Serial and how to tell a long story well.

I am late to this particular party, but have now caught up with the first series of Serial. Because I’m late, you probably know that it’s a podcast from the makers of This American Life which documents the journalistic re-examination a cold case; the murder of a teenager in 1999. The story is narrated by journalist and would be investigator Sarah Koenig.

Like many others, I was hooked and have listened intently to all 10 episodes and 3 updates. My interest though is divided between the story it’s telling and how it’s being told. Because what this series does expertly is tell a long story, in a detailed but also compelling way.

In some ways this is counter intuitive; it shouldn’t work. Are we not conditioned to the short story? To want to get to the point, omit the unnecessary detail and demand the edited highlights? But on the other hand, the saga is still with us, in new media – devouring full seasons on TV drama on streaming services, for instance, remains popular. It seems audiences still want to follow one story over multiple installments. Even the name Serial recalls the serialised stories told through periodical magazines at the turn of the last century.

Serial’s story is intricate, complicated and spans many years. It involves dozens of people and a dizzying array of data: dates, names, titles, legal jargon and procedural ephemera. How does Serial construct a narrative out of this birds’ nest of input, let alone one which has kept listeners engaged, episode after episode?

Part of the answer is structure. Telling a long and complicated story involves a set of decisions about what to tell first, next and last. In Serial’s long and winding case, the choice of what topics to cover in each episode is crucial. Early episodes concentrate on introducing the people involved and telling their stories, setting up the case’s unanswered questions. The middle episodes follow the narrator’s attempts at investigating the story, in a roughly chronological fashion. The final episodes provide us with expert opinions and nuances on information previously offered, leading us to a conclusion. The structure is not hidden from the listener. Instead it’s regularly referred to, most memorably at the start of the final episode when the man convicted of the murder, Adnan Syed, tells Koenig, “I’m worried you don’t have an ending.”

Some of the reasoning for these structural choices is self-evident. You wouldn’t lead with an episode focusing on the deficiencies in the defence lawyer’s performance at trial; the audience needs to be both well grounded in the case and invested in Syed’s fate before diving both hands into that legal cat’s cradle. Other narrative strategies are subtler but also more oratorical. Koenig will often give the listener navigational pointers throughout her narration – I’ll tell you this bit later, I’ll cover that in another episode, go back and listen to this part again, here’s an interesting side issues, you’ll remember this incident from last episode. She’s part re-teller, part story satnav.

Koenig is a gifted narrator. She speaks in a precise yet conversational style, somehow simultaneously relaxed and authoritative. Her accessibility is crucial to telling the long story, as is her fascination with the case, apparent even when debating mobile phone tower call logs or calculating driving times between local landmarks. Because she cares about the case, we care about it. We want her to get to the bottom of it. Like Syed, we want her to find an ending. So a kind of empathy for the story teller becomes important. Part of the reason we stick with the story is to see if she succeeds in her quest for the truth.

Her relationship with Syed, told through a series of recorded phone calls, peppers the series, and fragments of those conversations become touchstones in each episode. We return to them regularly, to help us make sense of each new piece of information we’ve heard. They are narrative downtime, or perhaps processing time, for the listener. Syed is a measured, charismatic figure, but worryingly ambiguous for Koenig and therefore for the audience. Her concern, voiced many times throughout the series, is that although she can find fault after fault with the prosecution’s case against Syed, she may ultimately be being duped into believing in a guilty man’s innocence.

If this was a movie, we’d call Koenig’s and Syed’s relationship the sub plot. It provides another strand of the story to follow alongside the murder mystery and helps highlights the narrator’s confusion and frustration, as the case gets more and more complex, but answers prove elusive. In dramatic terms, Koenig’s dilemma gives the story’s it’s momentum. It’s the “what’s at stake” you search for in any drama. And what’s at stake is worth caring about. Koenig’s investigation could result in an innocent man being awarded long denied justice, or a guilty man using her as an escape plan.

