Storytelling and Technology - Sartaj Anand

This post outlines the general characteristics of storytelling. The second section is an interview with Sartaj Anand, the founder of EgoMonk and BIllion Strong, who talks about storytelling as a strategy to build trust at the intersections of business and technology. This is the first of a series of installments exploring the potential of storytelling for social change.
Storytelling and Technology - Sartaj Anand

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

CHANGE-MAKER: Sartaj Anand

ORGANIZATION: EgoMonk & Billion Strong

STRATEGY OF CHANGE: Leverage technology by focusing on the relationship between people and technology, and build trust by localizing and personalizing communication

METHOD OF CHANGE: Storytelling

“We all have something to say. Question is: will anyone listen?”

Understanding Comics
Scott McCloud, 1994

 

Today, everybody seems to be talking about ‘storytelling’. From activists to corporates; they are all jumping on this nostalgic bandwagon and embracing once again an enthralling habit of yesteryear: the ability to tell good stories. The practice has taken an identity of its own. It's distancing itself from its roots in oral tradition, and morphing into a state-of-the-art communication strategy. This is no selfless trend, though. Behind the hype, lies their thirst for (your) attention, and the belief that they do not only have a story to tell, but that it is a story that matters. In the context of “making change” particularly, when political and social crises emerge, the public space is flooded by a series of narratives and discourses as told by different actors. This explosion of stories culminates in an overload of information that could end up saturating its intended audience. This is not only undesirable, but dangerous when underneath the noise lies a message important for human dignity and survival. So, what is it about a story that will make it worthy of your attention? And how can this seemingly simple, yet complex tactic culminate in further engagement?

To explain storytelling as a method to create change, I will focus on how this practice can be utilized to enhance visibility and effectiveness of advocacy practices, as outlined in the research overview. I will start by unpacking ‘storytelling’: focusing on its purpose and functions. I will also look at the the relationship between the storyteller and the audience, and also at how storytelling redefines ‘the public space’. Although I will be putting my best effort to explain the workings behind his method, I will rely on the storytellers themselves to learn about the power of well-crafted and well-delivered stories to make change. This opportunity’s change-actors: Sartaj Anand, The Ugly Indian, Blank Noise, come from different fields and will show very different perspectives of how the narratives of change utilized in their stories, re-articulates how users/citizens/customers interact and experience content.

Telling Stories

So, what is storytelling? And what makes it so different from other forms of narration? I consulted the work of German philosophers Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt to unpack the nature of this practice and its ability to transmit knowledge.

“the storyteller takes what he tells from the experience and he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening
W. Benjamin, 1977

In Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller” (1955) he laments the demise of storytelling: “less and less frequently do we encounter people with the ability to tell a tale properly [as if] the ability to exchange experiences [had been taken away from us]”. Having its origins in oral tradition, storytelling for the most part consists of taking experiences worth sharing and disseminating them in the community with a specific, and according to Benjamin, a useful purpose in mind. It could be a moral, a maxim or a practical advice (1977), but at the end of the day, the audience takes away a new piece of information it did not have at the beginning of the story. This lesson may be related to the past of the storyteller or one of his characters, but its value lies in how it can now be extrapolated to the audience’s future. 

Benjamin 1

Ann Rippin's rendition to The Storyteller by Walter Benjamin. Visit her wordpress here.

Hannah Arendt, German-American philosopher from the early 20th century also had a lot to say about storytelling and ‘narratives’. She understood it as a framework, backed up by a strong tradition of its own, and a structure that embodies how our mind works: “the mind doesn’t simply re-create sequences of events as they occur, but it creates new sequences and integrates events into appropriate existing sequences; the mind is constantly forming narratives” (Kieslich, 2013.). This understanding of the practice goes beyond Benjamin’s proposition that we become part of the narration as it occurs. Arendt posits that our mind is already manufactured to construct sequences and connections in the same way in which we build stories -as opposed to the way we structure our essays, novels or tweets- before we tell them. Being such an embedded cognitive process, it feels familiar, comfortable and natural, which derives into a “critical appreciation” for the events of the story, and leads you to make deeper connections on how they relate to your life (Oni, 2012).

