Ten things I learned at The Story 2014

You never know quite what will happen at The Story, except that it will illuminate distant areas of your brain with unpredictable copper sparks for some time to come. Here are a few of the things I learned from this year’s gathering of storytellers of all stripes – from film makers, writers and artists to illustrators and singers.

1. You have nothing to fear from a jelly hand grenade

Kyle Bean's 'Soft Guerrilla' materials for Cut magazine

Kyle Bean’s ‘Soft Guerrilla’ materials for Cut magazine

Artist / designer / illustrator Kyle Bean goes to painstaking lengths to create extraordinary images. When Cut magazine asked for pictures to illustrate a feature on guerrilla gardening, he came up with the feather knife and jelly grenade shown here, as well as toast knuckledusters and sticks of mini-milk dynamite.

2. The truth is over-rated

In the pursuit of a good story, you sometimes need to bend the truth, twist it or step neatly over it. “We have a really dodgy relationship with reality and are not really interested in it at all,” said Jane Pollard, talking about the documentary she and Iain Forsyth made about Nick Cave.

Kenyatta Cheese agrees. As he says: “It’s not the facts that are important. It’s the emotional truth.”

3. A story needs a ‘yay’ bit at the end

Not all stories end well, but Stella Duffy prefers it if they do. “I believe in a story having this ‘yay’ bit at the end,” she said. This was after she’d told us: “Two weeks ago I had eight hours of cancer surgery. I’m still a bit bloody and very bruised, but isn’t this a lovely frock?” She’s devoting her considerable wit and spirit to inspiring a series of Fun Palaces across the UK in October 2014.

4. Celery and pasta make good gore

Barnaby Smyth is a foley artist: one of those fascinating behind-the-scenes people who creates rustling leaves, rattling chains and footsteps for film and television. He asked us all to close our eyes as he recreated a ghostly story for us in sound. “For decapitation scenes,  I twist a head of celery mixed with boiled penne pasta,” he said. “But you can use tagliatelle too.”

5. Children have great instincts

In a Ministry of Stories project, 13 year old Teodor says you can mould an idea any way you want

In a Ministry of Stories project, 13 year old Teodor says you can mould an idea any way you want

Performance artist Bryony Kimmings worked with her nine year old niece, Taylor, to come up with Catherine Bennett, a paleontologist popstar who is the epitome of the anti-twerk, the un-Thicke of it. Schoolchildren suggested lyrics for CB’s song, The Future, including the brilliant line: “We need at least four more ways to eat potatoes.”

6. We find joy in unusual places

  • Bill Wasik gets his kicks from going viral, and was responsible for gathering a 200-strong flash mob in Macy’s carpet department who claimed to be commune members looking for a ‘love rug’.
  • Tony Ageh loves lists. “A proper list is democratic, neutral, useful and empowering,” he told us.
  • Philip Larkin is partial to procrastination and Vines. Here’s the impromptu Vine made during his talk, part of his ‘What happens if I press this button?’ series.
Lisa Salem with her mobile recording buggy

Lisa Salem with her mobile recording buggy

7. All stories are the same

Feeling lost and alone in Los Angeles, Lisa Salem took an unusual approach in the city-where-no-one-walks. She attached a video camera to a baby buggy and invited people to come and walk with her while she videoed the conversation. “The talks quickly became intimate and personal, and I discovered that everyone tells the same story,” she said. “Everyone wants to be heard, to be seen, to be understood.”

8. Writing a novel is like riding a horse

Novelist Meg Rosoff solved a mystery while she was practising dressage. Why, she wondered, were so many of the novels she was asked to review so mediocre? Her theory – convincingly put – is that you need a good flow and mastery of the unconscious to write a novel. Just as a good dressage rider channels the power of the horse, a writer needs to use the deep, unconscious areas of the brain to create writing that resonates. “Write fiercely with resonance from a really deep place,” she advises.

9. It’s not easy to destroy a computer

Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, gave his insights into the Edward Snowden leaks of NSA material. In July 2013, GCHQ supervised the destruction of Guardian computers containing some of the leaked information. “It’s more difficult than you’d think to destroy a computer,” said Alan. “It’s not enough to wipe it clean, hit it with hammers or put superglue in the USB drives. We had to dismantle them, then use angle grinders and drills on the internal components.”

