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How to capture stories using places and props

Posted by  Tom Graves —February 10, 2017
Filed in Business storytelling, Insight

Yes, I’ll admit it: it’s a trick, of course. But it’s a useful trick – especially for those of us who need to collect stories for organisations, communities, and even for family-history.

The place is important here: it needs to be the right kind of place, the right atmosphere – the kind of ‘story-place’ where stories all but insist on telling themselves, whether we want to or not.

Capture stories

If it’s for family-history, I’d set up in a side-area of some family gathering: a quiet corner of the kitchen, perhaps. If I’m working for an organisation, probably the best place would be somewhere in the canteen or foyer café. For a community project, it be might be a street café, or bar, or community-centre, or anywhere else where there’s a good flow of likely candidates for storytelling.

Once I’ve found the right place, and got myself ready for story-capture, the next part is the props, casually laid out across the table. Again, these vary somewhat according to where I’m working and what kind of stories I’m aiming to capture, but the key point is that it needs to look casual, yet always inviting.

For family, I’ll have an old photo-album open at some suitable point; perhaps a drawing or two; a few photocopies of someone’s handwritten diary. For a company, it might be some large diagrams spilling across the surface, perhaps with sticky-note tags suitably attached as annotations. For community, I’d use a mix somewhere between family and organisation, much as you’d probably expect, though old photographs often work best for this. I need to be seen as working, yet also easily interruptible: always ready for another story.

Capturing stories is just like fishing

In essence, what I’m doing is fishing for stories. The props are like the fisherman’s ground-bait: they’re the story-triggers, they tell stories in order to capture stories. The tools – my notebook, my audio-recorder, my camera, perhaps a small sketchpad too – are my fishing-net: they’re the means by which I’ll capture the stories as they come into this space, eager to show and share themselves with the stories already there on the table.

Yet perhaps, like any other form of fishing, the real key to this kind of story-capture is to find the right story-place: a place where stories naturally tend to gather, and where – given a small amount of encouragement – they all but jump out of the metaphoric water at us, in their urgent need to tell themselves. That’s where the right kind of café comes into this story, or that quiet corner of the kitchen…

So where are some of your story-places – the places where stories gather to tell themselves? What props do you use to capture stories? Let us know, perhaps, so that we can share those tips and tricks with others?

About  Tom Graves

Principal Consultant at Tetradian Consulting, Tom's main professional interest is in whole-of-organisation integration, and tools and techniques to improve the same. His main personal interest is in writing on skills-development and other such oddities of human existence.

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