Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Course developments

I have succeeded. My original design for the possible on-line PNI course I talked about a few months ago now looks unbearably stupid. Progress!

And how are you? Well, I hope.

So what happened was, just as I was working on that blog post in December, I was approached by a Ph.D. student who wanted to do what is called a "practicum course" with me on PNI. We're working our way through the course, and she's doing a bang-up job on her first PNI project. So far it's going better than any previous attempt to pass on what I know (maybe because I've tried to do this a few times already and learned a lot about what not to do).

The best part of it is that because "my" student is also an experienced teacher, she is helping me think through the course design in terms of what will best help people learn to do PNI. Also, I've been talking to a few people who wrote after that first blog post, about what kind of course they would like to see.

The main points of feedback I have received so far are:
  • People vary in the scale of PNI they want to use. One of the strengths of PNI is that it scales up or down depending on the context and purpose of each project. Thus a PNI project can range from five people spending a few hours together to ten thousand people interacting over years. Some people want to facilitate small-scale "here we are in a room" PNI projects; others want to tackle larger, deeper projects.
  • People vary in how much time they have to take a PNI course. Some will be tacking the hours on top of full-time work, while others will be able to do the course as part of their work or education.
  • People vary in how they learn best. Some will be fine with readings, but some need a more auditory and/or interactive experience.
  • People vary in how easily they can gather participants for a PNI project. Some people have easy access to a group they can draw stories from, while others will have difficulty finding the people they most want to talk to.
  • People vary in their confidence and comfort in various aspects of the work (planning, interviewing, facilitating groups, handling data). Some can look at concepts or session plans or data formats and run with them; others need to practice and find their way.
  • People vary in how easily they can come up with questions to ask. Some will have no trouble writing useful question sets; others will need considerable help figuring out what to ask and how.
  • People's schedules vary. Some will be able to fit fixed meeting times into their fluid schedules, but others will need ways to participate in the course only early in the morning, late at night, or on a fixed schedule (which may or may not match the fixed schedules of others).
  • People vary in what results they want to get from the course. Some people need to prove (to someone else) that they have achieved something by taking the course; others just need to satisfy themselves.
  • People vary in how much direction and freedom they want in a course. Some people want a lot of freedom to choose, while others want things to be spelled out and don't want to make decisions on their own.
  • People vary in what they want to understand about PNI. Some people just want to learn the practical elements, while others want to delve more deeply into the theory behind the approach.
That's a lot of variation! The best way I can see to accommodate all of these needs is to prepare two separate courses. I can also create more flexibility in the structure of each course. See how this plan sounds to you.

Basic "Just Do It"  Course

The basic PNI course will take place over five weeks. The maximum course time will be four hours per week, so the total time commitment is 20 hours. This course will focus on small-scale PNI at a practical level, without much emphasis on theory or custom work.

Students in the basic course will:
  • Choose some story-eliciting questions from a pre-written set
  • Choose from a few pre-written story forms with questions about stories
  • Carry out a story collection session with a pre-written session plan
  • Record the session and transcribe the stories
  • Use a standard word processor to prepare story cards
  • Carry out a sensemaking session with a pre-written session plan
  • Go through a simple return exercise using a pre-written agenda
Students in the basic course will not:
  • Delve deeply into the theory behind PNI
  • Set up or run a project planning meeting
  • Write their own questions
  • Design their own group sessions
  • Decide how they will collect stories (everyone will use the same method)
  • Use NarraFirma
  • Get into narrative catalysis
  • Think about intervention
  • Need to collect more than 30 stories
  • Need to involve more than 4 or 5 participants
I was going to write next that students will "learn how to" do things like collect stories and lead a sensemaking session. But really, learning to do these things isn't the point. You can learn how to do them by reading my book (and/or a combination of books about oral history, narrative inquiry, and facilitation). What this course will provide is the opportunity to do things -- collect stories, watch people tell each other stories, work with your collected stories, help other people work with stories -- with support and discussion along the way. The point of the course is to make sure that your first PNI project is a successful project.

To that end, the emphasis in the basic course will be to "Just Do It" without having to make difficult decisions. Using pre-written story forms and session plans will free people from the intricacies of custom projects. Students won't have to decide whom to include, how to collect stories, what questions to ask about stories, or what to do with the stories once they get them. All of these things will be prescribed by the course, in as simple a way as possible.

The schedule for the basic course will be something like this:
  • Week 1: Introduction to PNI, planning the project
  • Week 2: Collecting the stories
  • Week 3: Transcribing the stories, planning the sensemaking session
  • Week 4: Facilitating the sensemaking session
  • Week 5: Supporting return, wrapping up the project
You'll notice that I've given the story collection phase two weeks, or nearly half the time of the course. This is because story collection is the bottleneck of PNI. If you can't get enough stories, or you get opinions instead of stories, or your tape recorder breaks, the rest of your project can fall apart. Giving people two weeks to collect stories and process them builds in a safety buffer. People who didn't get enough good stories on their first try can try again before their sensemaking session.

Another critical component of the basic course is that I would like to get everyone to transcribe some stories. This task seems like something you'd want to hand off to an underling, but no matter who you are in the world, transcribing stories told in conversation can teach you a lot about stories and how they work.

Each week of the course will include:
  • Assigned readings (not more than 20 pages per week, usually from WWS)
  • Optional readings (not necessary, but available for those who want to spend more time; probably not from WWS)
  • A 30-minute live-call presentation (by me), with Q&A afterward, also available on video for those who can't make the call
  • An activity or task, depending on what part of the project is to be done that week (or what you might be catching up on)
  • A 60-minute video-call feedback session with me, also available on video
  • Ongoing online conversation via forum messages and an "always on" chat room (probably using Moodle) 
Compared with what I described in my last post, this schedule is lighter and much more flexible (due to my realization that people have, um, lives). Some people will be able to attend both the presentation and the feedback session, but those who cannot attend can catch up with both via video. I will also provide feedback via online conversations in the forum and in chat (though not every minute of every day, of course). There will be no study or project groups in the basic course.

Advanced "DIY" Course

The advanced PNI course will take place over twelve weeks. The maximum course time will again be four hours per week (making the course total 48 hours), but that will be an average, because some weeks will be busier than others.

