Posted by Alex Vernon on

The mother of all gleaming details

It’s five years since I first wrote about the power of the ‘gleaming detail’ in storytelling. I’d like to mark this mini milestone by sharing what I think of as the mother of all gleaming details. Months after I first heard it, it still makes me feel all glowy and delighted.

But first – a recap. What exactly is a gleaming detail?

I first read about the concept in Bobette Buster’s Do Story: How to Tell Your Story So The World Listens. Bobette said:

“To make a story unforgettable, you need to find that one image that connects with the audience, that ‘Aha!’ moment. This singular image, well positioned, can elevate a story from good… to great. We call this the ‘gleaming detail’ – a term originally derived from that great nation of storytellers, the Irish – for the element that makes a story stand out.”

So – to summarise: a gleaming detail makes your story shine.

Stories of solidarity

Last year, not long before widespread industrial action hit the headlines, the TUC asked Mile 91 to write some stories about successful disputes for its new Solidarity Hub. I’d been part of the Mile 91 team that had worked on the TUC’s 150 Stories campaign, so I knew I had some great interviews in store.

My first story was about a strike at CHEP, an international logistics company with a pallet factory in Manchester. I rang Gary, who works in the factory, and he was the perfect interviewee: warm, chatty, open.

Pay talks had failed, so Gary and his colleagues had downed tools and walked out at midnight on a Friday in December 2021.

UnPALLETable pay offers

Gary described the picket line, which was in a prime spot on a busy road near the Trafford Centre.  Hats off to whoever came up with the pun-tastic banner copy: ‘Don’t be a CHEPskate’. ‘Your pay offers are unPALLETable’.

Chep workers on strike with banner, flags and signs
Gary is behind the banner, second from right

Cars tooted, lorries blared their horns, well-wishers brought food and drink. The strikers kept their spirits up by playing cards, pool and darts and warming their hands by the fire.

All great details, but I wanted more. Did they play music?

“Yeah,” said Gary. “We had a big speaker that we’d charge up and we played some decent music.”

“What kind of music did you play?” I asked.

“All sorts of different stuff… I can’t really think. It was very varied.”

I wasn’t going to let this go. I was after a strike theme song. Something rousing. Living on a Prayer, perhaps.

“There wasn’t a particular song that stands out in your mind?” I pushed. “A track that always got everyone going?”

That’s when it happened.

The mother of all gleaming details

“Actually,” said Gary thoughtfully. “Something that did stick in my head is that we have a classically trained pianist that works nights. Stepan. He’s from the Czech Republic. Why he’s working at our place with that kind of talent, I don’t know.”

“Hang on. Did you say a classically trained pianist…?”

“Yeah. Stepan brought his piano down – a proper piano keyboard – and his fold up stand, and the stuff he could play was unbelievable. We had the fire going and he was playing at 12, one o’clock in the morning. It was brilliant.”

There you have it. A bunch of guys on a picket line huddled round a fire on a freezing December night listening to their colleague playing classical piano.

I had goosebumps. Someone make a movie about this, please! Pride 2, anyone?

Maybe I’ve talked it up a bit too much. Maybe you had to be there, listening to Gary telling it. But I hope you’ll agree that this is a pretty special gleaming detail. I put it right at the heart of the story under the subhead (if cheesy alliteration offends you, look away now) ‘Democracy, darts…and Debussy’.

Dig for your gleaming detail

I knew Gary wouldn’t be bothered by my persistent questioning. But there is, of course, a time and a place for this. If your storyteller is vulnerable – and if you’re working for a charity, there’s a fair chance they will be – I don’t need to tell you to tread gently.

But when it’s safe to do so, make like a dog – and dig! If you’re not getting the kind of answer you’re looking for, try asking the same question in a different way. If your storyteller is talking in general terms, push for the specifics.

Do this and you may just stumble on a gleaming detail that will make your story sparkle. And a story that sparkles will push people to act – to sign your petition, to donate to your appeal or to join your half-marathon. Or perhaps, in this case, to join a union.

