Elements of Storytelling 9: Research

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 9: Research

Research is the foundation upon which compelling stories are built.

Case study: Abacela 

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Abacela Winery

What it is:

An award-winning winery located in Southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley. It is best known for producing world-class Tempranillo, the grape that makes Spain’s famous Rioja wines.

Why it matters:

Abacela founder Earl Jones was a fan of Spanish wines and a medical research scientist. His wife Hilda was a medical technologist. They are by training and inclination people who study, analyse, test, and investigate. When Earl started wondering why he couldn’t find any good-quality American Tempranillo he didn’t shrug and leave it. He did research.

Earl’s quest to find the secret to great Tempranillo took him across countries and decades. He travelled through Spain and across the States, interviewing winemakers, studying soil and climate records. Reviewing the latter, Earl hypothesised that climate is the secret to growing top notch Tempranillo grapes.

As any good researcher would, Earl put his theory to the test. This meant identifying an American region with a similar climate to Rioja, moving there with his family, buying land, planting grapes, building a winery, and making wine. The initial results were good: Gold medal winning Tempranillo wines that outmatched Spain’s finest. More than 20 years on, Earl and Hilda are still researching, still growing, still writing new chapters of their story.

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Hilda and Earl Jones, founders

In their own words:

Abacela, in 2016, is a world-class, multi-award winning winery and viticulture success story. But 21 years ago when founders Earl and Hilda Jones planted its first vines they had no way of knowing what the outcome would be. They were scientists with zero winemaking experience who left secure careers and trekked 2700 miles west, kids in tow, to test a hypothesis.

Abacela was an experiment they hoped would answer a question that had puzzled them for years: Why doesn’t America produce any fine varietal Tempranillo wine?

Earl and Hilda probably weren’t the first enophiles to wonder why the great grape of Spain’s famous Rioja wines was mysteriously absent from American fine wine. However they were the first to approach the question with scientific rigor, form a hypothesis, then devote their lives to testing it.

This is the story of how one ordinary family’s curiosity and determination transformed their lives, built one of Oregon’s best-loved wineries and influenced winegrowing not only in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest but across America.

Read the Abacela story 
Practice: “Interview people, if you can, and if it’s relevant (no one who was alive in 1717 was available for me). But I have done interviews that have enlightened me on ballet, horse riding, frogs, injuries and country policing, for example. Prepare good questions beforehand, tape the interview, and take good notes.” via Sherryl Clark

Remember: “Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”
~Zora Neale Hurston

Elements of Storytelling 8: Voice

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 8: Voice

A clear, unique, personable voice hooks audiences every time.

Case study: No Meat Athlete

no-meat-athlete-book-cover

What it is:

No Meat Athlete was a blog that became a brand that became a thriving business for Matt Frazier, an applied mathematics PhD student and amateur marathoner. It began as a chronicle of Matt’s quest to qualify for the Boston Marathon after switching to a plant-based diet.

Why it matters:

Nutrition and fitness blogs are rarely sustainable businesses. The sector is over-crowded, trend-driven and audiences are fickle. No Meat Athlete succeeded where most fail thanks to Matt’s inimitable voice. He tells readers everything they need to know in just three sentences:You’re not here to be preached to. And I’m not here to preach. In fact, I’ll come right out and say that a plant-based diet might not be for you. But I’ll also say this: You won’t know until you try.”

The tone is frank, warm, equable, and non-judgemental. Matt makes no apologies for being neither a professional runner nor nutritionist. Instead, he addresses readers as equals and fellow explorers. He writes in the enthusiastic, endearing voice of someone who has discovered something brilliant and can’t wait to tell you about. No Meat Athlete has grown into a brand that includes books, running groups, merchandise and more but Matt’s voice hasn’t changed. He is still the excitable, passionate, chatty guy you want to go running with then hit the pub for a vegan beer ‘n’ burger afterwards.

In his own words:

You can run without being a “runner.” I did it for five years.

Even once I had run a handful of marathons and was close to qualifying for Boston, when I lined up at the start of a race among all these passionate runners, I still felt like an imposter.

I was just a tourist, doing what runners do, but without feeling like I really belonged.

Sometime during the training for my Boston-qualifying race, where I finally succeeded in breaking 3:10:59, something shifted in me.

