Archives For storytelling

Surgery is no joke. I get that. But when I found myself confined to quarters for a couple of weeks last year while recovering from (completely scheduled and non-life-threatening) hip surgery, I couldn’t immediately work out why. After all, I’m just a copywriter. My day job really doesn’t require much action from the waist down. Still, I wasn’t about to look at a few weeks off work, say “No thanks” and hand it back, was I?

Losing interest in your work is the start of a slippery slope.

Losing interest in your work is the start of a slippery slope.

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And that was the problem. Work had become an optional extra for me. I struggled to recall the last time I just couldn’t be bothered going there and doing that. Sure, there are plenty of times when work is really inconvenient (like when the swell is running, or your kids want to go for a ride or the love of your life has plans to take you out to dinner), but that’s different. I had arrived at a place (and it was a new place for me) where work wasn’t holding my attention. Trouble was, I had spent so long giving all my attention to the job that, when it wasn’t reciprocating, I felt a bit lost. I’d forgotten to build something that was, creatively, just for me.

“If you really are a writer, you really should write”

That there was the voice of the love of my life. I was hoping she was going to invite me out for dinner, but she was telling me that while I was on my literal arse, recovering from surgery, it was the perfect time to get off my metaphorical arse and start writing that book. This is not the book that I was always threatening to write. This is the book that I had given up even bothering to threaten to write. It had been so long, I had forgotten it was the thing I really wanted to do all along. Crazy, huh? Truthfully, I hadn’t forgotten, I’d just constructed an elaborate excuse: I’m an advertising copywriter, when you boil it right down and so I had (mistakenly) assumed writing fiction was fundamentally the same as my day job. Why would I want to come home from a day of writing to do more writing? Now that I wasn’t writing all day at work, the excuse didn’t hold much water.

“Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.”

 

Rojak, Singapore, fiction

Looking for more words to read?

That’s one of Zadie Smith’s 10 tips for writing and there are times when it makes sense. For me, however, the internet helped me find The Singapore Writers Group and also online fiction writing courses offered by Gotham Writers Workshop and UCLA Extension writers’ program. All three of these gave me the structure that simply steamrollered any ennui or procrastination or fear that might have been lurking at the heart of my inability to write anything other than marketing copy or powerpoint decks. Once you sign up to come to a meetup or be part of a class, the commitment starts to drive you. It’s a task like any other and, provided laziness is not your issue, you find yourself automatically responding. You do the work.

It’s been about a year since I limped out of hospital and now my side project is starting to bear fruit. The first visible sign is my contribution to a book called Rojak: Short Stories from The Singapore Writers Group. Inspired by a gift given to the group by award-winning New Zealand author Andrew Fiu, we’ve written, edited, designed and now published the group’s first annual short story anthology. My story contribution is titled New Guinea Gold, in which a student lets his ambitious girlfriend talk him into smuggling guns and drugs. Rojak became available this week on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle editions.

Also coming out in a few weeks is another short story, this time in Cuttings, which bills itself as an interactive journal of new Australian writing. Available only on iPad, it takes a more inclusive approach to writing by pairing the words with photography, sound and animation. Issue One was as much fun to navigate as it was to read. My story submission included images and time-lapse film created by friend and amazing photographer Martin Ollman. His side project is now his vocation but, with images this good, you’d have to call it a calling.

 

Martin Ollman has a knack for finding otherwordly images literally beneath your feet.

Martin Ollman has a knack for finding otherworldly images literally beneath your feet.

 

I also dabbled with a startup, inspired by a collaboration that occurred in the UCLA writing class I was taking, that aimed to match genre fiction writers with specific experts from certain technical fields. Crime writers could get anecdotes and procedures from a street cop, for example. Historical fiction writers could find professors, erotic novelists could find BDSM mistresses and so on. The service was slated to be called The Fictional Bureau of Investigation and would begin as a simple matching service, progressing all the way to full-blown for-fee manuscript reviews. In between the difficulties of remote managing web development and the growing importance of my own actual writing, I put this project on hold. Besides, you can probably find what you need on Quora or LinkedIn, if you’re willing to put in the effort.

A novel idea.