Gary, Stepan and their colleagues were on the picket line for 21 long weeks before their employer met their demands. Maybe, at some point during the strike, they did actually play Living on a Prayer. But I’ll take Stepan the pianist over Jon Bon Jovi any day.

Many thanks to Gary and Stepan for letting us share their story, photos and video in this blog, which was originally published via Mile 91

Posted by Alex Vernon on

10 Years of Bluebell and the joyful freedom of working with an illustrator

Bluebell is a perinatal mental health charity I’ve admired for years (I first wrote about them in 2013).

So last Spring – during the otherwise grim first weeks of lockdown – I was thrilled when Ruth Jackson from Bluebell asked me to work on the charity’s 10th anniversary impact report. She wanted it to be celebratory, informative, emotive – and gorgeous to look at.

I like to think the final result ticks all of Ruth’s boxes.  In 10 Years of Bluebell, we’ve shared Bluebell’s achievements, aspirations and powerful stories from families they’ve supported.  And – I love this touch! – the center spread is a vibrant pull-out poster with Bluebell-themed colouring pages on the reverse.

Be Kind To Yourself Today poster
Our pull-out poster (hopefully destined for fridge doors across the land)

Writing and project managing 10 Years of Bluebell was a gift during such a difficult year. I loved feeling like part of the Bluebell team – and I learned so much. But was my biggest takeaway was discovering that…

…illustrations are liberating!

I love a good photo (and Bluebell has some wonderful pics from Bristol-based photographer Alice Hendy). But if your charity hasn’t been able to invest in photography and you’re scrabbling around on your hard drive for that half decent jpeg someone sent you from a sponsored walk six years ago…well, making your brochure look good can be a bit of a nightmare.

So how freeing it is to work with an illustrator!

If we didn’t have photos of this or that Bluebell service, it didn’t matter: the brilliant Esther Curtis could conjure them up with a wave of her pencil. (Esther, I realise there was far more to it than that, but to me it seemed like magic.)

When one of our storytellers, Ella, wanted to stay anonymous for professional reasons, Esther used a photograph of Ella and her baby to depict them in illustrated form. So Ella could open the brochure and recognise herself and her son, but no one else would. That meant that despite her anonymity, Ella really felt part of 10 Years of Bluebell.

You can find a selection of spreads from 10 Years of Bluebell below. I hope you’ll agree that Esther captured Bluebell beautifully and sensitively. And crucially, her illustrations are aspirational: they reflect the more inclusive charity Bluebell wants to become.

Posted by Alex Vernon on

Dienka Hines from Travelling Light: mastering the art of leading quietly and leaving loudly

After a bit of a hiatus (blame a certain global pandemic), I’m excited to share the second story in my series about women leading charities.

Dienka Hines is the executive director at Travelling Light, a Bristol charity making brilliant children’s theatre. Here Dienka shares how she got there, the presenteeism/parenting dilemma and some absolutely sterling advice for aspiring leaders.

(I talked to Dienka in those relatively carefree days before coronavirus, so most of this post is based on that conversation. We caught up again recently to talk about leadership during lockdown.)  

Dienka Hines
Dienka at Travelling Light HQ in Barton Hill, Bristol

I’m waiting for Dienka at Travelling Light HQ in Barton Hill, Bristol. The office I’m sitting in is small and orderly, with shelves of box files lining the walls. On the spine of each box is the name of a show: Igloo, Boing!, Cinderella, Into the West. I imagine myself opening a file – The Ugly Duckling perhaps – and the show springing out in all its fantastical, feathery glory.

But enough whimsy! Those box files contain paperwork, not puppets, and that’s apt because today I’m meeting the person who deals with the business of theatre, rather than the art. (The latter is the responsibility of Dienka’s co-director, Heidi Vaughan – her story will be next in this series).

Dienka rushes in, full of apologies for keeping me waiting. I’m still confused about the job split so I ask about it early on.

“Heidi is the artistic director and I’m the executive director,” Dienka explains. “So basically Heidi does the art and I do the business, but we jointly lead the organisation.”

