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?

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