My ‘real’ side project is a novel of contemporary literary fiction. The idea for it kind of snuck up on me and tapped me on my shoulder while I was exploring these side projects and looking for ways to bring the energy back to my profession. As of this writing, I am midway through the second draft, having spent a fair bit of time studying the art of story structure. I won’t give you the synopsis just yet, except to say the pitch is “Twighlight Zone for the sharing economy”. I am currently looking for serious beta readers for a round of feedback and constructive criticism. If you’d like to offer your time and energy to help me with this side project, I’d love to hear from you.

 What she said

I came to it late, but I revisited Tina Roth Eisenberg’s talk a couple of years back about “The importance of side projects”. Her advice boils down to: Love what you do. Don’t be a complainer. Trust your intuition. If an opportunity scares you, take it. Find like-minded people. Collaborate. Ignore haters. Inspire others with what you do. I feel reassured that I’m following most of this advice as I pursue writing in a setting outside of advertising.

And it’s working. These various project kept me creatively alive and engaged, driven and interested in the world around me while I walked through a fairly unsatisfying mid-career valley. I realised that I had outsourced ‘creative satisfaction’ to my career for (what is now very clear to me) far too long. I also realised that no one is managing your career except you, so if you aren’t doing it, no-one is. I’ve brought the craft of writing back into the office and am currently working on some new training and facilitation programs that help teams build genuinely engaging Branded Stories and to uncover the possibilities of Data Storytelling.

Which is a roundabout way of saying this post marks my last day with Ogilvy & Mather, my last day working on the IBM account and my last day working in Singapore. All three of these things have been important to me (and they’ve occupied 13, 6 and 2 years of my life respectively), but they are not important enough to allow you to forget what it is that you love doing.

I love writing, communicating and persuading. Now that I’m back in the groove, I’m looking forward to new challenges, in new locations, with new partners.

 

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He was recently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+

About the images: all photographs used with the permission of Martin Ollman Photography. Contact Martin directly for rights and commissions.

Adland is drowning under a tidal surge of narrative-driven jargon. Everyone is now a storyteller. Every post is now part of a conversation. I’ve railed against this before but it has been to so little effect, I’m starting to believe I’m the marketing equivalent of the guy who washes his car just before every rainstorm.

 

Storytelling, narrative

We’ve opened the storytelling geyser.

 

The Five Types of Brand Narrative (from simple to  complex).

Seeing as we’re all getting into brand storytelling (at least until we decide we’re getting into the next thing, like, say, artisanal persuasion), we might as well see if we can’t create some sort of order from the chaos.

The First Type: An experience.

This type of marketing is striving to generate a feeling, an emotional reaction. This is really in the realm of branding (more specifically, brand association) and tries to hard-wire a correlation between the appearance or suggestion of a brand and a positive firing of neuro-somethings in your lateral sub reptilian cortex. (I’m sure someone like Rory Sutherland knows the exact medical terminology). This type of communication is subliminal and, over time, the customer response becomes Pavlovian. Think: Reef footwear and girls’ butts. Mercedes and their door-closing thud. Apple and their polished aluminum. A local example here in Singapore is Ion shopping mall and their carefully calibrated scent, continually pumped through the walkways to simultaneously relax and energise the consumer.

Constructing ‘experience’ marketing has traditionally been in the realm of sponsorships and activation, but within the digital world, the most adept practitioners now are probably UX and CX designers. If you are using mainly adverbs to describe your communication, your are probably building an experience.

message, broadcast, storytelling, brandsThe Second Type: A message.

This is a (usually) rational statement, expressed through language in a way that makes it easy for the audience to articulate back to you or, more encouragingly, to each other. That language can be textual (Think Nike and ‘Just do it’) or it can be visual (almost all car advertising; hotels, too). The message can be uplifting (Pedigree and their wonderful ‘We’re for dogs‘) or it can be really quite banal (Walmart’s Everyday low prices.) What’s important to note is that the reader has no role in this message, except to view it and understand it. We are not meant to construct our own meaning. In fact, quite the opposite. Traditionally, almost all advertising operated within this narrative type. Today, most of it still does. If you’re using mainly adjectives, you’re probably making a message.

 

The Third Type: A story.

This is a little more complex, a little messier. A story doesn’t have to necessarily be longer, but it should have some ups and downs. If not for the brand, then at least for the use-case of the product or, better still, for the audience. The ups-and-downs can be as simple as Vonnegut’s man in a hole, as formulaic as the classic 3 act structure or as sophisticated as Truby’s 22 steps, but it must have a range of action, both positive and negative. And this is why most brands can’t handle storytelling: they have no stomach for the negative, the ‘hole’ part of the Man In A Hole.

digital, technology, story, brands

Adding technology doesn’t always improve the story experience.

