The Big Idea

In my last post I mentioned that I’ve been having some ideas…well they’ve coalesced into something potentially insane.

The Big Idea: Organisational Memory

Imagine if every time something significant in an organisation, from projects, team building events, successes, awards, disasters, anything, got a brief minute or two story told about it. They would all be logged chronologically and by various tags/categories so that in the future people actually could find out why this was wired to that, or this seemingly strange decision had been made, or what had really happened at the Christmas party that meant there was a ‘no horses allowed on the premises’ rule.

I popcorned a similar explanation as practise and to have a look at some of the new technology that might some day make this possible.

The thing is the technology for quick and easy stories already exists.  Popcorn is a free Mozilla tool that can do some very cool things with social media.  18daysinEgypt took it and ran with it for their platform, which simplifies the process a lot (you don’t have to faff about with layering and such) and adds in in more functionality.  But there are much simpler tools even that that.  Animoto was the first digital storytelling tool I used at the Netskills workshop.  A few images and a bit of text and that’s it – automatic story.  Admittedly you’re not going to get exactly want you had in mind with that kind of tool, but it shows the possibility for quick and simple story making that gets across the key points in a friendly and illustrative way.

I think the timeline aspect would be quite key.  As an example, imagine “IT infrastructure projects” as a cateogry, with the projects laid out on a timeline.  Each project would be on a different line, like tasks on a gantt chart.  You would be able to see which projects had run in much more context than just searching for a project name, and it would give the opportunity to understand how the projects had interacted in the past and why decisions had been made to put off or hurry up certain aspects that now were coming back to bite you.  (The fact that my husband works in IT and often comes home going “What?!  How?  But why?!  This makes no sense!” has no bearing on this example honest :P).

I also envisage that this could be a great resource for marketing.  As someone who has worked in marketing trying to get good news stories out of people and as someone who currently works assisting marketing folks I know that getting anything out of the rest of the organisation is always a complete and total pain.  And getting them to give anything but the driest facts can be worse.  If you not only a had a repository of all the things that had been going on, but they were already somewhat storified it would have to make things easier.

I honestly think this idea has some potential.  I’m going to keep thinking about it starting I think with the auto system for the project stories. Kind of a very rough specification-type thing.

How insane do you think this idea is?  Please comment and let me know!  I’m genuinely interested so feel free to be critical.

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June 24, 2013 at 10:15 am Leave a comment

DS8

After a fun-filled weekend with the family I have some time to reflect on DS8 last Friday.  Luckily we only got there a couple of minutes late although the M4 was doing one of it’s better impressions of a car park.

After the opening remarks the first speaker was Mandy Rose on “As Media Becomes Social”.  She talked about a lot of different projects that re going on at the moment around social media, many of which sounded very interesting, especially Question Bridge, but I wasn’t sure how much of what she was talking about was really storytelling.  Take Question Bridge – it looks like a fantastic project which I would love to see done with other demographics as well, but the men involved aren’t telling stories, and there is no story created out of the answers to the questions posed.  Here I am using the stricter definition of the term “story” to mean a narrative, rather than the background/wider information on something, but that is really my focus.  Her talk did raise some interesting ideas about crowd sourced stories, but I will come back to that later.

For the first breakout session I chose Rost Thompson’s “Digital Storytelling: Medical Education for the Google Generation”, because I’m quite fascinated by medicine and mental health in particular, which it just so happened was one of her focusses.  The other focus was epilepsy, which, with so much misunderstanding and misleading press about it, has a lot of issues in common with mental health.  This session was fantastic.  There were two aspects: using stories in training doctors and nurses to help personalise all the science they are given to memorise, and stories that can give patients  who have just received a diagnosis some indication of what it is like living with their condition.  This is particualrly relevant as more and more patients are Googling their conditions so doctors are no longer their sole source of information.  There are certainly some issues with patients googling their conditions (there’s a lot of misinformation out there, you only have to look at the conspiracy theories around vaccinations), but that genie isn’t going back in the bottle any time soon.  Also I think the approach that she seemed to be taking, of letting the patients talk about whatever they wanted to talk about was a good one.  For example a patient may choose to talk about their favourite hobby: this is a happy subject for them, shows that they are still capable of doing things, but almost necessarily mention their illness at least peripherally (what they can/can’t do, how they adapt certain things, why they chose that hobby etc).

