Friday, January 1, 2010

Eight observations - 7th

(This is the seventh 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.")

Story behavior and story perception

Storytelling is built into all human brains; it is part of how we think. However, through upbringing, culture, personality and habits, some people tell a lot more stories than other people do. If you think about the people of your acquaintance, odds are you can think of someone who seems to think and talk in nothing other than stories, and someone from whom a story seems strange. Or, think about how many stories you tell per day, on average, then think about how many stories other people you know tell. There's probably a pretty big range.

Let's just assume for the sake of argument that you agree with me that people vary in how much they tell stories, and that some people think in stories more than others do. Here's what I've found. There is an astounding lack of correlation between whether people tell stories and whether they think they tell stories. If storytelling is innate, it is not always conscious. It seems to be one of those things people do without knowing how they do it, or that they do it at all. I myself am one of those people who tell story after story, but it was only after I discovered the field of organizational story that I had any inkling that I did this.

Taking these two scales and pretending they are simple dichotomies (which they aren't) and combining them, you end up with four states:
  1. I never tell stories (Yes you do!) - the natural storyteller
  2. I tell stories all the time (No you don't!) - the half-story teller
  3. I tell stories all the time (Wow, you sure do!) - the story performer
  4. I never tell stories (You got that right!) - the unaccustomed storyteller
Now of course these are caricatures I have created to talk about extremes, and not real representations of real people. Nobody inhabits these extremes perfectly, but most people do approach them occasionally at different times and in different contexts. The categories are not fixed for life, or even for a day. Most people act differently with respect to narrative in their personal and professional lives and among different groups of people. Also, groups can develop a sort of storytelling culture (or the reverse) over time.

Even whom you are talking to has an effect on whether you tell stories or not.  Because telling a story requires "holding the floor" of conversation for longer than the usual turn-taking, it requires an understanding among everyone involved which is not always present. You've probably met someone who seems to suck all the stories around them into a black hole because they won't let anyone have the floor long enough to tell one. So there are complex patterns that determine whether stories actually get told. But having said all that, people tend to be more at home in some of these areas than others.

Caveats in place, I've noticed some things about what happens when each of these behavioral/perceptual combinations is met with a request to tell stories. And I have some recommendations on what I've seen work best and worst when collecting stories from each.

The natural storyteller

The superheroes of natural story collection are the people who think they don't tell stories but do. These people come up with story after wonderful story, and the best part is that the stories are absolutely wild and authentic. Since the person doesn't see themselves as a great storyteller, they don't try to perform or create a sensation. They just talk about what happened to them, in the way they usually talk, which is in stories.

I love these people. When you have listened to a hundred people drone on and on, and then one of these people starts talking, it's like a light has been turned on. Once in a while I find one and just let them go to town. It's hard not to rush up and hug them, to be honest.

A story elicitation session with a natural storyteller might go like this.
  • You: Can you tell me what happened on your first day at the plant?
  • Them: Sure. Let's see, I think I got there at 5am that morning. I was so determined to prove myself. When I went through the front gate my stomach was in knots. I remember I kept fixating on the company logo and trying to memorize it, in case they asked me any questions. Which is really funny, you know, because why would they do that? (laughter) I can still remember how worried I was that I'd drop something on somebody's foot. (etc, etc, etc)
  • You: (secret grin)

Notice a few things about this fake interview. First, the storyteller narrates events unfolding over time: this happened, then that happened. (You'd be amazed how many people don't do that.) Second, they give details that provide context, emotion, motivation, and visual description - but in realistic proportion. Third, they respond to their own story as they tell it, meaning that they add that-was-then-this-is-now metadata (which is immensely useful in story listening).

Of the three main venues for story collection (interview, group session, written form), the best venue for the natural storyteller is the group session. Natural storytellers make group sessions work. If there were a magical way to seed each storytelling session with one or two naturals, I would suggest it. Natural storytellers model natural storytelling and other people pick it up. But since naturals don't think they tell stories, they don't take over or get competitive or possessive, and they are willing to let things flow. They may be enthusiastic, but they usually take hints and will let others talk, since they don't need to tell stories.

