Saturday, December 26, 2009

Show me the village

The weekly print edition of the Christian Science Monitor has an article (not available online) in its December 20 edition by Gloria Goodale called "Show Me the Money." The article explains how sites like YouTube, Hulu and Metacafe are doing less posting of user-generated content and more delivery of commercial content, essentially because little-s, naturally occurring stories don't sell well enough.

"In the rush to monetize the Internet, the little guy is getting pushed out," says Benjamin Wayne, a digital media strategist and CEO of Fliqz.

Since I can't find the article online, I'll quote more than I had planned to. Later the article says:

"User-generated content is one of the most democratic developments in the creative world since the days of Homer," says Paul Levinson, author of "New New Media" and a media studies professor at Fordham University in New York. "People can distribute their own creations widely and easily for the first time in history," he says. "They will not give that up easily."

And finally:

Wayne says that the great illusion of widespread access to storytelling tools is that everyone has a meaningful ability to tell their own story. In fact, very few are capable of telling a story that the rest of us want to pay to watch, he says. "Everyone wants to create this," he says, "but nobody wants to consume it."

This is where I think the internet strategists are getting it wrong. It's not true that nobody wants to consume user-generated content. It's just that people in other villages aren't interested in it.

People haven't changed much since the days when news and entertainment meant the village bard in the village square. Just because we can connect with thousands of people around the world about any issue under the sun doesn't mean our brains have suddenly changed to suit it. Yes, we surf the web and look at the occasional skateboard-riding dog, but our substantial web connections happen among a relatively small number of people. Even the word "surf" implies not entering the water but merely skimming the surface. When people want to dive in, they still look for their village.

I'm becoming increasingly convinced that the internet is splitting into two internets: the local democratic village, and the global corporate marketplace. Using the terms of the "identity interaction braid" in this paper, the internet is undergoing a split between selection interactions, which can be huge in scope, and those of mobilization and commitment, which require reduced scope. Maybe we need separate terms for these two internets. Maybe the "internet" is a village while the "Internet" is a global marketplace.

As I remember it, the early web (and here I'm talking the early 80s, when I first used it) did a better job of helping people navigate connections between local and global than it does now that the marketplace has become more prominent. If you remember "logging in" to a BBS or joining a listserv, you can remember how web gatherings felt more like locations than big "sites" like Facebook do today. Maybe it was easier to feel like there were online communities when there were fewer people online; but I think the culture of the web has changed too.

Some of the messages, beliefs and assumptions that improve selection interactions wreak havoc in the worlds of mobilization and commitment. This impacts storytelling as well as other interactions. Not only are we told that only purposeful stories deserve to be called stories, and that stories should be rated by popularity as if they were toasters; we are also told that bigger groups are always better, no matter what activity takes place in them. Size provides power and utility in the marketplace, but in the village it can be harmful. Some so-called community sites prominently display the number of group members in ways that suggest groups succeed only when they grow large. And to hear people talk about their amateur video postings, you'd think that stories only matter if thousands of people are watching. That's not how people interact: it's how companies sell their wares. Turning every act of storytelling into a super-sized marketplace activity may put more money into the hands of web service providers, but it goes against what stories have done in human groups for thousands of years. The clever insertion of the word "you" in YouTube did not bring television into the village, as it seemed to promise; it dragged stories out of the village and into the marketplace.

I'm not saying people should return to insular ignorance and abandon the amazing diversity of the web, where we can discover affinities with people in locations and walks of life we would never have encountered in past ages. What I'm saying is that rushing to the opposite extreme of trying to create one giant village isn't working either. The naturally occuring stories people tell each other only because things have happened to them belong in villages, not in the marketplace. And this covers most amateur digital storytelling.

If the village is the natural habitat of wild stories, the marketplace is a fenced monoculture farm where domesticated stories are raised. It makes perfect sense that YouTube and its like are increasingly promoting purposeful stories over naturally occurring stories, because such sites are not villages. When people post naturally occurring stories on sites like YouTube, the stories are like wild animals struggling to survive on a fenced farm: they fail to thrive. When wild stories can no longer find refugia in the little-i internet because of habitat destruction by the asphalt big-I Internet, the result is a reduction in narrative diversity. This in turn reduces our collective capacity to respond elastically to crises. It's also less fun.

They took all the trees
Put 'em in a tree museum
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see 'em

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

-- Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

(By the way, Big Yellow Taxi was written in 1970. Guess how many people have recorded versions of it, according to Joni Mitchell's site? ... 262 people. Struck a nerve, do you think? Maybe it wasn't just about trees.)

What we need to preserve narrative diversity is two things: first, better support for storytelling in small groups (more natural habitat set aside); and second, a better conversation between local and global scales (better urban wildlife management, including wildlife bridges).

If the internet wants to enable such a conversation between local and global, it might be well served by looking at oral storytelling traditions. Bards learn stories from local or nearby bards, usually over decades of apprenticeship. They interact with their communities in both telling and listening, incorporating elements from local stories as well as influencing stories told in conversation. And these traditions do not rely entirely on the professional telling of stories by a few bards; the term encompasses other, more casual forms of storytelling such as the grandmother bouncing the little one on her knee. In the oral tradition, larger story themes move across large regions through site-to-site transfer, and local and global elements are deliberately and skilfully mixed. Most of all, the oral tradition lives in the village and draws its power from community and connection.

