The art of storytelling

Thurston Hopkins died this week aged 101.  He was a photojournalist whose images captured British life and its humanity and inequalities in the 1950s.  And they say a picture paints a thousand words.

Credit: Thurston Hopkins

Credit: Thurston Hopkins

This got me to thinking about telling stories.  A crucial skill that when effectively wielded has people hanging off your every word, increasing the chances that they will act on the information, which in the think tank world desirous of influence and impact is the holy grail.

Make no mistake though, storytelling is an art.  But being an art doesn’t make it unobtainable and esoteric, instead storytelling is the reverse: crafted and considered; engaging and entrancing; a clear and compelling message to pass on to its audience.

So what is the best way of doing this?

Yesterday, a new sculpture by Gillian Wearing was unveiled in Birmingham.  This followed a competition run by Ikon Gallery to find ‘a real Birmingham family’.  The winners, now immortalised in bronze in pride of place by the Library of Birmingham, are two single mum sisters, Roma and Emma Jones (the latter with pregnancy bump) walking along with their two sons Kyan and Shaye.

This is a project that appears to have engaged the local Birmingham community, there were 372 nominations, people who liked the idea that they might represent what it means to be a family in Birmingham, now.  This sculpture then explores stories of family, meanings of identity and what it is to be typical, whilst celebrating ‘the unsung and the everyday’. There are lots of people that don’t relate to the ‘traditional’ family unit but might relate to this.  The telling of a story to challenge what we think normal is.  Clever in my book.

Credit: Andrew Fox

Credit: Andrew Fox

Stories or to put it another way, paradigms, create cultural norms. Accepted ways of thinking about things. When our friends and families tell the same ‘stories’ as us we feel comforted, reassured and bolstered that our worldview is right and just.  Trying to get people to see things from a different perspective then requires something different.

We are very comfortable publishing reports. Some people even read them. Some get read a lot. Some don’t. The World Bank bravely led the way in sharing exactly how many (or not) of their reports are downloaded, which the Washington Post depressingly but understandably extrapolated to mean ‘the solutions to all our problems may be buried in pdfs that no one reads’.

So as we continue exploring what impact the RSA should have in the world, what change we want to be a part of creating, what are the ways we should be telling these stories?

IPPR have just published a graphic novel, six pictorial stories of life and change in communities in Britain and the Open Society Foundations has also done similar telling the story of Somali communities around the world.  Artists Grennan and Sperandio also did similar in Peterborough with the Street Pastors as part of our Citizen Power Peterborough programme (see why it’s important to keep telling that story – changing perceptions of place is a slow burner).

Credit: Grennan and Sperandio

Credit: Grennan and Sperandio

The RSA also has captured peoples’ imagination with RSA Animates, a series of animations designed to bring to life stories of world changing ideas.  Sir Ken Robinson’s ‘Changing Education Paradigms’ is on over 12 million views.  Astonishing.  So more of that then please.

Is blogging the way to go?  My colleague Andres Fossas recently had some viral success with his blog ‘The Age of Awareness’ (I recommend reading it, it’s good) with 10,000 reads in around three days and 1,000 likes on Facebook.  So, it can be done.

We’ve just launched a new website for RSA Academies (do pop by) and the whole way through our thought process has been about the storytelling – what we are trying to tell and who we are trying to tell it to.  One example of this is telling stories of success which are beyond the scope of Ofsted.  Personal stories of achievement or success that inspire others or are just ‘blooming well done’ because actually all the odds are stacked against gaining that apprenticeship, overcoming that disability or getting that ‘C’.  You can read the Pupil Stories on each of the schools pages, but here’s three examples from Ipsley CE RSA Academy.

There’s also a new film telling the story of the relationship that schools have with the RSA and what it means to be an RSA Academy.  Film making is a wonderful, intricate process and we’d like to do more, but it can be expensive.  And not everyone watches videos of course, the Obama campaign proved that one.

So as we are working this out perhaps we should take a lesson from Kate Tempest, who is currently taking the music, spoken word, literary world by storm and refuses (quite rightly) to be put in a box, but instead is experimenting with her creative forces and seeing what happens.