Students in the advanced course will:
  • Hold a project planning meeting (even if it's just by themselves)
  • Use NarraFirma's questions to think through their project plans
  • Choose how they will collect stories
  • Write their own questions for and about stories
  • Test and improve their questions
  • Collect at least 60 stories in any way they choose (interviews, story sessions, online form, email, etc)
  • Enter their stories into NarraFirma
  • Prepare some catalytic material (at least a few graphs) to use during sensemaking
  • Design their own sensemaking session
  • Carry out the sensemaking session
  • Reflect on the session using the questions in NarraFirma
  • Choose, design, and carry out a small intervention (like distributing some stories in the community) as decided in their sensemaking session
  • Fill out all of the recording/reflection screens in NarraFirma to document the project and their learnings to use in the future
Students in the advanced course will not:
  • Use pre-written story forms (though they can draw question templates from NarraFirma) 
  • Need to collect more than 60 stories (though 80+ is best)
  • Need to involve more than 20 participants
In the advanced course, as in the basic course, students will collect stories, watch people tell each other stories, work with their collected stories, and help other people work with stories. The difference is that in the advanced course, students will be encouraged to make their own decisions, bring their creativity and skills to their varied project designs, and delve more deeply into what PNI can do.

The weeks in the advanced course will play out something like this:
  • Week 1: Introduction to PNI concepts and connections; introduction to NarraFirma; forming course, study, and project groups (see below)
  • Week 2: Hold a project planning meeting; fill out the planning sections in NarraFirma
  • Week 3: Design the story collection method and story form
  • Week 4: Do some pilot testing; refine the story form and collection method
  • Week 5-7: Collect stories, transcribe them, enter them into NarraFirma
  • Week 8-9: Design the sensemaking session; prepare catalytic materials using NarraFirma
  • Week 10: Facilitate the sensemaking session; have a post-session review; answer questions about the session in NarraFirma
  • Week 11: Design and carry out a small intervention (like distributing some stories, creating a simple narrative simulation, or bringing in some appreciative inquiry, narrative therapy, or participatory theater) (If people don't want to do interventions, they can do additional sensemaking sessions instead)
  • Week 12: Review the whole project; answer the return questions in NarraFirma
You'll notice the same generous amount of time given to story collection and working with the stories and other data (5 weeks out of 12). The bottleneck in this course is potentially even bigger than the one in the basic course, because people might be collecting stories in a variety of ways (interviews, group sessions, the internet). And people will have a variety of backgrounds when it comes to dealing with the technology required to create graphs. And the different types of questions used might lead people to different mixings of qualitative and quantitative work on their stories. So I want to keep the middle part of the course quite loose, to make sure everyone is ready to move on to sensemaking afterward.

A week in the advanced course will include:
  • Assigned readings (not more than 50 (?) pages per week, usually from WWS)
  • Optional readings (not necessary, but available for those who want to spend more time; probably not from WWS)
  • A 30-minute live-call presentation (by me), with Q&A afterward, also available on video for those who can't make the call
  • Some sort of activity or task, depending on where you are in your project (it does not have to be the same for every participant in every week, though people should probably try not to get too far out of synch)
  • Some form of study-group meeting (but when these happen will be up to the participants to decide)
  • A 90-minute video-call feedback session with me, per course group, also available on video
  • Ongoing online conversation via forum messages and an "always on" chat room (probably using Moodle)
I've dropped the whole on-Monday-we-will-do this schedule, which now seems perfectly stupid. Busy people can't commit to such a detailed schedule. So, usually the presentation will take place on Monday or Tuesday, and usually the feedback session will take place later in the week, possibly on Friday, but we'll figure out when to schedule these things as the course gets started.

You will notice that I added a definite live presentation to each week (in both courses). I don't want to disappoint people who learn best by listening and talking. I learn best by reading and writing, but making a course only I would enjoy seems pretty stupid. So a big part of the preparation for the basic and advanced courses, on my part, will be the creation of lots of presentations that essentially say what's in my book, for people who learn better that way.

In the advanced course we will have three categories of groups among participants:
  • Course groups: These groups will form due to the basic necessity that, if we have more than six people in the course, I won't be able to give everyone enough attention in the presentations and feedback sessions. They will only exist if we have more than six people in the course at a time, and they will be defined mostly by time zones and when people can fit meetings into their schedules.
  • Study groups: course participants will be encouraged to form groups to talk about their projects together. I won't tell them when to talk or how often to talk, but I will assume/hope that people are forming such groups, to deepen their learning with peer feedback. I expect that these will be anywhere from two to six people in size, and will depend on interests and schedules.
  • Project groups: some course participants will want to share their PNI  projects. They will work on their story forms and collection methods together; they will pool the stories and other data they collect; they might even hold joint sensemaking sessions. They might enter only one project into NarraFirma. Everyone will be free to join or not join a project group. I will make a rule that project groups cannot have more than three people in them; otherwise everyone might not get a chance to do everything.
Another thing I'm thinking about a lot lately is what people will want to receive at the end of the course. The Ph.D. student I'm helping right now is doing the course for credits that will be part of her official transcript. Most people won't be doing that, but I do think people will want to have some kind of certificate or proof that they took the course and passed it. (I had to force myself to take the scare quotes off "passed.") I'm hampered in being able to offer a certificate because I don't have a corporation with an official-sounding name. I'm just little-ol' me. I can imagine that people who get funding and/or permission to take the course might need some kind of official-looking result. Would a certificate saying "I passed Cynthia Kurtz's PNI course" be useful to people? Or would it be just be weird? (Maybe there's a "How to Create an Online Course" course. Of course there is.)

You know what? The longer I think about this new offering-to-the-world, the more I think I'm not ready to support it just yet, as in, within the next few months. I've got lots of projects (paid and otherwise) going on, and I still have some groundwork to do before I'm ready. I think the course wants to happen, and I think the world wants it to happen, but I also think it needs more time to mature into what it wants to be.

Most of the reason I'm writing so much about these courses here on my blog is to find out what you want me to do. I want to gather feedback on these ideas, so I can design the best courses I can. If you're still reading, you must be interested. Or you might be one of those people who skim everything, and you popped down here to see how it ends. In either case, if you have any reactions to or suggestions about what I've laid out here, I'm eager to hear them.




Wednesday, December 30, 2015

It's a great big box of chocolates

I just now posted this review on Amazon.com. It's about David Hutchens' new book about stories in organizations, Circle of the 9 Muses: A Storytelling Field Guide for Innovators and Meaning Makers. I first heard about David's book project two years ago, and I've been an enthusiastic supporter ever since. I'm excited to see how well the book turned out. Five-star recommendation.

