Police (and some parents) know the secret to spotting a lie in a story: ask someone to repeat that story backwards. As it turns out, it’s a lot easier to concoct a false story going forward than it is backward because of the way we logically connect events in our heads.
This same technique can be used to help spot gaps in logic. Even if we’re not lying to one other (or ourselves) we may find some parts of the story that don’t quite make sense. This gap in logic is not uncommon because as humans we often will fill in the story because of how we are wired for narrative coherence as a species.
Narrative interrogation is a way that we can walk through the story of our program or service to help us identify the key elements that are present in most good stories and how or whether we have them organized (or have them at all). Unlike real interrogation, this is not aggressive or adversarial — rather a way to explore stories through inquiry.
Some of the key elements in a good story are:
- Actors. These are your protagonists (the leads), the supports, and the chorus — those in the background. Ask yourself who the main actors are in each scene of the story (e.g., who has the problem that needs solving? What are they looking for? What is their motivation?). This is where using personas can be helpful to fill in the details about these characters.
- Relationships. How are the actors related to each other? Are they working collaboratively or competitively and do they need each other? Are there roles that individuals fill? Are there special qualities to their relationship (e.g., power, partnership, etc.).
- Setting and Structures. Where are things taking place? Do people need a particular service or product in a specific setting or context? Articulating these will also help you to frame the way in which system structures shape the interactions between the actors and help contribute to or facilitate the problem (or solutions).
- Time. Determining when things are to happen and how that temporal aspect shapes everything is important. Does timing matter? Does the amount of time matter? is the problem and solution one that is highly dependent on when something happens or not?
- Arc. The last piece is creating some form of coherent story arc between them all. Tying them together helps us understand who is involved, what they are interested in or seeking, why they have the challenges they do, how they are going about things now (and how we could change that with an intervention of a product or service) and the ways in which that will be affected.
Together, this starts to generate a theory of change and helps us connect what we’re seeking to do through our innovation (service, product, policy) and what is needed by those we are aiming to serve.
Using the Method
Stories are told by people, not objects, so this is one method where speaking with individuals is key. Involve those for whom the story matters in the telling of that story. This might be customers or clients, service operators, managers, or founders; it depends on what story you are looking to hear. The aim is usually not to capture everything, rather keep it focused on a specific aspect of your innovation. It might be in use (customers or clients), the development (product team) and marketing, or in understanding the purpose relative to the organization (e.g. senior management).
Using an open-ended approach — free-form — ask people to speak about the topic using a story lens:
- Start with the beginning: what is the first thing someone needs to know. This might be the choice to start the project, the moment the ‘problem’ appeared that required a solution, or even the backstory. This is something that the storyteller determines on their own.
- Focus. Encourage the person to speak in a manner that focuses on the purpose, however, ask points of clarification when it is unclear what the connection is at different parts. Good stories often involve non-sequiturs and so do poor ones; it’s important to know which one it is.
- Reflect back. Once the story is told, re-cap the logic of the story from front to back and
- Go backwards. This is the ‘interrogation’ part of sorts. Ask people to retell the story backward from the end. For example, ask what happened right before the conclusion of the story and then what happened before that and before that. It’s similar to the reverse of A Day in the Life method.
What you might find is that the story has different descriptors, relationships, or emphasis when told backward. These allow us to see different configurations of the issues that are associated with the story. It’s not that the person is necessarily lying or keeping anything from you, it’s about the limitations of narrative in that it only works with one set of issues connected logically at a time. Going backward allows us to see things differently, expanding our view.
The interviews and conversations with those involved should be informal and relaxed and can go into as much depth as you want. Generally, this is an approach that makes for a good ‘coffee conversation’ of about 30 minutes. It also can be done remotely, if necessary. It can be done internally by staff associated with the project or externally by an outsider. If the story involves highly sensitive subject matter or material, it is best to use an outsider to the project.
Learn more from your program, your people, and your work with this simple, powerful method for design exploration and research.
We help with storytelling through data. Contact us if you want to implement this with your organization.