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What, Why, and How Story Matters

March 03, 2010

(Consultant Thaler Pekar helps smart leaders and their organizations find, develop, and share the stories and organizational narratives that can rally critical support. Her previous posts in this series can be found here, here, here, and here.)

Listening I fear the term "story" is being used so broadly as to render it meaningless.

Messages are not stories. Statements of belief and opinions are not stories. And, most of the time, answers to direct questions are not stories.

Many well-intentioned professionals are rushing out and thinking they are asking for stories, when they are not. What gets shared as a result of their efforts is often called story, even when it is not.

Allow me to define the term simply. "Story" implies a series of unfolding events. Something happens to someone or something. A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Understanding and recognizing a real story matters for three reasons: First, stories provide rich insight into complex emotions and situations, and competing, or even seemingly contradictory, values. They bridge the rational and the emotional. And stories provide context, enabling us to create meaning out of complexity and confusion. Flannery O'Connor observed, "A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way." It follows that by listening to stories, you will hear things you wouldn't ordinarily hear.

Second, the narrative elements found in many stories -- protagonist, secondary characters, conflict, resolution, theme, situation, setting -- usually combine to equal a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Moreover, when reviewing a large number of stories, the repetition of these elements, and the patterns and connections between them, very often yield insight and deeper meaning.

Third, when people think they are working with story -- but are not -- they tend to become discouraged and suspicious of the true power of effective narrative.

A recent Nonprofit Quarterly article, "Unraveling Development: Collecting Stories From Your Donors," stresses the importance of listening to your donors' stories. The article also poses a number of interesting questions. With a little tweaking, those questions can generate an abundance of details as well as important insight into your donors' relationship with your organization.

For instance, instead of asking the direct questions suggested in the article --

  • What interests you most about this organization? What is less interesting to you?
  • Why does this cause matter to you?
  • How does your philanthropy reflect your values?

-- consider inquiring about your donor's actual experiences:

  • 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?
  • Tell me about a time when you felt really connected with the mission of our organization.

Think about the kinds of details you will hear in response. Each of those questions is likely to result in a mélange of emotion, authentic experience, and visceral memories. Specific incidents, people, places, and situations will be referenced. Your donor is no longer focused on answering the specifics of your question, satisfying your inquiry with a dry, data-filled response. Instead, by asking for a story, you've indicated your willingness to listen, have surrendered control over the content of the answer, and have granted your respondent the freedom to exercise his or her creativity. Cynthia Kurtz, author of Working with Stories, nicely sums it up: "If the kind of thing you need to know, or you need other people to know, has to do with beliefs and opinions and feelings, asking people to tell you stories can provide a more authentic result than asking them direct questions."

I recently asked Jonathan Rose, a member of the Enterprise Community Partners board of trustees, about his earliest memory of the organization he now helps to lead. In response, Rose shared a story. He was just out of college and working at his father's real estate development company. Jim Rouse, the founder of Enterprise, had long been a hero of Jonathan's, so when he came to meet with Jonathan's dad, seeking financial support for the then-young Enterprise, Jonathan asked to sit in on the meeting. Fred Rose was hesitant to support the organization, as he was concerned that fundraising by national organizations like Enterprise might dilute local affordable housing efforts. But Jonathan was awed by Rouse's enthusiasm, compassion, and vision: "At the close of the meeting, Jim got up to leave, and I wanted to go with him! I still remember wanting so much to follow Jim and his young assistant Bart Harvey out the door. I have been following them ever since. Now I am honored to help in leading the extraordinary organization that he built, and to continue to implement his compassionate, practical, sustainable, and systemic solutions."

Asking people to share their experiences may feel awkward at first. Rest assured, the simple act of asking demonstrates your deep interest in the response; your donor (or colleague or employee) is likely to feel complimented, heard, and respected. And your obvious interest in the person with whom you are speaking is likely to result in you hearing personal and compelling stories.

The other night, I asked a friend to tell me about an instance when she felt connected to a charity to which she and her husband regularly contribute. In response, she told me about the time when her husband, who is "neither an emotional nor sentimental person," actually shed tears as he was reading a personal thank-you note from the organization. In fact, she said, the personalized letters they regularly receive from the charity underscore the sense they both share that there are real people and authentic intentions behind the organization's efforts.

We can be so eager to collect and deploy persuasive stories that we forget to listen. A truly strategic communicator will want to hear stories from myriad stakeholders about their relationship to the organization. And an excellent communicator will know how to elicit real stories -- not just facts -- from those stakeholders.

Listen to the stories around you. And if you aren't hearing any, ask your donors, colleagues, employees, and clients to share theirs. The results are likely to be rich and deeply rewarding, for both you and your organization.

-- Thaler Pekar

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Posted by Bruce Trachtenberg  |   March 03, 2010 at 12:28 PM

Interesting techniques to elicit great stories. Your post also made me recall what, a friend, Mark Sommer, the host of "A World of Possibilities," who has made a career telling stories on the radio, has said is the best method for getting people to open up. He says he waits for just the right moment during an interview and says, "Tell me more." As Sommer, notes, it works wonders every time.

Posted by Pamela Loos  |   March 06, 2010 at 09:47 AM

I am trying to write a note in response to the whole article, but having trouble, so I'm trying through this mechanism.

This article has great reminders; I've been thinking about data gathering, so the timing is perfect.

Do you or readers have a resource for finding good evaluation mechanisms/forms?

Thank you so much.

Posted by Thaler  |   March 09, 2010 at 10:25 PM

Pamela, I will be writing about this in upcoming months, and I will be presenting on it latter this Spring and Summer. In the meantime, my web site offers a page on How Story Helps, which offers different points during a project in which qualitative, narrative evaluation can occur.
You may be interested in these terrific forms from the Urban Institute: http://www.urban.org/center/cnp/Projects/outcomeindicators.cfm
Let me know if this is helpful - and if you find your good forms!
Thank you for commenting, Pamela.

Posted by david boje  |   March 23, 2010 at 02:56 PM

There is storytelling, and some of it produces action. I like to look at storytelling as an intra-play of narratives (past), living story webs (present) and antenarratives about the future field of possibilities. The three are intra-related, and one morphs into the other.

So sometime a living story web, is full of relationship, lots of emergence, and stuff happening we don't have an ending for, and maybe no beginning sorted out.

Narratives are those retrospective glances, and can, sometimes sort out beginning, middle, and ending. The narrative evaluation can be about what FIsher calls fidelity and probability>

The antenarratives are most interesting to me.

http://peaceaware.com/vita/ has some writing I have done on it. 20 some authors are doing a book I am editing on the antenarrating.

Good post Pamela --enjoyed it

More to come


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