We’re having an empathy crisis. And there’s only one cure.


Right now, almost every day seems to bring another headline that sounds like it happened in a film.

From violent attacks on innocent civilians, to extreme political voices finding mainstream support, to a widening gap between the rich and poor playing out in anger and scapegoating – suddenly everything seems to be about extremes. Why is that?

The trend mirrors something that’s been going on online for a while.

The lightning-fast growth of the internet has forced us to adapt quickly to handle a never-ending feed of information that our brains weren’t designed to cope with. To survive, we’ve learned to filter out run-of-the-mill, inoffensive, vanilla messages and scan instead for ideas that stand out.

To the point that now, to make any impact at all, you have to say something designed to get a reaction.

This seems to apply to almost every area of our lives. Even this research on online dating found that “people who divided opinion did far better than those who everyone agreed were cute.”

Technology is disconnecting us, too. Mobiles and the internet have made it possible to reach any other human being, anywhere in the world. But they’ve also allowed us to distance ourselves from the ones in the same room, house, school or office.

Why meet up when you can call? Why call when you can email? Why email when you can text? Why send four different texts when you can put a picture on Facebook, and all your friends will see it?

Let’s be honest. A lot of the time we’re guilty of using technology to avoid dealing with other people up close. To sidestep hearing their voices, seeing their facial expressions, dealing with their inconvenient emotional reactions or opposing viewpoints. In so many ways, our new, connected status has made our world smaller than ever.

And these technological barriers make it easy to misplace the thing that makes us, humans, extraordinary: our empathy.

Without it, we’re quicker to attack, hate, and take extreme ‘them and us’ viewpoints. Or, as this study found, simply to say and do things on the internet that we would never say or do face to face, when we would have to witness the pain we’d caused another person.

Two of the more horrible results of our nosediving empathy levels are the growing use of social media by trolls to target people with hate speech and threats, and by extremist groups to target, recruit and radicalise new members.

So how do we get our empathy back?

For longer than we’ve known how to speak, human beings have been telling stories.

Sharing our experiences, person to person, has helped us to imagine and understand one another’s problems, successes and feelings, and made it possible for us to learn from each another, form relationships, build communities, cultures and nations – all the things that make us different from animals living simply on their instincts.

Last weekend I saw writer and performer Inua Ellams host An Evening with an Immigrant. His aim was to “put a human face” on the immigration debate by telling his own story. Here’s a tiny bit of it:

“To support our appeal, all these people I’d worked with wrote letters to the Home Office saying ‘Inua – he’s alright. He’s never stolen anything. Except those little blue pens from Argos, which are technically free anyway, so…'”

Inua told us about his father’s exile from Nigeria after standing up to extremism, the racist abuse and violent threats his family faced in Dublin, the sale of their identities by dodgy ‘immigration lawyers’ when they came to the UK… and the surreal experience of being invited to meet the Queen a week after receiving a deportation notice.

His tale was brave and funny and touching and real and – like all good stories – completely, unmistakably human.

When I left the theatre, I felt better: more connected. And worse: more sad. But mostly I felt frustrated, because that little room was too small for everyone in the UK to have heard his story.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we had some way of spreading stories like that to everyone, all over the country, and even the world?
I thought.

Oh wait – we do. We’re just using it for all the wrong things.

Seen this week: Isy Suttie, the Actual One.

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Let’s talk about your ears.

I’m not saying they’re big or anything – I just think we should give them a little focus. Chiefly because they’re often neglected. And not just when you wash.

Let me explain. On Monday I went to see Isy Suttie’s one-woman show based on her new book, The Actual One, and it got me thinking about how great audio storytelling works.

I should say outright that I am a big fan of radio comedy (well, I do make a comedy podcast), and that Suttie is probably the most aurally exciting comedian I’ve come across.

If you’ve seen her live, or heard her radio shows, you’ll already know that she specialises in quirky, personal stories that are peopled by an array of distinctively-voiced characters, and peppered with acoustic songs that are as plot-efficient as they are funny.

Listening to her feels like having your ears tickled did when you were five; giggly, gorgeous, and completely moreish.

After the show, I found this episode of Sound Women, where Suttie talks about her Edinburgh show Pearl and Dave, and the experience of adapting it into a Sony-winning radio pilot.

In the interview, she’s asked if she ever worried the show wouldn’t translate – whether the story might lose something important with the departure of a set and a performer to look at. Her answer is unexpected.

