Collective Narrative Methodology

Note: Deep gratitude to Ria Baeck for nudging me to put this into words and share it in this way.

Collective Narrative is a way of harvesting conversations. Here are the nine key steps for cultivating a rich and balanced collective narrative:

  1. Communicate format, channels, and deadlines for participant contributions
  2. Host conversations
  3. Invite high-context storytelling for report-outs & allow individual contributions by midnight
  4. Aggregate all properly submitted contributions and convert them into text
  5. Defragment your text by clustering connected ideas
  6. Rearrange clusters to create backbone structure
  7. Rearrange sentences within clusters, replace “I”s with “We”s, and embrace contradictions
  8. Take a break, let go of the narrative, then come back and polish it without owning it
  9. Provide meta-context, give credit to contributors, and allow for feedback

Some examples:

  1. Harvesting the Wisdom of Networks (ReGen18)
  2. Supporting Young Professional Who Want to Align Their Careers with UN SDGs (UNA USA, San Francisco Chapter)
  3. Assessing Impact of Evolutionary Work (#impactplayground)
  4. Impact Investing & Systemic Change (ReframeIt)
  5. Wealth & Poverty in America (National Dialogue Network)

Why Collective Narrative?

Most harvesting formats I see are either practically useless for “outsiders” — those who did not participate in the conversation, — give excessive information or are presented through personal lens of the harvester and therefore provide biased information:

Bullet points, word clouds, poems, graphic facilitation, and so on are all great ways to to communicate the vibe of the conversation, ignite inspiration, and keep memories of the conversation alive for participants, but they usually provide very little context to serve as a comprehensive overview of the key ideas that were discussed.

A complete video recording of a conversation or detailed notes that cover all its turns, twists, groan zones, and dead ends give enough context but generally require significant time to follow and process a lot of information that might not add any significant value to someone who is just trying to get an overview of key ideas.

A blog post or an interview by a participant or a host is probably the most helpful format for “outsiders” that I’ve seen. However, it implies that just one person picks the points, frames the insights, and defines the context. There is, of course, a lot of learning that can come from reading or listening to such reflections, but it’s still far from ideal when you want to sense the collective.

The Collective Narrative Methodology grew from the inquiry around what can we harvest from multi-stakeholder conversations in a way that is accessible for “outsiders” while keeping the integrity of the “collective voice” of the group.

Cultivating the Narrative

  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 key words, 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 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 important for some groups — depending on the situation, 2–5 min is usually enough for each small group to cover everything that it’s important. After the main report out hosts can ask if anybody in the group had anything important to add. When everyone approves the report our or wen 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 tat they consider relevant for 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 in tact — 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 it 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 at 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.

That’s It!

I love this approach because it allows for a balanced overview of the collective wisdom in a way that is easily accessible to those who were not in the room. This method was first tested in 2013 for the conversation on Wealth & Poverty in America hosted for the National Dialogue Network I co-hosted with Antoine Moore, Dana Pearlman, Kathleen Paylor, and Steve Snider. Since that time there were various experiments that eventually converged into the core process that I describe in this post. Details vary depending on the group, the theme, the purpose of the conversation, etc., but I always use this core process as a staring point.

Most recently this process was used in its full form for the Harvesting the Wisdom of Networks session at ReGen18. It was published by 7 am the next morning but I did have to stay up all night for that. Usually it takes 8–10 hours of follow-up work once the event is over.