ForwardSlashStory – the stone that sends the ripples

FullSizeRende4rI’ve been trying to write down my experience of attending F/S 2015 several times already. It’s been difficult. Mostly because I feel what I learned – or, rather, immersed – there has yet to sink in properly. Sink in, and rise to the surface again.

I agree wholeheartedly with what people have written about it to date; great blog posts by Lee-Sean and Fan and enthusiastic mentions on social media from just about everyone. The enormous luxury of spending time – exclusive, uninterrupted time – with magnificent, warm hearted, brilliant people, discussing the very things that make us all tick… in a way I only feel how unique the experience was now in hindsight. A couple of weeks ago, in Nosara, Costa Rica, I was too busy living it.

I’ve written a couple of small posts about things that came to mind during discussions there. I thought I’d give it a shot in this post to briefly list some things that pop out of my notebook when I read my notes from those few days. These are not in any kind of order, but they are things that have been coming to the fore again and again during the past couple of weeks.

Empathy was such an important word during many of the different talks. Feeling empathy, conveying empathy, fostering empathy… using empathy as a driving force to create desired actions. By acknowledging and supporting our own empathy, we can reach a deeper understanding with those we wish to share our stories with. I was introduced to the Inzovu curve, which is an interesting way of visualizing a method to create a certain impact and show a way forward.

A method that sounded infinitely interesting was that of breaking up something, give the pieces to the audience and then let them piece it together as they see fit. This goes against much of my professional experience – from TV, radio, publishing – where near-full control has been the desired modus operandi. And that, in my mind, is what makes this a very exciting way of operating. Not to mention that it directly turns what has been an audience into something else, something much more exciting.

That storytelling is one thing, but storymaking is quite something else also became abundantly clear. There has been a lot of talk on storymaking, especially in marketing, over the past year. Just like a lot of other buzzwords in the field I feel that this term also carries a lot of potential for all kinds of storytellers, as long as we’re able to look beyond the hype and into the heart of the matter, the core principles of – in this case – storymaking.

I found the notion of looking at stories as pure evidence of what issues really matter to people a fresh one. For me, in the enormous flood of content we’re surrounded by daily, to observe and nurture the stories that do take hold, that do resonate, that do gain a following and that do get shared and retold, gives us a lot of food for thought regarding what things really do matter to people today.

Using games, not for the sake of gaming or as an attractive vehicle to entice people to enter your story world, but as a way of getting them to move from their ”regular” state into a play state, that’s another very good way of looking at your projects. In a play state, people are more ready to experiment, to achieve goals, to abandond their shells in favor of interaction… just the kind of active audience member we would all like to have. This is one approach I’ll be trying out for sure. Just as long as the project knows how to harness that play-state, once achieved…

There is no need for an answer, or even many answers. As long as we are able to hand our listeners and readers and watchers a really good question, that is enough – and more than enough.

To start development work on a story with the designing of a game is a novel approach that I’d be eager to try out. With that game – in whatever form and shape it emerges, be it a paper board game or something else – in the hands of yourself and other people, there then exists the possibility to create your story based on the reactions and actions of the people playing. Seeing the world – and your work – through someone else’s eyes is often crucial in order to have any hope of reaching a full potential, and this would stand a chance of making that possible.

…. there are many other notes on Post-It notes, in notebooks and Word-files, but I think I’ll get to them in due time. As a final note, a massive thank you to all who participated, talked, discussed and shared openly and warmly. If I could wish for something for my future, it would be for many more opportunities like this one. And my deepest thanks to Christy and Lance   , who made it all possible.

Comments, as always, extremely welcome.

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… and if anyone is planning on visiting the west coast of Costa Rica, I can wholeheartedly recommend the Sunset Shack and the Harmony Hotel, the venues we were located at. Beautiful places and great people.

Simon Staffans is a content developer and producer and media strategist, employed by MediaCity Finland. He works with multiplatform storytelling, transmedia development principles and great stories. Contact him at simon.staffans(at)gmail.com or follow him on @simon_staffans.

