Five Things I Learned from Episodic

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There were a lot of things to like about the Episodic conference that took place in London in October. Run by the Storythings team, it featured a range of interesting speakers working in podcasts, games, comics, and TV, an engaging host in Anna Higgs, and a lovely, friendly audience. I hope they do another one.

Here are five things I learned:

  1. Sarcasm is over: For those of us who came of age in the time of Gawker and associated online snark, the message was clear: sarcasm is dead and sincerity rules supreme. That goes for both connecting with audiences and with interviewees. Naomi Alderman and Adrian Hon talked about their game Zombies Run, designed for people like themselves, who might not enjoy running, aren’t competitive or aren’t expecting to improve, and who shouldn’t be patronised when doing something good for their health. Sincerity is working well for them, as shown by the millions of people who regularly use the app. Starlee Kine’s taped interview with someone working at a Ticketmaster call centre, shifting from practical questions to winding conversations about what matters in life, was a delightful example of how this approach can also result in unexpected and interesting stories. And it also illustrated her argument that you should “record everything, because you don’t know what you’re going to get.”
  2. There’s a difference between what you do for love and what you do for money. Making a living from episodic storytelling means you need to look after both your emotions and practicalities.Having different levels of emotional investment in the work you do for love, and the work you do for money helps with that. Or, as Jamie McKelvie suggested, use an “emotional contraceptive” for the work ones. And make sure you have clear agreements about things like intellectual property rights and expectations, especially if you’re going to try and get advertisers to pay for it, as Imriel Morgan explained.
  3. Structure your content to fit the medium. As Starlee Kine says: don’t just arbitrarily create a cliffhanger because you feel like you’ve decided on the right length of an episode. It needs to feel right and make sense. That said, I enjoyed how honestly Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie spoke about structuring the storylines of their comics to fit into their publishing sequences. If you’re publishing both every month, and then also combining six of those into a half-year compendium, have a good think about where you put the cliff hangers. In this day in age, do we even really need cliffhangers to get readers/listeners/viewers to come back? Probably not.
  4. Be ethical in how you tell stories. Ask people permission beforehand, because nobody wants to be caught out. Let them have a say in how they’re presented, even, for example, giving them the tools to do some of the original recording themselves, as Jane Merkin showed in her powerful documentary “Exodus” about refugees coming to Europe. Don’t toy with your readers’ emotions and have horrific things happen to your fictional characters (especially ones that are different to you) as a cheap way of building suspense. And be ethical in how you work with people. Part of that? Don’t ask people to work for free.
  5. Understand what your chosen medium does well. Podcasts are intimate, direct to someone’s ear. As Naomi Alderman pointed out, telling stories using only voice depends on having a reliable narrator about place: “If they say it, it’s real”. Comics can be online, but then they become something else, so chasing new technology doesn’t necessarily make your work better. Have matrices for success if you’re looking to make a living from it and sell it to advertisers, but know that competition is fierce for podcasts, for example, and that making good ones takes a lot of time and money. This pretty much summed up one of the main themes of the day for me: make sincere work, that’s as good as possible. Not a revolutionary concept, perhaps, but one worth following.
Ella is a digital strategist and writer, working at the intersection of technology and the humanities. With a PhD in gendered religious identities and forms of authority online, she has combined her academic research into the how the internet is changing our lives with consultancy work in the private, government and civic tech sectors. In doing so, she works with digital teams, including the award-winning Government Digital Service, helping them work out what they are doing, how they talk about it and what the ethical implications might be. She tweets @fitzsimple and writes at www.doingpresentations.com or medium.com/@fitzsimple