Saturday, October 31, 2009

Eight observations - Leftovers from 123

These are some thoughts "left over" from the first three posts in this series of eight observations.

Stories compact knowledge: Ultra-compact stories

If stories are humanity's zip files, as I said in my first observation, there are two forms of story that take compression to an extreme: proverbs and story references.

Almost all proverbs are actually stories once you expand them out. Here's an exercise: go to any proverbs site on the web. Pick some random proverbs and expand them out into stories. I'll try a few from here.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. A bunch of people were trying to do something. They were all needed. One of them failed. The whole effort failed.

A friend in need is a friend indeed. I had a friend. I wasn't sure how good a friend he was. I had a crisis, and the friend came through for me. Now I know that he is really my friend.

Proverbs are not just very short stories, however; they have a unique function that relies on their obliqueness. People use proverbs as a protective coating to tell stories they think may be unwelcome (including propaganda). Here's an example. The other day I wanted to tell someone, tactfully, that I thought an organizational structure was top heavy - too many people in charge and not enough people to be in charge of. So I said "too many chiefs" - but couldn't remember what the second part of the proverb was. Then I remembered that it was "not enough Indians" and thought, eww, I really hardly ever use the term "Indians" anymore. (I hate it when the name of a town is essentially "the people we took this place from.") So I went off in search of another proverb, and said "too many cooks." But "too many cooks" was a different story and not the one I had wanted to tell. At that point the proverb search broke down and I had to resort to explaining what I meant, which was what I had been trying to avoid by using the proverb. I'll bet that if you somehow detected the use of proverbs in daily conversation, you would find them clustered around difficult things to say.

If proverbs are often used to safely express sensitive messages, it follows that they would be good ways to ask people to safely tell stories about sensitive topics. In fact, a good way to communicate safety in asking for stories is to use a proverb as an elicitation device. For example, you might ask a question like this:

They say that "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." Does this remind you of any experiences you have had in relation to ... ?"

The advantage of proverb-based elicitation is that it communicates a complex issue quickly. It also allows answers to follow different paths. A person could tell either a positive or negative story about the flies-with-honey proverb, but you didn't have to waste time saying that. The disadvantage of proverb-based elicitation is that proverbs don't always travel well. They are most useful when most of the people who will be telling stories are from one cultural background.

The second kind of ultra-compact story is the story reference. You know the old joke about the place where they know all the jokes so well that they've reduced them all to numbers, and one guy says "47" and nobody laughs, and he says ah well, I never could tell a joke? That's a perfect example of a story reference. Story references are like proverbs except that they don't travel at all. They are designed not to travel.

When stories are to be shared outside of the group they were designed to stay in, story references can be a hindrance to story elicitation. If you are collecting stories to be used in this way, be careful to detect story references and expand them out as soon as possible. This is especially important in a group storytelling session where story references can come fast and thick. Even if the stories are to be shared only within the group, it's best to expand these out when you can, because story references are confined in time as well as space. Often the grandchildren in a family can't make out the meaning of "it was like that time in the old barn" years later, and that can be a loss.

Stories have stories: lobbing stories

In the second observation I talked about how stories grow other stories around them as they move through time and people. There is a danger related to this observation that I forgot to mention before: the danger of lobbing stories into ponds.

Sometimes people think of a story that seems like it will convince other people of something, so they lob it into the narrative pond, only to see their story growing new layers that derail or even contradict it. Somebody told me a story once about an important manager at a big company. He wanted to improve his relationship with his subordinates and bring about greater trust, cooperation and productivity. So he began telling people that if they had any problems they should just poke their heads around his office door and talk to him, straight out. In a short time the story got around that he had a line of heads on poles, right inside his office door.