10. It’s never too late to travel with an ancestor

Gruff Rhys gets mystical following in his ancestor's footsteps

Gruff Rhys gets mystical following in his ancestor’s footsteps

Gruff Rhys, the Welsh singer and all-round good egg, told a fascinating story of his 2012 American Interior tour which retraced the steps of a long-dead ancestor, John Evans. Evans was quite a man: he left Wales in 1792, hung out with tribespeople, became Spanish and then French, and ended his days in New Orleans. Gruff was accompanied on the tour by a felt model of Evans, complete with period costume and a pioneering stare. Gruff completed his story by playing us a song about Evans, with around 29 key changes reflecting the many twists and turns of his ancestor’s adventures.

Thanks to the intrepid organisers of The Story for assembling such a brilliant mix of people and ideas. When can I book next year’s ticket?

West meets East: Opera Holland Park comes to Old Street

Mike Volpe of Opera Holland Park

Mike Volpe of Opera Holland Park

Mike Volpe is a true opera aficionado. For nearly 25 years, he’s been General Manager of Opera Holland Park, enthusing a new generation of opera lovers with an eclectic mix of outdoor performances.

Although his family comes from the mountains outside Naples, Mike grew up in England. He drinks Italian espresso, but when Chelsea play Napoli at Stamford Bridge, he’s adamant that: “It’s Chelsea all the way.”

As part of a Chickentown Radio special, Mike came to BL-NK in Old Street last week to talk about some of his favourite music.

1. Mascagni: Hymn to the sun

Mike’s first choice is the introduction to Pietro Mascagni’s opera Iris. He explains why. “In 1997, a year after we began the company, we thought we’d try to mine a different part of the repertoire to others. This opera came to light and at the time it was a rarity. This piece is a hymn to the sun, and it’s just a glorious piece of music.”

Growing up in an Italian household, there was often opera playing in the background, or an uncle singing traditional Neapolitan songs. “I sang all the way through school, and my school provided kids for the chorus at Aldeburgh,” he says. “Later I listened to a lot of John Martyn and was also really into prog rock, and I think there’s something vaguely operatic about that.”

2. Kate Bush: the blackbird song

Talking of the crossover between rock and opera, Mike adds: “I’m a big fan of Kate Bush. James (Clutton, producer at OHP) and I have often said that she would probably compose a really good modern opera. We’ve just heard a chorus about the rising of the sun and this is about the setting of the sun. It’s Sunset from her album Ariel. It’s one of the most beautiful things she’s ever done and includes a line that could appear in an opera – ‘Who knows who wrote the song of summer that blackbirds sing at dusk’.”

3. Puccini: tattooed words of God

For his next piece, Mike chooses Le tue parole sono di Dio from La Fanciulla del West – which Opera Holland Park is putting on next summer. Mike loves this aria so much he’s had the words tattooed on his forearm.

Operatic ink: "Your words are as if from God"

Operatic ink: “Your words are as if from God”

The opera tells the story of Minnie, a saloon owner during the Gold Rush, who falls in love with a bandit. The miners in the camp take against him and are about to have him hanged. “La Fanciulla del West is probably my favourite Puccini opera,” says Mike, “and this is a crucial moment of redemption. Minnie rides in with a pistol, stops the miners from hanging her lover, and sings this gorgeous soliloquy. Sonora, one of the miners, lets forth this line – Your words are as if from God – and then Minnie and her bandit ride off into the sunset together.”

4. Strauss: a gorgeous lament

Mike’s clear about the best aspect of his job: “James and I both say it’s the applause. It’s that moment at the end of a show when you know it’s a success and there’s a thousand people roaring their approval. That and working with all these incredibly talented people.”

Of course, outdoor opera isn’t so much fun if it’s cold, but Mike reckons the upsides of his job far outweigh the downsides.

Mike’s not complaining, but his next choice is what he describes as a “gorgeous lament”, sung here by the great Jessye Norman. “Beim Schlafengehen is based on a Herman Hesse poem. It means ‘going to sleep’, and is one of Strauss’ four last songs, which are all about dying. You could say it’s a bit miserable, but it’s just a gorgeous way to lament the end of your life. Strauss could do some incredible things with a voice and an orchestra.”

5. Montemezzi: rollicking good fun

Mike describes how he came to choose his next piece, from L’Amore dei Tre Re by Italo Montemezzi. “The first piece we heard today was Iris, which was the start of our journey in rare opera. In 2007 we staged L’Amore dei Tre Re and it was a great success. It’s part of that school of late Italian composers who wanted to create their own new Italian language of opera. It’s just rollicking good fun. The soprano spends the whole of Act 3 dead on a slab, but she’s still part of the action because her father-in-law has spread poison on her lips in order to trap her lover. So we end up with three bodies on stage. This is the prelude to Act 3.”

