Riding backwards

Some of you already know I’m a longtime fan of Story People. Brian Andreas’s little stories seem simple. But try to write a tiny story that says so much. Not as easy as it looks.

For Valentine’s Day this year, he created a couple videos with his whimsical, colorful, joyous illustrations.

This one reminds me of one of the delicious stories of the Mullah Nasruddin. One day he was riding his donkey backward. The villagers asked him why.

“I am not sitting backward on the donkey,” he said. “The donkey is facing the wrong way.”

The Mullah Nasruddin even has his own Facebook page now. You’ll find lots of his stories there. If you want more, check some of the other transliterated spellings, which can be found in the Wikipedia article cited above.

Demonstrating Change through Storytelling

Eye-catching logo for the Our Stories conference

Our Stories conference logo

Without a doubt, the best organizational storytelling conference I’ve ever participated in was the Our Stories conference in 2007. Sponsored by Vancouver (Canada) Coastal Health, it drew an enthusiastic audience of 230 health professionals.

The conference co-sponsors were AHIP, the Aboriginal Health Initiative Program, and the Sharon Martin Community Health Fund. AHIP’s co-sponsorship and the focus on storytelling were what attracted a large contingent of First Nations and Métis participants.

That added richness and depth. Roughly half the participants came from cultural traditions that honor stories and storytelling. Their presence gave non-indigenous attendees the freedom to set aside, at least for two days, some of their (and their bosses’) worries about whether or not a storytelling conference could be justified in fiscal and temporal terms.

Graphic notes

Session notes were recorded graphically

The intent of Our Stories was “to build community capacity by supporting all stakeholders to:

  • Explore how stories can be used in reporting, funding applications, and communications with others.
  • Brainstorm cost effective ways to integrate storytelling into current or planned projects and programs.
  • Explore the use of spoken word, art, photography, videography, popular theatre and more to capture stories of change.”

It isn’t possible to capture ambience. Nor can a Web site show the joy of sharing discoveries and enthusiasm with other conference participants. But the Our Stories Web site has plenty of discoveries, food for thought, and even delight. On it you’ll find videos of the plenary sessions, PDFs of the presentations (including brief notes for my own, in the Foundations section), exercises, and graphic-recording images.

Story graphic

This graphic wove through the conference

Aline LaFlamme, a Métis woman who emceed the conference, beautifully summarized why the conference had a profound impact on all of us who came. Scroll down this page of the Our Stories site to see the video of her closing remarks. [There’s a photograph of this beautiful and accomplished woman here.]

I transcribed the excerpt below, but do watch the video, which is powerfully moving. [Scroll down to near the bottom of the page and click on the video link below “Closing Remarks by Aline LaFlamme, Conference MC.]

I can’t really say enough about the importance of what has happened here.
Since contact between the people of this land and European people,
people of this land have always, always, always tried to speak
about the importance of storytelling.

It’s the way people were taught
from generation to generation to generation.
It was an inherent part of community. …

And we know that rich way of being in the world
and of sharing and building relationship
and of building a sense of self
was often ignored and invalidated and trampled.

So our voices and our ways of using our voices
that include spirit and heart were largely cast aside.…

It’s very significant to me that a large funder
and many, many, many other funders
and many people from all four directions
have come together
because all of us come from rich storytelling traditions.
If we go back to when we were more connected
to the land of our ancestors,
all of us come from rich storytelling communities and nations.
All of us do.…

And so, we’ve lived in this industrial world for a long time,
and in this industrial world we’ve largely cast off
many of those aspects of ourselves,
and we’ve come to kind of worship the intellectual ability,
the ability to quantify everything,
and we lost so much in doing that.

And so to me there’s huge significance
and huge healing between us as people,
for the people of this land and all the people that have come,
to say storytelling has great importance,
storytelling is valid,
and we’re going to promote it,
and we’re going to include it.

It’s a huge healing.

