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‘Don’t get bigger, get weirder': Things I’ve learnt from 5 years of The Story

Feb 21st 2014 is the fifth The Story conference, an event I started as a side project to my (then) day job at UK Broadcaster Channel 4. Five years feels like a good time to look back, so here’s five things I think I’ve learnt in the last 5 years.

(But first – if you haven’t, get tickets to The Story now, as there aren’t many left, and the lineup is awesome, including Bill Wasik, Stella Duffy, Bryony Kimmings, Gruff Rhys & Alan Rusbridger.)

1 – Side projects are little escape routes to doing the thing you really care about 

When I started The Story, I had a (very) full time job, working as a commissioning editor at a major UK broadcaster. I commuted over 3 hours every day, and had two daughters aged 3 and 5. A side project was the last thing I needed, but five years later, I don’t work at Channel 4 anymore, and now run a company that started out of the ideas and connections from The Story, and works with clients like Google Creative Labs, Penguin, Dazed & Confused, and the BBC.

It helped that I have an awesome wife who also works in the creative industries, and we have a long history of supporting each others’ creative projects. But it’s made me realise how important it is to nurture and develop side projects, even if you’re not really sure what they will turn into. Side projects tend to be the things closest to what we *really* want to be doing at any moment, even if it doesn’t seem obvious at the time. A side project will at least bring valuable knowledge, perspective and insight into your day job, and at best will be a ready life-raft if you need to bale out of your current job and start anew. If you don’t have at least one side project outside your day job, start one now.

2 – The web is a perfect oven for turning half-baked ideas into fully-baked projects

The Story started out, like most side projects, as lots of conversations. I was going to lots of different conferences focusing on things like  TV, Games, Film, Web and Art, and I was getting frustrated that there wasn’t an event that looked at the overlaps between the different industries, and didn’t focus on business or technology. Jeremy Ettinghausen and I had been asked to talk at Picnic in 2009 about storytelling, and we talked about doing a conference based on that talk, and then a conversation with Emily Bell at the Edinburgh TV Festival tipped me over into actually doing it. I then leaned very heavily on Russell Davies‘ experience from running Interesting at Conway Hall.

Nothing is ever made by one person – we test and share ideas with friends & strangers, and they always come back bigger and better. In fact, probably the most liberating effect of digital social networks is their ability to turn half-baked ideas into fully-baked ones. This is obvious now in an age of Kickstarter et al, but it wasn’t that obvious five years ago. (BTW – I love this quality of the web so much we’re developing a new TV/Online project about it for Channel 4)

I had about 3,000 followers on Twitter when I started The Story, and did a back-of-the-envelope calculation that it would be enough of a network to sell about 400 tickets to an event that I was paying for myself, without any funding or investment at all. It’s sold out every year since. I’m not sure I’d have been able to run The Story without Twitter – I’d have needed to spend more time getting mainstream press, and that would have been impossible with a day job or a part-time team. The Story really is the product of a network, not one person.

3 – You have to do something six times before you start knowing what it is

This point is entirely borrowed from Dan Catt, and explained perfectly in his great blog post from 2011, about a project which he recently restarted two years later. The point he makes is an excellent one – most people give up on doing something new after one or two tries, but normally, six iterations of making something is enough to get you 90% of the way to understanding what it is, and how you want to make it. So keep trying.

I’ve only done five The Stories, but I definitely recognise his point – the first one was a bit of a stumble, the second one was a further experiment to see if the idea had legs, and since then I’ve discovered more and more about what the event is, and more importantly, what it isn’t. I get brilliant feedback from attendees and friends every year, and although it’s by no means a slick, professional event, I learn loads from every event. So each year is another opportunity to test out ideas (like printing the schedule on custom-engraved chocolate bars) and seeing what works.

Iteration really is the only secret to making good things. Do something you love, and then do it again.

4 – People who pay for things with their own money value it more

We keep tickets for The Story as cheap as we can – normally around £60-80 (+VAT). Initially, this was down to nervousness – I wasn’t sure if it was going to be any good, and I thought paying £60 for a day conference would help people be a bit more forgiving of a few rough edges. But over the years, it’s become more and more important to the atmosphere and culture of the event.

A lot of people tell me that they buy their own tickets, rather than getting their company to pay for it, and some even take a day off work to attend. It is something they do for themselves – a day to sit back and listen to lots of inspiring speakers and get creatively charged up for the year ahead – rather than an industry event that you’re going to have to give a presentation about to justify it to your boss later.

This makes a huge difference to the atmosphere in the room. Because people really want to be there, rather than feeling they have to be there, it’s a warm, friendly crowd. They can be critical, but rarely snarky. I’ve been to plenty of industry conferences where you kind of resent having to go, and you spend your time summoning up the nerves to have the conversation with someone else from your industry that you know you probably should do, and then you spend the coffee break pretending to be absorbed in important things on your iphone. There’s a lot of pressure on attendees at big industry events, and this creates a nervousness that often puts the whole event on edge, and can really stop speakers from opening up.

If the event costs hundreds or even thousands of pounds to attend, it sets up a huge expectation of value for attendees, and that expectation might be very different from what you want to do with your event. It means your event probably has to focus on one industry, and get in the speakers that everyone expects to hear from this year, so conferences start to look very similar to each other. And a lot of the attendees spend the event snarking on Twitter – I’ve done it myself many times.

The Story really isn’t a corporate event – I’d much rather people paid for their own tickets, and turned up as themselves, not what is printed on their business card. Keeping the price low seems to be the easiest way to do this.

5 – Things don’t always have to get bigger – you can get deeper and weirder instead

This point is linked to the one above. The Story has sold out every year, and I’ve had a lot of conversations with people about where we can go with it next. Could we do two days instead of one? Move to a bigger venue? Do a version in New York, or Berlin? Should we bring in some sponsors so we can make the event more professional?

It was only when I was curating last year’s event that I realised that all the conversations were essentially the same question – How can The Story get bigger? It’s obvious, isn’t it? If you’re selling out every year, you’ve got to get bigger so you can sell more tickets and be more successful?

But I realised that I wasn’t really interested in that at all. I felt moving to two days, or twin tracks of events, would have ruined the magical atmosphere of concentration that can happen in The Conway Hall when 450 people spend a day just listening together. I don’t think I could do The Story in another country without living there long enough to understand its culture in the way I do with the UK. I’ve talked to a few sponsors, but I don’t really need the money to run the event, and the payoff in terms of branding and ‘ownership’ of something I love deeply felt like too much to give away.

It seems to be a common problem with independent conferences in their early years. I’ve had similar conversations with Charles Melcher about his excellent Future Of Storytelling event, and there’s been a fascinating conversation about how the awesome-looking XOXO event can cope with scale. I’m a huge admirer of how Greg and the team at Playful have  subtly changed the event every year, and similarly with Clearleft and DConstruct.

So – I realised there is another solution. Instead of getting bigger, you can get deeper, and weirder. You can try and make the event even more diverse, even less easy to summarise, or to pigeonhole. You can invite people to discuss really complex issues, or to talk about their career and the decades of work and knowledge they’ve produced. You can bring together people, audiences, industries and ideas that might not seem like common bedfellows, but suddenly make sense when they’re put next to each other in a line up of speakers. We talk a lot about diversity, or lack of it, in the tech/media industries, and I think this is related to scale. If you’re constantly trying to make things bigger, you’ll inevitably drift towards homogeneity. If you stay small, you can stay weird.

One of my favourite things about curating The Story is the blog posts that appear from attendees afterwards. I never have a conscious theme for the event, but people start making incredible connections between the speakers in a way that makes perfect sense. I wish I was clever enough to discern these themes in advance, but it seems better to trust your instincts and throw stuff together that seems interesting to you, and then just sit back and help the speakers be as awesome as you know they will be.

But more than anything else, the most important thing I’ve got from The Story has been the stories it has produced. The awesome speakers, the fantastic feedback from people who have attended, and the conversations and opportunities the event has created. At the end of every event, I always say that it’s an incredibly selfish event, and it is – I started it because I really wanted to go to an event like this, and nobody else was doing it. For the last four years, at least 450 other people have agreed with me, so thank you to everyone who has come along, and I look forward to seeing you at The Conway Hall in Feb.

What we do we mean when we talk about ‘TV’?

This could be a slightly obvious and pedantic post, but something keeps niggling at me when I read reports about changing audience behaviours around broadcast media. A lot of reports are using the word ‘TV” very loosely – sometimes to refer to specific broadcast models, sometimes to refer to all video watching in general. We’re seeing big changes in the way audiences find and consume video, and this sloppy use of the word ‘TV’ isn’t helping us see how the industry is changing. So I wanted to write up some notes on what we mean when we use the word ‘TV’, and how we need to be more specific in our language from now on.

The recent Telescope report on TV Viewing in the UK reports that we own fewer TV sets than 10 years ago (1.83 per household, down from 2.3 in 2003), yet we’re watching over four hours of ‘TV’ per day, up from 3 hours and 36 minutes in 2003.

This is a really interesting report, looking in detail at changing behaviours in media consumption, and with a very innovative ‘TeleHappiness’ report that shows what kinds of content makes us happy in different parts of the UK (sport in Wales, comedy pretty much everywhere). But the news coverage of the report uses the word ‘TV’ to describe three different things, a mistake made by many people analysing the current media market, not least in similar reports about the the TV ad industry body Thinkbox’s recent report on on-demand viewing.

For most of the last 50 years, the phrase ‘TV’ was a useful catch-all phrase covering three things – the business model of broadcast TV, the content commissioned by TV broadcasters, and the box in the corner we used to watch broadcast TV. Over the last 10 years, those three things have started to split from each other, and the split is getting more pronounced every year. The risk is that research or analysis of audience behaviour that doesn’t take account for this split will be increasingly inaccurate, and will make it harder to put emerging audience behaviours in the correct context.

So I think it’s time we started being more specific with our use of terminology when talking about audiences and their media consumption:

TV
Televisions are the boxes in the corner. They are still mainly used for watching broadcast  content, but they’re also hooked up to games consoles, the internet, and other non-linear sources of content. We might own fewer TVs in our homes, but this is partly because we’re using other devices, like laptops, mobile and tablets, to replace the secondary Televisions we used to have around the home. The market for selling TVs is starting to flatten out after years of growth as customers switched to large flat panel digital TVs. With the ongoing financial situation looking bleak, and 3D not driving sales as much as predicted, its likely that UK TV sales will continue to plateau.

Video
Video is the content itself – the audiovisual content that we consume on an ever-increasing number of different devices. The combination of broadband adoption and smartphone/tablet sales has hugely increased the consumption of Video on devices that aren’t traditional TVs – for example, 23% of iPlayer content is delivered to mobile phones or tablets. Online video is probably the fastest growing media sector at the moment, and this is driven by social circulation and other emerging behaviours, not traditional distribution. For example, AdAge reports that 85% of the audience for M&Ms’ 2012 Superbowl ad was driven by social circulation, not traditional paid media. If you’re a production company making video things are looking pretty rosy –  there’s never been more people looking to invest in making video – eg Youtube or Netflix –  or more places to put video so it can be found and shared by audiences. This is only likely to increase in the next few years.

Broadcast
Broadcast is the traditional business model for delivering video content to TVs in people’s homes. It relies on huge investment in distribution technologies over digital transmitters, cable or satellite, requires regulatory approval, and involves commissioning or acquiring content to fill separately branded channels that usually run for 24 hours a day. Commercial broadcasters rely on selling advertisements inserted into broadcast content to fund their business models. Broadcast TV’s share of the total ad market has been broadly flat in the last few years, with fluctuations based on major events like the Olympics. Current predictions are for a small contraction in the market in the UK after a modest growth in 2012. The trend for individual channel share has been downwards, as overall viewing has split across channels as UK audiences switched to digital TVs with many more channels available. Most broadcasters have managed this transition through launching portfolios of channels to keep their overall share up despite this fragmentation. Channel 4, for example, has seen its overall share go up from 10.3% to 11.2%, whilst the BBC and ITV portfolios have seen a reduction in share. This increased portfolio brings with it increased costs, as each new channel in the portfolio means more marketing and commissioning expenditure. New players like Lovefilm, Netflix and more recently Tesco’s Clubcard TV offer archive content from broadcasters and film producers on demand without having the regulatory or scheduling requirements of traditional Broadcasters. As a result, outlooks for growth for traditional broadcasters is mixed. Increasing ad sales inventory usually means launching new channels, which adds huge ongoing costs, whilst overall ad prices are being squeezed as media buyers shift investment to digital and other platforms. Only broadcasters with a direct transactional relationship with the customer – such as subscription channels like Sky or HBO – have some insurance against the flattening digital ad sales market. Put simply, if you’re reliant on traditional display advertising around free to air linear channels for your broadcasting business model, you’re looking at flat growth in the next few years, and possibly decline.

So – TV is the box in the corner, Video is the medium, and Broadcast is the business model. When we talk about the state of our industries, and their potential futures, lets be more specific in our language. If you’re talking about broadcast media (as Thinkbox and BARB do – their stats only refer to content produced by the major broadcasters, not Youtube, Netflix or other VOD providers) then use the definition ‘Broadcast TV’, not just ‘TV’.

