Here is a short review of a book that i’ve just finished, which inspired me to pull together a number of related themes.
Book review: The Truth about Stories (A Native Narrative) by Thomas King
This was a fascinating little book about Native Americans, written as a series of mini essays on the nature of prejudice, literature, identity and storytelling, particularly the oral storytelling traditions of Northern Americans*. Thomas King considers himself a native (part Cherokee) but I’m not sure he passes the arbitrary native/non-native tests, and I don’t mean the feathers and beads model of the white North-American stereotype. In fact by one measure, by becoming an educated academic and writer, he somehow forfeits his true nature!
Each chapter/essay starts and ends the same way, the repetition of a story about the earth floating on a turtle’s back (‘turtles all the way down’) and ending with a plea to consider the stories retold here, learn from them, reinterpret them and pass them on in. In a rich book of ideas, breadth of history and geography, with added pathos (the fate of his kin) one theme is the comparison of oral storytelling vs. the idea from the English-speaking world of ‘literature’ and companion ‘literacy’ being the only measures of value in a society. Fascinating stuff!
(*Thomas King lives in Canada but tribes and tribal culture don’t really recognise arbitrary borders, a modern story in itself about states and ownership of land, tariffs, controls and lines on a map.)
It’s all about the stories
So what has storytelling got to do with IT and technology? More than you could imagine! This post about storytelling gives a glimpse of the new language and metaphorical world of [User] Stories, narratives, actors, and storyboards, that are an increasingly part of life in software development, but also IT and business generally.
To quote myself quoting Sapiens, what are requirements and designs but ‘imagined realities’, we seek to make sense of an unknown future by telling stories about how things might be, normally rooted in how they actually are. It is a rare gift in my industry, any industry, to find a true visionary who can break the mould, push the envelope and think outside the box – other metaphors are available – metaphors are themselves shorthand stories boiled down to single image and comparison. By visionaries I’m thinking of Musk, Jobs and Berners-Lee, not Bezos, Gates and Zuckerberg … but you must pick your own heroes and heroines.
So, how do I reconcile the telling and re-telling of familiar stories with mapping the future; looking back and looking forward at the same time? The answer is simple – people – we the users of the new technology, whether early adopting technophiles or technophobes, are susceptible to the familiar tropes and icons that provide something recognisable even as we desire and chase the new and shiny. Examples abound in the worlds of entertainment, commerce and technology, here are 3 for you to think about:
- Retro styling of cars; the story of a happier, simpler world? And here’s a fascinating dichotomy, we want the best that new technology can offer but also want to feel that we are somehow pioneers in an earlier age. Also, recent resurgence of paper books over eReaders, vinyl records over digital downloads etc.
- The worlds of branding and marketing are built almost entirely on stories [and how they resonate with human nature]. Without naming names, all organisations, products and initiatives start with a narrative – which may or may not be explicitly stated – about who the customer is, what they desire, value and need. Flowing from this insight should be a number of messages (words, pictures and deeds) that articulate the mission, values and features of the thing that is being sold. These messages in turn are used to inform or manipulate (you say potato, I say pot-ar-toe!) the required consumption or buying behaviour. And better still if these stories are subsequently shared and retold via repetition, recommendation and merchandising.
- Film franchises (e.g. Marvel world); ancient stories of good battling evil, but also more personal stories about exclusion, overcoming hardships and finding love. You thought SciFi and fantasy genres and gaming* where just for the kids (or just for the boys), think again, they retell universal human stories through the medium of fictional worlds.
(*Ed. although I doubt shoot-em-ups or Candy Crush have a strong narrative thread!)
You’ve heard that there are only 7 basic plots for books, films and play-writing;
- Overcoming the Monster
- Rags to Riches
- The Quest
- Voyage and Return
This may be a little reductionist, but that’s the point, you start with a familiar shape to a story and build an imaginary world around it. It may be a stretch to think of an insurance product, a government health initiative, or a restaurant chain in these terms. However, with your marketeers hat on, think beyond the thing itself, what about the expectation and the promise of fulfilment of a life’s ambition or protection from a disaster, living a happy and health family life, meeting friends and sharing good food and company…now we are starting to populate our stories with real human wants and needs.
But what’s that got to do with IT?
Let me return to IT projects, and maybe a typical set of activities, knowing as we do that each and every project is different, in new and different ways. Here are some examples of storytelling.
First find your unique
As above, start with an idea, for an organisation, a new or enhanced product or service, an event or initiative. Have a conversation about what this will mean to the users and potential Customers – they may be different people. No mention of computing or technology necessary…this post is mostly about the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ rather than the ‘how’. That said, if your business is a start-up online challenger bank, for example, your story is likely to include the advantages of mobile banking so the tech is inherent in the business model. Marketeers and brand experts may call this the USP (Unique Selling Point/Proposition), but initially don’t be concerned how much your new product or service will cost, or the dynamics of a competitive market. The idea has to make sense as a compelling [Business] narrative first.
Making it personal
Now its time to understand your target consumers a bit more, and I don’t mean segmentation or micro-segmentation, I mean the story you would tell a typical Customer. This person, male/female, young/old, experienced/novice…whatever attributes you choose…becomes a real person(a) to test your idea. How will Joe Bloggs* use this widget, what is Jane Doe looking for to make her life easier, or to be more fulfilled or more successful, or even the necessity of choosing your product from a seemingly homogeneous range of options? It may sound trite but stories seek a happy Customer following a happy path.