It's interesting that the media studies professor quoted in the CSM article mentions Homer. Most scholars believe that Homer, like Aesop, represents a conglomeration of several or even many people who wrote down tales that had been passed down and elaborated in the oral tradition for hundreds of years. By saying "the days of Homer," I'm curious whether Mr. Levinson meant the act of writing down the Illiad and the Odyssey, or the oral tradition from which they came. In a way, user-generated content as a democratic development would be better supported by making the little-i internet work more like the days before Homer than like what came after.

[T]he Cyclopes ... have no laws nor assemblies of the people,
but live in caves on the tops of high mountains;
each is lord and master in his family,
and they take no account of their neighbours.

-- Homer, The Odyssey

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Eight observations - 6th

(This is the sixth 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.")

What people think you mean when you talk about stories and story projects, and what you can do about it

This observation originally arose from watching what happened when I asked people to tell me stories, both in what they said and their body language (when I could see it). People veer off into one or more of several predictable trajectories at the mention of the word "story." I've been amazed by the consistency in the responses I've seen. People even use the same words even though they have never heard other people use them. I have found this to be true whether I am talking with people face to face, on the phone, in groups, or over the web. Over time I've developed a sort of map of the universe of what people think stories are and do, and I've found it has uses at different levels.

A story function triangle

First, here are categories of responses I've seen to the word "story" mapped in relation to three functions stories provide: they engage our attention, they influence our beliefs or actions, and they transfer knowledge and information.

Note that some types of story involve more than one function. A lesson engages and informs; a performance influences and engages; an opinion influences and informs. Fables (folk tales) are the most powerful and adaptable stories because they include all three elements.

This next triangle shows paraphrases of some of the things I've heard people say in story collection workshops and what that indicates they were thinking I meant when I said "story."

This triangle shows the same divisions but with synonyms of the word "story" I found on

I thought at first while doing this little thesaurus exercise that there was nothing in the "joke" spot. But soon I realized that stories as gossip and rumor fit well there, because they engage people in connecting with emotional resonance on issues that are difficult to talk about. In that sense jokes, gossip and rumors are all methods of oblique emotional engagement through stories.

Naturally occurring and purposeful stories

You can envision two copies of this triangular model occupying two parallel planes: the plane of naturally occurring stories and the plane of purposeful stories.

And then you can envision another triangular plane beneath: the plane of life itself (which is of course why we tell stories in the first place). People, and groups of people, need to maintain energy, interact with other people and groups, and learn from experience to better survive and thrive.

The natural state of wild stories is people talking about things that have happened to them because the things have happened to them. A naturally occurring story has no purpose in the same way that a crow has no purpose. Or, if the purpose of a crow is to make more crows, the purpose of a naturally occurring story is to make more stories. (Of course when I say "a story has no purpose," what I really mean is that it has no purpose other than helping humans survive and thrive.)

Purposeful stories, on the other hand, are like domesticated animals. The purpose of a domesticated chicken is so strong that the chicken is unable to survive in the wild.

The function of a purposeful story, or its place on the triangle, is designed in advance. But the function of a naturally occurring story - if it has one - becomes apparent only after it has been told.

When we shape a naturally occurring story to fit our needs, we are essentially domesticating it to suit a purpose. We do this naturally and without realizing it all the time. We encounter many wild stories every day, but we select some to tame based on needs we may only be vaguely aware of (or may deny). For example, the first time little Joey says "dog," one parent will tell the other simply because it happened. The second time Joey's parent tells the story to a neighbor, they might add some details that emphasize how precocious little Joey is. By the time little Joey is a dog trainer with a syndicated TV show, the story may have grown to an elaborate fantasy about how Joey had a precocious empathy with dogs never seen before or since - a full-blown purposeful fable.

I'm sure someone will be saying here that there are no completely purpose-less stories, that even the shyest of wild stories has some purpose whether we admit it or not. I agree, and that is why I drew a center region on the model instead of a center point, because the center point is theoretical and probably never seen in real human conversation.

A story project triangle

My final triangle shows the same functions, but this time they apply to projects in which stories are collected. Story engagement maps onto using stories that engage the world by making things happen. Story influence maps onto using stories to change an existing situation. Knowledge and information transfer using stories maps onto using stories to discover and explore.

Here I've taken the "Things you can do" headings in the What is working with stories page from WWS and placed them on the triangle.

It is interesting, first, that the project categories from the book map so well and completely onto the triangle. It is also interesting that only one category maps into the center region: that of connecting people without any other purpose.

As with stories, story projects exist at two levels. Some story projects are highly purposeful in that they have predefined goals, but others are wild in the sense that the goal is only to collect some stories and see what comes of it. Neither is better, but they are different.

In practice

When you ask people to tell you stories, they will almost always move away from what you want them to do in two predictable ways. First, they will float up from the natural plane to the purposeful plane. Second, they will move towards one or two of the triangle vertices.

Why keep people in the middle of the natural plane of storytelling? Because for story listening to lead to useful outcomes, it requires the authenticity of wild stories. As soon as a wild story is given a purpose (usually through what people think you want them to do) it becomes a purposeful story and authenticity dissipates. Authenticity is the essence of story listening. It is what separates the approach from focus groups and surveys, which are soaked in purpose.

