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7 Tips for Finding Stories in Your Organization

June 17, 2011

(Regular contributor Thaler Pekar helps smart leaders and their organizations find, develop, and share the stories and organizational narratives that can rally critical support. In April, we posted an abbreviated version of a lecture on the Ethics of Working with Story that Thaler delivered to Kent State University’s graduate program in Information Architecture and Knowledge Management.)

Bullseye Here are some tips on how you can elicit stories about your organization from colleagues, board members, donors, clients, grantees, and others.

1. Ask about moments of emotion. Ask people -- and yourself -- when you have felt passionate, connected to, engaged with, surprised, proud of, or touched by your organization, a client, or an event. You can also ask people to recall turning points -- moments when something important seemed to change.

2. Ask for the stories behind the words. My colleague Madelyn Blair says "stories are made up of words, and words are made up of stories." Look at your mission statement and tagline. What stories do the words inspire? Look, especially, at your organization's stated values -- might you have a story about when you last felt that way?

For example, I recently worked with the smart staff of Hazon. The Hazon tagline is "Jewish inspiration. Sustainable communities." The organization's staff is committed to exploring stories about being inspired at work and how their work impacts the greater world. And they're eager to explore the meaning of the word sustainable: What does it mean? Can the definition change when it's used in reference to a person? A workplace? A community? The world? When did staff most feel like they were living sustainably?

3. Plot stories on a timeline. Create a timeline that charts the lifespan of your organization as well as your time there as an employee. Include all the big events, both professional and personal. Note the challenges and turning points. Who were the "angels" along the way? Do you have any stories about how they helped you and/or your organization? Can looking at events in this way help you craft a different, more compelling story about your organization's history and present activities and goals?

I facilitated this exercise with Nancy Biberman, founder and executive director of WHEDCo. Nancy has long talked about WHEDCo's quest to provide poor children in the South Bronx with the same high-quality extracurricular activities available to children in affluent suburbs. Going through the timeline exercise helped Nancy remember that she was in the process of building WHEDCo and its programs at a time when she and her family had moved from Brooklyn to a suburb just outside Manhattan -- and that she derived such delight and comfort from seeing her daughter and son ride their bikes down a tranquil suburban street and play in a clean, drug-free park that she decided to incorporate those feelings into the work of the organization she was building. Thanks to the timeline exercise, Nancy has a deeply personal story she can use to engage listeners and foster a better understanding of WHEDCo's mission.

4. Ask for superlatives. People tend to remember the "best," "worst," "first," "most," "happiest," or "saddest." Ask for stories related to those moments, and try to elicit what really happened to make the moment superlative. In an earlier post, What, Why and How Story Matters, I suggested asking your stakeholders the following questions:

  • If you look back over your years of knowing and being a part of this organization, what experiences come to mind? What incident stands out as the most delightful?
  • Can you tell me about an experience that was less interesting to you?
  • When was the first time you heard of our organization? With whom were you speaking? What was happening?

5. Play with objects. Think "Show & Tell." Choose an object that speaks to your relationship with your organization. Why is this object important to you? How did you come to possess it? Who was there? How did you feel?

6. Use visuals. Similar to objects, ask people to choose pictures from magazines, newspapers, books, or their photo albums that symbolize their relationship with the organization. You can also use decks of cards that are especially constructed to elicit stories. See my previous post, Values as Visuals.

7. Create a Living Circle. Have your staff or board members line up in order of tenure with the organization, then have them form a circle. Next, have each person share a story about an experience that occurred the year they joined the organization. Encourage people to share a specific memory, from a specific moment in time.

No matter what tool you use to spark the sharing of stories, be sure to have a clear prompt. Remember to ask for "a moment," "a time," or "an experience." Remember, you're looking for examples, not opinions.

If you're sharing stories in a group, limit each person sharing their story to one to three minutes. Remind people to think of their stories as having a clear beginning, middle, and end. This will help them construct a story that can be shared within the one- to three-minute timeframe.

Once you have collected a new batch of stories about your organization, remember to share them! As I have noted previously: "Stories are not commodities to be banked and forgotten. They are, instead, a valuable tool for information sharing and sense-making. And their use should not be limited to print and electronic newsletters, Web sites, and direct-mail pieces. Make certain your stakeholders are in the habit of sharing stories orally and frequently."

And don't forget: One of the best ways to elicit a story is to share a story yourself -- and to listen carefully to the stories it sparks in return.

-- Thaler Pekar

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