Thursday, November 26, 2009

Eight observations - 4th: listening: opportunities

(This is the fourth 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.")

(And then, in the fourth of the series of eight, this is the third in a nested series of four: telling stories, making stories happen, listening to stories, and herding stories.)

(And then, this post is about opportunities in story listening.)

When I wanted to write about the opportunities you can find in listening to stories, I found myself hindered by three obstacles.
  1. The opportunities in listening to stories are so diverse and idiosyncratic that it's impossible to list predictable outcomes that will hold for all story projects.
  2. As an external consultant who catalyzes sensemaking but does not recommend solutions, I never arrive at conclusions or discover opportunities. At the end of every story project there is a "rest of the story" -- that is, what people do with what they have collected -- but I don't (and can't and shouldn't) try to participate in that part of the story. I help to set the story in motion, then step aside. My clients are not obliged to share the ending of their stories with me, and often they don't.
  3. For some story projects I do know the whole story of the project, but I am bound by agreements of confidentiality; so it's difficult to trot out detailed stories of how story projects helped people make changes. For many clients the things they found most useful were also the things they are least willing to talk about in public.
So, what to do? How to talk about the wonders of story listening without spilling the beans or making things up?

The Landscape of Story Listening Opportunities

Here's what I decided to do. I pulled out and skimmed over all of the catalysis reports, workshop records, and other project-related writings I've created over the past ten years. Every time I saw an outcome (something found out, confronted, noticed, discovered, enabled, put in motion) I jotted it down. But I translated every outcome to something generic, like "So that's what has been happening!" When I got through all the project materials I could find, I had about 200 such outcomes. I clustered those, clustered the clusters, gave the clusters names, and removed all the redundant items. I tried to get each cluster down to ten items or fewer (but did not always succeed).

In doing this little retrospective exercise, I translated from the specific to the general partly to get past any problems with client confidentiality, but more so to make the outcomes transfer better into any situation you might be facing. In doing this I hoped to communicate the scope of opportunities you can gain by listening to stories. I wanted to show you the lay of the land and give you a fly-over of what I've seen.

These are all translations of real (usually much more detailed) patterns I and others saw both in stories that were told and in answers that were given to questions about stories. Remember that because most of these outcomes came from my contributions to story projects as an outside catalyst, I have no idea which of these things actually worked for clients. And some of the catalyzing elements I throw out to stimulate sensemaking are deliberately off-base. But still, I think you can get something useful for your story listening by poking around in these outcomes.

Also note that in all of the outcomes here I talk about a fictional-composite "us" and a fictional-composite "them." Usually "they" are the people who told the stories and "we" are the people who asked them to tell the stories. These groups can be the same people, but more often they are not.

The resulting list of outcomes has these large clusters:
  1. Climbing through the looking glass - finding out what you look like from the other side
  2. Building a field guide - finding natural distinctions among storytellers
  3. Exploring natural history - getting to know your storytellers
  4. Talking to the elephants - confronting taboo problems
  5. Harvesting ideas - finding solutions you hadn't thought of
  6. Healing the machine - building trust

Climbing through the looking glass

There is this great part in Through the Looking Glass where Alice discovers that things in the world on the other side of the mirror are not the same as what you can see in the mirror:
Then she began looking about, and noticed that what could be seen from the old room was quite common and uninteresting, but that all the rest was a different as possible. For instance, the pictures on the wall next the fire seemed to be all alive, and the very clock on the chimney-piece (you know you can only see the back of it in the Looking-glass) had got the face of a little old man, and grinned at her.

This is an excellent metaphor for seeing yourself through the eyes of other people. When you look into a mirror, you see yourself reflected in a mechanical way: you look, but you do not move. Asking people questions in controlled surveys with closed-ended questions that exclude exploration is like looking into a mirror. But when Alice climbed through the mirror into the other room, she saw things she could not have seen without going there. Asking people to tell you stories is like climbing through a mirror because you are asking them to bring you into their mirror world and show you around. When you immerse yourself in the stories people tell, you are not just looking into their world, you are going there. So the outcomes in this cluster all have to do with what people found out by climbing through the mirror.

 How they see us
  • Is that really the way they see us?
  • Do we really come off that way?
  • I would have never thought people would use that word to describe us.
  • It appears that people see our role as this, when we thought they thought our role was that.
  • We thought they saw us as helpers, but they see as as unwelcome outsiders who don't understand and can't help.
  • People don't think we know about this issue. They think we aren't aware of their problems with it.
  • We thought the way they see us was simple, but it is complex and contradictory.
  • These people feel they have a different relationship to us than these people do. That must be why they have interpreted our actions so differently.
  • These people sure don't think anybody is listening to their needs, least of all us.
What they think we are saying
  • So we see it like this and they see it like that. It's amazing that we could interpret the same thing so differently.
  • That is not what we thought they thought that word meant.
  • So that's how they have been interpreting that thing we said. That was not what we thought we were saying.
  • We hadn't realized this issue could be looked at from that point of view.
  • If they think that, it explains why they reacted to what we said in that way. Perhaps we should have said this instead.
  • We never even realized people were seeing this as different from that. Now that we come to think of it, they are different, from that point of view.
  • So if we hear this, from now on we know it means that, not that.
  • We asked about this, but people responded with feelings about that.
  • People interpreted this to mean that, which must mean they think this.
  • Perhaps the way we asked this question led people answer in that way. Maybe that word cued them into a meaning we hadn't intended to convey.

Building a field guide

This cluster of outcomes has to do with gaining a better understanding of the characteristics and groupings of people who are telling stories. I'd say one of the most frequent positive outcomes of story projects is that people realize either that there are subgroups among the storytellers that were previously unknown, or that the subgroups that exist are different from was previously understood. These outcomes give people a sort of field guide to the groups involved in an issue so that messages and approaches can be tailored to what works best for each group.

Species identification
  • These people are held back by this, but those people are held back by that.
  • We had assumed that all of the reasons people had for doing this were the same; but these people did it for this reason and these people did it for this other reason. We should not treat both groups the same way, because what works for one motivation will not work for the other.
  • We had assumed those groups would be very different in their outlook, but these areas of commonality are surprising, and useful.
  • This thing we've been doing seemed to be working because these people were responding favorably to it. But these other people had the opposite reaction, and we didn't see their feelings because the first group was more vocal. But the second group has been increasingly unhappy with what we've been doing, and that could be a problem.
  • People in this situation need something quite different than people in that situation, but we have been treating them all the same. That might be why there has been such a variable response and outcome.
  • So we've been paying more attention to these people than to those. No wonder that group feels upset.
  • We thought these people had a problem with this, and they do; but it's a surprise that those people have a problem with it too.
  • We thought everybody was concerned about this, but in fact only these people are concerned about it, and these other people are concerned about this other thing instead.
  • These two groups of people are having contradictory reactions to our messages. For one group they are appealing but to the other group they are upsetting.
  • It looks like the people in these different groups not only have different experiences with respect to this issue; they seem to also have different expectations about what the issue entails and what is normal.
Species interaction
  • Wow, these people really live in different worlds. No wonder they don't see eye to eye.
  • It looks like these people are making a lot of assumptions about those people that are not always based on accurate information. Perhaps helping them learn more would reduce some of these problems.
  • These two groups define what is good and right differently.
  • We hadn't realized that people with different backgrounds saw the issue so differently.
  • These two groups of people seem to be working at cross purposes.
  • When these people talk about this, they mean something different than when these people talk about it, and that is just because of the nature of their experiences being different, not because of any confusion or lack of education about it. It makes sense now that they would see it differently.
  • So these people are afraid of that, while those people are afraid of that. I can see now why they seem to work against each other. Perhaps addressing this could help.

Exploring natural history

The outcomes in this cluster have to do with getting to know people better: studying them, really.