Opera Holland Park: an intensely informal experience

L’Amore dei Tre Re fits the operatic stereotype of entertainingly over-the-top death scenes, but there are other stereotypes that are potentially more damaging for opera companies today. For example, opera is frequently perceived as expensive and elitist. Mike’s keen to argue that Opera Holland Park offers an entirely different experience. “Yes, opera is an elite art form in the same way that sport is elite. You want to be the best. But we’re entirely about popularising opera. We have thousands of tickets available at 12 or 15 quid, and about 1,700 free tickets for young and old. Opera Holland Park is intensely informal, and the critical thing to note is that most of the people who run the company are from very ordinary working class backgrounds. So if anyone demonstrates that all that elitist business is nonsense, it’s us.”

6. Lechner and Tsabropoulos: evoking atmosphere

Point made, Mike moves on to his next choice: Trois morceaux après des hymnes byzantins II by cellist Anja Lechner and pianist Vassilis Tsabropoulos. He explains: “I’m very much into atmosphere in music and love music that mixes genres. This pair evoke atmosphere beautifully – this piece is just gorgeous.”

7. Roberto Murolo: Neapolitan song

From a piece written ten years ago, Mike turns back to his childhood. As a boy, he was surrounded by renditions of Neapolitan songs, and his next choice is one of his mother’s favourites – Voce ‘e Notte – ‘the voice in the night’ by Roberto Murolo. “Part of the problem with Neapolitan songs is there’s some awful cheesy rubbish out there,” says Mike. “But there’s a stable of singers from the 40s and 50s who transcend those stereotypes. Roberto Murolo is a bit of a legend. He just sat there with a cheap guitar and played these gorgeous songs.”

“This song is about a man singing below a woman’s window, saying, ‘Don’t be alarmed, don’t look out, just remember our two voices together.’ It’s exquisitely sung and played, and is a perfect example of the veracity of Neapolitan music, which is a very potent and historic idiom. It evokes Italy and Naples and is really not that far off opera in its sentiments and the way it tells a story.”

Talking of Naples, I was keen to hear where Mike gets his Neapolitan coffee fix in London. “Mokarabia is a really nice coffee,” he says. “There’s a great little cafe opposite our sponsor Investec’s office in the city which sells it. One of those old places where cab drivers stop. So I go there when I’m in the City; Mokarabia is probably the best coffee around.”

Mokarabia coffee: a Neapolitan's choice

Mokarabia coffee: a Neapolitan’s choice

8. Film music: What Dreams May Come

Mike moves on to discuss the similarities between film music and opera. “Film is exactly like opera,” he says. “You have this melodrama and the music is used as an emotional rachet. I’m a big fan of film music and was very fortunate to meet composer Michael Kamen who wrote the music for the Band of Brothers tv series and Mr Holland’s Opus. This music comes from a 1998 film called What Dreams May Come, starring Robin Williams and Greta Scacchi. The premise is that heaven is what you want it to be. The music is very emotional and intense and Michael Kamen captures the sense of the film beautifully.”

9: Pat Metheny: Cinema Paradiso theme

Continuing in the film music vein, Mike’s next choice is an arrangement of the Cinema Paradiso theme by Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden. “Pat Metheny is a great hero of mine,” says Mike, “and this music is gorgeous. You don’t have to be Italian to appreciate Cinema Paradiso, but after spending so many summers in Italy, this music really conjures up that atmosphere for me.”

Alternative careers: actor, rugby player, fisherman, criminal

And what career would Mike have chosen if opera hadn’t got to him first? “There’s a question,” he laughs. “When I was 16 I was offered a very good opportunity to go to RADA. But I didn’t want to spend another three years studying. Maybe I could have been a rugby player. Apart from that, there’s a very good chance I’d have been a criminal. What I’d really like to do, though, is to run a fishing boat out of St John’s in Antigua taking tourists to catch tuna and barracuda.”

10. John Martyn: Couldn’t love you more

Mike’s final choice is John Martyn. “My oldest brother introduced me to John Martyn and I first went to one of his concerts aged 10 or 11. I just love him. He was an incredible songwriter and guitarist, and his Scottish sentimentality and the edge of violence that went along with it are an intoxicating mix.”

“This song, Couldn’t love you more, really sums him up. I don’t know how you could resist a phrase like ‘If you kiss the sun right out of the sky for me, I couldn’t love you more‘. I don’t think there’s any greater love song.”

