COLLECTIVE NARRATIVE METHODOLOGY
Note: The Collective Narrative Methodology and related materials are released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-SA 4.0) unless explicitly stated otherwise. Attribution: Evolutionary Futures Lab.
The Collective Narrative Methodology is a way of harvesting conversations. Here are the nine key steps for producing a rich and balanced collective narrative:
Communicate format, channels, and deadlines for participant contributions
Invite high-context storytelling for report-outs & allow individual contributions by midnight
Aggregate all properly submitted contributions and convert them into text
Defragment your text by clustering connected ideas
Rearrange clusters to create backbone structure
Rearrange sentences within clusters, replace “I”s with “We”s, and embrace contradictions
Take a break, let go of the narrative, then come back and polish it without owning it
Provide meta-context, give credit to contributors, and allow for feedback
Large group sensing: UN75 Charter Dialogues (United Nations Associations of the USA, France, Venezuela, Ghana, and Pakistan)
Medium group sensing:
Collective intention setting: Opening Session of the Thought Leadership for Systems Transformation Program '22 (Evolutionary Futures Lab)
Peer learning: Group Reflections on the Work and Teachings of Dr. Bayo Akomolafe (Evolutionary Futures Lab)
Local action planning: Taking Action to Create a Learning Center in Northern Kynouria (Meraki People)
Tracking organizational culture evolution: all narratives that belong to this category are confidential.
Why Collective Narrative?
The Collective Narrative Methodology helps transform group conversations into comprehensive, digestible narratives, where every voice is heard, and every essential insight is represented.
Too often, key ideas and critical learnings from collaborative discussions are lost in disjointed bullet points, long-winded videos, or through the bias of a single individual's perspective. Addressing that problem, the Collective Narrative Methodology allows conveners to capture the essence and the intricacies of their group's discussions, presenting a rich, layered narrative that invites readers into the heart of the dialogue.
How to Bring the Collective Narrative Methodology into Your Work?
Let us do it for you: contact us to discuss your use case.
Do it yourself: read about how we do it and try it yourself. The CC BY-SA 4.0 license allows you to use and modify the methodology as long as you honor the attribution requirement. If at some point you notice that you are struggling of feel like you are 'reinventing the wheel', see the next option.
Let us help you build in-house capacity: we have developed an effective process for training certified collective narrative producers. Contact us to learn the details.
Producing a Collective Narrative
Want to try doing it yourself? Here is how you can do it:
1. Communicate Format, Channels, and Deadlines for Participant Contributions
Cultivating a collective narrative starts with preparation & context setting. When hosts are committed to delivering a collective narrative, it’s very easy to make a firm promise that every single insight that is properly (meaning in a specific form, through a specific channel, and by a certain deadline) shared with the hosting team will be included in the final text. Emphasizing this commitment usually helps the participants trust the process and take on the responsibility to make sure that the information they care about is shared with the hosting team in a specifically defined way.
Most recently we’ve usually been using two main channels to collect stories & insights: videotaping report-outs and inviting email submissions by the end of the day.
The deadline here is very important. Giving more time encourages people to submit insights and stories that emerged in different contexts as they interact with the reality outside of the room which affects the cohesiveness of the narrative. It also gives a very significant advantage to participants who have more free time than others which takes the narrative out of balance.
2. Host Conversations
After the hosts made the promise and conveyed the format and the channels of the harvest, the hosting team can proceed with whatever dialogue process they chose (it could be a World Cafe, a Warm Data Lab, a custom process, etc.).
3. Invite High-Context Storytelling for Report-Outs & Allow Individual Contributions by Midnight
The next important phase starts right before the report-outs. Often participants prepare a list of bullet points or keywords, etc. It is important to invite them to tell stories instead and to make sure they don’t simply read the list of words that they have prepared. A good way to set the context for the report-outs is by asking participants to imagine that they are talking with somebody who did not participate in the conversation. What would they say if they wanted to tell a compelling story about what was discussed which includes all key ideas that the group felt are important?
