Posts Tagged ‘communication’

OilSpill

90,000 gallons of crude oil are polluting the Gulf of Mexico – Image credit: Telegraph

Shell’s second spill in two weeks: why are we silent? (Article by Shannon Lawn)

Truly it doesn’t make the news any more. It barely circulates Facebook.  If we get ‘compassion fatigue’ do we also get ‘disaster fatigue’?

As an alleged communication expert, I feel something is not being done right. You’re unlikely to bother to open the report … probably because you can guess it says, in a heavy tone, We Must Do Something Or We’re Doomed.

This is hard to pay attention to. Even though the writer is clear, logical and (I have to assume) well informed. But I suspect we’re into ‘boy who cried wolf’ effect. Also what can we do? Everything is run by and for Them … big corporations, government… Never before have people been so empowered to communicate. We’ve never been so aware of our controllers – nor ever felt so powerless.

Hey, it’s not that we don’t care, right? We’re just keeping our heads down. We’re desperately hanging on to our rotten jobs, we’re exhausted from the daily slog of keeping going… There’s a lot of sea, isn’t there? Does this sort of thing really matter? So many other horrors nag at us, from barbarous acts of terror to the permanent background threat of losing our home if we can’t keep up payments – all the payments, all the time…

Distracting, isn’t it? And of course you and I sitting at our laptops are not gagging on the stench of oil, our food isn’t smothered in poisonous gunk or unfit to eat because of the pollution it’s absorbed. Although you might want to wave a Geiger counter over anything coming out of the Pacific these days: that Fukushima radioactive waste water is spreading far and wide! But hey, as a friend says, we all gotta die of something!

It took a no holds barred TV report and Bob Geldof to focus useful public attention on the Ethiopian famine. And now we mock Live Aid…

For you and me, the ocean environment is largely out of sight. We can count the (lack of) bees and birds but we’ll never see dolphins choking to death… When green fields get covered in shoddy houses we understand the loss of productive farmland and wildlife habitat. When sheets and gobbets of crude oil disperse for hundreds of miles under water we have no concept of that destruction. 

So … Which celebrity naturalist / pop star / hip film maker will take on the thankless task of inspiring the fight for our oceans?

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Chloë of the Midnight Storytellers

Ageing hippy or literary genius? Did I get this image right? D’you realise what I’m up against?!

Up comes another image of a ‘storyteller’ so wild eyed and scruffy they’d scare a tramp. Oh, give me strength…

No wonder storytelling is a minority artform shunned by venues, media and the general public. Anyone who gets up in front of an audience is judged in 5 seconds on appearance. If you’re promoting your work in the media or online, the quality of your work does not come into those first 5 seconds.

People are turned off – or drawn in – by what they see. And if you look like someone who forgot to take their meds then you’re NOT winning hearts and minds.

And no, it’s not a beauty pageant. But it is about being respectful to your audience : turn yourself out looking clean, tidy within your personal style, and competent. I daren’t even use the word ‘professional’ as I know it’s a taboo word to a lot of storytellers…

One job to do

All speakers, storytellers, poets and their ilk have one job to do: to engage their listeners so that the power, beauty, humour and humanity of the words can be transmitted. Unless you’re on radio YOU KILL YOUR WORK IF YOU LOOK APPALLING.

In the UK most storytellers are retired and/or hobbyists. This is because full time storytelling mostly doesn’t pay a living wage. But ladies and gentlemen you must make an effort! However pinched your pennies are, whatever bits of you are dropping off… There are so few of us that EVERYONE is an ambassador for our art.

Respect your audience

Just because you revel in the label of ‘amateur’ and are part of UK storytelling’s 30 year quest for obscurity – you have no excuse for looking shabby as a storyteller in front of punters. Even if you’re another one of those who devalue creativity by giving your work away free, your audience has made the effort to come to the event.

Respecting your audience includes being on time, not overrunning your allotted time on stage or on air – and knowing how to introduce your work. Please get over the giggling. Please stop saying you’ll get through your bit as quickly as possible because it’s probably not very good… I really do hear performers say this! Please take a professional attitude about delivering your work as asked, to the best of your ability. (You’ll enjoy the experience more, too.)

Now, some of you know that I take diva levels of care to present myself as well groomed. I can’t be beautiful but I can be interesting. I can avoid using those snapshots with the really contorted or silly facial expressions…

Remember that every image might be THE ONE picture that ‘represents’ storytelling to a potential new audience member.

