Last night, I was invited by Siôn Parkinson to speak at a meeting of a-frame a network that he runs with Maria Georka at the ICA. It meant I got to visit the posher bits of the ICA again, which was nice.
The brief was a five minute talk based around an object that inspires you – the same as the Figures of Speech format that I saw at the ICA gala last year. I looked through boxes of old stuff for inspiration over the weekend but in the end chose something new, something that was given to me last week and which I fully expected to have to give back before I left: my accreditation pass for the London Summit – which describes me as “Blogger”.
I had a comfy fourth slot on the programme. I was preceded by Tom Lucas from UKTV talking about a buddha he gave to his mum and humility; Toby Moores from Sleepydog talking about a microphone, loudspeaker and amplification; and Frances Croxford from Jane Wentworth Associates talking about a book of “Beautiful Writings by Latin Authors” which she picked up in a bookshop when she was fifteen. I was followed by Jonathan MacDonald who talked about the Cluetrain Manifesto and how it changed his life.
For once, I did some preparation beforehand, in fact I wrote out what I was going to say in full. So I thought I’d post it here to expose my pretentious waffle to a wider audience. This is what I said:
This is my pass for the London Summit 2009 – the meeting of the G20 industrialised nations held last week. The bit of it that I’m most proud of is that it describes me as a Blogger. And that’s what I am. My business card says Social Media Consultant or Social Media Tart or Freelance Subversive depending on which version you have, but the bottom line is that I use a variety of media to tell stories and publish them on the internet where other people pick over them. And last week I was doing that at the summit.
And I’ve been thinking a lot about how I got there. How it happened to be me that was one of a few hundred people squeezed into a room up close with the president of the united states of america. And it comes down to telling stories with purpose, telling stories to make sense and learn about yourself and the world. No doubt that’s also how I stumbled into being invited to speak to you tonight. Because I believe that telling stories (and engaging in conversation about them) at this human scale, where you can see the whites of my eyes is something that’s going to be very useful to us in the 21st Century as we grapple with unprecedented rates of social, economic and technological change. Talking at this scale is a skill that I think we all need to learn again and practice regularly.
So there are four people who taught me the value of small scale story-telling and conversation.
The first was my mother. I would hear her tell stories over and over again. The substance of these stories were not earth-shattering, they were everyday stories of shop-keepers, milkmen and her at number 27. They were about everyday events and what they meant. Women are still telling these stories, making sense of their lives through conversation. “So he said and she said and I think there was a bit of, ‘you know what’ going on.” And I heard these stories get little tweaks whether we were visiting my Nan or my Grandma or Pauline next door but one or the Methodist Young Wives Coffee Morning. These tweaks and embellishments came as she gained insights and realised that some things were perhaps best not said. There were always one or two “stories of the day” that everyone was treated to and then a sprinkling of other subjects depending on the intimacy of relationship and the time available. I was a quiet little boy. I just sat and listened and took in every word.
The next person who taught me the value of story telling was Brian Dear. Brian taught me German from 1978 to 1983. Poor man. His first class started with him marching into the classroom, swinging his leg up onto the desk, pointing at his foot and shouting “Das ist ein Schuh! Was ist das?” waiting until someone whimpered “ein Schuh?” and then going on through various pieces of clothing and body parts. Once we’d mastered basic vocabulary and grammar our weekly homework was to retell a story that he had told us at the end of the week. He read it very clearly for us to write down and illlustrate. The stories revolved around a farming family from Bavaria. Bauer Bumm, his wife, two children and their pet crocodile Kroko. Kroko was the star of every story except invariably the ending came with him being hit over the head with an umbrella by Baeuerin Bumm – “Paeng!” which seems to be the noise made when you hit a crocodile on the head with an umbrella “Aua!” which is what a crocodile shouts when hit over the head with an umbrella. As we gained confidence we were allowed to add our own embellishments. The only things I remember inserting were references to Brustwarze, the German for nipple and the use of “Zimbabwe” as a swear word. I’m not sure how much of this sort of creative learning through storytelling and experimentation is allowed under the National Curriculum.
Ian Ricketts was much much quieter than Brian Dear. Ian taught me first on a course called “Character Building” when I was a student at the Guildford School of Acting. It was not supposed to have anything to do with improving the quality of my personal character although there was plenty of sacrifice, rigorous honesty and forced humility.
It was essentially a guided improvisation class to show us how to be part of a story by being truthful and surpressing our own needs to show off. It was about being. Being honest and true to your character and trusting that one needs to show far less than one thinks. That the truth is apparent to those watching. So from Ian I learned the importance of authenticity but also that you can’t help being a part of any story you tell.
And then I met Brent Work at the University of Surrey who introduced me, in his Information Strategy course to an American academic style of teaching through narrative and conversation. He’d sit at the front and tell stories in a gentle Garrison Keeler style and then we as a class would have a chat about it and it was up to us to pull out the lessons from him through discussion and conversation.
Brent also said something that really made me sit up and take notice and get very excited about the future.
In 1994, I heard him say “The job you have in 10 or 15 years has probably not been invented yet”
And he was right. The word “blogger” hadn’t even been invented. The world wide web was a year or so old and the I had absolutely no idea that my job would involve, in 15 years time, standing in a room a few yards away from the British Prime Minister and then the President of the United States of America (let alone the fact that the prez would be an African American btw) and then writing about it on the internet. Or organising an event at the Institute of Contemporary Art where ordinary people could ask questions of the President of the World Bank. My life seems odd right now, but from the perspective of 15 years ago it seems completely insane.
So what I wanted, in addition to telling you a story that helps me make sense of who I am and how I got here, what I wanted was to capture this transitional moment when “Blogger” (perhaps temporarily, who knows) became a legitimate category of attendee at a major international summit. And to let you know that I got there by doing not much more than telling stories at a human, personal level to help me and people like me understand our world and our lives.
Thank you very much.