Asking about stories
Questions about stories complement stories
You don't have to ask people to answer any questions about the stories they have told. If you have a very small project (and you are in the group of interest so you can interpret stories directly) you may want to just collect stories and leave it at that. However, asking people to interpret stories can be a powerful way of finding out more about their feelings and beliefs, especially if you can juxtapose many such interpretations and look for patterns in them. Stories and answers to questions about them reinforce each other and provide a richer base of meaning than either can alone.
Time, questions and cognitive budget
When thinking about how many questions you can ask about stories, you need to consider your cognitive budget, or how much mental energy people can put into responding. The number and complexity of the questions you can ask (as well as how many stories you can ask people to tell) will depend on the cognitive budget you have to work with. Cognitive budget is an amalgam of
- interest, and
- ability to concentrate.
All of these factors can come into play. Be careful not to think that if you have a lot of people's time you have a large cognitive budget. Any of the other factors can reduce the cognitive budget and in fact are probably more important than time. For example:
- You might have an hour of somebody's time, but their attention might be divided between answering your questions and watching their toddler.
- You might have only three minutes of somebody's time, but you may have their complete attention and concentration as well as enthusiasm to help.
- You might have a captive audience required to sit in front of a computer and fill out a form until it is complete, even if it has a hundred questions in it, but that doesn't mean they will pay attention to the 99th question (or even the 21st).
- You may have a group with lots of time, attention, and ability to concentrate, but little interest in the project. That sort of thing is typical when you are asking questions of young people or elderly people: they may have time and attention to give you, but they may not be motivated to contribute.
Asking too many questions
can create misleading results
I want to raise a special alarm about asking people dozens of questions, even when people are willing to answer them. Doing this is not often going to get you a useful response, because people's attention will wander and their answers will be devoid of meaning, even if they are sincerely trying to help. I've seen people ruin otherwise good projects by allowing themselves to be over-ambitious (or blind) about how many questions they can ask. Asking too many questions produces one of the worst outcomes of a story project: answers are collected, but it's impossible to tease out the answers that mean "I thought hard about this and carefully picked the best choice" from those that mean "I clicked on whatever would get me to the next page." In that case the trends people see in the data are not just useless; they are misleading. The only thing you can do in a case like that is to scrap the thing and start over with more realistic ambitions.
One thing to consider is that if you need to be ambitious about how many questions you can ask, you can choose a method of asking the questions that allows for full or partial answers. For example, if you are conducting interviews you can ask people "can I ask you a few more questions?" every once in a while. If you have paper or web forms you can instruct people to ignore any questions they don't want to answer, rather than circling or clicking things just to get through the form. The difficulty when you take that approach is deciding how you will order the questions, because typically people will answer the first few before they lose interest. It's not something I recommend highly (it's better to get a good solid short list), but if for some reason you need to maximize your questions (e.g., you will never get these people to speak to you again in a million years) you can take a chance on it.
Fitting in question answering
Asking questions about told stories fits more naturally into some venues than others. If you are using a survey, questions about stories will naturally intermingle with questions for stories. If you are conducting a one-on-one interview, you will also intersperse the two types of questions, though you may need to do some extra reminding of what each question pertains to.
In a group session or exercise, asking questions about stories is more difficult, since you don't want to disrupt the flow of storytelling to ask questions as each story is told. There are two methods you can use to connect told stories to questions about them.
- At a break in the session (or at the end if it's short), ask each participant to recall the stories they told, then hand out paper forms on which people can quickly mark their answers. Ask people to give their stories names which will help you link the answers to the story they told (in the transcript). This method works well if you have a small group and a short session, because each person will probably have told only a few stories and the link-up will be simple.
- Another method is to have an observer (either someone helping you or a particularly helpful participant) jot down the teller of each story and a memorable name for it, then give each participant a set of forms with the names for stories they told already filled in. This method is better if the participants aren't likely to remember what they said (perhaps if they are older or distracted) or if you don't expect them to be very willing to fill out the forms without some help.
Goal-related questions get to the heart of the matter
Goal-related questions are questions specifically asking about the issues you defined as being important to your project as they apply to the story told. For example:
- In this story, would you say that the people trusted each other?
- Would you say the people in this story showed compassion for each other?
- When you read this story, what does it say to you about democracy?
- Does this story make you feel more or less confident about technology as an enabler?
Be careful to make sure people know you are asking the question about the story and not in general. I've seen people ruin answers by not being clear about this distinction. For example, if you asked the first question in this list without the "in this story" part, people might think you are asking them if they think people trust each other in general. That may be an interesting question to ask, and it has its place later (see the questions about people), but it won't elucidate the story you want the person to interpret.