(Read more on Arendt and storytelling here: The Story of Reconciliation – Hannah Arendt Center)

However, both Benjamin and Arendt’s analysis is still very focused on the oral vs. prose question. Entering the 21st century we face the question of the role of digital technology and our highly visual culture in facilitating, amplifying or limiting the process of storytelling. On this point, I jumped to the end of the 20th century and looked at one of the many forms of storytelling: the comic. Scott McCloud’s “Understanding the Comic” (1994) takes you through the whole process of creating a coherent interplay of words and pictures that “convey information” and/or produce an “aesthetic response in the viewer”. Why are aesthetics important? , Because, according to McCloud, the inclusion of art is both the rejection and affirmation of our human condition. On one hand, art (or how we respond to it) is a rejection to our basic instincts, allowing us to express needs beyond survival and reproduction. On the other hand, it is a vehicle through which we assert our identities as individuals and pursue a “higher purpose and truth” (1994). Digital storytelling is imbued with visual stimuli: pictures, videos, graphics, that enhance the sensory experience, and as we explored in the Information Design posts (Find Part 1:Information Activism, and Part 2: Information Design) create new (and deeper) channels to approach and understand the message delivered by these stories.

SMC

SMC 2

SMC 3

Excerpts of Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

From these three perspectives we understand the following about storytelling. It is:
  • A practice rooted in the tradition of sharing experiences
  • Participatory and interactive: the experience of the storyteller becomes the experience of the audience.
  • The purpose of storytelling is to pass on a message, moral guidance or practical advice to the audience, through its content.
  • The form or structure of narratives is determined by sequences of facts and events, which is the same way we build stories in our minds.
  • The experiential and familiar nature of storytelling makes it easier to engage with and relate to.
  • The inclusion of images, art and media produces an aesthetic response in the viewer, providing the audience an opportunity for self-expression and freedom.

Translating these characteristics to the theme of the Methods for Social Change project (how to build a sense of citizenship and civicness through technology-mediated practices. More here): storytelling (re)emerges as a promising vehicle for political change, especially when in par with the “technological possibilities” of our times (Benjamin, 1977). If we choose to entertain this thought, we find how its roots in community traditions make stories an excellent meeting point to form solidarity networks and stronger offline communities to sustain activism. The logical and sequential format of stories are interesting mediums, not only to transmit new ideas on citizenship and engagement; but make them relevant and appealing. Finally, 'the moral of the stories' are seeds for introspection and reflection, that may shape how we understand our role in society as a whole. At the end of the day though, it is storytellers who will lead this journey and meeting them is the first step to gauge how the theory of storytelling unfolds in the practice.

In the next section, we will meet some of the actors utilizing this method in different fields - and there are plenty of storytellers out there, gifted in skill and practice conveying an array of messages to an equally diverse public-  but before moving on I will close with an excerpt from Lisa Disch’s essay that brings all these points together:

“[Storytelling] is more adequate than arguments to depict ambiguities of a multidimensional social reality”


In other words, it is a practice that strips narratives from all ornaments, displaying the complexities of humanity in its most intuitive and experiential form.

(Story)Tellers

Great storytellers: creators who devote their resources in controlling

 this medium to convey their messages effectively”

Understanding Comics
Scott McCloud (1993)

Sartaj

Our first storyteller is Sartaj Anand; an India-based entrepreneur, founder of the innovation and strategy consulting firm: EgoMonk and active member of TED, Ashoka, Sandbox, Kairos Society and the Pearson Foundation networks (More about his work in his Social Good profile). His self-described “unreasonable dream” is to impact one billion people with his work and create “life-changing experiences”. He strives to do this by a) leveraging the relationship between people and technology and b) through his recently launched non-profit Billion Strong. Also, as opposed to other change-makers we’ve interviewed in the project, he comes from an engineering and business background; bringing a for-profit perspective into our melange of multi-stakeholder approaches to change.

The following interview touches on digital storytelling as one of the ways Anand is  using to leverage technology. His vision highlights how you cannot disconnect people from the processes you are utilizing to impact their lives. Incorporating a more humane focus in the way we use technology, and in how we construct stories, is according to his experience, the best way to have practices resonate to and be appropriate for the public.

