Desert sunsets, taking chances and finding connection

I don’t get to talk much about my own story, when I spend all my time asking people about theirs. But this week, thanks to Andrew Thorp, I had an opportunity to share some of my own professional journey in front of an audience. Here’s what I said… and a bit more

The turning point in my writing and journalism career came in 2006. After a few years in the UK learning my craft, and not getting paid very much, an opportunity to work in the Middle East was a good way of getting stuck in and paying off my student loan.

I my spent my early days in Dubai on the sub-editing desk of ITP Publishing’s Construction Week, chopping words, laying out pages and sourcing images for the magazine. I liked the creative side of design, with the flow of words on the page. It was a good job and a great way to access a competitive industry.

But when the editor wanted someone to go to Kuwait and produce a supplement, I put my hand up. I’d always wanted to do more writing and had worked alongside the reporting team to cover conferences and big announcements. 

I remember the 50-degree heat coming through my shoes, and almost burning my feet, it was so hot

He let me do it, and I got on a plane with my recording device, notepad and good intentions.

I spent four days in Kuwait City that April, speaking to heads of construction firms at a time when the industry was booming. I remember sitting in air conditioning offices, with people I had never met, doing my best to ask good questions and trying to capture it all.

I remember the 50-degree heat coming through my shoes, and almost burning my feet, it was so hot. I’ll never forget what it felt like to look out over the city at sunset from the top floor of the Crowne Plaza hotel. The call to prayer was echoing out from a local mosque and I could see damaged buildings from the first Gulf War.

It felt like I was at the centre of history, in a global hotspot.

That experience helped me write five features and I have never looked back. I discovered a love for interviewing people, with room to breathe away from the constraints of news writing, and the feeling of flow writing words, which I still get today.

Over the years, as I returned to the UK to work at Insider Media, I built on those early experiences and got busy writing interviews and features on a monthly basis. At the time I left, in 2016, I’d worked on nearly 100 issues of the magazine. I don’t know how many words that is, but I had a lot of time to practice.

When you write for a living and learn to construct editorial that people will hopefully enjoy, it’s easy to forget how you create and enable the content. In the days of podcasting and video, live events and sales pitches, stories are a central part of how we communicate with each other. Everyone’s got one; and getting people to share them is important. Here are three things to think about as you develop stories.

  1. Always aim to connect the head and the heart. The feelings I get from listening to and producing stories are related to what’s happening in my brain. Stories fire our emotion centres, helping us to remember what people say, and feel like we are there. That’s why it’s important to paint a picture for others to imagine. It’ll help you connect with them and what they are talking about.
  2. If you are interviewing, ask questions that jog people to reflect and move beyond routine answers. I always want to understand why something matters to someone and what they really think. It can take time to peel back the layers but listening for key words that give you a clue to their thoughts can help. If you’re sat in front of them, then body language is a powerful communicator; if you’re not, then listen for the energy and passion in their voice, and then ask another question.
  3. Give them the space to talk. If everyone has something to say, or a story to share, they need the time to share it. I think some people have dampened their inner voice over the years, and as adults, need help to find it again. If you can tune in and listen well – then you won’t fear the pause, and neither will they. Your audience will thank you for it, because they might say things they have never said before, and we will all learn.

Last year, I interviewed Ged Mason from Morson Group, for the OBI Journal.

I knew Ged’s dad had been a big influence on him, and the early story of growing up in the family business, was clearly important to cover. Over the course of the hour we spent together, we spoke about their relationship, Gerry’s death, and the time they had visited Buckingham Palace.

It was this last memory that stopped Ged in his tracks during the interview, as the emotion of the memory came flooding back to him, right in front of me in a Salford boardroom. Ged reached for a glass of water, took his time, and then reflected on the enormity of not wanting to let his dad down.

It was a powerful moment, and one where I truly connected to him as a person. I hope the reader did as well.

Good luck in sharing your own stories; I’m sure they will help you and others too.

Thanks to Andrew Thorp for hosting me at his first Just One Thing event at Total Fitness in Handforth Dean. I’m going to try and do more speaking this year – as a personal challenge and opportunity to share