(I should also note the criticism of Serial for using a family’s very real pain as vicarious entertainment for the masses. Who owns these stories and is permitted to tell them is important. For now, I hope that analysing the way in which Serial works doesn’t perpetuate that approach and continue what others may see as the trivialisiation of that case.)

As we reach the later episodes, real life events start to influence the narrative. People start to write in with new information. Others who had previously declined interviews with Koenig now contribute. Prior speculation is clarified, facts put into context. Even the podcast’s ads start to get slicker. People are engaging with the series, and showing that legitimises our interest in it. See – it was worth sticking with. People are noticing. This thing is important.

So structure, guidance, personality, responsiveness and communicating why it all matters. Plus, although I haven’t mentioned it above, knowing what to leave out. This is how Serial kept us all listening.

 ****

PS While embedded in Serial, I started reading another long story: a PhD dissertation on a topic similar to mine (will be), by a researcher I know through my work. I’ve descended upon it, hungrily. I wanted to see how the author put her ideas together, linked one concept to the next, kept me wanting to read the next page, in much the same way as Serial encouraged me to click through to the next episode. Both are long, complex stories demanding to be told in a compelling way. Although one is journalistic and one is academic, I think the tactics for telling a long story well – structure, guidance, personality, responsiveness and communicating why it all matters – are applicable to both.

Chicago Public Media (2014). Serial. [podcast] Serial. Available at: https://serialpodcast.org
Savage, S (2017). An investigation into local government’s ideal role in enhancing community liveability via the creative industries, Doctor of Philosophy thesis, School of Management, Operations and Marketing, University of Wollongong. Available at: http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses1/38/

 

 

 

Mambo and Halfbrick: two versions of Australian creative entrepreneurship

mambofruitnin

Arts programming on ABC TV has long been characterised by one major factor; its ability to be reliably dull. Though lately there seems to be an effort to liven it up. In recent weeks, two documentaries in particular have shown the ups and downs of creative entrepreneurship in Australia.

The first is Mambo: Art Irritates Life (Dir. Paul Clarke, 2016) which tells the story of the famous fashion brand which seemed to be everywhere in the 1990s. Through interviews with the business’s founder, Dare Jennings, and the artists who contributed the brand’s anarchic designs (plastered on t-shirts, board shorts and assorted paraphernalia), it tells the story of how, almost entirely without planning or strategy, the clothing line grew in popularity and cultural significance.

As the company’s financial success accumulates year after year, a handy graphic shows sales revenue climbing like one side of giddyingly steep mountain. Mambo seems to grow through a series of intuitive leaps, celebrity endorsement and cross category infiltration, but if Jennings had a systematic plan which led to the brand’s success, the documentary doesn’t detail it. Instead there are pleasing tales of how the stable of contributing artists benefited from their designs suddenly bringing in truckloads of cash, and how an inter-group rivalry developed which pushed them to deliver edgier and more striking images.

It’s all very nostalgic, not just for a time when everyone was wearing farting dog t-shirts, but for a time when you could build a world-conquering fashion brand in Australia, something that a combination of high production costs and a cash hungry business model seems to have extinguished for good. The documentary’s main point seems to be that Mambo’s crude and brazen designs had an outspoken, rebellious ethos that was the secret of its appeal. That appeal dissipated when the brand went mainstream, which the film pinpoints to when the Mambo creative team provided giant inflatable kangaroos at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympics. From then it descended into ‘dadwear’ and forever lost its cool.

It’s this decline that the film shies away from. There’s no handy chart showing the slide down the other side of that mountain. Instead, the brand’s sale to overseas interests and journey onto the clothing racks at Big W goes undocumented. That’s a shame because it feels like we got half the story. But the half we got tells the story of creative entrepreneurship is familiarly Australian terms – outsiders, larrikins, iconoclasts, schoolboy humour.

