Deciding on methods
Stories must be carefully collected
These are all the ways you can collect stories.
- You can observe people talking to other people. You can do this in person (e.g., by following them around for a workday) or over the web (e.g., by reading ongoing chats); individually or in groups; and as part of their normal routines or in a special session.
- You can interview people. You can do this in person, over the phone, through email, over the web, or on paper; individually or in groups; with one interviewer or many.
- You can have people go through exercises designed to collect stories. You need to do this in a group session, but you can do it in person or in a conference call.
- You can combine the above methods, either separately (e.g., offering people multiple ways to contribute), or together (e.g., using interviews, observation and exercises simultaneously in a group session).
There are several choices you need to make before you begin to collect stories. Each of these choices will depend on the group of people you are asking to tell stories and the goal of your project.
Asking or observing?
Do you want people to tell you stories, or would you rather listen to them telling stories to other people? Direct methods include interviews, group sessions and surveys through email or the web. Indirect methods involve observation of people either in their daily lives or in special situations such as low-facilitation or self-running group sessions. Direct methods are much easier than indirect methods to carry out, but indirect methods can be more useful when people are unlikely to disclose their real feelings (or what really happened) when asked directly.
If a conversation is a casual stroll,
an exercise is a guided hike
Conversations or exercises?
Exercises that help people tell stories require a certain amount of facilitation and require a group session (physically or virtually). Whether the exercises are necessary or whether you can just involve people in conversations depends on who you are talking to and what you are asking them to talk about.
If you think
- it will be difficult for your storytellers to articulate their feelings about your topic, or
- they will tell only "official" or "safe" stories, or
- they will be more likely to give lectures or opinions, or
- you have very little of their time and want to make the most of it,
choosing some exercises might be useful to your project.
- getting people to tell stories will not be an issue, or
- you have very little time to run the project, or
- you aren't sure you want to run an exercise, or
- you can't get people together physically and can't or don't want to run a virtual exercise, or
- you think the people will resist doing anything that seems artificial,
you'd be better off just letting things flow naturally. (Still, it wouldn't hurt to know about some exercises and have them in your back pocket in case you need them.)
Individual or group?
Would you rather ask or observe people alone or together? In some situations (about some topics and with some people) the dynamics of a group may bring out stories that would not have surfaced otherwise because people may remind each other of stories and get each other going. An example might be people talking about their childhoods. If people are asked on a web form they might not be able to think of anything, but in a room full of people reminiscing many more instances may come to mind. But in some situations people may be less willing to disclose their true feelings in a group.
Sometimes things grow better
when nobody is watching
Facilitated or self-running?
Interviews, group sessions and exercises can be facilitated, meaning someone with at least a little knowledge about what is supposed to happen guides things along; or they can be self-running, meaning that you give people a task, whether it's simply talking about a subject or carrying out an exercise, and then leave them alone to do it (though of course you will need to record what they say or write while they are doing it).
If your storytellers are going to be hesitant to talk about the topic you want to hear about, a self-running method may bring out more raw emotion because there will be no obvious project listener facing them as they speak. On the other hand, self-running methods also bring more risk that people will not respond in a way that gets you useful stories, and you won't be able to fix the problem (since you won't be there).
There are two other possibilities that bridge the gap between the extremes:
- Intermittent facilitation: giving people a self-running task (talk amongst yourselves about this, or do this exercise), then leaving the room and coming back every five or ten minutes to make sure things are going as expected.
- Available facilitation: giving people a self-running task, then moving far enough away that you can't hear everything they are saying, but close enough that they can call you over to ask questions, and close enough that you can get the general tenor of what is going on. (Usually you can tell from afar whether people are telling stories or just talking, because during storytelling one person is talking and others are listening for a longer period of time than usual.)
You can do either of these things in a group session or in an individual interview (for example the person might be talking into a tape recorder with you in the next room).
If facilitated, low or high facilitation expertise?
Interviews, observations, and exercises can all be done with a high level of expert training (of the interviewer, observer, or exercise facilitator) or a low level. You can put years of time into educating yourself and others to conduct various methods of story collection, or you can have people who know very little about the process do the collecting. Each side has its advantages.
