“It isn’t like a lecture: it’s like a conversation. There’s a back-and-forthness about it.” Philip Pullman.
In a story that frames the 1001 Stories of the Arabian Nights, a Sultan is incensed by the infidelity of his wife. In his jealousy, he decides to get his revenge by “taking” a virgin girl each night and then cutting off her head the next morning.
But just as the supply of virgins has been pretty much exhausted, Princess Scheherazade turns up. The thing about Scheherazade is that she is cleverer than the Sultan. She begins to tell an adventure story, set in a world of magic carpets and genies and he becomes entranced by it. Day after day he allows Scheherazade to live, always in anticipation of the next story. And so it is that, after telling all the stories of the Arabian Nights, Scheherazade survives.
Stories have been around since the beginning of time. Humans respond to a story, whether real or imagined, in a different way to ordinary information. People connect with the medium of story. The Arabian Nights originate from the wonderful story telling tradition of desert nomads, later written into Persian manuscript, much later translated into European languages and even more recently turned into an unprecedented number of pantomimes. These rich stories are set in the Eastern countries that we now know as Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Israel, Syria, and Egypt.
Between 2007 and 2010 I worked for an organisation called Lightfoot Enterprises, which was set up to create solutions to climate change. I helped to devise the communications tools and message architecture for a community led “Household Energy Service” (HES) that would go on to advise a large number of households on ways to reduce fossil fuel use. Part of this work was to put together a regular newsletter. The newsletter updated people on available grants – for example for better home insulation and drew attention to local services – for example solar panel fitters.
A popular addition to these newsletters became known amongst us as people stories. We invited over 1,000 people who had already engaged with HES to write about how they were rolling up their sleeves and cutting fossil fuel use. Each true story explored the realities of changing – the highs and lows of travelling the world by train; the problems encountered when choosing insulation for a leaky church roof; the joys of cycling to work on an electric bike or turning a poorly insulated ex-council house into a snug eco home with solar water heater; and a wood burner that became a best friend.
By the time the 3rd quarterly newsletter was being compiled, people stories were flooding in at a rate of knots.
I left Lightfoot in 2010 to set up a small writing agency. These days I work on a wide range of communications and marketing projects within the “green sector”. In reality, this covers anything from sustainable design and new technologies, to local social enterprise and community activity. Sometimes known as “good” business, drivers such as profit are re-balanced by long term environmental and humanitarian considerations. This implies a need for creativity – innovation – to bring about change. The green sector is a wonderful arena to work in.
When it comes to communicating, the old one-dimensional “marketing push” to sell stuff or tell people what to do is sort of outdated really. A large part of its downfall was social media, providing everybody with a new platform for exchange. Philip Pullman’s concept of back and forthness is pretty spot on, taking elemental communication back closer to its roots, returning to us just a taste of those dark connected evenings when our ancestors exchanged stories around the fire. Or if you want me to put it into snazzy language of the Internet seers: communications is now interactive, immersive and socially connected. But perhaps it always was.
An overarching story, such as the story of Scheherazade in Arabian Nights, is known as a “frame story”. The people stories at Lightfoot were framed by the concept of a journey to low carbon living ~ understandably lots of people wanted to write about their journeys.
Modern communications is more of an exchange, less of a lecture and we can bring this ancient, human element of story into all kinds of contexts, to explore the realities of changing, of taking responsibility for the future.
First published in Broad Sheep Magazine Feb 2015 issue.