two’. Copywriters have used this form to create lines such as ‘Everything you want, nothing you don’t’ for Nissan and ‘Takes a licking and keeps on ticking’ for Timex.

The tricolon, or ‘rule of three’, is a powerful tool for any copywriter. Words, phrases and sentences in sets of three are memorable because they have a satisfying rhythm and sense of completeness. They can also have a natural linguistic timeline, encompassing a beginning, a middle and an end. Think of Caesar’s famous phrase – ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’.

“With a little imagination you can use parallelism to present a complex group of ideas in a way that doesn’t read like a list,” says Roger.

If you’d like to know more, check out Roger’s recent two-minute summary of figures of speech. Meanwhile, I’ll get on with the successor to my langoustine wigwam: a potted shrimp simile.

*A ‘langoustine wigwam’ is a metaphor, because you’re saying that the wigwam is literally made of langoustines. In the recipe, though, it’s a simile, because it asks you to arrange the langoustines in a ‘wigwam fashion’ – ‘like a wigwam’.