Thursday, October 25, 2018

Guest post - Before anything, storytelling is a conversation

Readers: I don't think I've ever done this before, but I'd like to do it more often. This post was written by Juan Manuel Rodríguez Bocanegra of the Haki Storytelling blog. I am sure that you will find Juan Manuel's insights valuable.

Last year, I contacted Cynthia Kurtz and asked her to be a guest writer for the Haki Blog. After some back and forth E-mails, I finally published her piece “Why storytelling isn't enough”, then she kindly offered me the option of being a guest writer for her blog.

I was thrilled with her offer, and at first, I thought about translating an older piece titled “Storytelling as meditation.” However, I think that something happens with the rhythm of your pieces when you translate them to other languages, so it is always better to write, thinking on the language you are writing in it.

Having that in mind, I told Cynthia that I would think about a theme of mutual interest for her blog, and I hope I've found it; let's see where words take me/us, but enough intro, let's get down to the storytelling business.


Nowadays if you google the term “Storytelling,” you get about 80 million results of mostly anything: embedded questions, how to use it, how to tell a brand story, stories that sell, the importance of storytelling in business, storytelling for content marketing, and so on and so forth.

It's lovely to see, and I'm glad that we're giving storytelling the importance it deserves. This beautiful art is covering almost every aspect of our daily lives, and we're acknowledging how important it is for the evolution of the human species. The thing is that with all the hype around it, I think that sometimes we lose focus.

For me, and I and hope that for many of you, one of the most important values of storytelling is the chance that it gives us to become more human, and the multiple options it offers us to connect with other people at an emotional level that goes straight to the heart; also the advantage it has against cold facts, numbers, graphics and bullet points, that, as we know, have the battle lost when they compete against a sincere story.

For a long time, I've been wondering: What about if we see storytelling, before anything, as a conversation?

“One of the primary goals in everyday conversation is to tell a story that 
is thematically similar to the previous story. One way of having coherent and entertaining 
conversations is to take turns telling similar stories

—Melanie Green, Narrative Impact

Let's think about a real conversation in our lives, one in which we really want to establish contact with another human being; one in which what we say, we want it to be understood completely by our listener, without imposing our thoughts or views. A conversation in which we expect to tune our listener (s) into our same frequency, whether it is personal, or it refers to a community or to a business.

So, you start talking (telling stories) and depending on how much you care for your listener (audience) and how much have you prepared what you have to say, they will pay attention or would nod their heads, making you believe that your story is clear or important for them.

We must admit that we can devote ourselves to craft a story for a particular reason, let's say to increase brand awareness or sales of some certain product or service, but it's impossible for us to know how the story is going to behave and the effect it will have on our audience, once we share it with the world. We may have some ideas about it, and some may come true, but maybe some of our expectations will not be fulfilled.

Because remember, it's a conversation, and every time we have one, first, we need to have empathy with our listeners, and then we have to be open to certain, almost imperceptible, signs or cues that they give us, let's say body language, for example.

Bringing that to the world of corporate storytelling, it means that our stories are always evolving and that we have to be aware of sudden changes of the industry or market we work on, and how they affect our audience, in order to adjust them properly.

So my invitation for anyone who wants to work or is working with stories is to think of them as the perfect path to create a conversation. You could ask: "And what about my business needs?" You're right, your business objectives are something that good stories can help you achieve, but I firmly believe that if you start telling honest and sincere stories with the main objective of starting a conversation, everything that you're looking for will follow up sooner or later.

Don't give up if your stories don't work at first, keep working on them with your team, and have your story sensors open to the environment, to know how to tweak them properly, to start creating and having more real conversations.

Juan Manuel Rodríguez Bocanegra
Business Storyteller
Haki Storytelling

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Writing here and there

Lately I've been writing less here because I've been writing more there. On the PNI Institute blog, that is. So right now, if you want to read the new stuff I'm writing, go there.

Why am I writing more there? This year, in our monthly Zoom calls, we've been going through the purposes of participatory narrative inquiry, as described under "Why work with stories?" in Working with Stories. To prepare for the calls, I've been trying to write blog posts about each of the PNI purposes. I haven't managed to do it every month, but these links show what I've written so far, as well as our discussions.
These calls are yet to come (and hopefully to be written about):
  • November - Connecting people: Community building and maintenance with PNI
  • December - Helping people learn: Knowledge management and organizational learning with PNI
  • January - Enlightening people: Advocacy and education with PNI
  • February - Combinations of purposes
I'll post those links here later (or you could just go and look at the blog there). Calls take place at 2pm New York time on the second Wednesday of each month, here. Everyone is welcome to join us, and calls are recorded and posted as well.

Since my method in writing these posts is to just sit and wait for a while to see what ideas rise to the surface, the posts are starting to form a sort of update to WWS, in the sense of new things I've been thinking about lately with regard to the uses of PNI. So if you are interested to see where PNI is going right now, these posts and discussions might be interesting to you.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Story the Future summit Sept 10-30

So a while ago I got an invitation from David Hutchens, who wrote Circle of the 9 Muses, to take part in an online summit he and some others were putting together on the future of story work. It seemed like a good thing, so I said yes. Then he asked me to tell you about the summit, so I said yes to that too. So here I am telling you.