Life history: what makes people tick
  • So that is what motivates them.
  • Is that really the way they see themselves?
  • These people are doing things for more complicated reasons than we thought.
  • That was not what we expected people in that category to say. We will have to think again about that category and what it means.
  • We hadn't realized these people feel that this issue is so central to their identity. If we seem to block them on that issue we are threatening them more than we thought. If we help them on that issue we may be able to help them more than we thought.
  • Where people fall on this scale seems to have a big effect on how they responded to this issue.
  • People don't seem to want to waste their time talking about this issue.
  • This situation seems so dangerous to these people that they seem unable to talk about it at all.
  • It looks like people felt they had to answer this question in only one way.
  • These people are more proud of their ability to do this than we had realized.
  • That fact that they said this means that they haven't thought much about that.
  • They told a different story if they gave this answer than if they gave this answer.
  • We always thought they were like this, but they seem more inclined to that.
  • The people who it seemed would be most likely to say this said that, and vice versa.
Behavioral study: why people do what they do
  • So that's why they did that.
  • We never realized that was holding them back from doing what we thought would be easy for them to do.
  • So this is why these people are so afraid of that happening.
  • This must be a trigger for them. Maybe if we didn't do that they might not react so strongly.
  • We had thought everybody would care about this issue, but it looks like whether people feel like they should care about this issue is heavily dependent on the role they see themselves as playing.
  • This seems to be a problem for people, but they seem to think they can't do anything about it and are resigned. No wonder they feel hopeless.
  • This group of people doesn't seem to see the problem we are trying to address at all. It looks like they don't think it exists.
  • It looks like these people just can't do anything about the issue we have asked them to help us with. It's not that they don't care, it's that they are unable to help.
Habitat study: wants and needs
  • So that's what these people want.
  • We hadn't realized that people need that. We haven't been giving that to them.
  • They say they want this, but they aren't aware that they really need that. Perhaps helping them with that will help them.
  • We keep asking these people what they want, but they don't know what they want. They are more confused than we thought. We need to look into this more.
  • They really need some of this, but we've been giving them too much, and it is having the opposite effect. We need to match what we give better to what they need.
  • We thought we were overdoing this, but it looks like people want even more than we had been doing.
  • We thought people didn't want to be bothered with this issue and so were avoiding asking them about it, but in fact they have been offended because they feel ownership for it and resent being left out of it.
  • People seem to be saying that things used to be like this, and now they are getting more and more like that, and they wish it wasn't happening.
  • Wow, they really don't like it when we do that. But they don't mind that.
  • So they consider this a lesser evil than that. We thought they were the same.
  • People really hate it when that happens.
  • We thought this issue was hampering people, but it doesn't seem to bother them very much.
  • So they like it when we do that! We were not even doing it on purpose.
  • It's interesting that we got such a tepid response on this issue. We thought it was important to these people, but apparently they don't care about it.

Talking to the elephants

Nearly a standard result in story projects is that the elephants in the room break their silence and start loudly telling story after story to anyone who will listen. As a result it becomes impossible to continue to deny the existence of problems everybody knows about. This can have a cathartic effect on a person or group or population, in a workshop, in a private office sitting alone, in a building, across an organization. However, the moment when the elephants start to talk is also one of the most dangerous moments in a story project, because people are most likely to turn away or shred the project in reaction. That is one of the reasons why confronting a mass of collected stories is best done in the context of a sensemaking session.

For example, say people have collected some hundreds of stories and they are going to have a few dozen people work with the stories in a sensemaking workshop. These people might think they should send out the stories for people to read before the session, as "homework," to save time for the more important activities that will take place in the session. I've seen that done, so I usually recommend against doing this and suggest handing out printed stories at the start of the session itself. Why? Because the context is different. If people are reading stories alone, perhaps in the midst of other work, they are not ready to hear the elephants talking and will dismiss or ignore them (and then the elephants will not attend the sensemaking session). But when people arrive at a sensemaking session and understand why they are there, they are ready to make the most of the opportunity of conversing with the elephants and learning from them. There is an element of ritual, of greeting the elephants if you will, that smoothes the transition to self-awareness.

Seeing the elephants: recognizing the problem
  • People really have a problem with this and need our help with it. We can't just keep ignoring it.
  • We knew people didn't like this, but we were ignoring how much they didn't like it.
  • So this thing we were trying to do to help is actually offending people.
  • We didn't realize how much they were bothered by that failing in our approach. I guess we thought it was tolerable.
  • We thought people knew we were struggling to fix this problem, but it looks like they think we don't care about the problem.
  • We knew people didn't like these two things, but now we can see that this one is considered a minor annoyance, but this one is much worse.
  • We thought that issue was very serious, but here is another issue that we hadn't even been talking about that seems like it may soon dwarf the first issue in terms of impact.
  • Oooh, this could be a bigger problem than we thought.
  • I guess it's time to start talking about this issue.
  • The trend is worsening, not getting better.
  • This is a portrait of a disaster waiting to happen.
Listening to the elephants: understanding the problem better
  • This is why things keep going wrong!
  • People never talk about this issue, so we thought they didn't care about it, but from these stories it appears that they are taking it for granted and that we had better not stop making sure it is there for them.
  • It looks like people have particular problems in these interactions with us, and these other interactions go more smoothly.
  • So that's where those rumors have been coming from.
  • We thought that the problem was caused by this, but in fact it looks like the problem is caused by this and that happening at the same time, with their effects adding up to the whole.
  • We thought people were worried about this, but in fact they are worried about this and that at the same time, and we have only been addressing this. We had better start paying attention to that.
  • This set of situations was described frequently and seemed to often lead to this outcome. Perhaps we can watch out for that situation and help people avoid that outcome in the future.
  • It looks like people facing this situation/context have very different needs than people facing this situation/context. Perhaps we should start more carefully considering which set of conditions applies when we provide help.
  • People need more help during this time than during that time. We should pay attention to whether people are entering this period in which problems tend to be more frequent.
  • Perhaps this isn't a problem that can be addressed but is just something that is in the nature of the activity and can't be fixed.
  • This approach doesn't work very well for this situation, but it does work well for that situation.
  • We thought that this was causing that, but actually, from what people are saying, they think this other thing is causing it.
Living with the elephants: correcting course
  • We've been going about this the wrong way.
  • Our way of thinking about this may be overly simple.
  • So that approach is clearly not working. It sounds like it is making things worse instead of better.
  • We thought this was working for people, but clearly it isn't.
  • We had thought to address this in order to help, but it looks like addressing that would help more.
  • Wow, people really think this is a bad idea.
  • This approach is more of a double-edged sword than we had realized.

Harvesting ideas

The best story projects surprise people with new ideas. Being ready to be humbled by the wisdom of people who seem to know nothing about something you know a lot about is a prerequisite for getting anything useful out of listening to stories.

Ideas for doing things better
  • We never realized that we could do that with that.
  • If we changed this, we might get a better response than what we have been getting.
  • This probably won't work for what we had thought it would do, but we've never realized we could use it for that.
  • So this little thing could have an impact on that big thing? We had not thought of trying that.
  • It looks like this thing that we were seeing as a problem is simultaneously a problem and an asset. I wonder what we could do to bring out the asset part of it.
  • This looks like an opportunity to help people where we can really make a difference.
  • Doing this looks like it would help people meet their challenges better.
  • So this, when it is present, rubs off the rough edges and helps people get past obstacles.
  • This seems to be something people wish could happen but don't really believe is practical. How much closer to that ideal could we help people get?
  • This is a portrait of an effective solution.
  • If we help these people with this, they should have less trouble trying to do that.
Ideas for helping people help themselves
  • We thought that these people couldn't help with that. But from these stories it looks like they could help and even be a resource for dealing with that.
  • Why don't these people work with these people? They seem to share a lot. Maybe connecting them would help both groups.
  • If we supported them in this, they might be more willing to help us do that.
  • The people who are most able to contribute find these conditions. If we improve the likelihood of those conditions happening, we might be able to help more people contribute and help everyone else.
  • Ah, so people need to be able to do this, but that prevents them from doing it. Perhaps if we help with that, they will be better able to do this.
  • If we gave people this oppportunity, it looks like they would take advantage of it and help everyone by it.
  • When people are thinking about this, they are less likely to do this than if they are thinking about that. Perhaps their frame of reference has an impact on the way they make this decision.
  • We thought people weren't willing to be challenged in this way, but it looks like they would welcome the challenge and would rise to it.
  • The common factor in these stories points to this issue. Perhaps if we can address that issue we can stem the tide and help people solve the problem.

Healing the machine

The last cluster of outcomes from story listening projects involves the impact not on those who listened to stories but on those who told the stories. The opportunity to be heard and to contribute can be the most important opportunity a story project provides. If lying to people about collecting their stories breaks the storytelling machine, truly listening to people, and making sure they know you are listening and value their contribution, has the opposite effect. It builds trust.

I've seen projects that seized this opportunity and used it to change how people felt about and perceived both listeners and tellers, and I've seen projects that squandered the opportunity, even when it was badly needed. How you talk about the project to people is very important. It takes work and testing, but usually you can find a way to convey to a group of people that their unique experiences are valuable to something you all care about. One one project I remember we found that saying, "We want to know what this is really like" helped people understand what we were after; but it took several iterations to get to what worked. It's different for every group, and it may be different for subgroups as well.