So get a d*mn haircut! Wash and iron the shirt, I don’t care if it is from the charity shop, ditch that shapeless sack of wool you call a pullover – and clean your boots! WHY SHOULD PEOPLE LISTEN TO YOU IF YOU REFUSE TO RESPECT THEM?

Respect yourself

And being poorly turned out is also disrespectful to yourself. Which will affect your work. The wild eyed artist type in ‘disordered dress’, stinking of sweat, ciggies and booze does not make friends – or progress. This isn’t the 19th century romantic movement or even the 1970s rock scene. Bad behaviour isn’t cool. Competition for opportunity is fierce. If you’re hard to work with, unpleasant to have around – they won’t have you.

As for dull voices and ‘storyteller language’ … don’t get me started!

UK flag A newsletter alert from a nursery school was shared on Facebook: “Prevent duty: From the 1st July 2015, all schools and childcare providers must have due regard to the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism…”

Comments were scathing.

“They’re literally assessing the children to check they’re demonstrating British values… *shudders*”

“I hope they’re also teaching [toddlers] how to root out and report illegal immigrants at nursery. Hmmm. Which side of the Iron Curtain were we on?”

We need to get past the clichés. Prevent strategy contains several worrying bits – but I see an opportunity to connect all British young people with a magnificent heritage of story (eg traditional folktales) and some rather important bits of history. Plus of course we can make clear what we’ve learned from national mistakes of colonialism and exploitation.

I sighed with boredom at school over the list of Factory Acts created in Victorian times. Only recently have I understood how important that legislature was: locking into law the protection of workers’ rights; saving childhood and guaranteeing children the right to education.

Now our rest days and right to withhold labour are being whittled away. There isn’t even a Workhouse for people to go and die in when cut off from essential benefits … But that’s another story.

A sense of belonging (or not) really does start among small children. People who feel part of a nation, and who feel they have a chance to contribute to and profit from that national community, are less likely to want to blow it up!

Hmm… What are ‘British values’?

Cleverly, even the Prime Minister who ringingly asserts their importance has shied away from defining British values in his public utterances. But of course there is Department of Education advice for grant maintained schools.

 My version includes a nice cup of tea; generosity and quiet kindness – sometimes, admittedly, only when things are dire; respect for privacy; and an irrepressibly wicked sense of humour!

My British values encourage everyone to be self directing individuals within their group of family, cultural and social circles: to think clearly, form their own opinions, build resilience to life’s downs and ups, treat people fairly, protect the vulnerable, know the difference between authority and bullying, and to have the knowledge and courage to speak truth to power. Or at least to lampoon the powerful – and those who try to control us – without mercy, until they get over themselves…

So here’s a cliché for you: as a pro storyteller working with British cultural stories, I’ll be putting Prevent front and centre of my approach to schools. So there.

A nice cup of tea

“My idea of heaven is a nice cup of tea”

• What are YOUR British Values? What mindset do we need to live together well in the 21st century?

Headshot image of ChloeRevered script consultant Michael Hauge, whose blockbuster credits range from Pirates of the Caribbean to Hancock, happily gives away trade secrets at www.storymastery.com .

A young wannabe wrote to Mr Hauge of his frustration at getting no response from Hollywood script agents. The submitted scripts, intended for mainstream USA audiences, featured Sikh characters and included roles for the writer, who’s also ‘an aspiring actor’. He asked if he must ‘write to sell instead of writing good quality screenplays with unique characters’. You can read Michael’s beautifully honest reply on the Q+A page of www.storymastery.com

Michael’s response might be tough for a frustrated writer / actor /director to read. That’s why it’s so valuable.

I believe that ‘commercial and ‘good quality’ are not mutually exclusive – in fact the creative challenge to balance those elements is a big part of the fun!

To me, creative process means communicating my ideas – in ways that will win audiences. Grab them, hold them, provoke them into thinking (that’s hard!), give them laughter and other reasons to go on living.

Emotional power

Obviously I’m white British, irretrievably middle class and now sagging into middle age. Yet somehow I’ve always been aware of long established respect for Sikhism in the UK. When I was aged six or seven I loved the serial in my weekly comic about a Sikh army officer. I was also a child who suffered horrible nightmares. Time and again I summoned up the image of that warrior in his turban and uniform as I prepared to face the wild landscapes of night; the thought of that character made me feel protected.

So let’s think Life of Pi. Think Slum Dog Millionaire. Those films involve cultures outside the experience of a large part of western cinema audiences, yet the stories have vivid characters about whom you really care, they have visual magnificence and narratives that corkscrew between magical romance and raw survival. Cultural settings are secondary to the films’ emotional power.