Sartaj Anand,

Founder of EgoMonk and Billion Strong

Tell us about your background and the intersections of your work with technology.

I started with an engineering background and my thesis was on language processing; figuring out how people talk and how that needs construction data. Fundamentally at some point, I figured out that technology is not the problem, people are; so that’s how I moved into my current focus in business: which is innovation strategic consulting. I frequently rely on technology to enable or actualize change but I don’t necessarily create it. The challenge is how we leverage the technology we have [...] and that’s where I can add the most value.

How do you leverage technology in the context of making change then?

I leverage technology in terms of using it but focusing on the ‘people’ side of it”: the relationship between people and technology. That’s the main intersection point. [...] This is what I mean when I talk about technology, innovation, social structures and change.

Economically, business models have to replicate and service society. If businesses serve their people, they capture maximum value and gain efficiency over ten, twenty years (and this is appealing to all the capitalists in industrial businesses). However, towards the course of these years a lot of things can change and you progressively become more and more outdated. When you have this premonition, that's the point when you need to step in and cannibalize your own business model.

For example, for seven years, music labels sold cds only. Then Apple came in with iPods and digital music downloads. After milking this for 10 years, what it should have done is fortify it and start streaming music to capture maximum value, like Spotify did. [...] This is a model EgoMonk works with and we try to communicate these things to our clients. They have the power to execute it, but they have to internally feel confident with all their stakeholders, whether it is for-profits with their board; or non-profits with donors and program partners. This is a choice we need to commit to. A lot of the problem in the change process (technology enabled or otherwise) is trust building. At the end of the day you are working with people, and this is a challenge.

In order to build this trust you must be aiming for a deeper and personal communication with your clients. How are you including this in your business model?

We focus a lot on communication and that’s something we rely on increasingly; and I found it has to have a Why-What-How model -borrowing from Simon Sinek's gold circles. In that order.

 

People don’t buy the 'what' of it, without the 'why' you do it. For example, Apple is great because it works to improve your life, to inspire you, amuse you: make your life better. What they do comes second: Apple is an electronics company, an application company. Last is the how: It makes the iPhone. We apply a similar model and this is something I apply in my storytelling also. I’m a believer that every story has to have an end or a moral: something that is more hopeful and optimistic. Rely on that but decide that also, I’m not the only one around: stories are increasingly personal and local.

Given the personal and experiential nature of storytelling, I assume it is a challenge to mainstream it in your services. Tell us more about the practices you are using to implement it and how they break from more traditional communication practices in the past.

EgoMonk

EgoMonk is an Innovation and Strategic Management Consultancy (More about EgoMonk here). Particularly this means that:

a) We start with the hypothesis that we don't know everything. With that in mind, we borrow amazing frameworks from amazing institutions. For example, Holacracy; (a “purposeful organization” technology that changes how the organization is structured, how decisions are made and how power is distributed); 'How will you win' philosophy from traditional large companies,, where they equate every decision to a couple of questions like what's your winning aspiration?, where will you plan?, how will you win?, what capability systems/processes need to exist to make this a sustainable practice that outlives you? This approach gets us halfway there, [especially] working with people who haven't had access to this before.

egomonk 3

 EgoMonk's services

b) We localize it. We work with high impact entrepreneurs and turn their life goals into a four week plan. We frame it: What happens if after four weeks, you die. If these are four weeks you have to live: what really matters to you? What do you want to accomplish professionally and personally? Once you go through that exercise we say: What can continue sustainable during your life? What can you take away? We focus on timing and what you have to do. Once you put that concept of mortality into every day's existence, you start behaving differently.

c) We work with gamification. For example, we worked in a factory and completely changed the incentivization for their workers into something that is more fun. The challenge was: how do you improve the process of well-being in an industrial environment. How do we make working enjoyable for them? This model consists of short-term rewards: if you work really hard over this much time, you get 10 points and this gets you a (reward) with your family. This has never happened before.

