Q&A with a Story Guru: Cynthia Kurtz, Part 2

See Cynthia’s bio, photo, and Part 1 of this Q&A.

Q&A with Cynthia Kurtz (Question 2):

Q: In the book, you write “I and others have seen from experience that this approach is superior to approaches that don’t respect the integrity of the raw story and end up (whatever their good intentions) injecting the biased interpretations of people outside the community.” Can you talk a bit about your observations of approaches that have disrespected the integrity of the raw story? What are the consequences when biased outsider interpretations are injected?

A: There are two positions embedded in that statement — raw stories and self-interpretation — and I can tell a story from my own experience describing how I came to my current understanding of each position. The first position is that raw stories of personal experience are far superior to crafted stories for the things I care about when working with stories. For the purposes of advertising products and services, delivering specific purposeful messages, and entertaining people, crafted stories are often (but not always) best. But for the purposes of helping people learn, think, make decisions, get new ideas, grow, and get along, I’ve found that there is nothing better than a raw story.

I started out in this field in the same way many people do — I got excited about all the advice on “how to tell a great story” and assumed that only the best, most compelling stories could “get things done,” whatever it was you wanted to do. My second year at IBM Research was spent on a project researching how storytelling could improve e-learning. Our group tried out different ways to help instructors write stories that would help people learn how to use software or do any number of things more quickly and easily. We had some little success with this, but things didn’t really pick up until we started holding workshops where we asked people to talk about their experiences. Our original intention was to take the raw stories we collected and “make something out of them” while developing methods to help other people make similar resources; but we kept failing. The crafted stories were always less compelling, less memorable, and less educational than the raw stories, even though we were “improving” them using all the wonderful advice we could find. Somehow every time we improved the stories by crafting them, an essential spark was lost.

One day we had this sort of metaphorical realization that we were trying to grow trees in a forest. Stories better than any we could come up with were all around us, and we were discounting them because we had a narrow idea of what a useful story was. We began to see that a raw story of personal experience is a priceless gem that cannot be taken apart and put back together without removing its powerful qualities. So we changed the project. Once we abandoned our original ideas about how writing “good” stories would improve e-learning and instead concentrated on figuring out the best ways of “getting the stories to where they needed to be” the e-learning resources we were creating, and our ability to help other people create such resources, improved tremendously.

The second part of that “respect the integrity of the raw story” statement is my position on expert interpretation. I believe that interpretation by outside experts jeopardizes the goals I care most about when working with stories, for two reasons: it cannot help getting essential things wrong (through not understanding subtle nuances of context which only insiders can know); and it is incapable of making useful insights fully resonate and changes really happen inside a community, because it is not “of us.”

The dangers-of-expert-interpretation story took place soon after I started working with a group that was doing story projects with IBM clients. Now this group had started out just as I had, writing crafted stories to help clients achieve goals, and they had made a similar transition to collecting and valuing raw stories. However, at the time I joined the group, they still believed, as I did, that expert interpretation of stories was essential. The turning point came on a project in which we collected videotapes of something like a hundred retiring employees describing their long careers. In our enthusiasm we had allowed too many people to generate too many hours of videotape, and we realized that we could never get through them all in time. After a flurry of discussion and debate, we decided to hold a workshop and ask the employees themselves to watch the videotapes (distributing the videos so that everyone saw a few and every interview was seen by a few people), and have them interpret the results and come up with their own conclusions. We were worried that we would have a lot of work to do after these uninitiated non-experts had finished their exercise, but we decided to go ahead anyway, thinking that at least our task would be reduced.

Imagine our astonishment when we found that the quality of the results exceeded our previous finely tuned expert interpretations, and that the results resonated better with the client as well. This was another awakening. As we had before been trying to grow stories in a forest of stories, we had been trying to grow interpretations in a forest of interpretations. In both cases the stories or interpretations surrounding us were of superior utility and authenticity — in the context in which we needed to work with them — than the stories or interpretations we were trying to build.

Those experiences, combined with some others that reinforced the same overall patterns, convinced us that these two principles — raw stories and self-interpretation — were key to effective story projects. In the dozens of projects I’ve worked on since then I’ve seen those lessons repeated many times. In fact I’ve come to realize that people who work with stories in organizations and communities (and here I am not talking about professional storytellers) seem to go through three phases, which roughly match the three aspects of stories I like to think about — story form, function and phenomenon. People seem to start out, as I did, infatuated with story form: they memorize McKee and try to turn every story into a “great” story. Once they get past that they start thinking about how they can “use” story function to change situations, inject learning, propel messages, and so on (all of which is fairly mechanical thinking). And finally they arrive at the phenomenon stage where they begin to see stories as elements in a complex ecology and start thinking about ways to tend stories, herd them, take care of them, and get them where they need to go. That final stage, in my opinion, is the best place to end up when you want to work with stories in communities and organizations.