For the best story listening, you need to keep people both on the natural plane and in the middle region of the triangle until after the story has been told. Afterwards, when you ask people to answer questions about their stories, they can place the stories precisely in the triangle. Such placement does give both storyteller and listener valuable understandings about the story, but it must be done at the right time. In fact, telling people that they will have a chance to describe and explain their story afterward helps them keep the story in the center, because it allows them to tell it without explanatory purpose. So if you are asking questions about stories, let people know.

How can you keep people in the middle of the natural storytelling plane? With preparation and practice. When you are collecting stories in interviews or group sessions, pay attention to which vertices of the triangle people seem to be attracted to, and adjust your approach. Such attractions will vary both by individual personality and by group culture. Engineers tend to be drawn to the information-transfer vertex, while performers gravitate to engagement and salespeople to influence. The better you get at recognizing deviations from the center of the natural plane, the easier you will find it to help people return there.

What I've found works best is to balance your attention on three elements of experience, each of which keys in to one of the triangle vertices:
  • events - what happened? - information transfer
  • perspectives - what happened to you? - influence
  • emotions - how did you feel about what happened to you? - engagement
Creating such a balance communicates freedom from a single purpose. It also creates a downward motion through its emphasis on what actually happened to the teller.

Beware of story elicitation questions that favor any of the triangle vertices unduly. Here are a few examples of questions that pull stories into the vertices (and up into the purposeful plane):
  • What was the most powerful (memorable, exciting, wonderful) moment during this event? - engagement
  • Which story would you tell a friend to convince them to agree with you on this issue? - influence
  • At what moment did you learn the most during this process? - transfer

But having said that, if your project is heavily invested in one of the triangle vertices, it is reasonable to include a question that deliberately guides people toward a purpose. However, understand that you will not be collecting naturally occurring stories when you do this. The stories will be crafted for the purpose of performing to the specifications you have outlined. Sometimes you do want this purpose and should accept it. However, I usually suggest that every vertex-pointing question be offset with a centering question. Why? Because one of the reasons you are collecting stories in the first place is to find out things you cannot possibly guess in advance. The more you corral stories into one location, the greater your danger of missing useful patterns and trends in unexpected locations where you have not have the foresight to look.

At the project level

At the story project level, the triangle model is useful in three ways. It can help you figure out your goals; it can help you plan your project; and it can help you explain the project to other people.

You can use the diagram is to create a triangular portrait of your project's goals and motivations, with some areas lit up and others dark. One way to fill out the triangle is to tell two purposeful future histories about your project before it starts: the best outcome and the worst outcome. In the best outcome, which of the areas of the triangle are most prominent? Do you find things out? Do you get new ideas? And then in the worst outcome, which areas are missing or go badly? Do you fail to resolve conflicts? Do you find it impossible to make decisions or choose between options? By doing this you can find out which areas matter the most to you, and you might be surprised by what you find.

Once you understand your motivations in doing the project, you can use the diagram to plan how you will carry it out. Recall earlier that I cautioned against story elicitation questions that lead people into one of the triangle vertices. There are ways to design your project towards a goal without leading people into a vertex in their storytelling, by carefully selecting how you collect stories (but not what questions you ask).

These are some ideas on methods:
  • If you need to tap into engagement in order to prioritize and make decisions, choose methods that draw out energy and emotion, like storytelling exercises or face-to-face interviews.
  • If you need to tap into influence in order to understand conflicts and problems, choose methods that draw out conflicting perspectives, like asking different groups of people to answer the same questions or do the same sense-making exercises.
  • If you need to tap into knowledge transfer in order to find things out, choose methods that encourage detailed description. Ask people to tell you about the items on their desk or have people build complex timelines of the events in a field or career.

For story elicitation when you do choose to lead people deliberately into a vertex, try these approaches:

  • For engagement, pay special attention to words that evoke emotional expression. For example, a question about the time a person felt especially happy or sad or angry would convey that emphasis.
  • For influence, favor words that ask people to repond from a particular perspective. A question about a time people were surprised, or disagreed, or felt misunderstood or alone or unique would tap into perspective-based stories.
  • For knowledge transfer, communicate an attention to learning and discovery. A question about a time when something suddenly became apparent would bring out learning stories.

Finally, the triangle model is useful in getting "buy in" from people whose support you need to complete the project. A common problem with getting people to help you (or let you) do story projects is that they misunderstand what you are trying to do, what will happen, and what will be the result of the project. I've seen several projects die because their instigators were unable to communicate to those in charge (of money or permission) what they wanted to do. Or more likely, the instigators were unable to stop those in charge from jumping to erroneous conclusions about what the project was about.

In the same way that people rush to a vertex or side of the triangle when you ask them to tell stories, people rush to conclusions when you describe a story project. Maybe you want to help people transfer knowledge using stories, and people think you want to make dangerous changes to corporate culture. Or you want to find stories that engage people, and they think you want to collect personal information. Or you want to do a naturally centered story project, one that collects stories without preordaining what you will get from them, and they want to push you into collecting only "compelling" stories or "the best" stories.

You can use the triangle model to plan how you will communicate to people - funders, collaborators, management - about the project itself. You don't have to show people the diagram, but using it can help you to craft a story about how your project will proceed, so that you can convince them to help you or let you carry it out. It can also help you think about how people might respond and plan for it. For example, if you want to do a centered project, you might prepare a plan for guiding perceptions at each vertex (oh, that's just project planning; oh, that's just marketing and sales; oh, that's just KM) back to a more balanced perception of what you plan to do and why.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Working with Stories wants to know

This is an open call to readers of my book Working with Stories.

