Well Told: A conference about longform and narrative journalism

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to attend an unusual event (unusual for the London conference world): the city’s first conference focussing on longform journalism. This is a particularly interesting time to zoom in on this form of storytelling, given the unfortunate rise of fake news and sensational events like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, which eclipse other important ones like the ongoing migrant crisis. The former suit the 24-hour news cycle much better than the latter, and so a lot of important stories go untold.

It’s about trust and tribal identities, not facts

Amy O’Leary, Chief Story Officer at Upworthy, began her talk by showing us a clip of the story of Rob Scheer, which gained tens of millions of views and 477,000 shares. It is an emotional story which truly resonated with people, and she used it to illustrate that even in the age of sensationalist news, human stories can break through. As she said,

‘We have a reality-based problem. Facts are under assault like never before’

Facts are easily overwhelmed by master narratives that people employ to understand the world. So the simpler, better story wins cognitively, whether or not it is true. So it’s not facts, but stories that matter.

She also made a really good point about the importance of trust. If people don’t trust you, it doesn’t matter how good your facts are because they won’t believe it. Referring to Eli Pariser (founder of Upworthy) and his book The Filter Bubble, she said that we are moving from a ‘process-based to an interpersonal form of trust’, or handing over the reins from experts to our friends. We trust our friends in the way we sometimes don’t trust experts. The scary thing is that sometimes people don’t really care if they are familiar with only one-sided views, and this has repercussions, as we have seen in the US. According to the Pew Research Centre, ‘Conservative Republicans that say the news they get from friends and family is fairly one-sided are much more likely than others to say that this is OK (51%, compared with about a third or less of other political groups).’

The solution is to engender trust first, and then provide facts. This is also part of the reason why Trump won: if your community wasn’t covered much by the media then you’re already not thinking favourably about the media, and it doesn’t take a lot to trust a politician who said that you shouldn’t trust that media. This was best summarised in a tweet that Amy showed us from writer and editor Ayesha Siddiqi:

That is precisely why fake news has traction: it serves people’s need for tribal identity. Throwing more facts at the problem, therefore, isn’t the answer – it’s in the craft of journalism: “to tell true stories that reflect the community to a larger understanding of ourselves”.

In short, Amy left us with the following tips:

  • Be aware of a community’s tribal identities or schemas
  • Understand various schemas, don’t ignore them
  • Acknowledge that in today’s world especially, facts are not enough
  • Activate new tribal identities
  • Build trust by serving the need of communities

‘Take them there and make them care’

Manveen Rana, a Radio 4 producer, told us about her experience making a radio programme tracking the Dhnie family, who migrated from Syria to Germany. A 2-day project became 6 weeks, but she was able to convey so much more of the nuances of the story of the individuals in the family by taking the time to uncover their story, rather than just produce one episode.

She mentioned a quote from a colleague of hers about what she should try to focus on: “take them there and make them care”, because people are saturated with refugee images coming out of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan. So she realised she needed to surface the back story to make people care. As she said, “longform allows for complexity”, which short news stories don’t.

‘Narratives are designed to render felt experience’.

Tom French, the Pulitzer-prize winning writer and novelist, spoke about how it is important for journalists to recognise the need for people to know.

He also spoke about how information is different from stories. Most journalistic forms are structured to convey information. Narratives, he said, are different, in that they convey stories and are ‘designed to render felt experience.’

He encouraged journalists to take the time to know specifics about the lives of the people they were writing about, to find out what they care about. ‘Zoom in tight’, as he said. Because people want to know the details.

Compassion fatigue

Emma-Jane Kirby, a reporter for BBC’s Radio 4, gave a fascinating account of her experience meeting an optician in Italy who happened to come upon a group of drowning Eritrean refugees while he was on holiday sailing on a boat in the sea off Lampedusa. He was able to save 47 people, but the experience never left him because he had to leave many others who died.

The story of that event became the book ‘The Optician of Lampedusa’. Ms. Kirby spoke about how she did a fair bit of research about the migrant situation in Eritrea and even wrote a couple of chapters on it, but in the end decided to leave them out because she realised she didn’t want anything to detract from the experience of the optician, who was the reason the story existed. It was through his experience, she said, that people could perhaps feel compassion again for migrants, an emotion that we have become numb to, having been almost saturated with tragic images of the crisis for years now. As she said:

“It doesn’t matter if you’re anti or pro-immigration, right or left politically – who can accept that 14 people per day died trying to cross last year?”