5 year plan

But that young Sikh writer-actor must also remember that British creative industries have gatekeepers who tend to revel in their power and who only deign to give the time of day to their chosen clique. Outsiders are almost never allowed in. I suspect the USA, land of opportunity, is no different when it comes to film and television.

I suggest that, given he knows what he’s capable of when he gets his break, the young man needs a 5 year campaign:
1) To build a good reputation in the right places as a Sikh actor. Be available in many countries, do the widest possible range of work to learn how different aspects of the industry create success (and to see how NOT to do many things!) Respected actors do get opportunities as writers + directors.
2) To offer scripts to specialists in making films that feature Sikh culture.  Initially he should not ask to act in his own films, until decision makers know and trust his writing and his acting. So where are the Sikh film makers, all around the world? Hollywood is not the only fruit.
3) To trust that all experience is useful as he works towards writing scripts that celebrate his Sikh culture and weave that material into a wider (western) context that will hook Hollywood decision makers’ attention. If he still wants that.
4) To network, study, work ordinary jobs to pay his bills and discover life; and keep writing. NOTHING IS WASTED even if it isn’t used this year … or next…

All about the money

I know all about failing to see beyond my own potential. “If only bookers/audiences would see how brilliant my performances and material are…”

And my work is constantly devalued, even when people enjoy it. “It’s just storytelling. It’s just for kids.” “We’re a charity.”

Just last week a conversation went bad because someone said “It’s not all about the money” to which I responded “But money is important. I have to pay the rent”. They couldn’t assume that I deliver my work fuelled by a lifetime of experience, 15 years of full time commitment and all the artistic integrity of which I’m capable. Instead they leapt to the easier assumption that I’m crassly commercial.

Right now I’m wriggling my material around to reach a new market. The world première of my first all-contemporary story cabaret Scheherazade’s Shed was hailed by the director of Cheltenham Poetry Festival 2015 as a “highlight of the festival”. I should have done this years ago!

Terrified

But when I started out in 1999, the senior practitioners of my (very small) creative industry terrified me into believing that only one kind of work was acceptable. They were the gatekeepers so I did what they said they wanted. And 15 years on I’ve realised that didn’t work either! Sometimes the doors aren’t just locked against you, they’re bricked up. Time to stop banging my poor bloody head against a brick wall.

But if I’d been more confident, I’d have found the way round much faster. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll only get what you always got. Creative work MUST be influenced by commercial demands, i.e. what audiences like. Otherwise your work is just amateur self indulgence.

Blog revised (divided to make shorter pieces!) after expert advice that you can’t cope with long articles…
Tell you what, you tell me: comments below. And anyway, you’ve probably seen Part 2 of this already, thanks to blog layout. Hey ho.

The hero who faces the dragon can inspire or warn many generations

“…Let them [children] at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage”

PART 1:   Richard Dawkins won his headline coverage at the 2014 Cheltenham Science Festival by belittling fairytales and suggesting that childish fantasies should be dropped in favour of “a spirit of scepticism”.

Dawkins has a string of letters after his name. My late father, the entomologist Professor A D (Tony) Lees, had only BSc, PhD and FRS [Fellow of the Royal Society, Britain’s top club for scientists. You don’t get many of them to the pound]. From my earliest years, my father read to me and encouraged me to love stories.

In his own boyhood, my father was partly inspired to follow the way of the naturalist by reading the children’s fantasy series Dr Dolittle.

Before that story was razzamatazzed by Hollywood, Hugh Lofting’s stories about the little portly doctor from Puddleby-on-the-Marsh nudged young readers to consider very serious subjects indeed. The Dolittle books explore friendship, family, multi culturalism, moral dilemmas, money management, cruelty, ignorance, courage and the stultifying effect of narrow thinking – including academic snobbery… Lofting himself was a WW1 veteran and international civil engineer.

Relief from logic

My father – and his colleagues – sent me exploring Narnia, Middle Earth, Japanese poetry and mythology, Jules Verne proto steampunk science fiction and of course the spoof scientific methods of Sherlock Holmes. For these very serious scientists such fiction provided relief from the business of hard logic – as well as springboard moments of ‘What if..?”

Several models of mobile phone, medical diagnostic devices and even the latest space ship design derive directly from the enduringly popular TV science fiction series Star Trek.

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairytales,” Albert Einstein is alleged to have said.

The author Beth Webb says “Fiction inspires scientists to imagine the impossible.” All my life I’ve seen how the arts and science mutually nourish each other. I’ve observed author Sir Terry Pratchett deep in discussion with performers and scientists as he developed more of his glitteringly successful, magi-technical Discworld. Good fantasy writers start from real science in order to create plausible fiction.

