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Creating Spoken Truths: It's research, but not as we know it

Posted on March 4, 2015

When I first considered what to do with the blank canvas for my research, which is presented to us all at the start of the Fellowship, I was initially struck by decision-paralysis. The multitude of research topics, as well as forms of presenting that research, almost made for too much choice! 

Previously, the research which I had undertaken was always determined by tight parameters – certainly academic research. The opportunity, and challenge, of the research which is a core component of the Clore Social Leadership Programme is exactly that lack of definition.

I have always been interested in the “underbelly” of the social sector, and thus I determined to use the research to hold up a looking glass to the sector, and to bring to light some of the issues and questions of which many of us are aware, but for a multitude of reasons remain unspoken, and thus not addressed.

Once I had determined on this topic, I thought about what would be the best form to deliver the research that would be potentially more engaging than a written report. Having written a number of reports, I was often left frustrated that they did not reach or impact my target audience. As a lifelong lover of the theatre, and a convert to the power and the punch of verbatim theatre in particular, I decided that this could be a different form through which I could present my research.  

As such, I decided to try stretch myself through exploring this option which was entirely novel to me, and which I could also exploit as a learning experience. I immersed myself in learning about verbatim theatre through reading books on it, listening and watching interviews with its practitioners, and attending performances. That was the really enjoyable preparation! Then came the real research work.

There was no science behind the sampling of those that I chose to interview. I just chose to approach those that I thought would have something interesting to say, and approached them on the proviso that the interviews were to be recorded, though anything they did say if used would be done so respecting their right to anonymity. I then went in and recorded unstructured interviews, which gave me the content for the script.

The benefit of this unstructured approach is that you let respondents speak more freely, and often you get better material because of it. Though the risk is that there is no guarantee that you will secure any worthwhile material at all! However, selecting respondents carefully does help in limiting the number of people that you need to interview, and the length of time to transcribe the interviews, which I chose to do myself – in order to get a better sense of the material. Which also then kept costs down.

The greatest challenge then was to carve out the time required to write up the script, away from many personal and professional distractions. I chose to bolt on some writing time to an overseas training programme, which compelled me to stop cogitating, and finally put fingertips to keyboard.

Once I had a script, I contacted a friend (a Clore Fellow) who was a theatre director and who I knew I could work with collaboratively, as that was required over a number of weeks to rework and revise the script. Thirteen drafts later (lucky for some!), we had a final script and all we needed then was a couple of actors and a venue to stage a rehearsed reading.

Though I did not have a supervisor, working with a director was the equivalent of having someone supervise the performance – who could share their experience of what works, and what will not. That definitely made for a better event, and experience, which was ultimately what we were working towards.

You can judge for yourself as to how we fared in the end, as we ensured to record the final, live performance. Not every note was hit on the night, but judging from the feedback we received then the message of the research was effectively conveyed and most importantly it was enjoyable for attendants, participants, and for myself!

Final thoughts and reflections then on attempting this more unorthodox approach to the research: Do make the most of the freedom and the budget to do something different, and to push yourself and learn something from the process. Do not be afraid of failure, because as long as you deliver something meaningful to yourself, and of interest to the sector, you will have always succeeded!

Listen to Spoken Truths: The unspoken truths of the social sector. 

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David Russell

David Russell

Survivors champion and serial social entrepreneur

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