Shortly after qualifying, when I was in that happy, weirdly cloudlike space you find yourself in after accomplishing something you’ve worked at for so long, I read Born to Run. And damn if I didn’t feel like a runner after that.

For the first time, I could say that I really loved running, not just as a means of staying in shape or for accomplishing goals, but for its own sake.

And so I became a “runner.” Quotes and all.

Read more

Practice: “You can’t recognize and then strengthen your voice if you don’t hear it—and hearing it in your head isn’t the same as hearing it spoken aloud. Get in the habit of reading what you write out loud. I print and read everything before I send something out and also whenever I’m feeling all snarled up in my organization.

Want to accelerate your voice development? Read out loud to another person without any feedback. This is utterly maddening to your inner approval junkie: “But what does she think about my writing?!?” The magic comes because you turn toward yourself and listen for where you are being true to what you wanted to say and where you’re skirting the truth, where you dug deep and where you skimmed the surface, settling for clichés. Of course, there are plenty of times when getting specific feedback from other writers is useful—but not when it comes to honing your voice. via Jane Friedman

Remember: “Style cannot be copied, except by the untalented. It is, finally, the distillation of a lifetime of reading and listening, of selection and rejection. But if it is not a true voice, it is nothing.” ~Mavis Gallant

Elements of Storytelling 7: Belonging

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 7: Belonging

Good stories make the audience feel part of something special, feel a sense of kinship.

Case study: Agrotourismo Cas Gasi

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Cas Gasi

What it is:

Cas Gasi is an internationally famous boutique hotel in the heart of Ibiza that bucked the odds to become a success. Its  challenges included a converting an old farmhouse, stables and outbuilding into luxury rooms; and marketing an Ibiza destination located away from the clubs or beaches that are the island’s biggest attractions. It is also, to borrow the Stella Artois slogan, reassuringly expensive. Yet it thrives year-round, catering to a loyal audience of celebrities, aristocracy and captains of industry who come for a simple reason: at Cas Gasi they feel special.

Why it matters:

There are a few things every luxury hotel must do well: exquisite linen, top-of-the-range TVs, delicate room fragrances, weighty bathrobes, fine food and gracious service. Beyond that, success is down to who has the best story. Cas Gasi’s pitch is short and sweet: When you’re here, your family.

Everyone who visits from financiers and minor royalty to Hollywood stars, tax exiles, and well-heeled young couples is treated like part of an extended family. A cultured, urbane, educated family that has superb taste in food, wine and art and the means to indulge these interests.

Cas Gasi nurtures this sense of belonging by eschewing advertising (though friendly write-ups in Vogue, Conde Nast and Harper’s Bazaar are welcome) in favour of word-of-mouth recommendations. Guests are further encouraged to unwind by discreet service and an institutional obsession with privacy and quiet. Cleverly, the owners realised at the start that not everyone will like the hotel, so they created a space that a select group of people love.

In its own words:

Ibiza-born Luis Trigeros Juan grew up between Barcelona and the island, for which he developed a deep love. A lawyer and passionate sailor, Luis sailed around the world in 1986 before making Ibiza his permanent home alongside wife Margaret von Korff, Barcelona-born with German family roots in Baltic nobility and French, Austrian and Russian family connections.

Together they have found their niche, setting up a organic farming project, transforming their home into the beautiful boutique hotel to welcome guests from around the world – the Cas Gasi ‘extended family’ – and promoting their personal philosophy of fusing life’s luxuries with sustainable living.

Read more

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Clara, house dog

Practice: “The concept of a tribe transcends a customer merely liking or being satisfied with your brand or product. Your tribe is made up of your brand’s biggest fans – customers or prospects that will often take to Twitter and Facebook to share your praises or recommend your product….

Remember that word of mouth is still the best marketing. Consider setting up a referral program that rewards customers that deliver leads to your doorstep – in effect, have your existing fans recruit more tribe members.” via Wasp Buzz

Remember: “In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.” ~John Steinbeck

Elements of Storytelling 5: Accuracy

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 5: Accuracy

Good stories create a vivid, believable world. To achieve this, descriptions and details have to be accurate to the context and setting of the tale.

illahe 1899

Case study: Illahe ‘1899’ Pinot Noir

What it is:

Illahe is a small vineyard in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, not far from Salem. Winemaker Brad Ford is a laconic, dedicated experimentalist and a stickler for accuracy. Each year Illahe releases a small batch of ‘1899’ Pinot Noir, so named because it is made without using any modern equipment or electricity.