Cities: Our Beacons of Hope

October 31, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

Over the last twelve months, the RSA’s City Growth Commission has assessed how cities can be empowered to drive the UK’s economy. Chaired by renowned economist Jim O’Neill, who coined the acronym BRIC, the Commission underlined that our UK enquiry had to be seen in the global context.

Large scale infrastructure programmes, ranging from high rise office buildings to improved transport links are testament to the increasing importance of cities all over the world. Whilst London and New York remain the two biggest global players for now, cities such as Shanghai, Hong Kong and Dubai have joined the stage and are now followed by Bogota, Rio de Janeiro, Mumbai, Nairobi and many more. Read more

Drugs Legislation: Read the evidence, engage on the debate, communicate your views.

October 30, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

Hearing Caroline Lucas state “We need not be afraid” in reference to a change in drugs policy was reassuring. It is time to step up and discuss this matter much more fully.

According to Norman Baker MP the recent report from the Home Office has been held back from publishing due to “inconvenient facts” for the government. The report looks at approaches to drug policy from 11 countries across the world. It has been particularly influenced by the 13 year policy focus on health in Portugal. Far from being incomparable to the situation in the UK, as suggested by the Tory minister Michael Ellis, the report states that it is “grounded in an understanding of the drugs situation in the UK” and further that it focused on themes that were “relevant to the UK situation”.

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Why our fears over red tape are overblown

October 30, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Enterprise 

What would you do to help more businesses survive and grow?

If you’re like most people, you’d probably call for greater deregulation and a cull of burdensome red tape. This is what Cameron promised at the start of this year when he announced plans to drop or change more than 3,000 business rules. Regulation was also the target of Adrian Beecroft’s infamous report in 2012, which proposed introducing no-fault dismissals so that small businesses could let go of staff at will. Only a few weeks ago, a senior EU official argued for a ‘bonfire of red tape’ across Europe, which would make small and medium sized businesses virtually exempt from rules affecting business practices. The rationale for these moves is clear: cutting red tape would reduce the risk and costs of doing business, and thereby encourage entrepreneurs to innovate, expand and take on staff.

Yet if this sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. The reality is that red-tape just isn’t as big a deal as we like to make out. The OECD, for example, reports that the UK has the third least regulated labour market in the world – so flexible, in fact, that it is thought to be easier to dismiss someone here than in the US. Similarly, the World Bank consistently ranks this country as one of the easiest places in the world in which to do business – ahead of Germany, France, Japan and many other developed countries. The government also continues to enact measures that make the labour market more flexible for the benefit of employers. Last year saw the introduction of new fees of up to £1,200 for any workers seeking to make a tribunal claim. As a result, the number of employers being taken to tribunal have plummeted.

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What is the solution to political alienation? A profound moment of democratic renewal not populism

October 29, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Adam Lent 

Deep political alienation is a breeding ground for extremism and populism. Research released today by YouGov and Southampton University proves the point.

The work has two key findings. Firstly, contrary to the opinion of some supposedly wise old political hands, people genuinely are much more alienated from politics today than they once were. Over the last seventy years, the proportion of the population thinking politicians put their country above their own interests and those of their party has fallen from 36% to just 10%.

The other finding is that these declining levels of trust are driving support for UKIP. Those voting for Nigel Farage’s party are much more likely to believe politicians only look after themselves (74% for UKIP voters compared to 48% for the wider electorate). In fact, the research showed that holding such a view is as good a predictor of a voter backing UKIP as the social characteristics associated with UKIP supporters: male, older and working class.

As the researchers conclude:

Arguably political disaffection unifies UKIP supporters at least as much as either opposition to the EU or concern about immigration … UKIP voters are not necessarily the ‘left behind’, but are people holding unambiguously and intensely negative views of politics and politicians.

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Big Idea – Warblr: the Birdsong App

October 27, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

With an ever-growing urban population, the gap between people’s day-to-day lives and our natural world is widening. We live in a society full of distractions, and nature is becoming further removed from many people’s frame of reference.
Fellow Florence Wilkinson is looking to overcome this gap through her new app Warblr, for which she has just launched a crowdfunding campaign on the RSA’s area on Kickstarter with support from RSA Catalyst.
“Birds are indicators of the environment. If they are in trouble, we know we’ll soon be in trouble”, writes Roger Tory Peterson. And I’m sad to say that right now, our British birds are in trouble. Just last week Government figures revealed that populations of farm birds, such as grey partridge, turtle dove and the starling, are down by more than 85% since the 1970s.