I could say an awful lot about what I gained from that session, but I think it might have to wait for future posts.  Expect to see a few references back to that.

After lunch (very nice btw.  I approve of conference pizza, though Charlie was not terribly impressed by what they thought constituted a wheat and dairy free meal) Darcy Alexandra spoke about Visual Worlds of Stories.  It was a lovely talk, very emotive and really got me thinking about the more artistic side of digital stories.  I still tend to think of stories as text and not “art” as such, but her talk made me want to try getting a camera out some time…If I still have one…

Unfortunately on the project story side I don’t think a requirement for original visuals are going to be too popular: no one would have the time.  On the other hand the final group talk about 18daysinEgypt was incredibly relevant.  The 18daysinEgypt people have created a tool whereby anyone who was there during the revolution (or now, it is still ongoing) can connect to all the things they posted on social media on a given days and tell their story of that day by pulling it all together.  Video, pictures, tweets, facebook statuses: the lot.  Then they can edit and add text, add how it made them feel and links to articles for further information.  They can even invite collaborators for any given story and collectively edit and enhance the story.  It is an absolutely fabulous tool and something that could so effortlessly generate a project story would be amazing.  Obviously a project story tool would have to be significantly different, btu the concept it brilliant.

The final breakout session of the day I chose was Carlotta Allum on “Stretch Story Box” on taking digital story making into prisons (and it is at this point I notice that every speaker I heard was female…not often that happens).  It seemed like a valuable project for the prisons and prisoners, but by this point the same messages had been reiterated a lot.  Charlie pointed out on the drive back that just about every talk was about minority groups being given a voice to tell their story.  There have got to be other valuable uses of digital storytelling and value in longer stories as well.  Charlie said, “what about a digital novel?” and that has sparked an idea which is going to need some connecting up with other ideas before it will seem even remotely plausible.

With all these ideas floating around, expect more blog posts in the near future.

June 17, 2013 at 1:30 pm Leave a comment

DS8

This time next week Charlie and I will be at the DS8 Digital Storytelling Festival.  The programme is now up on their WordPress site and I think I’m going to have trouble choosing between the different breakout sessions that will be going on. Unfortunately we won’t be able to stay for the evening as we will be driving back to sunny Gloucestershire, but I’m looking forward to seeing more of what’s going on in the wider world of digital storytelling a bit more.

June 7, 2013 at 8:35 am 3 comments

Live Action Role Play – My first proper encounter

Empire Event 2 – Spring Equinnox happened over the bank holiday weekend and, boy, was that an experience.

After the extreme cold and being ill over event 1 I was hesitant about event 2, but thankfully, apart from some showers and a lot of wind while setting up on Friday afternoon, we had beautiful weather.  Enough that I came back with even more freckles and actually got to use the parasol I had bought just in case (plastic sunglasses not exactly being in character).  For an event that takes place in a field, good weather certainly helps.

I have to say it took me a while to get into it.  It was actually sort of lucky that I hadn’t been there the previous event as I had plenty of excuses to go seeking people out and asking them lots of questions.  Sometimes I’m entirely too British (ok…And shy…) for my own good and I need a good reason to talk to someone I don’t know.  But it turns out talking to people is how the game is played – well, that and hitting people with larp-safe weaponry.  There are regular battles fought in the woods at the back of the site, and I really do mean regular.  They are scheduled for specific times and those players who want to fight can spend a fair bit of time mustering, fighting and getting healed afterwards.  For every battle they fight, in theory, they should play a monster at another fight to give other players something to fight against.  In practise there was a tendency for there to be less people monstering than there were fighting, even with people like myself, who weren’t playing combat characters, volunteering to monster for a laugh.