Summer 2014 at Opera Holland Park

Looking ahead, there’s plenty to draw people to Opera Holland Park this summer. “We open with La Fanciulla del West,” says Mike. “It’s a challenging but wonderful opera to produce. We also have one of the great bel canto operas this year, Norma, which features the famous Casta Diva aria. We’re putting on Il Barbiere di Siviglia by Rossini and Adriana Lecouvreur by Cilea – a lovely romantic piece where the leading lady is killed by some violets laced with poison. And we’re doing our first Britten opera, The Turn of the Screw, which could work amazingly well in our space.”

“We’re also putting on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland again, which we commissioned from Will Todd. We’re big believers in getting young kids to sit down and listen to opera performed by real musicians, and the demand for children’s concerts is consistently high.”

If you’d like to find out when tickets for this summer season are available, follow Opera Holland Park @operahollandpk. After all, where else will you be able to hear Casta Diva in the open air, see a Cheshire Cat sing or witness death-by-violets?

Nadya Powell: Tech City’s one-woman whirlwind

Women make up pretty much half of the population and nearly half of the workforce, but they are still woefully under-represented in the tech world. I met up with Nadya Powell, MD of MRY UK, to hear what she and her peers are doing to redress the balance.

The highlight of Internet Week

It’s Friday morning, the last day of Internet Week, and Nadya Powell has just hosted an ‘Innovation Date’ event at BL-NK, a new social/digital space in Old Street sponsored by Hackney Council. She’s suffering from sleep deprivation following a non-stop week of events, but is keen to share her thoughts about the London tech community, women’s role in tech and ‘that horribly flabby word – innovation’.

Nadya Powell, MD of MRY, on the yellow sofa at BL-NK

Nadya Powell, MD of MRY, on the yellow sofa at BL-NK

“There’s a really nice vibe and sense of community to Internet Week,” she says. “My highlight was seeing a presentation by a small agency called Vitamins at the kick off event at Google Campus. They talked about their work designing mobile phones for the elderly. It was really delightful because they realised that older people don’t need big buttons or an SOS option, they just find it hard to work out how to use their phones. So they redesigned the packaging and made it simple for people to find out how to carry out typical tasks, like accessing their contacts.”

ADD and getting ahead in tech

MRY is long-established in the US, where it’s well known for its work for Coca Cola, Sony, Microsoft and the American Presidency. (It created americanselect.org – a site that encouraged Americans to vote for a President, not a party.)

The company has been in London for nine months, and has its headquarters in Brick Lane. As MD, Nadya takes care of a team of 25 people. “I’m the most senior person here,” she says, “and the buck stops with me. I’m responsible for products, clients and creative work.”

She Says: inspirational network for women in tech

She Says: inspirational network for women in tech

Nadya admits that she got into this career more by accident than design. “The only common theme throughout my career is I’ve always been really interested in technology and I love new things. I have ADD. When you go into the tech space, you find so many people just cannot stay engrossed in things if it’s not a bit shiny and new.  But what really got me interested was back in 2000 when I decided I wanted to move into the tech space. So I took myself off to college and taught myself to code. When I started to build little web sites – very badly – using Flash and Photoshop, I realised this was an industry I wanted to stay in forever.”

The importance of starting young

Like many women in tech, Nadya was lucky to be encouraged in her interest from a young age. She explains: “I was one of a group of children who were asked to trial educational computer games developed by the BBC. You had to follow the instructions using a mouse or a keyboard. I also had a computer from a young age, which was unusual, considering I’m quite old. I remember making my own drawings using Microsoft Paint software. So I definitely had more of a techy upbringing than many women of my age.”

300sec_large42Where have all the women gone?  

Although women make up almost equal numbers of the workforce (currently 46%), the number of senior women in the tech industry is vanishingly small. Nadya describes how she’s seen the male/female ratio change over time. “When I first started working in tech, the ratio was about 50:50 men to women. But when I came back after my first maternity leave at the age of 31, I thought, ‘Whoah! Where are all the women in their 30s?’ And as I start to get frighteningly close to 40, there are literally a handful of us in this space in a senior role.”

For Nadya, the main barriers that are stopping women from staying in the tech workforce are the long hours and demanding nature of the work, which make it difficult to integrate work with home and family. She admits to sometimes getting together with the handful of “six or seven” senior women she knows in similar jobs and saying, “Yes, juggling work, friends, families, husbands and interests is really hard.”