Then there’s Play to Win (Dirs. Sue Swinburne and Michael Angus, 2016), the story of Brisbane games studio Halfbrick. Halfbrick was a struggling games development company which struck gold in 2010 with Fruit Ninja, a fun, colourful time eater for various iDevices. The game’s success was almost instant and stratospheric. The money started pouring in at rate which makes Mambo’s climb up that mountain look sedate.

The documentary focuses on CEO Shainiel Deo, a smart, personable and highly driven man who worked hard to engender a laidback and fraternal culture at Halfbrick. As the company’s success grows so does Deo’s ambition, and he looks to access the massive games market in China. But his closeknit band of buds at Halfbrick are fracturing. One of the critical issues is an ideological shift; mobile games are moving to a freemium model – free to buy, but requiring in-app purchases to progress through the game. Some of Deo’s compadres yearn for the days when you just paid for a game once and played it to exhaustion.

This is a story about leadership and the pitfalls of switching business models. It’s a truism that companies which are unable to innovate are destined to fail. Deo can see that the business model underlying games is changing, but is unable – as much to his regret as anyone else’s – to bring his key people along with him. Advocates of business model innovation as a road to growth will probably have some sympathy with Deo, rather than his likeable co-workers who want to hang onto the (admittedly pretty recent) past.

The company has trouble replicating the success of Fruit Ninja and its attempts to develop a movie franchise of the title seem to breed only resentment and confusion from those who put the game together in the first place. Deo spends much time overseas and looks enviously while a business colleague lists his company on the NASDAQ. Sadly, his family life suffers as does his surrogate family life at Halfbrick. Senior staff/old friends leave, one after another.

This is a far more personal view of entrepreneurship than the Mambo documentary presented. There, business success was presented as a kind of happy accident, and business decline glossed over. In Deo’s case, business success was his consuming goal and its decline a deeply personal failure. (Even so, this is the polite version of Halfbrick’s troubles. A more scurrilous version is here.)

Mambo’s fall from favour was years ago now (and, it should be said, tempered by a successful exit via trade sale for the founder). Its art is celebrated and exhibited in major public galleries. Its key creative minds look back fondly on wild, heady days. Halfbrick’s journey is not yet over, but its tribulations are raw, the raised voices and angry words still fresh in Deo’s mind. Two distinctly different narratives on creative entrepreneurship; one comfortable and nostalgic, the other raw and painful.

Creative entrepreneurship as a lifestyle choice

Before 10 October this year, I would have been hard pressed to name the federal Education Minister. Turns out it’s Senator Simon Birmingham of the good state of South Australia. In a press release issued on that day, the Senator outlined the tertiary courses “expected to attract funding support under the new … VET Student Loans program.”

As it turned out, a large clutch of creative industries qualifications had been left off that (draft) list. This list itself is heavy with performing and visual arts and digital media courses, but notably also includes a Graduate Certificate in Entrepreneurship for Creatives.

Given the media brouhaha which followed, Sen. Birmingham is probably wishing he’s drawn a red line through these sentences, tapped out by an earnest media officer.

We want to ensure that the courses that Australian taxpayers are subsidising and that we are encouraging students to study, will optimise employment outcomes. Currently there are far too many courses that are being subsidised that are used simply to boost enrolments, or provide ‘lifestyle’ choices, but don’t lead to work.

A number of commentators in the creative industries arced up. Not just in response to suggestion that these courses would not be eligible for student loans (which, after the Government’s unpopular changes to arts funding, they could be forgiven for seeing as another attack on arts and culture). But also to the fact that he described, albeit indirectly, a career in the creative industries as a “lifestyle choice”.

It’s a loaded phrase. In 2015, then Prime Minister Tony Abbot, described people living in remote Indigenous communities in Western Australia as having made a “lifestyle choice”. He said, “what we can’t do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices”.  So Sen. Birmingham managed to suggest that the chance of landing a job in photography, fashion, dance or social media marketing, was as remote as a village in the Kimberley. And neither are worth subsidising.

