Cultivating Story Fields

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Have you ever tried to plant a seed, and not managed to get your fruit, flower, tree or vegetable to grow?

Now, there may be nothing at all wrong with that seed – but perhaps the soil conditions weren’t right.

So it is with creating change.

Your idea, your seed of change, may be designed to bear fruit that will benefit the world, but if you can’t get it to ‘stick’ long enough for it to take root and grow, it will die.

cracked, dry earth

Image Credit: Texas A&M University

Before attempting to sow seeds of change, you might want to consider whether the receiving environment has the right ‘soil conditions’.

If the situation you are entering or operating in is affected by the cultural equivalent of poor soil structure or a prolonged drought, its going to be a lot harder to get uptake of your initiative, or for it to ‘stick’ without you being around.

The notion that people, if given good information, will draw the ‘correct’ conclusions AND make the logical, rational decision, AND then change their behaviour accordingly is largely misplaced, and often results in a massive waste of time and money – yet it continues to be the basis of many efforts by organisations, particularly public campaigns of governments. It is akin to throwing paint at a teflon-coated wall and wondering why the colour doesn’t change.

Fortunately, we’re now more aware than ever that, although our logic, our science and our data is critical, it is stories that have the power of emotional transformation, and which are enduring means of cultural transmission.

Text image: 'there are two ways to share knowledge: you can PUSH information out or you can PULL them in with story'

Image Credit: Landor Unleash

‘Stories’ in this sense means the stories we tell ourselves, our cultural myths, which reflect our assumptions about the world. These stories are underlying and often unconscious forces that profoundly influence identity, shaping collective and individual behaviour.

The concept of the ‘noosphere’ – from the Greek nous ‘mind’ and  sphaira ‘sphere’, or the sphere of human thought – has been around nearly 100 years. It suggests that just as the Earth has a hydrosphere (the mass of water found on, over and under the planet), an atmosphere (dynamic system of gases, including nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide that envelope the planet) and a lithosphere (the outer crust of the planet and tectonic plates), there may be a collective planetary ‘thought field’:

…the noosphere is the third in a succession of phases of development of the Earth, after the geosphere (inanimate matter) and the biosphere (biological life). Just as the emergence of life fundamentally transformed the geosphere, the emergence of human cognition fundamentally transforms the biosphere.

Other theories are that there is a ‘psi bank’, ‘a magnetic memory field around the Earth that is influencing biological evolution’.

If this ‘noosphere’ is a kind of soup of our collective conscious and unconscious thoughts, could changing the stories in that thought field help to create the right ‘soil conditions’ for change?

Tom Atlee, director of the Co-Intelligence Institute and an organiser of the 2007 ‘Story Fields’ conference held in Colorado, USA, describes stories and their role in cultural change:

Stories (and even individual parts of stories) have a resonant, alchemical relationship with the way we experience life. A narrative or a role-model, for example, can act as a magnet aligning our awareness, beliefs or lives into congruence with its pattern.

A story field is:

a particularly powerful field of influence
generated by a story or,
more often, by a coherent battery
of mutually-reinforcing stories
— myths, news, soap operas, lives, memories, games —
and story elements
— roles, plots, themes, metaphors, goals, images, events, archetypes —
that co-habit and resonate
within our individual and/or collective psyches.

A story field ubiquitously frames what is real, acceptable, and possible,
and directly shapes our lives and our world,
often without our even being aware of its influence.

A story field paints a particular picture of how life is or should be, and shapes the life within its range into its image.

Psychological, organizational or social transformation is usually preceded or accompanied by a change in the story field governing that system. It is therefore usually non-productive to try to change forms and habits without changing the story fields that hold them in place. Once the story field is changed, subsidiary patterns tend to realign rapidly.

Atlee gives the example of Gandhi as someone who effected change by changing the ‘story field’:

For several decades Gandhi inspired millions of poor Indians to step out of their story field of victimhood into a new story field that cast them as heroic nonviolent architects of their own fate – a story field that was reinforced with new stories generated by each victory in their unique campaign for independence.

What is missing for sustainability, and why it may be difficult for people to see disparate ‘bits’ of sustainability in context, is the lack of an overarching narrative, the story of the ‘project’ of our era.

