Travelling for the story

January 26, 2021

The stories shared in cars or cafes or on foot are usually richer than the ones in boardrooms or on Zoom.

In our line of business, there are plenty of built-in perks – getting to know some of the country’s most iconic businesses up-close and personal, unearthing untold or long-forgotten gems, and having the satisfaction of playing a behind-the-scenes role in the story, too.

But one of my favourite things about telling those stories is getting out and seeing new places (or sometimes old ones in a new light) and meeting the people behind the story. And where better to do that than out in the field where the action is? (Although a certain pandemic certainly put the brakes on that for a while, didn’t it?).

Writing about a welder’s experience in a red, dusty (and beautiful) work-camp in remote Northern Territory is diminished unless you can experience at least some of it yourself. Understanding the complexity of an engineer’s favourite city bridge is so much better if you get to tag along on a visit while picking their brains about it.

Visiting old facilities or project sites is instructive for me as a writer, and it also prompts memories for my interviewee. When they’re in their ‘natural habitat’, they can relax, remember and communicate better.

The stories shared in cars or cafes or on foot are usually richer than the ones in boardrooms or on Zoom.

The books we make are often for the people they are about, so sharing a day on the road with a business owner visiting suppliers and staff, understanding the country town and local pub where those people relax after work, or sitting in on a strategy meeting at head office gives me a really valuable perspective. I get to see the way team members interact, hear the kind of language they use and absorb the general atmosphere of the place. It means I can channel that voice and spirit later when I’m back at my desk in Melbourne chipping away at the storytelling side.

Of course, it’s not always practical or possible to get the subject out of the office, and that’s OK. But going behind the scenes on some of Australia’s largest construction projects, hanging out in a winery, travelling underground in mines, or having cups of tea with the business founders as we review scrapbooks in their lounge rooms are where we find gold.

Probably the best trips in my fifteen years at this job was travelling to World Cups and a Asian Cup with the Socceroos in preparation for writing their book for them. Visiting South Africa, Brazil and Qatar was the only way to fully appreciate their time there, and someone had to do it – all in a day’s (month’s!) work. Our photographer even got about the place in full Socceroo tracksuit to make it easier to get through security and be more a part of the team. Hyphen people are good at embedding themselves within our clients’ world, but we are also conscious of not getting in the way. People have their job to do and we have ours, and that’s true regardless of how exotic, interesting or cool a place is

For me, the pandemic has only reinforced the importance of in-person interviews. Sure, it’s possible to do things remotely – sometimes it’s even preferable – but face-to-face meetings still make the strongest connections.

Neil Montagana-Wallace