Tag Archives: Longform

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The shape of stories (and preaching)

This little exercise of turning longform radio story-telling ala the internet intelligentsia’s favourite This American Life and others into a scribbles on napkins is nice. Because thinking about how to structure stories is an interesting exercise – for those who like telling stories, reading stories, or, I would argue, preaching. If a significant part of the material we preach from is narrative – and if we have a view of the Bible that sees it as one overarching and intricate narrative telling the story of Jesus from creation to new creation, where we’re invited to pick a side as we read – then why isn’t more of our preaching “narrative” flavoured? I’m not actually sure what that looks like – but I’m pretty sure it’s not a list of three propositions presented propositionally.

Anyway. The napkins. I haven’t listened to any of these (other than This American Life). But they are helpfully described in the post…

“Napkin #1″ is Bradley’s drawing for This American Life, a structure Ira Glass has talked about ad infinitum: This happened. Then this happened. Then this happened. (Those are the dashes.) And then a moment of reflection, thoughts on what the events mean (the exclamation point).”

“It starts with a straight line. That’s the opening scene where the reporter introduces listeners to a character often in action. Bradley gives the example of a story about ticks he produced for ATC. In the opening minute or so of the piece, we meet a biologist plucking ticks from shrubs in Rhode Island.

The dip down and up is what Bradley calls ‘the trough.’ “Throw whatever reporting you have into this middle section,” he says. In the “trough” of the tick story, Bradley included info on tick biology, lyme disease, and lyme disease research.

Then, the final line is a return to the original scene. Perhaps time has passed and  the character is doing something new. But, it’s like book-ending a story — end close to where you started. Bradley’s tick story ended back out in the woods with the biologist.”

“The e” is what the Village Voice reporter drew for Bradley many years ago. The beginning of the line is the present or somewhere near the present. (Frankly, you can start wherever you want in terms of time, but the present or recent past is fairly common.) And, typically, there’s a character doing something — a sequence of events.

Then, at the point where the e loops up, the story leaves the present and, perhaps, goes back in time for history and or it widens for context.

When the loop comes back around, you pick up the narrative where you left off and develop the story further to the end. Somewhere in that second straight line the story may reach it’s climax then the denoument or resolution of the story.”

“The first line is the opening scene. Then, it’s followed by history, context…. a widening of the story. Then, a return to the opening scene only further along in time. Then, that’s followed by several characters each of whom have a connection to the story. That’s what the horizontal lines on the right represent.

When I spoke to Bradley about how a story might play out using this structure, he suggested considering a story about Lutheran ministers advocating for same-sex marriage in the church. In the first line, we meet a minister who is in favor same-sex marriage and he’s in church preaching. In the “V” we learn about the history of the issue in the church and the proposed changes. We return to the minister, perhaps at a meeting where he’s advocating his position and that’s where we meet several people linked to the issue and their perspectives.”

I also love this Kurt Vonnegut lecture about the shape of stories, which became a nifty infographic.

And then, of course, there is the classicly overthought Dan Harmon – creator of Community – who in order for his show to be so very meta, needs to have a firm grasp not only of how he wants to repackage stories and tropes, but needs to know how the stories he is dissecting work. He reckons there’s one universal story structure. His best tip from this series of posts about his story circle (part 1part 2part 3part 4) is this one, about finding a relatable hook for your audience so they can take part in the story and be moved by it:

sooner or later, we need to be someone, because if we are not inside a character, then we are not inside the story.”

The Circle

Storytelling comes naturally to humans, but since we live in an unnatural world, we sometimes need a little help doing what we’d naturally do.

  1. A character is in a zone of comfort,
  2. But they want something.
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation,
  4. Adapt to it,
  5. Get what they wanted,
  6. Pay a heavy price for it,
  7. Then return to their familiar situation,
  8. Having changed.

Simplified, his 8 steps look like:

  1. When you
  2. have a need,
  3. you go somewhere,
  4. search for it,
  5. find it,
  6. take it,
  7. then return
  8. and change things.

