400 words #014: individual experiences

I have been thinking about the artist-audience experience quite a lot recently.

Originally I was thinking about how the audience experience exists when you are watching/reading/listening to digital cultural content. However this evolved to encompass the performer’s experience.

Without having an audience to react to how does that change the performance?

To be totally honest this thinking was triggered by something I was reading about how the notion of ‘home and away’ has no real bearing on the way football is being played at the moment (i.e. without crowds). Historically the ‘ home advantage‘ has been pronounced, however the crowdless matches that have been played this year has questioned that.

In a cultural context, what does the absence of a physical audience mean for performers and artists?

I do think that this question has validity beyond the current crisis.

Digital audiences will never be ‘physically co-present’ and rather than bemoan that as never ‘being as good as the real thing’ I am interested to see how people confront that challenge in creative ways.

One thing that digital can be good for is to create a feeling of intimacy between the performer and the audience member. Digital experiences are typically enjoyed alone. Headphones and screens can bring you closer to an artist than you would ever be able to manage in a traditional setting.

It’s one of the reasons that podcasts can feel so intimate.

There have been recent examples of organisations trialling this sort of one-to-one interaction in a performance context.

This New Yorker piece on digital theatre audiences shows there’s clearly an appetite out there for this sort of more intimate/confronting experience (although it’s definitely not something I’d ever see myself doing).

Elsewhere, in a classical context, there was this example of orchestras in Germany playing to one audience member at a time, which I think could work very nicely as a digital thing.

400 words #013: Perceptive perceptions

Over the past year or so at Substrakt we have been doing a lot of work focused on our culture and brand.

This has involved deep and searching conversations and questions of mission, vision and values. We have been developing new thinking around tone of voice, content and positioning as well as revising and improving internal communications and policies around parental leave, inclusivity, health & wellbeing, professional development and more.

The most recent part of this project has been to ask our pal Rob Macpherson to undertake some perception analysis work for us.

Afterall, it’s all well and good doing all these new, good and interesting things but if it doesn’t make any impact on how people understand who you are and what you’re doing then it’s not working as well as it could or should.

Perception analysis work is something that Rob regularly undertakes for the organisations he works with.

It involves Rob conducting structured conversations with nominated ‘key stakeholders’ (these could be members of staff, clients, partners, suppliers, etc) whose opinion you value, on the condition of anonymity.

These protected conversations, with a ‘neutral’ third party (Rob), are aimed at achieving a level of frankness and honesty that might not be as possible if you were to have those conversations yourselves.

Rob then summarises the (anonymised) responses in a report.

It is the equivalent of hearing what people are saying behind your back.

And, just like that would be, it is equal parts fascinating, insightful, chastening and frustrating.

But the beauty of it is you can’t disagree with any of it!

The report contains people’s perceptions, and you can’t tell someone that they don’t think or feel what they are telling you they think and feel.

I’d thoroughly recommend it, in the spirit of radical candor it gives you a clear and unambiguous guide to what people think, what is landing and making an impact, how things are coming across. All of which is vital information for any organisation.

And for us? It was heartening to see lots of positives, and useful to understand where we could do better or change our approach. Noone gets it right all the time, by being open to that fact and asking for feedback – through work like this or not – you’ll be able to keep improving.

400 words #012: change your tools

Last weekend I changed the web browser I use.

Now this probably doesn’t really sound like a particularly good topic for a blog post but bear with me!

For years I, like many of you, have used Google’s Chrome browser.

For the past year or so it has become increasingly slow, buggy and annoying. But, even though I spend the vast majority of my working day using it, it seemed like too much effort to change. Humans are creatures of habit and I’m no exception.

Last week it became almost unusable and GMail stopped working properly, which seemed like the final straw. So I switched (to Mozilla’s Firefox in case you’re interested).

It has been curious to reflect on the impact that simple change has made on my day-to-day productivity.

I have numerous bad habits when it comes to my web browser usage, the worst one being that I often had 50+ tabs open.

So many that even the fav icons (the little icon that indicates which site the tab is showing a page from) disappeared, which made returning to the correct tab a fun (read: incredibly frustrating) game.

