Contextual Narrative: Rethinking Communication In Our Professions


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The rich contextual narrative contained in a story makes it a far more effective way of learning than by reading any procedure, best practice, or most other knowledge transfer media. What makes stories so compelling? While we have been taught that people process information, they actually learn by processing patterns. The patterns held in stories hold far more contextual meaning than we intentionally convey, and stay longer with those being told the stories. Will we ever wean customers from calling the help desk? Should we start our manuals with "once upon a time ...?" Is the answer to usability to create a giant template for all Web applications? Which patterns work, and why don't my patterns ever seem to be ones that stick?

This presentation was delivered by to the Indiana Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication and the Indiana Chapter of the Usability Professionals Association, Monday, March 12, 2007 by user experience and content management consultant Rahel Anne Bailie. Take a rollicking trip through information versus pattern processing, ditting as a requirements-gathering techniques, urban myths as knowledge base model, and other issues related to contextual narrative. Bailie's academic background in creative writing includes a specialization in myth, folklore, and fairytales, which led to a decade-long career in technical communication.

You can reach Rahel at

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Contextual Narrative: Rethinking Communication In Our Professions

  1. 1. Contextual narrative Rethinking communication in context of our professions © 2007 Strategy A Consulting Group, Inc.
  2. 2. Anecdotes and narrative Characteristics: • Naturally-occurring • Relatively brief • About a single incident • Simple recounting • Without analysis or opinion © 2007 Strategy A Consulting Group, Inc.
  3. 3. The Cynefin Framework COMPLEX COMPLICATED * Cause and effect are * Cause and effect are coherent only in separated Over time and retrospect, And are space; researchable unpredictable * Analytical/reductionst * Pattern management * Scenario planning * Perspective filters * Systems thinking * Complex adaptive systems * Cause and effect relations * No cause and effect repeatable, perceivable relationships are and predictable perceivable * Legitimate best practice * Stability-focused * Standard operating intervention procedures * Enactment tools * Process re-engineering * Crisis management CHAOS SIMPLE Cynefin framework from Kurtz, C.F. and Snowden, D.J. “The new dynamics of strategy”, IBM Systems Journal, September 2003. © 2007 Strategy A Consulting Group, Inc.
  4. 4. Thought processes We don’t generally process information • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time We process patterns • Check against existing patterns (context) • Know when we need to know (just in time) • Recount and recall (patterned narrative) • Akeelah and the Bee © 2007 Strategy A Consulting Group, Inc.
  5. 5. Sense-making Goal is to make sense of the world so we can act in it © 2007 Strategy A Consulting Group, Inc.
  6. 6. Knowing – telling - codifying We don’t always know how much we know We always know more than we tell We always tell more than we write The paradox of truth © 2007 Strategy A Consulting Group, Inc.
  7. 7. The role of narrative Contextual narratives are memorable Patterns are laid in early in childhood Narrative models include: • Fairy tales • Folklore • Metaphor • Indirect storytelling • Ditting (“one-upping”) © 2007 Strategy A Consulting Group, Inc.
  8. 8. Narrative for problem-solving What people say they want isn’t what their behavior bears out Need to get out of your comfort zone to effect change © 2007 Strategy A Consulting Group, Inc.
  9. 9. Potential roles for narrative Requirements gathering • Removing expert bias • Rich data collection User support material • Prompting questions • Patterning © 2007 Strategy A Consulting Group, Inc.
  10. 10. Contact info More information: Presenter contact info: Rahel Anne Bailie 604-696-1993 © 2007 Strategy A Consulting Group, Inc.