Harmon reckons almost all good stories follow this pattern – and, in fact, that it is innate.

“Get used to the idea that stories follow that pattern of descent and return, diving and emerging. Demystify it. See it everywhere. Realize that it’s hardwired into your nervous system, and trust that in a vacuum, raised by wolves, your stories would follow this pattern.”

Descent and Return

Why this ritual of descent and return? Why does a story have to contain certain elements, in a certain order, before the audience will even recognize it as a story? Because our society, each human mind within it and all of life itself has a rhythm, and when you play in that rhythm, it resonates.

Now you understand that all life, including the human mind and the communities we create, marches to the same, very specific beat. If your story also marches to this beat- whether your story is the great American novel or a fart joke- it will resonate. It will send your audience’s ego on a brief trip to the unconscious and back. Your audience has an instinctive taste for that, and they’re going to say “yum.”

The return bit is the most important…

“We need RETURN and we need CHANGE, because we are a community, and if our heroes just climbed beanstalks and never came down, we wouldn’t have survived our first ice age.”

Some story telling tips

Step 1 – Establish a (relatable) Protaganist:

“How do you put the audience into a character? Easy. Show one. You’d have to go out of your way to keep the audience from imprinting on them. It could be a raccoon, a homeless man or the President. Just fade in on them and we are them until we have a better choice… If there are choices, the audience picks someone to whom they relate. When in doubt, they follow their pity. Fade in on a raccoon being chased by a bear, we are the raccoon… The easiest thing to do is fade in on a character that always does what the audience would do.”

“He can be an assassin, he can be a raccoon, he can be a parasite living in the racoon’s liver, but have him do what the audience might do if they were in the same situation.”

Step 2 – Demonstrate a need: We’re being presented with the idea that things aren’t perfect.”  

“This is where a character might wonder out loud, or with facial expressions, why he can’t be cooler, or richer, or faster… This wish will be granted in ways that character couldn’t have expected.”

Step 3 – Crossing the threshold: “What’s your story about?”

“The key is, figure out what your “movie poster” is. What would you advertise to people if you wanted them to come listen to your story? A killer shark? Outer space? The Mafia? True love? Everything in grey on that circle, the bottom half, is a “special world” where that movie poster starts being delivered, and everything above this line is the “ordinary world.” Step 1, you are the sheriff of a small town. Step 2, strange bites on a murder victim’s body. Step 3… it’s a werewolf.” 

Step 4 – The Road of Trials: preparing for the task at hand…

“Hack producers call it the “training phase.” I prefer to stick with Joseph Campbell’s title, “The Road of Trials,” because it’s less specific. I’ve seen too many movies where our time is wasted watching a hero literally “train” in a forest clearing because someone got the idea it was a necessary ingredient. The point of this part of the circle is, our protagonist has been thrown into the water and now it’s sink or swim.

Step 5 – The opposite of comfort: The climax at the bottom of the circle

“Imagine your protagonist began at the top and has tumbled all the way down here. This is where the universe’s natural tendency to pull your protagonist downward has done its job, and for X amount of time, we experience weightlessness. Anything goes down here. This is a time for major revelations, and total vulnerability. If you’re writing a plot-twisty thriller, twist here and twist hard.

Twist or no, this is also another threshold, in that everything past this point will take a different direction (namely UPWARD), but note that one is not dragged kicking and screaming through these curtains. One hovers here. One will make a choice, then ascend…

Step 6 – heading back up: symmetrical redemption.

“When you realize that something is important, really important, to the point where it’s more important than YOU, you gain full control over your destiny. In the first half of the circle, you were reacting to the forces of the universe, adapting, changing, seeking. Now you have BECOME the universe. You have become that which makes things happen. You have become a living God.”

Step 7: Bringing it back home: This is how the character ends up back where they started, having experienced the rollercoaster (and having been changed by it).

