Taking stories to the other side

In one of the episodes of the final series of the West Wing, CJ Cragg is more and more frustrated by her inability to make a dent, leave something behind. So when someone from an NGO tries to make an appointment with her, she breaks with habit and gives him a slot in her diary.

He overwhelms her with statistics about the atrocities in Sudan. Thousands, millions, terrible things, rape, amputation, devastation. It’s all beyond her grasp, there is nothing she can imagining doing in this vastness of human failure, and he can see from her face that he is losing her attention, so he says, suddenly

‘When the babies die, the mothers carry them round in their arms because there is nowhere to put them down.’

20 words (I approximate, from memory.)

‘When the babies die, the mothers carry them round in their arms because there is nowhere to put them down.’

You can see the image of this slice through her helplessness and frustration and spring her to action, unorthorised by the President. When, at the end of the episode, he calls her to task for not having cleared things with me, it is this that she says to him. All the same, neither would have acted on those 20 words alone, although it took the 20 words to push CJ to action. The big numbers, the huge evidence of human tragedy filtered through the tiny glow of unbearable imagery.

This embrace between narrative and analysis was brought to mind for me yesterday by an article in the Guardian called ‘When the lights go out, students take off to the airport’

It tells the story, spliced with statistics, of the children in Guinea who go to study by the floodlgihts at Bgessia International Airport because they have no electricity at home. I doubt I would have read it if it had said ‘The lack of eletrictricity in Guinea is a ‘geological scandal”, although that quote comes further down in the article, when I’m ready to read it.

Some big challenges here, which must always be held close to the heart in marrying narrative and analysis in a thoughtful and authentic way, not just to pull.

The first is, how to make sure the illumination is not dramatising, but genuinely representative and informative, a way through image or metaphor, to help people find their way into a subject. In this article I really could hold the picture of the children and their education in mind and fill myself up with statistics on a subject which I had only thought about a little before.

An old article from March 2006, in something called OW weekly (whatever that is), lies filed in my ‘Small Stories’ category in my slowly emerging filing system. It is a profile, by Carole Cadwalladr of Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland. Mary has been transforming the language of aid. She says

‘If we keep this conversation in trade langauge, then it keeps it as trade. But if we can show the human-rights consequences then i’ts more powerful. It makes people very uncomfortable.’

Cadwalladr goes on to say

‘Everywhere we go, Mary has a story to tell. At the coffee farm, she tells her audeince how she grew up surrounded by farmers in ‘the poorest part of Ireland’. At the Amana hospital she points out that Ireland’s history was not so very different from that of Tanzania, a poor ex-colonial land with a tortured history. There’s a story for everyone. And this, I realise, is what Mary does…you’ve got to be able to tell people things in language they understand. And what Mary’s doing is taking stories to the other side. To US member of Congress, she too takes from the cotton fields of Mali, of babies lying in ditches, because of the US governemtns’ $4 billion of aid to US cotton farmers. To the Tanzanians she tells stories of Ireland’s rise out of pverty adn to the country’s president Kikwete, she presses home how small changes in the health-care system that we saw in action at Amana hospital can signficiantly reduce the nubmer of women who die in childbirth.’

Steve Denning, formerly of the World Bank, coined the term springboard stories a while back for these small, condensed evocations, which he sees as an essential part of the armoury of the leader, tiny sparkplugs which spring people to imagination and action. (It’s by far his best book in my view, although I find that it limits the concept of storytelling in organisations to one to do with higher order communication and leadership skills and that’s not where I’m inclined to spend my time. But his categorisations and especially the appendices are rich food for thought on structuring and placing a springboard story and should not be bypassed by anyone with an interest in the subject. I’d also like to make clear that, whatever my critique, I have the utmost respect for Steve in what he has done to transform the credibility and acceptance of narrative and story in an organisational context, not least in co-founding the Golden Fleece with Madelyn Blair and others.)

What I’ve spoken of so far is a mix, about which I’m truthfully a bit uneasy of factual journalism spiced up with strong images which will draw the reader in, and the stories that inspiring leaders select for themselves from their own autobiography, and what they witness and carry with them as travellers who cross the divide between worlds.

How are we all to make sure connection between the big context, the facts, and the small stories which bring them to life are kept honest? How are we to keep the difference between analytical reporting and storytelling positive and make sure holds its integrity. In a 5 year project working with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation we worked towards, and ended up with a guide to using story as an instrument of knowledge management in an aid setting: ‘Story Guide: building bridges using narrative techniques’ At the beginning, we showed two ways of telling of the same thing. The first had been collected through a technique for sharing personal experiences collectively that allows, through emergent self-selection, the stories resonant for the community be identified by them.


The Inspiring Pot
“Bangladesh is a really impressive place… in a positive sense. I was in a village last year working in water and sanitation. We were trying to promote the use of improved latrines, but could not produce concrete slabs and rings locally for a low cost. Somebody told me to visit the latrines of a lady in the village, so I went along and said, “Can I see your latrines?” She had made a latrine out of a clay pot with the bottom cut off. Then with a potter from the area she developed a small local production of bottomless pots, and they became the latrines. Ingenious.

A few weeks later I was in another village and saw a hand pump; it was broken, just a small piece missing. So I said to the villagers, “Why don’t you repair your pump?” And they said, “Oh, we just wait for another donor to bring a new pump.” So I said, “Why don’t you visit the lady in the village over there? She finds ways of getting things done for herself.”

