Shorthand at #WellTold

We went to the UK's first longform and narrative journalism conference. Here's what happened

Well Told is the first conference of its kind in the UK. On 27 & 28 May, two days were dedicated to the rise of longform and narrative journalism in London.

Over 48 hours, across two venues, plenty of tips, examples, inspiration and, of course... powerful stories were shared among the 100+ delegates of journalists, authors, etc.

Well Told is the brainchild of Giles Wilson, former founding editor of the BBC News Magazine - where he led the introduction of longer form immersive articles, such as the Reykjavik Confessions. And Mark Kramer, author, literary journalist, and founding director and former writer-in-residence at the Nieman Program for Narrative Journalism at Harvard University.

The event had an impressive list of speakers. Pulitzer-winning author Tom French, BBC Radio 4's Emma Jane Kirby, author and New Yorker writer Ed Caesar, and Upworthy's Amy O'Leary, were among those to take to the stage and share their passion and longform learnings.

The event had support from BBC News, the London College of Communication, the Frontline Club, and Delayed Gratification magazine.

Shorthand was not only delighted to be there to listen, learn and get involved with the dialogue, we also ran a demo session on day two and sponsored the event along with Chartbeat, Holoscribe and Harpoon Productions.

Here, I share some of my highlights from the conference.

Well Told - day one

Day one kicked off at the Hinde Street Methodist Church - a 19th Century building, minutes away from a bustling Oxford Street.

After a short introduction from co-founder Giles, Amy O'Leary, chief story officer at Upworthy, took to the podium to discuss why it's stories - about people - that really win the hearts and minds of others. As opposed to facts, which are "under assault" in a world seemingly dominated by fake or sensationalist news.

She referenced a principle from psychology and cognitive science - Schema, which describes a pattern of thought or behaviour that organises information and the resulting relationship to it. Amy urged attendees not to ignore these existing Schemas and went on to say that the first step in storytelling is to establish trust, by recognising tribal identities or those Schemas, and serving the needs of communities. And then, providing the facts.

Up next was Manveen Rana, producer at Radio 4, who relived her six-week journey with the Dhnie family, Syrian refugees who had been living in Jordan, as they traveled to Germany for a better life.

Again, the importance of storytelling and focusing in on individuals - and really getting to know them - was key for Manveen when making this series.

Originally the project was only intended to last two days, but she convinced her editor to give her more time and celebrated the fact that longform storytelling and the 25-episode structure allowed her to focus on the complexities of the family. It was also Schema-busting, giving the family airtime to smash through some of the stereotypes reported, or perhaps perceived, in other news.

Pulitzer-winning author Tom French explored the merits of journalists zooming in tight and creating a narrative. Then finally, Ed Caesar, author and New Yorker writer, rounded off a great first day by discussing how the best stories of his career had tested his grit and determination. (Not before confessing the travesty of messing up the all important layout of The Independent's crossword pages during his early journo days! )

Well Told - day two

Emma Jane Kirby was the first speaker of day two at the London College of Communication, in Elephant and Castle. She told us how her radio reports, about a man who desperately tried to save as many drowning refugees from the sea as he could, turned into a book: The Optician of Lampedusa. After reading the emotional prologue, Emma outlined how she crafted the book and interviewed an 'ordinary' man thrust into the tragedies of the migrant crisis, while on a boating holiday with friends.

Next, attendees split into smaller groups for workshops lasting an hour on a range of subjects, from freelancing and podcast making, to virtual reality and the basics of narrative journalism.

Tom French and his wife Kelley Benham French also shared a very personal and moving story about how their daughter Juniper arrived at 23 weeks weighing just over 1lb, and the process of bringing their experience (and, thankfully, happy ending) into print.

During the lunch break, analytics software company Chartbeat (and us) were on hand to give demos. We then decided to sit in on the 'Secrets of engagement' session with Jill Nicholson - Chartbeat's head of product education.

Jill did a data dive into their entire UK customer base and explored the most engaging stories of 2017 so far. Well done to the BBC News on the Murder in the Lucky Holiday Hotel story, which captured the attention of audiences with an average engagement time of 6 minutes and 27 seconds. (We were delighted to see this, and a number of other Shorthand stories, among the top ten too!)

Everyone joined forces for the finale, in which Tim Radford, science writer and longtime Guardian correspondent, shared his lessons from a lifetime in journalism. Then, in true British style everyone darted through torrential rain to the pub and reflected over a pint with friends, old and new.

We thoroughly enjoyed the UK's first longform and narrative journalism conference, and hope to attend the next one soon...

Find out more about Well Told by clicking the image above