When you combine the Story format with digital media, all sorts of possibilities begin to emerge, but it’s important to remember that good stories are still linear, even when they are digital, or interactive (and these two things are not the same). If you want to dive into that distinction, the best explanation I’ve heard recently was from The Goggles, makers of Welcome To Pine Point, during their excellent session at SXSW.

Another realm in which technology is bringing new creative potential to traditional storytelling is the arena of Data Storytelling. Several interesting examples have emerged recently, although strictly speaking, these are stories told about data.

The key thing to remember about the Story format is that there is a range of action and emotion (including both positive and negative) and that the reader or audience is allowed some space to bring their own meaning or interpretation to the communication – another reason why some brands struggle to become true storytellers.

Even though stories may allow for some interaction (mainly in terms of navigation and pacing), they do not generally allow for user reaction and input. That belongs to…

The Fourth Type: A conversation.

The defining quality of a conversation is that it is two way. Back and forth. I say something, then you say something. Then I say something that is a reaction to that thing that you said.  Then you might have to abandon your script and think of something different to say that takes into account the thing that I just said.

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 9.38.29 AM

The question remains: why?

And this really freaks brands out. Social media is a good arena to pursue a conversation format, but it does not automatically follow that your communications will be a conversation just because it is deployed on social media.

The most common criticism levelled at brands every time they take to a new social platform is that they treat it as a broadcast medium. They talk but they don’t listen. Or they listen, but they don’t respond. Or they respond but show no evidence of having understood what they heard. Or, most egregiously, no interest in understanding what they heard. “Join the conversation” is the classic direct response CTA, only slightly updated for Twitter.

The other difficult thing about the conversation format is purely a practical matter: it doesn’t scale. Technology hasn’t really solved this issue (just made it slightly easier to manage), because it is not a technological problem – it’s an inherently human one. We know this from real life. A single conversation can hold about four or five active participants before it either breaks into smaller discussions (Think: dinner party) or comes under the control of an active manager (Think: office meeting).

We see this now with the increasing recognition of the importance of Community Managers in executing these types of communications programs, and the pursuit of chatbots or ‘Embodied Conversation Agents’ that trick users into believing they are talking with another person. We’ve had the low-tech version of this for some time now: call centre scripts. Airlines, hotels and telcos have recognised the real use-value of conversation formats and simply added social channels to their existing customer service infrastructure. And it appears to be working.

The Fifth Type: An education.

Now it gets really interesting. And complex. This format works best when the brand has some information, some knowledge, that the audience may find useful. It really works when it becomes clear to the audience that this information is going to improve their life, or enjoyment of it, in some way.

education, brand, narrative, storytelling

Transmit knowledge and you’ll power up a deeper appreciation of your message.

The educational format does require some investment, attention, persistence and generosity (a ‘pay-it-forward’ attitude is a big help) on the part of the brand, but it doesn’t have to be a huge production. Digital is also consistently throwing up incredibly useful and user-friendly formats for education formats (Think: Lowe’s 6 second hardware tips on Vine). It is important to remember that you are placing a huge burden on the audience (Learning new things is hard work), so you need get the value exchange right. The audience has to believe the knowledge gained is worth more than the time and effort required to acquire it (Think: IBM’s NextGen CIO, an MBA-level shortcourse that helps IT Managers move from the server room to the boardroom).

Ironically, education formats can be as broadcast-y as you like, but take a tip from the people who do education for real: try to incorporate some sort of student feedback and scoring, to complete the transfer of learning.

Before I step off, I want to point out that none of these types of communication have been classified as content.

That’s because they are all content. This term was useful when we were emerging from the “advertising and PR” era, but social (in particular), has rendered the term meaningless, beyond a technical distinction between the delivery mechanism (the TV slot, the Facebook feed, the smartphone, the shopping mall aisle) and the thing that goes in those spaces (the ad, the post, the app, the scent). Beyond that, I think the term is now too broad to be truly useful.

Add a comment below if you’d like to join the conversation 😉

 

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+

About the images: all photographs used with the permission of Martin Ollman Photography. Contact Martin directly for rights and commissions.

