There’s no denying that we all look a little bit younger in this photo: only five years ago, but so much changes (and i don’t just mean the receding hairlines and expanding waists). Rich, Cath and I still go kayaking regularly, but we’re more experienced now, better able to deal with difficult situations, able to travel further, more easy in our routines and habits. We share our stories of expeditions past and plans for the future. Our successes and our failures.
I came across the photo on Facebook, part of a timeline that documents my own journey: looking back provides a narrative of days out, adventures had, friends made and journeyed with.
I love how Facebook creates an emergent narrative: with little apparent effort on our parts, it documents the minutiae that create the whole. The narrative writes itself over time. It’s this idea of micro contributions leading to organisational narratives that i think can happily sit within any good learning design: create spaces and opportunities for people to documents their personal stories, to co-create team stories and build overall organisational stories that play out over time.
Our relationship with stories is complex: we use them to share information, to contextualise knowledge, we agree with them or reject them. They are used in formal and informal contexts and are open to anyone to tell and retell, shape and reform. The power of a story hinges on its amplification, on how magnetic it is, on how far it travels. Take this story: once i publish it, it will be read online, amplified through Twitter and LinkedIn, maybe commented on or retold in different curation sites and through various communities. My role at this time is to tell it, but once it’s published, it goes beyond my control, released into the community to be understood, rejected or adapted as they wish.
In open source software we talk about ‘forking‘ the code: taking an element of it and developing it down a different track. Stories work like that too: next week i’m running two workshops and some of the participants will agree with what i say, others will adapt or reject it. It’s the retelling where we make sense of it, where we make it relevant to us and, accept, adapt or reject it, we still learn.
The stories we tell whilst out on the sea are based on shared experience: ‘do you remember when...’ we say. Shared experience can lead to stories we co-own and co-create. But other stories we simply learn from: when i was mentoring Shyamla in India a couple of years ago through the programme at the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, we each told stories about our communities, about our everyday reality, to let us learn a little more about what our world looked like. Her stories influenced me strongly: little vignettes into a different world, seeing the photos and hearing her thoughts is a very personal and immediate insight into the hopes and dreams of an individual. We then created our own shared story as we carried out our mentoring journey over a year, a more formal structure (and now we maintain a friendship that carries our story forwards again in a more personal space).
These stories, the ones we co-create in a kayak or in a mentoring relationship, are tight, small, personal. Other stories are wide, public and shared: stories of change and love and loss.
Stories are powerful, engaging, pervasive: gone ones last whilst others fade away (although in an age of digital permanence, maybe less faded than we might like).
Someone showed me some training materials they had sat through yesterday on ‘Negotiation skills‘. Half a page explaining a model, then space for you to parrot back what you’d just read. Inspiring? Not so much. It felt old, didactic, someone else’s story, the exercise being to pass rather than to be effective.
Involving narrative and storytelling approaches in our learning can be far more engaging: building personal narratives of change over time. Stories that may be written in small chunks, but play out over broad spans: these stories let us chart our development, our learning, our successes and our mistakes.
Everyone loves a good story: we reflect on and revisit them over time and it’s in that revisiting that we really see how we’ve changed. What we’ve learnt.