Here's the review:

Full disclosure: I work in the story field; I was one of the people David talked to while writing his book; I promised him I'd write a review.

Things I like most about "Circle of the 9 Muses":

1. It's a balanced look at the story universe.

If you start looking at what you can do with stories, you will find lots of information about what you can do by TELLING stories, usually to convince people to buy or do something. There's nothing wrong with that! But telling stories only scratches the surface of what you can do with stories. LISTENING to stories is just as amazing, if not more so, and it's not well represented in books and other information. I was excited to see that "Circle of the 9 Muses" gives storytelling and story listening/sharing roughly equal time. That makes the book uniquely useful if you want to learn about a wide range of possibilities in story work.

2. It draws on collective wisdom.

David is an experienced practitioner of story work, and he could have written a book using just what he knows. But he didn't do that. He reached out to dozens of people in the story field and drew from all of their experiences as well as his own. So what you're getting in this book is a unique distillation of LOTS of great ideas about doing things with stories. You could think of it as a story-work sampler. Of course, there are aspects of story work David doesn't cover. I would have liked to have seen exercises drawn from narrative therapy and participatory theatre, and lately I've been learning more about narrative coaching, where there is even more to discover. But those are small omissions, and this book will definitely get you started on the right foot.

3. It's a great big box of chocolates.

The most exciting thing about David's book, to me, is that every one of its eighteen chapters gives you real methods you can use right now. For the chapters with methods I know well, I can vouch that the steps David describes work well (and aren't hard to make work well). The chapters I don't have direct experience with I'd like to try. That's saying a lot, given that I've been working in this area for sixteen years. If the chapters in this book seem like they are worth trying, you're right: they are worth trying. Now you know how.

4. It's a great big box of CHOCOLATES.

I always say that story work is bigger on the inside than the outside. From the outside, it looks small, silly, useless, just another fad. But when you come inside, you can see a whole universe of meaning and relevance. David's book does an excellent job of drawing you inside the world of stories by communicating the excitement of story work - without promising that it will always be fast, easy, or perfect. In the process he lets out our most important secret: story work is important, ancient, and powerful.

In summary, I can definitely recommend "Circle of the 9 Muses" as an inspiring, practical, useful introduction to story work.


There were two things I didn't mention in my Amazon review, because I don't think people reading Amazon reviews would find them useful.

The first thing is that I was ever so slightly disappointed to see that David forgot to fix an issue with the "Twice-Told Stories" chapter. Evidently Paul Costello and I developed pretty much the same story exercise around the turn of the century. I knew nothing about this parallel work until I saw David's manuscript about a year ago. I had described the "twice-told stories" exercise in my book's first edition in 2008. Nobody ever told me that anything similar existed, or I would have been sure to mention it in my book revision.

I'm not surprised that we developed a similar exercise, because the exercise fits very well into the ways people naturally exchange stories. It did take my colleagues and me a year of research and testing to develop the exercise, and I assume something similar happened to Paul and his colleagues. The two exercises are not identical because our purposes were not identical, but they are close.

So why does Circle of the 9 Muses use my name for someone else's exercise? Apparently David talked to Paul first, but he also remembered reading about the exercise in my book, and he put the name of the exercise from one place together with its history from another place. I noticed this about a year ago and pointed it out to David. He told me he would change the chapter to say that Paul and I independently derived very similar exercises, and that the chapter name comes from my version. Apparently in the rush of publication he forgot to do that. I can understand that; I've done similar things myself. It takes a lot of careful attention to draw together the work of many people like David did. I don't think anybody could pull off a task like that without forgetting a few details.

I don't mind if people think Paul Costello was the only one to develop that particular exercise. I don't need to own it; story work belongs to everyone, and lots of similar ideas have been independently derived. My concern is that it might be confusing to my book readers to find another book with the same exercise attributed to someone else. I wouldn't want people to think I stole the exercise or lied about my work on it. I have added a mention of Paul's method to the errata page on my book's web site, just to make things clear.

The second thing I didn't say in my Amazon review is, even though I loved David's book, it did point out to me how terrible of a job we story workers have been doing on keeping up with each other. I should not be finding out about the work of other people in the same field by reading a book about it. I did want to participate in the Golden Fleece conferences when they were happening, but at the time I was a low-level employee/contractor at IBM and had no power to choose my own destinations. By the time I started my independent practice and could have participated in meet-ups (theoretically), the Golden Fleece was long gone. I did participate in some of the Worldwide Story Work phone-in sessions, but I don't believe those are still going on.

Lately some colleagues and I have been trying to create a community around PNI with the new PNI Institute. Our monthly Google hangouts are slowly gaining traction, and that's great, but I'm not sure if everyone who does any kind of story work wants to join us there (though you're welcome of course). In fact, our next hangout, on January 8th, is a repeat call about PNI as it relates to the world of story work. (Calls are always the second Friday of the month, at 10am New York time.)

How about a new discussion about bringing together people who do every kind of story work?

Thursday, December 17, 2015

What if I gave a PNI course?

Now that NarraFirma is out there and usable, there's an idea for a next step that I've been playing with in my mind. I don't know whether it would work. I don't know if I should put any more time into it. So I'm asking you.

What if I gave a course in doing PNI?

Let me explain what the course would be like. Most importantly to me, every student would end the course having done a real PNI project. I'm not interested in lecturing. I want people to get out there and start making their first mistakes with lots of help. That means the course has to take place over time. I'm thinking about a month. That means it has to be online.

Also, I think it's important that people work together in groups, because PNI is almost always a collaborative experience. Collaboration would happen at two levels. Study groups would consist of 4-6 people who discuss concepts and provide peer support. Optional project groups would consist of 2-3 people who would share a project. Project groups might be co-located (and maybe facilitate sessions together), or they might simply merge their stories on the same topic collected in two different places, so nobody has to collect all of their project's stories alone. Real PNI projects need at least 80 stories to work well, so sharing projects is a good way to spread the work around.

Each week of the four-week course would feature one or two phases of PNI: planning; collection; catalysis and sensemaking; intervention and return.