“I didn’t really think about that. I’d always worked quite hard on the [characters’] voices and, if anything, sometimes when I did it as a stage show I used to feel like there wasn’t that much for the audience to look at. In a way, it was always more suited to audio.”

She goes on to talk about one of the biggest strengths of audio storytelling – its capacity for intimacy – and how common it is for creators to drop the ball on exploiting this.

“You don’t ever want the audience at home to feel excluded. When I’m listening to radio comedy, I sometimes feel like ‘Oh, I wasn’t there….’ It can feel like a recording of a past event that you’re listening to, rather than something alive, and I want it to feel alive and intimate, like I’m just talking to that person.”

If you’re working on something that’s designed to be heard – a radio script or a speech – it’s worth bearing this in mind.

As with any sort of content creation, writing great audio is all about working your medium.

What radio enthusiasts love about the channel is that, more than any other, it makes us feel like we’re in a fascinating conversation where we’re the only one being spoken to. It puts us right back in our childhood bedrooms, listening to a story that’s just for us.

Make your content personal and intimate, with plenty of relatable images and lively anecdotes, and you can make every one of your listeners feel like the most important person in the room.

Want to see Isy’s show? Check out her latest tour dates at isysuttie.com.

Who’s watching?

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I’ve worked a lot in the theatre. And one of the experiences that has stuck with me happened in a marketing meeting about an unscripted play, early in it’s development.

I asked the director to tell me, as far as possible, what he thought it would be like.

What he described was so abstract and inaccessible that – desperate to find some sort of selling point to work with – I found myself asking: ‘So… what’s in it for the audience?

He looked at me for a moment, annoyed. Then said, ‘To be honest, I don’t particularly care.’

Apparently he was under the impression that this was my problem.

This is surprisingly common. This weekend I saw Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, which had just as evidently been made without anyone thinking to ask. ‘Who’s watching?

I got angry.

I could describe all the things that frustrated me about the film – sketchy characterisation, a bewildering array of irrelevant cameos from the director’s celebrity chums, plot strands picked up and abandoned all over the place, dialogue so clumsy and inconsistent it made me bite the inside of my cheek (‘I’ve come to realise there are only two types of people; the beautiful and the ugly. Everyone in between is merely cute’’).

But you didn’t come here to read a review.

Being paid to make something that other people will experience is a privilege.

Professional storytellers should never forget that audiences are the people who pay for them to play for a living  – and that’s not a position most people are ever fortunate enough to be in.

In practice, this means asking yourself ‘Who is this for?’ (and coming up with a better answer than ‘people like me’).

In his book Copy. Righter, Ian Atkinson advises writers to bring demographics to life by creating a ‘pen portrait’ of an imagined audience member.

“Use an invented example; a name, a picture and a description. Think about their likes and dislikes… the way they talk… what interests them and what winds them up. Then write as if you’re talking to them.”

I also like to ask myself three other questions:

  • Why are they here?
  • What do they want?
  • What do they need?

If you can answer these and keep them in mind as you work, you’ll have a pretty good barometer whenever it comes to making a tricky creative decision or getting a project back on track.

As social media makes everyday storytellers of us all, this has become a more important consideration for anyone who wants to avoid winding up their friends and family online.

The brilliant 7 ways to be insufferable on Facebook blog looks at what makes some Facebook posts so annoying, and boils the answer down to the same crime that pretentious creatives have been indulging in forever.

A Facebook status is annoying if it primarily serves the author and does nothing positive for anyone reading it, he says, providing this helpful diagram.


Posts that fall into the un-annoying B and C regions are always either:

1) Interesting/Informative

OR

2) Funny/Amusing/Entertaining

What this tells us is that audiences expect this kind of consideration from their friends.Just as in real-life conversations, they consider anything less to be impolite.

As professional creators, we are strangers to most of our audience. Unlike their friends and family, we have no legitimate claim on their patience beyond the value our stories have to offer them.

So if we want to win them over, we need to remember another memorable lesson I learned in the theatre.

Never, ever, turn your back on an audience.

Let’s Make Feminism the Biggest Joke in Town

Three weeks ago Caitlin Moran ordered me to stand on my chair and shout ‘I AM A FEMINIST!’

Gleefully, I climbed up alongside the rest of the 2000-strong audience. Grabbing each other for balance, we precariously boarded our theatre seats, everyone loving this chance to misbehave.