Perhaps 30 personal stories of experiences in the field had been shared (in repeated rounds in smaller groups) and then people had selected the most resonant for them, bringing it down to 3 stories which held collective meaning. These were retold to the whole room, and recorded word for word (in this case, frantic typing, normally with a small Olympus or mini disc)

A while later, when we were trying to convey what the written conventions of organisational reporting do to shrivel and spoil raw materials, I rewrote this as


Lessons learned from fieldwork in Bangladesh

“In our evaluation of a project in Bangladesh we noted a wide variance in the competence of individual villages to develop sustainable and effective solutions to problems encountered, for example in replacing broken parts or developing low cost products for example new latrines. The lessons to be learned from this evaluation are that we should:

* work against over-dependence on donors;
* note and encourage entrepreneurial approaches to problems;
* identify existing and repeatable good practices;
* build and strengthen communication between villages to assist cross-fertilization of ideas at the grassroots level.”

I always meant this to be tongue in cheek: an ironic way to make an important point. And we’ve used the comparison a lot to engage people with the subject. It always works. But I’ve come to see that both ways of conveying the material work well. Jacques actual story, recorded by us, is a terrific illustration of the dependence that can develop on aid workers and the helplessness of those provided for. But the duller, less illuminating translation into report-speak also acts as a bridge, a way to summarise and abstract and create a way to compare this with other illuminations to find common patterns. It’s both/and not either/or.

Coming back to electricity and it’s lack. This has come up for me in respect of another challenge, which we noticed acutely for the first time when running a story competition for the Islamic Development Bank. The competition, ‘Voices from the Field’ invited IDBers (‘IDaBers’, those who work for this impressive development bank) to submit true stories of the impact of the Bank on its beneficiaries. How to set the judging criteria for such a competition is a long blog for a different time, and much more besides on the process of handling such a competition. We did it pretty well, building on two previous competitions. But we still noticed a new challenge in the selection of longlisted and shortlisted winning stories. It was so much easier to respond to stories of personal journeys than those of big projects. The young girl in Bangladesh, given a grant to do vocational training who ends up running her own sewing business; the young man, given a grant, who becomes a doctor and goes home to set up a health centre. These were so much easier to tell and respond to than the big electricity and road projects which have more systemic substance.

And we found ourselves giving particular credit to those who could, somehow, convey the big projects but bring them down to the personal. One winning story, as I recall, was about an electricity project, perhaps in Sudan. The teller began with a powerful evocation of the consequences of the lack of electricity – the sweat, the dark, people dying on operating tables. And then the presence of IDB as a contributor to an infrastructure project which brings electricity is conveyed via watching a news report on television. And we move back to a personal view of what it feels like afterwards.

I raise this to bring me back round to the beginning – the marriage of narrative and analysis, huge systemic systems and their human impact in a truly representative and not a dramatising way, but one which will change the perspectives and actions of the listener or reader.

But I’d like to end in a slightly different place, which is surprise. The IDB judges surprised themselves in their judging in several ways. In judging this story, one of them said that he hadn’t expected to be moved by such a story in some ways. After all, they are common experiences for most in member countries, not much out of the norm. But in fact when he was reading the stories for the first time, there was a power cut in Jeddah, and as he lay awake slick with sweat it suddenly flashed into his mind that he had forgotten what it was like always to be in the heat and the dark. So the story re-evoked for him personally, in a powerful way, the point of why he went to work. To stop such things happening.

Advertisements

3 responses to “Taking stories to the other side

  1. Pingback: Anecdote

  2. I posted this at Anecdote as a reply to Shawn’s post as I’m in to knowledge management and saw a link.

    Being a Wing nut – I remember the scene very well and it reminded me of Stalin’s quote “A single death is a tragedy, are million deaths is a statistic.;

    I have long supposed that this comment was made because the human mind can’t fully comprehend so many people dying. If it did we might be overwhelmed as human beings.

    Maybe one day we will look at West Wing for other nuggets of managerial advice. One of my favourite quotes is from Toby Ziegler – after there has been a leak and he summons all the staff in and says ”

    “We’re a group. We’re a team. From the President and Leo on through, we’re a team. We win together, we lose together. We celebrate and we mourn together. And defeats are softened and victories are sweeter because we did them together… You’re my guys and I’m yours… and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.

    Maybe some managers need to look at that especially for an after action review which I have seen dissolve into a hunt the scapegoat procedure and no new knowledge is shared.

  3. I think the West Wing could be an inspiration at many levels.

    How to relate small stories (tragedies, not statistics) with the overaraching big stories which hold the series together and connect series to series.

    The intricacy and counterpoint.

    The entirely unpatronising view that the viewer is smart enough to carry all this and respond to it.

    The flaws of leaders.

    How teams work. And don’t work.

    Transition. The handing over of power and where it leaves the powerbrokers – especially CJ at the end as she has to negotiate her way to a normal life.

    The faction. The fictionally rosy view of a Democratic administration set into the accurately researched facts of the American constititional processes.

    And the fact that most of the meetings are held walking down a corridor side by side, not looking each other in the face. There was a programme recently on Radio 4 about the role of wide corridors in the generation of stories. And there is a great deal to be said for what you can say to someone when you are not eyeballing each other. Witness why it’s always worth walking your children to school. It’s those intersticial transitional spaces, and the sense of anonymity which invite a kind of confidential sharing which doesn’t happen in more formal settings with allocated identities (kitchen, meeting room). Corridors not of power but of exchange, although power is certainly flowing back and forth in the West Wing.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s