In search of story

Serial, if you aren’t already among its listeners, is a wildly compelling NPR podcast, which investigated a 1999 murder in its first season. The fact that someone is in jail for the murder doesn’t keep this from being a terrifically engaging story which – spoiler alert – has its frustrating moments.

One of the many things that’s fascinating about Serial is the often desperate scrabbling for narrative. You can hear people trying madly, often vainly, to make what they know, what they think they remember, turn into a sensible story. And here I’m not talking about the journalist herself at all – although whole season is really her doing this very thing (link to video).

Throughout, people are reconstructing events from the past. They’re being asked about things that seemed inconsequential at the time they happened, but because of what emerged a few weeks or moths later, then loomed large. They imbue details with a great deal of meaning, they put together cause and effect, they try to explain paradoxes. Do they succeed? Not always.

We tell ourselves and each other stories about what happens to us. But we should listen carefully to those stories, especially if they are being used to make or justify a decision. Will this employee turn things around after performance issues? Will two organizations figure out how to work together on a common goal? Will a change initiative thrive or fail? Why did this operational problem come about? The ways we talk about these questions are all storytelling.

In search of story

Some things to think about as we evaluate stories we hear:

  • It really, really, desperately bugs people not to have a storyline. We try to tease cause and affect out of the most spuriously connected information. Someone was agitated? Must have committed a crime. Attendance at an event was up? Must have been the topic. Or the marketing. Or the weather. Or… really, we don’t know.
  • It’s incredibly important what we consider relevant – and not. We can’t possibly attend to every detail in our lives. So we pick out what’s most salient. How do we do this? Our own heuristics, our own rules of thumb, which aren’t visible even to us, let alone others. What do we track consciously? What do we track unconsciously?
  • Self-reporting can be wildly inaccurate. We may lie for all sorts of reasons. People are trying to make things convenient, make others feel better, avoid embarrassment, stay out of trouble, keep from admitting uncomfortable truths… And while we probably value honesty highly, most of us aren’t always scrupulous with the absolute truth.
  • And let’s not forget how we can deceive ourselves.

Serial is full of these realizations, none of which is perhaps entirely new, but which are easy to kind-of forget in our day-to-day lives.

On the flip side, it can be incredibly powerful to pull together narratives for others. We’re all looking to make sense of our world. If you can help people do that for their own work, you’re performing a valuable service.

If we can help you understand your world better through research, please get in touch.

Photo by Ales Krivec, courtesy of Unsplash.

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