When our dear one spoke about residential school earlier,
and I know how many of our relatives
had blocks of wood put in their mouths and tied there
so they could not have a voice,
when I come to a conference that’s about telling stories,
it’s really casting off those blocks of wood
and those rags that held the wood in place.…

And if we can connect back to those good traditions,
it means we can go forward,
and we can bring this forward
to our children and our grandchildren.…

~Aline LaFlamme

Creating our stories

[T]o make sense of our experience by creating a story is an essential human characteristic, and whatever story we tell at a given time reflects our level of consciousness. At one point we may tell a story of victimhood or revenge, and later one of compassion and empowerment. It is the exercise, moment to moment, of free will, of doggedly looking for beauty, joy, and possibility, that offers us the greatest hope for generating stories that will contain the creativity and inspiration we need to solve otherwise insurmountable challenges. ~ Nina Utne, UTNE Reader, May-June 2004, page 6

Storytelling in health care

A few months into a new job as Food and Health Project Manager for Interior Health (the health authority that serves British Columbia’s southeast region), I was asked to lead a storytelling workshop at the Population Health conference.

The invitation was not totally out of the blue. Storytelling had been part of my community development work in northern B.C.

I figured a three-hour workshop would be easy, though the audience might be skeptical of the value of storytelling in a health context. I was well prepared until, a week before the conference, the terms changed.

The organizers had shifted their thinking. Storytelling would no longer be a sideshow. It would be the main attraction.

Two and a half days with administrators, managers, front-line staff…that’s an enormous investment of resources. It had to be worthwhile.

Naramata Centre

Naramata Centre, setting for the workshop

I had used a narrative approach in all my community development work. I had promoted storytelling as an essential part of any non-profit’s bag of tools. What I hadn’t done was preach the storytelling gospel to management and staff of a bureaucracy with 18,000 employees. I felt like a very small frog in an ocean-sized pool.

We started the first session sitting in a large circle. I looked at all my new colleagues and wondered if I could pull it off.

Introductions began. One of the first to speak was Dr. Paul Hasselback, the Chief Medical Health Officer. Whatever he said would help set the tone for the event.

I was nervous. If he were skeptical of the value of storytelling, others might be less inclined to set aside any doubts they had brought with them.

I needn’t have worried. A year before, he had participated in an invitational conference in in Montréal. Sponsored by the Canadian Health Services Research Foundation, the focus of the conference had been…storytelling. [Details below.]

Dr. Hasselback talked about storytelling in the context of research, evaluation, and policy direction. He said we needed to be better at translating our work for a lay audience. We needed to tell better stories.

I don’t know if the whole room relaxed, but I certainly did. This group of overly busy people had just been given permission to become storytellers. I had no doubt I was the right person to plant seeds in the soil Dr. Hasselback had loosened for me.

The evaluations were glowing, but I was most pleased by a direct and immediate result. Two days after the conference, one of the attendees opened a meeting with a story. This wasn’t just any meeting. It was a meeting called to deal with a particularly volatile issue. Staff came ready to pounce.

Naramata Centre waterfront

Beach at the Naramata Centre in British Columbia

The story, a metaphor for the controversy at hand, poured oil on the proverbial troubled waters. The temperature of the room dropped from boiling to warm. An explosive situation was defused.

Over the next few years, I had many opportunities to embed storytelling in the corporate culture of the health authority. I know I would have done it anyway, however the initial workshop had turned out. Storytelling has been part of my work since before I even knew what to call it.

But it made a difference to everything that came afterward that my new colleagues “got” it and gave me permission to share it.


In March 2003 the annual conference of the Canadian Health Services Research Foundation brought together “150 managers, policy makers, and health services researchers to understand the use and abuse of stories, but also to enhance their ability to effectively use stories and anecdotes to bring research to life and encourage evidence-based decisions.”

The conference report, “Once Upon a Time…The Use and Abuse of Storytelling and Anecdote in the Health Sector”, is organized in four sections:

  1. The Abuse of Stories and Anecdotes in the Health System
  2. Stories and Anecdotes in Health Services Research, Management, and Policy
  3. Characteristics of Effective Stories in the Health Sector
  4. Towards Evidence-Based Stories

One Big Dream

Red mittens

2010 Olympic red mittens from k-ideas' Flickr photostream

Vancouver Olympics Organizing Committee members had many dreams when they began planning the 2010 winter games. One of them was to send the Olympic torch on a relay that would bring the flame to within 150 kilometres of every Canadian community. In a country the size of this one, with a population as small and scattered, that is one big dream and it makes one good story.

