TITLE: A Story-Telling Pattern from the Summit AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: January 22, 2009 4:05 PM DESC: ----- BODY: At the Rebooting Computing Summit, one exercise called for us to interview each other and then report back to the group about the person we interviewed. The reports my partner and I gave, coupled with some self-reported experiences later in the day, reminded me of a pattern I've experienced in other contexts. Here is a rough first draft. Let me know what you think. Second-Hand Story When we need to know a person's story, our first tendency is often to ask him to tell us. After all, he know it best, because he lived it. He has had a chance to reflect on it, to reconsider decisions, and to evaluate what the story "means". This approach can disappoint us. Sometimes, the person is too close to the experience and attaches accidental emotions and details. Sometimes, even though he has had a chance to reflect on his experience, he hasn't reflected enough -- or perhaps not at all! Telling the story may be the first time he has thought about some of those experiences in a long time. While trying to tell the story and summarize its meaning at the same time, the storyteller may reach for an easily-found answer. The result can be trite, convenient, or self-protective. Maybe the person is simply too close to an experience to see its true meaning. Therefore, ask the person to tell his story to someone else, focusing on "just the facts". Then, ask the interviewer to tell the story, perhaps in summary form. Let the interviewer and the listeners look for patterns and themes. The interviewer has distance and an opportunity to listen objectively. She is less likely to impose well-rehearsed personal baggage over the story. The result can still be trite. If the listener does not listen carefully, or is too eager to stereotype the story, then the resulting story may well be worse than the original, because it is not only sanitized but sanitized by someone without intimate connection to it. It can be refreshing to hear someone else tell your own story, to draw conclusions, to summarize what is most important. A good listener can pick up on essential details and remove the shroud of humility or disappointment that too often obscures your own view. You can learn something about yourself! This technique depends on two people's ability to tell a story, not one. The original story-teller must be open, honest, and willing to describe situations more than evaluate them too much. (A little evaluation is unavoidable and also useful. The listener learns something about the story-teller from that party of the story, too.) The interviewer must be a careful listener and have a similar enough background to be able to put the story into context and form reasonable abstractions about it. Examples. I found the interviewer's reports at the Rebooting Computing summit to be insightful, including the ones that Joe Carthy and I gave on one another. Hearing someone else "tell my story" let me hear it more objectively than if I had told it myself. Occasionally I felt let like chiming in to correct or add something, but I'm not sure than anything I said could have done a better job introducing myself to the rest of the group. Something Joe said during his interview of me made me think more about just how my non-CS profs helped lead me into CS, something I had never thought much about before that. Later that day, we heard several self-reported stories, and those stories -- told by the same people who had reported on others earlier -- sounded flat and trite. I kept thinking, "What's the real story?" Maybe someone else could have told it better! Related Ideas. I am reminded of several techniques I learned as an architecture major while studying Betty Edwards's Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: This pattern and these exercises are all examples of techniques for indirect learning. This is is perhaps the first time I realized just how well indirect learning can work in a social setting. -----