The No-Plan Plan

One evening a couple of weeks ago I found myself in deep conversation with a couple of people. Hank and Julia and I were discussing the notion of the Plan-life and its’ counterpart, the No-Plan life, reflecting on how the notion of these two impacted our own lives.

The discussion continued sporadically over the next couple of days, and the more I’ve thought about it since I got home, the more I think there is a grain – or more than a grain – of truth to the matter.

Most of us live Plan-lives. This includes myself, and I’ll readily admit that I’m more comfortable – or perhaps more secure? – with a life that has a clear plan for the path ahead. I know where I’m heading – or want to head – and I know most of the things I’ll need to do to get there. I even have a notion of what will happen once I achieve what I’ve set out to do.

After our conversations I’ve increasingly begun to appreciate the notion of the No-Plan life. It’s something that can be forced upon you by external forces (just like I’ve felt a pang of excitement when lay-offs have been in the air at places I’ve worked, something along the lines of ”whee, I might be FORCED to throw my life up in the air and find a new track forward!”). It’s something that you can choose for yourself (quit your day job?) and sometimes a combination of the two.

The thing is, there’s very little room for newness in the Plan-life. While I might very well be nearing the completion of what I’ve set out to do, it’s moving along a pre-planned path towards that goal, without many external, non-planned influences.

Un-Planning your life and your processes, however, will let new variables influence everything. Not only is it a bit scary – and scarier the more you like to have control over your life, like I do – but it’s also liberating and exciting; not to mention creatively rewarding.

The key, as I see it, is to find the balance. Having lived the UnPlanned life, I feel there needs to be a moment when I stop what I’m doing, take all the influences and variables and contacts and notions and start again, in the Plan-life way that is guaranteed to let me achieve a result within a reasonable amount of time.

Let the No-Plan into your life! And keep the Plan life in your back pocket, to pull out whenever you feel the need to accomplish what you want to accomplish!

… Hank had this to say about the post:

I would add a few thoughts:  1. The no plan is the punctuation in a planned life. Without punctuation or parsing, the plan arcs run all together. 2.  The no plan stage is the  only truly open and free moment we have to explore  different directions. Usually, we are following so many plan arcs that our actions and goals are highly circumscribed.  3. Agreed! Be open to the No-Plan, though it is scary and risky. (edited)

Mark Harris also chimed in:

Good post @simon and something I struggle with a lot. Maybe not No-Plan, but going with the plan that presents itself, even if different than the plan I had (which often happens to me), kind of learning to say yes. Thoughts on this trickling into my own slowly-developing post…

… and Claire Marshall had this to add:

I don’t think it is a choice between a Planned life and an Un-planned life rather than you need to plan time for being Un-planned – if that makes sense. It is hard to manifest Serendipity or chance encounters when you always have a place to be and a time to get there. But then just as much if you don’t know what you want or at least the direction how will you see the opportunities that come to you. I believe that you should plan to have pockets of adventure, and allow a little bit of space for the world to surprise you. Now the trouble is to be able to do this you need to be able to do a few things. 1. Be ok not being busy, just wandering, looking. This is hard for most people as we feel like we are ‘wasting time’ if we are not doing anything productive. 2. Be ok with being on your own. Zygmunt Beaumant at a recent conference I went to spoke at length about how we dive into our pockets for our smartphones the minute that we are bored or feel awkward in a social situation and 3. I think we need to be curious and brave. To ask about something, to be genuinely interested in what people have to tell you, and to ask more questions. This has been the one sure fire way that I have been able to “manage serendipity” .

Simon Staffans is a content and format developer and media strategist, employed by MediaCity Finland. He works with multiplatform storytelling, transmedia development procedures and great stories. Contact him at simon.staffans(at)gmail.com or follow him on @simon_staffans.

