Story-gathering in the field

Story-gathering in the field

Introduction

Here are some suggestions for how you can gather story materials while carrying out your Fellowship research. These can be used for communications work on your return, to illustrate your ideas and findings.

What is story-gathering?

This is a journalistic term for generating materials that create compelling stories about your project. These include photos, film, interviews, case studies, statistics and useable anecdotes. They are different from the research information you will be generating for your Fellowship research and report – but their function is to capture the latter in a quick and compelling way, and they can only be gathered while you’re there.

Why is this useful?

Photos, and to a lesser extent film, are vital for websites and blogs, whether you are writing for your own one or contributing articles to other people’s sites. Photos and film are also the best way to get your posts noticed and retweeted on social media. And presentations come alive with them.

Story information of various kinds can convey your key messages and ideas powerfully – sometimes more so than abstract data. Two typical types are:

  • Case studies are a staple of charity communications, typically conveying a personalised ‘before and after’ story of what was the problem, what was the intervention, and what was the outcome. These rely on finding a relevant beneficiary or programme, that captures the story you want to tell. They’re great for reports and talks.
  • Interviews can convey the same sort of story, in a briefer and easier-to-find way. Or they can convey someone’s views and opinions in a way that is neutral to you as the author.

How to do it

Our top tip, as ever, is to plan this in advance. Stumbling across the above sorts of material by accident, while you’re carrying out your research, is highly unlikely to happen. It is recommended that, in advance, you think about what stories you’d like to tell, what sorts of people and information will dramatise them, and then where you would find them.

The next step is to do a bit of research and contact-making, to ensure the right people, information or photos will be available, and to discover when you need to be there to gather them (eg the school activity session that you want to photograph may only happen on a Friday; but they may already have good photos you can use instead). Then build into your itinerary the dates and sufficient time to allow for story-gathering.

Recording your experiences

While you are carrying out your research, it is very important to make detailed notes and contact lists as you meet new people. These will be the heart of your research. Once you return to the UK it will be difficult to remember accurately everything you have seen and learnt, especially quotes and statistics.

Everyone will have their preferred method of recording information. It might be notes on paper, typed text on a laptop, interviews recorded on your smartphone, photos or film clips. Whatever it is, plan how to keep your notes very safe from loss or damage, including everyday risks like rainwater.

If you are using technology, ensure that you have the right chargers and adaptors, and recharge daily (eg overnight). If using photos or film, try to download them to a laptop each night (or at least have a number of memory cards so used ones can be kept safely at base). Always have a back-up plan for note-taking, if only a pen and paper, in case your technology fails.

If you have already thought about how you will be disseminating and communicating your findings, you may have a clear idea of the kind of material you want to record. For example, if you anticipate creating a blog from your trip, you will want a lot of photos in landscape format and perhaps some filmed interviews. Or if you will be writing a policy-heavy report, you may want more statistics and impact data. So think ahead about your dissemination plan, and make sure you gather the material that will deliver it.

Case studies and ‘human interest’ stories

This kind of material can only be gathered while you’re in the field, so it is worth thinking in advance about what you want. Stories of individuals (‘beneficiaries’) affected by the projects you are visiting can be powerful in demonstrating their impact, and are much loved by journalists and non-specialists. Likewise, mini-profiles of successful initiatives can be useful to illustrate more abstract reporting. Both these types of material will be invaluable for making presentations to live audiences.

Typically, you need to gather concrete details about the situation before and after an intervention by the project you’re studying. Stats for before and after, clear statements of the problem and solution, trends in impact – these all build a picture. For human stories, you’ll probably want quotes and life-stories from people involved (those implementing as well as those benefiting), and definitely some photos of them in context (in the place, doing the activity). What did it all mean for those involved? How do they feel about that?

One of the main human stories involved in your trip will inevitably be your story. All audiences will be interested to learn what led you to the Fellowship, what you learned, what you’ll do next. In this context, it will be invaluable to generate some photos of yourself on the trip, doing the research: this might be meeting people (beneficiaries and implementers), watching activities or taking part in activities. Ideally you should have someone else to shoot it, with yourself relatively large, face showing, and a background that suggests the location. Ensure the photos are 5-10 MB in size and framed in both portrait and landscape format. In today’s media world, photos like this can make the difference between getting coverage or not.