In relation to sustainability, thinkers, writers and activists such as David Korten and Joanna Macy speak of ‘The Great Turning’ which Macy defines as follows:

The Great Turning is a name for the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization. The ecological and social crises we face are inflamed by an economic system dependent on accelerating growth…A revolution is underway because people are realizing that our needs can be met without destroying our world.

This might all seem a bit ‘meta’ to folks working at the coalface of day to day life, trying to manage upward in an organisation, or ‘herding cats’ in trying to effect behaviour change, but consider this: what impact does, for example, a cultural myth of limitless growth and limitless resources have, from macro economic and political policy making and investment risk assessments all the way down to whether people consider it important to recycle cans, bottles and cardboard?

So how does one cultivate a story field, exactly?

Atlee’s suggested strategies for how to cultivate positive story fields capable of shaping a new culture include:

– networking like-minded people, organizations, activities, and resources to deepen and spread the emerging worldview.

– engaging ordinary people and targeted populations in telling their stories and visions in an effort to understand how their individual experiences and dreams reflect larger social issues, dynamics and possibilities – in ways that empower them to actively engage with those issues, dynamics and possibilities.

– Imagineering which uses imaginative narrative to realize, create, or catalyze in real life the potentials we are imagining – especially applying it as a networking and organizing tool.

– Possibility Journalism that explores the creative edge of society where experiments and visionaries abound, reporting on people’s active inquiries and possibilities and the energies and motivations that exist on the ever-emerging verge.

In terms of specific the skills and abilities that comprise ‘narrative intelligence’ – ‘the ability (or tendency) to perceive, know, think, feel, explain one’s experience and influence reality through the use of stories and narrative forms’ – Atlee includes:

– the ability and tendency to organize experience and ideas using stories and narrative patterns (an excellent example of this is the use of myth, which defines and discusses concepts – such as archetypes – in narrative form)

– the tendency to understand things better when they are presented in the form of a story (and sometimes to have trouble understanding things when they aren’t presented as stories

– curiosity about the stories behind things, and an ability to investigate such stories

– a tendency to make up stories, plausible or fantastic, to illustrate a point

– the ability to maintain a repertoire of stories (real and imaginary) to convey meanings; the ability to access that repertoire

– resonance with the stories of others; the ability to see another’s viewpoint when presented with the stories which underlie or embody that viewpoint

– the ability to discover themes in the events of a life or story

– the ability to recognize (or select) certain elements as significant, as embodying certain meanings that ‘make sense of things’

There’s no point throwing sustainability seeds on fallow ground. The right ‘soil conditions’ need to be present.

As David Korten says: ‘To change the human course, change the stories that define the culture.’

Cultivating story fields – through Atlee’s approaches, through conversation, through visual stories, through asking strategic questions – can help create a good soil structure with the right nutrients.

What ‘story fields’ are you aware of where you are trying to create change?

What stories are we telling? Which ones should we challenge? How should we reframe them?

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What Jamie Oliver Can Teach Sustainability Activists

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Jamie Oliver in a blue and black striped hoodie, smiling at his Food Revolution kitchen bench

Crux has long been a huge fan of British chef Jamie Oliver, not only for inspiring an interest in – and some development of my talent – in cooking, but for his activism and examples of change-making.

His first foray was 2002’s ‘Jamie’s Kitchen’, in which fifteen disadvantaged young people were offered an opportunity in Oliver’s new restaurant, Fifteen, if they successfully completed the training. Five of the original group, all of whom battled problems including homelessness, mental health issues and substance abuse, went on to secure cooking careers, four in top restaurants in London and one who opened his own catering business.

Oliver’s efforts with 2004’s  ‘Jamie’s School Dinners’ to improve school lunches in the UK, 2010’s Emmy Award Winning ‘Food Revolution’ in the US in West Virgina, and a second series of Food Revolution in 2011 in Los Angeles, were intent on changing one of the most personal, and yet also political, of human actions – what people put in their mouths.

Any student of change would do well to watch these series and pay close attention to Oliver’s modus operandi, most likely informed by people skilled in the art and science of persuasion, but also carried by the leadership and interpersonal skills of Oliver himself.

Although the issues Oliver was tackling were reviewed, praised, criticised and commented on widely, there are surprisingly few case studies out there capturing the lessons for application by others.

Yet here we have many of the situations change agents face presented as a story, with real people and situations rather than a list of theoretical concepts, and someone working his way through the pleasures and pains of change, in a familiar and readily digestible format (television).