“It’s a real challenge to retain more women in the industry,” she says. “Because how can we build things for the entire population if we’re not involved with the 50% of the population that are women?”

Anjali Ramachandran founded the Ada's List network

Anjali Ramachandran founded the Ada’s List network

Three organisations helping women

“If you look at the top creative directors of tech companies and agencies, they’re all men,” says Nadya. Luckily for future female techies, Nadya and her peers are using their considerable energy and enthusiasm to support the next generation of women in tech. She recommends checking out these three networking / support organisations.

She Says – a networking, mentoring inspirational framework where women can meet each other. Founded by Laura Jordan Bambach, Creative Director at Dare marketing agency and President of D&AD.

300 Seconds – lightning fast talks by the digital community, encouraging women to have their say and improve their presentation skills.

Ada’s List – set up by Anjali Ramachandran at PHD, Ada’s List helps raise the profiles of women who work in and around the internet.

Misconceptions about gaming

Like it or not, if you play Candy Crush, you're a gamer

Like it or not, if you play Candy Crush, you’re a gamer

Talking to Nadya, it becomes clear that there are some huge misconceptions about the nature of gaming today. We may think that gaming is mostly the province of teenagers holed up in darkened rooms, but an increasing number of gamers are now women.

“Thanks to mobile devices and social gaming, gaming has really taken off,” says Nadya. “Now 81% of the population regularly game and the majority of social gamers are women. If you asked a woman who’d spent four hours that week playing Candy Crush if she’s a gamer, she’d say no. But she absolutely is!”

As women are now such an important part of the gaming marketplace, it makes it even more vital to involve more women in the industry.

The changing face of Old Street

MRY is based in Brick Lane, an area that’s become the nerve centre for the creative and tech industries in recent years. “There’s such a sense of vibrancy around the Tech City area,” says Nadya. “There are so many accelerators based here, looking after small start ups, that the whole atmosphere has changed hugely.”

“It’s also fantastic what Hackney Council have been doing to foster this atmosphere. Like the space we’re in now, BL-NK. This is a joint initiative between Hackney and various local businesses to create a space for start ups and creative people to just drop in. I’m not sure how many other councils would have such a forward-thinking way of looking at how you increase investment and business growth in an area.”

BL-NK, new social space for start ups in Hackney. Photo: Karen Day

BL-NK, new social space for start ups in Hackney. Photo: Karen Day

What’s wrong with ‘innovation’?

Despite being a fan of the new, Nadya has been outspoken about her dislike of the word ‘innovation’, which she calls a ‘horrible flabby word’. What’s she got against it?

“Innovation is just the latest buzz word and everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon, having Innovation Directors and Heads of Innovation and declaring that they’re an innovative company. It’s a shame because the word has been used in so many terrible ways that it’s lost any meaning. We had a session on this during the opening session at Google Campus. Mel Exon from BBH Labs said that innovation is about constantly adapting to change and every now and then saying, ‘OK, we’re going to go out on a limb and try this, and it’s going to be pretty terrifying, but we’re going to invest in it.’ And so words like ‘adapting’ and ‘disrupting’ start to feel a lot more meaningful than flabby old ‘innovation’.”

Future aspirations: winning Strictly

There’s still plenty left for Nadya to achieve. “One aspiration is to be on Strictly Come Dancing. I’ve got to be on it before I’m 50 because no one wins when they’re over 50. Apart from that, I would love to keep working in this space, to see more women in it, and to keep on supporting young women in tech. I’d also love to see social media adding to people’s lives rather than polluting it. The way brands use Facebook is so horribly embarrassing. I’d like to see brands and people talking together in more interesting ways.”

And with that, Nadja foxtrots off the yellow sofa at BL-NK, ready for the next challenge.

Designer soapbox: Tim Foster

Tim-Foster-graphic-designer

“Designers need to get out of the studio” – Tim Foster, graphic designer and art director

Born in Yorkshire and raised in Kent, Tim Foster trained at Ravensbourne and since then has worked for everyone from the Observer magazine to Dorling Kindersley and Mitchell Beazley (twice). Here he talks about combining his roles as an editorial designer and art director, why he loves working with text, and what inspires him.

What’s your favourite tip for getting inspiration?

Designers who work on their own need to get out of the studio. Stepping away from the computer is a good thing. You can search and find anything you like online, but I don’t think it’s inspiring to huddle over your computer wearing ear phones.

I live in East London, so if I need inspiration, I usually go to a gallery – Tate Modern, the Whitechapel or the National Gallery.

