#51) Warning: Story Circles is not for the Instant Gratification Crowd

At our two Demo Days last week we heard from two of last year’s participants in the USDA prototype Story Circle. When their circle ended a year ago, one of them was moderately positive about the experience (though not wildly enthusiastic), the other wasn’t really certain it was worth the time.  But a year later, their tone was completely different. They talked in detail about how it has changed how they write, read and think. Yes, it is that profound. The same pattern of needing time to let the training soak in has emerged with the AAAS Invention Ambassadors I work with. The bottom line: NARRATIVE TRAINING TAKES TIME (furthermore, one day workshops on storytelling are somewhere between useless and counter-productive).


WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES.  Two participants in the USDA/ARS Story Circle prototype last year, Cathleen Hapeman (left) and Gail Wisler talk in detail about how Story Circles has changed how they write, read and even think.




Rome wasn’t built in a day, and I can assure you that obtaining the gift of “narrative intuition” ain’t gonna happen for you in a day, either. These things take time.

That wasn’t what one government program officer (at an unnamed agency) wanted to hear last year when I met with him.  He said they liked the sound of Story Circles, BUT … (he actually used the ABT template to say this), their people are too busy, THEREFORE could we shorten it to 5 instead of 10 one hour sessions.

I didn’t say no. Instead, I had Mike Strauss, head of the USDA Office of Scientific Quality Review and coordinator of the USDA prototype of Story Circles write a lengthy explanation of how it was only in sessions 6 to 8 that we started to see the emergence of elements of “narrative intuition” in the participants.


Last week I listened to the further confirmation of this from two of the members of that Story Circle who spoke at lunch time with both of our recent Demo Days at USDA.  No one was more blown away than I as they talked enthusiastically about the value of the Story Circles training.

But here’s the most dramatic aspect of what they said — they were nowhere near certain of the value of the training a year earlier when it finished.  In fact, last August I interviewed Gail Wisler on camera and was really wanting her to say Story Circles was awesome, but she couldn’t and wouldn’t.

Seriously.  I was cueing her, almost verbatim — “So would you say the training has been helpful?”  To my dismay she was filled with hesitancy — saying basically it’s probably useful to some people, but she wasn’t sure yet.

Which is why I was stunned, a year later, to hear them both talk so confidently. Cathleen had used the ABT to give structure to a huge and very complex “project plan” (their central organizing document at USDA) with multiple investigators and various aspects of studying sources of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. She said repeatedly that without the training of Story Circles the project would have been a tangled mess. But instead, it scored the highest rating she has ever received.

Gail was equally certain and enthusiastic.


None of this should be much of a surprise since I talked about it in “Houston, We Have A Narrative.” But I really never totally believe anything I preach, so it’s still pretty remarkable to me when I hear it from others. Which was also the case with the AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors this year.

For three years I have been brought in to work with the team of scientist/inventors they choose to give a series of talks during the year. It’s always a bit of a shock for them to be subjected to me — especially the ones who have given TED Talks with over a million views. They naturally think there’s no need to mess with their presentation skills.

In fact, last year more than one complained about having to use up their time with my lecture and notes to them.  And yet this year I was told, before I started with this group, that the same people who complained last year after my three days of working with them, as the year went on and they gave their talks, actually began to incorporate things I had recommended using the narrative tools.  By the end of the year they were apparently telling about the value of the tools and the training in their talks.

It just takes time.

And that’s what Story Circles is all about.


So there’s the biggest shocker of all — almost everybody seems to realize this stuff takes time.  Just yesterday I had a conference call with another organization interested in Story Circles.  One of their communications folks said she has been bothered by the one day workshops they have run.  She said she always feels there’s no “follow through.”  As a result, she totally understood the need for the 10 one hour sessions aspect of Story Circles.

All of which gives me great hope.  After 25 years of studying the communications challenge and finally coming up with this whole approach of Story Circles I had feared I would hit the same brick wall that has refused to support my journey. But it’s turning out to be the opposite.  Everybody gets it.  They are ready for the 10 one hour sessions. Even the big boss man at that agency who wanted to cut it to 5. That agency is now participating and ready to run their first Story Circles.