The usual way to write these sorts of questions is to take the issues you defined for your project, ranked in terms of importance, write a few questions for each (trying to maximize the breadth of ways to ask), then choose between them based on either how you think people will respond or how people do respond in a test run.
Another type of goal-related question with great utility in some situations is the emergent construct question. As is explained in the section on exercises, emergent constructs are abstract packages of meaning about behaviors, beliefs, values, situations, themes, or other areas of interest to the project. They are derived during an exercise in which stories are told and meaning emerges from interactions among people. If you conducted an exercise like this as part of a story project, you may have already collected some of these constructs, and you can use them as a way to ask people questions about stories. Some examples of emergent constructs might be:
- Self-serving fearmongers (personification)
- On the ropes (situation)
- Can't get no respect (theme)
- We're all in the same boat (value)
When emergent constructs are used as questions, the general question is, "How present is this construct in the story?" So for example when a person has just told a story about people helping each other after a tornado, they might rate the "We're all in the same boat" construct as having a high value.
Construct questions tend to require more preparation than non-construct questions, because -- depending on the constructs that emerge -- people may not know at a glance what the brief phrase for each construct means, especially if the group is varied. For example, some constructs may include cultural references that not all of your storytellers will understand. Say you run an exercise during a group session and the construct "Only the Shadow Knows" emerges. Younger storytellers will not know that "The Shadow" was a popular comic-book and radio character from the 30's, so you may get blank or nonsensical answers from that group. It can help to translate narrowly-understood terms to more general terms (like "Only the Shadow Knows" could be changed to "mysterious powers" or something).
However, having given that warning, if the group you are asking to tell stories is fairly coherent, that is, will understand internal references, emergent constructs can provide powerful ways for people to safely disclose sensitive information. For example, if you ask someone whether bureaucracy stifled their options in the story they just told, you might not get a truthful response; but if you offer them a quote from Kafka's The Castle (which comes from a situation that emerged in a group session), you may get more of a "telling" response.
Narrative questions explore shape and context
You can also ask people to consider one or more of three essential dimensions of stories and storytelling:
- Story form is the internal structure of a story: things like setting, characters, plot and point. A good story uses effective narrative form to deliver a message well.
- Story function is its utility to our thinking and learning: things like meaning, understanding and connection. A good story helps us learn what we need to learn, find out what we need to know, or remember what we need to remember.
- Story phenomenon is the story of the story: things that describe context, like where and when and why a story was told, who heard it, how it can and will be retold, and so on. A good story lives on because it sustains the health of the community.
Which of these types of narrative question is most important to your project will depend on your project's goals. For example:
- If your project is primarily about finding things out, story function will be important to you.
- If the goal of your project is to connect people through storytelling, story phenomenon will be important to you.
- If you want to find messages you can use to help people understand things better, story form will be important to you.
Here are some example questions in each of these areas.
- How long ago did the events in this story happen?
- Where did this story take place?
- Is this story a deliberate fiction?
- Who would you say is the main character in this story? Is it one person or more than one?
- What changed in this story?
- What conflicts do you see in this story?
- Are there any instances in this story of people competing? Collaborating? Coming to the aid of another?
- Did the story turn out well or poorly? If you are not the teller of this story, do you think the teller thought it turned out well or poorly?
- Are there any important risks or challenges faced by characters in this story?
- What would you say the people in this story want?
- What in this story surprised you?
- How long do you think you will remember the events that happened in this story?
- Does this story remind you of any proverbs or sayings?
- How do you feel about this story? If you were not the teller of this story, how do you think the teller felt about it?
- Why was this story told? If you are not the teller of this story, why do you think the teller thought they were telling the story?
- Is there anyone in this story you identify with? Is there anyone you don't identify with? Why?
- Does this story contradict any other stories you've heard?
- Have you heard stories like this one before?
- What did you learn from this story?
- What would fix the problems that appear in this story? What problems would this story fix?
- How common are the experiences described in this story? Would you characterize the story as about everyday things or about something more important than that?
- Where did this story come from? Did it happen to you or to someone else? Did it really happen?
- Who can tell this story? Who can't tell it?
- How widely can this story be told? Can it be told to anyone or only to people you trust? If this story was told in public, what do you think would happen?
- Is there anyone who you think needs to hear this story? Is there anyone who you think should not hear this story?
- If you have heard this story before (or one like it), how has it changed over time? How has it changed when different people have told it (or ones like it)?
- What does this story say about what is right with this community? What does this story say about what is wrong with this community?
- What does this story say about how people in this community come together or fall apart?
- What does the story say about the distribution of power and status in this community?
- Does this story contain any unwritten community rules?