Why it matters:

Anyone can claim to be “traditional” or “classic” — Illahe delivers by being accurate down to the last detail. From the vine onward, ‘1899’ is made to strict standards. The grapes are tended by hand, horses not tractors are used to work the land, picking, sorting and crushing is done by hand. “No electricity” means “no electricity”: they use candles to light the barrel room or bottling line. When ‘1899’ is ready to go to its distributor in Portland, the cases are transported by stagecoach, bicycle and canoe, ensuring that no modern technology touches it until it leaves the Ford’s care.

The Illahe story:

Brad’s first harvest was in 1986, when he performed the important roles of tractor driver and bucket collector. He took a short break after high school to work as a bartender, carpenter, grant writer, and English instructor. He then returned to wine, taking classes with Barney Watson, Al MacDonald, and Professor Wamser at Chemeketa and PSU.

Brad worked with Earl VanVolkinburg, Joe Dobbes, and Russ Raney, who taught him the practical aspects of the craft and about their love of the product. He also owes a debt to Peter Julian of Nuit-St. Georges, Burgundy, who invited him to attend tastings from Chablis down to Mercurey, hitting all the major towns in between. His experiences there taught him that winemakers can craft incredible wine without huge operations, but not without close attention to the vineyard and vinification. Read more here

 

Practice: “When you are present at the birth of a child you may find yourself weeping and singing. Describe what you see: the mother’s face, the rush of energy when the baby finally enters the world after many attempts… When you write, stay in direct connection with the sense and what you are writing about. If you are writing from first thoughts — the way your mind first flashes on something before second and third thoughts take over and comment, criticize, and evaluate — you don’t have to worry.” ~Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down The Bones

Remember: “Invention is the finest thing but you cannot invent anything that would not actually happen.” ~ Ernest Hemingway

Elements of Storytelling 4: Heritage

Storytelling is the essence of communication. Whether you are a writer, entrepreneur or politician your story is how you connect with people.

The elements of storytelling are like the letters of the alphabet. Once you know them, you can put them together to tell your story in the best way possible.

Element 4: Heritage

Stories are how we connect to the past and make sense of the present. Heritage gives us a sense of shared lives, experiences, and memories.

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Case study: St. John & Dolly Smith’s Pickles

What it is:

Possibly Britain’s best pickles, sauces and chutneys. The first time I tried St. John & Dolly Smith’s ‘Scotch Bonnet Pickle’ my taste buds lit up like someone put 1000 volts through them. It was a blistering simultaneous hit of taste and sensation. The heat-wave receded leaving two questions: Who made this? And: Where can I get some more?

I tracked down founder and self-styled Pickleman Chris Smith and discovered a backstory as flavourful as his creations.

Why it matters:

The sauces, pickles and chutneys would be extraordinary, with or without the story of St. John and Dolly Smith. But by connecting his product to its heritage, Chris taps into a primal hunger for stories about love, belonging, success and navigating an ever-changing world. His heritage touches on history, empire, education, immigration, death, and the inevitable march of time. The details of our stories are different, but every one of us experiences equally big, scary, life events. I fell in love with the pickle and its promise that change can be beautiful and there is always another chapter to be written.

The St. John & Dolly Smith story:

St. John Smith taught at some of India’s best schools, some of which were boarding schools where Dolly’s role was that of house matron. When their two older sons left university they moved to England with 13-year-old Chris. It was the first time he’d left India and his abiding memory is of coming off the boat to see frost so thick on the ground it looked like snow. The utter foreignness of his new home was assuaged by the familiar foods of Bangalore.

“Friends were crazy about my parent’s cooking. They would come around with a list of requests for their favourites but my mum and dad were very modest,” Chris recalls fondly. “They always thought ‘oh, they’re just being polite.’”

As the son of gifted cooks, he admits to never doing much in the kitchen. “Why would I, when they could do it better?” One of Dolly’s traditions was taking jars of pickle to school reunions, a flavoursome evocation of shared memories. After his mother passed away, a chance meeting with one of her old friends encouraged Chris to dig out her recipes and revisit his culinary heritage.