The summit is called Story the Future and it runs from September 10 to 30. In the main it consists of some 30+ half-hour interviews with people doing a wide range of story work. My intuition is that every one of these interviews will be worth watching. I plan to watch as many as I can. If you are just getting started with story, or if you have been in the field for a while and feel a need to branch out and learn more about what the rest of the world is doing, this seems like a great opportunity.

There are also "live events" planned for each week (these seem like they will be Zoom conversations). I plan to attend some of those as well.

Here's a blurb:
Story the Future is a three-week online summit filled with dialogue, inspiration, and ideas participants can put to work right away to "story the future". The Summit is a collection of half-hour interviews discussing a range of facets around storytelling and story work. New interviews will be coming out daily, jam-packed with fresh ideas, ways to work with story and insights into how story is working in, and changing, the world. ... The intention of this Summit is to share stimulating new ways of looking at story and story work, connect the international field of people interested in story and help all of us deepen our practice.
Seems like a good idea, right? I think so. Be aware that each interview will only be available for a few days (unless you buy the "All-Access Pass"), so choose what you want to see, and pay attention to the dates on the schedule.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Works in progress

This is not a here's-something-to-think-about blog post; it's a why-hasn't-she-been-posting-anything blog post. Just so you know going in.

Store-bought stories (yes, still) 

In between other things, I've been working towards finishing the book of essays I started writing almost ten years ago about how we don't tell everyday stories as much as we used to. Its working title is (still) Store-Bought Stories: Essays on the Interplay between Commercial and Conversational Storytelling. It will include the fifteen or so essays I've already written on this blog on the topic, plus a few more I'm working on now.

I originally thought the essay on The Neverending Story would be the last essay in the book. But after I finished that essay, I realized that the book would be inadequate without three more essays:
  1. a reality check, to see if things really have changed (I call this the "Am I Wrong" chapter);
  2. a better look around for hopeful signs of positive change ("Points of Light"); and 
  3. advice for those who want to keep things moving in the right direction ("Manifesto").
This past winter, I started working on the "Am I Wrong" chapter. I began, as I always do, by looking around for things I could read to answer the question. When the number of "must read" books reached fifty, I forced myself to stop looking and start reading.

At this moment I am fifteen books into the pile, and two things have happened.

First, the "Am I Wrong?" chapter is now called "I Am So Very Much Not Wrong." I went looking for evidence that the trend I thought I saw was real, and I found abundant evidence, overflowing evidence. Nobody has written a book specifically about the decline in everyday story sharing, but there are hints and pieces of the trend littered all over the place, in many books on history, culture, and criticism. It's definitely a thing.

Second, when I hit the fifteen-book mark, my brain could hold no more, and I had to stop reading for a while and start gathering my thoughts together. I now have an outline with the major points of the essay, along with many quotes gathered from the books I've read so far. My plan is to finish typing these quotes, then read the other fifteen books in this particular pile, then type those quotes into the outline, and finally flesh out the writing in each section.

(If you're curious about the typing-in-quotes thing: I only use about a tenth of the quotes I type in, but I like to read over each set of related quotes in one place to get my thoughts together for that section. It's too hard to remember points and arguments I found scattered across dozens of books. I don't know if other people do this, but I depend on it. In the distant past, I copied excerpts by hand onto index cards, then sorted and resorted them as I worked out the structure of the writing. Now I type everything into a document on the computer. Typing each quote helps me think through the issues. I often read the quotes out loud as I type them, and I usually add some notes to them as well. I typed in hundreds of quotes for Working with Stories, and I throw together a few dozen for every essay I write. That's all in case you want to write non-fiction and you're wondering how people do it.)

The particular pile of thirty books I am halfway through stops just before the internet started, because one of the things that became clear early on was that I was going to have to treat the internet as a step change in story sharing. The internet-age books (another ten or so, plus some essays and articles too recent to have solidified into books) will support their own chapter (so yes, that's four chapters left to write). The ten books left after that are on a variety of topics like community organizing, celebrity culture, and fan fiction. I also pulled twenty of my older books off my shelves for a quick skim, to make sure I'm not forgetting some critical insight.

So that's what I have been up to. To motivate myself to tackle these great piles of books, I designed a cover for the Store-Bought Stories book a few months ago. I was going to show it to you! But some time went by, and now I hate it with a vengeance. That's a good sign. I'll probably take another break from research to redesign it soon. Pretending the book is real helps me keep working on it.

I also wrote a table of contents and a whole first chapter for a popular book whose goal would be to help people reskill themselves (and their families and communities) in story sharing. I ended up hating that attempt as well. I'm not sure a popular book wants to be written on that subject (or wants to be written by me). I decided to put that project on hold until this book is finished and see how I feel about it later.