I spent the Friday evening and Saturday morning trying to convince myself to talk to people and finally getting so frustrated that I couldn’t find anyone that actually talking to them when I did find them was a relief.  Turns out I should have chosen my time to monster differently as everyone was at the big battle on Saturday morning.  But by around 4pm Saturday afternoon I had finally started to find people and my game began.

I say my game, because each player truly has their own game to play (or story to create if you prefer) depending on their interests, their capabilities and their desire to get stuck in.  Some general categories of game include the combat game, the trading/commerce game, the politics game (which in this particular larp comes in many flavours including the senate game, conclave game and synod game), the mage game and (because this is larpers) the FOR SCIENCE! Game.  But really every player has to make their own game and it can be a lot of work.  Snippets of plot get waved under peoples’ noses, but if you don’t pick up the threads, get interested, and get other people interested, and work together to work out what it all means (if anything) then the story doesn’t happen.

For example some monsters were given a skull to torment the player-characters with during one of the small battles.  The players have a choice whether to fight for it or not.  But their characters believe it could be the head of the recently killed Empress so they fight through recklessly to win it back.  That recklessness caused ripples for their characters that I didn’t get to see.  What I saw was them yelling at each other about whose fault something was outside the senate building, while practically ready to brain each other with the skull (though they wouldn’t have because it wasn’t a larp-safe skull…In a world where larp-safe buckets exist I can’t help but think larp-safe skulls must).  All the other players who witness this have the option to go about their business, but they don’t because that would be no fun.  Instead you get priests wanting to see whether it needs exorcising, mages wanting to scry out its origins, senators trying to take control and someone somewhere no doubt wondering what the autumn eternals (magical spirits in this system) would be willing to trade for it.  In this case the mages got to scry over it, it turned out it wasn’t the Empress’s skull and suddenly people weren’t as interested.

Everyone has to work together, or argue hard enough that they should be the ones in charge.  And since this is a game primarily about politics it all has to be seen to be in the best interests of the Empire.  If these characters just went about their lives, let other people get on with it, then there would be no story.  Larpers can smell out any tiny hint of plot like bloodhounds and jump on it. They get their character’s involved and in so doing they create and cement each character’s personality (if my character responded this way to that, then they would respond that way to this).  It’s quite amazing the energy that goes into creating this story.  Players stay up till the early hours of the morning for days on end, getting up in time to throw themselves into battle (which is especially tiring if you’re a monster in a latex mask who has to keep running back and forth to the spawn point each time you die).

So how does this relate to digital storytelling?  Well it doesn’t particularly I suppose – not to the digital part anyway.  Except that I have heard that the Empire wiki, where all backstory, rules, and knowledge about the Empire and how it works are contained, is now larger than the whole of the Lord of the Rings.  That being said it is an amazing way of creating a story – or maybe living a story, but certainly not telling it.  The story doesn’t exist, it comes into being as you interact with the other characters (and then the funny bits get re-told between yourselves afterwards to appreciate the wonderful things that have spontaneously come into being).

I think it does teach some fabulous things: confidence being highest among them.  Unless you are one of the rare people who can memorise the entire wiki (and there are those who do) you play the game by the seat of your pants.  It forces you to think things up on the spot that are in character and not going to get you inquisited for heresy. Even if you can remember everything (and I swear I know at least one guy who can) a lot of the fun comes from being involved, and the only person who can get you involved is you.  If you’re someone like me that takes some effort at first, but by the end of the weekend it was natural.

It forces you to disengage slightly with technology, since the most advance tech you can get away with in character is a clock and that’s only because you have to be able to know when it’s time to battle somehow.

It’s also great for gender equality.  While there are more men than women on the field it’s not glaringly obvious – I certainly didn’t feel at all out of place.  And while a lot of fantasy literature side-lines women under the argument that it wouldn’t be realisitc there’s none of that in Empire.  Women are senators, mages, generals, cardinals, combatants – the lot.  And watching our friend Rowena recruit troops and then win the battle for the War Mage position at the front of those troops was truly inspiring and not just to me I think.