- Experts have lots of techniques they can pull out of their toolkits and they can often recognize problems brewing before they get worse. But experts do tend to get narrow in their thinking about the right way to do things, and more importantly, people do have predictable reactions to experts as having nefarious motives and may not tell them as much as the experts would like.
- Novices, on the other hand, have few techniques and rarely see problems coming. They tend to follow whatever rudimentary training they got (such as blindly following a script even if the interview is going terribly). However, novices sometimes have great new ideas, and they rarely become narrow-minded (because they have no idea what to expect). Most importantly, people tend to tell obvious novices more. Asking novices to conduct interviews, for example asking people to interview each other, can improve the rawness and honesty of the stories told. If the novices are carefully prepared so that some of the worst misfires can be anticipated and avoided, this method can be quite useful.
If a group, one group per session or more than one?
Storytelling groups usually work well when they are small, say five or six people. You can choose to have only one group per session, or you can have two or more groups telling stories at the same time. Of course, having more than one group per session means that you either have to have more than one facilitator (expert or novice) or you have to use self-running methods. Some of the exercises work better when you have multiple groups working at the same time (the hubbub keeps people interested), so if you plan to use them you may consider having concurrent group work; but it requires more time and energy on your part to make the session a success.
Physical or virtual?
Is it important to be physically present with the people who are telling stories? Or is doing it over the phone or web just as good? For some situations you need the give and take that goes on when people are physically located together and can see each other. This is especially important for stories with strong emotional components or that are hard to recall (but which are not so private and personal that people will bottle up when other people are around). The other factor on this decision is how comfortable your storytellers (and you!) are with technology.
Synchronous or asynchronous?
Do you want to be present when people are telling stories (whether physically or virtually), or would you prefer to have them respond to something you sent them? Which of these produces more "stories that work" will depend on your storytellers. Some people are more lively in conversation and more able to access feelings they would not write about; others feel safer and can think more clearly when writing things out. If you can, it's good to have both options available and allow people to choose one or the other. For example, you could send an email to a group of 20 people asking them to participate in a story project, and give them the option of having a face-to-face interview or answering questions via email.
Short or long?
Deciding how much of your storytellers' time you can take is an important choice. The more time you can get people to give you, the more and better stories you will get; but the more time you ask for, the fewer people will be able to give it. A group storytelling session could range from half an hour long to half a day long; a phone interview could range from ten minutes to an hour; a survey could have three to dozens of questions.
For some groups (especially busy people) you will get more stories from a shorter time period, because more people will be able to contribute, and when they do contribute they will be able to attend fully for that short time. For other groups you will get more stories from a longer time period, because though fewer people may contribute, those that do will be able to plumb deep into their feelings, perhaps using exercises.
Factual or fictional?
You can ask people to talk only about their true experiences, and probably the majority of story projects proceed in that way. You do however have the option to ask people to tell stories about what might have happened or what could happen. Sometimes allowing people to talk about things that aren't true allows them to tell more of the truth. I love this quote from Oscar Wilde: "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth." If the topic you are exploring will be very difficult to talk about, and if you think your storytellers will be willing to play along, you can consider exploring fictional realms. You can insert fictional exploration into any interview or group session, and all of the exercises can include fictional elements. Just keep track of which stories were told as deliberate fictions so you can find them later.
You don't need a lot of technology
to work with stories
Low or high technology?
Decisions about technology can be divided into two choices: how you will record the actual stories, and how you will record answers to questions about the stories.
For recording the actual stories, you have these options (arranged from lowest to highest technology dependence):
- Remember and jot down things later. This is risky but the least obtrusive method. It is best used when you are observing someone (say at work) and you have to show a low profile.
- Take notes on paper or a laptop. This method is not very obtrusive, but details may be lost. If you do this, make sure you separate notes on what people said from your thoughts or comments. Sometimes what I do is write "(me)" in front of anything I'm thinking so I know it's not what anyone else said. The usefulness of this method will also depend on how fast you (or whoever is helping you) can write or type.
- Audiotape the session and transcribe it later. This method is rich in detail but more obtrusive for the people talking. Note that I don't recommend videotaping people telling stories unless you specifically need video records of stories to show to other people. This is simply because the visual detail doesn't add much to the story, and people tend to find video taping much more intrusive than audio taping. Why this is true I don't know, but I've definitely seen a difference in the discomfort level between sessions where a video camera is "aimed" at people and sessions where a small audio recorder is placed discreetly on the table.
