THE ART OF STORYTELLING

REFLECTIONS ON SEBASTIAN FAULKS AT MRS IMPACT 2015

As Mr Faulks acknowledged in MRS Impact 2015 as the keynote speaker, there is a danger of amassing too much data at the expense of insight. And at some point, it’s important to step back and focus on the story. Find out more on Sebastian Faulks’ reflection on the art of storytelling.

To be honest, I was a little surprised to see Sebastian Faulks listed as the final speaker at the MRS Conference. Pleased, most certainly. But a little surprised. After all, I’ve read Birdsong. (Who hasn’t read Birdsong?) But what does it have to do with research? Well, other than the vast quantity that went into it. And what could I, as a commercial semiotician, possibly learn from an author best known for his vivid re-imaginings of the First World War?

The answer, inevitably, is a lot.

Mr Faulks spoke amusingly, perceptively and at great length about the art of storytelling, as well he might. And a lot of it felt incredibly relevant to the kind of challenges that semioticians face every day when deciding how and what information to communicate. At the heart of his message was the importance of combining seriousness of intent with storytelling and narrative flair. The Faulksian solution? “Don’t provide the whole story because that’s history. Focus instead, on creating an authentic feeling of what something is like.”

Fundamental to this is a focus on detail as the heart of narrative (sound familiar?). Mr Faulks recounted a trip he undertook to the battlefields with several veterans. They overflowed with vivid anecdotes whilst struggling to put into words just what the experience ‘felt’ like – let alone meant. Truth, the author concluded lies in the trivial. In this spirit, he spent hours, days and months in the archives of the British War Museum reading letters, determined to find out more about the barter system surrounding cigarette papers and how often soldiers were able to change their socks.

So far, so many parallels. But as I’ve already said, it’s not just about the research – it’s about the challenges of constructing a narrative from it. And the more you do, the harder it gets. As Mr Faulks acknowledged, there is a danger of amassing too much data at the expense of insight. And at some point, it’s important to step back and focus on the story. The challenge for anyone working in communications, whether writing a novel or compiling a deck, is to uncover themes without reducing content to cipher; to impose a unifying conclusion that isn’t reductive; to use detail to paint a vivid picture but one that doesn’t overwhelm. It’s a big one. It’s a balancing act.

Mr Faulks didn’t provide an absolute answer but a focus on the apparently trivial seems like a good place to start.