Airplanes had to be pressed into service to bring the flame to the small pockets of population that inhabit the territories of Nunavut, Northwest Territories, and the Yukon. And, of course, the Greece-to-Canada portion was airborne.

Elsewhere torch bearers rowed the flame, danced with it, and attached it to a wheelchair. They held it aloft while snowshoeing, surfing, bicycling, dogsledding, crossing ice, riding in a horse-drawn buggy, and driving a snow-grooming machine. When it finally entered the stadium for the opening ceremonies, it was tied to a wheelchair.

In small towns and big cities, thousands of people lined the path, insisting repeatedly that witnessing the relay made them feel part of the games, part of the country. Coast to coast, red-mitten fever generated pride and enthusiasm.

Canadians don’t spend a lot of time waving flags or bragging about their country. Some parts of the Olympics build-up seemed uncharacteristic, like calling the program to fund athletes, “Own the Podium”. Not that Canadians didn’t want their athletes to win medals, but the slogan was over the top for a country where people are more comfortable with modesty than swagger.

So pundits and bloggers and friends sitting around the dinner table will discuss endlessly what the torch relay meant to them and to the country. They’ll wonder if the opening ceremonies were pageantry or wanna-be, how facilities could have been improved, and why we spent $10,000,000 for a temporary Canadian pavilion that looked like a big tent.

But it’s been a good party, and we are quietly proud. And the torch relay? That stitched us together for a few months. We won’t soon forget it.

It is all part of the story.

  • See photos of the relay on the Boston Globe Web site.
  • Trace the route on the Olympic Torch Relay Interactive Map and watch videos of its day-by-day progress.

Olympic ceremony and Canada’s Big Story

We joined a group of friends last night, to watch the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Half were born in Canada. The rest of us hail from Australia, South Africa, England, and the U.S. But last night every one of us felt deeply proud of the land in which we find ourselves.

What we were seeing on the screen was mythic, the history of a land and its peoples played out in a spectacular sound and light show. Canadians aren’t known for noisy patriotism, but the crowd in B.C. Place and the thousands watching on flickering screens couldn’t help but be stirred.

I’m sure we all had our own, personal highlights, the moments when we gasped or cheered or shed a tear. I loved the indigenous dancers moving to the rhythm of the pulsing, virtual drum, right through the long entrances of the athletes. The fiddlers and dancers, the Northern Lights, the virtual whales, the dancers all thrilled me.

What we were watching was not just entertainment. It was the Big Story of Canada. It was the shaping of the land and of the water that runs through and around it. It was the sorry history of colonization and the rich tapestry of cultures brought by waves of immigrants.

I don’t remember poetry’s being included in previous Olympic openings, but slam poet Shane Koyczan got it right with his smoothly delivered, “We Are More”. So many lines resonated for Canadians: “…we are cultures strung together / then woven into a tapestry / and the design / is what makes us more / than the sum total of our history…” I’ll drop in a link to his 2007 video of the poem.

The human and virtual tableaux couldn’t tell the whole, complex history of course. But as a short course in Canada’s story, it worked.

Even the lighting of the Olympic flame was thoroughly Canadian. We’d all been speculating on which of the country’s sports heroes would have that honour. Instead of one, it was five.

Rick Hansen carried the flame into the stadium, attached to his wheelchair. He lit the torch carried by speedskater Catriona LeMay Doan. She passed the flame on to basketball star Steve Nash, who lit skier Nancy Greene’s torch, who held her flame to the torch of hockey Hall of Fame star Wayne Gretzky. That the inside torch was only symbolic and that Gretzky alone lighted the official cauldron—and even that a jammed pillar kept Doan from adding her flame—didn’t change the Canadian-ness of the symbol.

The one thing that did mar the opening was the death of a young Georgian, killed in a tragic training accident on the luge course. Seeing flags at half mast, the Georgian team with black armbands and scarves, and a crowd of 60,000 observing a moment of silence, no one could forget the grieving family and friends of Nodar Kumaritashvili.

