It looked like a war zone, with broken shop windows, vandalized cars, and burnt-out apartment buildings. In fact, it was 232nd Street, the block leading up to the Kingsbridge Community Center in the Bronx, where I was about to start my first job out of college, running storytelling workshops for children of sexual abuse.
Nothing could have prepared me for the experience. It was baptism by fire; those early years laid the foundation for a new way of culling novel insights through narratives, a process that would become the building blocks of my work with individuals, companies, and qualitative researchers alike.
New York City in the late 1980s was a mess. Poverty, homelessness, and violent crime were at an all-time high and agencies like the ones that readily hired an inexperienced performing artist like me were spending lots of money trying to bring some levity and joy to these disenfranchised populations. Homeless shelters for men, welfare hotels teeming with single mothers, community centers servicing gang-ridden neighborhoods—these became my mobile incubators, beginning with Kingsbridge.
It didn’t take long for me to realize I had to create an environment of safety with these kids. I quickly learned that memories of play, regardless of how painful their everyday lives were, were always joyous. Play stories were not only fun; they became lenses into the home lives of the kids I was charged to entertain. I still remember the boy who joyously recounted his doll collection before casually mentioning the fact that he had removed all their heads. Or, the girl who laughed aloud as she described the fort that she and her brother built out of cardboard boxes found in the trash, complete with an imaginary shelf for guns. And there was the 6-year-old girl who reached into an imaginary toy chest I handed her and took out an invisible key. “Is it a key to a majestic palace?” I asked her playfully. “No,” she said. “It’s a key to the prison where my father is.”
As morose as these stories were, I increasingly began to see how effective an indirect storytelling approach was to both help participants feel safe enough to express themselves emotionally, and also to enable me to deduce vital information from them. Their stories became lenses into their hopes, dreams, and fears, all delivered through metaphors.
The key, I learned, was to remove any sense of expectation on my part. As much as I yearned to learn specific information from them, my story prompts had to be unrelated to the outcome. It was up to me to see the broader emotional landscape and to trust that these stories, regardless of how random or factually inaccurate they might seem, would inevitably reveal emotional truths. As I began to work in different, far less painful environments, I found these strategies equally effective.
By the mid-1990s, I became the storyteller-in-residence with the Museum of the City of New York, helping to bring their historical exhibits to life through storytelling performances. It didn’t take long to realize that kids were much more apt to express themselves when asked to become a historical object as opposed to a person. Inanimate objects seemed to afford them a certain distance that opened up their imaginations and allowed them to reinforce information they had learned in their history curricula. Becoming a three-cornered hat of a colonial officer during the Revolutionary War yielded all sorts of recalled information. Asking them to become that officer made them clam up.
Was this a response specific to this population of young people, or was there something universal in the use of inanimate objects that allowed for a kind of freedom of expression, I wondered? As I began to run storytelling workshops for adult educators, the answers became resoundingly clear. The more I allowed a person to tell a story seemingly removed from themselves, regardless of age, background, or gender, the more emotionally honest they became, a fact that even they weren’t always aware of.
On one memorable occasion, I conducted a workshop for the Board of Jewish Education in New York City, whose mandate was to promote Jewish continuity nationwide. The agency was concerned that the Holocaust was too pervasive as a definer of Jewish identity and wanted to promote a joyous proactive Judaism that was reflected in their Hebrew school curricula. I had had such success introducing public school teachers to the use of inanimate objects in teaching history, that I decided to do the same with this new demographic, making small thematic adaptations to facilitate their specific goals.
To demonstrate my process, I put the teachers through one of my favorite activities, The Table. “Become an object on a Passover Seder table,” I instructed the teachers. “Tell us everything you observe, including all your senses, not just sight.”
Their responses stunned me.
As we took turns in the circle sharing our Seder table experiences, a haunting pattern began to emerge. Every Hebrew schoolteacher became a persecuted object. “I was the matzah that fell to the ground and was crushed,” said one participant. “I was the wine that got spilled on the tablecloth,” said another, followed by a third who said, “I was the cloth napkin that got soaked!”
Here we were trying to develop a new curriculum, free of sadness and persecution, and my clients were steeped in a sense of victimization that even they weren’t aware of. The session reminded me that participants who feel no pressure to contribute to a specific end goal will usually reveal emotional truths more readily.
This is certainly not a revolutionary concept. Psychoanalysts, anthropologists, and ethnographers alike have described using stories to facilitate the expression of the unconscious process in a way that is tolerable to the conscious mind. But lately, neuroscientists have begun to quantify what those of us in the field have only been able to explain observationally.
In one fascinating study, Dr. Charles Limb, a saxophone-playing head and neck surgeon at Johns Hopkins University, used MRI machines to measure changes in the brains of jazz pianists during both the scripted and improvisational sections of their musical sets. The research showed that while jazz musicians improvise, the part of the brain that allows humans to express themselves—the medial prefrontal cortex or “default network”—becomes more active. At the same time, the part of the brain responsible for self-inhibition and control, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, becomes dormant. In other words, by inhibiting the part of the brain that allows self-criticism, the musicians were able to stay in their creative flow, or as musicians sometimes call it, “in the zone.” Dr. Limb’s findings are consistent with a wealth of recent studies, which also show decreased activity in the area of the brain that generates planning and overthinking during improvisation.