The second-best venue for the natural storyteller is the in-person interview. If you are interviewing people and you find a natural, see if you can get them to give you more time without suspecting why you want it. If you let on that they tell good stories, bang, they turn into a performer and the great stories stop coming. Every time I see one of these people I think of that stereotypical line in crime movies where the policeman says "keep him talking so we can put a trace on him." Keep natural storytellers talking, but don't betray the trace.

The worst venue for the natural storyteller is the written form. Even though these people tell great stories, they don't know that, so they may be intimidated and leave quickly, thinking the collection doesn't apply to them or they can't fulfill it. These people need a lot of encouragement if you are using written forms. They need to understand that you really do want to hear their real, natural stories even if they are not "good" by Hollywood standards. They need permission to do what they do all the time, which is just tell one story after another. They may have had a lifetime of people saying "there he goes again" and need to know they are in a place where what they do naturally is safe.

The half-story teller

The absolutely worst combination is when people think they tell stories, but they actually don't. Often these people don't understand what you mean by "story," or they are stuck at one of the corners or sides of the what-is-a-story triangle and think a story is a message, lesson, report, joke, and so on. ("Half-story" is my term for something that is sort of like a story but doesn't quite fit the definition in terms of things happening.)

I've found that half-story tellers often appear in positions of power. My guess is that it may have something to do with how power creates a reality distortion field around itself. Half-story tellers can be difficult to work with because they are sometimes unwilling to reexamine their definitions and assumptions. A story is what they say it is, and nothing you say can turn them from that course: so no matter what you ask for, they give you what they want to say and call it a story.

Here is an example of a story elicitation with a half-story teller.
  • You: Can you tell me what happened on your first day at the plant?
  • Them: Sure. Back then we knew how to work hard. I didn't give up at the first little problem like these kids do today.
  • You: Can you tell me about a specific problem that happened?
  • Them: Sure. I never let up, you know? I kept trying. I didn't let things get me down. Today all the new hires whine and complain and want us to hold their hands. It's disgusting.
  • You: So what happened on that first day?
  • Them: It was hard at first, but I kept going. I'm still here, aren't I?
  • You: (secret sigh)
Notice how the teller keeps drifting from narrating events back to giving opinions or facts or feelings. They don't mean to frustrate the story listener; they think they are doing what they have been asked to do, and can't understand what else you could possibly want.

The best venue for the half-story teller is the in-person interview. In an interview you can keep tactfully leading the teller back to narrative without embarrassing them by making the fact that they are not telling stories apparent to other people. Sometimes it's better not to confront them about this, at least not beyond some gentle probing. Try for a while to get stories from them, then if you can't get the message across, give up and move on.

The second-best venue for the half-story teller is the written form. Their contributions will usually be misfires, but at least the damage will be confined. You can classify their entries as non-stories (but still possibly useful information) and look at them separately from the stories you collect from other people.

The very worst venue for story collection from half-story tellers is the group session. Half-story tellers don't necessarily take over the session, but they do something worse: they lead other people to believe that the session is not really about telling stories. If you let them go on giving opinions or complaints or lectures, everyone else will start doing the same thing, and you'll end up with tons of text and no stories.

The story performer

The second-worst combination is when people tell great stories and know it. These people mean well, they really do. But they can't help getting out the big circus tent and climbing up to that trapeze, no matter what you ask them to do. An example interview with a story performer:
  • You: Can you tell me what happened on your first day at the plant?
  • Them: Oooooh, you should have been there. I was shaking in my boots. I had sweat dripping off my brow. I was there at 3 in the morning, and I drove around the plant two hundred times! Finally the guy at the gate let me in and he said, I've never seen anybody in all my years here so scared. You really take the cake. And then I fainted.
  • You: You really fainted?
  • Them: Well, I felt faint! But anyway I was scared.
  • You: What happened next?
  • Them: What happened next I will never forget. I was ushered into a room and the CEO of the Worldwide Conglomerate himself walked in and slapped me full in the face.
  • You: What?
  • Them: Well, it was more like, the head of HR in our town bumped into me, but it felt like that.
  • You: (secret sigh)
Story performers tend to exaggerate and claim to be the best or worst or first or last, not because they are jerks but because it makes the story better. They drive things to extremes in the service of drama. I'll give a funny example. I once was in a conference and somebody proposed something I thought was unethical. I said so and we talked about other solutions. A few years later I heard that same person tell a group that a "roomful of draft dodgers" had berated them until they changed their policy. Afterward I went up to them and said, "Hey, that roomful of draft dodgers was me, wasn't it?" They said, "Yeah, but it made a better story that way." You know what? There is nothing in the world wrong with that sort of embellishment. The truth should never stand in the way of a good story, and all that. It makes life fun. It's play. But it's not what you are looking for when you want to listen to stories for a reason. It obscures the stuff you actually do need, which is what really happened and how people really felt about it.