As some know, I started out this blog by dusting off a presentation I made in 2000 on eight observations about stories and storytelling in groups. I've been surprised by how much I have to say about those observations nine story-filled years later. I thought these posts would be little things, but every simple observation I made then unfolds itself like origami into a long essay as soon as I reflect on what I've learned about it since.

So I've decided to finish the last three posts, then fold all the new writing into WWS and put out a second edition. This new stuff should complement the existing WWS text, which people have said is more of a "field guide" or "how to," with more of the "why" of the topic.

What is missing?

My question to you is: What should I add to WWS besides finishing these eight observations? What do you think WWS needs that it doesn't have? What do you wish it explained that it doesn't?

And of course, tell me about your experiences with WWS. What happened when you read it? What were the high points and the low points? (I'm going into my cave....)

What about the pictures?

And another question: Do the pictures of leaves and things work for you? Or are they just distracting? I used them because I took them so they are free, and also I wanted to help people think a little about what I wrote by putting in things that challenged them to find connections. But I could replace them with the standard thing of stock pictures of people doing things in offices, etc etc.

Which is better?

Personally I find all the pictures of people in meeting rooms b.o.r.i.n.g. But maybe my leaf pictures are boring too. Be honest, I can handle it (%_^)

Please send questions, topics, suggestions, feedback in email (cfkurtz at cfkurtz dot com) or on the WWS Google Group or in comments on this blog.

Working with Stories will thank you.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Eight observations - 5th

(This is the fifth 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.")

Truth is more useful than fiction

This observation is about the career-changing discovery I encountered during my first few years of work in organizational narrative: that true, raw, real stories of personal experience are more useful for almost every task you can imagine than are stories of pure fiction. In the few cases where fictional stories are preferable as the end result, considering true stories will create a far more effective fiction than creating one from whole cloth (if that is even possible). I've written elsewhere about the story of this discovery and how it influenced my later work in the field.

In the years since I first encountered this discovery, I have often thought about it. Not about the discovery itself, which I have seen played out so many times that it has reached the level of a natural law in my mind. But I can't help thinking often about the imbalance between this natural law and what I see people doing and wanting to do in this field. And I keep asking myself the same questions.
  1. Why do people call a field in which organizations do many different things related to stories "organizational story telling?" Why is the side that helps people craft fictional stories so much more prominent and noticeable than the side that helps people listen to raw, personal, true stories? Why are there so many more people and groups and books and programs on the telling side?
  2. Why have I seen so many people - clients, researchers, consultants, practitioners - start their journey through organizational narrative on the telling side? Why have I heard the same starting-with-the-telling story from several other people who work in this field? Why does it so often require a striking revelation such as the one I had to understand that listening to stories is at least as useful as telling them? 
  3. Why did it take me over a year to come to this realization? What was I doing before that? What was I thinking? Why didn't I see it sooner? What made me assume that telling stories would be the best way to address all manner of organizational goals? It's almost like the telling side stood in front of the listening side, obscuring it, outshining it, blotting it out. Why?
Two points before I move on here. First, I want to make it clear that I am not saying anything against the telling side of organizational narrative. I work on the listening side because I think it has more power to produce positive change, and probably because it fits my scientific background better. But I also respect work on the telling side, as long as it is done with integrity. I especially respect those who span all areas of story work, because the two sides should complement and help each other. The trends I am pondering are not about whether all the parts of the organizational story puzzle should exist, but about the imbalance I see in the sizes of the pieces.

I also realize not everyone reading this post will agree with my "natural law." I have seen evidence for truth being more useful than fiction in dozens of projects, but that evidence is not always easy to communicate (though I have tried). If you can meet me halfway and concede that the truth is at least as useful as fiction for most things, read on.

You're soaking in it

To tell the truth, I didn't write the observation "truth is more useful than fiction" on the day I made my big discovery about stories. What I really thought of was this old television commercial.

Madge: [to client] When I see your hands, I wish I were a nurse.
Client: Dish washing, Madge.
Madge: Ever try Palmolive dish washing detergent? Softens your hands while you do the dishes.
Client: Pretty green.
Madge: You're soaking in it.
Client: The dishing washing liquid?
Madge: Palmolive.
Client: Mild then?
Madge: Oh, more than just mild.
Announcer: Right, Madge. Palmolive lasts from the first glass to last grease casserole. And it softens hands while you do dishes.
Client: [Two weeks later] Madge, that Palmolive liquid of yours, I'm simply in love with it.

When I sat at my desk juxtaposing my failures to write resonant fictional stories with the amazingly rich true stories people had told me, I thought, "I'm soaking in stories and don't know it." Coming back to it years later, that silly old commercial is a perfect metaphor for listening to stories, because washing dishes is just the sort of mundane thing people don't want to do, but that gets surprisingly good results.

But ... I was too underconfident to use Madge for my presentation, so I came up with "truth is more useful than fiction" instead, as a play on the old joke "truth is stranger than fiction."

Truth is more what than fiction?

When I revisited this observation for this blog post, I thought I should look into where the truth-fiction joke came from and how it is used.