The Difficult Client “You”

I’ve had a number of epiphanies over the past few days, mostly because I’ve spent almost every waking hour of those days in the company of a lot of highly intelligent and creative people in the form of the participants of the 2015 version of F/S (ForwardSlashStory).

Among those epiphanies a couple stood out, however, one of them coming after having had a discussion about how to address your own work and your own productions. As I presented some of the things I’ve been working on, I felt more clearly than ever before that the projects that were my own were the ones that meant something extra. They were the ones that took me further along the path of storytelling and often they were the ones to get more attention and garner more accolades in the long run.

But, and I’m sure many of us have been or are in the same situation, client work often supersedes your own. Clients pay for your services and skills, clients have proper deadlines and clients hold you accountable – all which leads to at least me putting my own stuff on the backburner, for ”when I have time”. Only thing is, that time never seems to materialize.

What struck me during that conversation at that bar in Costa Rica was the need to put myself on the same level as my clients. I too have demands and deadlines. I too can hold myself accountable for my progress or lack thereof.

What I’ll do henceforth is to sit down and have client meetings with myself. I’ll discuss goals and mileposts, I’ll talk about development direction and realistic schedules, I’ll line up deliverables and renumerations. I’ll draft a proper deal and sign it, and I’ll meet again in a couple of weeks’ time, to make sure the project is on the right track. If things need to be amended, they will be, but in a proper manner and with a plan for how to rectify the situation. Conversely, when I overdeliver or beat the deadline, I’ll need to find a way to give myself a bonus…

Help your brilliant idea grow

As I wrote earlier, I’ve been working for a couple of different organizations helping them analyze projects and transmedia projects in particular over the past month. Looking beyond the debate (which has faded quite significantly, perhaps to the current non-buzzwordiness of the term) about what exactly should be considered ”transmedia”, some things have jumped out at me time and time again while reading projects plans and proposals, and interviewing the people behind them.

Many have great ideas, good solid foundations for their projects. Many have a passion about what they are doing or what they would like to do. Many have high hopes for their projects, dreams and visions of how they could make their impact on the world.

Here though, are five things I believe many people miss when they develop their projects and try to communication what they want to do and why anyone should buy into it. You see (and I’ve been in this same position myself) – you get that brilliant idea for a project, a story, a film, a transmedia entity or whatever. When you do get that idea, you need to do these five things, and keep doing them as a continuous part of the development work. They will give your project stability, added creative input, new financial possibilities and an increasing likeliness of your project reaching your intended audience.

(This is a continuation of and an add-on to the last post I wrote – and I hope I can get future projects to read these and take them to heart!)

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  1. Do your research. This is something that many projects I’ve been approched with have failed to do, to a higher or lesser degree. That brilliant idea you have? You’re not the first one to have it. You’re probaly not even the tenth first person to have it. All that matters is that you’re the one who actually makes the idea into something real in a way that no one has been able to do before. What you need to do is to find out what other similar projects have been launched or proposed, and what happened to them. Learn from their mistakes, let yourself be inspired by their success… and if push comes to shove and someone else has created your idea in a way that you don’t believe you can improve on – walk away. Go dream up a new idea and a new project!
  1. Another stumbling point – still, which amazes me – is the audience. Not the audience per say, but the attention the creators pay to the audience. It is a fairly straight forward procedure – as long as you know what audience you’re aiming for – to look at what kind of things interest them, how they behave, what their wants and needs are. Not only does this give you a lot of fodder and thought for your project, it also lends a considerable amount of credibility to your project when you approach financiers, partners, clients etc.
  1. Work on your pitch. Chances are you’re very much into what you’re working on. Chances are you might take things for granted that someone who hears about the project for the first time does not understand at all, things that immediately skews their notion of what your project is about and what it could become in the future. Clarity and brewity will help you no end, but only if that clarity and brewity express what your project is really about. So work on the pitch – the elevator pitch, the three-minute-pitch, the sales pitch and the rest – so that you can explain it to anyone, clearly and immersively, in a short period of time. Anticipate follow-up questions and have your answers ready.
  1. Stay realistic. It’s impressive how highly people think of themselves and their projects and their eventual impact on peoples’ lives. Just look at yourself, and how very seldom you actually immerse yourself in something – and how many other things there are that are constantly vying for your attention. Realism is having ambitious goals, but also noting all the things that are needed to come to pass for you to reach those goals and what amount of work and sweat and blood and tears are needed to achieve those things. Realism will help you not lose heart when you hit an uphill struggle, and will help you talk to partners and backers without running the risk of facing accusations of naivety.
  1. Strive for financial sustainability. There is no shame in asking people (or brands or organizations) for money in exchange for the experience you offer them. It doesn’t make your project any less worthy, but it can help you get funds and traction to be able to create your next project, and the next after that. But you need to think hard about what you’re offering your audience. Will it be worth not only their precious time, but also their hard-earned cash? You know what’s in it for you, but what’s in it for them? Have a clear and convincing and realistic answer to that, and you’ll have a much easier time reaching an audience, garnering revenue and attracting partners.