The best venue for the story performer is the in-person interview, because a good interviewer can suss out the story from the performance. They can keep bringing the storyteller back to what actually happened and how they actually felt so that something can be used in what has been said. Doing this may take some practice, but I've seen it done well. A good interviewer can also connect with a performer (eye contact is useful here) and communicate an intimacy and a casualness that removes the need for public performance and frees the performer to drop their facade and just recount their experiences.

The second-best venue for the story performer is the written form. You can explain what sort of stories you want, and you can design questions that lead people away from performance. And even if you can't stop people from going overboard, at least they won't infect others.

The worst venue for the story performer is the group session. These people can single-handedly destroy a group storytelling session. First, they take over, because, hey, we are telling stories and who tells stories better than me? (And sometimes the other people are happy to jump into the role of audience, because it gets them off the hook for contributing.) Second, performers get other performers going while stifling non-performers with the belief that their stories are not "good enough" because they are not full of vivid drama. The very worst is two performers competing, which can suck the life energy out of a storytelling session. If a performer appears in your story session, do your best to communicate the purpose of the session, and if that doesn't work, quarantine the infection.

By the way, in case I sound pompous and judgmental about performers, here is an admission: I used to be a "natural," but I've found that the more I identify with my career in organizational story the more I turn into a story performer. I've caught myself "hamming it up" with a story more times than I'd like to admit, because this little neon sign lights up in my head that says "Oooh, I can be admired for this!" And it's hard, hard, hard to turn that little sign off. That's why natural storytellers are so hard to find and so valuable. (It's the same reason sequels are never any good, and the reason "Yeah, but he knows it" is a negative comment.) Naturals and performers have the same talents, but in performers the talent is hampered by awareness. It's like playing an instrument - the more you think about how you play it, the less well you can play it. When I play the piano I just have to trust my hands and let them do what they know how to do. But I'm a duffer on the piano and I know it. I'm sure if I became a goat herder I'd be a great natural storyteller again, but in this career it takes an effort.

The unaccustomed storyteller

These are people who don't tell stories and don't think they do. They just don't think in stories. It's not their thing, man.

You'd think this would be the worst group, but really they are not that bad. Unlike the two groups who think they tell stories, these people are usually willing to help you get what you need. You just have to help them get there. Here's an example of what might happen in an interview with an unaccustomed storyteller.
  • You: Can you tell me what happened on your first day at the plant?
  • Them: It was a pretty hard day.
  • You: When did you arrive?
  • Them: Around six in the morning.
  • You: What happened when you got there?
  • Them: I went in at the gate.
  • You: How did you feel right then?
  • Them: Pretty scared. I was scared that whole day, come to think of it.
  • You: What happened next?
  • Them: I got my ID card. The picture didn't come out at first and I had to wait. That was scary.
  • You: That's interesting. What was scary about it?
  • (and so on)
Note how the interviewer has to keep drawing the story out, not because the interviewee is recalcitrant but because they are just not used to recounting chains of events. Sometimes unaccustomed storytellers get your point after a while and start anticipating your "what happened next" and "how did that feel" questions, and you don't have to prompt them quite so much. But some people need help all the way through. That doesn't have to mean they can't or won't tell the stories you need. It just means they need help.

The best venue for unaccustomed storytellers is the group session - as long as it contains more natural storytellers than half-story tellers or performers. If there are too many performers, the unaccustomed people will rush to claim the comfortable audience role. If there are too many half-story tellers, the unaccustomed storytellers will follow them far away from the land of narrative magic, and the whole thing will end up becoming a debate or a series of lectures. But when unaccustomed storytellers are around natural storytellers, two things happen: the unaccustomed storytellers get a model of what to do; and the natural storytellers (who after all think in stories) draw stories out of the others without your having to. Some storytelling exercises, like histories, help people talk about series of events that may seem like a blur to people not used to recounting them.

