So, what seems like a lifetime ago, I was lucky enough to go to The Story conference at Conway Hall, London. For the uninitiated, it’s a one-day conference about stories and storytelling. And unbelievably, it packs in 18 speakers across 13 slots. Each speaker is given 20 minutes and their brief is to tell a story. And that’s it.
I’d never been the The Story before, but last year I followed the conference vicariously through Twitter. I had some expectations – more about whether they were met, later – and broadly they were:
- How do you get 18 speakers done in one day without it getting boring, samey, or controlling it to an extent that it won’t overrun by hours, yet allow all speakers to get their points across in their allotted 20 minutes?
- Is it relevant to advertising? (I do that as a job, and so there is always a pressure to find relevance and report it back to the business.)
- How broad is the term, story?
- Will it be more about strategy than about creativity – or vice versa?
I arrived early, as I had a spare ticket to pass on. I was able to register first and find my favoured spot in Conway Hall (upstairs, on the left). The first thing I did was buy some Monster Supplies from the stand in the foyer and check out the chocolate bar that had the running order printed on it. I didn’t eat it on the day, in case you wondered.
The speakers were varied, which helped to keep people glued to the stage. I don’t think there was one single person booked who wasn’t interesting. That’s my first point. I don’t think that’s because the organisers struck lucky but because it was designed to bring interesting people together to tell a story or two.
There have been some great write-ups so far (here, here and here), so I won’t be repeating those. Instead I want to give a quick overview of each speaker and then add more detail to my favourites and let you know what I got out of them on the day.
First up was the Ministry of Stories, who were outside in the foyer selling the aforementioned Monster Supplies. They talked about how they set up in Hoxton to help children and young people in East London develop their writing skills. Inspiring stuff.
Following them were Matt Sheret and Simon Thornton who talked about how the art of telling stories through album track listings was being lost in the 21st Century way of consuming music.
Next up was Jeremy Deller. He probably needs little introduction, but in case you’ve no idea who he is and what he does, he’s an artist who talked about his reconstruction of the famous 1984 battle between police and miners in Orgreave, Yorkshire. I learned that context can really bring a story to life – and if people can experience the story (as if it were a firsthand experience) in the area it takes place, they will become more involved in it.
Then we all piled out for coffee and I was lucky enough to spend a few minutes chatting to friends and acquaintances before we all shuffled back in for the late morning session. This session was formed of my favorite speakers of the day.
Liz Henry spoke about unmasking lesbian bloggers and discovering they are mostly middle-aged men in America. The big part of her story was actually about how the fake story that shouts loudest is often what’s reported, but the real story is ignored because it doesn’t ignite our outrage or indignation.
She was followed by Anthony Owen, who talked about how magic tricks and stories share a lot of common ground. More than I thought. I loved this talk, which included a rather nifty magic trick that I doubt anyone knows how to do, expect Anthony. I learned that the mechanics of storytelling should be hidden and the plot should be as simple as possible. This totally resonated with the ad man in me. I also considered the point he made that the best tricks (or stories) tap into something that people expect to happen. But it’s always nice to have a twist that surprises them.
Matthew Herbert was on before the lunch break. He talked about his music and his latest album which was made from the sounds a pig makes from birth to death. I like the analogy I drew on the day that these seemingly different strands of sound could be considered as plot lines or threads within a multi-channel story, and that once they’ve converged they help make sense of the story.
Lunch. I spent lunch with people I’d never met before. We talked about interesting things to do with tech and philosophy. It made my brain hurt in a good way. I then met with another friend and returned to the hall for the afternoon’s sessions.
To kick things off were Tom Watson of hackgate fame and Emily Bell, former director of Media at the Guardian. During the whole interview, you could have heard a pin drop. However, while it was interesting to hear, I didn’t learn anything new. I felt like I’d heard it all before and was hoping for a new insight. That’s not to say it wasn’t worth listening to, just that it was a 20-minute overview of the hacking scandal that brought down the News of the World. And no more.
To say I was looking forward to Scott Burnham’s talk is an understatement. He was the big pull for me and he didn’t disappoint. I could wax lyrical all day about his talk, but I won’t because I will bore you. Scott was incredibly articulate and made some great points. There are two that I took away: include the public whenever you make something for them. Not only will they engage with it more, they will help spread the word and feel as if they have a part-ownership in the project. An example from London would be the fourth plinth project in Trafalgar Square. The final quote I’d like to mention from Scott’s talk is probably the most quoted of the day (according to my brief scroll through the Twitter hashtag): The things we create will always disappear but the story about what we do will always stay. As someone who works mostly in the interactive realm, this really rang true. There are a number of projects I’ve worked on that people recall and can talk about, which makes me happy and proud.
Fiona Raby had a hard time following Scott, but while she had a difficult concept to get across it was a really interesting talk about how learning to adapt and being flexible will be the one thing that enables humans to survive in the future. It wasn’t hard to draw conclusions with agile agencies versus old school traditional agencies – for those, like me, looking for that advertising angle.
Another break for coffee. Another round of hellos to old friends.
The final afternoon session started with Ellie Harrison. An artist, activist and administrator (of her own life), she was funny, relevant and clever. She has been creating data and infographics for the best part of the last decade. And so data, for me, was the key part of her talk. Ellie made it clear that the collection of data, per se, was not a good reason to do it. The ‘What’ and the ‘Why’ of data collection were more important than the ‘How’. Something to share with clients.
Having had a good laugh, the next speakers were Tom Chatfield and Phil Stuart, who told the audience about a game they’d created to help kids learn about death. Morbid, you might think. Actually, there was an incredible amount of inspiration to take from the talk – especially how children reacted to the subject matter and related to it. It was also a great insight into how games (or play) can really bridge the chasm when talking about difficult subjects with young people.
The penultimate talk of the day was an interview of Karen Lubbock by Jeremy Leslie. She talked about her magazine, Karen, which celebrates the everyday and seemingly mundane. I loved it instantly. I kept thinking of the phrase: truth is stranger than fiction. And I felt an instant affinity in using everyday experiences as a starting point in telling stories, mainly due to my own My Earliest Memory project, which you can read more about here.
Finally, as the room was getting almost too hot to bear, the final speaker took the stage. Perhaps the hardest slot to take, it is to Danny O’Brien’s credit that he kept everyone rapt as he spoke about hackers and billionaires and how the two have come together to build islands in international waters so they can do what they like. Proof that a shared goal can bring seemingly disparate parties together.
After the talks, we all headed to the pub. That’s where the real fun began, as I was able to chat to friends, meet new people and catch up with individual speakers to talk more about their chosen subjects. I learned a lot in those few hours, until I met up with an old art director friend and got a bit trashed. The journey home was a blur.
And as I was almost lulled to sleep by the train, I read a good Storify round up from a new acquaintance, which you can enjoy here.
And my conclusions on the day? Involve people. Engage, always. Connect where relevant. The best stories are not short-term.
And with that, They Story was done. But as Scott Burnham (sort of) said, the stories about it will continue long after it’s gone.