Oliver’s Food Revolution site includes a section entitled ‘A Case Study For Non-profits On How To Activate The Crowd’ which offers some guidelines on how to animate and engage a community. ‘A Platform for Change’ sets out some concrete steps on specific issues. However the advice still focuses largely on the mechanics for change, for example:

  1. Have a simple message that people grasp.
  2. Have a vivid call to action that is linked to your message – host an event, share your knowledge, inspire better food education.
  3. Allow everyone to get involved. Use all networks at your disposal to establish a community around your cause.
  4. Focus on under 25s – get their attention, their networks are often the most active and connected.
  5. Secure the commitment of like-minded companies, organizations and individuals to unify expertise and support the message.
  6. Get celebrities and influencers to spread the word to increase the reach of your message.
  7. Monitor the conversation, engage with the community and measure your results. This will help you to learn where your campaign is working well, and how it can be developed further.

All absolutely valid and useful pieces of advice. But the most powerful methods of change are not in what we do, but how we do it – how we persuade people to get involved, how we frame our messages, how we get people’s buy-in, how to manage the dynamics of change.

At this deeper level, the lessons from Oliver’s work for change agents include:

He recognised and accepted that those he came into conflict with might fear that their position, status or authority was being questioned or threatened:

Oliver’s first roadblock in both the UK and the US was the school dinner ladies – trained to provide school food with little preparation needed other than reheating; adamant about what students would and would not eat; under pressure and working to feed hundreds of mouths each day – and in walks a young fellow intent on changing it all. To those staff, his presence would have seemed like something was not working well, and by inference, they themselves were doing something wrong. To parents, especially in the UK, he was usurping their authority over their children, even telling them they were not good parents. Maybe he was right in some cases – such as the parents who took to handing fast food through the school fence to keep their kids happy and undermine Oliver’s initiative.

By putting himself in the lunch ladies’ shoes, learning their work role and being on the coalface of change, he showed he was willing to see how things worked from their perspective, and earned their trust – which kept the working relationship intact, even when they didn’t agree on issues.

During the first Food Revolution series in Huntington, West Virginia, Oliver came under attack from a local radio DJ, who voiced the concerns of people worried that Oliver was there to ridicule and stigmatise their home for being the fattest and unhealthiest city in the United States, and then broadcast it around the world in a television series (although the town had been chosen based on government statistics about diet-related illness and death).

By staying the course with the community, involving people and building momentum for the initiative, Oliver turned ‘DJ Rod’ – and his media influence – from the most vocal critic of the Food Revolution to one of it’s most staunch supporters. Oliver worked to morph his adversaries into his allies; rather than wanting to ‘neutralise’ or silence DJ Rod, his mission was to get him involved in and excited about the Food Revolution.

And in the second Food Revolution series, he butted heads with the Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD), who oversee the largest public school system in California. The LAUSD, although they welcomed Oliver’s input to help reinvent menus,  were uncomfortable with the presence of Oliver and his cameras documenting the food systems they were in charge of. The LAUSD were understandably wary of how the school would be portrayed, and did not see eye to eye with Oliver, who considered the series an opportunity for the school to position itself a leader of positive change:

Four hours of TV back home got a billion dollars from the British government, got rubbish in vending machines taken out, got new standards, fresh produce, local food and we’re on the beginning of transition of change.

Jamie Oliver on Oprah, 28 March 2010

Arguably, the LAUSD itself was the cause of the conflict it sought to avoid, creating a drama and a news story around revoking Oliver’s filming permits, and then access to its schools altogether.

By persisting in the face of resistance and being undermined, Oliver was able to influence not only the composition of school menus, but the composition of the LAUSD Board.

He made things visible:

My most vivid memories of the Food Revolution series are the visual elements of the documentaries, Oliver’s stunts:

The absurd comedy of seeing him dressed up as a giant pea pod, running across a schoolyard with a gaggle of squealing kids tearing after him, while he shouts ‘Eat your vegetables!’

Jamie Oliver in a giant green pea pod costume

The visceral horror of seeing him literally dump the amount of fat consumed by the school’s children in one year on a tarpaulin in the school yard (see 1:52 in clip below):

In the second Food Revolution series, Oliver waged war on flavoured milk in schools, demonstrating how much sugar was in a week’s worth of milk consumed at the school by pouring an equivalent amount of sand into a school bus:

Oliver in front of a yellow school bus into which the piles of sugar were poured

Oliver is well aware that these highly visual stunts are the most effective means communication and getting people to internalise a message:

As far as I’m concerned, we just made an incredible documentary with big stunts. Why do we do big stunts? Because a lot of the information we work with is bloody boring. And I don’t expect any public, let alone the Americans, to be remotely interested.

The high impact visuals of these stunts work on two levels – it creates an emotional response in the audience, and it makes great content for being picked up and distributed through mainstream and social media.

On the day of the ‘sugar’ stunt, there were barely two dozen people there. Yet long after the series went to air, the video and images of the stunt are still on the internet, having been picked up by bloggers and other media.

Closely related to making things visible, he made participating in Food Revolution activities a social norm:

In the Food Revolution Kitchen, he posts an image of everyone who has signed up to support the initiative. It shows other people are on board, and helps people to become involved because other people are doing it too:

Jamie in front of his pinboard featuring photos of every participant who has signed up to support the local Food Revolution

That, and another of his stunts, arranging a very public, visible, cooking Flash Mob which got the town talking:

He made things tangible:

To get his message of health and nutrition across to a family featured in the first Food Revolution series, Oliver placed the family’s weekly meals – typically processed foods and fast food – on the kitchen table all at once.

Jamie talks to a mother featured in the Food Revolution series after placing the contents of the family's weekly diet (largely processed food, fried food, pizza etc) on the kitchen table at once

The golden rule of writers is ‘show don’t tell’, and it’s a rule that applies equally to change work. Seeing it, smelling it, realising the scale of it, touching it all affected the person he was engaging with in a much deeper way than simply telling her.

Also in the first Food Revolution series, he took his arch-adversary, DJ Rod, to a local funeral home where the radio announcer was shocked to see the massive sized caskets in which chronically obese people are buried. The turning point for Rod was hearing from the funeral director about conversations he has with grieving families in relation to the burial process for overweight corpses, how the casket has to be transported in the back of a cargo van, how cremation is not an option and the coffin requires two grave spaces. It made the issues Oliver was campaigning on real, immediate in his own community – and the messenger was a local, like himself.

When seeking the support of top local chefs to mentor students, Oliver invited them to lunch – and then served them all a range of foods that comprise a standard public school lunch. The chefs were horrified at the low quality of the food, and agreed to participate.

He understood and empathised with people.

In the second Food Revolution series, he met a single father of two boys, 14 and 10, who were all living on fast food and takeaways, even though the boys did not like the food.

The family wanted to change – but first Oliver had to create an ‘interruption’ to business as usual. He took the family on one of their trips to the drive through, but unbeknown to the family, he had arranged to keep the orders coming, filling their car with the amount of fast food the family eat in a month. But that wasn’t all.

While they were at the drive through, the shows producers entered the family’s house and covered every surface with thousands of dollars worth of fast food amounting to what the father and his sons would eat in a year. The message hit home.

family's house covered in foam containers and bags of fries, hot dogs, pizza, burgers etc

Importantly, Oliver was not just about showing them what they weren’t doing well – he was also there to show them what they could do, and to ensure they had support in the days following his visit so that the change would ‘stick’.

He issued a challenge (ie. made it into a game) – could he guide the boys to cook a chicken and salad in lunch in less time, and more cheaply, than it took their father to go to the drive through, order food and make it home? Yes they could! The boys’ meal came to $23 in ingredients, the takeaway, $31. When their father came home 45 minutes later, Jamie and his sons were throwing a football in the street, lunch already made.

He didn’t judge anyone.

There are all sorts of reasons people make poor food choices, from economic circumstances to lacking skills to not coping in other areas of life or not knowing how to change. Although he pulled no punches in stating what needed to change and why, in being able to listen, to be gentle and to help people realise what they can do, he empowered people he encountered.

He challenged entrenched systems.

No change worth making ever happened without challenging power structures.

In Oliver’s case, the most difficult block he encountered in his school food series was not kids unused to fresh healthy food, not parents unwilling to hear his call for change, not even the formidable school dinner ladies whose work roles would be reinvented, but the Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD). The authority had the power to grant Oliver access to work and film in the schools (or not), and are also in charge of making decisions on suppliers and budgets for school food.

