Stories in two flavours
I got lots of great comments on my recent blog post “If I told you a story, would you believe me?” In reading them I realize there are a couple of things I should have elaborated further on stories.
First of all I do believe that collecting personal narratives or testimonies is a legitimate research methodology, that while obviously somewhat subjective can nevertheless be used to collect valuable information and insights in a way that is complementary to more quantitative methods of research. Also as Jennifer and Max pointed out, if you systematically collect a large number of stories this can be particularly vaulable as it can help turn the qualitative data into quantitative and help cancel out some of the bias that might occur when only collecting a small number of stories. I get bothered when I hear quantitative researchers say that the plural of anecdote is not data, because done well it is. In my last job in UNICEF we were exploring the systematic collection of stories to help measure the value of communities of practice – see this blog. This was based on an approach developed by Etienne Wenger and Beverly Trayner. Unfortunately I left UNICEF before this could come to fruition and am unsure of where this project stands now.
It is important however to draw a distinction between collecting testimonials from partners/beneficiaries using some kind of standardized approach, while attempting to keep in listening mode one the one hand, and setting out to deliberately craft a storyline (even if based on “the facts” as they were recounted) that seeks to carry a specific message in order to transfer a piece of knowledge or to persuade someone to engage or take action on the other. Both of these have their uses, but the first is most useful in terms of research and evidence gathering whereas the second is most useful in terms of engagement and persuasion. I think some of the problems with stories can be due to a misperception of, or poor trade-off between the two different approaches and objectives.
In practice we often try to use both approaches together, that is we try to collect “authentic” stories, but then we also selectively pick those which serve our purposes, or selectively edit those to better make the point we are using the story to illustrate. And the level to which a story is a faithful representation or a carefully selected and edited story line is not always immediately clear to our audience (or perhaps even sometime to ourselves). Often we do this for expediency “well we are doing this great qualitative research that uses authentic voices, but we can also make use of the stories in our fundraising material”.
A particular KM related example of this mixed approach is in how good practice case studies are used. Here the main aim is to try to faithfully document what happened in a project and what positive features we can learn from and potentially replicate. But at the same time we risk to overemphasize the positives in an experience without really taking adequate account of the negatives as an equally valid learning opportunity, especially if we are publishing externally.
I think that identifying and sharing success stories is valuable in that it can help spread good ideas and demonstrate that positive change is possible (along the lines of Charles Kenny’s “Getting Better“) – but because of the emotional aspect of how we react to material presented in a story format we need to be especially careful not to use stories to manipulate rather than to inform, and as consumers of scripted stories, while it’s OK to be moved by a story but we also need to validate. And we need to be clear in our communication where the story comes from and how it was prepared. Good practice or success stories can be used to indicate what is possible, but its deceptive when these are used by fundraisers to imply that this is exactly what their donation will lead to.
Of course while stories can be used to create positive emotions about change, they can also be used to reinforce negative stereotypes such as in the painting of a desperate picture of the developing wold in order to mobilize more funds. The risks of this were nicely deconstructed in “The Worf effect and NGO rhetoric” by Matt of Aid Thoughts. And the dangers of relying on a single story, and on one created by outsiders rather than a people’s own voice are eloquently described in this great TED talk “The danger of a single story” from Chimamanda Adichie, a storyteller heself.
So I stick by my initial conclusion, listen , collect, allow yourself to be informed and to be moved, but also cross check and validate.