Five Things I Learnt At The Story Conference

I was lucky enough to spend Friday thinking and listening to thoughts on The Story. Not, as I’d expected, listening to stories but hearing thirteen 20-minute presentations on how other people have used, see, tell their stories. There was almost nothing about writing or reading or even traditional ways to tell stories, and I didn’t meet many other writers there. Well, I think they probably all would have identified writing as the heart of their work, but other layers had been piled on top. Not simple ‘word after word’ types of writer anyway.

By the end of the day, I’d felt a little like I’d been twisting a story kaleidoscope myself…

And now, a day later, I’m processing my thoughts, helped by a cup of Witches’ Brew..

And these are five of the storythings I came away with:

1. Keep the integrity of the story. “The press go for the jugular, my stories are the material around the outside.” I loved this quote from Alecky Blyth, writer of the play recently put on at the National Theatre, London Road, about how she brings real life situations to the stage. She demonstrated for us live the technique ‘Verbatim drama’ – actors speaking real words recorded from interviews with real people. It added another level to hear the story coming from her as the recording played through her headphones. I’d seen and enjoyed London Road, an account of what it as like to live in the street in Ipswich during the time a serial killer was on the loose, but hadn’t realized how carefully both the playwright and the composer had kept to the interview material, even to the extent of maintaining the breathing patterns of the interviewees. Fascinating.

2. Listen to the spirit of the story. Rebecca O’Brien producer of the Ken Loach directed documentary, The Spirit of 45, talked about how they had used digital media – including longer interviews and clips – to extend the film, and to give the story ‘mileage and strength’. The film aims to show what amazing advances were made to our society in that particular year, many of which we are now in danger of losing. ‘Kids learn about war, but not about peace,’ she said. And she spoke about how she hopes that the film will encourage us all to listen to our elders.

3. Keep Moving With The Story. Even one as controlled and centralized as the Olympics. Alex Balfour showed us the digital strategy originally written for London 2012. By the time the Games happened six years later, technology had moved so fast that many of the digital ideas were outdated, and other opportunities had opened up. He also – and I hope I’ve got this statistic right – said that only 5% of the gold medal winning athletes taking part would be able to make their living from their sport, and so the marketing campaign was designed to bring out these stories of individual inspiration over material gain. A video by the Paralympic athlete, Evan O’Hanlon, was one of my highlights of the conference. Here it is:

4. Find A Personal Engagement with the Story You’re Telling. Perhaps it’s because I don’t have children the right age but I’d not come across Gumball before. What a joy. Love it! Its creator, Ben Boucquelet, talked about one of my personal rules – the need to find some way to engage personally with the story you are writing or creating, however distant it may seem from your life. You have to love your story, especially if you’re going to dedicate the next few years of your life to it.

5. ‘Plus’ the Story. I’m not too sure using that as a verb, but Fiona Romeo of the National Maritime Museum gave a stunning presentation about how her experience at Disney Studios has taught her to ‘plus’ each element of the story, ie to make it better. Her particular example was how benches at an exhibition for children on surveillance was ‘plussed’ into first the shape of a keyboard button, and then music and light were added as you sat down, and lastly Morse code added – secret messages to fit in with the exhibition theme.

And those Witches’ Brews above… well, the conference programme was on the back. A definite ‘plus’!

ps I suppose it’s a HUGE result of the conference that today I’ve been filled with the urge to write stories. Forgetting about sharing them, or even ‘plussing’ them, but just me and the page, putting one word next to another… well, it was either the conference or the ingredients in the tea which includes Roasted Toenails and Plucked Fairy Wings …

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