Billion Strong

Billion Strong is a platform. We want to impact a billion people and mobilize a billion dollars every year. The concept behind it is that the future is completely decoupled from our reality. It is highly utopian and right now we are not there and my hypothesis is that we'll never get there because our perspectives and assumptions keep evolving. This non-profit aims to accelerate the future in our lifetime so we can at least enjoy some of its benefits. It focuses on six things: culture, mobility, technology, art, nutrition and divinity. Each of these will be used as levers to impact a billion people. In the case of Billion Strong, user adoption is the most frequent challenge you face in the non-profit space. I will explain this using our first two projects:

a) Project 1 - Divinity:
We want to take religion, God and spirituality as a lever to impact people. A manifestation of this is the release of an open source tool kit to convert religious institutions into co-working spaces.

Centers of religion are:

  • Everywhere and permanent
  • Well known by the community
  • Community centers
  • Safe
  • Non-profit and non-taxable
  • Underutilized 99% of the time
  • Disconnected from youth

Centers of religion have always been centers of education and community oriented, but within the last generation they've become prayer halls, and I think this is the wrong way of using this infrastructure. There are a couple of narratives being negotiated here (See box to the left).

In this case [the open source tool-kit] has a framework, and it is dynamic to the point where your choices in real time will influence the policies of this place and their physical manifestation. So you ask questions in a flow chart: Do you want men and women to work together or not?; Do you have the ability to buy new furniture or you want to use the existing furniture?; when you ask these questions you navigate a flow chart, depending on your choices. They will lead to a different output and when they see that, it is immediately empowering. This is storytelling, and this what will help us navigate the adoption issues. It's essentially us saying you own it; you know exactly what is good for your own community. In terms of the narrative, each copy will be different and adapted to its language. It has to be made for this community and everything has to be localized for that story you are telling. The religious and cultural narrative needs to be blended into it.



b) Project 2 - Nutrition:
Meat consumption is a huge challenge and highly unsustainable. We will use kick-start mechanics in a mobile app to trigger and enable change in food habits. We are obviously very digitally inclined right now. It's easy to capitalize on that, but instead of giving them money, we will ask them to skip a meal, go vegetarian for today or for the week and we are going to support that.

Adoption is a huge challenge, so we'll ask them: Where do you stay? They'll say: Amsterdam [for example], and it will provide them with a template. If you are vegetarian for today, for the week, or the month, this is your meal plan and all you need. Users will find meals close to them and won't have to worry about it anymore. And we will map their impact in real time through info-graphics and data visualization. They will be constructing and visualizing their own story in real time and we’ll present it through different narratives.

We are also looking at multi-stakeholderism in this project. Both EgoMonk and Billion Strong seem to be a combination of business, technology and communication strategies. Why multi-stakeholderism?

Three reasons:

a) The future is multi-domain. You will never understand the whole picture if you say: I’m only going to solve water, but what about the pipes, the roads, the environment, infrastructure, cultural issue. One domain is no longer good enough. You will never be a complete expert of the complete ecosystem.

b) Adoption models will always be a challenge and right now it’s a compromised formula. Now it's a zero-sum game. We literally need to escape that and make it future-oriented; make it 1+1 through partnerships.

c) Storytelling is also getting more mainstreamed into change management and multi-stakeholderism. At the end of it, if you tell a good enough story, you can sell and get people to believe in your projects. This inherently builds partnership models. There is something that is permission marketing: all sales in the future are relationship based and indirect sales.(E.g. Red Bull is all about the experience) That’s how we have to be when we talk about multi-stakeholderism. Everything needs to be built in.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

** Next installment will look at how storytelling enhances visibility and accessibility, and how it is being used by Urban Governance groups in Bangalore.**

Sources:

  • Arendt, Hannah (1994) Essays in Understanding Edited with an Introduction by Jerome Kohn. The literary Trust of Hannah Arendt Bluecher.p.308
  • Benjamin, Walter. (1977): "The storyteller."89.
  • Disch,Lisa Jane (1994) Hannah Arendt and the limits of Philosophy. Cornell University Press. p.172-173
  • Kieslich, Ingo. (2013) "Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt: Storytelling in and as theoretical writing." PhD diss., Vanderbilt University,
  • McCloud, Scott. (1994)."Understanding comics: The invisible art." Northampton, Mass
  • Oni, Peter (2012). "The Cognitive Power of Storytelling: Re-reading Hannah Arendt in a Postmodernist/Africanist Context."

 

Document Actions