The agenda for each week would look like this:
  • Monday: assigned readings (from WWS and other sources), plus a video-call study-group discussion about the readings. (Probably a lecture or video as well, for those who learn better by hearing/watching.)
  • Tuesday: a "preparation for action" activity, such as writing draft questions or preparing catalytic material.
  • Wednesday: a video-call feedback session, with me, where we go over plans and preparations for action.
  • Thursday: an action, like collecting stories or holding a sensemaking session.
  • Friday: another study-group discussion about what happened during the actions, then a review session, with me, about the actions.
All of the discussion sessions, with or without me, would be held per study group, so people would never be on a call with more than five other students. If the sessions are 90 minutes long, that will make sure each person gets 15 minutes to focus on only their project (longer if people are sharing projects). This puts a limit on how many people can take the course at once: 18, because I think I can be useful in three feedback or review sessions in a day, and no more. Time zones might be an issue, so we will set up the study groups primarily by geography.

Another rule will be that everyone will use NarraFirma, because some of the activities will involve using it to plan and carry out projects. Included in the course fee will be an account on a server I set up (okay, my husband sets up).

People who take the course will be responsible for: reading the assigned readings; participating in the discussions; doing the course activities; and most crucially, getting people to tell stories and attend sensemaking sessions. Nobody is allowed to take the course in theory. They must have a real project they want to do. It has to be a small project, given the time frames involved, but it must be real.

How much time would this take? It would really depend on how much time people want to put into it. I can imagine it taking 8 hours per week, as a minimum, but I could also imagine it taking 20 or even 30 hours a week, if people want to do more ambitious projects during the month.

There would also be an online-discussion component to the course, with a forum where everyone on the course (up to 18 people at a time) could talk with each other (and me) in text format. I wouldn't promise to spend huge amounts of time on the course forum, because, as you know if you've been reading this blog, I tend to write too much and get in over my head. But I would promise to keep an eye on the forums and respond as much as is reasonable.

So what do you think? Is this something you think people might want to do? Is it something you might want to do? And what do you think would be a fair price to participate in such a course? I'm thinking US$800 per student would be reasonable. What do you think?

If you think I should do this, please tell me via comment or email (cfkurtz at cfkurtz dot com) so I know what people think. And if you have any suggestions that might improve the course, I'm all ears. I'm considering having the first course in March of 2016. Probably six people (one study group) is a reasonable minimum. Let's see what happens.

Edit: The next day I thought: maybe people would like to see more. So here's more. This is what I have (so far) for a detailed schedule. I expect this would improve over time. The readings in particular would probably change as I spend more time choosing the best things to read.

Week 1: PNI and Project planning
  • Lecture/video: what is PNI, where did it come from, what are its strengths and limitations
  • Reading: WWS, Intro to PNI Chapter and Planning Chapter; also NarraFirma web site (to start getting familiar with the software)
  • Optional reading: "what is participatory action research" and something similar on narrative inquiry, maybe this
  • Discussion: talk about project they want to do, start playing around with NarraFirma
  • Preparation: do the planning steps in NarraFirma, including telling some project stories and creating story elements from them
  • Consultation: talk about projects they want to do, ask questions about PNI and NarraFirma
  • Action: collect a small number (say 10) pilot stories, without questions, to start getting practice gathering stories
  • Discussion: talk about what happened during pilot collection
  • Review: talk about problems so far, ask questions
Week 2: Story collection
  • Lecture/video: About conversational storytelling; how to elicit stories; how to facilitate people telling stories together
  • Reading: WWS, some parts of Story collection chapter
  • Optional reading: oral history guidelines - something like this
  • Discussion: talk about method of story collection, talk about what questions to ask
  • Preparation: write elicitation and interpretation questions in NarraFirma (can use some of the "template" questions in NarraFirma)
  • Consultation: talk about which is the best method of story collection for each project; go over question sets; talk about entering stories into NarraFirma; ask questions
  • Action: Collect 60-80 stories (this week's action part may take much more time than any other), using interviews, group sessions, internet, whatever works for each project group
  • Discussion: Talk about what went right and wrong during story collection
  • Review: talk about story collections, problems, offer help to people who didn't get enough stories (they can gather more over the weekend)
Week 3: Catalysis + Sensemaking
  • Lecture/video: what catalysis is for, where it came from, why do it; where sensemaking comes from, stages of sensemaking, outcomes
  • Reading: WWS, some portion of Catalysis chapter, some portion of Sensemaking chapter
  • Optional reading: something on mixed-methods analysis, like this; something on sensemaking, like this; something on group facilitation methods, like open space, future search, dynamic facilitation, art of hosting - just to be aware of the similarities
  • Discussion: talk about stories collected, problems during collection, catalysis process, sensemaking process
  • Preparation: prepare brief catalysis report to be used in sensemaking session (with interpretations and ideas) [because projects will only be using something like 4 or 5 questions, the report will be short and relatively easy to create]; fill out "sensemaking session plan" part of NarraFirma (using templates)
  • Consultation: talk about catalysis reports; talk about sensemaking session plans
  • Action: Carry out sensemaking session with people from community (usually 2 hrs max, but motivated people can do more); fill out sensemaking session record in NarraFirma
  • Discussion: talk about what happened during sensemaking
  • Review: ask questions about what happened during sensemaking
Week 4: Intervention + Return
  • Lecture/video: what I mean by intervention and return, where they came from, why they matter
  • Reading: WWS, parts of intervention and return chapters
  • Optional reading: something on narrative therapy, like this; something on participatory theatre, like this; quick overview of digital storytelling, other options
  • Preparation: fill out parts of NarraFirma related to intervention (project outcomes, intervention plans); fill out intervention plan part
  • Consultation: talk about intervention plans
  • Action: carry out small (1-2 hr) intervention in community; talk to a few to several participants about the project (to gather feedback); fill out "reflect on project" part of NarraFirma return section
  • Discussion: trade experiences on what happened in this part
  • Review: talk about what happened in this phase; talk about whole projects; end course
Sound good? Suggestions to make it better? Let me know.

Second edit: Somebody suggested that this schedule might be too much for people who are already working full-time. What do you think of spreading the schedule out over six weeks, so that each week was dedicated to only one PNI phase? More doable? What about eight weeks? Too long? What works?

Friday, November 27, 2015

Back to Narratopia

Yesterday was Thanksgiving, and I'm thankful today that I can announce the initial public release of Narratopia, the conversational story game. You can buy a copy at thegamecrafter.com.