Apparently the first use of the phrase "truth is stranger than fiction" was in 1823, in the poem Don Juan by Lord Byron:

'Tis strange, -but true; for truth is always strange;
Stranger than fiction: if it could be told,
How much would novels gain by the exchange!
How differently the world would men behold!
Then Mark Twain said:
It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.
And G.K. Chesterton chimed in:
Truth must necessarily be stranger than fiction, for fiction is the creation of the human mind and therefore congenial to it.
There seems to be a pattern here, of fiction working within a different set of rules than true experience. (More on that later...)

Intrigued by this proverb and remembering my change to it, I tried a little experiment. I typed "truth than fiction" into Google. In the 847 results (page titles and snippets), I noted every word used in the "X" place in the phrase "truth is X than fiction." This journey through the hinterlands of Google constituted an unscientific sampling of the ways people talk about truth and fiction. From the 847 results I found 39 words or phrases in the "X" spot. Then I clustered the 39 words into four groups, which I'll explain here.

The first group of results were along the same lines as my "more useful" revelation. Truth is
  • more powerful
  • funnier
  • better
  • stronger
  • more beautiful
  • more fascinating
  • more interesting
  • more gripping
  • foxier
  • less dull
  • more miraculous
  • reads better
So far so good, right? Hang on.

The truth is dangerous

Look at the second set. Truth is
  • scarier
  • sadder
  • worse
  • more stark
  • more deadly
  • more bitter
  • more ghastly
  • more dangerous
  • darker
  • more horrible
  • crazier
  • more bizarre
This set of results brings to mind what is called the psychological immune system, that complex of cognitive biases and heuristics that protects us from falling apart when we confront "stark reality." Says Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness:

We may see the world through rose-colored glasses, but rose-colored glasses are neither opaque nor clear. They can't be opaque because we need to see the world clearly enough to participate in it -- to pilot helicopters, harvest corn, diaper babies, and all the other stuff that smart mammals need to do in order to survive and thrive. But they can't be clear because we need their rosy tint to motivate us to design the helicopters ("I'm sure this thing will fly"), plant the corn ("This year will be a banner crop"), and tolerate the babies ("what a bundle of joy!"). We cannot do without reality and we cannot do without illusion. Each serves a purpose, each imposes a limit on the influence of the other, and our experience of the world is the artful compromise that these tough competitors negotiate.

True stories keep our glasses translucent rather than opaque; so they are scary, but necessary. Gilbert goes on to say:

Rather than think of people as hopelessly Panglossian ... we might think of them as having a psychological immune system that defends the mind against unhappiness.... [T]he physical immune system must strike a balance between two competing needs: the need to recognize and destroy foreign invaders such as viruses and bacteria, and the need to recognize and respect the body's own cells. ... A healthy physical immune system must balance its competing needs and find a way to defend us well -- but not too well. ... A healthy psychological immune system strikes a balance that allows us to feel good enough to cope with our situation but bad enough to do something about it....

This is exactly the function of story listening: to learn just enough about what is good and bad about our situation to do something about it. When stories are only used for telling, there is a danger of defending oneself so well that an auto-immune disorder develops.

Reading about confirmation bias in particular brings to mind the observations I previously made about how I've seen people sabotage their own interests when they consider, plan, carry out, and complete a story project. Consider these aspects of confirmation bias:
  • Selective collection of evidence comes in when people ask the wrong people the wrong questions at the wrong times and in the wrong ways, making sure that they will avoid collecting stories that challenge their beliefs.
  • Selective interpretation of evidence comes in when people fight with the stories they have collected or disqualify stories or storytellers.
  • Selective recall of evidence comes in when people collect and confront stories, but process them in a way that reduces the outcome of the story project or hides its result so that it will be quickly forgotten.
When I consider this, I stop wondering that listening to stories is not more prominent and begin to be amazed that anybody is doing it.

The truth is foreign

The third set of "Truth is X than fiction" usages travels into well-studied in-group out-group territory. Truth is
  • rarer
  • weirder
  • lamer
  • stupider
  • grosser
  • odder
  • messier
  • geekier
  • gayer
  • more racist
This makes me think of the same psychological immune function operating at the group level. It points to common biases such as in-group bias (those people can't have anything useful to say), out-group homogeneity bias (there are no nuances to what those people think), and the group attribution error (those people are the way they are because they are that way; there is no point finding out why). When this immune system is working well, it should let in just enough of the "other" to be useful without endangering group identity and coherence. However, such protections can be too strong for our own good.

Notice how many of the "truth is foreign" descriptors have to do with social status. (Look again at the disgust on the woman's face as she finds out she is soaking in lowly dishwashing liquid. And how Madge gently but firmly pushes her hands back into it.) Is it possible that people don't want to hear stories about people beneath them in the social order because they fear it will drag them down by association? According to social comparison theory, people prefer to compare themselves upwards rather than downwards in the social order. In that light it is interesting that packaged fiction created for the purposes of advertising and entertainment tends to reinforce upward social comparison. The famous example of the people on the sitcom Friends having an apartment that would cost far more than their meagre salaries is only one of many such upward comparison forces.

In their 2005 paper "Income Aspirations, Television and Happiness:
Evidence from the World Values Surveys
, Luigino Bruni and Luca Stanca

... present evidence indicating that the effect of income on both life and financial satisfaction is significantly smaller for heavy television viewers, relative to occasional viewers.

