As digital people working in government, we’re often called upon to talk about our work, but sometimes we get bogged down in detail or stifled by structure, and it stops us from telling a compelling story. This session — run at GovCamp on 18 January 2020 — was an experiment in seeing if we might change that.
Stories for digital and agile (a not so short intro).
The Local Digital Collaboration Unit at MHCLG funded 10 projects at the end of 2018 and we asked the teams running those projects to provide us with written outputs to show their discovery and alpha activities, talk about their work, and describe where to go next.
I noticed that those outputs often focussed on a lot of detail but that the narrative was often difficult to follow. I found myself jumping around within the documents to understand the decisions and activities that had taken place, to understand how teams had arrived at their destination and decided where to go next. It got me thinking how, if we are to be successful as the Local Digital Collaboration Unit, we have to ensure that the outputs that teams provide are accessible to a whole range of people with differing interests and levels of knowledge. These outputs need to be useful, but there also has to be a compelling reason for people to read them.
So I started thinking about structure and the different possibilities we have at our disposal when passing on information.
There are so few opportunities to tell stories in the documentation we’re required to produce in government; board papers, business cases, briefings; all have a required structure which leaves little room for creativity.
What if we changed that?
I’ve also noticed this when I’ve worked as a lead assessor for government services, especially when teams have been doing end-to-end demonstrations of the service. Because of the level of detail required in those sessions, teams sometimes treat them as an exam question rather than an opportunity to tell an engaging story about what they’ve learned and achieved.
And Show and Tells? Well, I’m sure we’ve all been on the receiving end of a less than compelling show and tell at some point.
The point is, knowledge only travels when it’s interesting and memorable enough for someone to retell your story. I firmly believe that the knowledge and information management space (though obviously important for the public record) is nothing compared to the potential of passing on information through human connection and stories.
How does any of this relate to The Tiger Who Came to Tea?
I devised a short session, which can be run in less than an hour, to get teams thinking about narrative structure. To remind people about the power of stories and how we grow out of understanding the world in that simple way.
The workshop should remind people of the component parts of a story, to make it memorable and easy to take back and use in their day to day work.
You can apply this approach to your blogging, show and tells, assessments or meetings with stakeholders and leaders. If you try it, please let me know how you get on!
I did very little preparation for this (less than 30 mins, because I wasn’t sure if people would want to play and, well honestly I didn’t really have time).
But, by choosing a really simple story, like a children’s story, you’re making the preparation easy for yourself as well as being accessible. I chose The Tiger, but I also went through this process with The Hungry Caterpillar (and prepped that book to give people in the room a choice).
You could apply this workshop to almost any children’s story, for example The Gruffalo, Where the Wild Things Are, Green Eggs and Ham or my personal favourite We Found a Hat— though I chose The Tiger because of its almost universal appeal.
I drew the narrative arc on a post-it note (to make sure I remembered it all). There are loads of great examples of arcs here:
Then I went through the book and outlined where all of the key points of the arc were, marking them with post-it notes that I could use as prompts.
In the room each person needs a piece of A4 paper and a Sharpie. I used a range of colours so that it felt more fun, and Sharpies so that people couldn’t be too detailed.
Introducing the above, but with more brevity — we want to get writing!
Ask the attendees to start thinking about a project that they want to talk about, it could be real, imagined (if it hasn’t ended yet) or it could be their own story of something in their career (I didn’t introduce this well enough in my session and some participants got a bit confused about what story they wanted to tell).
In this story, we are the hero, we are talking about the work we did so we are the main character (though we talk about ourselves in the third person).
2. Introduce the Narrative arc
Ask attendees to remember some of what they learned in school about stories having a beginning a middle and an end.
All we are doing here is adding a tiny bit more structure to that. This is a structure that they will know, from books and films (Star Wars and Harry Potter are good, well known, examples).
Arcs are stories of big life changes, digital transformation activities tend to be big changes in the world, therefore we can understand the projects that we do as arcs.
Exposition sets up the world for us, it describes the steady state.
Because we are using this particular book I asked participants to start their story with the line “Once there was a little girl / little boy / little person called [their name] and…”
Participants need to fill in the blank with their preferred pronoun and name, and then tell us about the world we are in before it has been changed.
4. Inciting incident
Continue reading (be prepared to be asked to do a “better tiger voice”).
With every story, and with any project, there’s an inciting incident, something that happens that triggers a chain of events.
In the story that’s the tiger coming to the door, in real life it might be a report being written that says something must be done, legacy infrastructure falling over, or in Local Gov it might be a bad Ofsted report or similar.
In the story the main character, Sophie, opens the door to the tiger, so the question is: “What did you open the door to?” as participants to write down what happened that lead to the change.