They didn’t want him to film in the school’s cafeteria. With the assistance of school staff who were his allies, a loophole was found that allowed Oliver back into the school to teach or film, but he would not be allowed near the kitchen.

The authorities then revoked permission for all filming on the school grounds. Oliver responded by establishing a shop front, the Food Revolution Kitchen, across the road from the school so that students could still participate after school hours. He showed the students that he was not abandoning the initiative when things got tough.

He held his ground, even when it was difficult – even when it hurt:

I hate making TV documentaries, because it takes quite a lot of energy to know that you’re going to get your arse kicked and people will hate you, or fight you, for large proportions of time.

You know, change is very hard – structures, organisations, businesses, people, anyone really. And if you’re shining a light on one of the most unhealthy places in the world, it has to be a car crash, there’s no pretty way. I knew what I was flying over there for, I knew it would be horrible, but I hadn’t done horrible without my family. When you have shit days you need to be able to go and hug your kids, do you know what I mean? I didn’t have that, and it was hard, really hard.

Oliver remained steadfast to his beliefs and his mission, and withstood the heat he generated that comes with being an instigator of change.

In 2010, Oliver was awarded the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) prize for his activism, which offers him a platform to call on the TED community and on influencers to help him fulfil his wish:

I wish for your help to create a strong, sustainable movement to educate every child about food, inspire families to cook again and empower people everywhere to fight obesity.

Here is the TED talk he delivered when receiving his prize:

But for all his public profile, connections, awards, ability to command resources and personable manner, it didn’t equate to making change easier for Jamie Oliver, MBE, celebrity tv chef, author, film maker, businessman – he was in exactly the same position as change agents everywhere find themselves: encountering resistance, facing communication challenges, doing the hard yards.

Jamie Oliver, dressed in pea pod costume, holding fork to mouth of little boy pleading with the reluctant little fellow to eat!

So perhaps his most important lesson on creating change is – never give up!

I reckon I could get in to the head of food service in any Russian cities. I reckon I could get into North Korea inside a week.

That’s Jamie Oliver, in response to being shut out of LA’s public school cafeterias. No change worth making was ever easy.

Who else do can you think of in the public eye, or do you know personally, who is or has been an effective change maker? How were they effective in their work?

What techniques do you use to maintain your spirit in the face of resistance, even hostility?

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How The King of Communicators Inspired Change

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Ever wondered how the great orators of history crafted and delivered such memorable speeches that resonated with their audience?

Nancy Duarte of Duarte Design – the company responsible for turning Al Gore’s Powerpoint slides into an Oscar-winning quality story in ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ – has dissected Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech from the 1963 March on Washington D.C., to show how it’s done.

In this fascinating analysis, Duarte extracted each line of Dr King’s speech and organised it according to tense in order to show visually how he moved the audience from ‘what is’ to ‘what could be’, ending with the positive situation the speaker and audience wish to manifest, ‘the new bliss’:

screenshot of Duarte's dissection of King's speech, showing where parts referred to the present, and the future

Don’t worry that you can’t read the words – they’re being used here for a different purpose, to show the structure of the speech.

Duarte then separated out elements of the speech, colour-coded them, and plotted them in accordance with where they were used by Dr King. Here’s a visual overlay of each element:

Repetition (identified in blue), a device to drive a point home, and usually done in threes – here are points in the Dr King’s speech where repetition was used:

screenshot of graphic showing where King's words were repetition

Dr King’s most well-known repetitions from this speech were the words ‘I have a dream…’, but he also used it in other sections of his speech:

But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. 

This paragraph is also rich with metaphor, or visual words.