If you are interested in the topic of Store-Bought Stories, let's talk. I am still looking for a few more people to read drafts of the book and send feedback (when I'm ready for that). I plan to post the rest of the essays here, as I have posted all of the book's essays so far. But I will still need some volunteers to read the book as a whole, for proofreading and to check my final editing and presentation.

Other works in progress

So what else is happening? Our monthly Zoom calls at the PNI Institute are going well. We are in the middle of a series of calls going through the uses of participatory narrative inquiry for all of the goals set out in Working with Stories (discovering insights, catching emerging trends, making decisions, generating ideas, resolving conflicts, connecting people). The calls are now being recorded, so you can listen to yours truly and a bunch of other PNI practitioners (and some interested others) talking shop every month.

I have also been writing more blog posts for the site -- one on weak signal detection and one on future planning might be interesting to you. If you'd like to get a monthly digest of posts, you can sign up there to receive our newsletter.

Also, I've been doing a lot of coaching lately. I just love helping people learn to use participatory narrative inquiry. I've been inspired by the courage, curiosity, and imagination shown by the people I've been coaching. Good things are happening in the world, people. Good things.

A taste of what's coming up

I leave you with a few of my favorite quotes from my reading so far. Here's one by the great Lewis Mumford, in Technics & Civilization, on the influence of the factory clock (emphasis mine):
[W]hile human life has regularities of its own, the beat of the pulse, the breathing of the lungs, these change from hour to hour with mood and action, and in the longer span of days, time is measured not by the calendar but by the events that occupy it. The shepherd measures from the time the ewes lambed; the farmer measures back to the day of sowing or forward to the harvest: if growth has its own duration and regularities, behind it are not simply matter and motion but the facts of development: in short, history. And while mechanical time is strung out in a succession of mathematically isolated instants, organic time -- what Bergson calls duration -- is cumulative in its effects. Though mechanical time can, in a sense, be speeded up or run backward, like the hands of a clock or the images of a moving picture, organic time moves only in one direction -- through the cycle of birth, growth, development, decay, and death -- and the past that is already dead remains present in the future that has still to be born. (p. 15)
From Ashby's With Amusement for All on the blind ambition of the mass entertainment industry:
For the entertainment mainstream, the effort to divine public preferences was clearly largely a guessing game. "The much-wooed audience does not make 'demands,'" as a leading student of the media has written. "Public opinion, such as it is, speaks with a vast silence, or with a background yammer that is incessant, indecipherable, contradictory." (p. 438)
From the confusing-yet-essential Within the Context of No Context by George W. S. Trow on what happened to community life:
The middle distance fell away, so the grids (from small to large) that had supported the middle distance fell into disuse and ceased to be understandable. Two grids remained. The grid of two hundred million and the grid of intimacy. Everything else fell into disuse. There was a national life -- a shimmer of national life -- and intimate life. The distance between these two grids was very great. The distance was very frightening. People did not want to measure it. People began to lose a sense of what distance was and of what the usefulness of distance might be. . . . Because the distance between the grids was so great, there was less in the way of comfort. The middle distance had been a comfort. But the middle distance had fallen away. (p. 47) 
And finally, the biggest surprise I've found so far has been a pattern I've taken to calling "the escape is the trap." Over and over, mass entertainers have wandered into the discovery that the best way to get our money is to sell us fake versions of the things mass entertainment took away from us. I will have much to say about the many examples of this pattern later, but here is just one example, from Ashby's With Amusement for All:
In 1930 . . . the station manager Glen Rice turned to it [deception] in a desperate effort to help his struggling KPMC in Beverly Hills, California. After "disappearing" for several weeks and stirring speculation that something awful had happened to him, he appeared with a story about how he had gotten lost and stumbled by accident into an unknown "hillbilly" community that refugees from the Arkansas Ozarks had established in the California mountains a century earlier. He claimed that some of the residents were musicians and that he had invited them to perform at KMPC. For several weeks, he milked the story for all it was worth, saying that the hillbillies would arrive soon. On April 6, he excitedly informed the radio audience that they were, indeed, on their way: "Yes, yes, I see them getting off their mules, and there they are. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present the hill billies!" The musicians were, in fact, professionals from around the country with considerable experience playing jazz and other kinds of music. ... [T]he label hillbilly tapped the kinds of antiurban, antimodern sentiments that still gripped many Americans. In contrast to the phony and artificial, the mythical hill country supposedly represented what was homemade, authentic, traditional, unpretentious, and rooted. (p. 246)
In other words, our disdain for the phony and artificial has been routinely played upon to sell us the phony and artificial. Our new world of store-bought stories, says George W. S. Trow, "hasn't anything to do with a human being as a human being is strong. It has to do with a human being as a human being is weak and willing to be fooled: the human being's eagerness to perceive as warm something that is cold, for instance; his eagerness to be a part of what one cannot be a part of, to love what cannot be loved."

Now that's something to think about.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Underbutterflies are free

About a year ago I cleaned up my old "butterflies" blog post (one of the most popular) and submitted it to the Journal on Policy and Complex Systems. After acceptance, review, and revision, the journal volume is now out, and you can read and download the improved version of the paper (or read the stand-alone PDF version here). Hope you like it!