In comparison with the spectacular opening of the Bejing Olympics, Canada’s may seem modest, but it was Canadian to the core. Vancouver Sun columnist Shelley Fralic expressed it well: “This, then, is the Canada we want the world to see, magical and beautiful, and talented.”

Now if only it would snow.

©2010 Cathryn Wellner

If you missed the ceremony, here are some highlights:

And here’s Nikki Yanofsky singing the Vancouver Olympics theme song, whose lyrics seem very Canadian: “I believe together we’ll fly. I believe in the power of you and I.”

Using stories to show change

When it comes to evaluating a project, the people who dreamed it into being are the ones who know it most intimately. In the non-profit world, that can mean people with limited or no experience in measuring outcomes are asked to reduce their work to something that can be slotted into a form. That’s a bit like describing a butterfly by naming its color and antennae.

Rebecca's Café in Port Fairy

Rebecca's Café in Port Fairy

What those at the grassroots level can do best, better than anyone coming in as an outside expert, is tell the project’s stories. They know the three women who dreamed of opening a bakery. They helped them with start-up loans and training. They were amazed when one of those women learned to read and write so she could handle the fledgling company’s paperwork. Literacy was not being funded and won’t be measured, but the story of that unanticipated outcome may end up being the most compelling reason for the micro-lending project to continue.

Conveying the significance of a project’s stories has always been a challenge. Fortunately, there is a tool: Most Significant Change, a technique that gives stories the credibility that allows them to stand alongside other evaluation tools.

The technique grew out of a problem. Back in 1996 Rick Davies was working on a micro-credit project in Bangladesh, and Jess Dart was working on a family systems project in India. The projects had to be evaluated, but they involved multiple community and individual approaches that had no indicators in common.

Anyone who has worked in the non-profit world understands the dilemma. Funders and project sponsors need data. They need graphs and charts. They need solid evidence their money and attention are making a difference.

What people at the community level need is an evaluation that takes more into account than statistics. They know the hopes with which they began. They see the roadblocks that sent them in a new direction. They understand when an outcome may seem modest to an outsider but represents a giant step in the community. Reducing everything to easily measured outcomes can miss the most important impacts of the project.

Faced with the challenge of evaluating complex projects, Dart and Davies came up with separate methodologies. By Jess’s admission, Rick’s was better. Most Significant Change was born.

Their initial trial was a success. Jess made it the focus of her PhD. The two of them went on to develop a guide, which can be downloaded free. Now the methodology is used around the world, not as a stand-alone approach but as a powerful addition.

And it is all based on stories.

To explore Most Significant Change:

Old Homeland Security

I first heard this folktale from Heather Forrest many years ago. In her version a peasant crosses the border every day for ten years. The border guard knows he is smuggling something but can never figure out what. Only when the official has retired does he learn what the man was smuggling .

Here’s a YouTube version of that same tale:

Pop or drop: telling your organization’s story

During years of work in the field of community development, I’ve seen fantastic projects that popped with excitement. Even if their funders changed focus, the intrepid project leaders managed to tell the project’s story in a way that kept the dollars flowing in. Others dropped out of sight once initial funding ended.

There are many reasons some community projects are a brief flash and others glow on for years. But one thing that can improve the odds is storytelling.

It isn’t enough to do good work. You have to tell the story—to funders, media, clients, municipal government, and all the other audiences who can support the work.

There are lots of ways to go about that. We’ll explore some of them on Story Route and through links to the work of some talented story practitioners.

As a start, here’s a PowerPoint Theresa Healy and I prepared back in 2003 for a workshop we were doing with diabetes projects. The tips in it are still worth trying so we’re happy to share it with you here.

©2010 Cathryn Wellner and Theresa Healy

The Story of a Sign

As this 5:55-minute video opens, a blind beggar sits by his hand-lettered sign as people walk by. Some toss coins. Most ignore him.

We see a businessman, carrying a briefcase, walking toward the square. Will he give the man a coin? Walk by? We know the juxtaposition of rich and poor is important to the story, but we don’t know how until the end.

I don’t want to give this one away so will only say that this beautiful little film is a good example of how changing the story can change the outcome.