I think it will take a little longer to fully process what this means in terms of storytelling.  I will say it was an amazing event and I can’t wait for the next one at the end of July – I just hope the nights are a little warmer and the weather is just as good.

June 3, 2013 at 3:23 pm Leave a comment

When and why of business storytelling

After my last post I was trying to think of what would go in a project toolkit, and while I still think that’s something I want to explore further, I decided to take a step back and look at when and why someone might want to tell stories in a project/business context.

(Of course there is always “because I’ve been told to put together a story about this”, but that’s not an overly helpful reason).

To get a point across

This could be any point you want to get across clearly with it’s associated context.  A bulletpoint list can get a point across but doesn’t have the framework of a story that really helps the listener really take it on board.
Different types of stories could be applicable for clients, stakeholders, higher ups and to the people who may want to know more about this project in a few year’s time.

To be entertaining/to make people pay attention

What does a story have over a report?  It should be much less dry and soporific, which is great for marketing and anyone who wouldn’t normally be involved in the project (eg a temp giving sickness cover who needs to get caught up quickly).
Also I think telling the story of where you’ve come from and where you’re going could be great for team cohesion.  One of the best project managers I’ve worked with was very good at telling the story of where we were headed in project meetings so that by the end of the meeting everyone felt charged up to work on getting there.  It wasn’t only the vision of the end point, but he very clearly (if with a broad brush) how we were going to get there, by telling it almost as if it had already happened.

To engage stakeholders

I think this deserves a separate category because there are so many potential ways to engage with stakeholders via stories.  Getting them to tell you their story helps them feel heard, and reflecting it back to them through a scenario or use case helps them to feel their input is being taken seriously as well as being a useful tool for helping stakeholders who don’t normally work together to understand each other.
In previous posts I’ve talked about using Kurt Vonnegut’s story shapes and I think that could be a novel way of keeping track of each stakeholder’s journey in the project (how on board they are etc).  I’ve also spoken about interactive stories (either interactive novels or text adventures) which I would love to use in conjunction with stakeholders stories of their own work to help each group understand the other.
Even LARP could have a place in stakeholder engagement, though I don’t know anyone who enjoys roleplaying at work 😛  Getting stakeholders to engage with something different from their normal point of view – either another team, how things will be at the end of the project or some other point of view you want to get across.

This makes me think that any guidance is going to have to cover an awful lot.  And yes, now that you mention it, I am starting to feel out of my depth.

April 12, 2013 at 2:53 pm 1 comment

Lack of Empire and Story Toolkit

Although I mentioned Empire in one of my previous posts, I’m afraid I don’t have much to report back yet about the wonders of LARP as a storytelling medium.  A bit of a stomach bug and -11 degree temperatures with wind chill in the middle of an open field (ie with lots of chance for the wind to chill) I only actually managed one afternoon of actual roleplay after spending a day setting up.  Luckily the next event is at the end of May which hopefully should be considerably warmer and with less of me being sick.

Meanwhile, I think I’m building up a fairly good case for storytelling as part of project wrap up to be a good idea only if properly supported/managed.  In my previous post I mentioned how creativity takes time, in terms of space to be creative and in terms of time to hone storytelling skills.   Week 5 of ds106 kind of rams that home as it is about how to become a better photographer.  Now there are lots of ways to be creative, and ds106 seems to be encouraging learners to become good at all of them.  Admirable undoubtedly, and for the full time students on the course a worthwhile goal, but anyone who has passions and hobbies outside work knows that you can only cram in so much after day to day work, home, family and friends if you want to have any sleep.

