21 posts categorized "author-Thaler Pekar"

Heroes, Collectives, and 'The Black Panther'

May 18, 2018


In the classic monomyth, or hero's journey, an individual goes on an adventure, faces and overcomes a challenge, and, as a result of that confrontation, returns home transformed. But the monomyth has long had its critics, who cite its misogyny, imperialistic slant, and tendency to exacerbate division through its focus on lone heroes and isolated villains. It's time to reconsider its ubiquitous use.

For some time now, I've warned activists and communications professionals that their well-meaning use of the monomyth framework can backfire. The familiarity of hero and villain, and of an easy-to-follow storyline, can be comforting. But people can tune out (if not actually resent) such pat and seemingly unrepresentative plots. Indeed, the embrace of simplicity and failure to honor diversity, complexity, and ambiguity can be counter-productive.

For example, elevating someone who has escaped a situation of intimate partner violence into a hero may cause those who remain trapped in such situations to feel like hapless victims. Likewise, pro-choice activists who choose to portray women who have had abortions as heroes may cause some women who are ambivalent about their decision to feel like a villain in their own stories.

While there are often good reasons to share a story that elevates a protagonist to hero status — and by extension, invites listeners to imagine themselves as heroic protagonists — the technique should be carefully deployed.

Even if we acknowledge that the hero is one person among many, and that the focus on her story is meant to be emblematic of a larger story, we are still categorizing her as good or bad, heroic or villainous.

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Leading Narrative Change

April 06, 2018

BigDipperActivists, philanthropists, and social entrepreneurs increasingly are focused on influencing people and shaping opinions, behaviors, and policy through narrative. There's also an increased focus on culture change through narrative.

Although the definition of the word can be nuanced, narrative generally refers to the big, overarching stories that result from the amalgamation of smaller stories. As the Narrative Initiative puts it: "What tiles are to mosaics, stories are to narratives."

Liz Manne and Erin Potts, co-founders of A More Perfect Story, offer another practical analogy to guide our understanding:

  • Stories are stars.
  • Narratives are constellations of stars.
  • Culture is the galaxy which contains the stories and narratives.

Just like constellations are groupings of stars that help us organize our understanding of the night sky, stories are assembled into narratives to more efficiently transmit our beliefs and collective meaning.

Brett Davidson, in "The Role of Narrative in Influencing Policy," offers this explanation of narrative change work:

Narratives embody fundamental assumptions by which we interpret and understand the world. Because they constitute the culture in which we live, we are often unaware of these assumptions and the narratives through which they are conveyed. Therefore we need to find ways to reveal, challenge and change them....

Working with story and narrative is different than working with messages. Working with story and narrative is multi-directional and requires active listening, a willingness to invite participation, and comfort with complexity. Today, leaders of nonprofit organizations have multiple channels for both communicating and listening, and audiences are increasingly distracted and fragmented. Working with story and narrative therefore requires leaders to be intentional about which stories to look for and share, and to select for the narratives they want to influence.

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Simple Stories and Complex Narratives

April 17, 2012

(Thaler Pekar is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In her last post, she wrote about narrative, big data, and the future of communication.)

Simplicity_complexityInvisible Children's Kony 2012 video, the most viral ever, is an almost perfect mashup of up-to-the-minute advocacy messaging and tactics: the personal story frame; the clear antagonist and invitation to the viewer to imagine him or herself as the hero; the explicit call to action executed across multiple platforms; the use of simple narrative; even the appeal to young people's concern that mass media ignores their voices.

That said, I find many things about the video to be unsettling. Never mind its strong support for a militaristic solution, or its use of a questionable dominant narrative (an issue that was addressed in the organization's follow-up video); I want to address the global conversation the video has sparked around the telling of complex versus simple stories. Is there a place for simple stories in advocacy? If your organization is seeking to solve a complex problem, must it always share complex stories?

Invisible Children has a clearly defined goal: "to arrest [the warlord Joseph Kony], disarm the LRA and bring the child soldiers home" -- and Kony 2012 invites viewers to engage with that story solely on the basis of the organization's proffered solution. Detractors of the video rightly note that the story of conflict in Uganda is far more complex than the video presents -- precisely because they themselves view the conflict through the lens of complex systemic change.

