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Organizational Story Writing: Leading a Listening Session

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Jackie James Creedon shares a map of future soil testing sites in western New York State.

 

Jackie James Creedon is the founder of Citizens Science Community Resources, an organization that is committed to promoting science-based activism and empowering grass-roots environmental justice and health campaigns. In 2014, Jackie received an award from the Environmental Protection Agency for her courageous efforts to lead an investigation in our community that took down Tonawanda Coke, a local factory that poisoned our air, making many of our neighbors sick. Thanks to Jackie, health studies are continuing in our region, and the criminals responsible for this travesty have been convicted.

Her story is a remarkable one, and I have the honor of helping her tell it in a way that will engage other community members in this work.

Perhaps you have a remarkable story to tell as well, or maybe you’d like to help others share their own. This is important work. I know from experience that it can also be a bit daunting. When the stories we tell are ones that we’ve lived, it’s hard to know where to start.

Or why. 

The good news is that we don’t have to know. Not right away. What matters is that we work the pre-writing phase of the process to its fullest potential. This is where the best answers will be revealed.

As a coach, I begin the organizational story writing process by inviting clients to complete a pre-consultation interest survey that looks much like this one. My intention isn’t to seek answers, but to generate solid grist for the mill. I want to get my clients thinking about their work, their learning, and the difference they’ve made and hope to make. I want to know what they’re passionate about, who they hope to influence, and how. Finally, I want to know which storytellers motivate and move them. Their answers are revealing. They help us begin defining our purposes.

Next, I conduct a listening session. Here, I ask my clients to recount their stories–start to finish. I listen, record detailed notes, pose clarifying questions, and then, when the retelling is complete, I begin teasing out as many potential story elements as possible.

My intention isn’t to create a structure, a theme, or a message. In fact, I find that it’s important not to do this right away. Instead, I treat each small detail as an individual tile that may or may not be chosen for our final mosaic.  How do I know which tiles to collect? I consider the working parts of any great story and frame my questions accordingly, focusing closely on characters, purpose, presentation, and voice while leaving questions about structure for our next meeting.

The chart below was adapted from our study of Ffion Lindsay’s The Seven Pillars of Storytelling. This is a quick read, it’s easily accessible, and it’s packed full of provocations and ideas that we found particularly useful. I am not being paid to recommend it, but I am happy to. It’s also free.

I use this chart to prompt deeper and better questions. As I do, clients often make discoveries and connections that they may not have, otherwise. Problems are often viewed from different perspectives during this phase of our work. Solutions reveal themselves. Story tellers realize that there are others whose stories should be told.

This is incredibly rewarding.

 

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If you’re about to dive head-long into an organizational story writing project of your own, you may find it helpful to gather the tiles of your own mosaic first. Invite those you’re supporting to share their stories, or take some time to listen to your own one more time. Consider each of the elements above. Jot your thoughts down on index cards or sticky notes–one element per note. Remember, they’re tiles. We want to be able to move them and mix them and re-position them as we begin drafting.

Don’t think about defining your story’s structure just yet.

You don’t need to know where to begin or how your story will end.

Just gather your tiles. As many as you can.

And then, go for a walk or play with your kids or your pets or cook yourself a decent meal.

Have a glass of wine.

Let it all percolate for a while.

Reflect.

Let your story teach you things you didn’t know before.

These are the gifts that the writing process offers us.

I’ll be back tomorrow to share the next phase of the process.

 

 

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