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?

Auxiliary verbs perish in boating accident

Duck Boat catches fire on the Thames

It’s yellow, it’s on fire, it’s a Duck boat. Photo: Tony Margiocchi/Barcroft Media

Do you know those Duck Boats that roam up and down the Thames? Bright yellow amphibious boats. Great fun for kids and tourists. Well, one caught fire the other day. Luckily no people were injured. But a load of innocent auxiliary verbs perished in this ITN report shortly afterwards. Have a listen to the story.

Keep these small verbs alive

Auxiliary verbs – typically be, do and have – are only small, but they perform an important function. They give meaning to a sentence. Without them, phrases seem breathless, truncated. Here are extracts from the report, with the missing verbs in brackets.

“The emergency services (were) called after a Duck suddenly caught fire.”

“Passengers (were) being forced to jump into the water to escape the fire.”

“The World War II vehicle (was) eventually towed away by the fire brigade.”

“Luckily this woman (was) not involved in the emergency.”

Are we really so short of time that small verbs have to die to satisfy our tiny attention span? I hope not. Sink or swim, this is a plea to keep those little verbs alive.

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

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.

Designer Soapbox: Gill Thomas

Gill Thomas has played many roles since she left Liverpool Poly with a fresh BA Hons in Graphic Design. She’s been a designer, team leader, creative partner and board director. She’s worked for some of the most influential design agencies around, including Pentagram, Newell & Sorrell and The Partners, and her clients have ranged from the BBC and Virgin Atlantic to the Design Council. She’s also witnessed huge changes in the design industry.

Here she talks about her work in the new Throwaway Lines exhibition, her latest role as an independent creative consultant, and her thoughts on writers and the design business today.

Gill Thomas at a D&AD event

You’re currently taking part in the Throwaway Lines exhibition at the Free Word centre. What was it like creating a frame for the short story?

Andy Hayes gave me the scrap of paper that inspired the short story ‘Ella does some remembering’ by Nick Parker. The writing said ‘TWIST STEPPER WITH BUNGEE-CORDS’, and the story was about a woman who tries to recreate happy childhood memories. At the beginning she’s on an exercise machine, imitating the feeling of running on the top of Box Hill with a kite; at another point, she’s microwaving geraniums to remember the smell of summer at her grandparents’ house.

I liked the fact that the story was about a woman going back to her childhood, so I created a childlike Teletubby-esque frame that was covered with very green fake grass and daisies, with a kite that flew away from the frame. I researched sticking Astroturf onto wood and ordered lots of artificial daisies. I had to order the daisies twice. A hundred daisies are still on their way to me from China! Then I took all the elements into the kitchen and stuck them together with a glue gun. I felt it looked quite naive, which was the point.

What is wonderful in the exhibition is the contrast of so many different ideas. People put a lot of thought and effort into them. A lot of the stories were quite dark and challenging. I was pleased I got such an optimistic, fun, energetic story.

One hundred artificial daisies:
in transit from China

Going back to the start of your career, what first inspired you to become a designer?

I was always good at art at school and thought it would be a good thing to do as a job. But it turned out that there’s a bit more to it than that!

How did you find your first job?

I found my first proper job by chance. I was helping out a friend in a small design studio in Notting Hill. While I was there someone mentioned that there was a company around the corner who were looking for junior designers and maybe I should go and see them in my lunch hour. I’d not actually heard of them but thought it would be worth a look. That company turned out to be Pentagram – and after three interviews I was in.

“There’s this place around the corner…”

What work do you do?

I do three types of work.

  1. I work with boards and brands on positioning. Because of my experience in both the visual and strategic sides, I’m a good bridge between an organisation that’s commissioning the positioning work and the agency that’s going to bring it to life visually and develop the final communications.
  2. I also help smaller agencies decide where they’re going or help them refocus how they work. I started as a junior designer, then moved up to being on the board of a reasonable sized business, so I more than likely have the breadth of experience to relate to the issues that a small business is likely to be facing. I can work with them to review where they are, where they want to go, and give them pointers on how to get there.
  3. My other area of work is naming. I really enjoy the challenges of naming projects, because they combine logical and creative thinking. A name has to be spell-able, say-able, url-able, culturally accept-able, own-able and it needs to be the start of a story. The legal aspects can be a real challenge but sometimes if you come at it from left field, you’ve got a chance of finding a name that will really make a difference to an organisation and please the lawyers.

How have your thoughts about writing changed over the years?

As a junior designer, I was always more interested in pictures. I thought the copy was just grey stuff to drop into the visuals and probably didn’t even read it. But after a few years, when I started working at The Partners and gained more experience, I realised that the copy had a job to do. The words had to communicate something and make a difference. They are, of course, very important in creating a brand and positioning a business.

What qualities do you look for in a writer?

Apart from having a talent for writing, it’s also important that writers listen, and understand that they’re part of a team.

If I put a writer in front of a client, I want to be confident that they’re informed, that they understand the client’s business, their peers, their competitors and their offer. They have to be keen to find out about the client’s culture, how they like to work and what kind of people they are. A writer will be brought in at a certain stage of the project’s journey, so they need to understand:

  • What stage the client has reached
  • How they have got there
  • What has worked well so far
  • What hasn’t
  • What’s appropriate to say at that point.

If a team has just spent months defining a brand and its positioning, we’re not necessarily looking for new ideas. We’re probably looking for a clear and concise articulation of the information we’ve gathered so far.

Particularly in this climate, it’s vital to make sure the client is comfortable with what the project team is doing. So that means building on the trust that the agency has already created, and not throwing in a curve ball or lots of options when that’s not part of the brief.

What kind of writing do you prefer?

The Partners was a highly creative world, and we often used to work with writers who’d been in advertising, ideas-based writers who wanted to play. They wrote witty, clever headlines, and I enjoyed that playful, creative approach.

A playful, creative approach

But sometimes a more straightforward approach is needed. It’s important that writers enjoy what they’re writing and are passionate about their work, but sometimes overly complex language can get in the way of the message.

Occasionally writers seem to think they need to do more, add more, when in fact an extra metaphor can confuse a positioning statement. More often than not, I need writers to be clear and precise.

How’s business at the moment?

I’m as busy as ever, but no one’s taking any risks at the moment, so there are more smaller projects and tactical work. But because clients are nervous of making big decisions, they are looking for a more focused approach. As an independent, I can offer the perspective and experience of years spent working for large agencies, and I can also be flexible, offering a few days here and there which can really make a difference to a project.

It will be interesting to see what happens when we finally come out of this recession. Clients have got used to being pragmatic, pared down and engaged at a real level, working with agencies and consultants who understand and focus on where they can add real value to a client’s business. I think they’ll still want that approach, but will also appreciate fresh thinking, confidence, directness and the energy of good ideas.

French grapefruit and stripy deckchairs

Thanks to 26, the writers’ collective, for putting the spotlight on me in their latest newsletter.

Read the article to:

  • Find out about the latest 26 Treasures exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green.
  • Read my advice on tweeting.
  • See why you should read ‘Bird by Bird’ by Anne Lamott.

It will also explain why the title of this post refers to French grapefruit and stripy deckchairs.