Slow journalism

Rob Orchard, co-founder of Delayed Gratification magazine, spoke about the position that his print magazine occupies in a digital world. He wanted it to ‘do the most that print can do’ – he wanted it to look good, smell good and feel good. He said that there was a place for it in the world because traditional news media are in decline as they have too much space to fill in their pages and do not discriminate when it comes to how they fill them. They also have a herd mentality that leads to the same stories being covered by everyone in the same short span of time. Delayed Gratification, he said, is more about slow journalism. They have two main goals: to revisit stories after the dust has settled, and to tell stories that the rest of the media has missed. They focus on finding the extraordinary in the ordinary – which links back to Emma-Jane Kirby’s focus on the experience of an otherwise ordinary optician.

Stories can be a matter of life and death

In a very touching session, Tom and Kelley French spoke about their book on the fight for survival of their extremely premature baby, born at 23 weeks. Kelley narrated her lived experience and the multitude of questions that came with it: baby Juniper was born at an age that was less than the number of weeks that babies can legally be aborted in many countries (24 weeks); as Kelley said, what to do with babies born at the edge of viability is one of the biggest controversies in medicine today.

They spoke about the quandary they had when it came to landing on the structure for the story: two-person memoirs are tough, and it’s rare for people to successfully write a memoir as two people. So they landed on the route of using a ‘baton-writing’ style, with neither of them writing the same part twice.

With a story like this, it was also very easy to get into a territory that might have made them sound indulgent, and they wanted to strictly avoid that. They wanted to be true to who they were, versus who they wish they had been: experiences like this could very easily fall back on stereotypical descriptions of love and life, but they didn’t want that.

It was heart-rending to hear about how Tom read Harry Potter to Juniper as she was in the NICU, and how her heartbeat would slow at good stories and start dropping when they were stories she didn’t like. That was why he closed by saying, “Stories can really be a matter of life and death”.

Juniper was in the room during the talk.

What does it even mean?

Mark Kramer’s masterclass on narrative journalism had a few good tips for the journalists among us:

  • Only put yourself in a piece if there’s a point in doing it.
  • If you turn emotions into narrative, you get a mawkish article.
  • The more you get into it, the better you know what you’re writing about (hark back to almost all the sessions above).
  • …which led to how access is all in journalism. You have to get to a point where you experience a story at a ‘felt life level’. Mark himself had to give up on a story because one of the people he wanted to interview refused access.
  • Don’t be scared of short sentences and paragraphs – use full-stops!
  • Eliminate ‘to be’ verbs, and words like ‘when’ and ‘as’ – they all remove you from the immediacy of the scene, and lose you readers.
  • Remove ‘blank’ images – like the phrase ‘gaudy picture’. What does that even mean?

Longform stories lead to longer reads

Jill Nicholson, Head of Product Education at Chartbeat, gave us an insight into the metrics behind longform journalism success. From research drawn from looking at longform content from 1 January to 15 May 2017, she mentioned how Chartbeat found that the human component stands out in longform journalism, as a result of which people tend to share them more.

Longform journalism is consumed mostly on mobile – 62% of the content examined was on mobile, while for all content it was 44%.

The best day to push longform journalism is Friday, so she suggested using social media then to give existing content a second life.

Existing readers matter – 11% of repeat readers for a US publication contributed 56% of revenue.

Facebook matters when it comes to promoting longform – it’s much more important than Twitter.

Longform journalism leads to people spending an average of 76 seconds on a site compared to 37 seconds for all content. Also, if you can keep a reader on your site for 3 minutes the first time they visit, they are much more likely to return than someone who stays just for 1 minute the first time.

And then there was more

There were also a couple of other very good sessions at Well Told. I wouldn’t hesitate to go again, and I sincerely hope that conferences like this mean we will start seeing publications and brands of all kinds spending more on good quality longform content.