Travelling Light aims to bring outstanding theatre to children and young people from all backgrounds.

“It was set up in the mid eighties by two teachers who wanted to bring more high-quality theatre into schools, so they literally created touring shows with the sets strapped to the top of their car,” says Dienka. “Going out to where children and young people are is still very much at the heart of what we do. We make shows that work in a range of spaces like schools, community halls and libraries – not just theatre venues.”

Escapism and elitism in the theatre world

Into the West
Dienka’s first encounter with Travelling Light was when they performed ‘Into The West’ at her Bristol high school.

Dienka’s connection with Travelling Light goes back way back to the early nineties, when the company performed at her Bristol secondary school. Back then, Dienka was “quite a booky child – the smart one who didn’t have the cool clothes.” Aged 13, she joined the youth theatre at Bristol Old Vic where she enjoyed acting – at first.

“I liked the escapism of theatre, of being someone else,” says Dienka. “I wasn’t very confident so it gave me a different kind of confidence, because you could say and do things as a character that you’d never say or do as yourself.”

But by 16, Dienka was more likely to be found volunteering with the younger children in the group than performing herself. She had always felt welcome at the Bristol Old Vic youth theatre, but the elitism that can be found in the theatre world had put her off wanting to become a performer. And then this: “I’d already decided I wasn’t interesting in acting, but when I did drama A Level, my teacher told me I should think really hard about trying to be an actress because it would be more difficult for me because I was black.”

There was some “strange racist stuff” at the University of Sussex, where Dienka read English and Philosophy. Her friend Anu was repeatedly rejected at auditions. “We’re not making a play about an Indian girl from New York, therefore you don’t get the part,” was the not-so-subtle message from the drama society.

“So Anu produced her own plays and got actors of colour from across the university to perform in them,” Dienka recalls. “She even quoted the drama society people in the programme. It was brilliant! I was really inspired by that.”

Does Dienka think things are any better for performers of colour now?

“I think there are some better attitudes about casting diverse actors than there were,” she says. “In some ways things are changing, but the arts sector – and the charity sector – is still not very diverse, particularly at leadership level.”

Breaking into arts management

It’s appropriate then that Dienka’s own path to leadership began when she joined Fast Track, a programme run by the Independent Theatre Council that supported black and Asian people into arts management.

Dienka had gained lots of arts experience after graduating, including working with Bristol Old Vic and Show of Strength and getting a Masters degree in Applied Theatre at Manchester University. Then, through Fast Track, Dienka went to the Barbican Theatre in Plymouth for a three-month placement. She stayed for three years, helping socially excluded young people engage in the arts and bringing disparate communities together through theatre.

“That was a really lovely project,” says Dienka. “It was really inspiring working with young people who were so passionate about changing the world.”

Going corporate: grey suits, red tape, valuable learning

Next – a bit of a career curveball. Dienka returned to Bristol and, with low expectations, applied for the role of Culture Education Manager at Swindon Borough Council. To her great surprise, she got it.

“It was so different,” says Dienka. “A lot more corporate, a lot more structured. At senior leadership level there were a lot of men in grey suits.”

People almost mistook her for the work experience girl. “I got a lot of, ‘Oh, you’re young!’ I had to deal with a lot of pre-conceived expectations and I definitely had to work harder to prove myself.”

Dienka’s job was to develop education programmes in cultural venues, which involved building a team and partnerships from scratch. She learned a lot – fast – about recruitment, people management, navigating red tape and, because there was little budget, fundraising. “If I wanted something to happen, I had to make the money happen.”

The first year was tough. “But when you have a hard experience, I think it’s the making of you – if you can take the learning from it.”

Swindon Council clearly spotted Dienka’s potential because in 2012 it sent her on a one-week CLORE course for emerging leaders. “There was lots about people management, advocacy, tools you need for leadership and your own self-awareness,” says Dienka. “It was really valuable.”