Setting a time limit is essential for some groups — depending on the situation, 2–5 min is usually enough for each small group to cover everything that it’s essential. After the main rapporteurs can ask if anybody in the group had anything important to add. When everyone approves the report or when there is no time to take any additional comments, hosts can remind the participants that if they think of something important by the end of the day that they want to be included in the narrative, it’s their responsibility to write this down and send it to the hosts via email. Ideally, before everyone leaves the room hosts should have a sense of having a rich and balanced harvest.
4. Aggregate All Properly Submitted Contributions and Convert them into Text
After the event, all report-outs and individual comments are transcribed from the video recordings and combined with the contributions sent via email by midnight. At this stage, it is important to make sure that email contributions are texts actually written by participants right after the event. Sometimes people send links to articles they wrote earlier or even to pieces written by someone else that they consider relevant to the conversation they had. Hosts should be very clear that such contributions are outside of the suggested format and cannot be included in the narrative. That said, they can certainly be shared with everyone in addition to the narrative.
5. Defragment Your Text by Clustering Connected Ideas
Once all pieces of information are put together and presented in the text form, it’s time to cluster sentences or even paragraphs together to have all connected ideas in one place. Very often, especially with the World Cafe as the core process, ideas cross-pollinate or co-emerge in different small groups which makes them scattered all over the initial collection of texts. Clustering helps build a foundation for a cohesive narrative. Make sure to keep every single word intact — it will probably feel weird to read all the stylistically and grammatically disconnected and at times redundant pieces, but you should resist the temptation to make even minor changes in the actual wording at this stage. Technically I even prefer to print the texts, cut them with scissors and then move the ideas around.
6. Rearrange Clusters to Create Backbone Structure
Once the ideas are clustered, it’s time to arrange these clusters in an order that tells the story of what happened in the room. I often fear that the clusters would not fit into a smooth story, that there will be no good order for those clusters to really feel like they are parts on one narrative, but somehow it always works out beautifully and puts me in awe to see how naturally the backbone of the narrative reveals itself.
7. Rearrange Sentences within Clusters, Replace “I”s with “We”s, and Embrace Contradictions
Now once the general structure is in place, it’s time to make the narrative readable. The first thing to do is to rearrange sentences within each cluster in a way that works best for the text as a whole. Then all “I”s are replaced with “we”s and the grammar is adjusted accordingly. “I think” becomes “we think”, I learned becomes “we learned” etc. If there are contradicting points in the narrative, they are highlighted with the structure “some of us think/believe X, while some of us think/believe Y”. It’s important that all redundancies are kept in place as they communicate important information about what is important for the collective and at what degree.
8. Take a Break, Let Go of the Narrative, Then Come Back and Polish It without Owning It
When that is done it’s helpful to take a break and move your attention elsewhere. Once you feel ready to move on to the next phase, review the text imagining that someone else wrote it and gave it to you for publication. Normally it will look like a great story which at the same time is quite bumpy. As an editor, it’s your job to mend these bumps while keeping the integrity of the story. In most cases, it’s very easy to do and in the end you have a smooth text that is ready to be published.
9. Provide Meta-Context, Give Credit to Contributors, and Allow for Feedback
In a publication, all contributors are listed unless they prefer to stay anonymous. Sometimes it makes sense to list contributors’ organizations rather than their names — this depends on the context. There is also a description of the event, its purpose, and format. After that, there goes the main text of the collective narrative. Within a few days after the publication participants can be invited to request changes in the narrative if they feel like something is missing or misrepresented.
In some cases when everyone has an opportunity to contribute with additional thoughts or corrections while still in the room, the very first iteration of the narrative becomes final unless there are significant misinterpretations of the recording. If all ideas from the recording are fairly represented in the text and no new ideas are added, the narrative is considered final. However, if the narrative is only based on the summaries presented by table hosts, individual participants need to have an alternative way to contribute.
Links and other resources as well as additional reflections shared by participants after the event can be added under their names to a special section under the main body of the collective narrative but NOT to the narrative itself.