“For some characters, this is as easy as hugging the scarecrow goodbye and waking up. For others, this is where the extraction team finally shows up and pulls them out- what Campbell calls “Rescue from Without.” In an anecdote about having to change a flat tire in the rain, this could be the character getting back into his car.

For others, not so easy, which is why Campbell also talks about “The Magic Flight.””

Step 8: Showing the Change: This is where the protaganist is confronted with an opportunity to show that the ‘journey’ they have been on is worth it.

In an action film, you’re guaranteed a showdown here. In a courtroom drama, here comes the disruptive, sky-punching cross examination that leaves the murderer in a tearful confession…the protagonist, on whatever scale, is now a world-altering ninja. They have been to the strange place, they have adapted to it, they have discovered true power and now they are back where they started, forever changed and forever capable of creating change. In a love story, they are able to love. In a Kung Fu story, they’re able to Kung all of the Fu. In a slasher film, they can now slash the slasher.

One really neat trick is to remind the audience that the reason the protagonist is capable of such behavior is because of what happened down below. When in doubt, look at the opposite side of the circle. Surprise, surprise, the opposite of (8) is (4), the road of trials, where the hero was getting his s*** together. Remember that zippo the bum gave him? It blocked the bullet! It’s hack, but it’s hack because it’s worked a thousand times. Grab it, deconstruct it, create your own version. You didn’t seem to have a problem with that formula when the stuttering guy (4) recited a perfect monologue (8) in Shakespeare in Love. It’s all the same. Remember that tribe of crazy, comic relief Indians that we befriended at (4) by kicking their biggest wrestler in the nuts? It is now, at (8), as we are nearly beaten by the bad guy, that those crazy sons of bitches ride over the hill and save us. Why is this not Deus Ex Machina? Because we earned it (4).”

 What’s cool about this model is that it actually works for telling the story of Jesus. I think. And for telling our own stories. Like I said at the top – I have no idea what this does for preaching – I do believe we’re culturally hard wired for receiving stories, and I think that part of being God’s image bearers means being story tellers, if God is the master story teller who arranged the whole of creation and human history to tell his story, and then arranged for it to be masterfully told in a text that has lasted thousands of years, then something of that is essential to us. We all process our lives and new information through something like a master story too, events are incorporated into this narrative and interpreted through it (that’s why Biggest Loser contestants keep banging on about their journey).

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Blog mythbusting: is less more?

Someone gave me some advice about my blog yesterday – its advice you hear so often that its simply assumed to be true – I was told that I’d probably get more readers if I wrote shorter posts. Now, I think this person is an occasional reader, rather than regular reader, so I suspect his view on my typical content strategy is slightly skewed by the posts he’s read, and we’ll get to how that is relevant in a moment…

I’ve given this advice myself before. It seems sound. People digest information in relatively small chunks, and scan the internet relatively quickly. There are some stats that support this from my all time visit figures…

The average visit length here is just under 90 seconds. 78% of visitors “bounce” – they land on the page they come to, and click no further.

I wonder if this “myth” ultimately comes down to metrics – I think there’s probably something to it if you’re after comments and discussion – if you leave some things unsaid, people feel the need to say them for you – and that’s certainly been true of the discussions I’ve entered elsewhere. So engagement might be higher on short posts…

But if you’re interested in people reading what you have to say, and sharing it, then in my experience – it’s the longer posts where I’m attempting to provide something of value, or articulating something I think – usually on a timely issue – that traffic and sharing go through the roof…

Here’s my all time visitation in a graph… we’ll drill down in a sec…

Screen Shot 2012-10-13 at 12.22.26 PM

There are a couple of noticeable spikes there, one, around the 29th of September 2009, was a real outlier – I was Pharyngulated – visited by some of the internet’s angriest atheists after I wrote this post. That was a list. It got more traffic, and more comments than anything else I’ve written – except, now, for my guide to making Sizzler’s cheese toast. These two posts, together, account for a significant chunk of my all time traffic, 5% and 4.7%, respectively. Other popular posts have been tied to getting near the top of Google’s search rankings for planking, a fake Martin Luther King quote, a Thom Yorke shirt, Ehud, Things to do in Townsville, and Instagram web profiles.