These are just some examples to give you ideas; you should be able to come up with more questions of whatever type best suits your project. Note that the questions I've listed here all refer to "this story", not "the story you just told". The reason is that getting different groups of people with diverse views to answer the same questions about the same stories can be powerful. It does require a bit more coordination on your part -- you need to collect stories, anonymize them, present them to other people, and collate the results together -- but especially for projects in which conflict resolution is involved it can be a transformative element.
Demographic questions sort and categorize
It is almost always useful to juxtapose questions about the storyteller and question-answerer (who may not be the same person) with questions about the stories they told (or answered questions about). Some obvious demographic questions are things like age, gender, locality, income level, occupation -- the standard survey stuff.
In addition to these obvious questions, it is often helpful to ask questions related to the person's general opinions about project issues, for example things like
- In general would you say the government is doing a good job?
- Do you think our company puts customers first?
- Do you feel like you have enough support to do the work you are asked to do?
- How would you say that living in our town ranks among places you have lived?
Note that these questions are not in relation to any stories, but are direct inquiries about the person's opinions -- the same as would be asked in a standard survey. When you collect this information as well as stories and interpretations of them, the juxtaposition can tell you useful things. For example, you might find that people say that "our company treats its employees well", but they might tell stories in which they have endured contempt. That sort of contrast might lead to further inquiries about problems related to differences between official and personal versions of reality.
Decisions about each question
There are several decisions to make about each question you want to ask.
Open-ended questions allow unexpected trends to emerge
Open-ended or closed-ended?
Open-ended questions are those where you don't predefine any answers but just write down exactly what people say or allow them to write or type whatever they like. Closed-ended questions have predefined lists of answers.
Open-ended questions have the benefit of allowing unexpected trends to emerge, but they come with the burden of reading and checking over and making sense of a lot of text. If you are collecting few stories, or if you are collecting stories primarily to show to other people, using a lot of open-ended questions can be elucidating, but if you want to look at patterns they are less useful because you can't count them up -- though you can categorize them and count how many are in each category.
The advantage of using a closed-ended, fixed list of choices is that you will get quick responses. And they don't use up as much cognitive budget, because recognition is always easier than recall. The disadvantage is that if you have not correctly anticipated all possible answers you may miss some. For questions where you know all possible answers, like age ranges or locations, this sort of question is best. You can of course add an "Other" box and allow people to type or write or say other things when you are not sure you have a complete list.
If closed-ended, ordinal or nominal?
An ordinal list of choices is one where the order matters (age ranges, for example). A nominal list of choices is one where only the name of each item matters (gender, for example). For many questions this will be a simple characteristic of the list of choices, but for some you could present the same question either way. For example, you could ask:
How do you feel about this story? Pick the one that best describes your feeling.
- It doesn't bother me
- I'm quite upset about it
- It makes me feel warm and fuzzy
- I'm boiling over with anger
- I'm amused
- I think I learned something from it
or you could ask:
How do you feel about this story?
- very bad
- neither good nor bad
- very good
In the first case the list incorporates items that represent many dimensions of meaning instead of just one, but people have to read through the whole list, and it may not include the feeling they have. In the second case the list covers the whole ground and is very quick to scan, but gives only unidimensional information.
If closed-ended and ordinal, unipolar or bipolar?
A unipolar list of ordinal choices is one that goes from nothing to something, like for these questions:
- How much do you think trust matters to this story? (not at all, very little, somewhat, to a great extent)
- How sceptical do you think the people in this story are?
- How completely would you say that this story illustrates the proverb "Too many cooks spoil the broth"?
A bipolar list of ordinal choices is one that goes from one thing to another thing, like for these questions:
- How would you say the people in this story respond to danger? (extreme fear, some fear, neither fear nor excitement, some excitement, extreme excitement)
- How would you characterize management support for employee satisfaction in this story? (no support, some support, adequate support, more support than is comfortable, suffocating support)
- How do the people in this story interact? (extreme cooperation, some cooperation, neither cooperation nor competition, some competition, extreme competition)
The advantage of unipolar lists is that they are easy to understand quickly. The disadvantage is that it is easy to see what the "right" or socially acceptable answer is. You can break that pattern by switching the direction of the lists (i.e., putting the "best" answer on the bottom, then the top, etc), but people may still hunt for the acceptable answer.
The advantage of bipolar lists is that they usually thwart people trying to find the right answer, because there isn't one, especially if you are careful to make sure that either both or neither of the sides of the scale is a "good" thing. They also usually give you a richer answer than a unipolar list because a wider range of possibilities can be included. However, the disadvantage is that bipolar lists can be harder to understand, so they use up the cognitive budget and increase the possibility of getting "click past" answers instead of real answers. There is also the problem that people can't pick both sides of the scale at once when issues are complex: for example when the people in the story show both fear and excitement. You can try to anticipate these issues, but sometimes they surprise you.