In other words, the more television you watch, the less satisfied you are with your income. I wonder what would happen if the reverse study was conducted: would people who are regularly exposed to non-fictional, raw stories of personal experience told by those with lower socioeconomic status experience a lower correlation between income and happiness?

The truth is boring

The final set of "Truth is X than fiction" usages are few but interesting. Truth is
  • less believable
  • less cool
  • smaller
  • shorter
  • weaker

My guess is that these have partly to do with the phenomenon of the supernormal stimulus, or, our being evolutionarily unprepared for the scope and size of current stimuli. For tens of thousands of years people told stories around quiet campfires without the aid of Hollywood special effects and wall-sized enlargements of everyday sights.

There is a famous story that during an early motion picture screening, of L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat in 1896, members of the audience screamed and attempted to get away from the train that was apparently heading straight at them. It is unclear whether this really happened or whether the reaction was to an early 3D film with the same subject. But in either case, if you compare this reaction to the blasé reactions of people today to scenes of giant spaceships descending and the like (even in today's 3D movies), it is clear that our expectations about the presentation of fictional stories have been radically transformed. Compared to this level of impact, simple anecdotes told by regular people seem so inconsequential as to almost fade from existence. They are like small eggs abandoned by their mothers who instead incubate the larger eggs left by parasitic cowbirds. Maybe this also explains why people want to collect so many stories: they are trying to replace size with volume.

Another issue is that long ago, people rarely heard true stories about people outside their village or tribe. Most people have heard about Dunbar's number, which is essentially the maximum number of people we can keep track of being related to. This number is generally reported to be around 150 people, though depending on the circumstances it can be larger or smaller. So, there is another possible clue to the puzzle: maybe listening to the personal experiences of people outside the normal scope of village life requires an artificially enlarged scope of connectedness for which people are ill prepared.

In The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, edited by Gottschall and Wilson, Daniel Nettle talks about why "drama" tends to involve supernormal stimuli:

A drama consisting of a genuine slice of life, unedited, would be unlikely to be very interesting. The reason is that conversations are only interesting to the extent that you know about the individuals involved and your social world is bound into theirs; as their distance from you increases, the interest level declines. Given that dramatic characters are usually strangers to us, then, the conversation will have to be unusually interesting to hold our attention. That is, the drama has to be an intensified version of the concerns of ordinary conversation.
By this account, fiction is exciting because it has to be to get you to engage in paying attention to the experiences of people you don't know. If that is true, then it can be no surprise that listening to raw, personal stories told by people whose experience you need to know about but who have no close relationship to you may take conscious effort. This is yet another reason to be amazed that anybody is listening to real stories.

Use the Force, Luke

As I consider these explanations, the image I keep seeing is that point in The Empire Strikes Back where Luke has to fight Vader/himself in the cave.

  I feel cold, death.

  That place... is strong with the 
  dark side of the Force.  A domain 
  of evil it is.  In you must go.

  What's in there?

  Only what you take with you.

Luke looks warily between the tree and Yoda.  He starts to strap on his 
weapon belt.

  Your weapons... you will not 
  need them.

Luke gives the tree a long look, than shakes his head "no."  Yoda 

[In the cave, Luke fights Darth Vader and then ...]

The metallic banging of the helmet fills the cave as Vader's head 
spins and bounces, smashes on the floor, and finally stops. 
For an instant it rests on the floor, then it cracks vertically. 
The black helmet and breath mask fall away to reveal... Luke's head.

Across the space, the standing Luke gasps at the sight, wide-eyed in 

When we listen to stories about ourselves or about things we care about, we enter a dark cave and find ourselves waiting, cloaked in our deepest fears. Luke took his weapon into the cave, but it did not help him; it only hindered his exploration. The same thing happens when people fight with the stories they find in their caves.

Let me stop a moment. I feel that I am in danger of sounding like I believe that people who tell stories or work on the telling side of organizational narrative are afraid of listening to stories, or biased or bigoted or self-deluded. That's not what I'm trying to say. My guess is that people either don't see that listening to stories could be helpful to their task, or they do see it but dismiss it because of the dangers it presents. And it is as dangerous as it is helpful. Listening to stories is a knife with no handle. It reveals; it teaches; it provides; but it cuts. Nobody in their right mind would reach for such a knife, unless they know it can bring them something that nothing else can. Finding out what listening to stories and working with stories can bring to a task requires putting aside, for a while, some of the instinctual protections that keep us safe.

As I think about this, I also begin to understand more about why people sabotage their own projects. It may be simply inevitable. It also becomes more clear why outsiders like Yoda can help people limit their self-sabotage. Yoda is not threatened by confronting Luke's deepest fears. It's not his cave.

The other thing Yoda gives to Luke is his experience in having entered and exited his own cave of self-discovery unscathed and enlightened, and having seen other people do this as well. Yoda is on the other side of the experience. He knows what Luke has not yet done, so he can give Luke the quiet confidence he needs to enter his cave. I've found this to be true in story projects as well. People are helped by hearing about other story projects as they start their own.

Fiction, truth, and play

Listening to true stories and building fictional stories are both activities that involve narrative, but they are fundamentally different activities with respect to the way people have lived for many thousands of years. Building fictional stories is a form of play, while listening to true stories is an activity of information gathering. These are different contexts with different rules.