I don't happen to think simple stories are needed to share complex narratives. (I use "narrative" to refer to the larger story and frame, and "story" as the small episodes and moments that encapsulate the larger narrative.) People are emotionally complex, live complex lives, and can relate to authentic, emotionally complex stories. The longevity of The New Yorker, the popularity of This American Life, the respect and attention paid the deeply reported journalism of ProPublica attest to our willingness to thoroughly engage with complex long-form narratives.

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Emotion and the Search for Meaning at SXSW

March 19, 2012

(Thaler Pekar is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In her last post, she wrote about your "T-shape" and how paying attention to it can help you collaborate.)

Sxsw_interactive_logoI just returned from the South by Southwest Interactive conference (SXSW), where I participated in a panel on applying story and narrative in organizations. I went to SXSW looking to explore my contention that, in an increasingly loud, complex, and data-saturated world, a smart leader's role is not to add more information but to communicate meaning. That certainly was the subtext of a fascinating discussion I sat in on titled "Maps of Time: Data as Narrative."

During the discussion, Burt Herman, co-founder of Storify, the popular social media curation tool, argued that because "every story is not perfectly understood in the moment," the use of algorithms to mine user data is a perfectly legitimate way to help people decide what's important. Pushing back a bit on Herman's point, Jenn Thom, a research scientist at IBM's Visual Communication Lab, noted that "the algorithms we create to sift through data are not apolitical." And Drew Harry, Ph.D. candidate at the MIT Media Lab, presented a program he is developing that helps people decide in real time what is and isn't important.

But it was panelist Nicola Hughes, a Knight-Mozilla Fellow, who said something that really electrified me, perfectly capturing what in my opinion was the real theme of this year's SXSW Interactive conference: that true social and technological innovation requires the marriage of offline and online activities, the combination of the digital and the human. Hughes noted that when people are trying to make sense of news in the moment -- think of trending stories on Twitter -- "untruths can travel far." Is sense-making then, true to what actually happened or why it happened? And, she added by way of warning, because all of us are producing and being exposed to a lot more of "It" (data, news, and information in narrative form), "we're going to be getting 'It' wrong more often."

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3 Ways Your 'T-Shape' Helps You Collaborate

January 04, 2012

(Thaler Pekar recently collaborated with Jay Rhoderick of BizProv to deliver the opening plenary at the 2011 New Jersey Non-Profit Conference. This is an excerpt from that plenary, "Productive Partnerships: Building Trust and Creating Collaborations." In her last post, Thaler offered seven tips for sharing stories in your organization.)

T-shapedThe metaphor of the "T-shaped person" is often used by human resource professionals to describe people who possess both deep expertise and broad knowledge of other disciplines.

Tim Brown, CEO and president of Ideo, explains how his product design firm applies the concept when hiring:

"We look for people who are so inquisitive about the world that they're willing to try to do what you do. We call them 'T-shaped'. They have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T.... But they are so empathetic they can branch out into other skills, such as anthropology, and do them as well [the horizontal line]. They are able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need."

Let's consider the metaphor in more detail, focusing on how important your T-shape is to your ability to collaborate....

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Pro-Voice and Pro-Chaos

July 25, 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 her last post, she shared seven tips for finding stories in your organization.)

Journey_goddesses Typically, stories have a beginning, middle, and end. They are set in place and time. They feature characters who struggle with choices and consequences. They hinge on conflict and its resolution. The listener/viewer/reader can hear/see/comprehend that something has happened to someone.

One of the most ubiquitous storylines is the hero's journey. This is the mono-myth found in every culture: an individual sets out on a journey, encounters a challenge, and returns changed. The hero's journey is a story of personal or community transformation. It is the story of Jesus and Luke Skywalker, of Rosa Parks and César Chávez.

It is also the story with which philanthropy and advocacy is most familiar. In the quest to secure funding and other types of support, the stories we use are usually chosen for their effectiveness in illustrating a preferred solution to a defined problem.