Starting a project? Feeling less than sure? Read this.

These past couple of days I was kindly invited to BoostHBG, an organisation doing great things for the cross- and transmedia practicioners (and VR producers and short film producers etc and so on) in the south of Sweden. My mission was to help some projects a little bit further along the way to fruition.

The projects were many and varied, ranging from the very much we’re-just-starting-this-idea-up-right-now to the ones that have been in the works for years and have many things already solidly in place. Thus, they all had different needs and different challenges and issues to tackle. Some things, though, came to the fore as in a sense very basic things, but in another sense things that are not easy to get right and remember, especially when working on a project close to ones heart:

Always keep the end user in mind, no matter what part of the project you’re working on. This includes the sales pitches, as they – especially if your project has been under development for a long period of time – often can turn inwards, serving more to reaffirm the concept for you, the creator, than telling and selling it to someone else. Honing your elevator pitch is extremely good for anything you’re working on, forcing you to refine and redefine and boil it all down to its essence. Crucial stuff.

As you keep the end user in mind, you really really need to think about who your target group is. ”The world” is not a target group that will help you in any way while developing or drawing up strategies. ”People over 18 years old” is slightly better, but not by much. If you can find what niche audience your content will appeal to, you can much better find out what their wants and needs and habits are, and create something that resonates beautifully with them. And then you can work with them as your beacons and ambassadors to reach a greater audience…

What is the essence of the story you’re trying to tell? Is it a story of love? Or of fulfillment? Or of loss, or of something else? What is the world your story lives in – and what are the rules and other possible characters does the world consist of? What stories can these rules and these characters give rise to, and where can you create them, publish them, perhaps collaborate with the audience on them?

Finally, a big looming question was the one of financial sustainability. In an ideal world, we all want to create great content that people who want to experience it pay handsomely for. In the real world, there is an enormous amount of work; nose-to-the-grind-kinda stuff to get this traction and this revenue rolling. An upside is that there are now many creative ways to look at financing and monetizing – from YouTube ads to merchandize, from crowdfunding to the diversification of content – from the same story or storyworld – for different clients and purposes.

One last piece of advice – get advice and feedback on your particular project from other people. Ideally from people more competent than you, especially in areas crucial to your project. Trust people with your story, and you’ll soon see if it will have legs or not.

The good and bad of failing

Lately I’ve read a couple of articles on failing, which have echoed something I’ve felt for some time now. See, I’ve been preaching that failing is no disaster, that as long as we learn from our mistakes we shouldn’t be worried about not getting where we’re aiming to get.

What I’m a bit worried about though – and what I’ve seen echoed elsewhere – is the growing notion that it’s become a sort of a badge of honor to fail, that failure can be a goal in itself. ”No biggie, I must’ve learnt something from this right?

There have also been a number of people I’ve talked to that are a bit… well, not worried, but confused. They have failed in ventures, but the learning has evaded them for some reason. So, is there a method to failing? And does it always pay off?