This habit, whilst well-intentioned (“oh that could be interesting/important, I’ll leave that open and read/respond to it later”), actually ended up fragmenting my attention and focus to such a degree that I wasn’t really being particularly productive.

Because Firefox doesn’t ‘shrink’ the size of tabs based on how many you open (it has a scrollable bar when you have too many tabs to fit within the visible area) I find I have far fewer tabs open at any one time which has already insitgated a shift in how I engage with tasks and content (in short, I am much more focused, or at least it feels like I am).

The low-level anxiety that came with having innumerable tabs open (lots of things that were jostling to be returned to, read and responded to or digested) has gone.

This has been one of the most surprising benefits of making that one small change. I suspect there is a lesson here about prioritisation, focus, digital attention spans and more. And that there are likely many other aspects of my day-to-day habits that could do with similar tweaks.

400 Words #011: Get high


I’ve spent the past week in the Swiss Alps.

I try to spend some time in the mountains a few times a year, I find it makes me relax in a way that not much else does.

Running in the mountains, often to altitudes of above 2,000m, is physically demanding, and forces you to be self-reliant and prepared in a way that going for a 10 mile run around South London simply doesn’t.


The focus that this requires means that doing anything other than getting to the top (or bottom) of the trail is, in that moment, all you can concentrate on.

And there is something about moving through a landscape that is so physically huge and overwhelming, and mostly empty, that temporarily, but definitively, severs your connection with the day-to-day.

All of this feels increasingly essential for my mental wellbeing.

I’d thoroughly recommend it.


400 Words #010: Seeing is believing

I was driving to the South Downs on Sunday, listening to Adam Buxton talk to Zadie Smith.

Part of their conversation centred on Adam’s recollection and summation of 90s culture, which Zadie gently pointed out was almost entirely white.

What followed was a subtle but powerful discussion of the importance of representation.

As a kid there were very few ‘people who looked like me (or my dad)’ on TV (or in “the media”). There were very few people who weren’t white at all.

On the odd occasion that there was some south Asian representation it’d be grabbed onto and held tight.

However these occasions were few and far between.

The band Cornershop and the TV show Goodness Gracious Me, and the film Bend it Like Beckham are the things that stick out in my memory (related: I remember how weird I felt when I found out that Ben, an Indian character in the film Short Circuit,  was actually played by a white actor in ‘brownface’ – something Aziz Ansari has spoken about in the past).

Last week the actor Chadwick Boseman sadly passed away at the age of just 43. Social media was flooded with videos showing people young and old speaking movingly about the impact he’d had when he played T’Challa in Black Panther.

A few years ago I was at a conference where someone spoke just as movingly about the impact that watching Wonder Woman had had on her, and how impactful it would’ve been for her as a little girl. At the same conference someone else spoke just as powerfully about the importance of being able to join a women’s AFL team.

The other day I read that Keke Palmer was the first black woman to host the Video Music Awards solo.

It’s 2020, how are we still have ‘the first’ anything!?

To those of you rolling your eyes, or who think that representation is a box-ticking exercise, or pandering, or virtue signalling, or not really that important I’d suggest you have probably grown up and lived a life where media and culture, broadly at least, looked like you, or reflected the life you inhabited.

I’d also suggest you are wrong. Representation is so important.

As Billie Jean King said “You have to see it to be it.”

400 words #009: Shared purpose

A couple of weeks ago, in the baking heat, I was running through rural Kent and I came across a community orchard.

Jeskyns Orchards is part of Jeskyns Community Woodlands, was set up in 2007 and “has over 900 different varieties of cherry, plum, apple and pear trees planted to make up the 2504 tree traditional orchard”.

There were friendly signs dotted around telling folks to take whatever fruit they liked.

It got me thinking about community, and a sense of shared purpose. Something which seems to be missing from so much of modern British life.

Or maybe I’m just looking in the wrong places.

In a previous post I wrote about my (joyous) involvement in some of the Cultural Olympiad in 2012, and the other day I watched 59 Productions’ latest showreel, which contains footage of the (still stunning and moving) London 2012 opening ceremony.

More recently I have been reading ultra-runner Scott Jurek’s book, North in which he describes the hugely positive ‘tribal’ experience he gets out of running with people.

