How do you tell a story of a movement, of an organization, of a team, or even of your own life? Telling an inclusive collaborative story means being able to gather many stories, and often many storytellers, into one cohesive journey.
And the gathering is a journey in itself. There are many variables to consider in such an undertaking.
Much of this depends the exact circumstance of the story, the goal you have and how many stakeholders you are working with. The intent here is not to meet every need with one approach, but here are some steps to consider as you do your story gathering.
- Get Clear on Terms. The first task is to get clarity on what your participants mean by “story.” It means many things to many people, including but not limited to: our message, my bio, our values, ‘what we do’, and ‘how I feel about myself.’ But for this exercise I suggest considering a retellable story, one that builds to a change that is memorable, and one that, once you’ve heard it, you might be inspired to retell it tomorrow.
- Ask Questions of Context: That is, how was the world before? What happened just before? What did the main change look like? What changed as a result? How is it now? Invite details of what things looked like on the ground and how they felt. For example, say you’re doing a project with a multi-stakeholder group addressing climate change, you might try gathering a story of when each person realized this was a critical issue to them. When was the moment you knew you’d dedicate yourself to something greater? What was the moment before you realized a key insight? What were you doing before, and what changed after? It’s not always one moment, of course, that informs a change. But choosing an emblematic moment, one that is a good example of the change, can be beneficial for a good story. Or if it’s something more akin to culture building in an organization, you might ask something more like: Why did you decide to come here? Or: What was one moment in your time here that shows what we’re all about?
- Rely on a Framework to Gather Stories. By applying a framework to gather your stories, such as the Journey Curve framework which is built into the video below, you can both gather the power of one story, and also begin to see how the various stories can dovetail together.
- Establish Different Themes. Along the way, in addition to a variety of key insights that you can explore to see how it summarizes a greater story, you may come out with a few emblematic stories that bubble up to the top. Mythology is often a real story that takes root and takes on a greater purpose and power. The stories of George Floyd and Brianna Taylor, for example, have bubbled up to the level of myth. The bigger stories can help other stories to grow in impact…but it’s important to hold all of the stories you gather and look for themes that might create bigger stories. Sometimes you may be distilling into a few emblematic stories to tell the greater story.
- Listen as You Listen. This process is, of course, subjective. With each person, you’re listening for a change, for tension, for insight, for a lesson. Not all insights or values will be included in their stories, of course, in the bigger story. But this is where your job as story-gatherer comes in, to think deeply about what you have gathered, to ask questions of what is behind the story, looking for WHY it was actually important to them, so you get a few different ways of describing the key message or value or insight.
From here, you can weave the stories together into a greater story by coming back to the framework. You might not succeed in telling one story, but having a few that represent the core is a good goal.
Of course, it’s always easier to use a specific example…for example I just watched Last Dance, the documentary about the Chicago Bulls championship run. This is a very “in the weeds” basketball analogy. But the big story is made of many stories. So how did the filmmaker/story gatherer decide on what was relevant? Undoubtedly, it’s a bit of back and forth; the story begins to emerge and then each person’s new story shapes it or shakes it. Good gathering!