At this point I asked a volunteer to read aloud what they’d written. I thought it was important to do at this stage because people might be feeling uncertain about what they were writing and by hearing someone else share would help them to feel confident about carrying on.
It’s really important to acknowledge that nothing done in the session is going to be perfect, it’s the act of trying and experimenting that we want to promote. We did this when we were kids, so we should be more than capable of doing it now!
5. Rising action
The rising action is when the forces of change begin their work. The tiger comes in, he eats this, then that, then this, then that. The rising action is when something leads to another thing which leads to another thing.
I drew a post it note with a series of arrows on it, underneath it says “Something happens, then something happens, then something happens, etc”
I used the arrows in the post-it note because rising action always reminds me of sprinting in agile working. When we sprint we look to learn and then decide on a regular basis.
Ask participants to, quickly, write four things that happened following the inciting incident. You don’t want them to overthink this, just get something down. You want the key things they remember and not the detail (and there will be time to edit and change later).
We move on quickly to a crisis. In every story, and in almost every project there comes a point where there’s a crisis. Something becomes a problem out of nowhere, for example one of your team breaks their leg, your funding gets taken away, or you find out something through research that makes you question everything.
When the tiger eats all the food (and drinks all the water) life can’t carry on as normal. Sophie can’t have her bath because there’s no water left in the tap. Sophie’s mummy doesn’t know what to do!
Ask participants to describe the crisis in their story, what happened that needed to be resolved?
7. Push back
Read on a little further.
Before our story reaches its climax the main character needs to push back against the problems they are facing. Sophie and her mummy tell daddy what’s happened, explaining that the tiger had drunk all of the water in the tap.
Ask participants to describe the way that they pushed back. Examples might be; seeking a senior sponsor, organising an event, or pivoting a project.
Read on a little further.
In the climax of any book or film there’s a moment when the opposing forces fight it out. One side will win, the other will lose (think back to Star Wars or Harry Potter).
That’s less clear cut in The Tiger, but if you think about it, Sophie wins because she gets to go out late with mummy and daddy and eat sausages and chips and ice-cream, and we all love ice-cream (sorry lactose intolerant people — I’m sure they also have sorbet).
But not all stories have a happy ending. Ask participants to write a sentence telling us how they won, or lost, the battle with the opposing force.
Now that someone has won and someone has lost, the world has changed forever, and it’s that new world that we have to return to.
One of the reasons that The Tiger resonates with us is because the world is changed so dramatically for Sophie that we know that it will never be the same again. She will always be living in apprehension of the tiger coming back for tea, knowing that there is a big can of tiger food in the cupboard.
When we are a child these stories leave us with a sense of wonder. How can we leave people with a sense of wonder when we talk about the work we are doing?
Ask participants to describe the new world they find themselves in now that everything has changed.
(Because I found it funny) I asked all participants to end their story with “And they all lived happily ever after”. It’s a phrase we all know and signifies that we are finished.
It also lightens the mood for people that may have been struggling (you may also want to suggest, “…and then they woke up, it had all been a dream.” which is similarly hilarious).
Everyone in the room should now have a story on one or two sides of A4.
Ask the group to split into pairs and read their stories aloud to one another.
Encourage them to discuss the stories and to think about the details in their rising action, did they include the right things? How might they improve the story (without adding loads of extra detail?)
With about 10 minutes to go ask people to voluntarily read their story.
This bit takes some guts so make sure that everyone in the room gives loads of encouragement. In our first story one of the participants made sound effects for their partner as they read theirs.
Go for things like “Yay!” “Booooo” “Oh no!” (it was a little like a panto, but was an excellent addition and really fun).
Don’t put anyone on the spot, but ask who else would like to share, we got through three people in the time we had available.
11. Wrap up
To wrap up I invited questions and comments from people and stated some of my reflections.
One thing that I hadn’t realised was that by centering ourselves in the stories some of them felt intensely personal, a lot of people were very moved by one of the stories that we heard.
I reflected on how we like to hear stories about people’s real experience, it is memorable, it resonates with us. It’s that spark that carries your story forward and helps people to remember it.
Thank you so much for reading this and thank you even more to GovCamp for organising such an excellent day and providing people like me with the space to try out ideas like this, you are holding the space for us to make real change and that is so important.
To everyone who attended the session I really really hope you had as much fun as I did because I had a real laugh with you all, with your yellow sharpies and feminist takes on the story. Who does that daddy think he is anyway?
Thank you for coming, thank you for participating and for not being scared to try something that (on the face of it) sounded incredibly silly. Thank you for your feedback and for telling me how you plan to take this forward in your teams or in your blogging. I can’t wait to hear more.
I’ll be attending Service Design in Government in Edinburgh in March with Hattie, Katie and Rahma and we will be talking some more about this. Please come and see us if you’re interested, I’d love to chat.
You can also read more about The Tiger Who Came to Tea, here: