‘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.


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