After three years in Swindon, Dienka joined Creative and Cultural Skills. Her job was to promote and develop apprenticeships within the cultural sector across Wales. It was another corporate environment, with lots of conferences and presenting. Thinking back to the girl who enjoyed being someone else on stage, how does Dienka feel about public speaking – as herself?

“I don’t mind public speaking because I can prepare – I’m in control of my narrative,” she says. That makes sense – she still has a script of sorts. “I’m much more confident in that situation than, say, at those warm wine networking events when everyone’s looking over everyone’s shoulders.”

Back to the theatre   

Dienka joined Travelling Light as General Manager in 2014. At that time there was no administrator, so she took on a lot of the day-to-day running of the charity as well as the higher-level strategy work. She sees this as positive: she learned “all the nuts and bolts” of how the organisation was run.

Her current role as Executive Director covers business planning, governance, organisational development, line management and lots of fundraising. The latter is crucial in the rapidly changing funding environment – young people need escapist, inspirational theatre more than ever but it’s increasingly hard to find the money to give it to them.

Dienka explains that co-leading Travelling Light with Heidi is unique to the arts. “It’s important to have an artist at the head of an organisation who has the vision and you’re there to support the vision to happen. There’s safety in it too – it’s nice to have somebody to talk to because you can be quite isolated at the top.”

Dienka with ActionSpeak youth theatre group
Dienka and her co-director Heidi with members of the ActionSpeak youth theatre group, which Travelling Lights runs in partnership with WECIL. Image by Camilla Adams

Leadership, parenting and changing the rules of the game

Dienka had her daughter in 2016. When she returned from maternity leave and started working four days a week, her professional confidence plummeted. She felt less qualified because she had taken time out and, now working part time, she was worried about being perceived as less committed.

Eventually she made a conscious effort to recognise the skills and experience she’d gained as a result of that so-called time off, rather than thinking ‘I’m less of a leader because I’ve had a child.’ “Women aren’t really encouraged to do that very much,” she adds.

The arts environment is hard on parents, Dienka thinks. “There’s a lot of presenteeism. You need to be seen – and you need to be seen out at night. So even though I’m doing a lot of high-level stuff, I’m not seen as much as someone in my role should be and that’s impacted on my career.”

Relationship building doesn’t have to happen exclusively over drinks and after dark. Dienka finds other ways to reach out – for example, she’ll invite people to Travelling Light during the day, which is much better than “trying to grab them for 10 minutes at a press night”.

But it seems there’s no escaping some backlash. “Some sector colleagues would say that you can’t be an Executive Director and go and pick your child up at 4.30. That’s not how the world works.”

Aaaagh. I assume it’s men that spout such rubbish and am disappointed to learn that women are just as culpable. Dienka explains: “There’s a prevailing view that that’s how the game is played, and if you want to be in the game, you have to play the game. So that’s what I’ve struggled with most since coming back to work.”

The good news is many of Dienka’s Travelling Light colleagues have families. “So there’s lots of understanding within the team, even if there’s not so much understanding out there.”

Boundaries, balance and tracky bottoms

There were times when Dienka wondered if working in such a challenging sector was right for her. “But then I thought, what would I be saying to the team – that you can only be a leader if you can work 60 hours a week? And while I wouldn’t claim to be a role model, it’s nice to know that you can be an example – that people like me can do it.”

So – how is Dienka juggling the juggle these days?

For starters, she has relaxed her attitude to the unicorn that is the perfect work/life balance. “I stopped worrying so much about it,” she says. “Instead of putting pressure on myself to achieve the perfect balance, it was more helpful to figure out what my boundaries are. So if I have to get up early to send an email, that’s alright, because that’s what’s efficient for me.”

But you shouldn’t wait until becoming a parent to establish your boundaries, says Dienka. She describes how hard she worked earlier in her career, staying at her desk until everything was done, working far beyond her contracted hours in the process – all because she felt she needed to prove herself. “Because I’d always done that, it made it harder to communicate my boundaries when I did need to leave on time.”

So Dienka’s biggest piece of advice for women at the start of their careers – and the advice she’d give to her younger self?

