Once I was on a train listening to conversations and I overheard a young woman asking an old man about her upcoming marriage. She said she was afraid of making a mistake. I was lucky enough to hear his answer. He said, "You are going to make a mistake. You are going to make a mistake if you get married and you are going to make a mistake if you don't. All you can do is make the best mistake you can make."
So, the first answer to the question of remaining neutral as a story curator is - you can't. So don't pretend you can, and don't delude yourself into thinking you are, because you aren't.
You might also ask yourself, do you need to curate? If there is a need to select some stories to spread or use or work with, you might be able to get people from the group of interest to make the selections, or at least help with the selections.
There are lots of different ways to do this, and not all of them involve getting people together in a physical workshop. One group of non-workshop methods is based on the fact that people can tell you as much by what they do as by what they say.
- Put some stories up on a wall somewhere where people go, like in a train station, and watch where people stand to read them. Or look at which ones get the most smudged from fingerprints or which have the most shoe dirt in front of them. Wear patterns are great feedback mechanisms. Even graffiti can be good feedback. You can even put the second part of each story under a little flap and see how dirty the flaps get.
- Put a bunch of little pieces of paper in a public place with bits of stories on them. Make them look like they fell out of a newspaper. Come back the next day and see which ones are still there.
- Put out some web banners or a web poll with the first parts of the stories, and see which ones get clicked on (to see the rest). Web logs are similar to wear patterns.
- Send out a survey about some unrelated, boring thing, but include a story in each one. See if different numbers of people respond to the different surveys.
Another method is to ask people what they think, but ask fewer people and more casually than in a workshop. You can do some phone interviews where part of the interview is responding to stories. (Even a few of these may be enough.) Or distribute some stories to people who work with people in the group of interest, and ask them to casually drop similar stories into their conversations. Then have them report in on the responses they are getting.
These may sound like sparse methods, and they are, but if the alternative to people in the group of interest making selections is somebody from outside the group making guesses, even a little bit of information can help.
If you really can't get any input from the people in the group of interest, try to use more than one curator, and try to find people who disagree or at least have different backgrounds. Have them make their selections and decisions, and then compare them.
And if you are the only one who can curate and you can't do anything about it, do the best you can to become two or more people (temporarily). For every conclusion that seems ridiculously obvious to you, pretend to disagree and respond with another interpretation. This takes practice but is entirely doable. Pretend you are in a debating club and take both sides in turn.
All of these methods are useful for coping with situations where getting a day with a room full of motivated people in the group of interest is impossible. However, with any of these methods, you should never delude yourself into believing that they completely remove bias or create neutrality. They are just the best mistakes you can make.
(Apologies to John Caddell's Mistake Bank for cross posting the train story - it was just too appropriate to both places! By the way, the Mistake Bank has a Rakontu going that is open to new members. If anyone is interested send an email to myself or John.)