- Ask for stories via chat. This method is useful because it engages people in conversation (either individually or in groups), and it automatically produces a record of the conversation (and any stories in it). There is no audiotape or person scribbling notes for people to get upset about, either. The only bad thing about chats is that because of their overlapping nature they are famously hard to make sense of afterward, so there still will be some work to do to get from chat logs to stories.
- Ask people to type stories in free-form text (as in email). This method could yield rich stories, but because there is no specified length of answers you will get a wide range of responses, and some people may balk at what they think is too much typing. On the other hand, some people like answering things via email because it is a medium many are familiar with, and it allows people to be flexible in their responses, so with some groups you will get a better response this way than any other.
- Ask people to type stories into a box on a web page. For some groups this will be a good way to get a response, because some people (especially younger people) are quite familiar with the paradigm of filling out things on the web. The benefit of the fixed-size box on a web page is that it is clear to people that you don't need a long response, which may make them more willing to tell stories. But for some people (older people for example) they may feel confused or even insulted at being asked to fill in a form, especially about a personal subject.
For recording the answers to questions about stories, you have these options:
- Ask the questions yourself and note responses on paper or on your own computer. This may make the session take longer, and you may exhaust the patience of your storytellers before you get through the questions, but the data will all be in the computer and you won't have to come back and do more work later. The other benefit of this approach is that it allows you to intervene when people don't understand the question and would just circle or click randomly if you weren't there.
- Hand out paper forms and ask people to circle items, then enter the data yourself later. People can read faster on paper and will be able to circle things very quickly, so they will be more willing to answer the questions than with other methods. But you will still have to do the data entry later.
- Ask people to answer questions in plain text (as in email). As with asking for stories in plain text, this method will get a variable response. Some will balk, some will welcome the flexibility.
- Ask people to fill out a form on a web page (either on your computer or on theirs). This can be useful, because no data entry is required and it tends to go quickly. The down side of this method is that people can be wary of web security (will the information get out?) and may refuse to fill out the form (or worse, enter garbage information just to get through it).
The first three methods here are flexible, because they can be interrupted and commented on at any time (during the interview, in the margins of the paper form, as asides in an email). The last method can include a comment field, but feedback will necessarily be limited and contributors might become frustrated as a result. One possibility is to use the more flexible methods if you are collecting few stories, or at the start of the project, or if you aren't sure your questions are perfect; and reserve the less flexible web methods for when you are collecting more stories or when you are sure your questions won't be changing.
Choosing between these technology options will depend on these things:
- your technology know-how
- your budget (of time as well as money)
- the reactions of your storytellers to technology (will asking them to use a web site attract them or scare them?)
- the feelings of your storytellers about the intrusiveness and safety of different methods (paper safer than web?)
Know your resources
One of the most important things in doing this sort of work is to know the resources you have to work with, including yourself. If you are going to have a hard time asking people to do things they don't want to do (answer personal questions, come to a group session, do an exercise), find someone who can help you do that. If reading dozens of long email interviews will bore you to tears, find someone else who likes to do that sort of thing. You may have to experiment to find what works, and you may find abilities and interests you didn't know you had, but be prepared to adapt what you do to what you feel comfortable with and can do well.
If you have the good fortune to have a team of people doing the project, talk about how you can complement each other in carrying out the project. Perhaps one person can handle the technological side of things; perhaps one person can process the data; perhaps one person can write the persuasive messages that encourage people to contribute; perhaps one person can conduct interviews; and so on.
For further reading
The Anecdote group has put out an excellent white paper called The Ultimate Guide to Anecdote Circles, which describes some of the same techniques covered here. (If you wonder why I don't use the term "anecdote circles" in this book, it's because I think highlighting one method tends to make it seem as if there is only one way to collect stories. In my experience it's more important to develop a set of story-collecting skills that work in a variety of contexts than to develop one method only. Still, the white paper at Anecdote is a great resource and highly recommended.)
Reader comments, tips and advice can be found on the Deciding on methods Google Group page.