What Taking Pictures of Wildflowers Can Teach Us About Storytelling

By Nathan Young - Storytelling Consultant

One of my favorite things in the world to do is go hiking, as amply evident on my Instagram account. I love nature and exploring all the different trails and ecological zones of San Diego and beyond. I try to get out for a hike at least once a week if I can.

Springtime after a rainy winter offers a unique treat to my part of the world, as the desert in nearby Anza Borrego comes alive with an amazing display of wildflowers.

This last year was the most incredible display I've yet to see and I took advantage of the situation as much as possible. I got up early on two separate mornings to drive out and beat the crowds, hitting up multiple spots, and taking as many pictures as my phone could hold.

The wildflower scene in the desert is big, beautiful, and immersive, but also one that doesn’t lend itself to photography easily. In the time I spent out there trying to photograph the experience, I realized the challenge of photographing the wildflower super bloom was also instructive on how to better understand the applications of storytelling.  

Here's the deal... As amazing and immersive as it was to look out over a vast sandy desert and see a carpet of wildflowers in every direction, it’s really hard to capture the expansiveness of it in a photograph. The brilliance of the colors fade into the background, the detail of each individual flower gets lots, the yellows overpower the purples and whites, and generally you’re left with something that’s pretty but doesn’t do the reality of the scene anything close to justice. The grandeur of the view is simply never destined to be captured on a tiny iPhone lens, much less project impressively via an Instagram post.

Wildflower+broad+images

The funny thing was, I found that in order to really truly capture the splendor of all the flowers spread out around me, I actually had to get down on my hands and knees, get my phone up close to one cluster of flowers from a single plant, and take a picture of that. That seemed to come out much better.

It seems counter-intuitive that when looking across a huge field of beautiful vibrant wildflowers juxtaposed against stark desert mountains, that the best picture to be taken would be one down close to a single cluster of flowers, but trust, me that’s what worked.

There’s a notion in photography that you have to focus the viewer's eye, tell them what to look like and make it easy for them to appreciate the photograph. Storytelling is much the same.

The art of storytelling is all about focusing in on one specific idea, scene, or moment, and sharing that as a window into a bigger world behind it. The best storytellers can often focus in on an otherwise normal situation and without directly saying it show us how the implications of this situation touch huge and seemingly unrelated corners of human life. The story paints a picture and from that pictures a whole world opens up.

Much like trying to take a photo of a big field of wildflowers, the human brain doesn't always have the capacity to take in the big picture, no matter how stunning it may be. Our eyes and ears can sometimes be even more limited than the lens and microphone on your iPhone. But if you focus in on one scene, idea, or moment--much like focusing in on one wildflower--we stand a better chance of capturing our audience and focusing their attention in on what we want them to see.

The interesting thing is, once you’ve captured their attention with the close-up image, then you can zoom out and show them the bigger story.

So how can this be directly applied?

If you’re looking to use storytelling as a tool to better share the value your work or the work of your organization, rather than trying to bombard your audience with the big picture all at once, consider zooming in and sharing the story of specific people or customers you’ve helped. Then once you’ve got the audience’s attention, you can zoom out and show them the bigger picture of your products and services.

If you’re using storytelling for your next public talk, rather than speak in abstractions, think about what you want to talk about and see if you can zoom in on a specific moment or situation that reflects the idea or concept you want to share. It will help your audience better take in what you’re talking about, and once you’ve got them hooked, you can go into deeper ideas, concepts, or pitches from there.

It seems silly, but it's true. That one specific example can be more telling than the picture that captures all of it but at a much lower resolution. From that example, our minds can better extrapolate out the scene of thousands of more wildflowers.

Here's the trick! Much like searching around for the best wildflower to photograph to give a window into the fantastic scene of wildflowers around me, finding the perfect story to tell can be just as much of the art form as sharing the story itself. You want one that's unique and compelling, but also representative of everything else going on around it. You want one that looks good and stands out up close, but also hints at more depth in the background. And much like how there is a whole field to choose from, you as the storyteller need to learn to understand what to focus on to paint the most compelling image for your audience.

If you’re able to string stories together into a narrative that’s interesting enough, your audience might be compelled to follow what you're doing more closely, giving you more opportunities to share more stories, and take the relationship deeper and deeper. It’s not easy, but the sooner you start on it the sooner you’ll get better at it.

Good luck!

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