If you want to tell a story, here are a few ways to avoid unpleasant surprises after it drops into the pond.
  • Lob it into some small ponds first. Ask a few people to listen to your story and respond, then refine it. Dave Snowden had a great idea when he advised somebody once to find some of the worst troublemakers in the company (singled out for their "energy" by managers), bring them together into a special session, and ask them to savage a prepared story. In this way the storytellers could avoid damages before the story entered the main population.
  • Get the story from the same pond you throw it back to. If you collect stories and return them to the same place they came from, highlighted and strengthened (but without their essential meaning changed), they are less likely to grow contrasting layers. This is essentially the approach of the digital storytelling folks, who help people tell their own stories in their own communities, but enhanced with professional tools and storytelling expertise.
  • Don't take stories out of the pond at all. Just put some conduits in place. Ask people to tell stories about something you want people to pay attention to, but don't tell any stories; just make it easier for other people to see the stories you most want them to see.
  • Don't tell stories; make them happen. (This is the subject of another post, so I won't elaborate on it yet.)

The narrative cycle: narrative waves

On thinking more about narrative pulses (which came up in observation 3), I realized that there are similar but larger-scale bursts of narrative energy - call these narrative waves. These take place not in individuals as they have experiences and hear stories, but in groups, communities and societies. I don't mean the "grand narratives" that societies construct about why things are the way they are. I'm talking more about why and when people become motivated to tell stories, and how those patterns of motivation move around in groups of people. Where is the narrative energy, and when does it happen, and why?

One example of a narrative wave is what is going on in the "tell all" world of TV talk shows and reality shows. For some reason large numbers of ordinary people in the US (less so in other places) have been driven recently to tell intimate stories about their own lives and troubles to audiences that would have been inconceivable only a few decades ago. Obviously some of this is done to make money; but that can't be the only place this tell-all energy is coming from. What is driving that particular narrative wave? Could it be a craving for celebrity, people wanting their "15 minutes" of fame? Or is it about people craving connection and reacting to increased societal isolation? Or it is just a transformation of the village gossip people no longer have to rely on? (And what does that transformation mean?)

Another wave of energy around storytelling concerns fabulists, the people who throughout history have packaged and repackaged the stories everyone has told since the beginning of time. Aesop didn't actually tell all of the two hundred and some stories attached to his name. He was just a storyteller people knew about, so if they heard a clever story they said "that must be one of Aesop's." The same thing happened with the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Andrew Lang, and many others. In reading Dostoyevsky I keep coming across somebody named Krylov, who was the Aesop of that place and time. It seems that there is a need for societies to have an Aesop, somebody whose name means "the keeper of the old tales" and serves as a quick reference to the collective wisdom contained in folklore. My guess is that whenever enough time goes by for the current fabulist-in-residence to fade, a narrative wave forms and a new fabulist (who is made not by any effort of their own but by popular need) is born. (Who are today's fabulists? Maybe talk-show hosts?)

Now taking this phenomenon of the narrative wave and thinking about how it can aid practice, it might be useful to think about what sorts of narrative waves - that is, sources of collective narrative energy - might be at play in any group of people whom you want to ask to tell stories. What sources of energy might you tap, and when should you tap them, and how might you best release them? Maybe just before and after an election is a good time to ask people to tell stories about political issues. If you want to ask people to tell stories about something that is in the news, waiting until there is a new headline or finding to ask people about can increase the likelihood that you will get a response. And be aware of the waves. You'll get different stories about gardening in the spring than in the fall. Ask yourself: What are people telling stories about right now? What does that mean to this project?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Eight observations - 3rd

(This is the third in a series of eight observations about stories and storytelling in groups, and about helping people tell and work with stories. See the first post for more information about the origin of the "eight things.")

As my original career was in biology, when I started working with stories I naturally wanted to consider the natural history of stories, including their life cycles. Now this is a much more difficult thing with stories than with tadpoles or mushrooms, because stories mingle and morph in ways that creatures can't. But here is try at it, based on my experiences and what I've read. I've been pondering this cycle for a long time and playing with it in my mind, and this is what I've got to lately. Of course this cycle will be nothing new to anyone who thinks about stories, and it's obviously a greatly simplified metaphor, and I'm merrily making up terms as I go. But this sort of thing can provide a scaffold for discussions about helping people tell and share stories to attain goals.

The narrative cycle

Every time a person experiences something, a new story enters the narrative cycle of telling, hearing, remembering and recalling. Whether the person tells another person the story or not, the story still enters the cycle; only it stays in the person's own orbit. The narrative cycle has many orbits, or scales, from individual to family to community, society, and epoch. You can also imagine a core-periphery distinction between sacred who-we-are stories and mundane what-has-happened stories. (I'm not even going to try to draw all of that.)

