What is working with stories?
Working with stories means:
- asking people to tell stories (and usually, asking people to answer questions about the stories they tell), then
- working with the stories (and sometimes with the answers to the questions and the patterns they form) to find things out, catch emerging trends, make decisions, get new ideas, resolve conflicts, connect people, help people learn, and/or enlighten people.
The approach I describe in this book developed over about a decade as a joint effort with several colleagues at several places (for a list see the About this book section). It's not something that belongs to anyone, but something that grew in a community of people working with stories in their own unique ways. I think of the approach as sort of like a huge but kind whale that lets us swim alongside as long as we behave ourselves. This book is an invitation to come and swim along yourself.
I first wrote the phrase "working with stories" as a broad description of all the things one might do with stories back in a 1999 paper (which was never published). When I wanted to write this book I looked at all the names people use to describe this approach, but I didn't think any of them really did justice to the scope of what I wanted to show was possible. So I went back to what I've always called it, to myself. I like the phrase because it connotes:
- working with a medium like clay or wood, or tending a garden: shaping it, learning to understand it, making something of it
- working with other people: getting to know them, respecting them, working together as a team
I thought of calling the book something having to do with "minding" or "tending" stories, but finally settled on "working with stories" because it seemed more approachable and understandable.
What working with stories is not
The main difference between this approach and many others that collect stories is this: a person who is working with stories does not tell or interpret or change or even select stories, ever. All of these things are done only by the people in the group of interest. What the person running a story project does is help the stories get to where they need to be to help the community achieve a goal. To do this they can collect stories, ask questions about them, and help people look at, think about, and talk about the stories, the answers, and patterns they form. I and others have seen from experience that this approach is superior to approaches that don't respect the integrity of the raw story and end up (whatever their good intentions) injecting the biased interpretations of people outside the community.
Things you can do
These are some of the things you can do when you work with stories.
Stories can shed light on patterns
Find things out
By asking people to tell stories about subjects you care about, and then asking them some questions about the stories they've told, you can look at the patterns that appear when many of these stories are considered together. An example of a project that finds things out might be one where you ask a group of nursing home patients to tell stories about interactions with their doctors.
Catch emerging trends before they get bigger
This is sort of like finding things out, but it covers situations where you don't know what sorts of things people are concerned about and you don't have any particular questions to ask, but simply want to know what is on the horizon in terms of growing problems or opportunities. An example of a project that catches emerging trends might be one where you ask a group of teenagers to tell stories about parties they have been to or volunteer work they have enjoyed.
Looking at patterns in told stories (especially when done in a group sensemaking session) can provide practical support when choosing between available options. When you want to collect stories to support decision making, you might want to get people to move into fictional space to consider alternative possibilities for the future. An example of a project that helps people make decisions might be one that presents stories representing three different possible futures of a town and asks townspeople to answer questions about the stories and respond with stories of their own.
Get new ideas
If you want to plan for the future or solve a problem but want to find as many possible options as you can, you can cast a wide net and invite a large group of people to brainstorm with you by asking them to tell stories. An example of a project that gets new ideas might be one that asks people in an area plagued with gang violence to tell stories about times when they saw tense confrontations defused without violence.
Helping people share stories can
bring them together
One way to help people in a group understand life from the eyes of people in another group is to collect anonymous stories from both groups and make them available in ways that make it easy to connect stories across traditional boundaries. An example of a project that resolves conflicts might be one that asks kids from all over the world to tell about their first friendship or their happiest day with their parents or their proudest accomplishment, and reveals their nationality only after the story has been read.
Connect people to each other
Stories can connect people within as well as between groups. Providing a means for people to tell stories about their experiences in a group can help new members understand the unwritten rules of the community as well as provide a cultural language for resolving disputes. An example of a project that connects people might be one where university students are asked about their first day in their dormitory.
Help people learn
Telling stories to help people understand complex topics is both an ancient practice and an innate capacity. Providing a means to collect, provide context for, organize, and make available such learning stories can help a community to be more collectively productive. An example of a project that helps people learn might be one where a piece of software incorporates "Eureka!" and "Help!" buttons which encourage users to tell the story of what they discovered or what went wrong. In the "Help!" instance, the story could also function as a search pattern to help the user find a solution to their problem as well as to help other users articulate their needs and tell the software designers about improvements they could make.
Groups that have a mandate to educate people about particular subjects will find that story projects can be helpful to them in two ways. First, collecting stories of real experiences about a topic can help plan the best method of communicating a message. Second, one of the best ways to reach people if you want to persuade them of something is to show them the raw experiences of real people, not more of the hype and prepared advertising they are immersed in. An example of a project that changes minds might be one that collects stories about adoption and makes them available to people on the fence about becoming adoptive parents.
A story project can include any one or more of these purposes, and probably more I haven't thought of.
Things you can't do
So what can't you do by working with stories? You can't find specific answers, test hypotheses or conduct experiments as you would in a scientific endeavor. If conducting a proper scientific experiment is like using a tiny scalpel, asking people to tell stories is like using a bludgeon: it's a very blunt instrument. You can come up with hypotheses, but you can't control how people will interpret the questions you ask them, so you can never be sure if those hypotheses were proven or disproven. You can't create a control group, because you can't control how people will react. But for those very reasons, asking people to tell stories is a far better instrument for finding out how they feel and think than any other method. Giving up control is the best way to get at the truth.
Storytelling is hard to control
A particular turning point in my understanding of working with stories was when I learned about participatory action research and realized that it was the best way to think and talk about any area involving the thoughts and feelings and beliefs of people. Participatory action research recognizes that it is impossible to study a group of people without changing them, and so it embraces that fact and uses it to help people participate in making change happen in beneficial ways. It marries research with action and participation, or rather it admits the fact that research is action and participation, when the subject of that research is people.
The other thing you can't do in a story project is lie. If you try to use the stories people tell you to create propaganda that distorts what they said (though not all propaganda does), chances are the truth will come out. And when it does, not only will nobody ever trust you enough to tell you the truth again, but nobody will ever believe that anything you report as being a true story is really what anybody said. That's why the so-called "reality shows" are such a joke: nobody really believes any of it is unscripted. You can't really use stories; you can just work with them (and they sure know how to defend themselves!).
For further reading
Reader comments, tips and advice can be found on the What is working with stories? Google Group page.