Elsewhere I have spoken with people involved in Hull’s year-long European City of Culture celebration in 2017 about the enormous levels of participation and excitement they saw from local communities.

I’m sure there are many, many other examples you could point to.

I don’t really know what my point is. That it’s nice to do things with other people? And this is even nicer if you can do it on a city or country-wide scale? And that this sort of thing is best if you’re involved in something which feels like it’s bigger than yourself?

After the year we’ve had so far, with a pandemic removing our ability to share physical space with other people, it feels like maybe a focus on community, on shared experiences, on shared purpose is what we need more of?

I don’t know. But that orchard, and its 900 different varieties of fruit got me thinking.

400 words #008: Olympic connections

I was doing so well! And then I missed a week. Because, life, and pandemic and stuff, y’know?

The lovely Kathy Hubbard left a comment on my last post reminding me that this time 8 years ago I was taking part in the Hansel of Film, which was part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

I’ve written before about participating in this project, which was “a UK wide relay of screenings of short films made by the public as part of the London 2012 Festival“.

Basically it comprised of a series of screenings of short films (made by – mostly – amateur film-makers) organised across the country, from Shetland to Southampton (and back) with ‘runners’ ferrying the films from one venue to the next (although as I soon discovered, I was the only idiot who actually ran).

At a time when live culture that involves people gathering together is at a low ebb it was wonderful to reminisce about this beautiful, simple idea and the small part I got to play in it. And also to feel sad that this sort of thing isn’t happening, in any real form, at the moment.

The memories, even 8 years on, still stand out.

Wonderful people, terrible weather, some brilliant films, and an overriding sense of being involved in something that was being made to happen by not much more than goodwill, its own internal momentum and sheer force of determination of those involved.

It was great fun.

I got involved simply because I was going through a ‘say yes to more things’ phase. Which is a, probably overdue, reminder to me that that attitude, an attitude of curiosity, open-heartedness and optimism, is where most of life’s best experiences come from.

400 words #007: Fast and slow

The other day I saw this tweet:

I’m always curious about what people think makes up a ‘good’ interview so I duly had a read through this list of 34 questions.

The first thoughts that struck me were; who is running interviews that are long enough to a) ask all of these questions and b) expect coherent responses to anything beyond the first few.

Interviews are stressful enough for the applicant at the best of times, being put in a situation where you have 34 heavy-duty and, to me, slightly odd questions fired at you isn’t going to be a useful or enjoyable use of anyone’s time.

Add in the fact that there is research that shows (some) interviews are almost totally useless.

Putting that to on side for a second I tried to understand what these questions are trying to identify – which seems to be, on the face of it, an ability to ‘think fast’.

Presumably this is because of an assumption that the ‘move fast and break things’ mantra is something to be embraced (fwiw I don’t think it is).

This obsession with speed, with rapid progress, with immediacy isn’t new. And it isn’t just confined to startups.

It has becoming one of the defining features of our lives.

Immediacy. Impatience.

But, along with hundreds of other things, it feels like this set of expectations has perhaps been tempered slightly by lockdown and all the changes that have come with that.

Increasingly we are having to become more comfortable with remote working, and that means we need to become comfortable with better and clearer, but also asynchronous, communication.

Which means being comfortable with a slower pace. It also forces us all to think more deeply about how and why we are communicating things, along with what we are communicating.

And that is no bad thing.

If the post-lockdown world is a slower, more considered place to be then I think we’ll all be thankful.

400 words #006: Adventures postponed

This week I should’ve been heading out to the Swiss Alps to run half of the Via Valais.

Unsurprisingly that’s not possible at the moment. So instead I’m sat at home watching a documentary about the Dragon’s Back race.

I don’t think it’d be particularly interesting watching for anyone who doesn’t enjoy running in the mountains.

It’s a brutal race and the film has quite a lot of time dedicated to folks talking about the strange and painful experience of spending lots of time running up and over lots and lots of very big hills for 5 days in a row.

And it’s that experience (in all its discomfort and oddness) that I’m missing right now. Running in the mountains is the thing I enjoy more than anything else in the world, and I can’t wait to do it again.

400 words #005: Many types of live

Last night I, and a few of my Substrakt pals, watched the ‘live’ broadcast of the Bridge Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which is available to watch, until the 2nd of July).