In the narrative cycle, pockets of stillness and eddies of movement are constantly forming and dissolving. Sometimes a person has an experience but is unable to tell others about it or even think about it for years. This can happen because the experience is painful, or it can just happen benignly, because nothing calls the experience to mind. Conversely, sometimes a story takes on a "life of its own" and swirls about with great energy in a person or family or group or society for a time.

The little extra words in this diagram, by the way, are things that also happen at each stage that I think are interesting to think about. I originally had them as little recursive cycles within each stage of the cycle, but the whole thing got too busy and I took them out (but you can picture them that way). Some interesting points about these:
  • Notice that interpretation takes place during direct experience and during story listening. 
  • When a story is remembered, it is usually also classified and connected to other stories; and this process can be continual as thoughts churn. (That's why I hate using the term "store" or "keep" for this, because it implies no activity.)
  • Recall of a story requires selection, usually for a purpose, though the purpose is not always known to the selector.
  • As stories are told over and over they usually solidify and take on a form, though that form can change later.
Another thing to notice is that I did not mention events in the narrative cycle. Not all events create experiences, and not all experiences require events.

Now if you will permit me an aside, I will illustrate this by introducing you to an old friend from my days studying animal behavior. This is a conceptual model of information use in decision making which I've found useful for thinking about all kinds of decisions, be they of lizards or birds or people.
  1. External information is what we typically think of as information - what time it is, the temperature outside, how many seeds are under a tree. 
  2. Internal information is about one's internal state - how hungry I am, how tired, how late.
  3. Relational information is about how it all fits together - that if I'm hungry and tired, and it's cold outside and there is little food left, I am in danger. 
All of these types of information are required for decision making; if any is lacking the equations will all be off. The reason I bring this up is that stories can come about from experiences involving any or all of these informational sources, and this is not obvious. We typically think of stories as arising from external experiences caused by events, such as when a tree falls on a house. But stories can also come from internal or relational experiences, and those stories are sometimes harder to spot in the wild. An internal-experience story might be one where I realize my memory is not what it was. A relational-experience story might be one where my family realizes why my memory is not what it was. Or where a scientist realizes why the memory of so many people is not what it was.

Considering purposeful storytelling

But I have not drawn the complete story life cycle, not yet. People don't only tell stories casually, in a simple line from recalling to telling. People have always told stories for a purpose, whether they had graphic presentation tools or not. In The Walking People, Paula Underwood describes how her people long ago created the first cave painting of a bear in order to warn others about bears in caves. That is an early example of a purposeful story. (By the way, The Walking People is a recording of a millenia-old oral history by the last member of a Native American tribe, and well worth reading. Reading that book was a relational experience in my life.)

So, adding purposeful storytelling to the picture, you get something like this picture. Now the narrative cycle has another inflow: the need for a story to suit a purpose. And it has a sort of bud where a purposeful story is composed (out of the material of recalled stories) before being told and entering the inner portion of the narrative cycle.

In practice

Now that we have this diagram (and here I am just assuming you don't find it horribly wrong) we can use it to talk about some of the things we can do at various points in the cycle to help things keep moving in a healthy way. (Otherwise it's just a pretty picture, right?)

I've marked some points that jump out to me as being both vulnerabilities of the narrative cycle and opportunities to help it better meet the needs of groups and communities and organizations. I'll go around the little blue dots in clockwise order.

Questions for and about stories

People keep track of millions of stories naturally over the course of their lives. Families, groups and societies do this too. But when people have a particular purpose in mind, helping them collect and store the most useful stories together with the most useful metadata can improve this process. The goal of questions both for and about stories is to make it more likely that the right story will be found when it is most needed.

Of course, asking such questions and collecting such answers is not anything new or unnatural; it's only what people have always done. If you listen to anyone tell a story in person, they will almost always surround it with some metadata about why they are telling the story, where they heard it, who it happened to, why you should listen to it, who you can feel permitted to pass it on to, and so on. And the people who listen to the story often ask questions and add their own metadata while the narrative event is going on. When we put questions on a story-elicitation web form, we are just trying to mimic some of these processes.