“Start as you mean to go on,” she says firmly. “Don’t work late all the time – work the hours you’re paid to work, because every time you work those extra unpaid hours, you’re essentially giving yourself a massive pay cut.”

When Dienka quotes a film presented by June Sarpong about women in business, I know instantly it’ll be in the title of this story. “One of the women June interviewed talked about ‘leaving loudly’. So if she had a sports event with her son for example, she’d make a real point of pulling on her tracky bottoms and trainers – and off she’d go.”

‘Leaving loudly’. I love it! Dienka does too. “There’s not enough leaving loudly. People slope off feeling a bit guilty.”

However loudly she may aim to leave the office, Dienka is still the quiet, ‘booky’ person she’s always been – and proud of it. She thinks aspiring leaders should be authentic. “I know ‘be yourself’ sounds really cheesy but if you’re a quiet person, quiet leadership is great. I find it a real relief just to be myself.”

Getting ahead in the arts

Dienka recently joined the board of the Independent Theatre Council – the very organisation that set her on the path to arts leadership at the start of her career. What specific advice does she have for aspiring leaders in the creative industry?

Well, think back to those box files lining the office walls. It’s essentially understanding the contents of those – the finances, the HR contracts, the governance reports – that Dienka credits with helping her get ahead.

“I found it really helpful to know how to do things that other people don’t want to do,” she says. “So my advice would be – by all means learn about creative side of things, but don’t dismiss those broader skills. Learn to fundraise and learn about the accounts because those skills will be really valuable. They underpin everything. Because I had management skills, I probably progressed quicker than I would have done otherwise.”

But while Dienka’s role at Travelling Light is more spreadsheets than stagecraft, what she loves most about her job is making the art happen. The charity’s outreach work on its doorstep in Barton Hill, one of the most deprived communities in Bristol, is particularly close to her heart. It seems to me that by getting great art to children and young people from all backgrounds, Dienka is tackling some of that elitism that put her off acting all those years ago.

Travelling Light Image by Camilla Adams
Travelling Light provides runs free creative activities for children in Barton Hill. Photo by Camilla Adams

“I feel really proud of what we do,” she says. “And because we’re a children’s theatre company, there are days when I can bring my daughter into rehearsals and she’s part of the process of making the work. That makes me feel really honoured.”

The story you’ve just finished reading was based on my interview with Dienka pre-Covid. The charity and arts sectors have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic and Dienka is currently steering Travelling Light through stormy waters, but she still found the time to share her thoughts on leading during lockdown.

“Now it seems strange to look back and remember being judged for not being able to do business during the evening over wine,” says Dienka. “Leadership has been stripped back to the essentials: keeping Travelling Light going, supporting the staff and delivering our charitable work as best we can.” (Here’s an article about how Travelling Light has helped Bristol children access creativity through lockdown.)

Along with working parents everywhere, every staff member at Travelling Light has faced challenges juggling childcare and work. Dienka hopes that a kinder workplace will emerge post-Covid.  “One thing I hope comes out of all this is that the problems childcare can present are out in the open, and that they become the subject of empathy rather than judgement.”

Dienka believes that these unprecedented times present an opportunity to rethink the way we work for the better. “I hope that will mean people are judged on their outcomes, rather than how many hours they put in at the office or out networking.”

She adds that this time has accelerated the demand for wider changes in society – particularly in relation to Black Lives Matter. How does she think the movement will affect the charity sector – and address some of the problems highlighted by the #charitysowhite campaign?

“Issues of racism are being openly discussed in ways I’ve rarely experienced,” says Dienka. “There’s a real drive to examine how charities operate and what it really means to have social justice at the heart of what we do. I think there’s a real opportunity to look at the society we want to be and the role we have in shaping it. The voices of women of colour have previously been unheard, but they are now shaping the conversation – and that makes me feel optimistic.”

If you’ve enjoyed this article and would like to show Dienka and Travelling Light some love, you can support them here (I should add that it was my idea to include this ask, not Dienka’s!).  Thank you so much.