How you collect stories and what you do with them also has an impact on trust. For example, say you put out a report on a new policy direction that includes not only the insights arrived at in a sensemaking session, but also all the original stories from which those insights flowed. When the storytellers see how their unique experiences contributed to the new direction in policy, they see what they did to help and will be willing to help again (and perhaps most importantly, see themselves as someone who helps). But if you listen to them without giving them any indication that you used what they said, they may assume (rightly or wrongly) that you discarded their contribution. It can sometimes be hard to admit that grand policy conclusions were based partly on simple stories. Sometimes the experts in the group find it hard to share attribution with the laity. To be honest I've seen few projects that were willing to keep storytellers in the loop as the results of story listening were brought out. But when I have seen it done I've been amazed by the energy it has produced; and that is energy that future projects can tap into.

How storytellers react to telling stories
  • People certainly have a lot of energy around this issue.
  • When people talked about this they seemed to perk up.
  • The exchange of stories in the group went way up when we introduced this topic.
  • I wasn't sure people would open up about this issue, but we seem to have hit a vein on it.
  • One of the people asked me after this session if they could come to another one.
  • Watching that man's face when he told that story was amazing. He must be so proud of that accomplishment.
  • That person really needed to tell that story.
  • At first it looked like half the people were going to walk out! But in the end I think people were sorry when it was over.
  • That story just came spilling out, didn't it?
  • It was amazing how that particular story rippled through the whole group and made so many more stories come out.
  • I've noticed a change in how people talk about the project, now that they've actually contributed some stories. Word is getting out and more people want to be involved in it.
With that our fly-over view of the story-listening land of opportunity comes to a safe landing. I hope it has been helpful in planning your own journey.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Quotes and echoes

I'm slowly preparing my next blog post while enduring a flu-like illness (I refuse to speculate). This entails looking back through old writings and in doing that I ran across these two interesting juxtaposed quotes.

"Once upon a time, when people made more of their own things, they created more stories about their life experiences. They told these tales to each other regularly, gracefully, and productively. They did it to give each other insights, to entertain each other, and to engage each other in times of celebration, trial, mourning, or reverence. But primarily they did it to connect with each other. Sharing real-life stories was an essential element in forging friendships, alliances, families, and communities. It brought individuals a greater intimacy with each other and, simultaneously, a stronger sense of self.

Since that time, for all the wonderful progress made in communication technology, the world has grown alarmingly less personal. People have given over much of their individual power to the collective, and have let themselves be increasingly distracted from personal storytelling by flashier but ultimately less gratifying activities that compete for their attention. As a result, we citizens of today’s world have lost some of our core vitality—our feeling of having direct contact with the lives we lead, of relating meaningfully with others, and of being individuals in our own right, with our own clear identities."

—Jack Maguire, The Power of Personal Storytelling

Which is pretty much what I keep saying, only better put.

Narrative films were originally called photoplays and were at first thought of as a merely additive art form (photography plus theater) created by pointing a static camera at a stagelike set. Photoplays gave way to movies when filmmakers learned, for example, to create suspense by cutting between two separate actions (the child in the burning building and the firemen coming to the rescue); to create character and mood by visual means (the menacing villain backlit and seen from a low angle); to use a “montage” of discontinuous shots to establish a larger action (the impending massacre visible in a line of marching soldiers, an old man’s frightened face, a baby carriage tottering on the brink of a stone stairway)....

Now, one hundred years after the arrival of the motion picture camera, we have the arrival of the modern computer, capable of hooking up to a global internet, of processing text, images, sound, and moving pictures, and of controlling a laptop display or a hundred-foot screen. Can we imagine the future of electronic narrative any more easily than Gutenberg’s contemporaries could have imagined War and Peace or than the Parisian novelty seekers of 1895 [at the first moving picture] could have imagined High Noon?"

—Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck

It's funny that I found these two quotes together, because it's my hope that "the future of electronic narrative" involves both of them coming together.


I also had a few echo-like thoughts to convey about the last post (on the dangers of listening to stories).

First, it keeps bothering me how I put the 15 dangers under the self-sabotage category, because that's too simplistic. What I should have done is say that there are three dangers:

  • you get nothing
  • you get something but it leads to nothing
  • you break something

and there are three reasons for the dangers:

  • you are inexperienced or ignorant
  • you are self-sabotaging
  • you are careless or greedy

On reflection I should have said that any combination of the dangers can come about through any combination of the reasons. However, editing the whole post to reflect that would change it a lot (what is the etiquette, people: can you edit blog posts forever?) so I'll just mention it in this echo instead.

And then I had one more echoing thought about self-sabotage. In the same way that conflict in stories often operates at many levels (within the self, between people, between self and environment/society), self-sabotage can operate at many levels simultaneously. Within a group doing a story project, one person might be opening things up while another is closing things down; or one group might do great story projects but other groups in the same organization might squelch the results; and so on.

The flip side of self-sabotage at many levels is that people can do the opposite (self-empowerment? self-discovery? self-disclosure?) at many levels at the same time. So even if a project seems doomed because some people don't want to face the hard truths, it can still succeed in smaller, safer ways that still have a positive impact. From what I've seen, it is better to be aware of that issue and plan for it rather than to have it hit you on the head.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Eight observations - 4th: listening: dangers

(This is the fourth 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.")

(And then, in the fourth of the series of eight, this is the third in a nested series of four: telling stories, making stories happen, listening to stories, and herding stories.)

(And then, this post was getting so long that I decided to just go through the dangers in listening to stories, and leave the opportunities for the next post.)

Ahem. Sorry about the nesting.

Listening to stories usually means collecting stories by asking people to tell them to you: in person, in workshops and other group sessions, over the web. But it can also mean looking through already collected material for the stories in it: phone logs, reports, historical documents, and so on.

I am more familiar with the dangers and opportunities in this area than in some of the others, since I've done more work professionally in this area. So I'll describe three dangers and three opportunities, each in increasing order of magnitude.

First listening danger: Dead silence

The smallest danger in story listening is that the collection attempt fails. You try to collect many stories but get few. I've seen this happen when the people collecting the stories don't have a lot of experience in designing questions, or when people don't know how to recover during an interview or workshop when stories are not getting told. I remember on one story project we had to add extra tags to distinguish the relatively few stories from the great mass of opinions and lectures. It wasn't the fault of the respondents that so many non-stories got collected; the problem was in the project and question design. Sometimes communication about the nature and goals of the project can lead people to give you other things than stories. People are not used to being asked to tell stories, and if you are not quite clear about that you will often get other things such as opinions, statements or scenarios.

The reason this danger is the smallest is that you can recover from it by trying again. It is not always easy to get the same people to give you more time, but you can often get other people from the same group to talk to you. In fact, I usually recommend to people who are just starting to collect stories that they plan some very small collections at the start, of even 20 or 30 stories, so they can see for themselves what works and what doesn't. After they do this, they are more able to adapt when they start doing larger projects.

Second listening danger: Self-delusion mastery

Kaffee: I want the truth!
Col. Jessep: [shouts] You can’t handle the truth!
 - A Few Good Men, 1992
Sometimes people collect stories, but they sabotage their own goals when it comes to getting anything useful out of the effort. This can happen because of inexperience, but sometimes it happens because deep down people don't really want to know the truth about the issue they are exploring. They may be intentionally giving it lip service, or they may not be aware of their own fears and mental blocks. Inexperience and self-sabotage are mutually reinforcing, because as people gain more confidence in doing story projects they become less afraid of what they will find.

I class myself in the same category as those who sabotage their own projects, by the way. Anybody who has ever said "Does this dress make me look fat" or "How did you like the soup" or "What do you think of my resume" is also in the same category. Meaning to say: everybody; but everybody can learn to recognize self-sabotage and do less of it.

There are many ways to accomplish the feat of self-sabotage, intentionally or otherwise. As I looked back over projects I've helped clients with, I came up with fifteen ways, and I'm sure I've missed a few. In fact I'd say this is the most common negative outcome I've seen in story projects. Self-sabotage is particularly prevalent in organizations or groups where a culture of denial is strong. People collect stories and then say, "See? We knew there wasn't a problem" or "See? We knew those people wouldn't tell us anything useful."

With each of these ways to collect stories while avoiding collecting stories, I've made a suggestion about avoiding the situation in carrying out your own projects.