Storytelling (generative) exercises

When a person has an experience and then tucks it away in their memory, it can be hard to get out again. Storytelling exercises can help people bring stories out of the still place where they have been living and into the busier part of the narrative cycle where they might be more useful to others. Note that this label connects to two locations: connecting need to recall for a purpose, and simply helping along the natural cycle.

Of course, what works for one story and one storyteller will not work for another, so care must be taken to design the exercise to fit the recall. And there are many pitfalls in collecting stories having to do with motivation, safety, trust and understanding. Probably one of the biggest problems in conducting storytelling exercises is confusion about the desired end result and distorted attempts to perform to expectations. (However, I'm getting ahead of myself, as that topic will come up in a later one of the eight things.)

Sensemaking (integrative) exercises

Sensemaking exercises help people integrate recalled stories into something larger, either for communication (in which the purpose of the exercise is what is built: the noun) or for sensemaking (in which the purpose of the exercise is not what is built but what happens during the building: the verb). Some sensemaking exercises have both purposes, and for some the purpose is only apparent afterward.

In addition, all sensemaking exercises tend to create a story backflow in that they cause people to recall more stories while they are building something larger, and those stories can enter other orbits of the narrative cycle as a side effect of the exercise. (That is the right-hand blue dot pointed to by this label.)

Digital storytelling and coaching

This is where much of the "telling side" of organizational storytelling is found: where purposeful stories are refined, packaged, and delivered. When people have a goal in mind much can be done in this area, both in terms of preparing particular stories for maximal impact and in terms of helping particular people improve their storytelling skills. 


This point is connected more to purposeful elements of the narrative cycle, though it can also be used to connect the "hear" element of the cycle to the "need" element (I did not draw the line as it would have been messy). Paying attention to the stories people tell, either without intervention or in response to the telling of a purposeful communicative story, is an essential element of nearly every goal-oriented story project. This need not take the form of expert interpretation, however; people in the community can monitor their own stories and feed them into sensemaking exercises or observations themselves.

The last two observations about vulnerabilities/opportunities in the narrative cycle require their own pictures, as they involve multiple points in the cycle.

Storytelling environments

Storytelling environments can be physical places such as a community center or online spaces like (and here you will have to excuse me) Rakontu. Such environments keep the narrative cycle going in three ways (going round clockwise again).

First, such environments help people store information and recall the right story at the right time. In a physical setting this is sometimes done by using physical objects as memory aids. (Take an older person into a historical museum if you want to see that happening.) In an online setting this can be done with pictures as stand-ins for physical objects and with questions for and about stories.

Secondly, storytelling environments create a safe place for people to tell recalled stories to others. And finally, they create a safe place for people to hear stories (which is the less obvious part of narrative safety). The building of a common story bank improves trust, which improves the story bank, which improves trust.

Narrative pulses

I've saved my favorite part for last. This was an idea I came across around 2000, quite by accident. What happened was, I was working in my little dark office at IBM Research when I made a discovery, solved some problem, can't remember what. I rushed out of my office and looked for people in the hallways to tell my Eureka story to. I found a few people and tried to spill out the story, but nobody was interested in hearing how I had got a troublesome screen widget to work (or whatever it was). So the story died, and I soon forgot about it. But later I reflected on that experience and came up with what I call the "narrative pulse" idea of organizational narrative.

When something happens to a person, they (sometimes, not always) have a little pulse of energy or motivation to pass it on. If you graphed it, it would look like a little earthquake. But usually, because no one happens to be in the right state to receive the story, the pulse of energy dissipates and the story is gone. But every story is needed somewhere, by somebody, sometime. In that sense a story is like a wisp of steam that, if put to good use, could provide power; but many of the best stories dissipate and are lost.

One way to capture story steam as it rises would be to give people a "Eureka!" button or sheet of paper or phone number or ... something, so that the energy can be captured and put to good use before it dissipates. There are of course all sorts of "hotlines" for this or that emergency, but I've never seen one for telling stories whose purpose is to help other people facing the same situation. As far as I know, nobody has ever tried to harvest narrative pulses in real time. At least not recently.