Now I'll tell those who are interested what has been happening with Narratopia over the past several months.

As you might remember, I introduced an early version of the game back in February ("Welcome to Narratopia"). I asked for volunteers to play the game and report back. Ten people got copies of the game, and six sent feedback. Some sent more and some sent less, but every word was useful. I would especially like to thank Joseph Gamblin, Ron Donaldson, David Hutchens, and Adelle Kurtz for extensive and detailed feedback, which helped enormously.

I've also played the game more at home and with relatives and friends. By the time NarraFirma was released, I was ready to get back to working on Narratopia. Here is what I learned and changed.

The graphics and presentation

When I first started working on Narratopia, I went looking for public domain pictures of people telling each other stories. I didn't want to use contemporary clip art, because I wanted to reference the way people did things in the past. I chose two paintings (out of about a dozen candidates): one of three men (called "The Hunters"), and another of three women (called "The Gossips"). The card backs looked like this.

Early Narratopia card backs
Reactions to the images among play testers were mixed. Some people said they liked the pictures and were reminded of times past. But other people said the pictures made them feel like they were in a museum, or like they were expected to do something related to fine art or Shakespearean theatre. That was not the impression I wanted to give.

A few people pointed out the mismatch between the fronts of the cards, which had modern fonts and backgrounds, and the backs of the cards, which were more historical in style. People suggested that I make the game's style either completely modern or completely historical. (That's obvious in retrospect. I didn't know what I meant to say, yet.)

Early Narratopia card backs and fronts (mismatched, right?)

New Narratopia box art
This was a big decision. I thought (for months) about what I wanted the game's graphics to say. What exactly did I mean by "Narratopia"? What kind of utopia was I talking about? I tried out some images of stories having their own "land," but that wasn't what I meant. What I meant by Narratopia was people living in a world where everybody shares stories every day, not just for a few minutes, like we do, but for hours a day. Like people did a long time ago. A long, long time ago. The problem wasn't that my "paintings" images were too old. They were too young. I had to go further back.

So I started looking at petroglyphs and cave paintings. There was quite a symbolic language back then, with waves and spirals and so on; and some of those meanings have not changed in thousands of years. I drew (about 50 versions of) a petroglyph-style image of people telling stories around a campfire (which you see here on the game's new box front).

Obviously this particular image isn't scratched onto any rock anywhere, but its elements can be found in real petroglyphs, and the whole thing is inspired by the styles you find in prehistoric art. I "etched" the drawing into a photograph of a rock I took a few years ago. (I put the pine cones there as a joke about how looking at nature could be as interesting as looking at television.) I think (I hope) this creates an image of someone stumbling over an ancient, forgotten treasure.

Next I replaced all of the game's symbolism with images either taken directly (traced) from (photos of) petroglyphs or inspired by them. I also changed the fonts to be more evocative of times long past. And I made the card fronts and backs more consistent. All of the graphics have a stone background, which connects them together better. Some of the icons are "etched" into the rock (like the spiral on the back of the question card) and some are in black (like the spiral on the front). That was inspired by the many instances I found of petroglyphs copied (by anthropologists) and shown in solid black, almost like rubbings. The image is (supposed to be) of something that was lost and now is found.

Redesigned Narratopia card backs and fronts
(Note that I changed the "Link" card to "Connection," which is just simpler.)

I'm pretty happy with the game's new look. I think it gives the game a coherence it didn't have before. I also think it more clearly puts forth the message of going back in time. It's a good sign that I was embarrassed to show the old images to you here (and I couldn't get rid of the old web site fast enough). Of course it's also possible that I'll feel that way about these images years from now, but I hope not (too much).

Notice also the new tag line: the conversational story game. That phrase went through many iterations as well. I've been telling people about this game for almost a year now, and I usually get one of these reactions:
  • It's for role playing, like Dungeons and Dragons.
  • It's for improvisation, like stand-up comedy practice.
  • It's for learning how to express yourself, like a public speaking course.
  • It's for family and team meetings, to have a deeper conversation.
Of all of the perceptions I heard, I liked the last one best. I started thinking about those "dinner table games" you are supposed to keep on your table and draw topics from to discuss while you eat. Narratopia is actually a lot like those games, because it is about enhancing a conversation you might already have, making it better and more interesting. So putting the game in the genre of conversational games seems like the best way of setting expectations that are in line with what the game is actually about. Since I started using the new tag line, I only get the one reaction: "Oh, it's for improving your conversations." I'm okay with that.

The gameplay

I'm happy to say that some of my early ideas for gameplay were just awful, and that I'm perfectly embarrassed about them now. (Another good sign.)

Early "game starters"
When I first started working on Narratopia, I knew that I wanted people to connect their stories together into a tree or web of some kind, because that's what people do in conversation. But I couldn't figure out how I wanted people to start telling stories. I spent a long time drawing up a grand list of hundreds of proverbs that I thought would remind people of stories to tell, like "Green with envy" and "Burning bridges" and "Don't judge a book by its cover." In the first versions, this list took up half of the instructions.

It wasn't long before I realized this wasn't necessary. Asking people to simply look back and think of something that has happened to them lately is all the "start" people need. In fact, my list of "game starters" seemed to intimidate people and move the game into the performance and improvisation space, which was not where I wanted it to be. Making the first story topic simpler, almost unimportant, presented less of an obstacle and gave the rest of the game - the connecting together - the attention I wanted it to have.

The other big issue was about winning. I knew I wanted the game to have some sort of challenge, some way to win. But I didn't want to have people rate the quality of stories, because the game would lose its conversational element and become nothing but a sequence of performances. (There's nothing wrong with performances, but there are already dozens of story games about performing.)

The awful guess-the-favorite rules
So I went through several schemes before settling on a "guessing game" scenario. One player would tell a story; other players would ask questions; the player who told the story would choose their favorite question; and whoever asked the question would get a point. Players would win by knowing the other players well, or by listening well to the stories, or both. That was how the game went out in February. I wasn't happy with the guessing scheme, but I didn't know what else to do. I didn't want the game to be insipid, but I didn't want it to turn into a hundred other games with a storytelling dynamic where people are judged for the quality of their performances. This was probably the weakest point of the game in the beginning.

The result? Everyone hated the guessing game. Some people just ignored the point system, because it was so useless. People proposed other systems, but they were all too close (in my mind) to quality-of-performance ratings.

