09/11/2019

Guy Schoonmaker, talented at helping talented people succeed

By: Ryan Boudinot

Guy Schoonmaker, talented at helping talented people succeed

Interstate 90 spans the 3,020 miles from Boston to the stadiums of Seattle, binding the sites of America’s founding to the hometown of the Mariners. 2A Consultant Guy Schoonmaker now makes his home in this rainy city that gave birth to the cloud. Certain of his formative experiences, however, took place in that city at the other end of that ribbon of interstate.

While an undergrad at Northeastern, Guy lined up an internship at the university’s sports information department, which led to a position with the Red Sox Foundation. This was a bigtime break for a committed Red Sox fan like Guy—he even worked out of an office at Fenway Park.

“I grew up a die-hard Red Sox fan, so landing an internship there was, as cliché as it sounds, a dream come true. Funny enough, what I think about most from my time there isn’t meeting players or watching games at Fenway Park. It’s the people I got to work with, and the community we served that really stands out,” Guy says.

Serving the charitable arm of the Red Sox organization meant spending time with kids, tutoring, chaperoning field trips, and setting a positive example. In the shadow of the Green Monster, Guy got hooked on improving lives.

“Helping talented people succeed is a thread throughout my career,” Guy continues, going on to describe a life-changing year teaching English in Thailand. From an early age, his parents instilled in him a spirit of service and wanderlust, so finding himself in Southeast Asia to teach children grammar and vocabulary seemed like a natural fit. Along the way, he discovered that communication requires more than facility with language.

“Thailand taught me you don’t always need words to communicate,” says Guy, “I didn’t speak a lick of Thai when I got there, and likewise my students didn’t have much of a foundation in English. I had to get creative fast, whether it was drawing, playing charades, or making up games on the fly. I learned that words are only one small part of communication.”

When his year teaching contract came to a close, Guy returned to the states and started thinking about how he could turn his attention back to his interest in writing. He’d earned a journalism degree at Northeastern before taking a turn toward the nonprofit world, and he wanted to put these skills to work.

Which brings Guy’s circuitous career to 2A. As a consultant, he applies his writing skills when working with clients—developing their stories with empathy—while considering the world through the eyes of someone committed to making lives better.

Incidentally, Guy was an undergrad in Boston when the Red Sox broke their infamous curse and won the World Series. In a city full of Mariners fans, he’s learned to downplay his loyalty to his team, but we don’t hold his fandom against him. We may not root for the Red Sox around here, but we’re big fans of Guy.

09/03/2019

Elevating Stories #1: Rick Moody

By: Ryan Boudinot

Elevating Stories #1: Rick Moody

Rick Moody has storytelling down to a science. Over the course of a publishing career that is nearing its third decade, Moody has written novels (The Ice Storm, The Four Fingers of Death), collections of stories (Demonology, The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven), music criticism (On Celestial Music) and memoirs, including the award-winning The Black Veil and his latest book, The Long Accomplishment: A Memoir of Struggle and Hope in Matrimony.

Moody was in town to promote his new memoir with a reading at Elliott Bay Book Company, conveniently located across the street from 2A’s offices. Knowing that he was coming to Seattle and that he probably had time to kill before his reading, we invited him to share his insights about the art of storytelling with our team. 2A specializes in storytelling for business and we figured we could learn something from this master storyteller, who has also sustained a long teaching career, currently at Brown University.

Moody didn’t disappoint, to say the least. He opened our conversation with the classic diagram you spot on whiteboards in many a writing workshop, sometimes referred to as Freytag’s triangle, which charts the passage of narrative tension, climax, and denouement over time:

Freytag's Triangle

Pretty basic stuff so far. Then Moody challenged this model, which, he noted, served a nineteenth century understanding of the novel. Jane Austen, the Brontës, Charles Dickens, Thackeray et al wrote works that all, more or less, conformed to the readerly expectations set forth in this model. Conflicts are introduced, complications arise, a false climax is followed by a reversal, the real climax happens, and then the novel gracefully concludes with order restored.