(What is a “lifestyle choice” anyway? At first, it seems to be something of a passive aggressive slight. “You’ve made a choice that benefits your lifestyle, rather than one which builds something worthwhile, like having smashed avocado for breakfast instead of saving for a deposit on a stratospherically overpriced one-bedder in Camperdown”. But it also has an accusatory air suggesting selfishness; “you’ve brattishly chosen a path whereby you can’t contribute to economic good of the nation. You should have made a different choice, a more constructive choice, like getting an MBA and working for a lobby group and a political party, like Sen. Birmingham. We’d have been happy to subsidise that.”)

It’s seems to be the by-product of a policy mindset which sees entrepreneurship in the creative industries as a pipe dream.  Presumably there are other courses which will attract the student loans which encompass entrepreneurship, just not in creative industries.

Is entrepreneurship in some industries a surer bet than others? Surely the innate qualities of a successful entrepreneur mean that they will find a commercial opportunity in whichever field they choose? What this seems to suggest is a hierarchy of entrepreneurship; from those worth subsidising to those which are not.

Subsequently, the Minister went directly to arts industry website ArtHub to pour oil on troubled waters.

Of the 478 courses that will no longer be supported 119 are in management and commerce, 149 are society and culture courses like the Diploma of Life Coaching and 149 are in health-related fields such as veterinary Chinese herbal medicine. In comparison, 57 arts-related courses did not make our proposed list and 29 of those have no students at all… 

Contrary to the impression given by some commentators, VET Student Loans will support studies across a number of different genres and roles related to the arts, including graphic design and visual arts, screen and media, live production, photography and music industry…

The narrative tactics here are clear. You haven’t had it as bad as management and commerce! (Sure in numbers, but what about as a proportion to the total number of courses?) We’re still subsidising lots of creative things! (Just not performing arts, dance, writing or entrepreneurship for creatives) You wouldn’t want us to fund craziness like veterinary Chinese herbal medicine! (But what if my cat just doesn’t respond to Western pharmaceuticals?)

But later on in the same article we get a sense of what the real problem is.

We know there are job opportunities in the arts for current and future students – but the demand for graduates is not significant enough to justify funding every single arts course, just as it isn’t in many other industries.

It’s the demand for graduates which designates whether something’s a lifestyle choice or not. And in a way, the decision to redirect funding makes perfect sense; why oversupply an industry with graduates it cannot support?

But there’s another implication here; that a career in the creative industries means finding a job, not creating that job for yourself. It’s another tacit indication of that mindset which sees creative entrepreneurship as a fanciful dream.

Hey, this could be a play AND a conference paper.

This is an odd piece. Two academics sit down to write a short play for a conference, to demonstrate their theories on entrepreneurship. Through the course of that conversation, they have a business idea of their own. This exchange then becomes their short play. Which they then present and comment upon in this journal article. There’s something going on here about unfulfilled theatrical ambitions.

What they’re seeking to demonstrate through their play is that entrepreneurialism is often seen as set of personal traits within people lucky enough to be gifted with the ability to spot and convert opportunity. The reality, they say, is that the emergence of business ideas is far more complex, and more iterative. One idea builds on another. Elements of the idea are explored, discard and developed depending on who you’re talking to and where and when.

This rings true to me and chimes with my experience of helping people develop and realise their business ideas. There’s also something weirdly meta about these academics creating narrative versions of themselves which express their own foibles; teaching but not living entrepreneurship, growing tired of their jobs, gently niggling at each other throughout.

But it is also familiar territory for me as a playwright. The central concepts for my own plays are often a combination of ideas. Often one is not sufficient to sustain an entire plot, but the juxtaposition of two or three key ideas can present something novel and intriguing.

So if the process of being entrepreneurial is similar to the process of narrative construction (unpredictable, piecemeal, gradual, collaborative), then perhaps all we’re talking about is the iterative process of developing any idea? The single sole lightning flash of perfect inspiration is probably rare. The slow development of an idea bit by bit over time, with input from a range of people and stimuli, might be the standard.