1. Too-safe questions. Sometimes people want to know something, but are afraid to ask the tough questions, so instead they ask very safe questions that tiptoe around the issue. As a result they don't get the stories they need to address the problem. You'd be amazed by how many people have said "we'd love to know about this issue" but when you show them some questions they say "oooh, we can't possibly ask that!".

Granted, this problem is often not imaginary. Asking revealing questions can be tantamount to publically admitting guilt. But there are ways to work out compromises so that you still get most of what you need without showing your dirty laundry. There are ways to protect your public image while still getting the stories you need. You can ask people to sign non-disclosure agreements so that they will not tell everyone what you have asked them about. Or you can ask the safer questions widely and the more dangerous questions in smaller groups. Or you can ask about a general issue and hope the specific problem you want to find out about comes up. Or you can anonymize more heavily than usual so that people will tell you more of the truth you need to hear. Or you can restrict what is done with what is collected so that only a small number of "coal-face miners" are exposed to all of the nasty raw truth. It's sort of like working with dangerous chemicals in a laboratory with proper ventilation and rigid safety protocols: much can be done if you are careful. It sometimes takes some sensemaking work (including opening old wounds) to find these compromises, however, and not everybody is ready or able to do that.

2. Coded questions. Sometimes people ask questions with hidden codes whose message is "yes we are asking about this but you had better not tell the truth about it." This is also known as the "do you want to keep your job" survey. There are many, many ways to transmit signals of expected compliance, and many of them get inserted without the project planners even knowing they are doing it.

Sensemaking exercises and deliberate diversity in the planning group help with this issue. But the best guard against this danger is to pilot-test questions and ask people for their reactions to the survey. Such pilot testing has to be done carefully, however, since coded messages of expected compliance can reach all the way into questions about coded messages of expected compliance. In other words, the question "does this survey make you feel like it is asking the question do want to keep your job?" might be interpreted as "if you want to keep your job, say this survey is not asking the question do you want to keep your job." Sometimes a naive outsider can help unravel that mess because they can say what cannot be said.

3. Hopeless questions. Sometimes people have low confidence in the people they are asking to tell stories, or in the process itself; so they ask limp, redundant, pitiful, self-apologizing questions. This conveys a sense of hopelessness so that respondents feel the survey is not worth answering. Respondents might feel that what they say will not be listened to, or the questions may simply be so boring that they don't engage people. This sometimes happens when people have to write questions for people they have disagreements with or contempt for or little knowledge of, or when they are doing a project because someone else is making them and they don't think it will work. It reminds me of when my sister and I used to sell cookies door-to-door as kids. Our iron-clad winning pitch was, "You don't want any of these cookies, do you?" (We also had a pattern of either running away or collapsing in a giggling heap when people answered the door, which also didn't work.)

Pilot testing helps with this issue; but if you try to write questions and they come out limp, you might want to consider why you are doing the project and whether you really want to do it. If you can't summon the energy to find something that excites you about the project, you won't be able to get respondents to respond with energy either. Use fantasy to bring out your hopes and dreams for the project. What would make it succeed fantastically well? Then harness some of that energy in what you ask people to tell stories about.

4. Fantastic questions. Sometimes the people planning a story project get so caught up in the story-ness of it that they want to hear amazing, astounding stories, and they try too hard to get people to tell them. They ask questions that are too elaborate or require too much of a creative response, or their questions have a hidden invitation for people to perform Hollywood versions of their experiences. The result is two-fold. Some people step up to the challenge and provide wonderful performances that reveal almost nothing of their true feelings or experiences. Other people decide they are unqualified to perform their meagre tales and walk sadly away. If you want to ask people to tell stories, put away your McKee first, and put away all the grand narrative ideas that go with it. You need to communicate to people that you really do want to hear what they have to say, even it if is very simple and plain and boring. If you ask people to polish their experiences, or even hint that you are looking for polish, you will get polish without meaning. An indicator: if you catch anybody apologizing for their stories, you are not asking the right questions in the right way.

5. Off-base questions. Sometimes people ask questions that make no sense to the respondents, or are even offensive or inappropriate, because those asking don't know enough about the worlds of those answering to ask the right things (and sometimes don't want to know). The few responses that do come back are nonsensical, sabotaging or self-promoting.

An extreme form of the off-base question is the question so far off-base that it invites manipulation of the purpose of the project. The project planners never know that what they got makes no sense because it was deliberately destroyed. This reminds me of something that happened when I was in college. I had a physics professor whom I thought was a great teacher. He was always showing us wonderful experiments, and his delight in his subject was infectuous (at least to me). The only problem was, he was under-confident and didn't convey authority. He stammered and mumbled, and some of his experiments went wrong, and he often wasn't sure what he was going to say or do next. I thought this was endearing, but some of the students thought it was a great opportunity to make fun of him. When we were asked to do an evaluation of this professor, I heard some of the students laughing about how they would ruin his evaluation as a joke. Some of them even cheated by putting in multiple bad reviews. He didn't get tenure, partly because of that bad evaluation. I wrote a letter to the university supporting him and telling the story of the cheating, but I'm not sure it made any difference. To some extent I blame the survey instrument the university used in making that outcome so easy for the students to game. I can't remember that professor's name, but I always hope he went on to a stellar career. He reminded me of myself, kind of blundering and not very confident but useful if given a chance.

If you are asking people to tell you stories and you know nothing at all about their worlds, try doing some broad, undirected story collection first. Just ask people to talk about happy times and sad times, or surprises. Or find some other sources of information about their lives. Find a few "informants" who can give you insights, or find works of fiction that delve into the experience of those you want to talk to. Pretend you are a method actor and get into character. Learn more about the points of view and experiences you want to tap into before you try asking people about anything specific.

6. Poorly aimed questions. Sometimes people ask questions that are focused on one issue, and that issue turns out not to be important to respondents, so they don't respond to it. But the burning issue that all the respondents want to talk about is not asked about. I've seen this happen when story projects are embedded in larger "task force" type projects where goals are so rigidly structured as to plan against surprise. This is self-sabotage by excessive planning. Usually if there are some things you really do need to know about, it is best to balance focus with breadth and ask a few questions that open the field to anything people might want to contribute.

7. Question overload. Sometimes people ask good questions, but they ask too many of them. Usually this is because their project's goals are overly ambitious, or they think they will never get people to answer their questions again, or their storytellers are required to answer, or they are under-confident in the process. If you ask more than seven or so questions per story you are pretty much guaranteeing that you will get nothing useful after the first few (not even the first seven, because people peek ahead and are discouraged). I remember one project where somebody forced respondents to answer close to a hundred questions about each story. You can imagine how many of those answers represented real thoughts. I've written more about this subject, including the consideration of the cognitive budget of your respondents, in the Asking about stories section of Working with Stories, so I won't say more about it here.

8. Asking the wrong people. Sometimes people ask good questions, but they aren't willing to ask the people who will tell the stories they need to hear. For example, they can't stand the idea of asking the patients so they ask the doctors, or they can't stand the idea of asking customers so they ask the customer-facing staff what the customers think. Again, this results in stories that don't address the issues, giving people a way to sidestep the real problem.

What I've done sometimes to help clients plan whom they will ask to tell stories is to use the Cynefin framework to talk about formal and informal communities or groups that might have stories to tell about the issues of concern. For example, known-space groups might be those with official duties in the area; knowable-space groups might be professional associations; complex-space groups might be support groups for people with problems; and chaotic-space groups might be people protesting some aspect of the issue. Often while doing this people become aware of opportunities for exploring an issue through story listening that they had not considered before.

9. Asking at the wrong time. Sometimes people ask good questions of the right people, but they pick inopportune times for it. This usually happens because the project planners don't know enough (or don't want to know enough) about the people telling stories to know when is a good time. They call people during dinner, or they try to catch people on their way out of the doctor's office, or they ask people for failure stories right after a success, or vice versa. Pilot testing and knowing more about storytellers is the cure here.

10. Mismatched collection methods. Sometimes people write good questions, and the right number of questions, and they find the right people, but they approach the collection in the wrong way. This is often a "looking for your keys under the light because that's where the light is" problem. Sometimes people want to do what seems more comfortable even if it isn't the best way. I worry about people gravitating to web surveys because it's cheaper, when it doesn't work for all groups and topics. There are many ways to collect stories, but not all work equally well for every group and about every topic. For example, it's hard to get most older people to answer a web survey, and it's hard to get teenagers to come to a group session. Delicate topics require extra thought and planning.