Interestingly, thanks to the comments, the atheist post became a long form post – and people spend, on average, 5 minutes trawling through the comments. In fact, there’s an interesting trend in my top 30 posts, where people spend 3 minutes or longer on site, on average.

What gets more interesting is if we just look at 2012, so far…

Screen Shot 2012-10-13 at 12.35.12 PM

Something interesting happens around the 29th of February, the 22nd of March, the 11th of April, the 18th of April, the 16th of May, the 7th of June, the 8th of August, the 19th of August, the 1st, 5th, and 11th, and 27th of September and the 12th of October – those are the sustained 2-3 day spikes you see in the graph.

But why? Did I post a particularly funny youtube video? Share a pithy observation? A series of observations in the form of a controversial list? A fantastically popular “how to” guide?

No.

On the 29th of February I posted a couple of things – one, a video of two jumping Eric Cantona lookalikes who couldn’t sing or keep time, two, a lengthy piece on abortion and a controversial ethics paper that advocated after birth abortions – the first was shared five times on Facebook, which is significantly better than the average number of shares, the second, was shared 54 times on Facebook.

The first was 21 words long, the second, a staggering 2,881 words long.

What about the other days?

It seems from this data that there’s a fairly direct correlation (and, based on a more in depth look at my analytics – direct causation), between long posts offering some sort of substantial content, and increased sharing and traffic. Which are, I think, the best metric for my blog. Here’s the top 15 posts, by visits, from this year – this doesn’t include page views of the home page, it’s people who’ve clicked through to particular posts…

Screen Shot 2012-10-13 at 7.03.10 PM

I don’t really go out of my way to cultivate comments or foster discussion (though I enjoy it), I’m more interested in contributing to a conversation with a more “finished” product.

By this metric, longer is better.

This isn’t true for all cases – I don’t think every long post I’ve written has been worth reading, but I think most of the stuff I’ve written that has been worth reading has been in long form. Some posts have been worth writing, and are now in the resources tabs in the menu above, though they weren’t particularly widely shared at the time… I don’t think this post is as substantial as some of the posts it links to… but the conventional wisdom doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny.

Looking at the posts that have been shared widely there’s also a bit of a common theme – which is certainly something for me to think about as a content strategy… they’re generally substantial posts about a public Christianity/PR/ethics kind of issue.

I’ve got a plugin currently crunching some numbers to tell me what the average word count of my posts is, but I’d suggest it’s somewhere around the 100-200 word mark. I’ll update this paragraph when the count finishes. If it does. – turns out, at this point, I’ve published 1.52 million words in 5,639 posts for an average of 270 words per post…

The number one rule, I’d say, is to produce content that people want to read, word limits are arbitrary. Some of the posts above were, in my opinion, longer than they needed to be, but hitting the right content, at the right time, while saying the right thing, will always trump saying something in half the words but four days too late.

I’d say the myth is busted, but there’s also a good reason I don’t only post long posts, or only post about the same thing – I’d get bored, as would the readers who’ve been here for the long term, and I do think there’s something to be said about sustaining the discipline of blogging regularly – there’s a reason I’m still going after almost six years, while most of the blogs in my blog roll (except for a few, like Simone’s, Ben’s, Anna’s, Findo’s, Andrew’s, and Arthur and Tamie’s have been either sporadic, or died).

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How the Reformation went viral

The 95 Theses were the beginning of a social media campaign which went viral. This is an interesting take on the Reformation – but hear it out.


Image Credit: Art.com (you can buy this as a print)

Does social media cause change?

The Reformation, like the revolution in a famous Malcolm Gladwell piece, may or may not have been fuelled by social media. Or Luther’s equivalent. Propaganda 1.0.

Here’s Gladwell’s summary of the argument he doesn’t agree with.

“The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coördinate, and give voice to their concerns.”