Says Brian Boyd in On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction:

All participants must understand behaviors like chasing and rough-and-tumble as play and not real attack. To initiate play, canids have a ritualized play bow, particularly stereotyped in the young, like the "Once upon a time" that signals to a human child a partial suspension of the rules of the real.... Play constitutes a first decoupling of the real, detaching aggression or any other "serious" behavior from its painful consequence so as to explore and master the possibilities of attack and defense. In play we act as if within quotation marks, as if these were hooks to lift the behavior from its context to let us turn it around for inspection.
This idea meshes well with the two patterns above (the preponderance of fictional story work and the ways people talk about truth and fiction). It also fits well with Klein's statement that people who cannot find a matching pattern for a situation they are facing undergo "mental simulation" - play - in order to construct a story that fits. In Sources of Power, Klein gives an example of how mental simulation is perceived:

During a visit to the National Fire Academy we met with one of the senior developers of training programs. In the middle of the meeting, the man stood up, walked over to the door, and closed it. Then in a hushed voice he said, "To be a good fireground commander, you need to have a rich fantasy life."

He was referring to the ability to use the imagination, to imagine how the fire got started, how it was going to continue spreading, or what would happen using a new procedure. A commander who cannot imagine these things is in trouble.

Why did the developer close the door before he revealed this ability? Because the idea of using fantasy as a source of power is as embarassing as the idea of using intuition as a source of power. He was using the term fantasy to refer to a heuristic strategy decision researchers call mental simulation, that is, the ability to imagine people and objects consciously and to transfrom those people and objects through several transitions, finally picturing them in a different way than at the start. This process is not just building a static snapshot. Rather, it is building a sequence of snapshots to play out and observe what occurs.

Maybe one of the reasons truth is scarier and more frighteningly foreign than fiction is that it is not play. Play suspends the dangers of attack and defense, of us and not-us, of near and far, of big and small. Listening to other people talk about their real experiences, when they are not in the groups we are instinctively attuned to gathering information about, pushes all of our danger buttons. It feels like going into a dark cave without any defenses. But when we work with the same stories in a sensemaking session, we bring them out of the cave and into the context of play, where the "rules of the real" are partially suspended. We select elements to cluster, build personifications, put events on timelines, and construct elaborate fictional stories using factual elements. These activities, like the firefighter's "fantasy," produce real and substantial benefits. Like a firefighter, an organization that cannot imagine these things is in trouble.

In practice

What does all of this mean to people actually trying to work with stories? I think we can draw a few recommendations from these thoughts, both for people doing story projects in their own organizations and communities and for people helping them do that.

First, be aware of the dangers of story listening. Become familiar with them. Why? Because the less you know about the cave the more vulnerable you will be to its dangers. Start with small projects so you can build your skill at entering the cave and confronting yourself without carrying weapons that reduce the value of the effort.

Second, bring Yoda with you to the mouth of the cave. Have someone unconnected to your identity participate in your story project. They don't have to be a consultant; they can be your next-door neighbor or your grandmother. Run your questions by them. Read them some of the stories you heard. Show them the patterns you think you see. Let them help you stop fighting your own goals.

Third, bring play into your story work as often and as soon as possible. For example, in a sensemaking session, don't just throw stories at people; have them start playing with them right away. Get them building things while they are absorbing stories, not afterward. Keep people, and keep yourself, in the context of play so that you can use the "partial suspension of the rules of the real" to your advantage.

Fourth, don't let play destroy the information gathering aspect of the effort. Don't delude yourself into thinking you have gone into the cave when you haven't. And don't bring play into the cave. In the context of the cave, play is like Luke's weapon: he wanted it for safety, but it diminished the cave's value along with its danger. In story work, you are likely to catch yourself sending subtle signals in your questions for and about stories that limit or direct the information you gather to what is safest. This reduces the power of information gathering. Everybody does this (myself included) and everybody needs help with it. People say "tell us your success story" or "talk about your best moment." Or they give an example that suggests safety is desired. These and other play-bow signals are elements of play that don't belong in the cave. Productive play cannot happen without productive material, and to get productive material you need to go into the cave without carrying the protection of play with you.

Parting quotes

In poking through the dregs of Google for things people said about truth and fiction, I found many related quotes. I noted these as well, and trimmed the list down to these three, which considering the explorations above, seem perfectly prescient.
The truth that makes men free is for the most part the truth which men prefer not to hear. - Herbert Agar
As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand. - Josh Billings
Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened. - Winston Churchill
And then I come to my all-time favorite quote about stories, by the poet Muriel Rukeyser. I'd venture a guess that nobody in the field of organizational story doesn't know this one. But here is the whole poem where the quote appears (trying to match her placement of words):

  Time comes into it.
                Say it.           Say it.

  The universe is made of stories,
                   not of atoms.

Why did she feel it was necessary to write "say it" twice? Doesn't that seem to point to something that everybody knows but nobody will admit? Could it be that she felt people don't want to know that the universe is made of stories? It's a thought.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Eight observations - 4th: herding

(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 fourth in a nested series of four: telling stories, making stories happen, listening to stories, and herding stories.)

Herding stories

This observation is about getting stories to where they need to go when it isn't you they need to go to. It's about helping people experience the stories of other people for a reason you care about: helping, educating, persuading.

When I look back over the story projects I've done ... the fact is that I haven't actually done many projects in which I helped people pass on stories. More often I've helped stories disappear into a black hole.