The second-best venue for unaccustomed storytellers is the in-person interview. I put this at second-best because it is heavily reliant on the skill of the interviewer. Unaccustomed storytellers don't have to save face about storytelling, but they may lose patience with it. It may take creativity to find ways to keep them engaged in what is an unfamiliar and possibly uncomfortable process, like learning to play a new sport or musical instrument in which one has no interest.

The worst venue for unaccustomed storytellers is the written form. These are the first people to fall through the cracks in a written story collection, because there is nobody there to draw out the rest of the story. They write things like "It went fine" or "I liked it" or "My experience was pretty good" instead of telling a story. I've seen quite a few responses that imply the person would have had more to say if they had been asked follow-up questions. One way to anticipate this type of response in a written form, and I've seen this done, is to ask a series of questions that segments the story and prompts unaccustomed storytellers to tell the whole thing, thus:
  • How did the day start?
  • What happened when you came through the gate into the plant?
  • What was getting your new ID card like?
  • How did you meet your boss?
  • (and so on)

At the story project level

This observation is like the last one on perceptions of stories: it was originally about how people reacted when I asked them to tell me stories, but since has expanded to relate to how people react when I talk to them about story projects. Again, there are two axes of distinction: the degree to which people "get" story, and the degree to which they understand what they can use story projects to do.

"Getting" story is hard to describe, but it's something like what happens when you say something like (this is from Working with Stories):
Telling a story is by nature a more personal, animated and emotional response than providing a factual answer because it taps into a different set of instinctual behavior patterns. Because of this, people often reveal things about their feelings or opinions on a subject while they are telling a story that they wouldn't have been willing or able to reveal when asked a direct question about the topic.
Some people will hear that and say, "Yes, go on." Others will say, "Can you prove that?" (Many people have proved that, but I don't carry the books around with me.) This axis of variation roughly fits with the axis of whether people tell stories or not and is usually correlated with it. The more likely people are to think in stories and tell stories often, the more likely they are to "get" a statement about how people think in stories. (That is not a value statement about "getting" stories - it's just a statement about how people differ. I don't "get" football, and I hope you don't think that makes me morally or intellectually inferior.)

The other axis is what people think they can do with story projects, which, as you can guess, is often correlated with how much people think they tell stories. Somebody who thinks of themselves as a storyteller is more likely to think of many things you can do with a story project, because they are used to using stories (singly and in groups) to suit purposes.

If we again combine the extremes on these scales, we get these four types. In this case I am considering the types from the point of view of you trying to get these people to help you (or let you) pursue a story project; so people are "collaborators" rather than "storytellers."
  1. I can't do anything with stories (But I "get" story) - the naive but open collaborator
  2. I can do things with stories (But I don't get story) - the off-track collaborator
  3. I can do things with stories (And I get story) - the dramatic collaborator
  4. I can't do anything with stories (And I don't get story) - the unreachable collaborator
All the same caveats as above apply here - nobody is really like this, these are deliberately created extremes, etc etc. And again, these are my observations from people watching in this context, not scientific studies.

The naive but open collaborator

As with storytellers, the best collaborator is a person who has never really thought about using stories for anything, but understands intuitively the things you say about the properties of narrative. These people have what the Zen Buddhists call beginner's mind and are willing to experiment and learn. By working with them you may find new solutions that work best for your goals and group.

The best way to convince a person like this to collaborate on your story project is to tell some great stories about outcomes you have had in the past or heard about from others. People who tell stories react to stories. And when you can find a collaborator like this, get as much of their time as you can.

The off-track collaborator

A person who sees things they can do with stories but doesn't understand what stories are about is the worst possible collaborator. You are likely to be constantly stopping them from moving the project off into areas where the magic forces of story have no power. Oz is just more Kansas to them.

You don't usually have to convince a person like this to collaborate on a story project, but you do have to make sure you spend some serious time explaining what you can't do with stories. Telling stories won't help, because they don't respond to that. They may do better with lists and tables showing the concrete possibilities and returns on different investments in story projects. You can still work with such people, if they are willing to open their minds a crack and let in some new ideas. But people who think they know exactly what stories are and won't listen to you (and are wrong) are best avoided as collaborators. If you get stuck with one, you may have to spend a lot of time protecting the project from them.