Taking good photos and film

This is a highly specialist area, but in the age of the smartphone we are all photographers. A good photo will enliven your website and please your donors, and may make the difference between getting media coverage or not.

There are two absolutely key shots you always need to get:

  1. You in action – doing the activity you’ve set out to research, or in the location with a backdrop suggesting where you are. These should be mid-shots not close-ups, with your face shown very clearly (not in shade, not at an angle). Ideally you should be doing something, rather than smiling at the camera. (The latter are useful too, but less so.)
  2. Your project idea in action – the schoolchildren doing their activity session, the lecturer doing the lecture in front of a crowd, etc. Team shots of a lot of unknown people standing in a row in front of a building are no substitute for this kind of action shot.

Film is a more specialised area, but perfect for recording interviews:

  • Try to have a backdrop that suggests the theme (so a school whiteboard, or a kitchen, etc).
  • Place your camera or smartphone on something rock-steady, like a tripod or tabletop, and at eye-level with the person: a shaky camera makes a film almost unusable.
  • Ensure there is no background noise, including from yourself (breathing, shuffling papers and so on).
  • Then let them speak for themselves as naturally as possible. If they’re rambling, bring them back to the point with a leading question (‘So what did this mean for the schoolchildren?’).
  • Open questions are very useful to get people to say more – why did you, what did it mean, how did you feel, what are you aiming for are good examples of open questions.

Posting ‘live from the field’

You may want to create interest in your research by posting updates live from your journey. This is a dramatic way to grab people’s attention and build a following for your topic.

These could be as simple as regular tweets (perhaps on a dedicated twitter feed), or as complex as setting up a dedicated blog for your project and kicking it off with posts from your journey. Easy blog platforms are WordPress, Wix, Blogger and Tumblr.

Or you could approach your local or specialist media and offer to write them a blogpost or feature article ‘from the road’. They may like the drama of that, and it will build media contacts for when you come home and start to disseminate.

Blogging

The Churchill Fellowship is always delighted to consider blog posts from Fellows after you have finished your research. We look for a first-person article of 500-800 words, which explains the issue you are working on, your recommendations, how you plan to mitigate the problem, how beneficiaries are affected and your next steps. Contact our Content Editor Rachel on rachel.mckenna@churchillfellowship.org for a copy of our blogging guidelines.

What is story-gathering?

This is a journalistic term for generating materials that create compelling stories about your project. These include photos, film, interviews, case studies, statistics and useable anecdotes. They are different from the research information you will be generating for your Fellowship research and report – but their function is to capture the latter in a quick and compelling way, and they can only be gathered while you’re there.

Why is this useful?

Photos, and to a lesser extent film, are vital for websites and blogs, whether you are writing for your own one or contributing articles to other people’s sites. Photos and film are also the best way to get your posts noticed and retweeted on social media. And presentations come alive with them.

Story information of various kinds can convey your key messages and ideas powerfully – sometimes more so than abstract data. Two typical types are:

  • Case studies are a staple of charity communications, typically conveying a personalised ‘before and after’ story of what was the problem, what was the intervention, and what was the outcome. These rely on finding a relevant beneficiary or programme, that captures the story you want to tell. They’re great for reports and talks.
  • Interviews can convey the same sort of story, in a briefer and easier-to-find way. Or they can convey someone’s views and opinions in a way that is neutral to you as the author.

How to do it

Our top tip, as ever, is to plan this in advance. Stumbling across the above sorts of material by accident, while you’re carrying out your research, is highly unlikely to happen. It is recommended that, in advance, you think about what stories you’d like to tell, what sorts of people and information will dramatise them, and then where you would find them.

The next step is to do a bit of research and contact-making, to ensure the right people, information or photos will be available, and to discover when you need to be there to gather them (eg the school activity session that you want to photograph may only happen on a Friday; but they may already have good photos you can use instead). Then build into your itinerary the dates and sufficient time to allow for story-gathering.

Recording your experiences

While you are carrying out your research, it is very important to make detailed notes and contact lists as you meet new people. These will be the heart of your research. Once you return to the UK it will be difficult to remember accurately everything you have seen and learnt, especially quotes and statistics.

Everyone will have their preferred method of recording information. It might be notes on paper, typed text on a laptop, interviews recorded on your smartphone, photos or film clips. Whatever it is, plan how to keep your notes very safe from loss or damage, including everyday risks like rainwater.