Exhale, a community-based organization working to transform the way in which abortion is discussed, abstains from pre-selecting a single version of a hero's journey. The organization isn't interested in sharing a piece of reality; it wants to share the chaotic, muddled mess that is reality.

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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?

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Ethical Storysharing, Part 2

April 19, 2011

(Frequent 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. Click here to read part 1. The complete video of the lecture can be seen at her Web site, www.thalerpekar.com.)

Storytelling_night A wise person once said, "There are always three stories: the story you tell; the story you hear; and the story that is the truth." I will add a fourth: the story you are not hearing.

Thinking about the stories you're not hearing is critical to the ethical use of story. Do you have a responsibility to seek them out? Also, do you plan to label and publicly present the stories you do gather? And if so, how will the context affect the way the audience perceives those stories?

The way you choose to label stories -- "Stories from College Graduates," "Stories from Women," Stories from African Americans” -- can affect the way in which they are understood. When you label, you may lose some of the context and emotion that is critical to true understanding.

Similarly, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie warns, in a 2009 TED Talk, about the "danger of the single story." As Adichie says:

How they are told, who tells them, when they are told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes, "That if you want to dispose a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, 'Secondly...'

Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, but not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African states, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story...."

(I encourage you to watch the entire twenty-minute talk.)

Be aware, as well, of other power imbalances, of people feeling they have no recourse but to say "Yes" when you ask them to share their story. Perhaps you want to use it in an advertising campaign or a public service announcement and are offering monetary compensation or an all-expenses-paid trip. Either may constitute a power imbalance.

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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.

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Holiday Gifts for the Communications Pro in Your Life

December 18, 2010

(Thaler Pekar, a consultant specializing in persuasive communication, helps smart leaders and their organizations find, develop, and share the stories and organizational narratives that rally critical support. In her last post, she wrote about connecting an organization's past, present, and future.)

Xmas_presents Here are a few "gifts" that have come my way recently and which, in the spirit of the season, I'd like to share with you:

For a great example of Heart, Head & Hand™ communication, look at the start of this appeal from the Maine Women's Fund:

I have an almost 3-year-old daughter who puts her outfits together on her own. She often appears in argyle tights, a polka dot skirt and a striped shirt -- quite a colorful and startling combo. I love her boldness and when I look to the future, I know a girl's creativity and individuality will be at risk if the voice of encouragement isn't louder than the voice of judgment. We hear the same message from our grantees and those they serve, as well as from participants in the Women's Leadership Series, New Girls, and women entrepreneurs: "Thought I was crazy for tying a different path." "I thought I was the only one."

Our encouragement is instrumental in enabling women and girls to be bold, take risks and reach their full potential. It is many voices joined together that create thunderous encouragement, and it is your individual contribution joined with so many others that allow the Fund to invest wisely in the power of women and dreams of girls through our grants and leadership programs….

I love that Executive Director Elizabeth Stefanski appeals to her readers' hearts, framing her appeal with an emotionally resonant anecdote that leaves the reader nodding in recognition throughout the rest of the letter.

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Heart, Head & Hand: An Advanced Approach to Persuasive Communication

September 27, 2010

(Thaler Pekar helps smart leaders and their organizations find, develop, and share the stories and organizational narratives that rally critical support. For more on inviting your listener to be a part of your organization's solution, see her previous post, Everybody Wants to Be a Hero.)

Connect_emotions For the past year, I've been writing here at PhilanTopic about the use of story for knowledge sharing, board and staff development, and communication. Story is, in fact, an extremely effective persuasive communication tool -- and one that can be applied in a larger communication framework I call Heart, Head & Hand™.

Heart, Head & Hand is a fresh approach to a traditional concept of communication in which the order of the three steps is vitally important: 1) establish rapport and seek empathy with your listener (heart); 2) appeal to your listener's -- and your own -- desire for proof points by offering supportive evidence (head); and 3) remember to ask your listener to take action (hand).

As with all strategic communication, you start with an end goal in mind. There's a reason why you strive to impart information: you want the recipient of that information to do something with it. In most cases, you want your listener to take some kind of action. So start by focusing on what it is you want your listener(s) to do. Strive for specificity. The desired action could be anything from making a seven-figure donation, to calling his or her senator or representative, to a simple request to "Please consider our conversation."