Calling High Net Worth Women in the UK

Angel Academe, whose advisory board I’m on, is looking for UK-based high net worth women to participate in an EU-funded survey about angel investing – we need women who don’t invest to participate as well, as long as you qualify. If this is you or a friend, please share. More here, from Angel Academe:

DeepMind, SwiftKey and Zoopla are all examples of successful British businesses who received practical and financial support from angel investors. Angel investment is one of the most important sources of help for new businesses. It’s also a great way to share expertise and build new connections. Angel investing is exciting, enjoyable and collaborative, offering women the chance to use their financial capacity and business skills to back high-growth potential entrepreneurs. Yet only 14% of angel investors are women, although we now own 48% of UK wealth!

Angel Academe and UK Business Angels Association, the trade body supporting the growth of angel investment in the UK, are working together on a new piece of research to find out more about women’s perceptions of angel investing. This research is part of a new EU project called “Women Angels for Europe’s Entrepreneurs”, enabling us to review the situation in the UK as well as France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Belgium.

The results will help us understand how to engage more women in angel investing – to help support the economy, early-stage businesses (especially those started by women), as well as developing their own career and financial opportunities.

The research is based on a short online survey that will take no more than 10 minutes to complete. The survey is being hosted by Cass Business School, a leading UK academic institution who will also analyse the results. All information submitted will be treated entirely confidentially, with all data aggregated and anonymised. Survey participants will be offered early access to the findings and invitations to associated conferences, events and workshops about angel investing.

So, how can you help?

If you’re an existing female angel investor: Please complete the survey and share it with your friends and network.

If you’re a woman with the financial capacity and/or relevant investment or business experience, but are not an angel investor: Please complete the survey and share it with other women like you.

If you’re a man: Although the survey is exclusively for women, we’d appreciate your help! Please share it with the women in your network who qualify.

If you’re an advisor or network with High Net Worth women as your clients or members: Please share the survey with them – we’d be very grateful.

Start the survey

An interview with me on F Equals

Back in December, Danielle Newnham from F-Equals (previously called Tease and Totes) interviewed me for their blog. They just updated the interview with an additional question, so I thought it would be a good time to share it here.

Finally, if you could go back in time, what advice would you give a younger Anjali?
To my younger self, I would say – believe in yourself. Be less self-conscious and don’t worry about what others will say. I was way too concerned about the opinions of others when I was younger, and only much later in life realised that the best person to help me is me – meaning, if I didn’t do what I think I should for fear of others, the only person who would be negatively impacted is me. And much like investing in startups, the potential upside is very high. I’d tell my younger self that yes, mistakes would be made, but that’s OK because that’s how I’d learn and become better. I’d ask her to make more of a habit of saying ‘yes’. Having the privilege and ability to say ‘no’ would come much later in life.

You can read the interview in full on the F-Equals site.

A summary of Female Futures Forum, London 2017

The panel discussion at Female Futures Forum. Image via The Future Laboratory.

A few weeks ago I was at the Female Futures Forum hosted by the Future Laboratory. It was based on their latest research looking at female entrepreneurialism and innovation. I’d been interviewed by them as part of their research a while back, so it was good to see the final output presented.

The research presentation covered a few key facts about women in business, which may be familiar to many but should become familiar to everyone. They bear repeating; here are some of them:

  • It will take another 169 years to plug the global pay gap between men and women (WEF 2016)
  • Businesses with 3 or more female directors, or a female CEO and a female director, perform 36% better in terms of return on equity (MSCI)
  • Companies with more women on their boards are less likely to be hit by scandals such as bribery, fraud or shareholder battles (MSCI)
  • Women in the US are starting businesses at 1.5 times that of the national average (The Economist)

The presentation also noted how many brands are now paying attention to women and their place in the world. Some campaigns highlighted were UN Women Egypt’s print ads about the gender split in the workforce, GE’s brilliant campaign showcasing a world where female scientists are treated like celebrities, and the Nike ad featuring female Arab athletes.

However not enough companies are putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to actually hiring enough women, or promoting them. As Cindy Gallop says:

We are seeing virtually zero change. Stop talking about it – start doing it. I don’t want to see nice words and fancy ads. I want to see THIS. Put your money where your mouth is.