If you are using technology, ensure that you have the right chargers and adaptors, and recharge daily (eg overnight). If using photos or film, try to download them to a laptop each night (or at least have a number of memory cards so used ones can be kept safely at base). Always have a back-up plan for note-taking, if only a pen and paper, in case your technology fails.

If you have already thought about how you will be disseminating and communicating your findings, you may have a clear idea of the kind of material you want to record. For example, if you anticipate creating a blog from your trip, you will want a lot of photos in landscape format and perhaps some filmed interviews. Or if you will be writing a policy-heavy report, you may want more statistics and impact data. So think ahead about your dissemination plan, and make sure you gather the material that will deliver it.

Case studies and ‘human interest’ stories

This kind of material can only be gathered while you’re in the field, so it is worth thinking in advance about what you want. Stories of individuals (‘beneficiaries’) affected by the projects you are visiting can be powerful in demonstrating their impact, and are much loved by journalists and non-specialists. Likewise, mini-profiles of successful initiatives can be useful to illustrate more abstract reporting. Both these types of material will be invaluable for making presentations to live audiences.

Typically, you need to gather concrete details about the situation before and after an intervention by the project you’re studying. Stats for before and after, clear statements of the problem and solution, trends in impact – these all build a picture. For human stories, you’ll probably want quotes and life-stories from people involved (those implementing as well as those benefiting), and definitely some photos of them in context (in the place, doing the activity). What did it all mean for those involved? How do they feel about that?

One of the main human stories involved in your trip will inevitably be your story. All audiences will be interested to learn what led you to the Fellowship, what you learned, what you’ll do next. In this context, it will be invaluable to generate some photos of yourself on the trip, doing the research: this might be meeting people (beneficiaries and implementers), watching activities or taking part in activities. Ideally you should have someone else to shoot it, with yourself relatively large, face showing, and a background that suggests the location. Ensure the photos are 5-10 MB in size and framed in both portrait and landscape format. In today’s media world, photos like this can make the difference between getting coverage or not.

Taking good photos and film

This is a highly specialist area, but in the age of the smartphone we are all photographers. A good photo will enliven your website and please your donors, and may make the difference between getting media coverage or not.

There are two absolutely key shots you always need to get:

  1. You in action – doing the activity you’ve set out to research, or in the location with a backdrop suggesting where you are. These should be mid-shots not close-ups, with your face shown very clearly (not in shade, not at an angle). Ideally you should be doing something, rather than smiling at the camera. (The latter are useful too, but less so.)
  2. Your project idea in action – the schoolchildren doing their activity session, the lecturer doing the lecture in front of a crowd, etc. Team shots of a lot of unknown people standing in a row in front of a building are no substitute for this kind of action shot.

Film is a more specialised area, but perfect for recording interviews:

  • Try to have a backdrop that suggests the theme (so a school whiteboard, or a kitchen, etc).
  • Place your camera or smartphone on something rock-steady, like a tripod or tabletop, and at eye-level with the person: a shaky camera makes a film almost unusable.
  • Ensure there is no background noise, including from yourself (breathing, shuffling papers and so on).
  • Then let them speak for themselves as naturally as possible. If they’re rambling, bring them back to the point with a leading question (‘So what did this mean for the schoolchildren?’).
  • Open questions are very useful to get people to say more – why did you, what did it mean, how did you feel, what are you aiming for are good examples of open questions.

Posting ‘live from the field’

You may want to create interest in your research by posting updates live from your journey. This is a dramatic way to grab people’s attention and build a following for your topic.

These could be as simple as regular tweets (perhaps on a dedicated twitter feed), or as complex as setting up a dedicated blog for your project and kicking it off with posts from your journey. Easy blog platforms are WordPress, Wix, Blogger and Tumblr.

Or you could approach your local or specialist media and offer to write them a blogpost or feature article ‘from the road’. They may like the drama of that, and it will build media contacts for when you come home and start to disseminate.

Blogging

The Churchill Fellowship is always delighted to consider blog posts from Fellows after you have finished your research. We look for a first-person article of 500-800 words, which explains the issue you are working on, your recommendations, how you plan to mitigate the problem, how beneficiaries are affected and your next steps. Contact our Content Editor Rachel on rachel.mckenna@churchillfellowship.org for a copy of our blogging guidelines.