One of the times I’ve felt I learnt the most from failing was back in the days when we were creating content for MHP – i.e. red button interactive TV shows. We were working on a version of ”The Space Trainees”, a language training game show for kids set in space, and had created a number of language training games for people to play at the same time as the people on the TV show were playing their versions of the game (this was back in 2005, so fairly early in the interactive phase).

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What we quickly found out were things that have had an impact on a lot of later interactive work I’ve done; people liked to play along, but fell off the cart regarding the TV show. Conversely, people who were not playing along found those moments to be fairly boring parts of the show; as we couldn’t advance the plot in any major way or lose the players even more, the excitement level sank for the non-players.

What it in the end led to was a cross media show instead, merging play online with a TV show in an educational setting, two seasons in production in Finland and an iEmmy nomination in 2010. Now, the reason we quickly learned what we had to learn from the ”failure” we experienced was that we had a fair amount of research connected to the project. But even without that, we could clearly see – and feel, ourselves – that these certain moments didn’t work. But the decision to go cross media instead, that was down to our gut feeling, more or less.

I think that’s where ”failing forward” finds its proper space, in between scientifically finding out what doesn’t work and, leaning on experience and gut feeling (and knowledge), decide how to change things up.

Christian Fonnesbech has lately worked on Cloud Chamber and before that on 30-odd productions in the cross and transmedia vein. He also has experience of the art of failing. I asked him if he could give me ONE example where he’s failed and really learnt something, and how he did it:

” You ask if I have a single example of a project where I made mistakes and then learned from them. The problem is, after 35+ projects – that’s ALL I have. Projects, where I made mistakes and learned from them. That’s all anybody has.

To me, ”practice” and “learning from your mistakes” is pretty much everything. It’s like the architects say: “Getting to work is half the battle”.

Telling stories with technology involves a lot of different skillsets – and I’m sure that such things as talent, intelligence, social skill, musicality and technical aptitude do make a difference, but nothing counts like practice.

And if you’re innovating, then that goes double. Think about it. Innovation is like improvisation – you’re making it up as you go along. And who is the best at improvisation? Is it beginners, or is it veterans? Is a veteran trumpet soloist better than most at what he does, because he was born with it – or because he has played and played and played and played?

You have to work. You have to build experience with the opportunities, traps and pitfalls in the process. You have to learn how the different kinds of people involved in a project think. You have to be able to feel how the audience will react, even though the launch is months away. The only way to learn these things is to get out there and make stuff and see what fails.

Because you will fail. A lot. Oh boy, will you fail! Pretty much anything you do, for the first time, will fail (just ask anybody who’s ever tried to remodel a house).

The classic counter argument is of course Mozart. “He was making symphonies when he was 5 years old!” they say. But Mozart wasn’t actually any good when he was 5. None of the work from before his early teens is still in use today. So even Mozart, one of the single most talented individuals in the history of mankind, had to practice like crazy for almost 10 years, before he started to become great.

What are you doing here? Why aren’t you out practicing?”

Talking to Alison Norrington, of Storycentral and Chatsfield (etc etc) fame, we move in similar spheres:

”This is a huge lesson I learned during my MA in Creative Writing & New Media. The concept of failing as a positive thing is a tough one to swallow – especially in our era of over-sharing and transparency. Failing suggests a sense of ‘not being good enough’ or a huge misjudgement – and who wants to admit that!

I launched Staying Single, which was going to be my 4th novel, as my dissertation project for my MA in 2006. I thought I had strategy and a blurry idea of who my audience were and found that I was wrong. The biggest failure included asking the audience to lean forward and choose how a story arc concluded. Except I didn’t ask that question until around 60 days in.

I learned quickly that I hadn’t set up the intention that this call to action would happen. It had the effect of turning a camera around to the audience and putting them in the spotlight. They hated it and it was a ghost town! I hated that it didn’t work and was embarassed about it. But it was this ‘failure’ amongst others that I hadn’t set up properly with Staying Single, that spurred me on to the PhD. I learned that I needed to be more aware of my audience, to listen, to give clear calls to action, clear timelines and a sense of urgency and rewards.”

