Walking around in other people’s shoes (and getting my own shoes dirty).

Out on a story with BBC Midlands Today, November 2016.

Lots of freelance journalists conduct their interviews by phone or Skype. They get paid by the number of words, and don’t usually get travel expenses, so that’s the most efficient use of their time. They can write more stories that way.

But when I wrote for the Financial Times, I couldn’t work like that. Wherever possible, I wanted to meet the main characters in person. I wouldn’t be remunerated for my time, but I knew I could write a better story that way. I liked to immerse myself in the real-time story.

One of my pieces was about writers and musicians selling their goods direct to consumer (“Sales straight from the source”). I wanted to include an interview with the songwriter Billy Bragg. He was speaking at an event in Brighton. To make the story relatable, I wanted to set the scene as best I could. And I knew I’d do that best if I was in the room with him. So I gave up my Saturday to go and meet him.

That’s how I approached all my FT articles. The first line is always a real-time scene setter, whether I was in Wales at The Do Lectures or in a Soho coffee shop meeting an entrepreneur.

I knew I’d get a different result if I experienced it first hand, rather than hearing the story via email or Skype. As I sat in that Brighton coffee shop with Billy Bragg I could look in his eyes and know how he felt as he answered my questions.

When I wrote a story about The Do Lectures (“In the market for new ideas”), I travelled to west Wales to immerse myself in the three day experience. Sleeping under canvas in a muddy field, sitting on hay bales watching the talks, sitting around the fire at night. I (quite literally) got my boots dirty.

It’s an approach that anthropologists describe as “walking in other people’s shoes.” My friends at the global strategy and innovation studio Stripe Partners work with some of the biggest brands in the world, helping them understand their consumers. When they were working with Duracell to help them understand how consumers use battery-powered devices in the outdoors, Stripe took the client camping — along with some outdoor enthusiasts — to a national park a few miles from the Mexican border. Stripe believes that brands should live in the consumer’s world by walking around in their shoes.

But it’s more than simply walking around in the customer shoes. Immersing yourself in their world means you also get your own shoes dirty.

Sarah O’Connor wrote about this in the FT. She told the story of how at the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979 the British embassy in Tehran had little contact with the country beyond the elites around the shah. Diplomats had become detached from what was happening outside the embassy gates, they didn’t see the revolution coming:

Subsequent generations of diplomats have taken this lesson to heart. They prize what they call “ground truth”: how things really feel out there; what people are really thinking. One former ambassador to Iran used to check whether his staff’s shoes were dirty. “If not, I knew they hadn’t been getting out of the embassy and meeting people in town.”

To get the real story, to understand the heart of the matter, I believe you have to your shoes dirty.

So when I got asked by BBC Academy to design and run a workshop on storytelling for TV journalists, I knew what I needed to do. I had to spend a day seeing their experiences first hand. It wasn’t enough to arrange some phone calls with TV journalists or email around a questionnaire, I needed to be in the newsroom and out in the field. I needed to know what it felt like to be out on a story at 3pm, with the pressure that their report would be on air on BBC 1 three hours later.

Last week I went to Birmingham, to see the BBC ‘Midlands Today’ team at work. I went out on the beat with Satnam Rana, to watch how she crafted a story.

What I gleaned was gold-dust. I could have sat at my desk designing an amazing storytelling course, but unless I’d walked in my audience’s shoes, my workshop would lack those all important ground truths.

Just as I help clients get out of their bubble, I needed to get out of my own too.

So whether you’re a marketing director, a web designer or a manager in the public sector, ask yourself this: when did you last live and breathe your customer’s or user’s world?

Ian Sanders is a creative consultant, storyteller, coach and author.

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