I was stuck on this point for months, until my sister played the game with my parents and another sister. Afterwards she described the game to me over the phone, and I was able to grill her in detail about what happened and how she felt. She told me that while the other people were telling stories, she kept wanting to give them something, to show them that she appreciated the things they were saying. She wanted a way to respond.

This was a revelation. I had been thinking about scoring as an objective measurement. But conversational story sharing is not about objective measurement; it's about subjective reactions. I didn't need a scoring system; I needed a response system.

So I thought of making "tokens of appreciation" people could give each other. My first set looked like this:

Tokens (first try)

This worked, sort of, but it still felt like something was missing. One day I realized what it was. My first tokens were about the nouns of the interaction (the stories, the questions, the connections), not the verbs of the interaction (what was happening). I changed the token names to these:

Tokens (second try)
This works much better. Giving each other the tokens now feels like having little celebrations. It's like telling those "wasn't it great when" stories on your way home from the big game or the family gathering. The tokens represent stories as they ripple out into widening circles.

By the way, in the array of tokens shown here, the last three are traced directly from photographs of petroglyphs. The spiral turtle (blue) is a combination of turtle and spiral petroglyphs. The heart (purple) is inspired by a tattoo design (and a rock album, and a 1935 movie) I found when searching for petroglyphs of hearts.

Let's get back to gameplay. Now a turn in the game has three parts:
  1. The player who is taking their turn tells a story. Unless it's the first story of the game, they connect their story to another story somebody has already told.
  2. Everyone else asks questions about the story, and the storyteller responds.
  3. Everyone gives each other tokens to represent their view of what just happened.
The nice thing about this structure is that each turn is itself a story. The turn begins with the telling of a story, gets more complicated when people exchange questions and answers, and resolves itself as people reflect on what happened.

Wooden tokens
As to the physical form of the tokens, at first I wanted them to be some kind of coins or chits or other little objects that might seem of value. One of the play testers, Ron Donaldson, took my token images (the first ones, without the petroglyphs) and pasted them onto little pieces of wood. He said the players in his game enjoyed having something substantial to give each other. I thought this was a great idea.

TheGameCrafter had lots of options I could use to make physical tokens. They had little plastic shapes, and thick cardboard coins, and even little wooden sticks. But I soon discovered that most of the options for tokens required two things: the price would have to go up, and the game's players would have to do something to use the tokens. They would have to separate cardboard coins from a backing/printing sheet, or they would have to put stickers onto the little sticks of wood. Worse, either of these options required that I move up to a bigger box, which increased the cost even more.

There was one other option I could use: micro cards, which are half-size, quarter-area playing cards. They are just like normal-sized cards in feel (so they're familiar); they fit nicely into the same box I needed for the cards; and they don't require people to do anything to make them usable. I've played with the micro-cards a few times now. They do slip around a little, but they're nice to hold. They're kind of cute, like baby cards, and passing them around does feel like giving each other little gifts. I can see having something more substantial in the future, but for now these are fine.

Ron Donaldson (who suggested the little wooden sticks) also made another excellent observation. At the end of the game, you can arrange your tokens into little bar graphs, like the one below (and the one above, with the wooden sticks). The patterns you see from player to player are revealing. For example, when we play the game in my family, my son always gets more "You surprised me" and "You made me laugh" tokens than anyone else.

Bar graph of token cards
Making the bar graphs creates another level of story within the game. The larger story starts with the reading of the instructions and the distribution of the cards (that's the orientation), continues through the complication of the turn-taking, and comes to a resolution when the bar graphs are compared.

Thus the game is a story made of stories about stories. I'm actually a little bit angry at myself for not having understood much sooner that a game about story sharing would have to be a story made of stories. It's so obvious in retrospect.

Reflection card back
Finally, I needed a name for the tokens (other than just "tokens"). I tried reactions, responses, echoes, ripples, and observations, but settled on reflections as the best way of describing what is happening. People are thinking about, pondering, considering what has just happened, and you could also say that they are looking into a reflecting mirror together. The word also lines up with the other types of cards: connections, questions, reflections. I'll concede that the language isn't exciting. But I think it's more important that the language be accurate, so people quickly understand what the game wants them to do. These words seem to work.

So where is the game's challenge? How do you win? Well, I do have it in the rules that players can count how many reflection cards they got in total, and whoever gets the most "wins." And there is a sort of winning in getting the most of any type of token ("I won surprise, you won thinking"). But I see those things as more of interesting outcomes than goals.

Narratopia game at the end, with story web and bar graphs
I've come to believe that this game is never going to be about winning in the conventional sense. It doesn't want to be. I always say that when you work on a project for long enough, when you think about it waking up and falling asleep for months or years, it begins to speak to you and tell you want it wants to be. I've had many long conversations with Narratopia, and I can tell you that the game does not want to be about winning in the conventional sense. I've told the game that this might mean it will never have widespread appeal, but I don't think the game cares.

The way you win at Narratopia, the way you "beat the game," is, when you look at the web of stories you've built, and you look at the bar graphs you've created, you feel like something has happened that was worth being part of. That's actually quite a satisfying, even fun, feeling. It's hard to describe, but it's real.

When my son and I play Settlers of Catan or Monopoly, or any other "clear winner" game, we often include "extra" players who don't exist, to make the game more interesting for us. The extra players don't really do anything; they just roll the dice and make boring choices (usually choices that favor us) so we can have a more complicated game. You couldn't do that in Narratopia. No matter how many extra players you made up, you'd still tell your own stories, because that's the way the game works. Narratopia does not draw its energy from the interaction of its game components. It draws its energy from the hidden connections among experiences that the game helps you discover. It is the discovery of those hidden connections - like an anthropology of relationship - that is the game's accomplishment.

This proposition will not be attractive to everyone. A lot of games "sweep you away" into a different world, a world where someone else's imagination provides the power, and you enjoy the ride. Narratopia asks more from its players than most games, but it gives them more in return. That's the challenge, to imbue the game with your own meaning, to discover your own connections. But it's not a challenge that is obvious from the outside. It's going to have to be one of those "you have to play it to understand it" games. I may not be happy with that, but the game is fine with it.

(Almost forgot: here's the updated video.)


 
What's on the cards

Now we get to some possibly boring details about the bulk of the game's content, which is what's written on the cards. I'll just run through the changes here quickly because (if anybody's left) you must be half asleep.