Once you've formulated a clear understanding of the action you want your listener to take, think of how you can help him or her connect to the information you want to share. Neuroscience, brain imaging, cognitive and behavioral psychology studies all have shown that new information can only be connected to things we already know. Meaning is created when your listener can associate the information you want to impart with things he or she already understands.

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Everyone Wants to Be a Hero

August 31, 2010

(Thaler Pekar, a consultant specializing in persuasive communication, helps smart leaders and their organizations find, develop, and share the stories and organizational narratives that rally critical support. You can find other posts by Thaler here, here, and here.)

Hero_journey2 Much of my work is focused on helping smart leaders and organizations find and develop stories to share with their audiences. To that end, I'd like to share two anecdotes that may help you achieve greater clarity in your communications.

Everybody wants to be a hero. Smart leaders and organizations know that. You also know it's natural for people to align themselves with solutions rather than to associate themselves with problems. You want the audiences for your stories to relate as much as possible to the protagonists in the stories you choose to share and to empathize with the protagonist’s heroic journey.

Here's an example from the private sector, in which the target audience -- the potential customer -- was cast as the hero. Recently, I helped North America's largest provider of emergency response software share the story of a county emergency services director. Wanting to provide more value to the residents of her community -- and convinced the software would save lives -- the director took a risk by going before her budget-constrained county supervisors and advocating for a state-of-the-art emergency response system. In preparing to share this story, the inclination of my client, the company that designed the software, was to focus on the battered woman whose life was saved because she was able to text emergency services from the closet in which she was hiding from her abusive husband. Certainly, a compelling story. My client's customers, however, are public-sector employees in a position to purchase my client's software. And because these public sector customers wish to see themselves as making smart and effective decisions, I urged my client to focus the story on the emergency services director who fought for and secured the purchase of the life-saving software. Again, this story is not simply about one saved life, but is instead about one person who fought to save many lives -- a protagonist to whom the customers can relate.

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Connecting Your Organization’s Past, Present & Future

July 19, 2010

(Thaler Pekar, a consultant specializing in persuasive communication, helps smart leaders and their organizations find, develop, and share the stories and organizational narratives that rally critical support. This post first appeared in Charity Channel's Nonprofit Boards and Governance Review. You can find other posts by Thaler here, here, and here.)

Pont-Terenez-Vue-Usager Are your board members reticent to change? Are they pushing back at adopting a new approach to program implementation, service delivery, or staffing? Are they hesitant to embrace, and become ambassadors for, new policies?

Most likely, your board members do not fully understand the proposed change -- or the connection of the new initiative to the "old way" of doing things. Information alone cannot foster acceptance and engagement. Offering explanations, data, and statistics does not necessarily convert information into true understanding.

Your board members can, however, be respectfully guided toward understanding and embracing what seems like change. Provide time and space for them to explore your organization's history and current achievements and they are more likely to forge a strong connection to the future and vision of your organization.

Encourage the sharing of memories among your board members. By revisiting and expanding their sense of the past, reflecting and building on the passion that currently connects them to your organization, and co-creating a strong image of the future, your board members are more likely to see a natural progression from the organization's past to its future.

Consider the following prompts for reflection:

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Values as Visuals

June 29, 2010

(Thaler Pekar, a consultant specializing in persuasive communication, helps smart leaders and their organizations find, develop, and share the stories and organizational narratives that rally critical support. You can find other posts by Thaler here, here, and here.)

Picture-your-legacy-zoom Last year, I participated in a wonderful workshop at the Golden Fleece conference titled "How Pictures Can Promote, Provoke and Prolong Communication." The workshop promised I would "leave with practical methods, simple exercises, and exciting tools for helping yourself and others to find the stories in their lives."

It was designed around Dialoogle® -- a blended word combining "dialog" and "Google" and meaning "a search for a dialogue." I was enthralled! The high-quality cards, each featuring an exquisite photograph, were scattered throughout the room, and participants were directed to choose three cards and "tell the story of three turning points in your professional life." The results were profound, yet seemingly effortless. We worked in small groups, and all the members of my group, including me, instinctively shared one story about their past, one about their current professional life, and one about their vision of the future.

