Sunday, August 14, 2011

Buzzword 2011.3 - Storytelling

Even as technology becomes ubiquitous, embedded, and smart we still need stories. In fact, we need them more than ever.

The more data we get, the better we get at data visualization, the more we are swamped with numbers and graphs and information in general, the more we need stories. They are the oldest technology we have for making sense of things. As Drew Westen wrote in the August 6 New York Times, we need them to understand the world around us. When we don't get them, lots of things go wrong, including presidencies.

Good storytelling is going to become ever more important. Stories and data will need each other evermore.

New ways of telling stories will come into being. They already have. Consider Flipboard - which lets you curate your own magazine on your iPad, with your twitter stream mixed into the latest from Wired or other magazines. Or The Blu, an attempt at engaging the entire world in creating the ocean on the web. Or Pop-Up Magazine, a live event that brings works-in-progress to stage for one night stands. Or My Life is True, by Anne Stuhldreyer and Doug McCray (founder of Pop-Up) which presents 2 minute stories that matter. You can hear these stories on NPR and check them out on the web. Of course there are also the series of StoryCorps and This I Believe.

Some foundations are already sharing stories. Here's the story page/what we're learning from the Haas Jr Fund in San Francisco. The Foundation's site also has an interview with Dave Eggers, one of the great storytellers of our time, talking about storytelling. You can submit your story on the site. Here's a fun video about what makes Columbus special from the Columbus Foundation.

Here are some other resources on stories in our age. The Center for Digital Storytelling helps organizations of all kinds tell their stories using video and digital tools. Awhile back, TechSoup Global held a Digital Storytelling event - you can read about it here. BAVC's incredible Producer's Institute features several examples of new media stories. One which blew me away when I first heard about it is The Question Bridge which uses video and other media to enable conversations and Q and A between black men about the experience of being a black man. There are hundreds of questions and answers, each more interesting than the last. In aggregate, they become a database of insights, sliceable by every imaginable factor, interactive, and expandable.

The games and "gamification" craze ties into storytelling also - games inherently involve stories, either as part of the play itself or in recounting what happened. One of the distinguishing talents of great sportswriters is their ability to tell the same story (one side won, one side lost) over and over again in compelling ways - most often telling the story to the very people who actually watched the story unfold. Now, that's good storytelling!


Rob Wu said...

Thanks for sharing such a great post about storytelling. It would be interesting to see more of a science develop from storytelling -- an approch that orgs can use to develop stories -- as it is very much of an art now. Thoughts on how that can happen?

- Rob Wu, CauseVox

Andrew S. said...

Nice overview of some great storytelling efforts. (I'd add @firstpersonarts in Philadelphia, and their fabulous First Person Museum) Do you think the increased interest in storytelling is a reaction to the pressure on nonprofits and others to produce less-narrative-based evidence of the success of their work? Some of the criticism of Greg Mortenson, for instance, seemed to dwell on how good his stories were, to the exclusion of data to back them up. At the same time we're working to tell better stories, are we competing with another view that holds stories to be a form of data concealment?


Lucy Bernholz said...

There are great resources out there for storytelling - Center for Digital Storytelling, the work that Andy Goodman has been doing for years with nonprofits, TechSoup's tools for transmedia storytelling - lots of resources exist.

In other posts on this blog I've written about how stories are becoming data due to changes in data set size and the advent of things such as the digital humanities - those resources might also be helpful


Lucy Bernholz said...


Data and stories, stories and data - we have always, and always will - needed them both. I've written earlier posts about how massive databases of stories are now changing stories into data - it's not an either/or, it's a both/and.

Andrew S. said...

I agree that it's not an either/or, but when it comes to the stories nonprofits tell about their work, it seems there's a movement afoot to 'teach' donors to ignore narratives in favor of countable data, and to look on stories with some measure of suspicion. As well they might. As Emily Dickinson advised: “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” What does it mean to get better at telling stories? More truth or more slant? The best nonprofit stories invite you into a realm of engagement where numbers don’t really matter all that much. But how, if at all, are stories likely to be valued in, say, Social Impact Bond-type structures? Will impact-focused investors have the patience to be dazzled gradually? It’s an increasingly urgent tension that many nonprofits will have to struggle with in deciding how to allocate funds to communications and data collection.


Julia Indovina said...

Great post, and absolutely reinforces the underlying need for grantmakers to share their stories to increase awareness of the impact of the philanthropic sector. The Philanthropy Awareness Initiative has been encouraging the sharing of stories--finding the narrative amidst the data--to demonstrate impact and understanding. And Northern California Grantmakers is helping our members craft their own stories through our Snapshots of Philanthropy series:

Low-tech and low cost, but effective nonetheless!

- Julia Indovina
Director, Communications & Member Services
Northern California Grantmakers

Rebecca Sanborn Stone said...

Great post, and absolutely resonates with our work at the Orton Family Foundation ( We work to help people discover what makes their communities special and then protect and enhance those values. We often find that people scratch their heads when they first hear that storytelling is part of our community planning process, but the communities we work with end up finding huge value in the experience.

Scott said...

I am looking for curriculum on organizational storytelling that we can use to train some of our volunteers. Do you have any suggestions?

Amin Wi said...

Love this article!

It clearly resonate with my work. In fact, I believe storytelling should be a skill taught right from the start when we're all in school.

The trouble with schools is that teachers are in a hurry to disseminate information as quickly as possible. If only they've taught everything in a story form like how it was in pre-school.

Rosien Herweijer said...

Global Giving and Cognitive Edge have interesting experiences in analyzing stories and storyfragments. In there approach those who contribute the story "signify" the story by adding scores and variables that can be filtered; this links the story to quantitative information that can be processed and analyzed. See