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The reason we struggle with insecurity, is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”

Pastor Steven Furtick, from the excellent Atlantic article “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators”

No matter how commercial or  ‘mainstream’ people say SXSW has gotten, you can always rely on Bruce Sterling to keep it weird. He used his closing address to quietly scare everyone to death with his prediction for the future (ageing + urbanization + climate change = big problems), before announcing that he was giving up being a ‘science fiction writer’ to become a ‘science fiction maker’.

 

Sterling, SXSW, climate change

 

Along the way, he gave us an insightful, eclectic and rather foreboding list of people he believes should be at SXSW in the very near future:

Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet: this French politician is educated, feminist, ambitious, environmental, vocal and extremely adept at turning social media visibility into public influence. Sadly, Sterling thinks these are also the reasons she has ‘almost no chance’ of winning the Parisian Mayoral Race.

Gianroberto Casaleggio: Italian web master for the ‘5 star Movement’ (M5S or MoVimento Cinque Stelle). An entrepreneur turned political activist, Sterling sees here an early prototype of what will happen “when smart, connected people with almost no political experience get into power – it’s not going to end well.”

Bruce Sterling, SXSW, climate change

Bruce Sterling has seen the future. It’s not pretty.

Barrett Brown: political writer and satirist, sometimes referred to as the unofficial spokesperson of hacktivist group ‘Anonymous’ and is currently facing 100 years in prison for sharing a link to document relating to the Stratfor email leak. “At the very least, send the guy some books.”

Cody Wilson: a right-wing and free-market anarchist who created Defense Distributed, an organization that created The Liberator, a fully-functioning 3D printable handgun, which has been downloaded 100,000 times. “Thanks to this guy, Austin now has gun stores that accept bitcoins.” 

Ross William Ulbricht: also known as “Dread Pirate Roberts”, the founder of Silk Road: the world’s largest online drugs market, operating on the deep web. “The dark side of all your 2.0 optimism.”

Texas Cryptologic Center: a wing of the NSA that doctors hardware for surveillance and “Answers, really, to no-one.”

Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG): a British government intelligence group that Sterling describes as secret police, agent provocateurs and disruptors of political discourse. “You may well be offered a job by these guys. Don’t accept it. You will not sleep well after this.”

Californians: in huge numbers, due to irrevocable water shortages caused by climate change. “They’ll be incredibly wealthy and they’ll need somewhere to run their tech businesses from. They’ll just move to established cities that have water and buy everything”. If that sounds far-fetched, Sterling reminded us of how California got started in the first place.

 

I travelled to Austin, Texas to cover SXSW 2014 for Ogilvydo, the digital magazine of thought leadership from Ogilvy & Mather.

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+

About the images: main photograph used with the permission of Martin Ollman Photography. Contact Martin directly for rights and commissions.

 

 

Transmedia? Interactive storytelling? Multimedia narratives? Whatever you call it, whichever technology you use, you have to start with the fundamental ingredient: a great story.  If you want to be as successful at telling it, follow these rules from The Goggles, self-described ‘old media guys’ and Interactive Directors of multi-award winning interactive documentary “Welcome to Pine Point”:

Keep it Linear

Humans have been trained, for thousands of years, to follow a linear storyline, so help them to understand yours by sticking (largely) to the formula. While digital does allow for a completely unstructured and non-linear format (and it’s good for deliberately non-linear experiences like games), your audience might find it overwhelming. Take their hand, guide them. Pine Point really only allowed users to go forward, or back.

The Goggles took 2 years and about $500k to build their 'online documentary'

The Goggles took 2 years and about $500k to build their ‘online documentary’

 

Make it Layered

Humans are also complex and, when they like you (or your story), they will want to get involved, to spend some time. This is where digital really works, allowing you to create little piles of detail and texture, within a ‘chapter’ or segment of your largely linear story. Pine Point lets users shuffle through a pile of photographs of characters featured in a chapter.

Strive to Remain Human

The Goggles believe another problem with digital is that it encourages us to make things that are too perfect – perfectly flat, straight, round, photoshopped, aligned and cropped. Life, and the people who live it, are not perfect so leave room for imperfections, for ragged edges, in a digital storytelling experience. The aesthetics of Pine Point are very handmade

‘Chasing the Sun’, ‘Touch’ and ‘The Ghosts in Our Machine’ are some of the upcoming ‘new media storytelling’ projects from The Goggles.

A version of this story originally appeared on Ogilvydo.com as part of the agency’s coverage of SXSW 2014.

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+