Over time I've come to realize that there are other, smaller pulses, something like echoes of the first and largest pulse. The second is when a person first hears a story: they may be inspired to pass it on right away. Again the steam may escape and be lost if no one is ready to receive it. The third pulse is when a person suddenly recalls a story, often as the result of something someone said. Again they experience a little pulse of motivation to pass on the story, and again it is often moot.

During all of these pulses, if a person has a way to quickly and easily do something, they will probably take advantage of it, especially if it becomes a habit. Systems that help people tell each other stories, perhaps in order to learn from each other, should think about these pulses and how to make use of them. My guess is that the first pulse is the most useful to support with a ready mechanism. But the others provide some energy as well and can be tapped. For example, when a person is reading a story in an online forum, it should be easy to do something right away in relation to the story, to put the pulse to use.

What we've lost

I've come to believe that all this lost story steam is a consequence of the way our lives have become more distant than they used to be. Long ago, if you had a story to tell, there was always someone to hear it and pass it on, because there were always lots of people around, on your homestead or village or whatever. I've been slowly reading a series of books called The History of Private Life (great series, but heavy for the bathtub), and it's clear that people used to be much more in daily contact with each other than we are now. In medieval times, for example, house guests shared the family bedroom if not the bed itself. (Of course there was that disease problem....)

Also, there used to be people in every village, story caretakers, whose understood role was to listen to stories, remember them, organize them, and pull them out again when there was a need for them. In some cultures they had formal titles like griots, shanachies, shamans and bards, but in other places they were just the community elders. Story caretakers sometimes learned through long practice, sometimes in apprenticeships handed down from parent to child. They watched changes in the community as they remembered its history. They could respond to a situation with an appropriate story based on patterns across time and space of which they alone were aware. They knew what questions to ask to help people tell the stories they needed to tell. And they could help groups use their old and new stories to settle disputes and make decisions together. In essence, story caretakers got to know the community's stories and helped the stories get to where they needed to be.

And they did a better job than any outside facilitator or web platform could ever hope to do. In a sense, much of the work on the listening side of organizational and community narrative has to do with this societal change, this new remoteness, and with trying to put back things we have lost. They can never be put back as they were, but perhaps we can evolve something new.

Next: Telling, doing and listening.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Eight observations - 2nd

(This is the second in a series of eight observations about stories and storytelling in groups, and about helping people tell and work with stories. See the first post for more information about the origin of the "eight things.")

Stories have stories have stories have ...

Like a ripple in a pond, every story has a story and is part of a story.

Branigan, in Narrative Comprehension and Film (1992) lists this basic plot outline, on which he says "nearly all researchers agree":

  • introduction of setting and characters
  • explanation of a state of affairs
  • initiating event
  • response or goal statement by protagonist
  • complicating actions
  • outcome (resolution)
  • reactions to the outcome

Note that not all of the elements of this outline are about things happening. A story's narrated events are usually interposed with pieces of narrative, non-event content. In Branigan's terms, these elements:

  • introduction of setting and characters
  • explanation of a state of affairs
  • reactions to the outcome

are not narrated events but narrations about events. This distinction is crucial to understanding stories. Bakhtin, in The Dialogic Imagination (1981), said it this way:

... before us are two events—the event that is narrated in the work and the event of the narration itself (we ourselves participate in the latter, as listeners or readers); these events take place in different times (which are marked by different durations as well) and in different places, but at the same time these two events are indissolubly united in a single but complex event that we might call the work in the totality of all its events....

So, "the work in the totality of all its events" includes at least two stories: that which is recounted, and that which happens during the recounting. And then we move on to retelling and remembering and ... it's turtles all the way down.

Dr. Seuss and me

A simple exercise will prove the point. Choose a story about yourself as a child. Now follow that story as it moved through your life. I'll send you a dollar if you don't find several other stories wrapped around it.

All right, I'll go first. One of my favorite stories from childhood is from when I was exactly six years old. The neighbor kid started squashing a worm, out by the mailboxes (I can show you the spot) and I pulled her away, shouting, "That worm has just as much right to live as you do!"

I've thought about this story for a long time. Why do I remember it in so much detail - the location, the exact words, the fact that I was exactly six years old? For a long time I told myself the story that it was important because it said something about who I am, deep down, what sorts of moral sensitivities I (uniquely of course) was born with.