Sometimes I've seen people with projects where they need to approach two groups of people, and the two groups need different approaches, but the idea of colllecting stories in different ways is too difficult, so they just pick one and run with it. However, what happens in that case is that one group gets over-represented in the story collection, or one group tells different or better stories, because one group had a better fit with the collection technique than the other.

The best antidote to this problem is knowing your storytellers and knowing the pluses and minuses of the different collection methods. Be careful reading collection-method documents in isolation, because not all such documents tell you what can go wrong or where the methods are not appropriate. It's better to get a sense of the spectrum of methods available before you choose one (or two).

11. Not collecting stories. Sometimes people don't know how to ask questions whose answers are stories, or don't bother to learn. Worse, they don't know they aren't getting stories, so they don't try to fix the problem until it's too late. So they go all the way into trying to work with the stories, but since they didn't actually collect stories the magic of narrative is missing and they get only bland predictable outcomes. They do everything "right" except that they are using story methods on non-stories, so nothing works. This can sometimes be a problem with "naive interviewing," or having inexperienced people conduct narrative interviews. It can be a great asset to have interviewers who are naive about the subject of the project, but they need to know a little bit about how to recognize storytelling and how to encourage it. Making sure that you and all of your interviewers/facilitators know the basics about stories and storytelling helps avoid this problem.

12. Turning away from stories. Sometimes people ask the right number of great questions of the right people, and in the right ways, and at the right times: but then when the stories are collected, they don't want anything to do with them. They go to all the effort of collecting things, but when it comes down to actually confronting what people said, they can't bear it. This is as human, raw, and understandable as what is in the stories themselves; but it can ruin a project. Sometimes people want an outsider to be a sort of emotional sponge: to read everything, "distill" the emotional rawness out of it, and "boil it down" into something they can better handle. Boiling down is useful in a logistical sense because collected stories are often redundant. But sometimes part of the motivation in having someone like me "handle" the collected stories is to avoid confronting the mass of narrative oneself. Granted, it is easier for an outsider to handle the mass of narrative, and if it helps the project come to a useful conclusion it may be worth doing. But I won't pretend that reading raw stories is easy for anyone. On some projects, especially those dealing with disease or mistreatment (perceived or real), I have had a hard time coping with the mass of disappointment and pain in the stories. It wears me out emotionally, as my family will attest. I have to warn people who haven't done this yet: the colors drain out of the world when you are exposed to hundreds or thousands of stories of tattered hopes. The kind of catalytic work I do helps best when it complements exposure to raw stories, not replaces or reduces it. I try very hard to pass on the emotions I find in stories, even or especially the negative ones, in what I produce to catalyze sensemaking and discussion. I try to highlight, not hide, the raw emotions I find.  But sometimes people are so determined in their efforts to turn away from what has been said (even if they displayed great energy at the start of the project) that they pick and choose from what I attempt to highlight.

When people turn away from the stories they have collected, there is not much chance of any real change taking place and the project was essentially doomed from the start. This is another "do you really want to do this project" issue. If you are going to start collecting stories, you should be prepared to find out what they say, and you should prepare others who are involved in the project to face it as well. Think about Dune or some other "fear is the mind-killer" story and brace yourself. It will be difficult, but it will be worth it.

13. Fighting with stories. Sometimes people do all the up-front stuff right and collect some great stories, and they read them, but while they are reading them they work their hardest to deny everything the stories say. They fight with what they have collected. Many times I've seen people find a reason (any reason) to disqualify the stories that challenge their world views. They say the stories are "hysterical" or the storytellers are "uneducated" or "irrational" or ... many, many other manifestations of denial. When people "yes but" the stories they have collected, they are destroying the insights they could be gaining, because whether the stories are hysterical is beside the point. The point is that people felt that way about their experiences, and that is what you wanted to find out. Again, if you really want to hear what people have experienced, prepare yourself to let the stories ripple over you without struggling against them. Listening to real, raw, wild stories is like being caught in rapids: if it doesn't hurt, you're not in the rapids yet.

14. Letting story projects die. Sometimes people collect great stories, and take things all the way through looking at them, sensemaking, finding patterns, getting to insights ... and then they let the project, and the stories, die. They write a bland report and stuff it in a file repository somewhere, then move on. It reminds me of the way some people go to church on Sundays: we did our soul searching and now we can get back to normal business. People reason: if anybody says we don't listen to our customers we can drag this thing out and display it, but we never actually expected to allow ourselves to be vulnerable to change. 

I can think of two ways to keep story projects alive and producing new insights: repeat them on a regular basis, and fold them into new storytelling. Repeating story projects is as simple as making the project into a yearly ritual. Folding projects into new storytelling means that you don't stuff a file into a repository but keep the results of the project as an assemblage of parts that can be re-assembled when a new need arises. For example, say the result of a story project is a set of story elements (like characters, situations, or values). Those need not sit in a file somewhere: they can form new elicitation devices for new storytelling, which produces new insights. Many other results of sensemaking around stories can be folded back into an ongoing process.

15. Hiding story projects. Sometimes people do great story projects, but keep them hidden in a pocket of the organization. Hiding story projects can be a necessary evil, because story projects need a degree of openness to disturbing truths that tends to evaporate in the highest strata of management. So pocketing is not always a danger; sometimes it's a disturbing truth. If you are doing a story project in an organization, be aware that the appropriate degree of exposure is not always apparent at the start. I've seen several projects that had high promise and produced illuminating results but could not travel safely without being ripped apart by those to whom maintaining the status quo was an ongoing interest (hidden or otherwise, self-aware or otherwise). I'd say it's better to create a pocketed but enlightening project that might someday leave its nest than to try to spread a project so widely that it can never reach completion.

To conclude the self-delusion section: All of the dangers in this category come about because people have conflicting goals and emotions about listening to stories. To some extent this is a natural conflict, but if there is to be any lasting positive effect from listening to stories people need to be aware of the dangers of self-delusion mastery and work to prevent them.

Third listening danger: Breaking the machine

Far worse than the danger of not getting stories or deluding yourself with stories is the danger of breaking storytelling itself. When this happens, you may blithely collect great stories from the right people at the right time, and do all sorts of amazing things with them that help you in many ways. However, what you have done has an impact on the people who told you the stories that damages something deep within the universe of storytelling: trust. This danger can come about through inexperience, but it more often results from ... I'm going to be kind here and say greed or stupidity, and not complete evil. Sometimes people ask people to tell them stories, but they lie about what they are going to do with the stories, who is going to see them, or how they are going to be used. This sort of danger is the worst because it is unseen. It is the customer who never returns; it is the kid who grows up hating; it is the citizenry that turns suspicious.

When you look at The Experience Project, the front page is inviting. "Be real. Be yourself. Anonymously connect and share with others just like you!" Nearly three million "experiences" have been collected here. How to share? "It's fast, free, and fun!" Being the suspicious person I am, I read more. Low down on the page it says "Join now and get started in seconds, or [grudgingly, it seems] learn more about Experience Project." I click there and read more wonderful stuff, with plenty of exclamation points about wonderful things! At the end of this list, it says "Have more questions? Check out our thorough Frequently Asked Questions." Ah. Click. Question nine: "How does Experience Project make money?"
Given EP's architecture, where people claim the experiences and topics that are most important to them while remaining anonymous (e.g., we don't know a user's address, phone number, or real name), EP provides advertisers a way to reach the people most receptive to their products-- without overstepping boundaries.
So that's the "project" of the Experience Project: selling access to storytellers. If this is completely benign, if no boundaries are overstepped, why did I have to navigate to a cranny of the web site where probably something like one percent of people will dig down to find it? Why isn't this on the main page, next to "It's fast, free, and fun!"? I wonder what would happen if the top page said "Help us sell your personal story to advertisers!"

The advertisers page (hidden even deeper) says: "Reaching exactly the audience you want has never been easier or more accurate." Okay, so people need to advertise, I accept that. I don't have a problem with selling advertising. I have a problem with lying about it, which is what hiding something under pages of happy-clappy exclamation points is. People are posting things here about unrequited love and grief and depression. I'm sure talking about these things is useful to people - but can these people all know that they are being watched and targeted? I doubt that very much. I saw one post on the site that mentioned how ads kept appearing that were strangely appropriate after they had told stories. The poster was wondering how that coincidence could have come to pass; so clearly people are using the site without any awareness of how it operates. (I welcome the people who run the Experience Project to prove me wrong by pointing out some giant button on the main page that explains all this and that I somehow missed.)

