Thursday, March 31, 2011

Show Not Tell

March 30, 2011

By Pia Infante

Recently, I ran across an engaging article by the media messaging firm M + R entitled Storytelling and the Art of Email Writing. While the article is more geared toward folks who are designing communications within a fundraising context than email composition more generally, the article struck a jangling chord in me.

They reminded me again why stories are so compelling (lifted from a Grenoble School of Business article):

  1. Stories are universal. They bridge many divides – including cultural, linguistic, and age-related.
  2. Stories mirror human thought. Humans think in narrative structures, and we remember facts and statistics far better when they’re presented to us in story form.
  3. Stories shape our identities. The stories we tell about ourselves shape who we are
  4. Our shared stories define our social group. The stories we share shape and define social connections in our life. The way this polar bear's story is told, compounded with an opportunity for the reader to become a "hero" by giving them a chance to join or impact the story is a way to help translate tears of empathy to actions like donating time or money to a cause.

I appreciate M + R's analysis and suggestions, despite the slight queasiness of wondering:
where is the line between storytelling and marketing/manipulation? And, does the end justify the means of investing so much energy in perfecting how to write stories in ways that move folks to action, as long as we’ve determined the action is “good”?

I admit I have an ambiguous distrust of advertising and marketing.
But, perhaps this long harbored distrust is getting in the way of my booting up and increasing my capacity to tell stories that move people. I certainly want to move people to wake up and take meaningful action, to join the great and immense narrative of this moment.

I’m enervated. Uncomfortable. And have a deep desire to share and connect with others on this question. Perhaps this is a sign that I’ve been impacted by a story.

The story of a mama polar bear losing her cub due to human negligence.

The story of storytelling for good.

And somewhere in between, the continuous unfolding of my own story…
to be continued.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Stories (and StoryTellers) That Change Lives

March 23, 2011
By Nick Challed

In 2009, On The Move had the opportunity to host the annual retreat of the S.H. Cowell Foundation Board of Directors, with the goal of effectively sharing the story, message and mission of the McPherson Neighborhood Initiative. Of course, a desired outcome of sharing our story was for the Board to remain committed to its partnership with On The Move. However, the process of developing and sharing out story was perhaps the most impactful on the "story-tellers" themselves.

When beginning to develop the collective story of the McPherson Neighborhood for the S.H. Cowell Retreat, we
were unclear how the many perspective and pieces of our work fit together. In order to "discover" our story, we brought together Spanish-speaking immigrants and their English-speaking neighbors, who were determined to hear what mattered most to one another, even if some words were lost in translation. After months of preparation, a powerful and collective story emerged of the common dream we each held for the 2,000 children living in the McPherson neighborhood. As a result, we were able to truly see the interconnectedness of our work and the
rick possibility we are capable of by working together.

A central practice of this work has been a continuous process of sharing our stories with the world, while listening to the stories of others. We have noticed that many of our biggest moments of growth, as well as our biggest impacts in the world - occur when we are able to create the space and time to truly share and listen to meaningful stories.

Since 2004, On The Move has implemented programs and initiatives that develop the next generation of nonprofit leaders, prepare local organizations to function effectively in a dynamic world, and build connections to create healthy, lasting change in communities. In response to their deepening knowledge of the disparities among children and youth in the City of Napa, On The move sought to develop a community-based model for educational equity. After reviewing data, meeting with local leaders and laying the groundwork for potential partnerships, On The Move proposed a vision for a comprehensive educational and community development initiative within a distinct Napa neighborhood. In the summer of 2007, OTM launched the McPherson Neighborhood Initiative with a mission
to provide opportunities for low-income children and youth to claim a future in which all possibilities are real and

More recently, On The Move has begun exploring how to put youth at the center of collecting and sharing stories of the McPherson neighborhood. Through partnerships with organizations including Active Voice, DeBug Magazine, and Napa Public Access Channel 27 - On The Move has initiated opportunities for youth to learn about the art of storytelling, while developing the technical skills of photography, film-making, and journalism. At nearly all events occurring in the neighborhood, youth are now seen behind a video camera or interviewing others, in order to share,listen to, and capture the powerful stories and positive change surrounding their lives.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Is Failure a Destination Point On the Way to Success?

By Pia Infante

March 16, 2011

“So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged.” – From JK Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Speech in 2008.

Failure as a learning experience is a notion that John and I have been batting about for years now. At one point, we envisioned a convening centered entirely on stories of fantastical failure, and what we learn from them. The novel that didn’t get written, the organization that never opened its doors, the relationships that ended despite heroic efforts to stay connected, or the convening that was never convened!

As I watched JK Rowling’s speech, which was recently posted as a TED talk, I was reminded again about the richness of failure as an experience and topic. I share it here as an invitation to the TWI community.

Is failure a destination point or a detour?

Do we flounder before flowering?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Denial Runs Deep

March 8, 2011

By Les Adler

“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt." - Mark Twain

“How often it is that the angry man rages denial of what his inner self is telling him.” - Frank Herbert

I want to expand on a point made in CJ Callen’s excellent post last month about the powerful effect language can have in promoting, or in many cases, preventing effective dialogue. Given the state of unreason infecting public discussion about virtually any of the great issues we are facing today, I would add that while our choice of words is certainly important, we may need to penetrate beyond language and even rationality to explain the degree of the angry paralysis and paranoia that characterizes our age.

