Story guide: Building bridges using narrative techniques
This guide highlights the fact that telling a story is a simple and familiar process, while working with stories for a specific purpose can be more complicated. The authors aim to help individuals“develop competence and confidence as tellers or facilitators of telling”, considering that people can benefit from such a process in many ways. Storytelling can help individuals and groups to connect with each other and share their experiences. It can help them understand a situation and also lead to shifts in attitudes and behaviours. Perhaps more importantly, the process of telling a story can have an empowering outcome.
This guide starts by showing the difference between a report and a story. It then presents four simple exercises meant to help a group get started and foster an adequate environment for story telling. Next, it presents a series of questions to use in order to encourage an individual to tell his or her story (such as “Tell me about a time when you and your team faced a dilemma in a project…”, or “Tell me about a moment when you were really inspired by what was going on around you”). Specific questions are needed at given moments, e.g. when more precise information or examples are needed, in order to identify “turning points” or specific changes, or when it is necessary to address the audience in a particular way. In general, all questions must reflect an open and interested attitude.
Shaping and sharing stories
The next section presents a template used for accessing, shaping and sharing all kinds of stories (though recognising that this is just an intermediate step to help collect and enrich memories of experiences. Stories can also be captured with recording equipment and then transcribed). This template is best used when working in pairs. A story is told, focusing on a “turning point” or on a situation when the storyteller has experienced change, describing the events before, during and after that moment of change. After the story is finished, the template is used to develop a stronger, deeper version of that story. As if having a conversation, questions are then asked in order to get a deeper understanding, following the seven elements of the template:
- landscape: sets the scene in time and space;
- dwelling place: the precise location where action occurred;
- characters: the cast list, their descriptive attributes and their roles in the story;
- challenge: the problem or task that triggered the action;
- action: the sequence of events before, during and after the turning point;
- resolution: ending, including the lessons learned or message; and
- images and objects, to help the teller remember and retell the story.
After rehearsing, the story is told again, without looking at the template.
This section finishes with three checklists: for tellers, for facilitators and listeners, and in order to help create a safe and productive story environment. Tellers are recommended to tell only stories that matter to them, to get to know the audience in advance, to rehearse with a partner, and to disguise locations and names where the material is sensitive. Facilitators must allow tellers sufficient time, and must ask for permission before recording any story, considering potential issues of confidentiality or anonymity. The best environment is one where participants feel they can express their ideas, where there is no aggression, and where there is a productive tempo and rhythm.
Different story techniques
The authors then describe different techniques to use in a workshop, including a detailed example for each case. Among these are:
- Objects and displays. Objects are used as symbols for an idea or experience, considering that they, for example, “have the power to both evoke and contain stories”. An individual tells a story by focusing on one tangible object, and then other participants use the seven-element template to structure it.
- Postcards. This is a way of recording insights and condensed stories, using a common postcard as a metaphor. Stories are told in response to a question, and then discussed for a short time (focusing on, e.g. the specific ingredients which contributed to a particular experience). This is summarised on the postcard, making sure that no important words are missed.
- Jumpstart stories. Participants in a group tell each other a story, after which each participant tells the same story to a new group of people. Everyone selects the most inspiring story, aiming to find the top three stories in the room, which are then told again in the plenary.
The guide finishes with a troubleshooting section, looking at the things to watch out for. It also considers the moment after the storytelling workshop finishes, highlighting that the process of the workshop may have been much more important than what was produced in it. It is thus necessary to look at the intangible outcomes (stronger networks, improved personal confidence), all of which can have a more lasting effect than a document or “product”.