Read more here

Practice: “Write down everything you can remember about every birthday or Christmas or Seder or Easter or whatever, every relative who was there. Write down all the stuff you swore you’d never tell another soul. What can you recall about your birthday parties — the disasters, the days of grace, your relatives’ faces lit up by birthday candles? Scratch around for details: what people ate, listened to, wore — those terrible petaled swim caps, the men’s awful trunks, the cocktail dress your voluptuous aunt wore that was so slinky she practically needed the Jaws of Life to get out of it.” ~Anne Lamott in Bird By Bird

Remember: Even if you were in a prison whose walls allowed none of the sounds of the world to reach your senses — would you not still have always your childhood, that precious, royal richness, that treasure house of memories?” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Elements of Storytelling 3: Inspiration

Storytelling is the essence of communication. Whether you are a writer, entrepreneur or politician your story is how you connect with people.

The elements of storytelling are like the letters of the alphabet. Once you know them, you can put them together to tell your story in the best way possible.

Element 3: Inspiration

Great stories are not plucked from the air; they grow from the fertile soil of stories that were told before.

Case study: Eivissa: The Ibiza Cookbook by Anne Sijmonsbergen

eivssa cover

What it is:

A cookbook based on, and inspired by Ibiza food. What it isn’t is an attempt to slavishly recreate traditional Ibicenco recipes, or a generic Mediterranean cookbook. The author lived on an organic farm in Ibiza for a dozen years, growing local produce, working with other farmers, and hanging out with rare-breed animal experts, fishermen, and artisan cheesemakers, before she put proverbial pen to paper.

 

Why it matters:

This long period of absorbing and exploring the food culture freed Anne to create recipes that are unique to her but capture the essence of Ibiza. She transforms stolid island fare like flaó — a dense, old-fashioned cake — into something fresh and suited for a modern palate. Each recipe becomes a story in its own right, revealing the history and origin of its components and the author’s inspiration.

The Evissa story:

Ibiza is on the cusp of a food revolution. The island’s traditional farming and fishing culture has been supplemented with a wave of chefs and producers making artisan products and vibrant food.

Now Eivissa, the first recipe book to showcase the incredible Ibicenco dishes Ibiza cuisine has to offer, reveals how to recreate the tastes of the white island in your own home.

Divided into seasonal chapters to reflect the ingredients in Ibiza, these are gorgeous recipes reflecting the heritage of the cuisine, yet with contemporary twists. Sample a really simply Grilled Courgette Ribbons, Asparagus & Mint Tostada from Spring, for example, or a Grapefruit & Juniper-Encrusted Pork Salad. Try Steamed Mussels with Samphire or Chicken with Roasted Figs from Autumn. Or treat yourself with a Ricotta Pine Nut Cake or Spiced Chocolate Truffles.

Full of stunning photography shot on location in Ibiza, both of the recipes and the island’s beautiful backdrop, these are recipes that are full of energy, warmth and enjoyment.

Read more here

Practice: Plenty of writing ideas are culled from great tales that have been told throughout history. Some of these have been converted into formulas that writers can use as storytelling guidelines.

From the three-act structure to the hero’s journey, formulas have been criticized as making stories dull and predictable yet they have also been credited with providing writers a framework in which to create.” via WritingForward.com

Remember: You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” – Jack London

Elements of Storytelling 2: Urgency

Storytelling is the essence of communication. Whether you are a writer, entrepreneur or politician your story is how you connect with people.

The elements of storytelling are like the letters of the alphabet. Once you know them, you can put them together to tell your story in the best way possible.

Element 2: Urgency

Great stories say things that matter. They aren’t just entertainment, they have an urgent message.

Case study: CALMZine

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What it is: CalmZINE is a by-men/for-men magazine published by the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM). CALM is a British charity that works to prevent male suicide (in 2014 men accounted for 76% of UK suicides and it is the leading cause of death in men under 45).

Brash as the captain of a five-a-side team after six pints, CALMZine hums with the urgent message: You’re not alone. In another context its laddishness, #Mandictionary, its jocular tone, would be gratingly juvenile. But it works because it is fuelled by urgency. Life and death. Every article whether news, interviews, fashion features, sport or entertainment, is twined with the message: It’s okay to struggle. You’re not alone. We’re here to listen.