If you think direction-following is going to be a big problem and/or you think people will be willing or able to give you enough time and attention, bipolar lists are often better. But if the cognitive budget you have to work with is very limited (say a person standing momentarily in front of a kiosk) it may be better to stick with the safer unipolar list.
If closed-ended, ordinal and bipolar, include a middle option?
If you use a bipolar list you need to decide whether to include a middle "neither" option. Some people say that having a middle option gives people a way to avoid answering the question and so distorts your results.
For example you could ask:
How do you feel about this story?
- very bad
- neither good nor bad
- very good
or you could ask:
How do you feel about this story?
- very bad
- very good
You can see that the person answering the second question will not be able to find the noncommittal option and will have to make a real choice. However, if you do take out the neither option, you should provide one of these options:
- not sure
- does not apply
- I'd rather not say
- I decline to answer
- I don't understand the question
- I don't like the question
- I don't think the question makes sense
- and so on
so that you avoid the situation of people choosing "good" only because there is no "neither" choice available. In general the more ways you provide to differentiate between authentic and click-past responses the more informative your results will be.
If closed-ended and ordinal, words or scales?
When you want to ask a person a question to which the answer is some point along a scale, you can either ask using words (e.g., tiny, small, medium, large, huge) or scales. Scales can be numerical (e.g., "please choose a number between zero and ten") or graphical (e.g., "please make a mark on this line").
The advantage of using words is that people can respond to them quickly by recognizing which word best matches their feeling. However, it is sometimes hard to come up with lists of words that work, and different people may interpret the same words differently. A numerical scale is free of the interpretation of terms, but quantification is sometimes a hard thing for people to do, especially if the question is about an emotional issue. Sometimes making a mark on a line is easier to do than choosing a number, but then again people can become confused when they see a simple line with nothing written on it, and there can be a higher up-front cost to explaining what they are about to do.
To give an example of some of the options here: There is a lot of debate in the medical community about the best way to assess how much pain a patient is in. These are some of the pain scales that have been developed:
- The Verbal Rating Scale uses names for pain categories, like "none", "mild", "discomforting", "distressing", "horrible", and "excruciating".
- The Wong-Baker Pain Faces Scale shows the patient six faces with expressions ranging from very happy to crying, and with labels showing both a number and a text, ranging from zero ("no hurt") to five ("hurts worst"). There has been some criticism of this scale because the worst face is shown crying, and some people (especially children) think they cannot choose that option unless they are actually crying. Hence, interpretation matters even if pictures are used instead of words.
- The Numerical Pain Scale asks the person to describe their pain by choosing a number between zero and ten, with zero representing "no pain" and ten representing the "worst possible pain".
- The Visual Analogue Scale uses a numerical line marked with numbers from zero to ten, with the left side labeled "no pain" and the right side labeled "worst possible pain", on which the patient is instructed to either circle numbers or make a mark.
There are all sorts of studies showing that each of these is better than the others in one situation or another, but as far as I can tell there is no overall consensus as to which is best; each has its strengths and weaknesses. Often people use all three methods (words, numbers, lines) at the same time and don't specify what method the patient should use. That approach avoids difficulties understanding or being able to respond to any of the methods, but it increases the amount of time and attention needed to answer the question.
Repetition turns people away
I advise against making all the questions you ask of the same type, because even though people may be able to read and understand them more quickly that way, they may also get one question confused with another or get bored. There is a tension between people's need to understand (hence the need for clarity and consistency) and their tendency to get bored or lose interest when things repeat (hence the need for variety).
My suggestion is to write out alternative versions of each question and think about the clarity versus engagement issue. Then when each question has found its best expression, start thinking about the order in which the questions will be asked.
On the order of questions, it is more important that a question seem related to the ones around it by what it asks about than by what type it is. I've found that the best interviews and surveys are coherent, like a natural conversation. If you were going to ask the questions in a normal conversation, in what order would you ask them?
Another tip is to test your questions before you use them, either by asking people for reactions to them or by actually collecting a small number of stories and looking at the patterns you see to find out if some of the questions need refinement. For example, on one project I noticed in early tests that of the answers to the question "How do you feel about this story?" people disproportionately picked the answer "good". I realized that at least some people were probably choosing "good" as a way to avoid revealing how they really felt (it was the equivalent of saying "fine" when someone asks how you are), so I changed that answer to something more telling.
For further reading
Reader comments, tips and advice can be found on the Asking about stories Google Group page.