Monday, August 21, 2006

The death of Narrative may be premature

Mark Kermode sometimes describes films on his Friday afternoon review slot on Five Live’s Mayo show as “the death of narrative cinema”. He even encourages listeners to proclaim the comment loudly as they leave screenings of certain films (particularly Ice Age II).

Sometimes I wonder if the world is experiencing not just the death of narrative cinema, but the death of narrative. Period.

In a world of PowerPoint bullets, live journals and sound bites, we value small collections of facts over well constructed and coherent arguments. At work, wikis are taking over the intranet. Short interconnected pages of information, snapshots, replacing the old 40+ page documents that could be read on the plane/train and told a story of the product change or system developments.

John Ware, a reporter on BBC’s Panorama, comments that undercover secret filming may make current affairs programming more entertaining, but it can be gimmicky and overwhelm the journalistic content.

But on reflection it’s maybe not all bad news.

Reality shows like Big Brother (which thankfully crashed to a halt on Friday night) recount several long-running threads of an overall story arc on the nightly highlights show—admittedly through the eyes of the producers rather than the cast. But there is a development of storylines, building up a picture of character traits … much like a soap. (And much like a soap, the storylines aren’t always compulsive or worth watching.)

In work last week, a product manager stood up to tell us about a new product. He carried his Mac to the front of the room and set it on the table. Someone reached for the VGA cable to connect up the projector. He held out his hand to stop them. “It’s just my notes. No slides.” And for the next 20 minutes, he talked us through his vision for the new product, building up a picture of the different aspects and telling a story of how customers would engage with and use the product. Rather than diluting his carefully crafted oral argument with visual competition, he held our attention with a performance consisting only of words and hand waving.

Similarly, on Easter Tuesday I went over to London to hear Martin Fowler talk about agile delivery. Rather proudly Martin and his colleague Dan only had one slide: a graph they briefly used to illustrate some findings before they switched off the projector. They deliberately talked through a bunch of agile failures, projects they had been involved with that had gone off the rails, believing that as an audience we’d learn more from hearing how it had gone wrong, and applying that to our own situations. It made us think more deeply and analytically than if they had just mantra-like repeated the Agile Manifesto.

PowerPoint jockeys also increasingly seem to occupy the pulpits of our churches! The worst of them hang everything they say off the bullet points on their slides; following the on-screen statements religiously. But the best of them use visual imagery to reinforce their oral message, putting up quotes, but not getting hung up on always revealing the structure of what they’re going to say on the screen. They tell a story, allowing people to dip in and out of what they say, grabbing different people’s imaginations in different ways.

Maybe I’m not typical, but I’m much more likely to mentally engage with someone speaking when they paint a picture of their subject. Jesus did this with the parables. First he told a story featuring everyday examples of people and situations. Then sometimes—but not always—he interpreted the picture to remind his audience of the point. The Bible also has other content that could easily be classed as allegorical—Jonah and parts of Esther being good examples. (I think I can hear the heresy police at the door!)

So the use of narrative may not be entirely dying—though we should make sure we encourage its continued use and power.


James said...

Your experience with the product manager is familiar. I briefly worked with an architect who once set off on a two hour drive up the M1 to pitch for a job. He realised one hour into the trip he'd left the slides behind.

He had no choice but to go in, sit down and talk the clients through his proposed design direction. He, of course, got the job.

Anonymous said...

What you're saying reminds me of a book I read recently, Searching for God Knows What by Donald Miller. I totally agree that bullet points are overused. Is it not easier to remember a story that a set of discreet points?

James said...

And while we're at it, can I file a complaint against talking-in-the-style-of-a-move-script?

"And I was like 'That's no good'... and she was like 'I know!' and I was like 'Totally!' and she was like 'dude...' "

etc etc etc.