Not only is it difficult to find a shared linguistic and value-based foundation on which to operate, but as CJ rightly comments, “the illogical and human heart and soul” likewise gets in the way. The ease with which manufactured debates about Obama’s birth records, the motives of climate scientists, or the validity of scientific theories like evolution or global warming are able to cloud, discourage or distort discourse while derailing or delaying effective public action on important topics is a frightening corrective to the usual assumptions we share about the effectiveness of reasoned dialogue in a democratic context.

Such expressions reflect unconscious social and cultural anxieties on much deeper levels, fears and feelings not easily touched by logic, reason, facts or even language. Confronting challenges to traditional and established assumptions governing cultural behavior and individual identity, groups tend to identify and target acceptable agents on which to project the causes of their felt discontent.

Until the mid-to-late twentieth century, for example, the idea that human action could permanently threaten the existence of all life on earth or, even more remarkably, irreversibly alter the behavior of entire planetary systems, was as unthinkable to us as the heliocentric model of the solar system must have been to Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo’s contemporaries. And with comparable responses, since their new theories undermined not just belief systems and religious structures that had persisted since antiquity, but threatened each individual’s foundational identity system relating to his or her own place in the larger cosmic scheme.

At least we are no longer burning heretics at the stake—just vilifying them in the media and before congressional committees-- but it is also hardly surprising that the dawning conception that human action could be responsible for climate change on a planetary level has had difficulty gaining traction in the minds of a great many otherwise rational and well-meaning people. Not merely does it fly in the face of centuries of historical experience in which the arrow of scientific and technological progress pointed inevitably upward and in which economic growth and increased consumption were seen as the defining qualities of all modern and modernizing societies, but it undermines a set of unconscious assumptions we share about ourselves and our relationship to the natural world.

My point here is certainly not to question the importance of reasoned dialogue in seeking solutions to pressing social, political or technological problems—that, after all, is what my career in education has been about. It is to reinforce the insight expressed by one psychoanalyst at a recent conference focusing on such topics as “Climate change denial in a Perverse Culture” and “Unconscious Obstacles to Caring for the Planet.” Commenting on “how difficult humans find it to change their behavior on the basis of sensible advice or of learning from experience,” he concluded, “Facts are troublesome—stories and ideologies are easier.”

What will we become if a carbon-based economy in its multiple manifestations is phased out? What will be left of our identity if sustainability rather than expansion, conquest and mastery become our defining characteristics? What does it mean to be part of the web of life rather than standing outside and manipulating it? More than just an ‘inconvenient truth’ as Al Gore called it, the fact of human-driven climate change not only threatens the dominance of deeply rooted and interrelated economic and political interests, but the psychic structures and societal self-images which sustain them as well.

Certainly our work to enhance effective dialogue and deliberation should and will continue, and certainly careful linguistic framing should be included, but, attention also must be paid to the slow and careful psychological work of bringing unconscious fears and feelings to consciousness in order to promote creative change.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

When To Hit "Pause"

March 1, 2011
by Pia Infante

“Meanings are in people, not words.” - Alfred Korzybski, Founder, Institute for General Semantics

Ok. Raise your hands if – (Really, raise them, even though we can’t actually see you. It’s good for circulation!) - you’ve heard the word transformative to describe leadership development, organizational change, social policy, or any kind of experience at least once today. I’m guessing that if you work in philanthropy or the non-profit sector that your hands are up!

And it’s not surprising. In a meeting this morning, I heard the word used fast and loose, with potentially no collective understanding of it’s meaning - until somewhere in the middle, when I hit the proverbial pause button to ask for clarification. I may have even raised my hand.

I think at some point, like with all words that spark popular use, the meaning and the concept start to become kind of fuzzy, and the use of the word becomes non-homogenous. It’s easy to imagine that we who work in the public benefit sector constantly throw abound words, phrases and concepts that we believe are “common” when, in fact, we may have quite different interpretations and perspectives. I would stop short of saying this is dangerous, though I might suggest that it is cause for a pause.

Here’s a snippet from a lively discussion about language from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation:

“Over the last several years, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation has made a concerted effort to call attention to the troubling use of jargon throughout the foundation world. Why? The use of jargon, and the confusion it creates, can damage or undercut even the most well-intentioned of foundation efforts–making it difficult for everyone to clearly understand and effectively discuss the ideas and issues that drive foundation grant making and related activities.”

I have a particular fondness for a link widely circulated on my Facebook circles for the Philanthrobabble Generator.

As TWI Board member CJ Callen wrote in a recent post, words do actually matter – and beyond that – the meaning we ascribe to them matters even more. I think that it’s vital that we stop and make meaning together. It’s often that stopping point where someone says, “what precisely do you mean when you use that word,” that the group starts to coalesce towards a common understanding. It seems to me the sooner this happens in a conversation, the more possibility and room there really is to communicate clearly and meaningfully