How simple should you make your story?

Tyler Cowen TED

I saw an interesting TED talk yesterday, Tyler Cowen of the blog Marginal Revolution among many other perhaps more important things. Cautioning against trusting simple stories, that complexity is our nature especially in this world. This made me think about some of the stories the non profits I’ve worked for have to tell. They are complex stories, and in making them simple you definitely have to leave things out, important things. But when it comes down to the problems we as a sector have they are nearly always problems with human faces and solutions of all kinds. Problems and solutions.

If you focus on the human face of the problem that whatever complex set of social, natural political has created you focus on the effect, neatly sidestepping the need for the complex circumstances that created that human problem.

The solution on the other hand can be complex, and will probably be hard. But the outcome, the change you want to see in the world, again will probably be simple. More of this, better that, less occurrence of something. If you can establish legitimacy and expertise in the solution, you can leave that ‘black box’ or point to a theme, or a risk area, or a pilot that worked well, and shortcut to the human face of the problem and the human face of the solution. Our stories need to be simple to be memorable, but stick to the problem and outcomes and we can avoid the need to confuse our audience with the complexities that take us most of our work.

Simple is always best

Light from a video projector being cast on a field of randomly arranged prisms.

Prism, projector repeat.

I saw some new art this week, always has a restorative effect on me. Ironic that in this city of culture I went an hours train ride away to Ballarat. Simple, powerful and endlessly engaging. I would like to think that the input feed was a camera of the guests at the museum, but I fear it is a loop.

I was there to see Melissa Peacock at the neighbour exhibition, great art all round.

Telling YOUR story better.

So you do something you are passionate about. Congrats. Getting there probably taught you that very little gets done on your own. So how do you get others onto your train? Telling your own story so others see your passion is a vital skill for every artist, maker and person who needs to work with others. Dictators, Cult leaders, Non profit CEO’s etc.

This was the draw for the artists, makers and creative professionals who work in the Edinburgh Palette building to come to a workshop I organised in December last year (2014). I work charities, one at a time, in jobs. I get in depth with all the aspects of an organisation; projects, services, people and above all the changes that group of people want to see in the world. But that’s one story per job, so helping more people with their story was my motivation.

In the end three professionals, David, Vittoria and Jan spent a day with me pinning down the specifics of their stories that they could use in their work. In the morning we went through the basics of story, why it’s so powerful, why, when told right, it sticks with people through their whole lives and some of the secrets to powerful stories.

Then all three workshop participants talked about themselves at length, what torture. Together we came up with the short version of what they do and an arresting reason why. Three images stick with me:

  1. David playing in his fathers glass shop, hiding in the inverted V between the stacks of blue green glass, looking into the infinite reflections.
  2. Vittoria and her collections of objects, 3 dozen brass candlesticks and hundreds of other multiples stacked in piles around her seaside home.
  3. Jan talking about felt, has to be seen to be remembered.

I made them practice telling their story to me, repeatedly. I asked them to tell it like they meant it, so it sounded natural. It wasn’t easy and it will take practice, but they will be better able to convincingly portray their vision and where it came from. The next step is finding the right people to tell those convincing stories to. I wish I could help with that.

Three participants and Ben Pawson sitting in a circle chatting.

Just four people getting to the bottom of the puzzling mysteries of story!

 

Grantwriting as storytelling

I like that I write for a living. But as with all wordsmiths the words are the elegant swan like results you see, the bulk of the work is the messy stuff that happens under water.

A few months ago I went on a course on writing better grant applications, ‘Improving your proposals’ not a lot of it was new, but it ignited my enthusiasm again, like all good courses should. What it did do was remind me of the fiction writing class I took just after I finished my dissertation. ‘start in the middle of the action’ was the overlap phrase that joined the two things, fiction writing and grant writing.

A few months ago my wife announced she had applied to graduate school to study journalism. Being supportive, but knowing nothing about journalism I turned to Amazon.co.uk to see how I could help. Regretfully the book that turned up has helped me much more than her. ‘Telling true stories’ Edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, it’s a masterful series of tips, hints and explanations by some of the best narrative journalists working today. It has taught me a lot about grant writing.

Cover of the book, telling true stories, edited by The whole book lives in that overlap between writing fiction and writing grants, telling true stories. Both forms of writing have the goal of grasping the attention of the reader; giving them pleasure; amazement, and making them care about the fate of the heros, or villains, or underdogs of the piece.

Reading more of it this morning I stated thinking about the engine of the drama you write about that drives the story. For grant writing I feel it is the decision implicit in every application; will you, dear reader, allow this story to have the happy ending I am trying to depict? It’s a participatory story, the reader, the grant maker, defines the ending.

As for the beginning and the middle that’s up to me. Taking the reader on a journey up the ladder of abstraction. connecting the gleaming details of the good work we are doing with the big ideas, the lofty goals that started our charity, thats the connection I have to draw.

It’s my job to understand the background, get to know the players and align the facts and see where the good will happen, to know it well enough that I can show, not tell in a way that’s obvious, real, accurate and nuanced enough to meet the needs of the child and the doctor at the dinner table*. That’s where this book is so useful. Written by journalists that specialise in telling true stories, and at it’s heart that’s what grant writing is all about.

I have to find the small, human details that will show them, not tell them, that this is an important story that needs the happy ending only they can provide. It’s made its way on to my book shelf, well book-pile at the moment , I believe it will earn it’s place there very quickly.

 

* So imagine you are at a dinner party and you have to explain a medical condition, say Heart Disease to two people seated in front of you, on your right is a doctor, an expert in his field, and keenly aware of the details of the issue. on your left, playing with his dinner on the white china plate is a child, about 6 years old. Your challenge is to describe the condition, so the child understands it but the doctor doesn’t think you got it wrong.

Showers pass roadie and skyline trouser review

So today was the first rain for my roadie pants. The brief is quite complicated. Be warm enough to keep me happy in British winters, but breathable enough so the inside is dryer than the outside. Chapeau showers pass. Success on both fronts. The skyline pant is simply a more evolved version of the roadie. Both great to wear on the daily commute and longer runs. Quality construction throughout and the following thoughtful details.
A closed loop wait drawstring. Once you figure out the right knot to use you can relax about losing the ends. A key pocket bug enough for a set of keys. Two flaps that cover you laces. A cut that leaves nothing flapping. All in a quality package.



Why don’t charities tell more stories?

I know why we don’t tell more stories.

Because we have lost the understanding of how powerful stories are. And we’re afraid of being vulnerable, and afraid of sharing the connectedness that telling stories exposes us to.

Let me explain, with a story.

What did your father do in the war has, for my generation, been replaced with what did your Grandfather do in the war. Like most people I’ve got two, both now deceased. They both had two very different war stories, one hated publicly one not given the heroes welcome he was expecting. Much to my disappointment I never heard their stories from them, I gleaned little pieces of history from other family members.

Stories from our family give us meaning, help figure out who we are and where we come from. Maybe we don’t share them often, and especially publicly, because they are precious and important to us, how long do you have know someone before you tell them about the patent fraud criminal in the family (I’ve still not told many people that one).

her’s hoping I can help people reassess the value of their stories, for themselves and for others. When you share something like that you create a bond that is not easily broken.

How Edward Hopper Storyboarded ‘Nighthawks’ | ARTnews

How Edward Hopper Storyboarded ‘Nighthawks’ | ARTnews.

Fascinating to see this process, like watching over his shoulder. We all do it, but it’s rarely seen, even these days, I can;t think of a digital equivalent, maybe track changes in word?

Thanks Art archivists!

How Edward Hopper Storyboarded ‘Nighthawks’ | ARTnews