Deciphering Culture

Posts Tagged ‘Storytelling

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: Storytelling — illness narratives as healing tools

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Almost everyone’s life has been touched by a serious illness, whether their own or someone close to them. As with most everything else, we make sense of the experience through creating narratives. In a thought-provoking and insightful post on Nieman Storyboard (The implications of plot lines in illness and memoir), Victoria Costello discusses the use of “narrative therapy” in healing and how encouraging clients to change the story they are tellling of their illness can “can have a real impact on treatment and survival.”

Studies show, for example, that when a wife includes her husband in the story of her breast cancer, in effect changing the protagonist in her narrative from “I” to “we,” treatment becomes more effective and her chance of survival improves. In psychotherapy, when a client sees a redeeming value in the abuse he suffered in childhood – usually that the hardship has made him a stronger person – studies by Dan P. McAdams show that this “redemption narrative” provides the client a higher level of life satisfaction. (for the rest)

The discussion of the Arthur W. Frank’s work (the sociologist who developed the concept of the illness narrative) left me determined to check out his book The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. As a storyteller, I was drawn to Frank’s definition of three types of illness narratives: the restitution narrative (restoration “to good health due to the marvels of modern medicine”), the chaos narrative (“the illness moves randomly…from bad to worse and back to bad before getting worse again”), the quest narrative (“the ill person meets suffering head on; they accept illness and seek to use it. Illness is the occasion of a journey that becomes a quest”). A story may shift narrative structures as it goes on: not every descent into chaos is without hope and a seemingly Quixotic quest can find success. It is as true here as it is in the other stories that frame our lives.

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Written by Jeffrey Callen

August 3, 2011 at 7:02 pm

Ethnographic Storytelling – another lesson from Haruki Murakami

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This is the second in a series of lessons from notable fiction writers that provide guidance (or at least inspiration) for core techniques used in ethnographic storytelling. The first entry was a lesson from Haruki Murakami in how to set a scene (Ethnographic Storytelling – a lesson from Haruki Murakami). The second lesson, also from Murakami, addresses how to create convincing characters that blend the “factual” and the “true.”

A lesson from Haruki Murakami in creating characters

One need in any storytelling is to create compelling characters. As in fiction, ethnographies frequently require the creation of characters that represent more than a single individual: a typical member of a social group, whether it be a music fan, an elder in a community, a customer for a product, a technology user. Whether the story is addressing a problem or issue within the realm of ethnomusicology, anthropology, design or UX, convincing, compelling characters are a baseline requirement — if you can not believe in the characters, you will not believe in the points being made in the story. The following passage from The Wind-up Bird Chronicle illustrates the need to rely upon both the factual and the true in creating characters (and in storytelling in general):

He was engaged in a serious search for the meaning of his own existence…. To do that, Cinnamon had to fill in those blank spots in the past that he could not reach with his own hands. By using those hands to make a story, he was trying to supply the missing links. From the stories, he had heard repeatedly from his mother, he derived further stories in an attempt to re-create the enigmatic character of his grandfather in a new setting. He inherited from his mother’s stories the fundamental style he used, unaltered, in his own stories: namely, the assumption that fact may not be truth, and truth may not be factual. The question of which parts of a story were factual and which parts were  not was probably not a very important one for Cinnamon. The important question for Cinnamon was not what his grandfather did but what his grandfather might have done. He learned the answer to this question as soon as he suceeded in telling the story. 

Written by Jeffrey Callen

July 30, 2011 at 1:11 pm

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

Ethnographic Storytelling – a lesson from Haruki Murakami

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A while ago, I wrote a post about my fascination with the ongoing development of ethnographic fiction as a means of capturing qualitative research that is more evocative and significantly meaningful than typical ethnographic prose (Short Takes: Ethnographic Fiction). This fascination arose from my longstanding dissatisfaction with the lifeless quality of so much ethnographic prose and conviction that good research could be related in good writing. While I applaud the efforts of writer-scholars such as Tobias Hecht (After Life: An Ethnographic Novel to open up new territory for ethnographic representation, I have to admit that I have  yet to read a work that successfully utilizes fictional techniques to create a convincing and engaging ethnography. The question arises if it’s simply a problem of blending two very different skill sets: those of a researcher and those of a writer? But so many fiction writers have done such thorough research and then related it in masterful prose — if you want proof, read the opening section of Don Delillo‘s Underworld , which recreates the deciding game of the 1951 National League pennant race. Maybe, it is best to turn to fiction writers for tips on how to tell a story. Below is a lesson from Haruki Murakami in how to set a scene in what may be the first entry in an occasional series here on Deciphering Culture.

A lesson from Haruki Murakami in setting the scene

One need in any storytelling is to set the scene. Sometimes, you do that by (in cinematic terms) taking a long shot to set the context before moving in to capture the details. Murakami is a master of this and often uses this device to set a scene. For example, this passage from The Wind-up Bird Chronicle:

Like a make-believe bird in a make-believe sky, I see the rooms from above. I enlarge the view, pull back, and survey the whole, then zoom in to enlarge the details. Each detail carries much significance, of course, I check each one in turn examining it for shape and color and texture. From one detail to the next,there is no connection, no warmth. All I am doing at that point is a mechanical inventory of details. But it’s worth a try. just as the rubbing together of stones or sticks will eventually produce heat and flame, a connected reality takes shape little by little.

Storytelling

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The narrative thread that holds together my various pursuits as a scholar, journalist and consultant is a fascination with the power and meaning of stories. Storytelling — the oldest form of history, religion and entertainment — is valuable for its ability to instill meaning into a narrative (which may have begun as a jumble of events), to create connections with other times and places, and to take us away, if only for a brief time, from the pressures and mundanity of everyday life. The first inkling that what I was doing was storytelling was when I was collecting oral histories in North Richmond, California to document the life cycle of a nightclub district and what its presence and eventual loss had meant for the community. It was my first serious research project and I was approaching it with all the gravitas of the typical graduate student. Fortunately, my wife was enthusiastic about the project, particularly the power of telling stories to document history and not lose a human face, and awakened me to the fact that what I was actually doing was collecting stories and weaving them together to tell the story of an important period in the life of their community. It was a defining moment that changed how I approached my work — although it took a number of years until I was fully aware that what I was doing as an ethnomusicologist was storytelling. Recently, I have been struck by how often I stumble across the adoption of storytelling as an label for what people do in a wide variety of pursuits — healing, journalism, spiritual practices, design, public relations to name a few — and sometimes the cynic in me raises its snarky head but, more and more, I see it as possibly being a marker of a paradigm shift, returning the human face to a wide variety of pursuits.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

June 21, 2011 at 1:22 pm

Posted in Storytelling

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