Tags: stories

5

sparkline

Storyforming

It was only last week that myself and Ellen were brainstorming ideas for a combined workshop. Our enthusiasm got the better of us, and we said “Let’s just do it!” Before we could think better of it, the room was booked, and the calendar invitations were sent.

Workshopping

The topic was “story.”

No wait, maybe it was …”narrative.”

That’s not quite right either.

“Content,” perhaps?

Basically, here’s the issue: at some point everyone at Clearleft needs to communicate something by telling a story. It might be a blog post. It might be a conference talk. It might be a proposal for a potential client. It might be a case study of our work. Whatever form it might take, it involves getting a message across …using words. Words are hard. We wanted to make them a little bit easier.

We did two workshops. Ellen’s was yesterday. Mine was today. They were both just about two hours in length.

Get out of my head!

Ellen’s workshop was all about getting thoughts out of your head and onto paper. But before we could even start to do that, we had to confront our first adversary: the inner critic.

You know the inner critic. It’s that voice inside you that says “You’ve got nothing new to say”, or “You’re rubbish at writing.” Ellen encouraged each of us to drag this inner critic out into the light—much like Paul Ford did with his AnxietyBox.

Each of us drew a cartoon of our inner critic, complete with speech bubbles of things our inner critic says to us.

Drawing our inner critic inner critics

In a bizarre coincidence, Chloe and I had exactly the same inner critic, complete with top hat and monocle.

With that foe vanquished, we proceeded with a mind map. The idea was to just dump everything out of our heads and onto paper, without worrying about what order to arrange things in.

I found it to be an immensely valuable exercise. Whenever I’ve tried to do this before, I’d open up a blank text file and start jotting stuff down. But because of the linear nature of a text file, there’s still going to be an order to what gets jotted down; without meaning to, I’ve imposed some kind of priority onto the still-unformed thoughts. Using a mind map allowed me get everything down first, and then form the connections later.

mind mapping

There were plenty of other exercises, but the other one that really struck me was a simple framework of five questions. Whatever it is that you’re trying to say, write down the answers to these questions about your audience:

  1. What are they sceptical about?
  2. What problems do they have?
  3. What’s different now that you’ve communicated your message?
  4. Paint a pretty picture of life for them now that you’ve done that.
  5. Finally, what do they need to do next?

They’re straightforward questions, but the answers can really help to make sure you’re covering everything you need to.

There were many more exercises, and by the end of the two hours, everyone had masses of raw material, albeit in an unstructured form. My workshop was supposed to help them take that content and give it some kind of shape.

The structure of stories

Ellen and I have been enjoying some great philosophical discussions about exactly what a story is, and how does it differ from a narrative structure, or a plot. I really love Ellen’s working definition: Narrative. In Space. Over Time.

This led me to think that there’s a lot that we can borrow from the world of storytelling—films, novels, fairy tales—not necessarily about the stories themselves, but the kind of narrative structures we could use to tell those stories. After all, the story itself is often the same one that’s been told time and time again—The Hero’s Journey, or some variation thereof.

So I was interested in separating the plot of a story from the narrative device used to tell the story.

To start with, I gave some examples of well-known stories with relatively straightforward plots:

  • Star Wars,
  • Little Red Riding Hood,
  • Your CV,
  • Jurassic Park, and
  • Ghostbusters.

I asked everyone to take a story (either from that list, or think of another one) and write the plot down on post-it notes, one plot point per post-it. Before long, the walls were covered with post-its detailing the plot lines of:

  • Robocop,
  • Toy Story,
  • Back To The Future,
  • Elf,
  • E.T.,
  • The Three Little Pigs, and
  • Pretty Woman.

Okay. That’s plot. Next we looked at narrative frameworks.

Narrative frameworks as Oblique Strategies.

Flashback

Begin at a crucial moment, then back up to explain how you ended up there.

e.g. Citizen Kane “Rosebud!”

Dialogue

Instead of describing the action directly, have characters tell it to one another.

e.g. The Dialogues of Plato …or The Breakfast Club (or one of my favourite sci-fi short stories).

In Media Res

Begin in the middle of the action. No exposition allowed, but you can drop hints.

e.g. Mad Max: Fury Road (or Star Wars, if it didn’t have the opening crawl).

Backstory

Begin with a looooong zooooom into the past before taking up the story today.

e.g. 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Distancing Effect

Just the facts with no embellishment.

e.g. A police report.

You get the idea.

In a random draw, everyone received a card with a narrative device on it. Now they had to retell the story they chose using that framing. That led to some great results:

  • Toy Story, retold as a conversation between Andy and his psychiatrist (dialogue),
  • E.T., retold as a missing person’s report on an alien planet (distancing effect),
  • Elf, retold with an introduction about the very first Christmas (backstory),
  • Robocop, retold with Murphy already a cyborg, remembering his past (flashback),
  • The Three Little Pigs, retold with the wolf already at the door and no explanation as to why there’s straw everywhere (in media res).