And yes, bad fantasists distort science to con the less well informed. Look at almost any so-called UFO website; it’s very nearly impossible to find genuine information.

But the professors from around the world who dined at my father’s table, talking shop until my mother and I crept away in exhausted incomprehension, valued creativity from fine art to fine words. Very serious scientists love fantasy.

Great beards in the sky

Dawkins complains that fairytales indoctrinate children in “supernaturalism”. An ardent atheist, he worries that fables put young minds at risk of being caught in the webs of religion.

But isn’t it exactly the other way around? I suggest that young people experienced in the difference between fantasy and reality are far LESS likely to be taken in by claims of resurrection, virgins in heaven, tablets of stone, divinities with animal heads, guided thunderbolts or any of the great beards in the sky that rulers have invented to control the general population.

The woodcutter takes charge of the dragons, tricking them out of their treasure

Legendary hero Stan Bolovan wins wealth and happiness by keeping his nerve: a lesson for children? (Illustration from ‘Dragon Games’ story in DRAGON TALES CD and e-book by Chloë of the Midnight Storytellers)

I can’t have been the only child who was disappointed to discover that her toy magic wand didn’t work, and that no amount of burrowing to the back of wardrobes led to a snowy lamplit land. Privately, without fuss, I confirmed the difference between make-believe and the real world.

Dawkins fails to credit children with their natural bloody-minded common sense. We know in our bones – I revert to eight years old here – that frogs can’t turn into anything (except interesting corpses…), that superheroes don’t fly to the rescue and that dragons don’t light up our skies. And we see pretty soon that prayer can ease fear but it doesn’t stop earthquakes or save loved ones.

The uses of metaphor

As it happens I deal in make-believe on a daily basis. For the purpose of children’s entertainment I have constructed the fantasy world of Agent Green the Dragon Whisperer – lead draconics expert and field operative for DCHQ, Dragon Conservation Headquarters.

In costume and character I tell stories about dragons, plus traditional folktales and legends from many cultures around the world. I must be doing something right because it’s no trouble to keep a couple of hundred primary school pupils completely spellbound. Even teen and adult fantasy fans – especially Tolkien/LOTR enthusiasts – enjoy my Masterclass in the Care & Training of Dragons.

But what is actually the point of fairy stories and folktales? (As the very teutonic academic demanded at the end of my Tolkien Society presentation in 2012).

Beth Webb (also on Facebook) writes elegant fantasy fiction that is adored by an extraordinary range of children and teens. She also works with the UK’s most gifted and talented young people – frankly, the great thinkers and top boffins of our future – in writing courses bubbling with joyously outside-the-box creativity. Most of her students won’t become professional writers but they do go on to communicate more effectively with the rest of their world. They never forget the critical and constructive thinking skills – yes, the ‘spirit of scepticism’ – and the creative freedom opened up for them under Beth’s guidance.

Educationalists around the world assert

  • For children transitioning from concrete thinking to abstract thinking, the structure, phrasing and imagery of fairytales/folktales demonstrate the uses of metaphor.
  • Fairytales accustom children to narrative structure and develop their vocabulary. Children who grow up hearing, telling and reading stories move more easily into written work at school.
  • Fairytales allow children to experience fear and danger at a safe remove. Children observe how wit, courage, creative thinking and co-operation solve problems.

I would also say that fairytales and folklore help connect young people to their cultural roots. Equally, stories from different cultures give children insight into other ways of life and different values. In a world where belief systems are clashing with ever bloodier violence, and the great beards of temple, church and mosque are prescribing and proscribing with ferocious zeal, stories become a last chance to broaden cultural horizons.

Very definitely fairytales promote scepticism: think of all the mocked and unloved third sons or daughters of storyworld who shine as role models, defying convention and authority to save their families. Consider Dawkins’ improbable frog prince, and the Beast in his rose garden: apparently impossible partners for a human – yet their gentleness and delightful good company invite us to take the difficult step of looking beyond appearances, beyond prejudices.

And now refill your glasses for Part 2: scroll up to the next blog post title ‘Fairytale: A Great Escape’

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If you’d like to be entertained by live Story Cabaret (spoken word fantasy for audiences of adults) or would like workshops to inspire your own creativity, as well as for secondary schools Year 7 – Sixth Form, please check out my work

I also supply storytelling for primary and junior schools and family events as Agent Green the Dragon Whisperer

If you’re really keen, Dragon Tales the e-book for Kindle is available for a teensy tithe of treasure – only GBP£2.56 – including more illustrations