The thing that we’re all watching more of is Video – online, on TVs over broadcast channels, on our phones and tablets, on Xbox’s, or whatever. TV is increasingly too small a definition, with too much historical baggage, to capture the way video consumption is growing.

And yes, I’m quite aware that I made the same mistake myself in an earlier post on Storythings. I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again…

Spooky Family At A Distance*

Miss You Letters

I don’t travel abroad for work a lot, but when I do, it tends to be for a fair bit of time – at the moment, I’m away for a fortnight in New York. One of the hardest things about travelling is missing your family, especially when you have young children. Over the last few years, though, there’s been more and more lovely little bits of technology that make that gap shrink just a little, and make being so far away a bit less painful.

Mobile phones were the first, of course, and tech companies have long spun utopian visions of how mobile tech connects us seamlessly and perfectly, as if we were in the same room again. The reality is less impressive, especially with roaming call and data charges making it incredibly expensive to do anything more than have a quick chat.

Skype, Facetime and Google Hangouts are awesome, coming closest to the tech companies idea of perfect telepresence. But its the playfulness that makes the tech really work – my 8 yr old daughter spinning around with the iphone so the facetime call takes on the look of an 80s rave video, or my 6 yr old holding her school homework right up to the webcam so I can see her drawings.

But the things that really seem magic are physical. The photo above is the two notes that my daughters slipped in my luggage before I left. I’ve been responding by sending them messages daily via BERG’s Little Printer, and their excitement at seeing the message print out, as if by magic, as we chat on Skype is a delight to watch. We’ve been playing with what to send – I started with just saying hello!, and then sending a good night message before they went to sleep. Then I started sending jokes – first the set up line, and then after they’d read it, the punchline. Little Printer is perfect for short, serial messages like this, so I might play with it further, and tell them a story about New York, a few messages a day.

We don’t have teleportation yet, but these little physical messages feel like a step on from the glass screens we’ve been using to talk to each other for the last 10 years or so. They are bits of me they can keep, pinned up on the wall or kept on the bedside table, like the short notes they slipped into my luggage. It feels like teleportation, to be able to make something print out in Hove from my computer in NY, to make a message typed out on my screen manifest itself as a physical object many thousands of miles away.

We’re gradually getting there – first we could send voice across the miles, then SMS texts, then MMS photos, then live Video, and now, actual things. We’re not in the seamless perfect future of the tech companies visions, but the patchwork telepresence we have from all this little bits of tech is much more emotionally satisfying.

*The title of this post refers to Einstein’s dismissal of Quantum Entanglement as ‘spooky action at a distance’

 

 

More Vinyl Stories

Lightnin' Rod - Hustlers Convention

I’ve uploaded more vinyl stories on my Flickr Stream, digging in the crates for some classic funk, soul and brasilian albums, like the classic ‘Hustlers’ Convention’ by Lightnin’ Rod pictured above. I just wish burning the tracks from the vinyl was as quick, easy and fun as writing about them on Flickr…

Dconstruct Dinner

Santiago menu and Dopplr Moo stickers

Friday was Dconstruct, the excellent social web conference that very handily happens just down the beach from where I live. Andy Budd and everyone at Clearleft did a great job, with some excellent speakers and organisation. Can’t wait for next year.
Better still, it meant a whole bunch of friends all being in one place at the same time, so I organised dinner at Santiago, my new favourite restaurant in Brighton. It started with 8, and ended up with about 30 people. Fantastic evening – some pictures are on my Flickr account

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Moving house

A long overdue shift and upgrade of test.org.uk is taking place. It’ll take me a while to update all the old posts, and it’ll kill probably every existing link, but needs must.

It’ll all be a bit off kilter for a while. But this looks better, doesn’t it?

Opening the Crates

Opening the Crates

After over a year locked away in our garage, I’ve finally brought through my 14 odd crates of vinyl. Today was spent opening them up, picking out some gems, then lifting the rest up into the loft. Once we’ve converted the garage into a studio, they’ll all come out again, but until then, I’ve got vinyl in the house again, and all is good.

The first record I picked out is one I forgot I owned – Edu Lobo’s first album in the states, ‘presented by Sergio Mendes’. Mendes did this for a lot of his brasilian compatriots, using his crossover success in the States to bring through more obscure artists. It didn’t really work, and artists like Edu Lobo only recently gained an audience in the US and UK off the back of DJs interest in their work. This album contains the awesome acoustic guitar and drums monster ‘Zanzibar’.

I’m gradually uploading more pics of my favourite, or most bizarre albums, in this Flickr set