Once everyone had the hang of it, I asked them to revisit their mind maps and other materials from the previous day’s workshop. Next, they arranged the “chunks” of that story into a linear narrative …but without worrying about getting it right—it’s not going to stay linear for long. Then, everyone is once again given a narrative structure. Now try rearranging and restructuring your story to use that framework. If something valuable comes out of that, great! If not, well, it’s still a fun creative exercise.

And that was pretty much it. I had no idea what I was doing, but it didn’t matter. It wasn’t really about me. It was about helping others take their existing material and play with it.

That said, I’m glad I finally got this process out into the world in some kind of semi-formalised way. I’ve been preparing talks and articles using these narrative exercises for a while, but this workshop was just the motivation I needed to put some structure on the process.

I think I might try to create a proper deck of cards—along the lines of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies or Stephen Andersons’s Mental Notes—so that everyone has the option of injecting a random narrative structural idea into the mix whenever they’re stuck.

At the very least, it would be a distraction from listening to that pesky inner critic.

One week of Map Tales

It’s been just a week since Clearleft unveiled the Map Tales project that we built at Hackfarm and there have already been some great stories told with the site.

Paul documented his 2009 road trip to South by Southwest.

Alessio put together a photographic guide to his adopted home, showing the secrets of Barcelona.

Andy told two tales of two different trips: wine-tasting in California’s Dry Creek Valley and hanging with the hipsters in East London.

Fellow Brightonian Tom Prior has recreated the story of the famous Stirling Moss victory at the 1955 Mille Miglia, the legendary open-road endurance race in Northern Italy.

I love the simplicity of Oliver and Peter Walk to School that Peter Ruk has embedded on his site—beautifully simple .

I’ve made a map tale of the voyage of The Beagle with material fromAboutDarwin.com.

Meanwhile Anna is putting together the tale of the Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole because—get this—a relative of hers was part of Scott’s team!

There’s plenty of room for improvement with Map Tales. It would be nice to have customisation options at some point—colours, fonts, maybe even map tiles. Some narratives would probably work better with aerial imagery, for example. In fact, that’s something that Andy has been tirelessly tinkering with. To get a taste of how that looks, check out Britain From Above, the epic map tale of the 2008 BBC documentary series.

Skillful stories

After spending almost a month on the other side of the Atlantic, it was nice to return to Brighton to find it in the first bloom of Spring. Just a day or two after I returned, I was able to enjoy a nice wander around the Spring Harvest food festival sampling the culinary delights and randomly bumping into fellow geeks like Aral, Steve and Mark.

Such is the scenius of Brighton. There’s always plenty of smart folk around to gather together with, as evidenced by the multitude of geek gatherings like Build Brighton, dotBrighton and UX Brighton. Last night it was the turn of Skillswap, expertly organised by James.

Skillswap hasn’t been about swapping skills for quite a while. Instead it has morphed into a curated evening of related short snappy presentations sometimes followed by an ensemble Q and A. Last night’s theme was Skillswap Seeking Stories and it was a humdinger.

Phil Gyford expounded on his wonderful Pepys’ Diary project and how it has been nurtured over time. Gavin O’Carroll spoke about Spacelogone of my favourite sites—and the structure of narratives, games and websites. The marvellous Matthew Sheret, who really impressed me at History Hackday, wrapped it up with a demonstration of the power that each of us has to use the internet to tell stories with our data. “You are Time Lords!” he exclaimed, and illustrated his points with some lovely artwork he commissioned from Tom Humberstone.

It was very generous of Phil, Gavin and Matt to give up their time and travel down from London to deliver such a fantastic evening of thought-provoking entertainment. Seriously, it was better than some paid conferences I’ve been to. And—thanks to the sponsorship from Madgex—there was free beer (“free” as in “free beer” …as in “beer!” …as in “free beer!!”).

Anna was working her podcasting magic, recording the talks. You can subscribe to the Skillswap Huffduffer account if you want to hear them once they’re ready.

Hacking History

I spent the weekend at The Guardian offices in London at History Hack Day. It was rather excellent. You’d think I’d get used to the wonderful nature of these kinds of events, but I once again I experienced the same level of amazement that I experienced the first time I went to hack day.

The weekend kicked off in the traditional way with some quickfire talks. Some lovely people from The British Museum, The British Library and The National Archives talked about their datasets, evangelists from Yahoo and Google talked about YQL and Fusion Tables, and Max Gadney and Matthew Sheret got us thinking in the right directions.

Matthew Sheret was particularly inspiring, equating hackers with time travellers, and encouraging us to find and explore the stories within the data of history. The assembled geeks certainly took that message to heart.

Ben Griffiths told the story of his great-uncle, who died returning from a bomber raid on Bremen in 1941. Using data to put the death in context, Ben approached the story of the lost bomber with sensitivity.

Simon created geStation, a timeline of when railway stations opened in the UK. On the face of it, it sounds like just another mashup of datetimes and lat-long coordinates. But when you run it, you can see the story of the industrial revolution emerge on the map.