Why? Because it was funny. And if there’s one thing I’m bored of hearing when I ask to be treated equally to a man, it is ‘you take yourself too seriously’.

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Since showing up in 2011 with a manual for modern feminism so funny it had women in stitches (and often pencil skirts) recounting their favourite chapters to each other in bars, Moran has become a household name.

With her trademark combination of wit and mischief, she decisively subverted the myth of the feminist as an apoplectic, serious-minded man-hater undergoing a massive sense of humour failure.

Suddenly, feminism was human again. And we all wanted in.

There’s nothing like comedy to get people taking something seriously. And it was this that inspired myself, Louise Rickwood and Crooked Pieces to create comedy podcast And Then She Said a Funny Thing….

We wanted to promote female comedy writing talent in an industry where women are notoriously under-represented, but in a more sociable way than getting a handful of women comics to write a script, record it in a studio and fling it out onto the web.

Instead, we’re running regular contributors’ workshops, open submissions callouts, and live audience recordings to build a community of women making brilliant comedy.

We hope this will help carry women’s voices in a field depressingly riddled with sexism. Because, let’s be honest – from the male compere who introduced a female act to an audience by claiming that she’d given him a ‘sexual favour’ backstage, to the misogynist abuse directed at Sarah Millican, to Jenny Collier’s all-too-familiar account of being dropped from the token ‘woman’s spot’ on a gig billing, if they gave BAFTAs for Services to Sexist Bullshit, the comedy industry would be a shoo-in.

But we also want Funny Thing to help tackle the everyday problem that’s allowed the industrial one to develop; the fact that our culture doesn’t consider being funny to be feminine.

Humour, we’re told, is a boys’ game. Men are taught that their friendships should be forged in pranks and banter, while women are instructed to take the serious stuff – problems, worries and secrets – to their female friends.

The ‘rules’ of (straight) romance say success depends on him complimenting her appearance, while she laughs at all his jokes… and so on.

The consequence is that some of us only find ourselves questioning this when we’re confronted with evidence that humour is – of course – a genderless trait. Like the guy who told me on our first (and final) date:

‘Girls don’t usually make me laugh, but you’re quite funny.’

Sounds pretty sexist, right? But in that moment, I didn’t even react. This idea was so pervasive in the world I knew that I didn’t even think it worth remarking on. Scary.

The fact is I’ve always considered myself funny, and frequently felt less ‘feminine’ because of it. But then, I’ve always valued wit above the nebulous quality of femininity. Making my friends laugh just seemed like a more useful skill than knowing how to plait their hair.

But as an adult, I started to realise how weird it was that I’d come to consider it an either-or choice.

If other women felt like me, there was a strong chance that here was another, bigger reason for their conspicuous absence in comedy line-ups. How many had never explored their talent publicly simply because it jarred with the self-image they’d been handed?

The more I thought about it, the more probable it seemed that, underneath all the industrial misogyny keeping women out of comedy, we have an even bigger problem: lots of women simply don’t instinctively feel they have a right to be there.

For Funny Thing, the challenge was to build something that included these women and supported them to explore their talent, as well as championing those who had already stormed the stage.

Like Moran advocating the ladies’ loo as the spiritual home of the feminist revolutionary, I’d observed that women-only settings enabled myself and female friends to lower our guard; to say and do things we wouldn’t in front of men. I also knew that to make good comedy – or any other creative product – you have to find a way to lose those inhibitions.

So we’ve set out to build an all-female community that’s open to any and all funny women – from the ones who make their friends laugh to those gigging on the circuit every night of the week – and connects them to create both fantastic comedy, and a culture in which being funny IS feminine (as much as it is masculine), together.

But this isn’t a comedy podcast about ‘being a woman’. Our brief is deliberately open, allowing writers to make use of their full observational range. And few have opted to send us tampon jokes or monologues about chocolate.

But what they do send us is so funny, I defy anyone not to take it seriously.

Crooked Pieces is currently accepting submissions of material for the #FunnyThing pilot, to be recorded on 12 Sep at Omnibus Clapham. The deadline is 4 Aug. Submit your writing.

@crookedpieces #funnything

This blog first appeared on The Huffington Post on 30 July 2014.

Where is the plan for a Cultural Legacy?

The word on everybody’s lips just now is Legacy. In this last week, a brand-new 10-point plan to secure the sporting legacy of London 2012 was announced, including a raft of initiatives designed to capitalise on the momentum gained during the Games to embed sports participation in the lives of all UK young people.