To provide a contrast, consider This service keeps personal stories for sharing "forever" either within one's family, friend or support network, or with the world. Networks on cost a fee, but this is explained up front (though I could not find out the price without registering, as far as I could tell). The difference in presentation between these two sites is striking. At, the privacy policy is prominent, clear, detailed and well laid out; all of the people involved are described in detail; the mission and goals of both the non-profit that funds the site and the for-profit that operates it are well explained. Nothing is buried deep; all this is quickly and easily accessible. In fact, the first tab you see on is "Why Us?" and this leads to a page about the goals and policies of the site. The site even goes to pains to make it clear that advertisers are not given access to personal stories. These people seem to understand that helping people tell stories requires transparency, respect, and care. (Whether people are better off entrusting their personal stories to a proprietary, closed-source, centralized, fee-based, remote system is another issue; but that is not the issue I am talking about here.)

So: in my considered professional opinion (that is code for "some people are not going to like this"), it is never necessary to trick people into telling stories, and it is always damaging, no matter how laudable your project goals are. If you feel the need to hide anything about why you are collecting stories, who will see them, what you will do with them, who is paying you to collect them, or how they will be kept and distributed, you are in danger of breaking the storytelling machine itself. The damage may not be apparent soon or even within the lifetimes of those who plan such projects. But stories don't like being mistreated, and they know how to bite back. And that impacts all the stories and all the storytellers in the world.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The internet has failed storytelling

So I'm looking at Kathy Hansen's blog and as usual she brings the news to the news-poor: an article called "The internet is killing storytelling" in the London Times that is apparently the talk of twitter-town. I simply had to respond, even (evidently) after everybody else already has done so, and added this comment:

The internet is not killing storytelling: the internet has failed storytelling.

Natural storytelling has many forms, from the anecdotal snippet to the long-form narrative, and all are equally valid and needed. What is wrong with the internet for storytelling is not that it shortens stories, but that it strips away context and fails to replicate the nuanced ways in which groups of people naturally make sense of their stories together. I've been working in this area for the past ten years and have recently released free and open source software ( meant to address the issue of making the internet work better for storytelling.

I don't think the splintering of attention spans is killing storytelling, though I agree that it is *changing* storytelling. But that trend started long before the internet appeared. A plot of readership of long-form narratives would not show a sudden recent dip but would more likely show a slow decline through the past several decades. Even what passes for a novel today is nothing like what people read a hundred years ago.

But: if life moved at such a slow pace back then, why were technological advances advertised as "time-saving devices"? If people had as much time as we think they did - you know, because life didn't move at such a "rapid pace" as it does today - why would those advertisements work? Perhaps the whole speeding up of society is just a story. Maybe what has been happening recently seems more important, so it seems like there is more of it, so it seems to be accelerating because more has to be packed into the same amount of time.

Marcus Aurelious said in 167 BCE:

"[I] often think of the rapidity with which things pass by and disappear, both the things which are and the things which are produced. For substance is like a river in a continual flow, and and the activities of things are in constant change, and the causes work in infinite varieties; and there is hardly anything which stands still."

Putting aside my fundamental disagreement with the "rapid pace of change" and "information age" alarmists, I found myself agreeing and disagreeing with this article. First, the article confuses (using Shawn Callahan's great terms) little-s stories with big-S Stories. Big-S Stories may be declining - in the form in which we are used to find them - but little-s stories are alive and well, though as I mentioned I think the internet has not served them well (and I've written a lot about this in other places). When Macintyre mentions "the cacophony of interactive chatter and noise, exciting and fast moving but plethoric and ephemeral" - well, that's the way storytelling has always been. Storytelling is fast and slow, it's deep and trivial, it's long and short, it's sacred and profane, it's prepared and spontaneous, it's controlling and liberating, it's uplifting and nasty, it's ... (continue ad infinitum in your own terms).

But on the other hand ... on the issue of the "long-form narrative" declining, I have to admit that I share Macintyre's sadness. Myself personally, I love to go deep into a story, or into a sea of stories. But I seem to be more and more out of step in this, as far as I can tell by the reactions of people I ask about it. To give a quick example of what I mean by going deep: I recently read Dostoyevsky's 700-page The Idiot three times in a row, interspersed with watching the 8-hour movie version twice (the Russian one, which by the way is the very best book-to-movie ever made). Fitting this in between work and child care took more than a month, but I recognized that it was an event in my life's course that required a proper degree of respect and care. This narrative event was so momentous that the refractory period after The Idiot (that being the time in which no other fiction can be read, so that the last echoes of the narrative event can resound properly) lasted for a full month. This deep narrative experience ranks up there with only a few others of that magnitude in my life. Probably the biggest one ever is that from about age ten to age twenty, when once a year I reverently retrieved the huge book of Hans Christian Andersen's collected works (800 some pages) from the public library and soaked myself in it for weeks.

My guess is that by doing this sort of ritualized deep immersion in stories I am trying to get to an experience that used to be more common a long time ago. I'm looking for giant-S stories, maybe. I've heard that the old bards told stories that lasted days, weeks or months. What would it be like to dive that deep into a story? I can hear someone saying, it would be like TV. But that's not true. TV is paper-thin. Movies are thin. Most recent novels are thin. The way people used to write was thick, rich, heavy with description, emotion, complexity, detail. That's why I love these old books. I love it when an author spends two or three pages detailing one room or flower or feeling or thought. That sort of depth is almost extinct now. I can't explain it very well, but reading most recent novels and seeing most of the television and movies that are available is like gazing out over a barren desert when I feel a great need to experience the multiplicities of a rain forest.

I actually rewrote this post a few hours after I started it (apologies to the few people who read the first version). I felt like it sounded like I was trying to say that I had some special ability to "go deep" into stories that other people didn't have, or that I was arrogant about reading "the classics," or that I needed more "difficult" stories than other people. But I don't read "the classics" because I am some kind of literary expert. I read them because they are rich, and I crave narrative richness. (I think that's also why I love wallowing in hundreds of collected stories so much - it's richness all over again.) Obviously not everybody craves narrative richness, to judge from the reactions I get when I mention this. I am constantly on the lookout for people to talk about old books with, and in about 30 years of looking I've met ... two. Internet discussion boards about "the classics" are ghost towns, and the face-to-face discussion groups I find at local libraries are not willing to consider anything bigger than tidbits. Sometimes I feel like I am in one of those stories where you suddenly find yourself the only person left on earth.

That's okay. Probably there is genetic variation in attention span and interest in long boring things like three pages describing a room or flower or feeling or thought. What I'm trying to say is, people a few hundred years ago had a lot of narrative to choose from across a spectrum of richness. But today nearly everything is thin, short and small. I've said before that ordinary people are not doing as much ordinary storytelling as they once did (because they leave it to Hollywood). Now I'm thinking that the universe of storytelling has contracted on both sides. Why has this happened? Could it be that media storytelling - newspaper articles, movies, TV shows - has chipped away at both sides of the spectrum at once?

People make fun of people who think that environmentalism means saving the "cute fuzzy animals" while ignoring the keystone species that hold the whole puzzle together. Some keystone species can be tiny nasty scurrying things, but some of them are huge, slow-growing, patient things, like funguses that silently cover hundreds of acres. The same can be said of stories. Maybe the tiny scurrying stories and the great hulking funguses both need some help surviving in today's world.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Eight observations - 4th - making

(This is the fourth 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.")

(And then, in the fourth of the series of eight, this is the second in a nested series of four: telling stories, making stories happen, listening to stories, and herding stories.)

Everything you do is a story

In the introduction to this series-in-a-series, I said that I would talk about one danger and one opportunity for each way of interacting with stories. For this post on making stories happen, "everything you do is a story" is both the danger and the opportunity.

The danger in making stories happen lies in doing it without knowing it, and in doing it wrong. I'll talk about making stories without knowing it first.

When soldiers descend to the ground in helicopters, they typically ride with their booted feet hanging off the sides. When US soldiers first went to Afghanistan, this innocent practice generated many local stories, because showing the soles of your feet is considered a deeply offensive (and usually deliberate) insult in most Arab countries. Soon the military started training soldiers about this and other insults, but the stories remained. Similarly, just a few months ago Israelis were offended by a photograph of President Obama talking on the phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - with the soles of his feet prominently displayed on his desk. In both cases nobody told a story, and the actions may have been inadvertent, but stories came from them nonetheless.