Similarly, Gareth Lloyd and Tom Martin used Wikipedia data to show the emerging shape of the world over time in their video A History of the World in 100 Seconds, a reference to the BBC’s History of the World in 100 Objects for which Cristiano built a thoroughly excellent mobile app to help you explore the collection at British Museum.

Brian used the Tropo API to make a telephone service that will find a passenger on the Titanic who was the same age and sex as you, and then tell you if they made it onto a lifeboat or not. Hearing this over the phone makes the story more personal somehow. Call +1 (804) 316-9215 in the US, +44 2035 142721 in the UK, or +990009369991481398 on Skype to try it for yourself.

Audioboo / did you die on the Titanic? on Huffduffer

I was so impressed with the Tropo API that I spent most of History Hack Day working on a little something for Huffduffer …more on that later.

My contribution to the hack day was very modest, but it was one of the few to involve something non-digital. It’s called London On A Stick.

A pile of USB sticks had been donated to History Hack Day, but nobody was making much use of them so I thought they could be used as fodder for Dead Drops. I took five USB sticks and placed a picture from The National Archives on Flickr Commons on each one. Each picture was taken somewhere in London and has been geotagged.

Zeppelin over St. Paul's

I slapped sticky notes on the USB sticks with the location of the picture. Then I asked for volunteers to go out and place the sticks at the locations of the pictures: Paddington, Trafalgar Square, Upper Lambeth, St. Paul’s and Tower Bridge. Not being a Londoner myself, I’m relying on the natives to take up the challenge. You can find the locations at icanhaz.com/londononastick. I ducked out of History Hack Day a bit early to get back to Brighton so I have no idea if the five sticks were claimed.

Although my contribution to History Hack Day was very modest, I had a really good time. Matt did a great job putting on an excellent event.

It was an eye-opening weekend. This hack day put the “story” back into history.

Storytelling at South by Southwest

South by Southwest Interactive 2007 was predictably wonderful; simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating. On the one hand, it seems like I spent the entire time goofing off and having fun but at the same time, it’s been the most productive conference I’ve attended in quite a while.

SXSW is a great barometer for testing the current zeitgeist in the kingdom of the geek. Personally, the Southby canary in the Web coalmine was telling me one thing: it’s all about telling stories, baby.

Finally, technology is being relegated to its correct role: a tool for allowing people to connect and share their stories. Whether it’s Ruby on Rails, Ajax, tagging or the World Wide Web itself, I got the feeling that what really matters now is personal communication—storytelling by any other name.

Zeldman nails it when he says that independent content is the new web app. I for one welcome our new storytelling overlords.

The obvious poster child of this new revival is the superb Ficlets, brainchild of Kevin Lawver and executed—with AOL’s approval—by a kick-ass team including Jason Garber and the amazing Cindy Li. But even if you look at any of the other hip web apps like Twitter and Flickr, you’ll find that the reason why they’re so engaging is that they’re allowing people to tell their stories.

Even at South by Southwest, people were using the Web to tell stories. There’s the comedic tale of of course but there was also tragedy and even some romance. Listen to Bruce Sterling’s closing rant which rambles around the subjects of blogs, wikis, video and fan fiction (even when I disagree almost entirely with what he says, I still enjoy listening to him speak).

Mind you, this is all my own personal subjective impression of SXSW. It may well be that other people thought that advertising, revenue and business models were the hot topics but that’s certainly not what I experienced. I found a real spirit of excitement swirling around the question, “how can we make it easier for people to communicate?” Answering that question means tackling a range of subjects from visual design, typography through to the mobile web, accessibility, interaction design and the user experience. The question was confronted head-on in Kathy Sierra’s keynote but its presence could be felt hanging over all the presentations and panels I attended.

What I love most about this feeling I got from South by Southwest is its familiarity. It reminds me of why I got into web design in the first place.

Let me tell you a story…

I was at one of the innumerable late-night SXSW parties. In this case the free booze and music was provided by the good folks at Purevolume and Virb. I just had my Wii cherry popped and I was describing the experience to Andy who was my co-coinspirator for the How to Bluff Your Way in Web 2.0 presentation. John Halcyon Styn came over and told us effusively how much he enjoyed said presentation.

Now, plenty of other people had come up to me to give positive feedback about our jolly jape but this compliment from Halcyon really meant a lot to me. You see, he was one of the people who inspired me to make stuff for the web. I distinctly remember sites like prehensile tales, 0sil8 and the inimitable Fray triggering something in my brain that made me realise what it was I wanted to do with my life.

Here we are, ten years later, and South by Southwest has confirmed the choice I made back then. There’s a familiar feeling in the air and it’s nothing to do with corporate buy-out or business models. It’s the feeling of exhilaration and excitement that comes from connecting with people through a shared experience. It’s probably the same feeling that our ancestors had when they gathered around the campfire at night to swap stories. They had fire, we have the hyperlink. Our campfire is the whole world. Our stories are individual and multitudinous. Our time is now.