In any case, I think the dialogue could do with a little tightening up. But my favourite line is this one, which might betray a prejudice about the prospects of a career in the creative industries:

I’ve never settled into what you call ‘a proper job’ but, as you keep observing, I do have talents with photography, video and music.

Yeah, don’t call us. 😉

 

 

 

Story as an element of success

So the AFR runs an article about how leaders use storytelling to get their message across. And I imagine it’s a really good match for its readership; there’s an ongoing interest in what business people are doing to succeed. Who has the secret to success and what is they do? Is it mindfulness? Is it design thinking? Do they work four hours a day? Do they work shoeless? (I can’t remember if the working shoeless thing was something I actually read somewhere or a spoof article I threatened to write one day.)

We can add storytelling to that list. And there are a variety of people wanting to help. This article lists three consultancies designed to help business people tell their stories. There’s a market in helping smart, successful people tell stories.

We seem to want leaders who are polymaths. It’s not enough that you’ve excelled in your field or you employ a lot of people, we now expect you to also be able to tell stories which excite and inspire. I can imagine this could be challenging, if there’s been no exposure to storytelling in your training or work experience.

In a marketing sense, this article and the consultants featured in it, are positioning storytelling as an element of success. But they are also manufacturing a problem to solve. If one of the ingredients for success is communication, and you’re rubbish at it, then you should fix that. Immediately! Right after jogging 20km before breakfast, hitting your revenue target for the month and distributing home made muffins around the office.

Storytelling as a corporate must-have.

 

 

 

 

 

Stories: types and purpose

As a consultant, you get used to having a go-to set of examples for a range of different situations. Got an HR problem? Here’s one another client had and how they overcame it. Customers won’t pay? How about trying this which has worked for me. Need to change your organisation’s culture? It’ll be slow and gradual, like turning a big ship around.

Reading this article, about seven types of stories leaders should tell, made me consider this grab bag of examples again. I hadn’t considered them as “stories”. Though, of course, they are. Interestingly, mine mostly fall into the categories outlined in this article.

They are targetted stories. They are designed to illustrate a problem, illuminate a solution, establish credentials, build rapport and yes, sell services.

Perhaps storytelling, at a business level, is intrinsically about selling. Selling a product, or an internal change, or an idea. Even the act of convincing itself is sometimes expressed in terms of selling and storytelling. When a government’s policy agenda is unpopular, you’ll hear commentators say, “they’ve been unable to sell their narrative” or “they couldn’t sell that idea to the public”.

So types of stories, yes. But how they’re deployed – to convince, cajole, entice, reassure. Is it all just selling in the end?

The strategic power of storytelling

“Facts,” I recall Jane Caro once saying on an episode of The Gruen Transfer, “never convinced anyone of anything.” She was pointing out that emotions are much more likely to guide people’s decision making, and in particular decisions about purchasing.

Stories generate emotions. Or at least good stories do. This article from HBR starts out with the example of a Superbowl ad which had no attention grabbing celebrities or special effects, but had farmyard animals and an engaging story which helped sell large quantities of beer. The article attributes the ad’s success to its adoption of the five act structure (Freytag’s Pyramid) and the ability of a story to evoke a strong neurological response.

It’s not just about the manipulation of emotions to sell stuff. There’s also the ability to guide an organisation’s operations through use of storytelling. That is, storytelling as a strategy. This example, for instance, about changing behaviours.

“Penn State College of Medicine researchers found that medical students ‘ attitudes about dementia patients, who are perceived as difficult to treat, improved substantially after students participated in storytelling exercises that made them more sympathetic to their patients’ conditions.”

Behind these examples are, I suppose, leaders who understand when and how to deploy storytelling as a strategy. Leaders in organisations and leaders of the creative teams who put the campaigns/studies together. Is there a struggle of approaches, I wonder? How hard did someone behind the Budweiser ad have to argue to go with a story based approach, than just putting David Beckham on screen drinking Budweiser in front of some explosions?