It wasn't that way at first. Early on, most of the projects I worked on had a strong distribution component. I remember helping consultants prepare CDs containing hundreds of stories to be distributed to hundreds of people. But somehow, and I can't really put my finger on when this happened, the story projects I was asked to help with underwent a sea change to the distribution of reports and conclusions rather than stories.

Bigger, better, faster, cheaper

If I think about the factors for this change, I can come up with three: size, ambition and distance.
  • The earliest projects involved relatively few stories compared to what came later. I think our first-ever proof-of-concept "narrative database" had 35 stories in it. As the number of stories collected grew, first to a few hundred than to over a thousand, it became more difficult for people to take in all of what had been collected.
  • The projects got more ambitious as time went by. They began to address larger, more difficult, more intense, more emotional, and more potentially damaging information that clients didn't want to spread around too much. They began to address not just issues of tactics but of identity. The more consequential the projects became the more people felt they needed to be kept private.
  • The projects moved further into understanding the minds of people in other groups. Most of the earlier projects were about "things we say to ourselves" (or "things we say to ourselves about them"), while most of the more recent projects I've worked on have been more about "things they say about us."

So, for these reasons and probably a host of others, the projects I've worked on have migrated into an area where herding stories means collecting them in a pen and never letting them out again, or only letting out a carefully selected few. Of course this is a useful approach for many big, ambitious, distant projects. If the goal is to recommend policy improvements to a huge government agency, it is more productive to have twenty or fifty policy makers work with the stories in a three-day workshop than it is to distribute the stories to thousands of people. And it's a lot simpler and cheaper too.

But still, something has been lost. It seemed like in the early projects there was more diffuse organizational learning, more cultural change, more energy generated than there has been recently. So many people were exposed to the raw stories that the stories entered into the life of the organization in a different way than they do now. I miss that.

Shrews and pandas: Story project habitat diversification

This distinction reminds me of something I said a while back about how some stories are like tiny animals, some are like cute fuzzy big animals, and some are like slow-growing funguses that cover acres. Maybe story projects are like that too. Maybe what happened is that I started out helping with shrew projects and slowly moved into panda projects. But the shrew projects still need help, and so do the giant fungus projects, and those are not as well supported by the field, at least not from what I see people doing.

I don't think it's wrong to support one type of project rather than another. Not at all. What I'm saying is that the ecosystem of organizational and community narrative can only be healthy when a wide range of story (and story project) habitats is available. The ways in which such habitats are available can and should be diverse. The optimal habitat for tiny story projects used to be the kitchen table or the community center; but that habitat has been undergoing massive fragmentation.

It was in response to these sea changes - both in the organizational narrative field and in natural story habitats - that made me want to build Rakontu. (If you don't know already, Rakontu is my free and open-source story sharing web application.) Projects that use Rakontu are shrew projects, though I suppose funguses could grow there too, in time. Certainly I'm not so arrogant or stupid as to believe that my solution is the solution to habitat diversification for story projects, but I do humbly hope that the ideas in Rakontu can help to move that process along.

In practice

To balance things out, here's what I'd like to see more organizations doing. Discover the energy that comes from having more than just the people in the policy-planning team engage with collected raw stories. Here are a few fictional scenarios.

Say you want to improve customer service. You have collected stories from the customers who hate you the most and love you the most. Rather than bottle them up and distill "strategic insights" from them, let the stories run loose all over your organization. Invite people to talk about them and tell their own stories about them. Invite people to suggest new policies that will change the way customers see you. Don't be afraid that the stories will "get out" - tell people what you are doing and why, and you'll gain by demonstrating that you are confident enough to take your faults seriously. (The story that you take negative stories seriously is a great positive story, by the way.)

Or, say you want to help your merger succeed. You have collected stories from both merging groups. Instead of having a small number of people give you a report on "signals" in the data, create a common forum and place the stories there as conversation starters. See what conversations take off. Ask people to use the stories to find opportunities to work together.

Or, say you want to guide government policy about an issue that affects millions of people. You have collected stories about how members of the public see an issue. Here's a crazy idea: show the stories to other members of the public, and ask them to respond with stories of their own. See what impact it has, not on what goes in behind closed doors, but on what people say to their government representatives.

I can hear something ... all right, somebody out there is sniggering. Yes, of course doing these things may produce mayhem. Of course the results will not be clear or reliable. Of course people will post all sorts of useless crap. That goes without saying, but it's not the point. What I'm trying to say is, the way of "finding out important things in order to change important things" is not the only way to improve things with stories. There is also, sometimes, merit in simply building pathways for stories to travel on that weren't there before.

I know I'm way over my metaphor limit for this post - but - it's kind of like, if the ants need a bridge, you can spend lots of money and bring in lots of big machines and build something important and correct and permanent. Or you can put little crumbs in the right places, and the ants will build a bridge of their own. The ant bridge won't hold heavy equipment or even stay in place for very long, but the ants will get something out of it. If what you want is to help the ants be ants, that might be exactly what you need to do.

And one more thing: please, if you are already collecting stories and making them available to other people, stop categorizing them by location and date. Give people some meaningful ways to find stories. Ask people how they feel, or why the story was told, or who would be helped by it, or when it can't be told, or who will be most likely to retell it. Take a look at the ideas behind Rakontu and copy them for your project. I don't mind; I'm dropping crumbs for the ants. I want to help them be ants.