Day 7: Why Storytellers Should Think (and Act) Like Anthropologists

This is it, folks. It’s the seventh and final day in our series on how storytellers can become incredible listeners, and we’ve saved the best for last.

Everything we’ve covered up until now has been centered on the theme of how to better understand people and their stories. It’s been all about doing your research, being a keen observer of place, conducting conversational, empathetic interviews full of strong questions, and not shying away from inconsistencies.

However, most of these things are fairly hands off. They’re meant to give you an intellectual sense of the story, rather than an instinctual and deeply felt one.

So today’s tip is this:

Become a participant. Immerse yourself in the world of the story, getting first-hand experience of people and places. When you go through this process, whether it’s for an hour or several weeks, it can transform your understanding of the story and how to tell it.

You’ll be inundated with new insights about people and how they operate. You’ll get to observe places thoroughly, and then use those observations to ask better questions come interview time. You’ll get the opportunity to develop deeper, more authentic connections with people, which sets the stage for every other tip in this series.

Basically, becoming a participant is a big deal, and it’s one of the most powerful tools in the storyteller’s kit.

Using anthropological techniques to kick more ass at storytelling

Ethnography is a subset of the anthropological field, and it simply refers to the systematic study of people and cultures. Simple enough, right?

But it goes a bit deeper, and it has a powerful tie-in with our work as storytellers. Here’s the real goal of ethnographic study according to cultural anthropologist Brian A. Hoey:

The ethnographer goes beyond reporting events and details of experience. Specifically, he or she attempts to explain how these represent what we might call “webs of meaning”, or the cultural constructions in which we live.
Ethnographers generate understandings of culture through representation of what we call an emic perspective, or what might be described as the “‘insider’s point of view.” The emphasis in this representation is thus on allowing critical categories and meanings to emerge from the ethnographic encounter rather than imposing these from existing models.  There are two key takeaways here about what ethnography means in the context of storytelling.

First, it’s not about just finding facts about people and their culture, but it’s about understanding them on a more fundamental level, both intellectually and emotionally. Second, it’s about embracing a perspective other than your own. It’s about getting “the insider’s point of view,” as Hoey says.

For storytellers, we’re always trying to gather as many perspectives as we possibly can. That’s how we’re able to pursue a higher truth with our stories. But sometimes it’s not enough to simply hear about a perspective or research it. Sometimes you have to immerse yourself in it in order to fully understand it. And that’s what ethnography can help us do.

Participant observation is the main tool of ethnographers

In the world of ethnography, the primary tool for gathering qualitative data is participant observation. Here’s Hoey again to explain how it works:

To develop an understanding of what it is like to live in a setting, the researcher must both become a participant in the life of the setting while also maintaining the stance of an observer, someone who can describes the experience with a measure of what we might call “detachment.”
Interviews provide for what might be called “targeted” data collection by asking specific but open-ended questions. The emphasis is on allowing the person or persons being interviewed to answer without being limited by pre-defined choices — something which clearly differentiates qualitative from more quantitative or demographic approaches. In most cases, an ethnographic interview looks and feels little different than an everyday conversation and indeed in the course of long-term participant-observation, most conversations are in fact purely spontaneous and without any specific agenda.

At this point, I’m sure you’re seeing the connective threads between the power of ethnography all of the articles in this series. In fact, what we’ve been teaching you all along is to think like an anthropologist when it comes to your storytelling. And the last step in that process is true participant observation.

Now, in-depth participant observation is usually pretty impractical for storytellers. We can’t move in with every person we’re telling a story about and observe them for weeks on end.

However, depending on the nature of the story, we might be able to observe someone at work, or pursuing a passion/hobby. We might be able to follow them on a journey they’re taking (either a physical journey or an emotional one), all the while documenting everything that’s going on. We might be able to simply have a meal with them and their family.

It doesn’t have to be a big scientific rigmarole. In fact, it probably shouldn’t be. It’s about casual, authentic encounters with people where you briefly take part in their world in some small way. If you can accomplish this, your story will be better for it.

A few quick extra notes about participant observation

This type of research is most valuable when the topic of the story is foreign to you. You can usually get a general sense through research and interviews, but until you see and experience it first-hand, you can’t fully understand it. A good rule of thumb is that the less you know about a story or a culture, the more you’d benefit from immersing yourself in it in a genuine way.

Lastly, your job is almost never to influence the story or to effect an outcome. Your job is merely to observe and learn. That said, there’s no sense in applying rigid journalistic ethics to this process. We’re not training journalists here at Muse, but empathetic storytellers. So use your best judgement when it comes to the possibility of intervening in a story.

Immersion is super important when profiling a company or organization

In personal stories, becoming a participant isn’t always an option. People can sometimes be reticent to be closely observed (and rightly so). However, when it comes to dealing with businesses, you’ll almost always have more access to participate in various ways, and you should take advantage of that.

For instance, don’t just interview the CEO and take their word for it when he describes how great their product or service is. Try it for yourself.

Once you’ve experienced the product, spend some time with the people who actually make it. Immerse yourself in their world. Sit in on meetings, watch people manufacture or design or code. Go out with employees into the field.

There are so many opportunities when it comes to immersing yourself in the world of a business, and as a storyteller who now has the mind of an anthropologist, it’s your prerogative to do just that. Become a participant, and watch as your understanding of the story expands.

Wrapping up

Wow, we did it. Over the course of the last eight days (and nearly 10,000 words), we’ve covered a lot of ground on the road to becoming a better listener. For instance, we’ve talked about:

Now, this is far from over. In fact, I’ll be busy over the next week or two compiling this series not only into a book, but also a super handy cheat sheet that will boil down all of the core lessons and strategies from each article. That way you won’t have to trudge through the book in order to apply these lessons to your work. That’ll be ready for you to download soon.

In the meantime, however, share your biggest takeaway from the series down in the comments, and tell us how you’re going to incorporate one or more of these strategies on your next project!