Saturday, April 3, 2010

Transparency in story listening: when to say what

In a conversation the other day the issue came up of what to tell people about a story project in the planning stages. That got me thinking that I have not yet written about the issue of transparency in story listening projects. What should you tell people when you want them to tell you stories?

There are four categories of information you could potentially give the people you will be asking to tell stories in your project.
  1. You could tell people what the project is for: why you are doing the project, what you hope to achieve, whom you are trying to help, how they can help you achieve your goal, what you would like them to do to help, and what you would like them not to do.
  2. You could tell people who is involved in the project: its funders (who is paying for it), beneficiaries (who will gain from its success), collectors (interviewers, compilers, researchers), and storytellers.
  3. You could tell people why you want to hear stories: the benefits of narrative inquiry, why you chose it over other methods, what it means about what they should do, what a story is and isn't, which stories are most useful, and what they can do to help you collect better and more useful stories.
  4. You could tell people what will happen to the stories: who will see or hear them, how much identifying information will be associated with them, how long they will be kept, in what form they will be kept, and in what way  their distribution will be limited or protected. (You should always have a privacy policy, so the issue is not what you are prepared to say but what information you volunteer.)
Whether giving your storytellers each of these pieces of information helps or hinders your project depends on a lot of things about you, your storytellers, and the project. Here I'll consider some favorable and unfavorable conditions for transparency in each of the four possible areas of disclosure.

Telling people what the project is for

When should you tell people why you are doing the project? Two issues matter here.
  • Do your storytellers care about the subject matter of the project? How does it register on their radar: as a tiny blip of triviality or a giant submarine? Does it matter to them? Is it something they think of often? Have they declared their interest in the topic by joining a group or taking some other committing action? How much do you know about their interest in the topic?
  • Will your storytellers think they will benefit if the project succeeds? Do they see themselves (or the people or issues they care about) as one of the project's beneficiaries? Or do they consider it to be something about other people and for other people?
If the people you are asking to tell stories are likely to see the project as important and beneficial, they are more likely to contribute if you explain why you are doing it and what you hope to accomplish. You energy and excitement will combine with theirs in a synergistic collaboration. On the other hand, if your storyteller  consider the project to be trivial and irrelevant, explaining the project's goals may reduce their wilingness to contribute.

Two contrasting examples:
  1. A standard example of a project in which you do not want to disclose a lot of information about goals is in market research. Most customers of products, unless the products are critical to life and happiness, don't much care about product improvement, and they see the benefits to their own lives as trivial. Trying to convey your enthusiasm for improving your shampoo will only turn people away. But hold on -- for some products there are some people for whom the rules are reversed. For many software products, for example, there is a small percentage of users who not only use the software but also improve it, usually by building things that rely on it: macros, templates and so on. These people usually do have enthusiasm for the product and will be more likely to contribute if you tell them about your goals. (That doesn't mean you should rely entirely on what they say, because their experiences are not the same as other users' and they are after all only a small portion of the whole group.)
  2. An example of a project in which disclosing goals may be useful might be when the storytellers have already proclaimed their support. Say you want to hear about some of the experiences donors to your charity have had. You are more likely to get useful insights from their stories if you tell them you are trying to improve how their money is spent (or whatever your goal is) than if you don't tell them that. In this case people care about the project (they must, because they care about giving you their time and/or money), and they are likely to see the project as beneficial to themselves, since it increases the value of their contributions. The only caveat here is to be clear when you explain your goals to enthusiastic participants. You don't want people to meet you halfway to somewhere you hadn't meant to go.
Many projects include groups of both types at once. For example, say you gather stories about a software application from designers, product managers, salespeople, technical support staff, and customers. Importance and benefit will decrease (and grow in variability) as you move across the firm-public boundary. It is reasonable to give different groups of storytellers different information about the project, unless you expect the groups to compare notes.

