As part of our research for a client I have been shopping on eBay for antiques. During that research I came across a postcard from the 1940s sent from Chicago. It is called a Busy Person’s Correspondence Card. Here’s a picture of it:
It’s a surprisingly modern idea. We often communicate at breakneck speed these days – texts, emails, status updates, posts, retweets, likes and favourites – and much of it a condensed version of what might otherwise be more languid expressions of thoughts and ideas. It is, for the most part, fast food communication, similar to the multiple choice sentiments expressed on the card.
It isn’t always, of course. The quest for simplicity can be a good thing. When I did an interview via email with the writer and musician Ben Watt a year or so ago ago, he made the point that Twitter is in part responsible for the return of the lost art of the aphorism. This concision might actually be making us better communicators.
When I think about modern storytelling I return again and again to Rupert Bear. In my view, if you’re thinking about doing a social media course or buying a textbook about social media, you could a lot worse than popping in to a local second hand bookshop and buying an old Rupert Annual. Some of you might remember them.
Before you click away, hear me out.
If you have one, open one up and look at the structure of a Rupert Bear annual. Here’s a typical two page spread:
The story can be absorbed on many levels. There’s the headline at the top of the page. There’s the pictures that, when read together, create a comic strip. There’s the short rhyming couplets. Finally, there’s the detailed text at the foot of the page.
For any reader, the narrative can be carried by any of these four components in isolation. They are also consistent. In a way, then, Rupert Bear annuals can be seen as manuals for the age of social media. The headline is the status update or text or email headline or news headline. The image is a Pinterest or Instagram post. The rhyme is a Tweet. The text is a tabloid or broadsheet story, illustrated perhaps with any of the above.
In modern storytelling, the focus ought not be on the platform but on how the platform can work a strand of your story. If the elements don’t cohere, the best efforts at storytelling, conversation and engagement are going to look like triumphs of style over substance. I suppose the other thing to add is that slavish adherence to one method might rob you of a better and bigger opportunity. Deciding you want to launch a social media campaign or alternatively go a more traditional route is fine, but why let the medium control the message? Put the story first and allow it to find its way like quicksilver.