The number of cards. The number of unique cards in the game has gone up and down a few times. The version I sent out in January was slimmed down from my original set, because I thought people might find too many unique cards confusing. It had 24 cards of each type (question and connection), with two copies of each card. People did not like the repeated cards. Coming across the same cards again was not (as I supposed) reassuring. It was just annoying. So in this version there are 50 unique cards of each type. I've played the game both ways. Having more unique cards is better, because you are always interested in what you might get next.

Card difficulty. Because the list of card texts I sent out in February was a subset of my original list, I had chosen to keep most of my favorite cards, which happened to be some of the more complicated ones. People said they were daunted by the cards I included (like "What do you think ___ would think about this?") and wanted some simpler ones (like "When did ___?"). People said they sometimes found themselves unable to use any of the cards they held in their hands, and they were frustrated that the game asked them to do things they didn't feel capable of doing. I thought about this while I was expanding the number of cards. Now that there are 50 unique cards, I made sure that quite a few of the cards are simpler, both in language and in concept. Now people seem to find using the cards less of a stumbling block, easier to pick up and run with.

Old and new card fronts (simpler is better)
Card complexity. Originally the cards had lots of information on them: an icon, a title, a sentence, and a point score (for the stupid point system). As my testers told me, this was messy, complicated, and too much to take in. I got rid of the title and point score (which were mostly just me talking to myself). Now the cards have only two things on them: an icon and a sentence. Removing the extra information also allowed me to make the font much bigger, which is helpful in reading the card at a glance.

I also added a notepad to the game, because it seemed too amateurish to ask people to find paper to write their story names on. The notepad is simple, but the game feels more like a real game with it in the box.

What's next

At this point I think the game has found a good resting place, and I'm just making tiny tweaks that don't matter much. Now the game wants more people to try it. I'm hoping to get feedback from new players in the months to come.

There are some further developments I'd like to consider in the future. The most obvious is to produce the game more cheaply. TheGameCrafter.com is a wonderful service for prototyping games, but once you get to really selling, the prices and shipping times become prohibitive. If I can put together some large bulk orders, the price might be cut in half. So there could be a Kickstarter in the future, but we'll see what happens. Everything depends on demand. Most of the things I produce end up being sleepers, spread very slowly by word of mouth. That's partly my fault, because I'd rather move on and produce more stuff than spend all my time telling everybody about the last thing I've made. But it's also in the nature of Narratopia being a niche game that lots of people won't understand up front, that it will spread (if it spreads) slowly. I'm okay with that.

My other idea about Narratopia's future is tentative but beguiling. The idea is to produce expansion packs for particular topic areas people want to talk about. They might be subjects like health care, family therapy, software development, product development, community development, and so on. I would write special cards of each type to fit the conversation more closely to the needs and concerns of whoever is playing the game. I would probably want to collaborate with people who know a lot about these areas. I have yet to really think this idea through. It's an idea for next year.

Another obvious idea is to translate the game. A Dutch translation is in the works already. If you'd like to help by translating the game into another language, let me know.

There's also some talk in my house about making an app, or a PC game, or some other thing to help people play the game across large distances (say for spread-out families or work teams). But having just come out of our last "it'll take three months" project, we've kept a lid on those discussions for now.

If you have any feedback for me about the game, whether you play it or just look at it online, please do send me an email (cfkurtz at cfkurtz dot com). I am eager to hear what you think. If you like the game, please give it a rating on the gamecrafter.com web site, and maybe a review. That would be helpful. And tell people.
One more parenthetical comment: if you want to comment on this blog, try not to do so as "Anonymous." For some strange reason, ever since my last post I started getting several spam comments a day. Maybe I hit an invisible spammer threshold or something. I tend to ignore these, though sometimes I read them just because they are unintentionally oracular (as is all spam). Here's one from today:
Its like you read my mind! You appear to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you can do with a few pics to drive the message home a little bit, but instead of that, this is great blog. An excellent read. I'll definitely be back.
Flattery will get you nowhere, spammer, and it's "It's." (Still, I added more "pics.") Anyway, just a heads up.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

We have made NarraFirma

We went now away with a fair wind for Brazil; and in about twelve days’ time we made land....  We kept on S. by E., in sight of the shore... and in three days came to an anchor off the bay of All Saints, the old place of my deliverance, from whence came both my good and evil fate. (The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe)
I am proud and excited to announce the first beta release of NarraFirma open source software for participatory narrative inquiry.

Solid ground

The NarraFirma software is a companion to my textbook Working with Stories in Your Community Or Organization. The software takes you through the six phases of PNI, from planning to return. The basic idea is to give people who've read the book a set of tools to bring the book's ideas into reality.

If you already know how to do PNI, NarraFirma can support you too, and probably in a way you've never been supported before. I know I'm eager to use it on my own projects for clients.

What's behind the name? "Terra Firma" means solid ground. The NarraFirma software provides solid ground for story work, in the same way that stories provide solid ground for decision making.  

NarraFirma has four major functions.
  1. It's a checklist. NarraFirma provides practical guidance as you work, with questions for you to answer, recommendations based on the conditions you describe, activities that help you make decisions, and just-in-time advice. 
  2. It's a journal. NarraFirma helps you keep careful records of what happened in your project along with your reflections about what it all means. There are two reasons to do this. First, you will thank yourself for it in future projects. Second, taking notes as you go helps you to remember to reflect as you go. You could say that NarraFirma tugs at your sleeve to remind you to keep learning and improving.
  3. It's a kiosk. NarraFirma helps you collect stories, on-line and/or off-line, based on story forms you design (with sample questions you can copy). Of course you can already collect stories using any of the many survey systems available. But collecting stories in NarraFirma means you never have to metaphorically take your clothes out of the washer and put them into the dryer. It's all in one package.
  4. It's a workstation. NarraFirma helps you discover, consider, explore, and interpret patterns in your data (stories and answers to questions about stories), creating catalytic material you can use in your sensemaking sessions. This is the same basic functionality I have designed before (lists, graphs, statistics), but in a new way that — I believe — makes the catalysis process easier to carry out, especially for a beginner.
Why would you want to use NarraFirma? Here are some features I think are most appealing.
  1. It's portable. NarraFirma is a web application that can be installed as a WordPress plugin or on a Node.js server. This means you can install the software wherever you want to use it, and you can control every aspect of its installation. You can even install NarraFirma on your local computer and use it without connecting to the internet. 
  2. It's a team player. We've spent a lot of time making sure small groups of people can collaborate in real time as they use NarraFirma. I wanted to do this because many of the projects I've worked on have been delayed by "document tag" — that is, people sending files back and forth. With NarraFirma you'll be able to do things like plan your project, write your questions, look at your data, and reflect on what you've learned, as a group. 
  3. It's an open book. NarraFirma is open source software. So if you have a question about how something works, you can just look at the source code and find out. If you need the software to do something it can't do, you can change it yourself or ask someone else to change it. You can even hire me/us to make the changes you need. We are willing to provide relatively low rates for improvements, as long as everybody gets them. 
  4. It works in the real world. One thing we wanted to build into NarraFirma was support for multiple projects, and within each project, multiple story forms, data sets, and catalysis reports. Why? Because I know that real-life projects aren't monolithic. Sometimes projects have sub-projects, and sometimes one project leads to another, and sometimes you have to start and stop and restart a project. I wanted to support that complexity at the infrastructure level.
Enough talk; here's the video

