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Story blind

March 20, 2011

So it’s early on Sunday morning and I’m checking email, my wikipedia watch list and twitter after feeding the cats. This is the morning ritual when I home, and woe betide me if I fail to give the cats priority. I’m up earlier than expected so I have time before final packing to head out to Halifax, New York, Toronto and Hong Kong for a fortnight’s round the world trip.

Checking out the tweet-stream I find a reference to an online Story Test put together by Shawn and the boys at Anecdote. Now I am a sucker for these sort of things, but you really have to learn not to take them seriously. I still remember the colour test in the Observer magazine back in the late sixties when I discovered that my choice of colours matched the profile of concentration camp victims. My parents were not happy about that as I remember it, probably thinking it some reflection on my upbringing. So I go onto the site and happily answer yes or no to the Is this a story question that follows a brief text. I then press the magic button and get the result above, captured as a screen shot.

I must admit this cheered me up enormously, its always good to learn that you know nothing as it gives you somewhere to go. I tweeted my obvious need for re-education at the hands of my former pupil and I’ve never seen him retweet anything of mine so quickly before. I must admit I did wonder if Shawn was attempting a sophisticated trick on participants. Maybe the score been the result of a random number generator, or possibly there was some more sinister selection algorithm in place. I didn’t think I was that lacking in skill, or had caused that much offense. As it tuned out the result was simply an untested web site with the scoring algorithm reversed. This means my zero turns out to be a top score which was a bit depressing really.

However, fun aside the test did concern me a bit. In one sense none of the material was a real story, some were anecdotal, some statements of opinion or factual reports. If you do the test and follow the link to the explanation of the results you will see that Shawn suggests there are four features that help you spot a story. These are time markers, place makers, characters and events. Now I think that is fair enough, but those are neither necessary or sufficient for something to be a story. In the right context a picture can tell a story, a silent moment with a friend watching a sunset or the touch of a familiar object. Properly understood a story is an aesthetic experience, a means of recollection or persuasion as much or more than entertainment, a form of resonance with out past and future.

The more I thought about it, the more if I did it again I would answer it depends to each of the examples. Depending on the context they may or may not be a story. If we add the more important question, namely if the example is effective communication or not then the position changes. I then realised what concerned me. The privileging of form over function always worries me, and a lot of organisational story telling work falls foul of it. A story is a way to communicate and a powerful one, but its not the only way and it can be inappropriate or patronising in use. I think what we should be emphasising is communication that is natural to the communicator and exhibits empathy to the audience. So the skill to distinguish between what is or is not a story may be a red herring, better to understand the context in which effective communication takes place to which story may make a contribution.

The test was a bit of fun for a Sunday morning (spiced up by that algorithm error) for which many thanks, but as a approach with utility in organisations I am less sure and I doubt it was seriously intended as such. Just as in the sixties I realised it was a mistake to assume that my choice of brown and mauve over red or blue gave any true indicator of my personality, so a score of zero or ten have equal utility in determining my or your knowledge of story.

I previously posted on a wider perspective on story, again in response to a posting at Anecdote. That post extends some of the wider issues so I won’t repeat them here.

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