This was the first time I’d tuned in for one of the ‘live’ broadcasts. With other recordings they’ve put out I’ve usually caught up after the initial premiere.

And I was surprised, and moved, by just how communal and live it felt.

At points I was quadruple screening (with an eye on Twitter comments, the live chat on YouTube and the Substrakt Slack channel which had a steady stream of conversation about the show, as well as watching the play).

I’m sure there are many people who will roll their eyes at this.

And indeed over recent months I’ve read, and heard directly, from leaders in the cultural sector who feel that this sort of experience is a ‘pale imitation’ of ‘the real thing’.

Which, in my opinion, couldn’t be more wrong.

There was a lot of nonsense in the live chat on YouTube, as there often is, but there were also lovely examples of people helping to explain to Shakespeare first-timers (or for people who didn’t speak English as their first language) what was happening and why certain choices in the production had been made.

A similar type and tone of conversation formed on Twitter around the #BridgeDream hashtag, which also included the (now regular) sight of the inimitable Lyn Gardener live tweeting her commentary alongside the broadcast

As I watched all of this unfurl around me I thought about a conversation I had with Dr Kirsty Sedgman for the Digital Works podcast (which will be released soon) where she talked about ‘different types of live-ness’.

We discussed the need to move away from dogmatically clinging to the ‘in-person, in-venue’ experience as the ‘purest’ form, of which everything else is just an echo.

The complex, multi-layered ‘live-ness’ that I witnessed, and was a part of, last night was as enthralling, as joyous, and as meaningful as any experience I’ve had in a theatre.


Even though we were watching a recording of a play that happened a year ago we were enjoying a shared experience which spanned the globe (I saw comments in the chat from people tuning in from the Philippines, USA, India, French Guiana, and Croatia).

Surely that is something to embrace enthusiastically.

400 words #004: No news is good news

I’ve been at home for almost 4 months now.

About a month ago we decided to turn the news off.

And wow, I can’t recommend it enough.

I used to be a bit of a news junkie, I’d watch the breakfast news, listen to the radio, read the paper(s) via apps on my phone on the way to work, check Twitter throughout the day, more app consumption on the way home and then an evening unconsciously somewhat structured around the various news programmes before bed.

I hadn’t realised, in particular, what an absolutely terrible way to start the day it was. Even moreso recently given that 2020 seems to be the year we enter the seven circles of hell.

Am I less informed? About “current affairs”, almost certainly. Although I’m not sure there’s often any news that is so essential that it requires you to be kept up to date on a daily basis.

Not only have a noticed a significant improvement on my mood I also feel like I have far more capacity left over to intentionally engage with things.

Rather than, almost without noticing, ‘spending’ all of my attention consuming an endlessly refreshing cycle of depressing information I am reading more, books (currently I’m on Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow) and research reports mostly, which feels like I’m becoming more informed, about a broader range of topics, in a deeper and more meaningful way than the news ever made me.

Simply I’m getting more done that I value.

Is this all because I’ve stopped watching and reading the news? At least in part. Lockdown probably has something to do with it too.

Thinking more about this has made me realise just how freely I was spending my attention. I’ve realised I probably only have a finite amount of attention on any given day, and I was wasting it, on news, on social media, on any number of tiny distractions that didn’t really give me anything back.

If the product is free then you are product has always been true, in my mind always related to the data companies are gathering about you.

But recently I’ve realised I value my attention as much if not more so than my data. And I’ve taken control of that.

I’d recommend it.

400 words #003: Shopping without a clue

I bought some face masks recently.

It was one of the most overwhelming and baffling shopping experiences of my life.

Obviously there are some extenuating circumstances that help to explain this. The external pressure of an ongoing, global pandemic for one.

But when I tried to unpick just why it had felt so difficult, it became clear that I hadn’t really had any meaningful context within which to frame any of the decisions I was trying to make, or the information that was available.

Do you have an actual, pre-existing opinion about ear loops? Or how many layers of fabric your mask should have (I seem to remember seeing something about 3 being good)? Or whether it’s reusable?

Do you need something that’s medical-grade (“N95” hovered at the edge of my memory briefly) or is anything better than nothing? What should you pay for a mask? Do you want to buy one from a specialist supplier? Or does Amazon suffice?