This three-minute video shows you what using NarraFirma is like.


Enough video; here's the software

You can try NarraFirma right now. We have set up an example project on the NarraFirma web site (with made-up stories) that you can poke around in. Go ahead, take a look.

Where it came from

Believe it or not, NarraFirma is the tenth software tool I have built and/or designed to support participatory story work. If you ever meet my husband, thank him, because he talked me into moving a long description of that history to a page on the new NarraFirma web site. Here on the blog I'll just say: I've been working on these ideas for a while.

Even though I will spare you fifteen years of details, I do think I ought to tell you what's been happening lately. As you probably know, in the spring of 2014 I finished the third edition of my textbook on participatory narrative inquiry (four years after I started its expansion). I had originally intended to jump right back into writing and finish the second book (More Work with Stories), which would probably have only taken a few more months. But I just couldn’t face the idea of going back to more writing and editing and typesetting. So I took a break and stepped back to think.

Ever since I published the first edition of my book in 2008, many people have written to me about it. Lots of them have asked the same question: I love the book. I’ve soaked it in. I want to do this. What tools can I use?

I didn’t have a good answer to that question. I pointed people at NarraCat (my open source tool for narrative catalysis), but most people couldn’t understand it or even install it. I pointed people at spreadsheets and at doing things by hand, but people wanted something more powerful. All of the more powerful options I knew of were expensive, piecemeal, buggy, difficult to understand, or all of those things put together.

My husband’s consulting contract ended in July (of last year), and we had saved a little money. So he asked me: if you could do you anything in the world right now, what would it be? I knew the answer right away. I wanted to create something that would help a person who had read my book and wanted to do what was in it — who wanted to make PNI work for their community or organization  — succeed. I thought I knew how to do it, but I knew it would take time. So we took a deep breath and plunged in.

That was in August of 2014. We’ve been working on NarraFirma ever since. It took a lot longer than we expected, but today the software is finally ready to use. It has both of our ideas in it. It’s not iron-clad yet — we consider today the start of the beta-test phase — but it works as well as we can test it by ourselves. We are ready for the world to use it and help us improve it.

While we made NarraFirma, it rests on the shoulders of the giants who made WordPress, Node.js, D3, Mithril, TypeScript, JavaScript, Git, Eclipse, and the whole darn web. Thanks so much for making NarraFirma possible. We would also like to thank some people who gave us early feedback while we were still making our way through the deep waters of software development.

What comes next

Like Working with Stories, NarraFirma has been a labor of love. Paul and I thought about a lot of possibilities for making money on NarraFirma directly: hosting a service; charging for premium features; charging for support; running a Kickstarter campaign; and so on. But in the end we decided to stick to the way we've been doing things all along: charging for specific time and attention (consulting, special features) while keeping general information (and capacity) free for everyone to use (and help to improve).

The fact is, deep down, we believe that the transformational benefits PNI and NarraFirma bring should be available to every human being. We can't give everyone a computer, but we can give everyone our software. In return, we ask that those who can pay help with donations or payments (for consulting or features, when they need them). Those who can't pay can help with feedback, peer support, and word of mouth. We think that's a reasonable proposition to set before the world.

So, pointing in that direction, I have updated my web site with more specific consulting plans that I hope people will find attractive. NarraFirma will make my consulting practice more efficient, because we designed it to reduce some of the most time-consuming parts of the work I do for clients. By doing projects in NarraFirma, I can offer a lower rate and a quicker turnaround. I can also communicate with clients more easily, because we can use the software collaboratively. We can even share the catalysis process, so that clients can become independent of my help more quickly.

Here's what I would love to happen over the next few years.
  • Lots of people use NarraFirma for PNI projects, big and small. Projects start out small and non-critical, then move up to larger, more ambitious projects as the software is tested more completely.
  • People tell us what needs fixing, and they send us great ideas for improving the software.
  • People help each other use NarraFirma in forums and groups. A community grows.
  • Some of the people in the community improve NarraFirma. People fix bugs, add features, create templates, and write helpful guides.
  • From time to time, somebody supports the project with a donation or a grant.
  • Once in a while, somebody pays me/us to provide training or coaching, do some catalysis work, add a new feature to the software, or meet some other specific need.
  • In time, the software and its community grow into a strong resource many thousands of people can rely on to bring the benefits of PNI to their communities and organizations.
If you would like to help me do any of this, here are some things you can do.
  • Take a look at NarraFirma. Send  some feedback. 
  • Tell other people about NarraFirma. Tweet, blog, email, whatever. Spread the word.
  • Thank us for making NarraFirma, and help us keep working on it, by making a small donation. (It's not tax deductible, but it's karma boosting. By the way, if you were one of the people who sent a donation to support the book, I want to take this opportunity to thank you again. Your donations have been heartening, and they helped inspire us to keep going and make NarraFirma.) 
  • The next time you think you might like to use participatory narrative inquiry, consider using NarraFirma. When you do, ask questions on the support forum; submit bug reports; make suggestions.
  • If you know of any grants that might be a good fit for funding future NarraFirma development, let me know. If you would like to work together toward any grants, let me know.
  • If you're using NarraFirma and need some help, or want it to do something it can't do, consider hiring me/us to help you or to improve the software.
If you have any questions I haven't answered here, send me a note. I'm eager to talk about NarraFirma and what it can do for you.