Gladwell thinks it is high risk activism that brings change – rather than “social media” – but this is a bit of a category error. He thinks people are trying to argue that social media is the basis of activism rather than a channel for communication, and he’s dismissive of “one-click” activism (as am I – especially in the form of awareness raising).

“Boycotts and sit-ins and nonviolent confrontations—which were the weapons of choice for the civil-rights movement—are high-risk strategies. They leave little room for conflict and error. The moment even one protester deviates from the script and responds to provocation, the moral legitimacy of the entire protest is compromised. Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that King’s task in Birmingham would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail. But networks are messy: think of the ceaseless pattern of correction and revision, amendment and debate, that characterizes Wikipedia. If Martin Luther King, Jr., had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure. And of what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church? The things that King needed in Birmingham—discipline and strategy—were things that online social media cannot provide.”

Activism, be it Martin Luther King’s rallies, or Martin Luther’s nailing of 95 theses to the Wittenburg Door as a highly symbolic and evocative PR stunt, requires both a medium and a message. Further, this package requires channels and connections by which it is transmitted. Which is where social media comes in now, and where the virality of the reformation and its use of social media gets interesting. This is where Gladwell’s piece is perhaps too dismissive of the technology.

The Reformation went viral

The Reformation was another grassroots protest movement, which according to this fascinating history published in the Economist, which is wonderfully rendered and somewhat persuasive, was aided by the social media of its time.

“It is a familiar-sounding tale: after decades of simmering discontent a new form of media gives opponents of an authoritarian regime a way to express their views, register their solidarity and co-ordinate their actions. The protesters’ message spreads virally through social networks, making it impossible to suppress and highlighting the extent of public support for revolution. The combination of improved publishing technology and social networks is a catalyst for social change where previous efforts had failed.

That’s what happened in the Arab spring. It’s also what happened during the Reformation, nearly 500 years ago, when Martin Luther and his allies took the new media of their day—pamphlets, ballads and woodcuts—and circulated them through social networks to promote their message of religious reform.”

Luther understood something of the way to spread his message via the media of his day. The response to his initial PR stunt was a bit of a “tipping point” to borrow another Gladwellian phrase.

“The unintentional but rapid spread of the “95 Theses” alerted Luther to the way in which media passed from one person to another could quickly reach a wide audience. “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation,” he wrote in March 1518 to a publisher in Nuremberg who had published a German translation of the theses. But writing in scholarly Latin and then translating it into German was not the best way to address the wider public. Luther wrote that he “should have spoken far differently and more distinctly had I known what was going to happen.” For the publication later that month of his “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, he switched to German, avoiding regional vocabulary to ensure that his words were intelligible from the Rhineland to Saxony. The pamphlet, an instant hit, is regarded by many as the true starting point of the Reformation.”

Luther’s message went viral, between 6 and 7 million pamphlets were circulating in German speaking nations…

“Unlike larger books, which took weeks or months to produce, a pamphlet could be printed in a day or two. Copies of the initial edition, which cost about the same as a chicken, would first spread throughout the town where it was printed. Luther’s sympathisers recommended it to their friends. Booksellers promoted it and itinerant colporteurs hawked it. Travelling merchants, traders and preachers would then carry copies to other towns, and if they sparked sufficient interest, local printers would quickly produce their own editions, in batches of 1,000 or so, in the hope of cashing in on the buzz. A popular pamphlet would thus spread quickly without its author’s involvement.

As with “Likes” and retweets today, the number of reprints serves as an indicator of a given item’s popularity. Luther’s pamphlets were the most sought after; a contemporary remarked that they “were not so much sold as seized”. His first pamphlet written in German, the “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, was reprinted 14 times in 1518 alone, in print runs of at least 1,000 copies each time. Of the 6,000 different pamphlets that were published in German-speaking lands between 1520 and 1526, some 1,700 were editions of a few dozen works by Luther. In all, some 6m-7m pamphlets were printed in the first decade of the Reformation, more than a quarter of them Luther’s.”