Madelyn Blair, Ph.D, who facilitated the workshop with Pernille Stockfleth, a partner with Dialoogle, blogged shortly afterward, "If I ever thought that it was hard to help people find their stories, I realize now that this small tool acts like a match to a fire. You better stand back and let the stories burst into the room."

I purchased a set of the cards, and immediately upon returning home, shared them with my husband, Tom, who works as an audio engineer on documentary films. I asked him to choose an image that represented why he does what he does professionally, and to tell me why he chose that card. Tom chose the image of a man operating an old but working bellows camera and shared an earnest and heartfelt explanation of his work. He talked about the allure of "human interaction with a machine" and how the camera is a "practical, working device -- and is really beautiful." He then explained his desire to combine his attraction to visual imagery, his desire to work with his hands, and his respect for contributing something practical and tangible to the world. Tom is not someone prone to self-reflective conversation, and both he and I were surprised at the depth of the emotion behind the explanation of his choice.

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Program Evaluation and Narrative

June 07, 2010

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

Circle_hands I had an inspiring meeting last week with a colleague who specializes in program evaluation. Part of that meeting was devoted to exploring how narrative can work alongside evaluation to determine organizational strategy.

During our conversation, the following things became clear (funders take note!):

• Theories of Change should be accompanied by Stories of Change! Not simply an expository description of your Theory of Change, but an actual story with a beginning, middle, and end, conflict, and resolution. What is the future aspirational end toward which your organization is working? Where, and in what ways, have you already told that story?

• Narrative evaluation can support more seemingly rigorous methods of quantitative evaluation. In fact, narrative evaluation can uncover truths that may be difficult to surface in other ways.

• Measures of evaluation should be meaningful and understood by both grantees and funders. Indeed, by asking grantees to share stories about what success would look like, funders can better gauge whether grantees fully understand the proposed metrics. In other words, agreement on language does not necessarily mean agreement.

• Facilitating the sharing of stories among grantees is a way to create connections, transmit knowledge, reduce competitiveness (among grantees), and may contribute to movement building. If you feel it's appropriate, ask your grantees to share stories about their experiences wielding power and influence: "Tell us about a time your organization had a seat at the table. What happened? Who was there? How did you feel?" Or, "Tell us about a time your organization was prevented from having a seat at the table. What happened?"

• Grantees must be provided with a safe context in which they can share stories about their failures and unresolved challenges, as well as their successes. Self-reflection is critical to program and organizational development. Space can be provided for sense-making activities that explore the characters, challenges, settings, and other elements that contribute to success or failure. What are the emergent themes?

• Story is a non-threatening, democratic tool for clarifying uncertainty. Significant change is usually predicated by daunting complexity. Stories can make sense of that complexity and assure that important details do not fall through the cracks.

• Encouraging the sharing of stories among program officers often leads to insight, innovation, and more effective targeting of resources. And helping program officers become better listeners -- and better story sharers themselves -- is likely to result in more story sharing by grantees. True narrative leadership means prompting stories through the sharing of stories; asking for stories and then fully listening to the stories that are shared; recognizing and exploring commonalities among the stories one hears; and acting on the knowledge gleaned through those stories.

• Evaluators should spend more time thinking about how they can present their findings through narrative: Do their findings lend themselves to a presentation with a clear beginning, middle, and end? Why did the organization decide to measure the things it did? What were the barriers it encountered along the way? Was it successful? What, if anything, has changed as a result of gathering that data?

• When approached thoughtfully, the knowledge gleaned through story sharing and narrative analysis can contribute considerable value to the strategic focus and programmatic effectiveness of any organization.

As I said, it was a productive meeting! Is your organization applying narrative to sharpen its strategic focus and effectiveness? Have your program officers received training in the elicitation and preservation of stories? Do you encourage your grantees to share qualitative as well as quantitative data? What challenges are you encountering? I'd love to hear from you. Use the comments section below....

-- Thaler Pekar

Quote of the Week

  • "[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance...."

    — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States

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