We are losing our biodiversity at a terrifying rate: between 1000 and 10,000 times the natural extinction rate, according to experts. Never has our flora and fauna been in greater need of protection.

In the light of such figures, any attempt to take positive action may seem like a drop in the ocean, but we hope that we can create a little ripple, which alongside many other organisatioSONY DSCns will help us make waves. Read more

100 x 107 = A formula for the future of Fellowship?

October 27, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

How do you celebrate 100 years of Fellowship? How about finding 100 younger people to join the RSA as Fellows?

IMG_7801On 24 September the RSA’s new Centenary Young Fellowship scheme was launched to celebrate the centenary year of Fellowship. 100 budding young changemakers joined the Fellowship to support the RSA’s ethos of  ‘Enriching society through ideas and action’. To help turn ideas into action we often need a great deal of support, so we’d like to take this opportunity to thank all those who contributed to this scheme. Our new Centenary Young Fellows (CYFs) are spread across the country with a range of skills and experiences and I have no doubt we will be seeing the emergence of numerous exciting projects from them CYFs over the coming years.  Read about some of this cohorts’ current work and offer your support on our website.


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Creating Creative Cities – how the City Growth Commission report can unlock innovation and entrepreneurialism across the UK

October 24, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

Rohan Silva, City Growth Commissioner, (@Rohan__Silva)

It’s a fascinating 21st century paradox that technology is obliterating distance, enabling us to easily communicate and collaborate with people on the other side of the planet, and yet physical proximity and clustering in cities is more crucial for innovation than ever before.

As the Harvard economist Edward Glaeser has written, cities “are our greatest invention” – places where entrepreneurs, academics and inventors can collide with diverse viewpoints and industries. This type of serendipitous collision is vital for modern innovation, which so often arises from inter-disciplinary thinking, and the cross-fertilisation of ideas and approaches. Read more

Three baby steps to direct democracy

October 23, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Economy, Uncategorized 

In his blog last week, Adam Lent talked about a crisis of representative democracy, referencing a YouGov survey in which 72% agreed with the statement: ‘politics is dominated by self-seeking politicians protecting the interests of the already rich and powerful in our society’. He eloquently made the case for political parties to  “shift away from the current highly representative approach to democracy based on strong party discipline, to one with a larger element of direct democracy”.

While I agree with the sentiment – indeed it is my team’s raison d’être to support a “shift in power to people and communities so that they can better meet their economic and social needs and aspirations” – I think there are a number of steps between where we are now and “direct democracy”. So rather than take on the problem as a whole, perhaps we should look at it in smaller chunks – baby steps, like the following:


1. Put down the PR tools

Think back to last month’s party conferences: the speakers were all careful to show their empathy for the common man, liberally referencing real people and situations, but by trying to curb support for Ukip with carefully crafted speeches about people’s lives, it reinforced the disconnect between their lives and those of their subjects. Read more

The illusion that is the decline of deference

October 23, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Enterprise 

Regular readers of this blog will know that the RSA has a new worldview called the Power to Create. In short, this is about helping more people in more places to turn their ideas into reality, and thereby become the authors of their own lives. The animation below gives you the gist of what it’s all about.

I broadly subscribe to the vision, except for one assertion: that people are clambering for greater power, and that this is partly down to a decline of deference for the elite. If anything, I think large parts of society are in danger of becoming more docile and revering. As Nick Cohen put it not long ago, ‘the British have no fight in them anymore’.

True, the approval ratings of politicians have plummeted over the last few decades, and it’s hard to see how they could get any worse. Likewise, we know that the religious clergy have lost much of their influence, with ever dwindling numbers turning up to church each week (though the story may be different for non-Christians). Scotland Yard and Fleet Street have also lost huge amounts of respect, in large part due to never-ending scandals. Even big business is seeing its authority undermined. Surveying by Ipsos Mori has found that only 34 per cent of people believe business leaders can be trusted. Read more

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