Now fast forward in time to a few years ago. On having a child I of course bought all the Dr. Seuss books I could find, including my two all-time favorites Horton Hears a Who (about which movie I once threw a screaming fit because my horrid, horrid siblings wanted to watch something else), and The Lorax, a creature dear to my heart. So my son and I are sitting in the big chair and I'm reading Horton Hears a Who to him for the very first time, with great excitement, and I read this line:

Please don't harm all my little folks, who

Have as much right to live as us bigger folks do!

I suddenly realize that it is irrefutably true that, in my memorable six-year-old outburst, I was parroting Dr. Seuss. Sensing a pattern, I reach for The Lorax. Sure enough, another one of my favorite sayings, which I thought only I in the whole world had ever said: "(Truffula) Trees are what everyone needs." Double whammy. I am a Dr. Seuss disciple, not an original thinker or a born moralist. (That doesn't make me any less wonderful, of course, but the point is that a new layer of story has formed.)

This new story makes me want to read more about Dr. Seuss and why he wrote those books, and what impact they have had on society, and how his books have affected other people ... like me. And it goes on and on and on.

Angels, demons and aliens - oh my!

Here's another, darker example of stories having stories, one that reaches further. Carl Sagan wrote a fascinating book called The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. One of the parts I found most interesting was where he raised a parallel between UFO abduction stories and similar stories that took place hundreds of years earlier and involved "visitations" by either demons or angels (take your pick). He goes through many remarkably similar aspects of such visitations, then and now: the visitors tended to be small, quiet, pale, able to walk through things; they asked for things; they promised things; they sometimes became sexually involved with the storytellers (not the angels on that one); and so on.

He quotes the folklorist Thomas E. Bullard, who said in 1989 that:

Abduction reports sound like rewrites of older supernatural encounter traditions with aliens serving the functional roles of divine beings. Science may have evicted ghosts and witches from our beliefs, but it just as quickly filled the vacancy with aliens having the same functions. Only the extraterrestrial outer trappings are new. All the fear and the psychological dramas for dealing with it seem simply to have found their way home again, where it is business as usual in the legend realm where things go bump in the night.

Then Sagan asks:

Is it possible that people in all times and places occasionally experience vivid, realistic hallucinations, often with sexual content, about abduction by strange, telepathic, aerial creatures who ooze through walls - with the details filled in by the prevailing cultural idioms, sucked out of the Zeitgeist? Others, who have not personally had the experience, find it stirring and in a way familiar. They pass the story on. Soon it takes on a life of its own, inspires others trying to understand their own visions and hallucinations, and enters the realm of folklore, myth, and legend.

Sagan refers specifically to hallucinations because he believes that a common basis in the physiological variation inherent in sensory perception is behind many of these stories. People tell stories in an attempt to explain the things that happen to them using the cultural materials available at the time.

Sagan particularly mentions hypnagogic hallucinations, meaning those that take place during the time when one is falling asleep. Now my ears perked up at this, because I have long experienced hypnagogic hallucinations of proprioception. I can remember the precise moment when I memorized this term in my sister's medical school library many years ago. What that means is, a few times a year, while I am drifting off to sleep, my body becomes temporarily confused about how large or small it and its surroundings are. During these times I am absolutely unable to say that I am not as large as, say, a car or a house, and that the room I am in is not as large as, say, a football stadium or sometimes even a mountain range. I know rationally that this cannot be true, yet all of the apparatus of my sensory perception tells me otherwise. I sometimes rub my fingertips together during this time to feel the great boulders shift and strain (it's quite fascinating and even beautiful now that it's not scary).

If you've ever read any of Oliver Sacks' work, you may have an idea of how manifold are the variations in sensory perception and brain function, and how many (perfectly okay) ways there are of being human. It only makes sense that some of these ways cause people to seek explanations wherever they can find them, using whatever explanations are available at the time. As a teenager I thought I might have been visited by angels, and if I had not become a scientist (or my sister had not gone to medical school) I might have gone further down either the angel or alien story routes by now. (By the way, I wonder if Lewis Carroll might have had similar proprioceptive experiences? Who knows?)