(*Ed. lets not forget John Doe, John Q. Public, Joe Blow, Joe Sixpack and Joe Schmoe…or any number of regional variants)
What happens if I press this?
In this imaginary project we now progress to the meat of how our typical user/buyer/customer interacts with your product. It’s about now traditionally that Business or Requirements Analysts would get involved, and maybe User Experience (UX) or usability experts depending on the type of product/User Interface that is required. Increasingly these groups will state needs as User Stories and Customer Journeys, respectively. Both provide a richer immersive User-centric view, i.e. continuing the paradigm of 1st person storytelling…i.e. I press this because it provides me with a benefit or positive outcome.
Note: there is still a lot of extra work to be done, for example; to understand alternate and exceptional ‘unhappy’ paths, the application of business rules, end-to-end mapping of processes for fulfilment and operations, for example, and the 101 tasks required to build and maintain the product/system/service as specified. This is less about storytelling, but is still critical to a thorough systems engineering approach.
Black is the new white
(there’s nothing new under the sun)
And last in this section, one of the big advantages of (re-)telling the same or similar stories is the ability to reuse past knowledge and artefacts. The specific customer experience may be new, but the underlying design and tools needed to deliver the benefits may already exist, or can be adapted to fit. IT is a great borrower of templates (design patterns), code (shared services or components), and test materials. We are not, in my profession as a Business Analyst, as good at reusing [user] stories or requirements. But that feels OK, who wants their stories and experiences to be the same as anyone else’s?
Stories good, stories bad
So, that’s good that stories can drive change, and can provide both a link to the past and a way to envision and realise the future.
But what about our day-to-day interaction with technology; the risks that the wrong sort of stories are shared; and the dangers of fantasy subverting reality? But what is fantasy and what is reality?!
Memes have become one of the most defining features of the digital connected world, but they are not new. Memes in the broadest sense are the cultural ideas, icons and behaviours that humans pass on to other humans, using artefacts (for example through design, art, totems etc.) or by word-of-mouth, or any other communication media, not just digital channels. The only thing not allowed in this definition is genetics, i.e. the things we pass on subconsciously in our DNA.
In the digital mobile connected world memes can proliferate and replicate with each forwarded email, share and post, like and RT (retweet), they are viral in the sense of rapidly multiplying but not normally with any malicious intent or damaging effects. It would be hard to classify most memes as stories. However, maybe life-enhancing quotes, funny pictures of animals, animated gifs, and those annoying stream-of-consciousness microblogs are just as valid as something written in a traditional crafted longer form with a start, middle and an end?
Rules for writing good stories tend to focus on the mechanics; theme, structure, characters, style, dialogue, editing etc. In my opinion such tips value the writing process over the reading, the production over the consumption…what value is a story in any medium that doesn’t engage the reader, elicit some response, and is then shared?
This article explains how important any and all storytelling is to market your content.
And let’s not get obsessed with the relative merits of fact and fiction; IMHO most writing steers a nebulous path between such unhelpful absolutes. Elsewhere on this spectrum, for example, I write non-fiction, but I include personal insights, opinions, speculation and humour. Even the current hot topic fake news normally starts with real or believable people, places and events and aims for humour, satire or political comment, all valid forms of expression. The key distinction between telling stories as a euphemism for lying, making things up to inform or entertain, and aiming for total veracity, is intent.
From dictionary.com, lying means to, ‘…speak falsely or utter [an] untruth knowingly, as with intent to deceive.’
I believe that all storytelling should be honest (not necessarily factually true), have a purpose and meaning (however trivial it may appear to others), and be open to criticism. The latter is important in that it allows stories to evolve, to be adapted and retold in a free society.
Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the reader, listener or consumer to gauge the truthfulness and value of any story based on its merits and their needs and expectations, and that covers a meme, blogpost, news article, oral history, marketing message, business requirement, or film score etc. In an early scene from the brilliant film Birdman the troubled Michael Keaton character has a postcard on his dressing room mirror which says,
A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing
Without exploring this complex thought-provoking film fully, which would probably take another 2,000 words (which I would not inflict on you dear reader), I like to take a very simple message from the Birdman’s reality. We must be open-minded and discriminatory between things in this world and stories about things. After all, to borrow another phrase, the map is not the territory.
Returning to the truth about stories
Returning to my book review at the start of this article. I’ve told you about the power and reach of stories and storytelling in all aspects of our lives as communicating humans, including the IT industry. Stories can be both a link to the past and a means to imagine the future. But be careful and mindful about what you say and do, and remember that stories persist and ripple through time. There are storytellers with less honest intentions who choose to corrupt, twist and subvert facts, and rewrite history for their own purposes.
‘Take [this story] it’s yours. Do with it what you will.
Make it the topic of a discussion group at a scholarly conference.
Tell it to friends.
Turn it into a television movie.
Put it on the Web.
Cry over it.
Tell it to your children.
Turn it into a play.
But don’t say in years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story.
You’ve heard it now.”
(c) 2018 IT elementary school Ltd.