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Ethical Storysharing, Part 1

April 18, 2011

(Regular contributor Thaler Pekar recently delivered a lecture on the ethics of working with story to Kent State University's graduate program in Information Architecture and Knowledge Management. Below is an excerpt from that lecture. The complete video of the lecture is available at Thaler's Web site, www.thalerpekar.com.)

Storytelling_night Stories can be extremely powerful, and extremely persuasive. Stories connect to and surface people's memories. They are a powerful tool for getting people to visualize, to imagine, even to viscerally sense a situation.

When someone shares a story about something that happened to him or her, they are sharing a piece of themselves. Something similar may have happened to you, but the specifics of what happened to the person sharing a story is unique to that person. The way events unfolded, the way he or she felt, the way he or she thought about the experience -- that is the unique possession of the person sharing the story. Which makes our own stories a uniquely powerful part of each of us.

Because stories are powerful, and because they are wholly owned by the person who shares them, we have an ethical obligation to use story in ways that do no harm. Whether we are asking for stories to better understand an organizational challenge, to use in our organizational communications, or for an advocacy campaign, our goal should be to empower, not exploit.

Let's explore the ways in which we can do that.

To start, be honest about why you are setting out to gather and share stories. Ask yourself not only what your organizational goals are, but how your strategy benefits the person or people sharing their stories.

Is your goal to elicit more stories? Sometimes advocacy organizations do this. An organization working to improve healthcare access and coverage may want to gather stories about the difficulty some Americans have in getting health insurance. Or an organization may want to elicit stories from its clients about their satisfaction with a particular healthcare product or service.

Might you be looking to elicit stories to transfer and share organizational knowledge? Are you sharing stories to spark a conversation? Are you looking to motivate your audience to take action? Is your ultimate goal to build a community?

Whatever it is you are hoping to do, be explicit about your goals and make good on them! If you want to spark a conversation, make sure you provide the time and a physical or digital space in which that conversation can occur. If you want listeners to share similar stories, provide a mechanism for them to do so. If you want listeners to take another kind of action, provide them with the resources to do so.

Being clear and transparent about your goals is crucial. Cynthia Kurtz and David Snowden offer three rules for the ethical use of narrative in an organization:

  1. Always declare up front the use of narrative techniques (no stealth story work). If an anecdote is covertly collected, it cannot be used until the person sharing the anecdote has voluntarily given his/her express permission.
  2. If asked any question about what sort of narrative intervention you are doing, answer honestly; and
  3. Appoint an independent arbitrator for any dispute over the use of narrative techniques in an organization.

If you respect the story and the person sharing the story, you will ensure that three additional conditions are present:

  1. No one is coerced into sharing a story.
  2. People are fully listened to when sharing their stories.
  3. The environment in which the story is shared is positive.

You may have noticed that I've refrained from talking about story "collection," or even story "tellers." These terms are transactional, implying a giver and a taker. Story is not a commodity, something that is taken from one person and given to another. This is especially true in development work, where there often is a tendency to take a poor or ill person's story and offer it to a potential donor in exchange for a monetary gift.

The need to refrain from treating story as a commodity goes beyond nonprofit and advocacy work; it should inform all your work with narrative. True narrative intelligence respects the sharer of the story and recognizes that his or her story is a unique part of them that cannot, and should not, be taken and shared without permission.

(Come back tomorrow to read part 2.)

-- Thaler Pekar

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