So. When I try to visualize this set of interacting stories (medical accounts, my experiences, angel/demon visitation stories, alien abduction stories, Bullard's and Sagan's explanations, societal beliefs about religion and science) as ripples in a pond, it becomes massively complex.

Actually, I no longer believe that a story is like a ripple on a pond. Stories are like rain on a pond. A story may have its own stories, but stories also interact with other stories, which have their own stories, and it all gets sort of muddled together into an impressionistic wash, until a new story drops into the mix. We can see ripples and even circles, but it takes conscious effort to distinguish them from all the ... life ... going on.

In practice

So, coming out of all that theory and mystery and history, what does this mean for someone who is doing story projects?

First, and most obviously, ripping a story out of context does more than just remove useful detail: it strips off layers of stories which may be critical to making sense of it. Asking questions about the story of a story, or what I like to call the story "phenomenon" - where did it come from, when did you first hear it, who told it to you, to whom have you told it, who can tell it, who can you tell it to, who can't hear it, who won't hear it, who will refute it, and so on - can help to preserve some of these layers. Other questions can illuminate interactions between story ripples - which stories led to what stories, which have similar themes, which ground-truth stories relate to what "official" stories, and so on.

There is always a tension between how many questions you ask about a story and whether the answers mean anything; but it can be fruitful, once in a while, to choose a smaller number of stories and ask many questions about them, of many people. That sort of depth-first story collection can provide a valuable complement to a breadth-first collection of stories (where the aim is to spread a net widely). There is so much attention to speed and growth and more-more-more today that people tend to talk about volume as important in its own right. But careful attention to depth can be just as revealing in its own way.

A good place to look at stories in depth is to find what I like to call pivot stories. These are stories people have told or collected in which several critical themes seem to converge, and which many different people respond to, for a variety of reasons. In nearly every story project there are some of these stories. They may not have strong narrative form, but they resonate in multiple dimensions of what matters to the group. One way people sometimes find pivot stories is that they keep coming up time and again as people consider various issues or go through various exercises. You could imagine first casting a wide net, then going through some exercises one of whose outcomes is finding pivot stories, then working in depth with those stories to complement the other parts of the project.

A great way to get stories rippling is to have people create new ripples themselves. This is most observable by having people construct new composite stories or timelines out of stories they have told or observed or collected. Sometimes when people are deliberately raining stories they create patterns that surprise everyone, because a lot of the outer-layer stories are not as obvious. Sometimes in the rain that is created by collective construction you can better see the stories of stories of stories.

However, let me tell a cautionary tale about what can happen to the constructs of group sensemaking, such as timelines or composite stories. Such constructs are themselves stories, and they include stories about how they were made. Constructs can participate in the larger story of the community or group, and even of the industry or culture or society around it, but it takes some attention to make this happen. We have all had the experience of creating something synergistic with a group of people - maybe at a conference or meeting - and then having it languish in a dark document repository. The key is connection. When you can maintain relevant and timely links between sensemaking constructs and people, the constructs can maintain a narrative connection to other and larger stories. Perhaps you can ask people to tell stories about their reactions to constructs. Perhaps you can ask people how the constructs relate to new events as they come up. Perhaps old constructs can be "re-visited" every year and new layers of story added. It is even reasonable to re-construct such collective artifacts every so often, to renew them so that that they can stay alive in the community, and more importantly, useful to it.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Eight observations - 1st

Several years ago I gave a presentation made up of eight observations about stories and storytelling in groups, and about helping people tell and work with stories. These were not scientific findings; they were just things I had encountered that had surprised me and that gave me food for thought. (Nor were they original thoughts, if there are such things; many others have talked about them as well.)

As the years go by I find myself returning to the eight things often; so I thought a good way to start this blog might be to talk about each observation and what I think it means for those of us who work with stories.

Stories compact knowledge

Stories are essentially humanity's zip files. When I tell you a story, I contract the total of my experience on that subject into a more condensed matter. Items particular to me are either excluded or explained, and items I can expect us to share ride along unstated, taking no space. When you read or hear the story, you re-expand it, making use of all the materials we share for the extraction of the story.