The dramatic collaborator

These people get story, but they see so many things you can do with stories that your work is cut out reining them in. To these people all of Kansas is Oz.

As with the off-track collaborator, this type doesn't need to be convinced that stories can be useful. However, they are likely to load the project up with so much ambition and imagination that it will be impossible to fulfill all of their visions. With this type of collaborator you need to mark out in advance what possibilities you are not willing to entertain and where the scope of your project will end. Some cautionary tales may be helpful. It is also helpful to talk a lot about future projects so they have somewhere else to place their giant ambitions and don't load up the current project until it drops dead from exhaustion.

(And yes, I'm a dramatic collaborator. I get carried away, I'll admit it. It's all so fascinating! Somebody stop me!)

The unreachable collaborator

People who don't get story and don't see what they can do with it are likely to refuse to collaborate on (or allow) story projects at all.

I'm not sure it is possible to convince a person with this constellation of behaviors and beliefs to collaborate in a story project. It may be better to look elsewhere for help. If you end up in a situation where someone is forced to collaborate and combines these tendencies, you may be able to lead them along (as you do with an unaccustomed storyteller) to the point where they begin to see the point. But you usually will have to put energy into the interaction all the way through the project. The minute you turn your back they are likely to drop the project because it all seems pointless and silly.

Story project perception measurement

How can you tell what sorts of people you are dealing with when you pitch a story project? First, make a statement about how stories work in human society and see if people nod or grimace. Second, tell a few stories, either about projects you've done or projects you know about. See if people respond with animation or look at the clock. Finally, throw up a list of things people can do with story projects, then ask for more suggestions.
  • Naive but open collaborators will not understand your point at first, but as soon as you tell some stories their faces will start lighting up. They will not be likely to add to the list of uses, but may want to hear more stories about things you've seen work.
  • Off-track collaborators will get the point, but they'll suggest goals that don't fit narrative, like gathering specific facts or feedback. They will say things like "So you plan to ask people what they ate that day?" or "A good question might be to ask what brand of chocolate they like best." or "So you are essentially asking people to list their acquaintances?" that show they have no idea what you are talking about, even if they think they do.
  • Dramatic collaborators will make wondefully appropriate and imaginative suggestions, but they will make too many of them. They will say things like "And at the same time, we could do this!" or "We could ask people to call all of their first cousins!" or other over-the-top schemes.
  • Unreachables will ignore your pitch, give no suggestions, and check their email while you are talking. Their faces will not light up, either at the stories or at the great things you can do. You will need to work very hard to even get them to stay in the room until you are done.
After you assess your group, you can alter your pitch to suit and optimize your collaborative potential.

An ending note on narrative intelligence

I can't figure out where to put this bit, so I'll just throw it in here since it has to do with storytelling and personalities.

Once I was at a workshop after a conference, and we were demonstrating story construction by having a room full of people build some stories out of their own combined experiences. While the instructions were being given, a particular woman kept asking one question after another. The questions were so shall-we-say simple that I wondered what this person was doing here if they couldn't understand the most basic instructions. Everyone was irritated at how this person was using up our valuable workshop time asking questions to which everyone else knew the answer. But when we started moving stories around using fable templates, I had to hide my astonishment. The same woman was an absolute wonder with stories. Watching her work was like watching a master painter in action. In our small group we just let her take over: she was so obviously out of our league in skill. I don't think she had any idea that her narrative talent was so huge. She was a consummate natural.

Martin Gardner's work on multiple intelligences has been a boon to understanding differences in how people think and reason (at least it has been to me). As I understand it there have been dozens of additional intelligences proposed. I'll add one more: narrative intelligence. I've seen an amazing range of natural talent in telling stories, listening to stories, making sense of stories, and working with groups of stories. Some people, like the woman I described above, are truly astounding at it.

Narrative intelligence isn't limited to creating or telling stories. Some people are better at noticing stories, or finding patterns in stories, or helping other people tell stories, or creating pathways for stories to travel on. Personally I'd like to see more people (especially young people) who love stories expand their perceptions of what careers in the narrative field can be. If you love stories, you don't have to be a novelist or screenwriter. Narrative is a wide open landscape, and most narrative professionals are walking along a thin little path in the middle of it. The rest is just sitting there waiting to be explored.

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