Grow Your Own Stories

It doesn’t take the sharpest of trend spotters to work out that the ancient art of storytelling has been receiving some fresh appreciation. We’ve always valued a good yarn, but now more than ever it seems they’re regarded as a precious commodity.

Business leaders are leading by anecdote and allegory, and their employees are busily crafting their own career narratives. Meanwhile, social media has generated a myriad of story-sharing opportunities and an insatiable appetite for content. Big brands and TED-inspired keynote speakers know that the best stories have a special way of holding our attention, affecting us personally and making us more receptive to ideas. They’re seizing their chance to turn these intimate moments of connection into moments of global recognition, magnifying the impact of a good story and extending its emotional reach.

Maybe, like me, you miss the days when we just told stories without first having to tell people we were telling stories. But I can’t deny this frenzy of interest in storytelling has been good news for Scriberia. There’s a very natural association between story and image that we benefit from. For almost all of us, the first stories we engaged with came with pictures. And people come to us hoping our scribing will be absorbing and memorable in the same way our favourite storybooks were when we were kids. But I think scribing offers an alternative kind of storytelling to the well-worn, well-loved narrative paths of our childhood.

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The stories that run through our work emerge organically as we go about the business of listening and drawing what we hear, and it might take a little effort on the part of the viewer to find them. Scribing inches across the wall, spreading into spaces, making connections and taking off in new directions or bursting into rich imagery as the discussion dictates. To an extent it’s free to wander, but the best examples are rooted in something more permanent and disciplined: the artist’s commitment to capture what is yet to become clear and deal with it imaginatively when it arrives.

There are plenty of other examples of this kind of visual storytelling - where the creative impulse to record, and a steady flow of content over time, combine to encourage lively and unexpected narratives. In fact, I’d say that this wandering, unplanned, find-it-yourself variety could one day become the type of story we engage with most often. The internet both improves our visual literacy and presents much of our content in the form of a timeline, which in turn is shaping the way we like to receive information offline too. In other words, the conditions are suddenly perfect for these living, growing pictorial stories to sprout and thrive in all kinds of places.

Picasso's Guernica

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They’re becoming more common, but they’re not new. Picasso’s Guernica might not immediately seem an obvious example of this kind of storytelling. It might sound odd to describe one of the great 20th century works of art as something over which the artist wasn’t fully in command, and cheeky to compare his work with ours, but there is a connection. Like scribing, Guernica was shaped by a combination of creative judgement and forces beyond the artist’s control.

With civil war raging in Spain, Picasso had been asked to create a mural for the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. He’d found it hard to settle on a theme for the work until, on 27 April 1937, the German airforce bombed the small Basque town of Guernica for three days and killed over 600 people. This was a subject Picasso couldn’t ignore. But even as he was creating his masterpiece, he was constantly adapting his plans. He was very open to possibility of new information arriving and influencing the image. The horrifying details of the bombing took time to reach the wider world, but as more information emerged, Picasso allowed it to shape the final work.

In an intense period of activity after the bombing, Picasso pieced together the painting as he was piecing together his own understanding of what had happened. Obviously, the image is a symbolic representation, but it was allowed to grow spontaneously in the hothouse of reports, eyewitness accounts, photographs and sketches that the artist built around the project.

Russian Criminal Tattoos

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Here’s a very different example of the organic growth of a visual story: Russian criminal tattoos. Much loved these days by hipsters and T-shirt designers, these tattoos originate from a much less comfortable environment. During the Communist era, these tattoos – usually violent, obscene and anti-Soviet - formed a complex symbolic language that, over time, would turn an offender’s body into a visual record of their own criminal life.

Documented meticulously by a Leningrad prison guard, his project was actually sanctioned by the KGB who recognised that the stories the tattoos told gave them detailed knowledge about the individuals they were dealing with. Once decoded, a prisoner’s body could reveal information ranging from their date and place of birth, through to criminal record, previous prisons and even insights into their psychological profile. A cat denoted a thief, a skull told you the bearer was an experienced and hardened criminal, crosses on the knuckles kept a tally of prison terms, and so on.

These are pieces of visual storytelling, but they evolve unpredictably, crime by crime, prison by prison, echoing the erratic lives of their owners. There’s no plan here but, like scribing, there’s method and intent to capture the details as they occur over time. And those are the conditions that allow a visual story to take root and grow even in this most unpromising of environments.

Josie's Birthday Cards

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OK, so I’ve given you the bombing of innocent civilians and the tattoos of Russian murderers, so I’m going to take you somewhere a bit cosier now. My friend Josie is Australian but has lived in the UK for a long time now. She’s in her mid-thirties but for every birthday since her first her Dad has illustrated a card for her. Individually, those cards are often a bit goofy, a cartoon summary of Josie’s year. But seen collectively, they’re far greater than the sum of their parts. A bigger, more profound story emerges - a touching visual biography drawn by a Dad at first bringing up his daughter and later, 10,000 miles away from her. This wider narrative was never planned, it just grew, nurtured year on year by a simple creative commitment and fed by the passing of time.

Mr Irby

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And speaking of annual gestures, do you recognize this man? This is Dale Irby, a retired PE teacher from Texas, who accidently wore the same outfit for two consecutive yearbook photographs, and so decided he would continue to wear the same clothes in every yearbook photo for the next 40 years. This is another lovely visual story. The story of a man growing older, fairly gracefully, the consistencies serving to highlight the differences as time goes by. There’s even an eyewear story and riveting moustache narrative in there too if you look closely! Irby didn’t know exactly how the story would play out, but spotting the opportunity after year two, and donning that fetching sleeveless sweater annually thereafter was an act of storytelling nonetheless. He recognised the green shoots of a narrative emerging, and spent the rest of his career cultivating it!

So those are four examples of effective visual storytelling, which, like scribing, are successful despite, or in fact because of, the lack of a neatly constructed narrative arc. The craft here is not so much in building the story, but in identifying or creating the conditions in which stories can flourish. Without offering us a clear path to follow, these stories reward us for our curiosity. They encourage us to explore and because we often feel we’ve ‘found’ them the emotional connection we make with them can feel stronger and more personal. In a sense, by asking us to join the dots they make us their authors too.

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Stories that people feel ownership over are obviously a powerful tool, particularly for brands, desperately keen to foster that level of attachment to a set of ideas. And conditions have never been better for them to grow their own. As we continue to air our experiences, images, humour and news at an ever-increasing rate, we create a rich and fertile terrain from which these types of narrative can emerge. They can sprout from a tweeted picture (see left!), climb a Facebook timeline, creep across a Pinterest board or, as in our case, emerge from a day of sharing ideas. But that also makes for a crowded field. Which is why, the art of growing engaging visual stories, the art we practice as scribes, is becoming an increasingly important skill.

This is a slightly reworked version of the talk I delivered late last year at Hill + Knowlton Strategies' fantastic Demystifying Digital: Storytelling event.