1794: Prototyping a small story

The Ignite London challenge of telling the story of my 1794 heroes in five minutes and 20 slides set me thinking about other ways to package up a narrative in the most minimal way.

In parallel with preparing my talk, I used the slides as the starting point for some printed material. My experimental recipe is as follows:

First, catch your story. The idea of 1794 as a focal point struck me while reading, for different reasons, about Joseph Priestley, Camille Desmoulins, John Thelwall and Matthew Murray. Desmoulins led me to the war in France, and Jean-Marie-Joseph Coutelle and Claude Chappe. Antoine Lavoisier formed a further link between Priestley and Coutelle. Soon I had a map spelling out the connections.

Excite the attentions of the ingenious.TM I’d been wondering how to break the all-male line-up of heroes when I saw this tweet:

Turns out Roberta Wedge has been engaging on Twitter on behalf of the mother of feminism for several months now. Thanks to her intervention, Mary Wollstonecraft was in.

Tell the story in 20 slides. The Ignite format demands concentration on the essence and pacing of a story. Since the slides advance automatically every 15 seconds, each slide needs to stand for no more than two or three connected points. To their credit, none of my fellow Ignite London speakers lost it under the time pressure. I’m not sure if it would be worse to stand gaping waiting for the next slide, or to watch powerless as a presentation runs away with itself.

Talk links, not nodes. One strategy I found to deal with the rigid timing was to make slides that represent the links in the story, not the nodes. For example, if I have a slide about Desmoulins and a slide about Lavoisier, I must speak for 15 seconds on each, and have to hit the slide change dead on. But If I have a slide that says both were executed, I have the flexibility to switch from Desmoulins to Lavoisier at any time in the 15 seconds…

Desmoulins Lavoisier

This approach, born out of practicality, made me wonder if focusing on the links as much as the nodes could be a good model for lots of storytelling in the age of the web. After all, much of the static content of the nodes is well covered in my sources, both offline and online. The new value I bring is linking them together into a new narrative. Jeff Jarvis says “Cover what you do best. Link to the rest”. But maybe what you do best is links, not to, but between great pieces of content.

Go to press. It seemed a shame to leave those slides unrealised. My tangible object could have been a standard book, with binding and everything, but I liked the idea that my slides should be as easy to remix on paper as they are in the slide sorter mode of my presentation software.  I chose Moo business cards. For v0.1 of the prototype, I’ve cheated a bit, using stickers to hold the text on the reverse of the cards.

Smooth on the inside, crunchy on the outside. (Armadillos!) Without a binding it was a lot easier to reshuffle my story, but it still needed some kind of container to hold it together and give a more satisfying permanence than the cards alone. A business card holder seemed the obvious thing. Just a few pounds bought an engraved one.

(This was the second card holder I received. The first was an ENGRAVING FAIL) Altogether the kit looks like this…

Make it mobile. I set up a separate page for each slide, and printed its URL on the back of the corresponding card. Thanks to WordPress.com’s mobile template, this means there’s an instant small-screen, hyper-linked up, comment-ready version of every page.

Rinse and repeat. This is v0.1, and there will probably be a 0.2, once I’ve had a chance to play with the story and its tangible form a bit more. One bit that’s not quite there yet is the link between physical and virtual. I toyed with using QR codes to make the link between paper and phone, and may still do so. The trouble was that making the QR code big enough to be readable by a phone made it too obtrusive, and I really want these cards to be made for people to use, not machines. I guess the ideal would be an app with image recognition so that just pointing the camera at each card is enough to bring up the relevant links and comment box. Unless you have a better idea.


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Product strategy and design leadership in web and mobile media. Before that I was a newspaper journalist and history student

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