Mount Taranaki peers through the clouds on New Zealand's north island. Pic: Copyright © 2018 Written & Recorded
Mount Taranaki peers through the clouds on New Zealand's north island. Pic: Copyright © 2018 Written & Recorded

From fairy tales to film, literature to theatre, journalism to marketing – the art of story-telling has the ability to change hearts and minds. We’ve been telling stories for centuries to understand the world around us and explain the world to each other. But what makes a great story?

Listen first. Tell later.

One of the most effective ways to tell a good yarn is to listen – actively. Almost everyone has a good story to tell – you just have to grow your ears to hear them. The secret is to talk less and listen more. Instead of chiming in with your own story, if you ask some genuine and interested questions – and give the story-teller your undivided attention – most of the time you’ll unearth a powerful story.

A memorable story titillates our senses, sparks our imagination and charges our emotions. The best stories make a deep connection with us at the individual level and strike an emotional chord. Stories that are personable and relatable – and have a human touch – will linger in the crevices of our minds for much longer.

The legend of Taranaki

On a recent trip to the tiny New Zealand town of Taranaki, I became inspired by a passing anecdote. As we sat down to an elaborate Christmas dinner – with arguably the best pavlova to have met with my taste buds – my friend’s father Mr Hutchinson Senior, aka Doug, started reminiscing about his past adventures as an instructor at Outward Bound. I had never heard of this life changing course and so, like a child hanging onto every word of their bedtime story, I was hooked.

It turns out, Outward Bound was a British navy initiative from back in 1941, designed to build resilience in young seamen and to give them a focus. Doug was a colourful raconteur – he kept his guests engrossed with the shenanigans that went on in Outward Bound in 1964 – occasionally gesturing at the towering iconic Mount Taranaki that peered through the windows, as if for some form of special effect. When Doug stopped ruminating, I knew this was a story that should be shared beyond an intimate Christmas dinner, so I asked if I could record his past experiences for an audio story.

The power of narrative relies on research

The Outward Bound motto is ‘there’s more in us than we know’. This is what they tell students who are about to abseil over a 20 meter cliff, or spend 3 nights alone in the bush. It’s an encouraging phrase that also applies when shaping and producing compelling stories. If every storyline starts with listening, it continues with in-depth research. You need to know all the elements of a story to communicate it well to others. After meeting Doug, I went on to interview the School Director of Outward Bound in Anakiwa, New Zealand as well as a young 18-year-old Australian student by the name of Amy who completed the 21-day course. They both added a modern-day context and texture to a story that started out with purely a historic focus. I learnt that Outward Bound had evolved to cater for a diverse contemporary society and empowered women. From an idea that had seeded in Doug’s lounge room, my audio story had germinated to a fully-fledged story – and my ensemble was now complete.

Amy before Outward Bound
Amy’s story begins with her grandmother, walking Queen Charlotte Track together before starting Outward Bound. Pic: Copyright © 2018 Written & Recorded

The ultimate story-telling tool: the art of the interview

There is now a myriad of online platforms to help you tell your story – from blogs to video, e-books to social media, and podcasting to EDMs. But before considering all that, the most important means you have at your disposal is the interview. Be curious – you’re not a cat – so don’t be afraid to ask probing questions. Research, prepare and script your questions – but when the time is right, scrunch up your notes and follow where the story is taking you. There are some fascinating wormholes to discover, and if you listen attentively to your interviewees you’ll be privileged enough to experience a few. It’s no secret that a story comes alive in the way it is structured, the angle you choose to pursue, and the craftsmanship of the story-teller. Make sure you keep your tools sharp.

Building a story, block by block

Once you’ve done all your planning, chosen all the right interviewees, decided on your questions and recorded your interviews – it’s time to structure your content – this applies to any medium. In the case of the story about Outward Bound, we had all of the interviews transcribed, to help identify a narrative arc. Being able to see the words of the interviewees on a page gave us the ability to identify the elements that would propel the story forward. It also helps create characters and action – much like a literature piece. With these elements you can create tailored links that seamlessly drive the story to its natural conclusion. All of this ties in together in the magical (and often overwhelming) post-production editing process. This is where you get to tweak the words, add in elements that bring energy – I was making an audio story, so that included ambient recordings, sound effects and music – to give the story a creative edge.

Connecting with your audience through story-telling

Story-telling is a powerful and important way to relate to your audience – it can shape, challenge, and reinforce opinions. Whether you’re selling a gardening product or an educational institution – storytelling has the ability to inspire and entice the individual to act. Don’t seek out clichés, avoid jargon and those pesky buzz words – instead tell original stories that will motivate your audience to interact with your brand actively.

The result?

So I created an audio story, a one-off podcast if you like. Working with my Written & Recorded partner (and husband) James, I listened, researched, interviewed, edited and then edited some more. I followed the stories into wormholes, over mountains, through the mud and under the water. The result is four great tales woven into one. Together the individual stories work with each other to drive the narrative and create something that is greater than the individual parts. At one point all four stories interconnect, at other times they take turns informing each other, or shine in the spotlight on their own. Overall, it’s a dynamic listening experience that will convince you that there is more in you than you know. If that’s the least that happens, then Doug’s story – which commenced over 50 years ago – has done it’s job.

This is the story of Outward Bound in Anakiwa, New Zealand.

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