Private jets for humble folks

Another danger story in this category happened around this time last year when three CEOs of US automobile makers flew in private jets (at the estimated cost of $20,000) to ask the US Congress for taxpayer money to bail out the car companies. To make matters worse, a statement from a Chrysler spokesperson said that they flew in private jets for "safety" reasons. The stories that flew around this incident surfaced many feelings about class and money and humility in the United States.

A few quotes randomly selected from the web:
  • "Heads they win, tails we lose again!"
  • "They really, really, do not get it."
  • "Are their lives any more valuable than yours or mine?"
  • "$20,000 is more than a lot of hard-working people see in a year."
  • "Not even they will drive a US built car."
  • "I will never buy or recommend another American auto again."

Now imagine that you are trying to sell the cars made by these companies. Puts you in a bad spot, doesn't it? Makes it harder to pull off a "we care about you" sort of advertising campaign, doesn't it?

Making the wrong stories happen

Another wrinkle to this private-jet story was reported in the magazine Washington Monthly:

"Alan Mulally, CEO of Ford, understands the importance of symbolic gestures and public relations. Yesterday, for example, when he arrived on Capitol Hill, hat in hand, hoping to convince lawmakers to help bail out American auto manufacturers, he arrived in a new Ford Fusion Hybrid. Ford's media team, of course, made sure reporters knew about this.... If only Ford's p.r. team had thought about the other leg of the trip. How one gets to the Hill from the hotel isn't quite as interesting as how one gets from home to D.C."

So the people at Ford had been trying to make a positive story happen, but they hadn't thought it through well enough (or couldn't?), and a negative story happened instead. And the story they made happen (of failure to make their preferred story happen) was the worst story of all.

Everything you have ever done is a story

Like a virus that lies dormant for years, stories you make happen can come back to bite you long after you have forgotten them. People make new stories happen every day, in all the things they do. But the great majority of stories are small and quiet. They live small, quiet lives within a family or group of friends. But the life of a small, quiet story can change in an instant. Consider what happens when somebody gets noticed by society. They run for office or start a company, or they are in the right/wrong place at the right/wrong time, or they do or create something interesting or wonderful or horrible. Suddenly all of their small, quiet stories come flooding out into the public sphere, from teachers, classmates, neighbors, colleagues, friends, family members, people who met them on the bus. The public uses these small, quiet stories to check the new, big, loud stories for veracity. Perhaps the person running for office has a history of dishonesty, or the person accused of a crime has been a pillar of the community, or the whiz-bang inventor has been accused of plagiarism in the past.

Sometimes the entire, larger story of the person being noticed by society takes on the form of what I call a "backflow" story. This is one of my favorite kinds of story to read or see, but living through one can be unpleasant. In a backflow story, the very last part of the story flows back over the previous parts and changes them into something different than what they were. (Think "A Beautiful Mind.")

Say a person runs for Congress. Everything seems to be in order. They have built their career slowly and carefully, making many friends and few enemies. They have mastered the art of public discourse and built a deep understanding of policy. They are well loved for prominent actions that have helped many people. Many good stories have been told about them. Their story seems destined to continue with their taking on the mantle of public representation. But then something happens that not only derails their political future, but retroactively changes the perceived story of everything that happened before. Now the fact that they led their high school debating group seems sinister instead of stately. Different stories start to come out, about how they kicked a neighbor's dog, or didn't show up for a job, or snapped at a customer. In the end the whole story gets rewritten, from start to finish, and they are a different person than they were - possibly even to themselves.

That sounds scary, but the good thing is that positive backflow works the same way. Former heads of state often actively create positive backflow by devoting the remainder of their time to earning their place in history.

Here is an example of positive backflow. I heard this story several years ago and can't remember where, but I think it's true(ish). A company's CEO put out strict new rules for cost cutting, one of which was that nobody was to fly business class until things improved. A few days afterward the CEO went to the airport to board a flight. The airline staff recognized him and immediately bumped his coach ticket up to business class. Here was a moment of decision for the CEO. His company wasn't paying for business class, so why not take the upgrade? After a pause he decided that he wouldn't feel comfortable sitting in business class after what he'd said. Near the end of his flight, to his surprise, several company employees who were also on the flight came up and told him how impressed they were that he was following the guidelines he had set. When this story got out in the company, that CEO's ability to ask people to take other cost-cutting steps improved dramatically.

Here's the most important part of that story: the CEO didn't know he was making a story happen when he gave up his first-class seat. But he acted as if he did. You know that thing you tell little kids about Santa Claus watching them? Maybe we should start telling grown-ups that.

Dramatic actions based on values

Just so you know, this idea of making stories happen on purpose is not at all a new idea. I first enountered it in the work of Alan Wilkins, who in a 1984 paper called "Organizational stories as symbols that control the organization" (in Organizational Symbolism) described how managers who want to create organizational change through storytelling cannot simply rely on telling stories; they should also (or instead) make stories happen by taking "dramatic action in the name of values." I'd make that "based on" values rather than "in the name of" values, because "in the name of" still sounds a bit fake.

I quoted this story already in the Brambles in a Thicket chapter, but I'll repeat it here because it's my favorite example of making a story happen:

... most employees at one company I researched have been told the story about how the company avoided a mass layoff in the early 1970s when almost every other company in the industry was forced to lay off employees in large numbers. Top management chose to avoid a layoff of 10 percent of their employees by asking everyone in the company, including themselves, to take a ten percent cut in salary and come to work only nine out of ten days. This experience became known as the "nine-day fortnight" by some and is apparently used as a script for the future of the company. In 1974 the company was again confronted with a drop in orders, and it went to the "nine-day fortnight" scheme for a short period. When other companies in the industry began layoffs, the old-timers used this story to quiet the anxiety of concerned newcomers.... Employees occasionally tell [this] story to communicate that this is the "company with a heart". Everyone I talked to in the company knew the story, which is used both as a symbol and a script.

Now that's effective story making. The paradox of it is, the most effective story-making happens when the people taking the dramatic action have no intention of making a story. They are just doing what needs to be done, and they have good reasons for doing it. The story-making is a result, not a cause, of the action.

Nobody cares what a talking dog has to say

I want to make a special warning about publicity stunts, because when I say "make stories happen" it may seem that I am talking about this.

Publicity stunts have two inherent problems, one for each word. The first is that a publicity stunt is done to get publicity, meaning for the sake of effect. People are pretty good at sussing out the intent of actions, especially when the people doing the actions are leaking signs of intent without realizing it. People have a lot of ways of talking about the gap between what people do and what they say - not walking the talk, not eating your own dog food, not leading by example, do what I say not what I do, and on and on. And it's very easy to let your real intent slip out. (You know what they say about lying: you need a good memory to do it well.)

The second problem with publicity stunts is with the "stunt" part of it. By making your action deliberately exciting or provoking, you run the risk of the story-of-the-story taking over and becoming the story that happens. The fact that the dog is talking is the story that happens, and nobody asks what story the dog might have been trying to tell. This often happens when somebody wants to tell the world a story, finds it difficult to be heard because they are not in a position of power or authority, isn't willing to build an audience slowly and patiently, and grasps at an extreme way of telling their story, perhaps using the power of voyeurism (always a sure bet). These people usually provide only a temporary spectacle to a public that rushes off to the next shiny thing without ever noticing what the person had been trying to say. The sad thing is, an entire industry centers around exploiting these poor souls and making stories happen at their expense. (Yes, I'll admit it, I always hated Candid Camera.)

In practice

So what is a person or company or group to do if they want to make a positive story happen? How about this? Do good stuff. It's amazing how refreshing that is nowadays. In a world where everybody is spinning, standing still stands out. Find dramatic actions based on values. Find things you can do in which your personal or corporate values are apparent. Make sure they are big enough to get noticed (that's the "dramatic" part), but be careful not to artificially expand them. Find them, then do them, and don't make too big a to-do about it. And as the Ford group found out, make sure your values soak all the way through the action and aren't just painted on the top of it. People will notice, because they are looking for it. They are hungry for it. And they will tell the stories for you.

I buy a lot of my clothes from Land's End. This is partly because I like their clothes, but part of it comes from a story they made happen, possibly without even knowing it. When I was in graduate school one of the people I knew lost his house to fire. He lost every single thing in the house. Somebody in the department sent a letter to Land's End saying how this guy and all of us loved their clothes, and could they send him a few shirts. They sent a huge box with something like a thousand dollars worth of new clothes. (That was more than a month's pay at that time.) We didn't ask for it, but they took dramatic action based on their values. They didn't publicize the incident; they didn't make him do a commercial; they just helped him out. I'll bet that everybody who knew about that incident has probably told the story of it many times.