There are two special classes of projects in which revealing your project's goals in detail can be fatal, and both have to do with change.
  1. Is your goal to change your organization? If so, giving your storytellers a lot of information about your goal may cause some of them to direct their responses in such a way as to apply pressure in directions they want your organization to go. You want the authentic voice of experience, not a campaign of opinion.
  2. Is your goal to change people? Are you trying to teach them something, or open their minds to new ideas, or find ways to convince them of things, or enlighten them? If so, it's best not to reveal that. Some people will try to prove how perfectly they are doing what you want them to do; some will try to prove you can't budge them; and some will simply walk away. In cases like this it's better to reveal little about the project (and to ask your questions as obliquely as possible so your intent cannot be easily guessed).
What should you say when you cannot reveal the purpose of the project? There are two things you can say.
  1. Say nothing. Just say "We'd like to ask you some questions about your experiences with X." This is most often possible when the subject matter is trivial or people trust the groups doing the project. If you think many of your storytellers will turn away at this or will demand an explanation, see option two.
  2. Describe a legitimate secondary purpose. Develop a reasonable story that explains why you might need to collect stories; then make that story true. Having a legitimate secondary purpose is not the same as lying about why you are doing the project, because your secondary purpose may actually be quite useful. The best solution is to find a secondary purpose that aids you in fulfilling your primary purpose but is easy to disclose information about. For example, if your primary purpose is to change minds about an issue, tell people you are collecting stories to put on your web site in order to stimulate discussion about the issue. Then do that. Do it as well and completely as if it were the only purpose for the project, and your primary purpose will be fulfilled as well.

Telling people who is involved in the project

How much you should tell people about the groups involved in the project depends on the feelings you expect to find about each group. Ask yourself:
  1. What is the narrative distance between the storytellers and the different groups of people involved in the project? Do they feel those groups share their values? Do they feel they live in the same worlds? Do they share a context? If people feel another group is similar to themselves, telling them that group is involved might increase their willingness to contribute. Conversely, it can be helpful not to mention groups when you expect storytellers to be uncomfortable on hearing about them being involved. For example, say you are asking customers and employees about customer satisfaction; you might get better results if you don't tell each group of storytellers about the other. But if you are asking people from around the world about healthy eating, it might be motivating to find out about the other groups of storytellers.
  2. What is the value perception of the storytellers toward each group? Do the storytellers see them as friendly, indifferent or hostile? Do they interpret their actions and statements as truthful and honorable, or do they suspect lies? Do they expect positive or negative news about them? Do they trust or distrust them? One little mental exercise to do here is to pretend (to yourself) that you are telling someone from one group that the other group is involved in the project. What is their reaction? Do they screw up their face? Do they roll their eyes? Do they get up and leave the room? Or do they lean forward and ask what they can do to help?
  3. What is the power relationship among the project's sponsors, collectors, beneficiaries and storytellers? If people feel subservient to, or at the mercy of, or hoping from attention from another group, the stories they tell will change. Similarly, if the people you are asking to tell stories feel that another group is beneath them, or beneath consideration, the stories will change. 
Two contrasting examples:
  1. Let's say you want to ask patients at a hospital to talk about their experiences. You can expect your storytellers to vary widely in their educational backgrounds and socioeconomic status; thus you could expect the degree of narrative distance between storytellers, sponsors and collectors to be variable. Some patients might feel dependent on the hospital, and might say whatever they think will get them better treatment or attention. Most will probably see the hospital as beneficial, but some might harbor resentment if things have not gone well with their treatment. In this case I would say fairly little about who is funding the study, who is collecting the stories, and who else is telling stories. I wouldn't hide this information; I just would't volunteer it prominently. If you make a big deal about the project's sponsors and story collectors, it might alter the stories you collect.
  2. A contrasting example might be a project where you wanted to ask experienced, award-winning engineers to help you build a company-wide knowledge base about some intricate technical process. In this case the sponsors, collectors, storytellers and beneficiaries would all reside within the same firm. You could expect value perceptions to be fairly high and uniform. Narrative distance would be uniform and relatively low. If there were many new employees the power relationship could be a problem, but let's say your storytellers, because they are experienced, are established in their careers and not likely to worry about saying the right thing. For this type of project I would supply plentiful information about who is involved in the project. In fact such information might play a part in helping convince the busy engineers to set aside the time to contribute. 
Telling people why you want to hear stories

