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The Benefits and Limits of Storybanking, Part 2

October 23, 2009

(Consultant Thaler Pekar helps smart leaders and their organizations find, develop, and share the stories and organizational narratives that can rally critical support. Her first post in this series, Stories Are a Vital Source of Knowledge, appeared in September.)

Story-narrative My previous post on the Benefits and Limits of Storybanking generated this offline comment from a professor at Rutgers University: "Thaler -- a very informative and thought provoking post. My question -- do you limit your storybank contents to a select number of stories that can be used by members of an organization so people remain 'on point'? And who approves the stories to be told? Or is that approach too authoritative, too top down?"

My response: If your storybank is established to support advocacy on a specific issue (for instance, to get more farmers markets to utilize food stamps or to pass an increase in your state's minimum wage), then the organizers of your effort may wish to limit the stories used to those focused on the specific message. Ideally, you would also have stories that are personally relevant to each messenger and audience segment.

If your storybank is focused on programmatic outcomes and organizational successes, there should be no quantitative limit to its contents. In fact, I would urge you to listen for narratives and anecdotes that illustrate the values, failures, challenges, and problem-solving capacity of your organization.

What is always important is how the stories in your storybank are tagged and rendered searchable. A good way to get started is to use the tagging and search functions readily available in applications like Microsoft Word, FileMaker Pro, and Bento. Possible tag categories include program area, geographic location, population served, and age and gender of protagonist, as well as narrator, topic, action, results, expressed value, and potential application. (This applies to video and audio recordings as well as written stories.) 

Remember: 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.

As they do, pay attention to the stories elicited from members of your audience. And ask yourself:

  1. What emotions, values, and insights is each sharer of a story trying to convey?
  2. What parts of the story become more meaningful over time? (Professional storytellers will tell you that a story must be shared a hundred times for its true meaning to be revealed.)
  3. How might each story connect to and make sense of other, newer, organizational narratives?
  4. In what ways do individual story-sharers differ in how they tell the same story?

With this knowledge in hand, reexamine your storybank categories and tags. Ask yourself: What should we add? Is there anything we don't need? Treat your storybank as a changeable source of knowledge and insights into your organization's work.

I'm continuing to explore and write about how organizations can elicit, listen to, and share stories as a way to better understand and communicate knowledge about their efforts and impact. At the moment, I'm thinking about neutrality in the curatorial process -- that is, how do we maintain objectivity in the process of selecting which stories to share? If you have confronted this challenge, I'd love to hear from you! Use the comments section below, or drop me a note at [email protected]. And thanks for sharing!

-- Thaler Pekar

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Posted by Melinda Lewis  |   October 26, 2009 at 11:12 PM

I love your focus on stories as a dynamic resource. I, too, have found the value in repeating stories--and I find that I often tell them slightly differently over time until I figure out how to make them resonate the most (what to emphasize, the details that are crucial). Nonprofits need help in verbally telling their stories, I think, because it's different than using them in writing, but they are such a powerful part of fundraising 'asks' and advocacy efforts, much of which happens in quick oral bursts. This is a delight, and thank you.

Posted by Thaler  |   October 30, 2009 at 09:09 AM

Thank you, Melinda! I appreciate your distinction between sharing stories orally and through writing. Thank you for commenting!

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