In the early twentieth century, the rise of modernism in works from James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot, et al, introduced narrative subjectivity to storytelling. Writers became more concerned with the vagaries of individual conscious minds. And once writers began to perceive the pattern of conflict, rising action, climax, and denouement, they started considering it formulaic and contrived, and so sought a new engagement with literature.

Moody also noted that the Freytag’s triangle model of storytelling conveyed an excessively male vision of how the world works, at which moment the white board Moody was writing on collapsed, in what can only be described as exquisite timing.

According to Moody, the evolution of storytelling took a turn with the works of Russian writer Anton Chekhov, whose literary innovation was the “slice of life.” These were stories that didn’t deliver climactic scenes or tidy resolutions; instead they gave us glimpses into the everyday lives of characters.

Still, Moody was unsatisfied with the slice of life model of storytelling. So he developed an equation that he believes distills the art of storytelling to its essence. It looks like this:

S = t(B) ÷ Cn

Stories (S) equal time (t) acting on bodies (B) divided by consciousness, which can be multiplied by an infinite number.

Let’s break that down a bit further. Stories are about change, which necessarily involves the passage of time. Time only passes in relation to subjects (bodies). This process is governed by consciousness, which is the narrator. Adding multiple narrators or points of view slows time down.

We steered the conversation toward marketing narratives, asking what from literary storytelling we can apply to our work crafting narratives for businesses. Moody asserted that whether delivering the narrative in the form of a novel or an ad campaign, the same guidelines apply. Stories are about the transformation of people over time, filtered through a particular consciousness or set of conscious perspectives, and we perceive narratives in the realm of marketing campaigns this way, too.

 

Moody’s visit marked the first of a planned series of author and artist talks at 2A, where we seek to broaden our understanding of storytelling and grow as storytellers. Our office used to be a car dealership and features a comically voluminous freight elevator with the capacity to lift 6000 pounds. We chose this as the setting for the first of a series of artist portraits to commemorate this series. As for a name, we’re calling it 2A’s Elevating Stories series, in a nod to both this fun feature of our building and for the manner by which our visitors raise the bar on storytelling craft.

Our thanks to Mr. Moody for the enlightening and generous conversation. Be sure to check out his newest, The Long Accomplishment: A Memoir of Struggle and Hope in Matrimony, available at Elliott Bay Book Company and everywhere books are sold.

08/28/2019

Stories as Emotional Algorithms

By: Ryan Boudinot

Stories as Emotional Algorithms

Algorithms are sets of step-by-step instructions that computers use to perform a series of functions, resulting in a particular outcome. Stories are sets of step-by-step instructions that provide your brain with instructions on what to think and feel.

Since each brain is unique, molded and influenced by myriad experiential factors, a storyteller can never have full control over the way an audience’s diverse brains process the algorithm. But we do have some inklings about how brains operate in general, and we can be mindful of these tendencies as we go about crafting stories.

Brains enjoy noticing patterns. Even more, they get excited when they notice disruptions to patterns. Storytellers from Homer on down have taken advantage of this feature of the mind, establishing what’s normal for a particular set of characters, then introducing a disruption or aberration.

There’s no reason for a story to exist unless it demonstrates some sort of exception to the norm. A funny bit from Sesame Street illustrates this counterfactually. Bert is sitting in an armchair reading a book titled Really Boring Fairy Tales. “Wow” Bert says, engrossed, “The prince just drank a glass of water.”

Folktales operate according to the principle of establishing the norm then disrupting it. First the wolf blows down the house made of straw, then the house made of sticks. Then the pattern is disrupted when he gets to the house made of bricks. In the world of comedy, this is called the Rule of Three. The rule of three is pattern disruption at its essence; our brains tell us, things are the same… la-de-dah… things are the same… oh hey, wait, this thing is different.

While exceptions and disruptions can be novel, they can also be scary. History is full of examples of art works that were so forward looking that they were derided or reviled in their time only to later be considered masterpieces. When Maya Lin unveiled her design for the Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C., 27 congressmen wrote a letter to President Reagan to protest. Now, this innovative monument is widely considered one of the most moving tributes to the fallen ever erected. 

