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.

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