The second part of the event showcased interviews with female Gen Z entrepreneurs who believe, amongst many other things, that there is place for more than one woman at the top, and that it is only by taking care of oneself that a person can create a business that succeeds (the latter quote, and image below, by 22-year-old Phoebe Gormley of Gormley & Gamble).

The last session of the day was a panel discussion featuring Cilla Snowball, Chair of the Women’s Business Council and Group Chairman and CEO of AMV BBDO, Dr Mara Harvey, head of UBS Unique and a senior manager of UBS Wealth Management, Sara Shahvisi, director of programmes at Fearless Futures, and Sam Baker, co-founder of The Pool, moderated by Tracey Follows, Chief Strategy & Innovation Officer at the Future Laboratory.

Dr. Mara Harvey spoke about the challenges she faced in setting up UBS Unique, a division focussing on female clients, in the heavily male-dominated world of finance. She grappled with something as simple as naming the programme because she knew it needed to be taken seriously by men as much as women (and hence rejected the name Athena!). The goal of the programme is to educate at least 1 million women in finance.

Sam Baker was candid and spoke with honesty about her journey getting funding for The Pool. In her experience, men prefer to hear made up numbers as they want to invest in what they consider ambitious projects, whether or not they made sense. Sam narrated how she went to a VC meeting with her (female) communications director and was told they needed a man on the team ‘because it would look better’. She also narrated how she was constantly asked to justify her lifestyle business as a woman while men who had similar businesses were never asked to, despite by their own admission being less ambitious than her.

Sara Shahvisi said that educating children about things like gender bias should start in school – 21 years old is way too late as habits are already firmly set by then. She also spoke about how women should be compensated for the amount of time they spend caring for other people as they take the bulk of the responsibility for a fruitful society. She highlighted the need to talk about diversity of all sorts – not just gender but race, colour etc.; that the definition of diversity needs to be broader.

Cilla Snowball focussed on the need to make men as responsible for women’s success as women themselves. For example, the analogy about women needing to extend the ladder down to help other women up should apply to men as well. Men should also be celebrated for supporting women as much as women are, so that more men do it. She also made an important point about the need for younger female role models – the older women who have decades of experience are important to showcase but may not be relatable for a 12-15 year old.

All in all, a really inspiring morning. Huge thanks to Tracey Follows for the invite!

 

Koreo Prize: Do you know any smart young people in the UK aged 18-27?

I’m really pleased to be a judge for the inaugural Koreo Prize, a competition to encourage young people in the UK aged 18-27 to explore some of the most pressing issues of our time.

The Koreo Prize is a national storytelling competition for young people to unlock fresh takes on some of the complex social issues affecting the UK, using any combination of media. A UK first, we’re asking participants to choose one or more of six issues aligned with the UN’s Global Goals: gender equality, social mobility, food security, community resilience, wellbeing & social housing.

This competition is open to anyone between 18 and 27, there are no right or wrong answers – just a unique exploration of the issues! Plus, entrants get to be part of a community of emerging young thinkers whilst having the opportunity to win £5,000, paid work placements, free learning opportunities, tickets to global conferences, and mentoring opportunities.

The deadline for submissions is 4 April 2017 and will be judged by a panel of experts from across the public, private and non-profit sectors, including yours truly.

If you know anyone who fits the bill, do encourage them to apply! More info on the website.

My favourites from the Designs of the Year 2016

I went to the Designs of the Year exhibition a couple of weeks ago at the recently-reopened Design Museum. The annual exhibition is something I’ve been visiting for a few years now. There’s always some extremely inspiring stuff -some commercial, some clearly not as commercial – but all worth knowing about. Here are my picks of the exhibition:

Lumos Helmet: To be clear, I’m not a bike rider, but the incidences of bike accidents on the roads of London have been alarming lately. The Lumos Helmet began, as many of these projects do, as a Kickstarter project, and ‘beautifully integrates lights, hard brake, turn signals, and helmet into a single cohesive whole’.

The Bottom Ash Observatory: I’ve never thought of municipal waste as a thing to spend time thinking about (beyond its sustainable disposal), but Christien Meindertsma has published a book showing the richness she was able to extract from ‘100 kilos of incinerated household and industrial waste: the “waste of waste.”’

