A bank geek goes to The Story

A telephone bell rang in darkness. When it had rung three times bedsprings creaked, fingers fumbled on wood, something small and hard thudded on a carpeted floor, the springs creaked again, and a man’s voice said: “Awreight pal, Taxi’s ‘ere.” (Apologies to Dashiell Hammett for the blatant plagiarism/vandalism)

Friday the 18th of February meant I was awake early for the journey from Sheffield to London to attend The Story. For those unaware The Story is a one day conference about stories and story telling.  I think you will all agree this is something that a banking innovation geek should be attending. If not, let me tell you the tale of the day and try and convince you otherwise.

First up were Ben & Lucy from the Ministry of Stories. They told the tale of the Monster supply shop in Hoxton. Selling fantastic goods for all your monster needs.  The shop is a front though. For something great. The back of the store hides a room used to help kids write creatively. They run free work shops to encourage them to tell marvelous tales and ensure their fertile imaginations are not destroyed by dull things like school.  They are run by local volunteering writers, artists and teachers.  Inspired by the work of Dave Eggers in the US, I found what they were doing to be truly fantastic.  At the end of the talk a little creative exercise was tried. The crowd had to design a monster. Lucy would ask what a part of the monster would look like and how it would feel. People shouted out. The monsters description was written on screen. This was then going to be drawn during the day and auctioned off to the highest bidder. The results are at the bottom of this post. The process made me think of design by committee and how people just shouting things out lead to monsters being designed. The problem being that they did not set out to design a monster…

Adam Curtis of the BBC and the man responsible for the excellent Power of Nightmares documentary, told how the BBC were losing faith in the web as a means of telling stories. He went on to show a clip of an Afghani reporter interviewing a member of the Taliban. The clip showed the Taliban fighter admitting they had burnt down schools but only to stop the infidels doing so first. The short/soundbite clip formed part of a news package. The thing is the story behind the clip was far more interesting. It turned out the reporter had almost been killed by allied forces as they thought him to be a terrorist. he was actually a poet and had fled the Taliban. He became a reporter and was sent into the lions den with men he feared who also threatened to kill him. Adam played the full version of the clip. It showed the reporter asking more questions but you could now see he was visibly terrified. One of the reasons for his terror was that the other, very heavily armed, Taliban fighters were circling the camera (walking in front of shot) in a show of constant intimidation. Very powerful and far more engaging than the soundbite. I don’t have the ability to do justice to Adam’s talk. Check out Antony Mayfield’s much more detailed piece to get a better sense of what he said. The thing I took away though was that giving context to the story is very very important. Sound bites and copy written pieces offer no engagement no sense of awe. That is something that needs to be addressed. How do we add context to our stories? How do we let people delve deeper?

For me the the most effecting talk of the day was by Karl James. He confessed upfront that he was not a story teller just a listener, a facilitator of stories. He explained, with the help of some very powerful audio clips, how people that can truly listen allow people to become more articulate about the story than they ever would for a poor listener. Listening helps them to open up and expand. There was the story of Jane a 38 year old woman who had been raped at the age of 14. She had not let herself become her story but had grown because of it. She was strong, confident but through listening Karl had got to previously unheard elements of the story. As the clip played and Karl quizzed Mary on how it had affected her and then how it affected her family it became clear that the thing she had really lost was her brother who had ceased to be part of the family.

Original Photo by Toby Barnes

Next up was Chris a friend of Karl’s and the father of a young daughter who had become very ill. Karl asked the question ‘What do you wish you had known on day one of finding out your daughter was ill?’ following the question a long pause followed, all that were heard were the noises of thought as Chris tried to pull together an answer. The pause between the question and answer lasted 19 seconds, Karl told us after. That 19 seconds was a long time. A few hundred people in Conway Hall awaited the answer in rapt silence. As a recent father that 19 seconds allowed my thoughts to wander to places I did not want them to go. How would I answer such a question? Would I ever want to be in the position to be asked that question? When Chris finally answered he said that he would tell himself that you can not deal with this alone. You could hear and feel the huge burden he had been subjected to. I was very thankful that it had not been me.

I was not sure how much more I could take of this. Karl began to talk about children at a central London school. I thought if these next clips were about child abuse I would have to make my excuses and leave (‘Something in my eye, *cough cough* must get a drink etc.). Thankfully they were not but were interviews with so called problem kids and how they were totally disengaged from school life. How they had no respect for people who had no respect for them. In the end it was about child abuse just not the kind I worriedly expected but none the less it still had an effect on me. I would highly recommend you take a look at Karl’s slides and listen to the audio of his talk to hear for yourself and see if you agree with me or think I am just a soppy new dad! It certainly made me think about my own listening skills and how they could be so much better. What would the impact be if everyone was such a good listener?

The headline act of the day was creator of Father Ted and the IT Crowd, Graham Linehan. He was interviewed by geek author and copyfighter Cory Doctorow. Graham is a heavy user of Twitter and he has recently started writing with 7 or 8 people he found funny on there. Graham had used to Twitter to facilitate rewrites during filming he gave the example of calling out to his Twitter followers to come up with a term for ‘backside’ that they could use on the show. Bike rack was the one he chose. He was trialling new tools to see if web 2.0 could facilitate collaborative writing. He was using Basecamp to allow the 7 or 8 people from Twitter who were based around the globe to work together on writing a sitcom (global collaboration in action). Some things had worked well others not so much so it was still a work in progress.

Original Photo by Matt Ward

Graham talked of how he was trying ‘systematise goofing off’. Spending hours on social networks can justifiably be called research when you write a sitcom about I.T. Geeks. Graham did have systems in place though. He spoke of his old system of lots of coloured cards filled with stories ideas or situations.  They were colour coded based on character the situation related to. He would set them out on the floor and try to pull together and link the story elements. The internet had unsurprisingly proved a rich vein of situations that could befall Moss, Roy and Jenny. He did a quick bit of Googling and found his favourite photo of all time from the classic, Awkward Pet Photos. He posted the photo to Basecamp and said too his writing colleagues how can we get Roy into the situation? Know where you want to get to. Then find the way there. If only more creative projects stared this way. Especially with guidance from Awkward Family Pet Photos.

The Story was not like the normal conferences I go to. It was all the better for it. I like to attend conferences that stretch my mind and change my thinking. I like conferences that have side stories.  That inspire new forms of story telling. All the while thinking how can I relate this back to the work I do. The story succeeded massively on that front for me.  If you work on Innovation, irrespective of the industry, then getting out of your comfort zone and going to something a bit left field can help expand your thinking greatly. A big thanks to Matt Locke and all the organisers of a fantastic day. Looking forward to the Story 2012…it sounds like a futuristic one. Finally here is the monster that was created on the day and the description (specification?) that defined how it might look.

The photo and description was taken from from JulieBee’s excellent post

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