Although no specific study has measured improvisational storytelling in the same way, these recent musical studies have helped me understand what may be happening with my clients on an organic level when I allow them the freedom to freestyle with their narratives.
As a social species, humans have a fundamental need to belong that encourages behaviors consistent with being a good group member, a phenomenon which, according to Joshua Johansen, a team leader at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan, results in self-regulation. Although this inhibitory response in our brains developed to help us curtail our dangerous, angry, or irrational impulses, it also can cause us to inhibit the information we share with researchers and even with ourselves. Thus, tricking the brain through indirect storytelling prompts—specifically those that elicit emotional memories—can often yield novel insights, a fact I continue to witness within my work in the corporate world.
Shortly after establishing myself as a story strategist in 2012, a client from a large financial planning company hired me to help him figure out why his business story wasn’t working with prospective clients. “I’m a family man,” he kept telling me. “After my child was born last year, I got rid of my Corvette sports car and bought a minivan. I’m devoted to my family and want to help others think about their family’s financial futures too.”
There was something about the way he kept stressing his noble family values that seemed disingenuous to me; I also knew he believed his own story. I decided to distract him from his fixed narrative by surprising him with one of my favorite techniques, the use of an object story. “Tell me about your watch,” I said referring to the lovely large antique timepiece he was wearing on his left wrist.
He seemed a bit thrown. “This old thing? It was my grandfather’s,” he said with a smile before adding, “I love my grandfather. We still go to church every Sunday together. I get my Corvette out of the garage, and I pick him up, and we ride together to church in it.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “I thought you sold your Corvette.”
“Well, I didn’t actually sell it. I put it away in my garage. But I take it out to go to church with him.”
We both laughed. Suddenly, his story revealed a much more multidimensional man, one who manages to maintain his love of prized material objects without losing his sense of community, family, and spirituality. He seemed genuinely relieved that he could finally become his authentic self, a fact that also resulted in increased business for him.
I’m fascinated by those moments of revelation that come after a personal story is vocalized. Listening beyond words is the key in helping participants mine them. I’m like a beachcomber with a metal detector, continually looking and listening for the emotions that are driving their narratives or, by equal measure, missing from them. It is in these sentences that treasures are unearthed.
The results using this approach can be surprising. Here are a few examples. While looking at the efficacy of a medical device used in the operating theater, I suggested to a qualitative research team that they ask doctors to imagine they were a tendon and to describe their reactions to the new device. This surfaced a new concern about the device injuring the tendon that had not been identified previously.
While reviewing the success of a new science curriculum, I asked the same team to add a storytelling component to their first question in an online board for educators, making sure to include extremes, like best and worst, a technique that is particularly effective in jogging memory. This directive read, “Please introduce yourself and help us understand a bit about you and your teaching style, and tell us a story about the best teacher or the meanest teacher you ever had.” The stories they mined increased the depth of insights surrounding the educators’ emotional truths about why and how they teach and helped their client position and sell their new physics program in a totally new way.
To understand how to position and market the drive-through window for a large national food chain, I helped a different team design a daylong session for a focus group, in which they created and performed original stories based on their memories of the drive-through. New insights emerged about the power of family memories to transcend concerns for healthy eating and helped to reframe the client’s marketing strategy.
Probe on Emotions
While trying to understand the value of a medical education program, a qualitative researcher asked me to review her interview with a physician to see where she could have enhanced it. As a storyteller, I’ve always got my emotional metal detector going. When I hear any kind of emotion, I intuitively want to probe further. I noticed a few missed opportunities, those places where the interviewer moved on too quickly because the response didn’t seem to directly relate to the information she sought.
One such example comes to mind. “What do you like most about these conferences?” she asked a doctor. “The dinners,” he answered. Both the researcher and the doctor chuckled, but the researcher immediately carried on with her next question. “Go back and ask him why he liked those dinners,” I suggested to my colleague.
She did, and his response surprised her. She had never anticipated the level of insecurity this prestigious surgeon had among his colleagues, and the dinners were the great leveler, the only place where he could regain his confidence. This information helped contextualize the trainings and gave her a real added layer of understanding about their target demographic.
I consider myself an accidental qually, a professional storyteller who inadvertently chanced upon an insight-gathering process that, despite the science surrounding it, still seems magical to me. I hope it will seem that way to you, too. Qualitative researchers need not be concerned that they aren’t good storytellers. Using narrative strategies for insight gathering doesn’t require the skills of a great orator. It merely demands a fascination with the “other.”
Remember the wonderment of it all, both in the way you question and the way you listen. Your unique spirit, the openness by which you seek other people’s stories, the genuine curiosity you have for the smallest things—their names, their objects, the adjectives they use, the expressions they make, the silences they take, the colors of their shoes, the places they loved to play, their grandparents’ favorite books, the responses they give that are seemingly distant from the knowledge you seek—it is in those places that you will find gold.