And the only reason I had to engage with any of this was that my partner had already had a go and given up.

Then I realised, to a certain extent, this is what it might be like if you’re trying to buy a ticket to the theatre for the first time. Or to the opera. Or to the ballet.

A billion options, jargon that makes almost no sense but that the person who wrote the text clearly thinks you care about, things that you had never previously even had an inkling were a thing anyone had opinions about, and you’re expected to make a bunch of choices and part with some cash.

You might’ve started really wanting to buy your face mask (ticket) but quickly just not leaving the house seems like a much better option.

You’re not dumbing down by using clear language and removing assumption of expertise when you produce your content.

I certainly wished the face mask merchants of the world had realised this.

I eventually bought a box of 10 face masks, I’ve no real idea of their particular properties. I’m not leaving the house.

400 words #002: 80/20, run slow to run fast

Maybe at some point not every post will mention me running, but I run almost every day, so possibly not.

A few years ago, after yet another injury had forced me to stop running for an extended period (a ruptured achilles tendon), I realised I had to think about running differently.

My approach up to then had been ‘more is more’.

I was running further and further and faster and faster.

But I was also getting injured more and more frequently, and each injury was proving to be more serious than the last, and the enforced time off was getting longer and longer.

My body was getting burnt out by the ever-increasing demands, it was telling me to slow down, and when I didn’t listen it was forcing me to take a break.

I had to confront the fact that if I wanted to be able to run consistently then I would have to relax my expectations of myself.

Around this time I read a book which entirely changed the way I thought about running, 80/20 Running: Run Stronger and Race Faster By Training Slower.

It makes the case that for runners to be able to train and race effectively around 80% of your training should be dedicated to slow, ‘easy’ running, and around 20% to more intensive workouts. This is backed up by piles of academic studies and real-life examples.

By reducing the overall intensity of training you give yourself the chance to make the ‘harder’ 20% really impactful, and give yourself a chance to recover properly.

In the 3 years since reading that book I haven’t had any serious injuries. Do I stick religiously to an 80/20 rule? Absolutely not. But the way I think about running has changed entirely, I’m far less interested in always pushing myself and as a result I am able to run consistently and consistently injury-free.

I wonder how applicable this is to other areas of our lives?

All too often we see people in all areas of life pushing, and pushing, and pushing, often with diminishing returns or with them ending up burnt out and miserable.

How much more effective would we all be if we decided to do less, to focus on what really matters, to give ourselves time to recover, to ensure that when we ‘go hard’ it has a real impact, rather than becoming an unsustainable default mode, until we can’t go any more.

400 Words #001: A problem shared

I run a lot, one of the reasons is that I find it’s a good way for brain to shuffle my thoughts into some sort of order.

When I used to blog more regularly I found that writing had a similar effect.

I’m one of those people who works out what I think by trying to articulate it, whether that’s through discussion with someone else, or by writing my thoughts down.

There’s nothing quite as useful as seeing what you think you think staring back at you in black and white from a page (or, more likely, a screen).

I’ve always been intrigued by people who blog every day (I’ve long been signed up to Seth Godin’s daily ruminations), in the same way as I’ve always looked at the idea of keeping a daily diary.

It feels like a good way of ordering your thoughts and forcing yourself to understand what your perspective actually is on a particular topic.

In reality I don’t think I have the discipline to sit down every day and do this.

On the two occasions I tried, during a 2-week bike ride back in 2013 and about 6 years before that immediately after finishing university, I quickly became frustrated and let the habit slide.

However recently it feels like more and more often I have half-thoughts, or snatches of ideas, whilst running, whilst in the shower, or when I wake up in the middle of the night.

More often than not (in fact, almost all the time) these thoughts don’t go anywhere further than a note on my phone or a scribble in a notebook. But I think I want to give myself the chance to try and expand them out into something a bit more fully formed, to force myself to understand what I think and to try and articulate it.

So I’m going to start doing at least 1 blog post a week. I’m prone to wanging on at great length so I’m also going to restrict myself to no more than 400 words.

I think I’ll mostly write about work, digital things and whatnot, because that’s what I spend a great deal of time thinking about, but let’s see.