Try it. Here is a tiny story from
"Some things in life are so easy to do," the man thought, falling to his death.
-- G.S. Evans
You can almost feel that story expanding in your mind.

Here is an appropriate quote from Nabokov's The Gift:

Now he read in three dimensions, as it were, carefully exploring each poem, lifted out like a cube from among the rest and bathed from all sides in that wonderful, fluffy country air after which one is always so tired in the evening. In other words, as he read, he again made use of all the materials already once gathered by his memory for the extraction of the present poems, and reconstructed everything, absolutely everything, as a returning traveler sees in an orphan’s eyes not only the smile of its mother, whom he had known in his youth, but also an avenue ending in a burst of yellow light and that auburn leaf on the bench, and everything, everything.

Expansion incomplete! Supply additional data

Sometimes problems occur when we don’t share enough experience to make the re-expansion of a story work. The degree to which re-expansion of a story correctly reconstructs the original meaning depends on the emotional, cultural, temporal, and experiential distance between storyteller and listener. The greater the distance, not only is the possible compression smaller, but re-expansion errors compound. It's like trying to display a a PDF file without fonts on a different operating system: the mappings are wrong.

To give an example: my hobby is constantly reading old novels and folk tales, with rare 20th century exceptions. (Don't ask why I do this, I don't know the answer.) When I choose editions to read, I pay much attention to whether the editions have copious notes of historical reference. Why? Because when they don't, it's just not much fun. Lately I've been in a Russian phase. Some of the narrative compressions come across very well - for example Dostoyevsky mentions putting straw on the floor at Christmas, which I grew up doing, so no problem there. Other things, like the uses of bast and kvass, the moods of samovars, the types of carriages, and the nuances of the various grades of civil service, I cannot re-expand correctly without some help.

Similarly, I can think of three children's stories - Alice in Wonderland, Gulliver's Travels, and The Wizard of Oz - in which cultural and political messages are compressed inside and inaccessible without help from notes and introductions. In fact, all stories have such inaccessible parts in them, not just things written hundreds of years ago. Have you ever read an old diary entry and had no idea what you were talking about? Doesn't it feel strange?

Here's a question I've often pondered. Most of us are familiar with an image of the plaque sent into space advertising our presence in the universe (and our intelligence). Supposedly, much thought was put into making that plaque universally understandable. The human form (who we are) is surrounded by mathematical diagrams (our common identity with the presumed audience). The question is: Could one develop a universal narrative translator that could make every single story comprehensible to every single person on earth? What would the features of such a universal narrative translator be? (And beyond earth too: It would tell the story of Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. If you have never seen this, by the way, it is the single most narrative-pertinent sci-fi episode ever made, as far as I know.)

In practice

Getting back to earth, the main way I've seen this zip-file observation played out in practice is that almost all story projects involve both narrative compression and distance. There is almost always a gap to be bridged, whether it is between doctor and patient, company and customer, or neighbor and neighbor. This is one of the reasons for my caveats about "the people in the group of interest" being the best interpreters of stories; others may insert erroneous elements during the necessary narrative expansion.

There are two ways to deal with narrative compression and distance in a story project. One is to capture more of the context of a story when it is told. This can be done, to some extent, by asking questions about the story and about the storyteller. Asking contextual questions can be particularly helpful when you are asking people from different groups to learn from each others' experiences.

The second option is to have people tell and work with stories within the original group, and make the necessary translations not on individual stories but on the constructed artifacts created during group sensemaking. Because of the integrative act that produces them, such artifacts constitute a richer and more complex compression that communicates more of the essential meaning than the raw stories themselves.

Next: stories of stories.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Hey everybody

Ursula K. Le Guin says in Catwings

... the Owl thinks slowly, but the Owl thinks long.

When I read that I thought, ah, represented. It was like when Harry Potter crawled out of his movie bed and felt around frantically for his glasses. There I am. There we are.

When blogging came out I said, that's not for owls, it's for all those quick thinkers out there. But now all the quick thinkers have moved on to twittering and what was fast is slow. Besides, even slow thoughts want to get out in the world and live their patient lives.

The point of this blog is to give some of the ideas that chose to land on me new places to go. May life surround them.