The Smog Free Project: Daan Roosegaarde’s Smog Free Project is a 7-meter-high structure that effectively functions as the largest air purifier in the world, ‘creating a circular zone of clean air for citizens to experience and enjoy’. It cleans ‘30,000 cubic meters per hour using ozone-free ion technology and a small amount of green electricity’. Currently installed in Beijing and Rotterdam, I know many a city that needs multiple versions of this. Admittedly it helps clean up, instead of forcing people to acknowledge the issue in the first place – but maybe that can be an evolution of it.

Hello Ruby: I heard about this when it first came out (again a Kickstarter project, but back in 2014) so it was nice to reacquaint myself with it here. Hello Ruby is a children’s book for those aged 5 or over that teaches them to code in a fun way.

Joto: This is such a brilliant idea, and I know I sound like a parrot here but it also came from Kickstarter (public launch due in 2017). It’s an internet-connected Etch-a-Sketch, or in other words, you can draw or send messages from the web to a frame on your wall. Super creative.

Refugee Republic: Premiered at the Amsterdam documentary festival IDFA in 2014 and winner of a Dutch Design Award in 2015, Refugee Republic is an interactive documentary about life in a Syrian refugee camp in Domiz, Northern Iraq. A really immersive way to get your head around some of the human stories playing out even as we speak.

Design That Saves Lives, Bangladesh: When the Rana Plaza collapse happened in 2013 killing over 1000 people, I was only too aware of the risk of something like that happening multiple times a day in crowded cities that I’m familiar with, like Delhi. So I was immensely relieved to see the work of Arup’s Ireland office in Bangladesh in the months following the collapse: a structural safety assessment that now helps to save thousands of lives.

MTV’s Martin Luther King Day media campaign #thetalk: I missed this when it came out in 2015, but it appealed to my time in a media agency as one of the most creative ways to get an important message across using TV. On MLK Day, MTV telecast all their programmes in black and white, prompting discussion of race by their target audience, millennials.

Post/Biotics by Vidhi Mehta: A project by an RCA student in Innovation Design Engineering, this project aims to draft the public into helping to test natural substances that might be able to function as antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance is becoming a huge challenge to scientists the world over – in fact it is also the focus of the £10 million Longitude Prize. Post/Biotics is a very low-touch way of working on this problem, and reminds me of campaigns like Cancer Research’s Genes in Space mobile game, where players were drafted to find a solution to cancer.

10 Things I Learned In 2016

1) NARP: Nonathletic Regular Person. From this conversation between Jason Kottke and his niece about her usage of Snapchat.

2) Nae-nae: ‘a hip-hop dance that involves planting one’s feet, swaying with shoulder movement, placing one hand in the air and one hand down, and incorporating personal creativity’ (Wikipedia). From Sophia DeJesus’ college gymnast routine, as described by Time.

3) LIGO: Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. From this New Yorker story about how scientists finally found gravitational waves. Also, the ‘interferometer’. What a brilliant word!

4) Zero-day exploits: ‘an undisclosed computer-software vulnerability that hackers can exploit to adversely affect computer programs, data, additional computers or a network. It is known as a “zero-day” because it is not publicly reported or announced before becoming active, leaving the software’s author with zero days in which to create patches or advise workarounds to mitigate its actions’ (Wikipedia). From this blog post by Ben Thompson discussing the dispute between Apple and the FBI over hacking an iPhone earlier this year.

5) Mario and Luigi: the names of the two robots created by the MIT Senseable City Lab to crawl underground sewers in Cambridge, MA and collect virus samples. From this Forbes article explaining the project.

6) This Noah Chomsky quote, which can be applied to 2016 in general, from this Medium post by Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab on why she left the University of Wisconsin-Madison for Temple University.

“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.”

7) The cellphone reception area between DC and Baltimore was called the ‘dogbone’ because it represents the shape of the area served by the same tower. From Sarah Koenig’s day 3 update to Serial Season 1. 

8) The longest artist name recorded on Songkick is The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die (61 characters). From this Songkick post on designing with data. 

9) Prosopagnosia: Face blindness (Wikipedia). From this TED talk by Nancy Kanwisher, ‘A Neural Portrait of the Human Mind.

10) Qualia: The way things seem to us. Read this PDF for more. First spotted in this Aeon article about how AI can shed new light on literary texts.