So how does one make creatively disruptive ideas palatable to one’s intended audience? Industrial designer Raymond Loewy figured out a recipe for disrupting the norm when he developed his MAYA theory, which stands for “Most Advanced Yet Accessible.” Essentially the idea is that you have to wrap novelty inside the already known in order for it to be accepted.

If you start looking around, you notice the MAYA principle at work everywhere. Game of Thrones has all the fantasy tropes we’ve become familiar with—dragons, warriors, zombies—with the added novelty of emotional realism. Or maybe it has all the plot scheming we’re used to from watching realist dramas, with the added novelty of dragons, warriors, and zombies.

Pattern disruption, the rule of three, and MAYA are like subroutines you can plug into the emotional algorithm of a story. Word by word and step by step, we process stories much like a computer processes an algorithm, with one crucial difference—algorithms don’t have the power change computers.

08/09/2019

Mitchell Thompson, at home on the web

By: Ryan Boudinot

Mitchell Thompson, at home on the web

Light bulbs started appearing over Mitchell Thompson’s head the first time he opened a Web browser. It was the mid-nineties, and Mitchell was a self-described “gay nerd from Florida” who’d just discovered AOL. Up til then he’d felt pretty isolated. With the scratchy sound of a dial-up modem as his rallying cry, he immediately grasped the opportunity to connect with other like-minded people from around the world. “The Internet saved my life,” he says.

Fast-forward to right now and you’ll find Mitchell standing at his desk at 2A building websites for our wide variety of clients. Whether it’s a site showcasing artist Juan Manuel Echavarría or promoting The Sports Institute at the University of Washington, Mitchell applies his web prowess with boundless curiosity and a knack for usability.

Mitchell is more than comfortable diving into new subjects at 2A, having enjoyed a wide-ranging career that saw him “loading trucks at a large shipping company, crafting lenses for eye glasses, slinging BBQ in a smokehouse, working in a soul crushing call center, testing for a Japanese video game company, and building maps for a search engine company.”

It was this latter job that gave the web developer direct experience working with software developers, and now there’s no turning back—Mitchell is building parts of the very World Wide Web he fell in love with back in the day.

Says Mitchell, “I wanted to join a small firm because I thought it would give me a chance to work on more interesting projects (turned out true!).”

You can’t get as far from Florida in the contiguous USA as Washington State. This part of Seattle is so dense with tech workers that you can’t toss a thumb drive without hitting a nerd, and the neighborhood is so LGBTQ-embracing that the insignia of the local light rail station is a Pride flag. Here, in addition to finding meaningful work and a milder climate, Mitchell has found an appreciative cohort who depend on his expertise.

If he could go back in time, what would Mitchell tell that gay nerd from Florida? “As hard as it seems right now, keep your head up. It’ll be a journey, but you’ll find your place.” 

07/31/2019

Luke or Han? Making the customer the hero of your story

By: Ryan Boudinot

Luke Skywalker or Han Solo

Who would you rather be—Luke Skywalker or Han Solo? This question, posed on playgrounds by wannabe Jedi since 1977, can help shed light on storytelling for business.

If you chose Luke, it means you see yourself as the central figure in your narrative. You’re the hero, the chosen one. The story is ultimately about you, your untapped potential, and your triumphs.

If you chose Han, you’re more interested in testing the boundaries and coming up with clever ways to get out of various jams. You also like the idea of flying around in a cool spaceship with a best friend who looks like a wig.

It’s easy for companies to think of themselves as Luke Skywalkers when, in fact, they’re Han Solos. Because here’s the rub—the heroes in a company’s story are never the founders or the team that designed that mind-blowing app. The heroes are the customers.

We all see ourselves as the central figures in our own narratives, and we all occasionally find ourselves in need of someone who can make the Kessel Run in under twelve parsecs. By which I mean, someone who can help us overcome a challenge with bold innovation and bravery. That’s where you come in. Get ready to push your ship into hyperdrive. 

When the customer becomes the hero of your company’s story, you don’t have to worry about whether you’re the one. You get to fly around in your awesome ship, empowering your customers to fulfill their destinies, and making all the best wisecracks.

Of course, we at 2A know that the Luke or Han question is a trick one. The correct answer is Princess Leia, bravest of them all.