And what better time to lay out these plans, than when we’ve so recently witnessed the capacity of sport to unite people of all nationalities, cultures, faiths and ages?

But let’s not forget that it wasn’t just sport doing its bit to ‘inspire a generation’. Four years before the Olympic Opening Ceremony, the Cultural Olympiad began, with Britain’s culture sector launching a myriad of  projects intended to showcase the vibrancy of the British arts world, and – more crucially – to bring its communities together through art. Six weeks before the Olympics, the London 2012 festival –  the biggest celebration of UK culture in a generation and the culmination of the Olympiad – began.

The Olympiad and the Festival included thousands of opportunities for  young people to get involved in creative activities. Many were introduced to the arts for the first time, taking part in projects such as Stories of the World, which invited young people to partner with museums and galleries  as curators and contributors, helping to shape the way stories were told through their collections.  For others, like Azekel – a young musician who came to the Olympic Park bandstand with other performers from the Roundhouse, and made such an impression that he found himself invited to play a gig at the top of  the 376ft Orbit tower – this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to show off their talents with the world watching. For all, it was an opportunity to make a memory that would stay with them forever.

At a time when UK youth had more to feel despondent about than they had in decades,  they were engaged and inspired by cultural projects that were, for the most part, being delivered without new facilities, or increased media attention, or – crucially – much of a cash injection.

So where is the 10-point Cultural Legacy plan to build on this work? Erm, nowhere to be seen – at least at present. So far, the government have outlined only a  two-point plan to communicate their future aspirations for UK Culture, with the appointment of a ‘part-time’ Culture Secretary with little experience in the arts and a split portfolio that gives her even less time to spend on them, and a warning – via the Arts Council’s Simon Mellor  – that further, deeper cuts to the sector are on their way. As plans go, this is pretty devastating.

It’s fairly clear, then, that this is a Government with little understanding of culture’s value to society. Curiously, it seems to have been rather quicker to grasp the benefits of sport – perhaps due its more obvious health benefits, or the greater emphasis commonly placed on it in British public schools.

Whatever the reason, one hot topic that ministers were clamouring to wax lyrical about during the Games was the need for greater priorisation of school sports, in particular Team Games. In the Today programme‘s debate on their importance to children’s development, David Cameron himself asserted that there were some qualities – such as collaboration; commitment; problem-solving; perseverance; fair play – that could only be developed on the playing field.

Deconstructing his remarks, some commentators countered with stories of the humilation, and sometimes bullying, that school sports represented for them during their teenage years. I sympathised, but as I listened I couldn’t help but think that the argument was missing something vital.

And that’s because those very same qualities are all ones I see every day – in spades – in young people who participate in creative activities.

Evidently, then, there is more than one way to ‘inspire a generation’. Despite what our politicians may think, even the woefully un-coordinated can learn the importance of thinking laterally to overcome obstacles, of dedication to a task and to a team, and the rewards of sheer hard work, from working on a theatre production, editing a school or college magazine, or playing in a band or orchestra. In fact, a recent Cambridge University study shows evidence that active participation in musical activities, in particular, significantly boosts empathy levels – arguably more so than grinding your rugby studs into an opponent’s shins on a weekly basis.

As I remember my high-school drama teacher once telling my class before an opening night, “This is different to the football pitch. When you go out there, no one’s supporting another team – they’re all rooting for you.”

Now, more than ever, UK youth need us all on their side. They face the toughest set of challenges to any generation since the war years, with one in five 16-24-year-olds unemployed and opportunities for under-25s narrowing by the day as the spiralling cost of a University education prices many young people – whose families are neither extremely wealthy, nor have a sufficiently low-income to make them eligible for help with fees – out of the market.

The stakes, then, are high. This is a world in which young people will need all their creative thinking, self-confidence, audacity and enterprise to carve a niche for themselves. Which makes participation in any activity that develops these faculties absolutely invaluable in giving them the tools to build their own futures.

We can be certain that this Government not going to do it for them. By (at best) overlooking or (at worst) penalising the arts, it is jeopardising all the work done by the sector to invest in and nurture these vital qualities, and to continue to develop one UK export that does still have currency – Great British Creativity.

I sincerely hope that Ministers’ commitment to ‘inspiring a generation’ is more than skin-deep, and borne out of a real inclination to invest in young people’s futures, rather than a cynical desire to capitalise on the post-Games swell of enthusiasm for sports.

Based on the current evidence, I’ll take some convincing.