I recently finished reading a non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, first published in 1966. It came highly recommended by an avid reader-friend. Putting aside his writing prose and the way Capote crafted the story, I had some research-telling takeaways, apart from having a fabulous reading time, lapping up every word Capote masterfully wrote.
Note: I am not delighting in the tragic quadruple murder, but merely reflecting on how the author has inspired me in his creative process.
The Research — Capote had over 8,000 pages of research notes
“The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there’.” — First sentence in the book
It’s not so much the amount but the voracity and the tenacity of the research Capote pored over as a basis of his writing. He visited the place (and the places within), he interviewed the community, the investigators, the murderers, the friends and family of the murderers. It feels like he didn’t leave many stones unturned in order to have enough data to start his writing.
This left me wondering about the research we do at work: How do we as researchers go out on field with the same vigour and passion to dig deep enough? How much data is too much and how much is enough when we start planning our research for a project? How do we then take those data we collected on the field and translate that vividly to our audience who did not get to be there? How do we bring the research to them in a meaningful way?
Bringing the Characters to Life
“Some people say I’m a tough old bird, but the Clutter business sure took the fly out of me.” — A lunchroom owner (a woman)
“I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.” — Smith’s confession of the Clutter
Every time Capote nonchalantly introduced a character, he then launches into an almost casual, but never careless description to breathe life to the characters for the attentive reader. He continues relentlessly; hitting the reader with the right quotes at the right time to further nail the characters and personalities with such vividness.
We constantly present personas or behavioural archetypes but I have personally never attempted presenting one like I read in novels. The quotes I extracted are often dull or non-descriptive enough to give the audience a good glance into the character. If I am able to use images, sound bites, video snippets, and a quote that accurately and succinctly give the characters life and depth, then I truly believe we can include some journalistic values to present our research findings to a ready audience, waiting with anticipation to listen to what we have to tell.
Translating Journalistic Findings into Storytelling
“In school we only learn to recognize the words and to spell but the application of these words to real life is another thing that only life and living can give us.”
What I also love is how Capote compelling presents the narrative; he cleverly weaves in and out of the atmosphere, characters, settings and the plot. I felt like I was riding on each sentence and experiencing how he wanted me to travel through the scenes his words formed.
We all read news, and we can agree that news present facts, nothing more. And if we present our research findings like news, then what we offer is nothing but facts. It goes no further to present a point-of-view: no synthesis, no analysis, no influence. But on top of synthesized data and a strategy, how might we use what we have gathered to tell stories in an engaging and emotional way? After all, the root latin word of ‘emotion’ is movement; emotions drive people to action.
I was heavily inspired by Amanda Palmer in her Ted Talk on The Art of Asking: The way she used her body, her words, the pace and the volume of telling her story. I’m not suggesting we do what she did but I must admit that many times, researchers do not spend enough time thinking, designing and practicing our presentation. We often rely on previous presentation templates or the typical way to present. But what if… we can find inspirations in novels, movies, videos, animations to tell our stories?
After all, isn’t that what we do? We present carefully distilled findings, we present our point-of-views, we present real-life stories.
“Then starting home, he walked toward the trees, and under them, leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat.” — Last sentence of the book