You can give your storytellers information on why stories in particular are useful to you. I've seen a range from giving a micro-seminar on the power of narrative inquiry to not even using the word "story." When to tell people about this varies according to a few factors.
  1. Are your storytellers curious? Some people are naturally curious about methods and ideas, and some make a living from it. If you are asking a group of research scientists to tell you stories, giving them details about why stories reveal greater ground truths than direct questioning will probably get them more enthused to participate. Writers, journalists, teachers, and other generalists are also likely to get excited by learning how and why you are collecting stories. However, there are many valuable and wonderful people who just don't think that way. I once had a workshop full of secretaries nearly screaming at me because I took up their time explaining why stories were useful. When your audience is not likely to want to hear "more, more" about narrative inquiry, say nothing or keep explanations to a minimum.
  2. Are your storytellers busy? If they can give you only a little time, you will need to keep your comments on the wonders of narrative very brief, even if other factors are favorable. (Reference the screaming secretaries story above.)
  3. Are your storytellers expert in some area? If so, they are not likely to want to learn about narrative inquiry unless it touches on their field of expertise. There are exceptions, but many people who consider themselves expert in some area (especially if they are in positions of authority) are not willing to be "lectured to" on any subject, even if it would be helpful to the project.
  4. Are your storytellers eager to help? The more excited you can expect your storytellers to be about why the project is being done, what's in it for them, and who is doing the project, the more likely they will want to hear about narrative inquiry, because they will want to help in the most effective way they can.  
Two contrasting examples:
  1. Say your company has a highly technical software product that was created solely for in-house use. The software is primarily used by people in the company's research division. You have chosen to ask research interns (who have just started using the software within the past six months) to tell you about their experiences using it, because you want to ease the learning curve. You can expect most of these science-trained interns to be naturally curious, not overwhelmingly busy, interested in the project, open to learning new things, likely to see something good in participating (a good mark on their record, at least), and excited about working at the company. It would make sense in this case to expand your explanation of narrative inquiry, at least by a bit. For this group it would also be useful to range more widely in terms of workshop methods, storytelling exercises, more complex questions, and other processes that require storytellers to work with you.
  2. A contrasting project might be one where you are looking to understand the qualities of effective leadership. You have arranged to conduct a number of half-hour lunch-time phone interviews with prominent executives in government and corporate offices. Your storytellers are busy, important and expert. Curiosity and willingness to help will vary but is likely to be far lower than in the case with the interns. These people already have many goals, and yours is not likely to be high up on their list. In this case it is best not to bother these people with long explanations about your methods. Just get to the stories and let them talk.
How do you say as little as possible about narrative inquiry while still getting people interested in participating? My favorite thing to say is, "We can find out about [this] and [this], but we want to know what [this] is really like. For that we need to know what has happened to you, in your own words." I find that people respond well to this brief statement, because everybody knows that standard measurements often miss a lot. It rings true, and you don't have to say any more than that for people to move on to the storytelling.

But having said that, a caveat. Everyone needs to find their own way to explain this. I went through a lot of messy explanations and yawning audiences before I came up with what works for me, and it almost certainly will not be what works for you. Other people I know say all sorts of other things. The best way to whittle down the explanation is to explain it to everyone you meet, watch how they react and what they react to, and keep making it more concise and more packed with meaning.

Telling people what will happen to the stories

To repeat what I said above (because it's important): contributors to any narrative project have a right to expect and demand full disclosure of your privacy policy. However, whether you should volunteer this information will vary based on your project and storytellers.

What matters most here is the perceived danger of the project to the storytellers, which depends on these factors:
  1. What is the narrative distance between the storytellers and the project's sponsors, collectors and beneficiaries? 
  2. What is the value perception of the storytellers toward these groups? 
  3. What is the power relationship among them? As you may have noticed, the factors used to decide how much to tell about the groups involved come into play here as well. High narrative distance, low value perception, and wide power differentials all contribute to a perception of danger in storytelling. 
  4. Is your topic personal or highly emotional? If you are asking people about Coke and Pepsi, even if they are distrustful they will probably not care much about what you do with their stories. But if you are asking people to tell stories about, say, the behavior of their family members, people are likely to need some reassurance before opening up (as anyone would).
  5. Will you be identifying individuals? If your collection is not anonymous, it's best to make that clear up front, because not disclosing that information is likely to backfire later.
If you don't expect your storytellers to perceive any danger in telling you their stories, it's better to let sleeping dogs lie. Having a "privacy" link will satisfy those with questions. However, if there are clear indications that this issue will drive people away, a highly visible statement of commitment to privacy is critical.