Lucas J.W. Johnson, from Silverstring Media, echoes that train of thought:

“I think most projects fail in some respect; not every single thing ever goes perfectly. You end up with a great product but can’t get an audience. Or you have interest but fail to capitalize well. Or what you thought would work great doesn’t take off. Even successes have things that could have been better. And you can learn from all of that for the next one.

One way I deal with that is that I go into pretty much every project with the mindset of it being something of an experiment: I want to see if this concept will work, and if it doesn’t, I can always learn from that for next time, examine why it didn’t, change some variables, try again. Every project, success or failure, is an opportunity to make the next one better.”

All in all, there seems to be an art to failing and building success on those moments of failure. How much that is down to skill, aptitude, sheer luck or something else, is probably open for debate. If you have any stories about failing leading to success, please do share below!

Simon Staffans is a content and format developer and media strategist, employed by MediaCity Finland. He works with multiplatform storytelling, transmedia development procedures and great stories. Contact him at simon.staffans(at)gmail.com or follow him on @simon_staffans.

Transmedia in 2015

I’ve been eagerly studying, creating, curating and producing in the transmedia vein for the past few years, ever since the cross-media me saw the light of transmedia storytelling in a conference room in Cardiff in the summer of 2010.

I’ve taken part of all the different discussions on what transmedia really is and what it’s not, I had the privilege of attending the first Storyworld conference in San Fransisco (probably the best conference I’ve ever been at, in hindsight) and I’ve been blogging and interviewing about transmedia ever since. This, then, is a kind of a half-way check – where are we, and where are we heading?

A couple of years ago I wrote that I believe the term ”transmedia” will become utterly redundant in a few years’ time. Looking at how the audience and the audience’s engagement has evolved, how new technological possibilities, startups and solutions enable all kinds of new producers, and how the market has started leaning towards a new economy and a new way of approaching content creation, distribution and monetization… I think we’re getting there, quicker than I thought.

Films and documentaries are becoming intertwined with games and gaming principles. The stars of YouTube, with highly personal multi-million followings, are claiming their stake as forces to be reckoned with in all fields we can think of. The voice of the audience is becoming stronger and stronger and a more important part of all possible kinds of content creation, production and distribution.

There are still conferences and departments and offices with ”transmedia” in their names. There are still blog posts (as the one you’re reading, nonetheless) entitled ”transmedia this” or ”transmedia that”). There are still a credit called ”transmedia producer”. But honestly – if there is an IP today that is not on more than one media, it’s probably just because the producers simply haven’t had the time to go there yet.

Yes, I know – it’s a big difference between on one hand the cross media practice of simply distributing more-or-less the same content over a number of media platforms, and secondly using transmedia storytelling methods to create a story world and one or more stories, grounded in that world, that move over and exist on different media platforms, supporting each other to create a richer end experience. But I’m seeing encouraging signs that the latter is becoming more and more of a given, as examples of successful transmedia projects are becoming more legio.

What’s most encouraging is the rapid growth of new producers left and right; the generations growing up now are happily ignoring previous boundaries between media platforms, language barriers, territories and what have you. Looking at my ten-year-old son and how he’s producing Minecraft videos for the Finnish Broadcasting Company, doing a better job of it (almost) than I could… my only concern is that he’ll tire of it before he gets his big break J.

Finally, what I feel all of this adds up to, is a transmediated world, where most of the content we encounter are naturally generic multiplatform entities. The level of execution will vary, of course, but a great product will now reach global recognition faster than ever before.

What I believe, however, is that we as storytellers are going to have to re-assess who we are and where our ultimate responsibilities lie. In a world where stories drive information and engagement, I feel these responsibilities have grown and changed shape. It’s up to us now, how we confront them.

But that is for a future post – there’s a lot of pondering to do yet :)