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The Spark Blog

An occasional series of thoughts and reflections on the role of narrative in organizational change, branding and knowledge work

silent companions

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Priyanga Burford, a Sparknow associate, reflects on the potency of objects to conjure up associations and emotions.

‘Pair of baby shoes for sale. Never worn’ – Earnest Hemingway. (Used in Sparknow’s ‘Getting the Story Across’ story guide)

Objects inhabit our every days: silent companions to our public and private selves – functional or beautiful or both. But when we’re done with their functionality, or when their beauty has faded, we still keep hold of them. 

Objects then become subjective. They pulse with the power of the memories, feelings and ideas that we had when we needed them. They move from the purposeful to the symbolic and now we have the souvenir; the keepsake; the treasure.

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photo | Scorpions and Centaurs

The teddy, with its beaten up face, chewed ear and ‘special’ smell is kept into adulthood. People said the film Toy Story 3 was a parents’ film- a testament to the crisis of becoming a grown up and putting away childish things. Uniquely though, the story is seen from the point of view of the objects – the Toys.

In two recent workshops that Sparknow have run for The Clore Foundation and a global pharmaceuticals company, we asked the delegates to each bring a small object with them. We said that the object should relate to a turning point in their recent projects or professional lives – a moment when things could have gone either way. With the most recent workshop, where we were working with delegates from the pharmaceuticals company things didn’t go quite to plan. 

Somehow, the instructions to the delegates had gone awry, meaning that we had some people with objects that related to the successful projects they had been working on and others who had brought objects that related to turning points in their lives. The stories that emerged from this mixture of histories were compelling because of the crossover that emerged between work-based and life-based inputs. 

One man had flown all the way from China with his daughter’s sketchbook in his luggage, and told a truly heart-warming story of how he and his wife had no idea of how talented an artist she was until she posted her sketch of the Eiffel Tower on Facebook. Up until then, he explained, they had been solely focused on her academic studies – not considering that she might have other talents. The sketchbook represented the moment when they realized their daughter’s true gift and chose to support her wholeheartedly in that, even though it wasn’t conventional in their culture. The daughter had moved on from the sketchbook, but the man treasured it as a memento of a time he had done some deep learning.

A woman from India had brought some flowers. Despite their droopiness in the heat of the conference room we were working in, the story they held was one of finding an elegant solution to a big problem. This woman and her work mate had developed a simple IT tool in just one week to make their office in Hyderabad paperless. Over the course of a year, they had calculated that they saved 9,000 trees. She told the story with much passion and joy, shaking the droopy flowers as a token of the natural world that she had helped to preserve. 

Sketchbook and flowers had become vessels of meaning and memory. Another delegate had brought photographs of her team. A photo feels like a different kind of object to, for example, a key or an Oyster Card or a flask. The narrative of a photo partly tells itself, the others do not – they need a teller. The photo, I thought, makes me a ‘looker’ rather than a ‘listener’, and I can work out for myself, perhaps, what the story is. Not that there’s a judgment being made about which is better. But there is a distinction revealed between really abstract objects: ones that you have to sit down with and hear about, and (what I’m a bit audacious in calling) ‘narrative’ objects like photos or film. Photos can make an archive of self-telling stories. When I was a young teenager ‘Jackie’ magazine was filled with photo strip stories with hardly any words – I worked out myself what was going on between the horribly permed Mandy and Dave (usually sporting the same perm.) 

I have to say that my preference is for the abstract object that requires me to look AND listen. The object that sits on a table, floating context-less is an irresistible invitation to me to sit down and hear why this thing belongs in that place.

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