I keep my eyes open and normally get inspired by something I see on the journey. It could be a poster on the tube, the cover of a book someone’s reading or a shop window. It’s about picking up one thing that triggers off a thought so you have a new idea. The process – going out, putting myself in front of material and coming back – shifts my thinking.

I also love visiting the London Review Bookshop and Waterstones in Piccadilly, where I head for fiction to look at covers and also cookery books. The majority of best selling, illustrated non-fiction books are cookery and that means there is a decent budget for designers to be creative with layout, photography and print finishing. 

Tim finds cookery books inspiring

Tim finds cookery books inspiring

What first made you want to become a designer?

I liked drawing and art and at 16 decided to go to art school. I never really thought of any alternative. In the ‘60s and ‘70s art schools were places where musicians and designers could be creative and experimental and I was attracted to the idea of a non-conformist environment. I went to Ravensbourne, which was very typographically orientated, so the course pushed me towards a greater understanding of graphic design. 

Cover designs by Tim Foster

Cover designs by Tim Foster

How did your career start?

My first job was working for a direct mail advertising agency, where I learned about coping under serious pressure. Next I went to work for Frances Lincoln, a publisher of illustrated reference books. The market in the 70s had really opened up for lavish educational books with a high illustrative content. After that, I worked for National Magazines on the Observer colour magazine and subsequently as an art director for a variety of publishers.

Which do you prefer – designing or art directing?

I like doing both, and wouldn’t want to do either exclusively. Having spent many years as an art director  managing a large number of projects it’s great to get back to designing pages because I still enjoy the craft of it. I like working out the puzzle of how to get the different page elements to fall together naturally. But I also enjoy art directing, which is about guiding illustrators and photographers to produce work that is aesthetically right and fits the editorial content.

Tim-Foster-books

Tim has worked on books on everything from antiques to stone circles

What are the different challenges when you’re working on books compared to brochures or reports?

Well, a book can be 440 pages long and involve 1,000 images, so planning and control are vital. The decisions you make in the first few weeks are really important because a book that’s off schedule can’t be fixed by a couple of people working all night. It’s like turning a tanker around. 

Also, working with a publisher has more of an in-house quality. There’s usually an in-house team and you’re working closely with an author. Whereas with a company report, the external client might be less familiar with the design process.

What work do you most enjoy?

I’ve always naturally gravitated towards design that’s generated from text. When I was at Frances Lincoln I worked on a book called Rings of Stone about stone circles, and discovered that I really enjoyed getting the pictures to work with the text. I also enjoy designing covers and the challenge of reconciling the needs of marketing with an attractive visual solution. But I’ve never done decoration for its own sake. I start with the text and enjoy getting familiar with it and working with the author to define the best artwork or photography to define that content.

What do you enjoy about working with writers?

"If an author has command of their subject, it's a joy"

“If an author has command of their subject, it’s a joy”

 

If an author has command of their subject, it’s a joy to work with them. I did a big book on the guitar with Richard Chapman for Dorling Kindersley. It was great because we were able to work together incredibly closely for nearly two years to flesh out the subject in detail. He had a massive knowledge of the subject and I was able to channel that into a manageable form for a book. It helped that I play the guitar too. It was very exciting to be part of that kind of collaborative process – a virtuous circle of skills. It’s very different from just being given a Word document of text when you’ve never met the writer. 

What drives you mad about writers?

I was once in a meeting with a very senior publishing executive when he said that authors are the most unreliable suppliers on the planet. That seems a bit harsh but the late arrival of text ripples through the whole process and limits the time available for designing, so it’s a challenge to maintain quality. I’ve worked with authors who are years late. That’s the stuff that drives designers mad.

Leon Kossoff's 'View of Hackney'

Leon Kossoff’s ‘View of Hackney’

Three minute insight

  • Who’s your design hero/heroine? I don’t really have one. I’ve always seen design as commercial art. The creative people I admire are usually musicians and painters. Hockney for endeavour, Velasquez for skill, Keith Jarrett for exploration and Keith Richards for surviving…
  •  What’s the last exhibition you saw? Leon Kossoff at the Annely Juda gallery. He does these wonderful drawings of London: big, bold and scribbly. There are lots of the East End, Ridley Road market and Battersea Power Station. I just love them – they have a real energy.
  •  What’s your favourite gadget? It’s a little tuner that you clip onto the headstock of your guitar. When you hit the string, it senses whether the note is sharp or flat. 

    This guitar tuner is Tim's favourite gadget

    This guitar tuner is Tim’s favourite gadget

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’.