As a child, I was scared of my Grandfather. It wasn’t anything he ever did to me. I was scared of his illness. He suffered terribly from emphysema, contracted by inhaling carpet fibres. They didn’t know in those days that it wasn’t a great idea to have the sales office up where the stray microfibres floated above the carpet manufacturing line!
His illness meant that he would regularly suffer breathless attacks so he always had to-hand this huge, dark brown face-mask nebuliser that he’d desperately reach for the second he felt shortness of breath. It was terrible watching the fear in his eyes each time he had an attack and the fight he had to go through just to get his breath back.
For some reason, as a young child, I found the face-mask nebuliser rather terrifying as it always seemed to be involved in those attacks. To me, it looked like the nebuliser was the cause of the problem, sucking the breath out of my Grandfather, rather than helping him get it back. On top of that, its appearance from its plain brown cardboard box always seemed to make all the other adults in the room go into a panic!
His illness also prevented him joining in with any active play; he couldn’t pick us up and throw us around as my other Grandad did. This meant we didn’t have that same physical closeness to him.
Despite this, he had a magic trick that made my brother, cousins and I love him like virtually no other adult in our lives at that time. It was a magic trick that provided some of my fondest childhood memories. What was it?
He had an amazing ability to transport us to another world! A world where a very naughty boy, Jimmy Green, and an equally naughty monkey, Jacko, lived. Sitting around my “Poppa’s” feet, just before bedtime, we’d be mesmerised by the stories he’d weave of how Jimmy Green and Jacko got themselves into scrapes with the local Police Sergeant and yet always seemed to come out on top! In short, Poppa was an amazing storyteller. And we loved him for it!
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My father was also an amazing story-teller. In fact, he made a career out of it. His storytelling skill was recognised with a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and TV Award). Unfortunately for me, as a child, it was this same storytelling skill that meant he was a bit of an elusive figure in my life. Why? Because he was a documentary film editor and so worked incredibly long hours. His business partner was an immensely brave and talented documentary film director, Adrian Cowell, and it was a film they produced together, “The Tribe that Hides from Man”, that won the BAFTA for Factual Production in 1971.
My father’s dedication to his craft meant that he not only worked long hours, he also came home shattered each week-night. One of the over-riding memories of my dad is of him walking into the house, on the evenings he made it home before my bedtime, and being greeted by my mother who would present him with his dinner on a tray so that he could “relax” and eat it in front of the TV. I’d be excited to see him and then be quickly pushed off by my mum to go and finish cleaning my teeth and getting ready for bed. Nine times out of ten, when I’d go to say goodnight a few minutes later, he’d already have dozed off with a half-eaten dinner sitting precariously on the wobbling tray!
The weekends weren’t much better as he’d need regular long naps and would often spend hours and hours listening to BBC library music LPs (“Vinyls” to you Millennials), trying to find the ideal track for his next edit. To be honest, having to lift the record player stylus up and down and to listen to at least the first ten seconds of hundreds of dull library music tracks is enough to make anyone want a long nap! In fact, living through the music searches on so many weekends might explain my life-long aversion to selecting music for the videos I’ve produced since!
His storytelling needs did lead to some fun bonding moments though. My brother and I were occasionally called in to help him capture sound effects for the foley side of his work. When I was about five, I remember holding a boom mic, attached to a large reel-to-reel tape deck (Google it Millennials!), and being told to point it at the path in our garden. On the path was a broom and my job was to record the footsteps of my dad walking down the path and then tripping over the broom. I never found out if the sound effect we captured was actually usable as there wouldn’t have been much time between the “trip” and the sound of my brother and I roaring with laughter at the sight of my dad falling flat on his face!
On reflection, I’m also now a little concerned about my father’s dedication to his craft over the well-being of his own children! Is it good parenting to get your kids to shake the front gate of a nearby neighbour just so their rabid, horse-sized Alsatian dog can be recorded for a sound effect as it goes into a mad, barking, gnashing-teeth frenzy whilst leaping at the gate in an attempt to escape and eat your children? Just wondering…?
My five year old daughter is also an amazing storyteller. In fact, her world of storytelling is so great that she spends half her life as her main character – her alter-ego “Super Marley, the Wonder Dog”. She regularly tells me the stories that she, as Super Marley, gets up to with her extended dog family and dog friends. At last count, the list of developed characters in Super Marley’s world was up to about ten, each with their own unique made-up name, relationship to Super Marley and distinctive character traits and back-stories.
But here’s the thing. Yes, storytelling is very much in my family’s genes. But it’s in the genes of all of us. In fact, storytelling is one of the unique abilities we have as Homo Sapiens! It may even be the reason that us Sapiens are the dominant species.
It’s been found that many animals have “language” through which they communicate. Researchers studying a troupe of monkeys have discovered the monkeys have different calls to warn each other what’s going on around them such as “eagle above”, “tiger below”!
Another supposedly unique human trait is our ability to lie but again the observers noted how one monkey spotted another nearby discovering a juicy clump of fruit. The observing monkey then yelled the “eagle” warning, causing the troupe to look up and scatter. By frightening the fruit discoverer away the lying monkey was then able to calmly wander over to feast on the newly revealed and untouched fruit!
But no other species has yet been observed doing the following:
“You’ll never believe what happened to me this morning! I was down at the water-hole, minding my own business, and the hairs on the back of my neck suddenly shot up! I was certain something was stalking me! So I dived into the water, swam to the other side of the water-hole, climbed up the steep cliff and, as I looked back, I saw that I was right! I saw a lion come out of the bushes, sniff the air and then take a drink. I could tell he was disappointed that he hadn’t caught me for his breakfast!!!”
Yes, storytelling – it does appear that this is a uniquely Sapien ability – and something buried deep in our DNA. Something we’ve been doing long before we had the written word and something that still transports most of us to another place, outside of our lived experience, virtually every day.
So why have I spent the last few months intensively studying “Storytelling”? As a video producer/director, haven’t I been using my inherent story-telling abilities for years to tell my client’s stories? Well, yes, I have, but far too often I’ve come across projects where I know there is a much, much more powerful and emotive story to be told than the one we’re focusing on. A story, if unearthed, that would resonate far stronger with the intended audience and leave a much deeper connection as a result. What I haven’t had to date is the skills, arguments and processes to convince my clients otherwise. So that’s what I’ve been doing: finding a way to sharpen my own story-telling skills and armoury.
But isn’t “Storytelling” just a buzzword used by many production companies these days? Again, yes, it is. However, what I’ve discovered is that although virtually all of us have an inherent understanding of what makes a good story, there is actually a science behind it. There is also a process for helping identify and tell more powerful stories that most companies don’t follow. And, more importantly, if you want to tell deep, impactful stories that really connect with an audience, then there is actually a tried and tested method that can lead to this outcome.
It’s called the Muse Storytelling Process and I’ve found it fascinating. Developed by a dedicated team of Emmy award-winning film-makers, it provides the justifications, frameworks, processes and tools for storytelling that I’ve been looking for.
Having used the process a few times now, I’ve also found it an amazing tool for not just identifying great stories but also for helping businesses better determine their purpose on a project. And with a clearer purpose, you end up with a better outcome.
So, clients old and new, I’m now on a mission to help you unearth the gold in the stories buried within your company’s DNA! Watch out!!!