I’ve been coming to the conclusion that it shouls be possible to create a toolkit or something to give people the structures and building blocks required to create quick and dirty stories.  It would need how to tell what your story should be about, help on basic story structure, types of stories, media to create stories in, maybe a couple of very quick creative exercises…

But this idea has got to be too simplistic.  I’ve just been going on about how storytelling takes time and creativity and skill and yet it’s also true that we tell stories all the time – it’s how we’re wired and it’s why they’re so useful as a communication tool.  As long as we’re not looking to create great literature or the next film festival winner it should be possible I think.

I’m going to have a think about how this might be done, but if anyone has any ideas (or thinks it’s a little crazy) I’d love to hear them!

April 9, 2013 at 2:23 pm Leave a comment

Audio and serious storytelling

And this is the day my long avoidance of Week Four of ds106 comes to an end.  You see, week four is introducing audio storytelling and I really don’t like audio.  My husband thinks I’m a little strange as we have totally different ways of listening to things – he likes the complex harmonies in choral singing and will quite happily listen to the radio all day and absorb everything that’s said.  On the other hand I like the strong beats of dance and metal (to me choral singing is a drone of meaningless sounds) and the second I don’t have total focus on what’s on the radio it goes completely past me and I don’t remember a word.  Combine that with the standard hatred pretty much everyone has for hearing recordings of their own voice and I’ve decided to let a lot of week four be quietly swept under the mental rug…

But!  There are some good videos (praise the video gods) that are linked to which have made me think, which is always a good thing.  The videos are a series of short points by Ira Glass which I think are applicable to just about any story, though his emphasis is on video and audio.

Some of his points are fairly standard though said in a slightly different way: he describes stories as actions interspersed with moments of reflection which tell the viewer/listener why they should care about what’s going on.  He also says that stories raise questions to act as bait to encourage you to keep reading – such a simple idea, but I hadn’t thought of it quite that way before.  He makes the point that raising these questions implies that you will answer them and I can certainly think of stories that have broken that rule and greatly frustrated many a reader/viewer (Lost for example – I still think that show was a psychological experiment of some kind to see how long you could string an audience on without giving them anything).

The two points that I think create a sticking point for stories in other settings though (I’m thinking projects, but also about any other non-traditional arena) are time and taste.

The John Cleese talk on creativity makes the point about time as well, though they make the point slightly differently.  Cleese encourages taking time where you’re free to play to encourage creativity, whereas Glass talks about giving yourself time to fail: potentially many many years to go from failing horribly every time, to just failing a little every now and then.  Having the time to perfect your ability to tell a story.  Cleese’s point can in theory be worked into most schedules – finite time set aside for creativity.  Unpopular and probably hard to justify if you’re not in a creative field, but potentially possible.  But what about Glass’s point?  If you don’t have the years and years behind you of getting good at storytelling what can you be expected to produce?  This is why there are creative agencies after all – to get someone who knows what they’re doing to do it – but the increasing slant towards using stories in learning and teaching, for project reports, for blogs and all the other reflective and social side of employment this hardly seems feasible.

Which brings me to the last of Glass’s points which I will mention: taste.  Glass says that people get into creative industries because they have a sense of taste which drives them to perfect what they’re doing.  To be able to tell when what they have produced is crap and to try and work towards something better.  Now it seems we’re asking people with no sense of taste for storytelling (a horrible generalisation I will cover in a moment.  Also I would argue that taste could be applied to any person who has a feel for the work they are doing, “creative” or otherwise) to create stories.  There’s no reason why they should know whether they are good or bad stories, and it hardly matters because they won’t have the time they need to improve them anyway.

Now, I’m not saying that this means that storytelling shouldn’t be expanded into this area.  I think stories are a fantastic way to learn, to get points across, to engage with just about everyone.  This is because my generalisation above isn’t quite right: I doubt there are many people with zero taste for storytelling.  Still, this is a lot to ask of people who are already experts in what they’re doing – oh and by the way now you need to be a storyteller as well.

There’s increasing amount of guidance on storytelling around, but without time and taste is that enough?

March 25, 2013 at 2:54 pm 1 comment

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