 

Why it matters: Nothing comes close to being as awful as suicide. I’ve seen friends, family, shattered by it and there is nothing to say. Not a single word of comfort. No, “everything will be all right,” no “it was for the best,” no “at least he didn’t suffer,” no no no. None of the platitudes we salve ourselves with in the face of ordinary death. You can always find mercy if you look hard enough. But not in the vortex of suicide. You can stare into that pit all day, until your eyes burn at the blackness. You can cry enough tears to fill the ocean and that hole stays dry and dead as a slice of outer space.

The hopelessness of words after the fact gives utmost urgency to every word spoken or written to prevent it. There are no second chances. Any comfort or stumbling block, anything that helps one person make the choice to live, matters more than art.

Their story:

CALM works to prevent male suicide by:-

  • Offering support to men in the UK, of any age, who are down or in crisis via our helpline and website.
  • Pushing for changes in policy and practice so that suicide is better prevented via partnerships such as The Alliance of Suicide Prevention Charities (TASC), the National Suicide Prevention Alliance (NSPA). CALM also hosts the Suicide Bereavement Support Partnership (SBSP), which aims to ensure that everyone bereaved or affected by suicide is offered and receives timely and appropriate support.

Read the rest of the CALM story here

Practice: “Rather than daydreaming about what you’d like to write, sit down for fifteen minutes, keep your hand moving, begin with “I want to write about,” and go. Stay specific and concrete. Not ‘I want to write about truth, democracy, honesty,’ but ‘I want to write about the time my father lied right to my face and I could taste it all through dinner. It tasted like hot gasoline.’ ~Natalia Goldberg (Wild Mind)

Remember: “The one I felt pulsing in my chest [was] like a second heart… the story I couldn’t live without telling.” ― Cheryl Strayed

 

Elements of Storytelling 1

Storytelling is the essence of communication. Writers, entrepreneurs, corporations, governments and even religions rise and fall by the stories they tell. It’s simple: if you want an audience, customer, or acolyte you better tell a damn good tale.

Think of the elements of storytelling as letters in the alphabet. Once you know them, you can tell any story your want in a way that makes people pay attention.

Element 1: Listening

Great storytelling begins with listening… to stories, people, songs, ideas, waves breaking on rocks, the voice of your intuition

Case study: Boom Earwear

boom headphones

What happened:

My first interaction with @BoomEarwear on Twitter. As a music fiend and serial jogger I go through headphones at an unholy rate. I clicked onto their webpage to order a pair but the site was down. I Tweeted a jokey complaint. To my surprise a response popped up a minute later, thanking me, apologising, and promising to fix things ASAP.

Why it mattered:

Easily distracted, I went back to my crappy generic headphones. When they gave up the ghost I thought of the Twitter exchange, but couldn’t remember the name of the company. The fact they listened and responded was enough to make me search my feed for the name. My post-purchase Tweet received a prompt, friendly response. Once again, giving me the warm fuzzy feeling that comes from being listened to…

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Their story:

A note from James, founder of Boom Earwear.

Firstly, thank you for checking out Boom Earwear, we’re super excited to have you around. I’ve been asked many times why I set up Boom Earwear, and wanted to tell the story exactly as it is.

I founded Boom Earwear after encountering issues with my headphones when travelling through Asia. I’d gone out for five weeks alone, and took a pair of headphones with me to listen to music – it’s a big part of travel for me.

During the second week, my headphones developed a fault – and naturally, I wanted to get this solved. I contacted the manufacturer and was told that sure, I could have a replacement – but I had to go back to the store I bought them from, or get them shipped to a UK address. When you’re out in the middle of nowhere, thousands of miles from home – that’s not a great answer.

That’s when I started to get super bummed out. Consumer electronics as a whole is a huge industry, and there is a real lack of companies that care enough to help….

Read the rest of the Boom story here

Practice:

“Imagine yourself in the other person’s situation, wanting to have someone listen to them. When they are speaking, make an effort to think of where they are coming from and why. Imagine what their life is like and what struggles they might be facing”
via FastCompany

Remember:

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” ― Ernest Hemingway