Two contrasting examples:
  1. An example of a let-sleeping-dogs-lie project might be one where you are asking people about their experiences with a product that does something without deep emotional resonance -- say you want to improve your shampoo. Because people will not be revealing deep truths about their personal lives, because they are not likely to have a particularly strong feelings about a company that makes shampoo, and because it makes no sense to identify shampoo customers, people are not likely to care much about what you do with the stories. In this case, making a big point of telling them exactly what you will do with the stories may cause suspicion to arise where it would have been absent.
  2. An example of a reassurances-needed project might be one where you are examining public attitudes about government assistance programs. Because people may worry that truth-telling about their experiences may result in retaliations, and because people may have strong feelings and may need to talk about deep issues affecting their lives, and because people are likely to distrust government programs, not telling people what you will do with their stories is likely to result in little disclosure. In this case I would suggest making reassurances of anonymity and privacy visible and clear.
If you don't know whether the people you will be asking to tell stories will perceive danger in the project, try asking a few of them before you start the larger collection.

Bringing it together

This table summarizes the recommendations above.

Telling helpful when you have...but not when you have...
why the project is being donehigh interestlow interest
high benefitlow benefit
a goal to change the organization
a goal to change people
who is involved in the project (sponsors, collectors, storytellers, beneficiaries)low narrative distancehigh narrative distance
high value perceptionlow value perception
low power differentialhigh power differential
why you want to hear stories
curious storytellersincurious storytellers
non-busy storytellersbusy storytellers
non-expert storytellersexpert storytellers
eager storytellersnon-eager storytellers
what will be done with the storieshigh narrative distancelow narrative distance
low value perceptionhigh value perception
high power differentiallow power differential
personal, emotional topicnon-personal, trivial topic
identified collectionanonymous collection

Do's and don'ts

I'll finish this post with a few general do's and don'ts about disclosing information about your project.

Do think about the people you are asking to tell stories, and don't trust your instincts about them. In general the greater the narrative distance between you (the project planner) and your storytellers, the greater the benefit of early, small, pilot story collections in planning a larger project. If you don't know, don't guess; find out. Try out your explanations and your questions. Even asking three people is better than guessing.

Whatever you say or don't say, don't lie about what you are doing, why you are doing it, and for whom. Follow the old rule: If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. Either come up with something nice you can say, or don't say anything. But don't try to get people to contribute using an obvious lie, like that you are going to distribute customer stories to your staff (without actually planning to), or that the stories will determine corporate direction (if you have no such intent). People can smell a lie from a mile off. And if they do, the result won't be as simple and manageable as not getting very many stories. It'll be worse: you'll get stories, and you'll think you have results, but the results will be distorted in unpredictable ways, and there will be no way to fix it.

Don't broadcast your insecurities through the information you provide. I've seen people try so hard to explain why what they are doing is useful that it's obvious they don't think it will work. You don't need people to understand the point of the whole thing or agree that it's useful or validate your choice of method. You just need them to tell stories. Everyone gets frustrated when respondents say things like "this is STUPID!!!!" or "what is the POINT of this" or "I don't care" and so on. This comes up in all story collections. It's easy to get defensive and try too hard to eludicate the merits of the approach, either in person or by loading too much explanation into an online survey. Don't let yourself do that. Present confident explanations. The more confident you are that people will tell stories, the more they will tell stories.

Do prepare short and long explanations. People usually break out into groups based on how much information they want to see. Some people want to do the best possible job they can; some just want to get the thing over with; some might get interested and might not depending on the weather; and some will want to check everything out carefully before they agree to say anything. If your short explanation is a sentence, prepare a paragraph as well, and vice versa. Your long explanation might never get used. But having it ready can increase the variety of stories you collect by giving those who want more information a reason to stay engaged. It can also increase your confidence in the project by helping you feel ready for anything.

Do watch what you say, but don't overlook transparency as a tool. Sometimes people think giving storytellers any information about the project will be damaging. But that's not always or even often true. Unlike direct questioning in simple surveys, narrative projects always involve an element of motivation. I've seen projects produce lackluster results because the people telling the stories didn't open up as much as the project planners hoped they would. All of us know how to say a lot without saying much. It's almost the default option when we are asked for information. Giving people a compelling reason to dig more deeply into their experiences can upgrade a project's results from satisfactory to revelatory and transformational. Sometimes when you give people exactly the information they need, they will work with you to help the project succeed.

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