Here are a few examples from consulting projects. On one project a colleague had done for a retail chain, a true story had been collected in which an employee did an excellent job of defusing a difficult customer situation. This person's actions exemplified what the company wanted all of its employees to know it stood for. The company wanted to use the story in a motivational program, and they wanted to improve the motivational aspect of the story by tacking on a fictional ending where the employee was rewarded for their right actions. I suggested that instead of tacking on a fictional ending to the story, they find the employee, actually and visibly reward them, and then ... not bother telling the story at all. The story would tell itself.

On another project, it became clear through looking over the collected stories that the customers of the client company had some needs that were not being met, and that if the company could help meet these needs, good stories would result. I suggested that the company mount a campaign, not to tell fictional stories about how they "cared" about their customers (who believes any of that?), but to make stories happen by seizing the opportunity to provide help where it was needed. (Did they? I don't know. That's the thing about being a consultant: it's not your story, it's theirs, and you don't often find out how it turned out.)

It's not that hard to find opportunities to make positive stories happen. Just listen to people. Listening to stories about needs and fears and beliefs is a good way to find opportunities to take dramatic action based on values. But you can't find such opportunities by asking people to tell you "success stories." You need to find out things you aren't sure you want to know, like why people don't trust you, and why they choose other brands, and what they think your values are, and what nasty rumors they have heard about you. This requires a degree of self-awareness, honesty and courage that is not always available at all levels of every organization. And then, when you find out what dramatic actions you could take based on values, it requires another layer of courage to actually do them, because some of these require you to give up some control or safety or freedom. But the rewards can be great.

'What is a Caucus-race?' said Alice.... 'Why,' said the Dodo, 'the best way to explain it is to do it.'

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The yang doesn't get the yin-yang

Hey. I was just checking Kathy Hansen's Storied Career blog (one of the great resources in the story field) and I saw this post, which references this post by Gary Goldhammer. His "The Last Newspaper" tells a fictional story about a person holding the last newspaper and answering questions from curious passersby. In general the message is that the death of newspapers is a terrible thing.

Let me say up front that with that general message I wholeheartedly agree. Newspapers fill a vital place in public discourse.

However, I found these quotes disturbing.

He reminded his rapt audience that what they now refer to as "content" used to be called "stories," delivered by trained individuals known as "storytellers" and "journalists." ... Stories are personal and transformational. Stories have definition and character. Stories are history personified. ... But content is cold, distant. Content is a commodity – a finite consumable of fleeting value.

Through my work as a researcher and consultant on the listening side of organizational and community narrative, over the past ten years I've read and listened to thousands of raw, personal stories. And the pattern I've seen is the opposite of what is described here.

Who decides which stories are stories?

What I've seen is that professional storytellers - from journalists to screenwriters to academic experts - have co-opted the word "story" to mean "something you are not allowed to tell." This has had devastating effects on the ecology of storytelling. In fact, I've spent a considerable amount of my energy working to dispel a widespread and damaging belief that there must be gatekeepers between people and storytelling. (In particular my Rakontu project is exactly about this.)

Here is what I said in my interview with Kathy about this issue:

I’m sad about how much packaged entertainment and crafted messages have changed our world. Sheet music and novels were met with wide condemnation when they came out because it was said people would no longer come up with their own music and stories. The people condemning those media would hardly recognize the world of today, where it seems people have barely a thought to themselves but spend their time listening to other people sing, watching other people play games, and hearing what other people think. ...

I don’t think people have lost the ability to tell stories as much as they have lost the expectation that it is their place to tell stories. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people balk at being asked to tell stories because they don’t think their stories are good enough to be "real stories." Would that have been true a hundred years ago? A thousand? Of course there have been storytellers since the beginning of time, but I don’t think there has ever been a time when ordinary people were so removed from ordinary storytelling.

I would tell the story of what has been happening differently:

What people now refer to as "news" used to be called "stories," and these were told by regular people, to regular people. People were actually allowed to tell their own stories without being "professionally trained" to do so. ... Raw stories are personal and transformational. Raw stories have definition and character. Raw stories are history personified. ... But packaged news stories are cold, distant. News stories are commodities – finite consumables of fleeting value.

Things are so bad that a lot of people in the story field have given over the word "story" to the professional storytellers and have switched to using the term "anecdote" instead. I refuse to do that. I use the adjectives "raw" or "personal" versus "purposeful" or "crafted" to distinguish between these two equally valid and necessary forms of storytelling. Saying that ordinary people can't tell stories is like saying that a bunch of friends clowning around with a football aren't allowed to say they played football. The word "story" encompassed raw and purposeful storytelling for countless thousands of years before newspaper "stories" came along, and it should retain that ancient meaning.

What is most cold and distant?

Let me tell you a story about a newspaper story. Many years ago my husband and I wrote educational simulations whose goal was to help people learn more about the natural world. We worked very hard on these simulations; we poured all of our passion and energy and youth into them; we went into debt so badly to build them that it took us ten years to extricate ourselves. One of these programs was a garden simulator. Just around the time when the first few thousand people had downloaded the garden simulator (it was eventually many thousands), a reporter from a local newspaper asked to talk to us on the phone about it. We were eager to spread the word about our effort. We told the reporter many things about our enthusiasm and vision. In one small aside I mentioned that even though we had used the most current US Department of Agriculture models as our simulation base and spent years on the models, the simulation should not be thought of as a predictor. (The USDA guys had warned us that some people might expect the simulator to tell them what their garden would do that year. They had people complaining that their weather simulator didn't predict the weather.) I said that once I had even grown an eight-pound carrot in the simulator, so people should understand that it was for learning, not for planning.

Guess what story came out in the newspaper? (The cynics will have guessed.) A nasty joke about how our simulator produced eight pound carrots and how it was essentially a laughable farce. No mention of helping people around the world learn more about nature; nothing about democratizing knowledge and bringing university-level soil science, botany and ecology into the hands of everyone with access to a computer. Just the eight pound carrot. He wanted to tell a joke, and he used our "content" for his own purposes.

Since then many people have told me similar stories about having the stories they told to "professional storytellers" distorted and destroyed. Made cold and distant. Purged of definition and character. Turned into commodities for commercial consumption.

Restoring the balance

Let me be clear here: I am not saying that newspapers are evil or that newspaper reporters are evil (though the eight-pound carrot reporter has my eternal enmity). The Christian Science Monitor and the New Yorker have been my constant companions these past few decades, and I like many people rely on authoritative, expert news coverage.

What I'm saying is that the personal and the public, the raw and the packaged, need each other and need to be in balance. The professional is the yang, the active, the planned, the structured, the hierarchy. The personal is the yin, the reflective, the emergent, the messy, the meshwork. Both are equally valuable, but both have not been equally valued, at least not in the past century.

One of the commenters on Gary Goldhammer's blog said that they hoped humanity wouldn't be "lost amidst the rush to plug in, update, and suck in the bare facts." But something is missing here, something is going unsaid. Professional storytelling doesn't work only with "bare facts." A lot of the "content" Goldhammer disdains is not raw data. A lot of it is stories. Wild, shy, unpredictable, unreliable, passionate, wrong-headed, delusional, but emotional, natural and real. I've spent a lot of time with wild stories, and I think they deserve a lot more respect than they have been getting. Giving people more exposure to wild stories, in addition to those that have been captured and subdued and paraded in zoos, is a benefit, not a loss. It restores a vital balance.

I can't help but wonder if professional storytellers aren't aware of what I've seen. Perhaps they don't know that the yang of story has so intimidated the yin that people are literally afraid to tell their own stories. Perhaps the yang doesn't get the yin-yang because the yin is nothing but meaningless "content" to it. Perhaps if newspapers want to survive and be more "relevant" in today's world they should start doing less specimen collection and more field study.

This blog post by David Cohn says it well:

There are certain characteristics of news organizations or "professional" journalism that if it were to stop tomorrow wouldn't be easily replaced – if replaceable at all. ... [But] If citizen journalism activities were to stop tomorrow could professional journalists replace them? My answer is no.... What I want to know isn't if one can replace the other – but how the two might work together.

Yes, the last newspaper would be a tragedy. But I've seen many tragedies already. It breaks my heart every time I hear another person say, "Oh yes, I've had lots of experience with that, but I don't know any stories."