Deciphering Culture

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Shifting the “bottom line”: recognizing the power of storytelling

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Earlier this year, I wrote a short piece for the print newsletter of Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary and Retreat Center on the increased recognition of storytelling as a valuable methodology whose use is no longer limited to communication and marketing. I’m posting it on Deciphering Culture in hopes that the ideas contained in it get broader distribution and, hopefully, inspire dialogue. If it also introduces some people to the amazing work of Earthfire Institute, all the better.

 

DATA ADDS UP, STORIES RING TRUE

by Jeffrey Callen

 

During the last decade, storytelling has been enthusiastically embraced as a methodological framework by individuals working in endeavors as different from each other as technology, journalism, and social activism. Storytelling is no longer confined to the realms of communications and marketing but is seen as integral to the creation of “product” (now often reconceptualized and relabeled as “experience”). In the design process, calculations and quantifiable arguments are replaced by the creation of evocative experiences—the bottom line is no longer how the data adds up but whether the story rings true.

This change in methodologies implies a changing vision of the work itself. Unlike quantifiable methodologies, storytelling is an art and, like other art forms, its primary goal is to create a space of connection outside the flow of everyday life. In this “virtual” space, new possibilities (ideas, strategies, visions) and ways of being in the world can be tried on and experimented with that previously had only been imagined or, at best, partially realized. The criteria by which this experience is evaluated is the extent to which it rings true, authentic and genuine— it is also the primary determinant of the effect the experience has on the participants. The best contemporary uses of storytelling apply this template which hearkens back to the beginnings of human society.

Nearly as old as music, dance and drawing, early forms of oral storytelling were shared in settings of fellowship that transcended later boundaries created between the realms of spirituality, healing, philosophy, history–keeping, and entertainment. The same respectful disregard of disciplinary boundaries is a component of the storytelling work of Earthfire Institute. It is one of the many ways in which it returns to the roots of storytelling. Storytelling is an integral component of the work of Earthfire Institute. It is more than its chosen means of communicating the ideas and values that drive its mission to reintegrate humans into nature. Through stories, Earthfire experiences are shared and intimate, often transformational, human/animal interactions are evoked, creating a space of connection with the listener/viewer (one of the advantages of storytelling in the postmodern age is the easy availability of integrated presentations of sight, sound and movement). In each online video or blog post, more is communicated than is contained in the outlines of a single story. Each story adds to the totality of Earthfire Institute’s work and it is here that Earthfire presents its vision of a possible future in which man’s (and woman’s) connection to the natural world is restored.

Jeffrey Callen is a storyteller and ethnographer based in San Francisco. As a consultant, he has advised Earthfire Institute on storytelling and strategic development. He is also a cultural analyst and creative writer, whose work has appeared in numerous scholarly and popular publications.

Short takes: Design Storytelling & User Experience

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The widespread adoption of “design thinking” has included a reinsertion of storytelling into many aspects of business life. For a look at its use in product/service design, see, The Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley of IDEO; in crafting a business plan, see Business Model Generation (both influential books in spreading the design Gospel); in user experience research,  Storytelling for User Experience by Whitney Quesenbery & Kevin Brooks has been recommended to me but has not made it to my reading list yet (UX hs not been one of my areas of exploration – yet).

All this is by way of prologue to an interesting article posted on UX Matters by Traci Lepore, The CSS of Design Storytelling: Context, Spine and Structure that looks at the nuts-and-bolts of storytelling in UX work. A short excerpt:

Storytelling is important not only to theater. I agree with Tom Erickson, who says in his article “Design As Storytelling” that design is a social, collaborative activity. I believe a UX designer’s role is to bridge all of the pieces that bring a design to life—from product management, marketing, user research, and design all the way through development. If that is true, communication is critical. Stories become an essential communication vehicle in the user experience world. Every day, we talk to users, bring back their stories, and co-create with them.

Major parts of our work are building personas, creating scenarios, and creating and using prototypes in usability testing—all of which connect our work to real users. Of course, we must also talk with various people within our organization to understand the case for a product’s business value, as well as relevant technical constraints, and negotiate a balance between all of these factors. But, in the end, to get buy in, we need to tell a compelling and engaging story about our design and its value. And we need to evangelize that story. To be successful in design, as well as theater, it makes sense to spend some time on the CSS—the Context, Spine, and Structure.


Written by Jeffrey Callen

July 28, 2011 at 5:06 pm

Short Takes: Ethnographic Fiction

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One of my fascinations is the ongoing development of ethnographic fiction as a means of capturing qualitative research that is more evocative and significantly meaningful than typical ethnographic prose. I noticed that there is an interesting workshop coming up down under on ethnographic fiction & speculative design. Outside the bounds of my travel budget but well worth checking out:

Ethnographic Fiction and Speculative Design is a full-day workshop at the 5th International Conference on Communities & Technologies–C&T 2011, in Brisbane, Australia, 29 June-2 July, 2011.

Goals of the Workshop

This full-day workshop aims to explore how grounded ethnographic and action research methods can be transformed into fictional and speculative designs that provide people the kinds of experiences and tools that can lead to direct community action in the development and implementation of new pervasive technologies.

And added to my reading  list is After Life: An Ethnographic Novel by anthropologist Tobias Hecht. From the blurb by Duke University Press:

Bruna Veríssimo, a youth from the hardscrabble streets of Recife, in Northeast Brazil, spoke with Tobias Hecht over the course of many years, reliving her early childhood in a raging and destitute home, her initiation into the world of prostitution at a time when her contemporaries had scarcely started school, and her coming of age against all odds.

Hecht had originally intended to write a biography of Veríssimo. But with interviews ultimately spanning a decade, he couldn’t ignore that much of what he had been told wasn’t, strictly speaking, true. In Veríssimo’s recounting of her life, a sister who had never been born died tragically, while the very same rape that shattered the body and mind of an acquaintance occurred a second time, only with a different victim and several years later. At night, with the anthropologist’s tape recorder in hand, she became her own ethnographer, inventing informants, interviewing herself, and answering in distinct voices.

With truth impossible to disentangle from invention, Hecht followed the lead of Veríssimo, his would-be informant, creating characters, rendering a tale that didn’t happen but that might have, probing at what it means to translate a life into words.

A call and response of truth and invention, mental illness and yearning, After Life is a tribute to and reinterpretation of the Latin American testimonio genre. Desire, melancholy, longing, regret, and the hunger to live beyond the confines of past and future meet in this debut novel by Tobias Hecht.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

April 22, 2011 at 4:15 pm

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