Metaphors and visual words (identified in pink) were used liberally by Dr King:

screenshot of graphic showing where King's words were metaphorical

Dr King uses the metaphor of a check, and a bank account – one that would be familiar to most people – to speak of justice:

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check – a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

Cultural references (identified in green), show where Dr King used songs, scripture, literature that were familiar and dear to the audience:

screenshot of graphic showing where King used cultural references

Dr King referenced ‘Free At Last’, a Negro spiritual song in his rousing finish to his delivery:

Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring—when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Political references (identified in orange), show where Dr King refers to political events, dates or documents, like the Declaration of Independence:

screenshot of graphic showing where King used political references

At the beginning of his speech, Dr King invokes abolitionist President Abraham Lincoln and echoes Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (which began ‘Four score and seven years ago…’)

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

It is worth nothing that the most powerful and memorable part of Dr King’s speech combined ALL of these elements: repetition, metaphor, cultural and political references:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” (political)

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. (repetition, metaphor)

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. (repetition, metaphor)

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. (repetition)

I have a dream today. (repetition)

I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers. (repetition, metaphor)

I have a dream today. (repetition)

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. (repetition, metaphor, cultural – scripture)

Each of these elements, along with Dr King’s measured delivery and speaking style, combined to create a powerful emotional call to action. Dr King was not appealing to the ‘logical’ part of the brain, but intent on shifting the heart.

As noted in ‘Motivating Sustainable Behaviour’, it is more effective to inspire and involve people, and give them a sense of agency over their situation than it is to rationalise and instruct. Martin Luther King appealed to people with ‘I have a dream’ – not ‘ I have a plan’.

Here is Duarte’s analysis in full (7 mins):

It would be fascinating to see a similar visual analysis of speeches by another great political orator of King’s era, President John F Kennedy.

A cursory glance at JFK’s Inaugural Address from 20 January 1961 shows all of the elements of King’s speech: repetition, metaphor, scripture, political references:

Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us…

Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce. (repetition, metaphor)

Let both sides unite to heed, in all corners of the earth, the command of Isaiah – to “undo the heavy burdens, and [to] let the oppressed go free.” (cultural – scripture)

And, if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion…(metaphor)

And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. (repetition, call to action)

In his address at the American University, 10 June 1963:

“When a man’s way[s] please the Lord,” the Scriptures tell us, “He maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.” And is not peace, in the last analysis, basically a matter of human rights: the right to live out our lives without fear of devastation; the right to breathe air as nature provided it; the right of future generations to a healthy existence? (repetition, cultural – scripture)

For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal. (metaphor, repetition)

Duarte has also applied this technique to other historical speeches, such as Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and from more recent times, Steve Jobs’s iPhone launch speech. You can learn more about creating messages and storytelling approaches in Duarte’s book, ‘Resonate’.

Yet King’s speech is perhaps the best example – not only is it memorable, it has become a cultural icon that has touched audiences beyond those who were immediately involved in the civil rights struggle, and has continued to be influential beyond the time and cultural context in which it was made.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Address at March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Washington, D.C. (17 mins)

It’s success depended very much on the spirit of the man, but also on the structure and delivery of his most cherished message.

Which other great historical or contemporary speeches would you like to see dissected and analysed? 

How well do you know your audience? What metaphors would you use, and what cultural and political references could you tap into when presenting to them? 

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Strategic Questioning – Asking Questions That Make A Difference

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black and white photo of Fran Peavey

Fran Peavey Image Credit: The Jobs Letter

Practitioners working in all kinds of social change will gain value from exploring the Strategic Questioning Manual, developed by the late activist and changemaker Fran Peavey, and published online by The Change Agency.

This overview of Strategic Questioning has been compiled from the Manual, and from notes taken by Crux during a workshop Peavey ran in Adelaide in 2001.

Strategic Questioning offers essential tools for any change agent. Peavey defined it as follows:

Strategic Questioning is a way of talking with people with whom you have differences without abandoning your own beliefs and yet looking for common ground which may enable both parties to co-create a new path from the present situation. In every heart there is ambiguity; in every ideology there are parts that don’t fit.

Strategic Questioning is the skill of asking the questions that will make a difference.

From First Kind to Second Kind Communication

Strategic Questioning offers a way to move from ‘communication of the first kind’ to ‘communication of the second kind’.

Communication of the first kind is characterised by the static/passive voice, how reality is now, and transmits information which is already known.

Many people brought up in a traditional education system received schooling based on asking and responding to questions to which the answers were already known: ‘What is the capital of Spain? What is eight plus six?’

The lesson learnt was that questions have finite and ‘correct’ answers, and there is usually one answer for each question. Wrong answers were punished with bad marks. Learning was about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers, and questions were typically limited to those for which the ‘authority’ already knew the answer, not ones which may have exposed the authority’s ignorance.

Of this binary approach to learning, Peavey noted that although:

…this may be a convenient way of running schools and testing people’s capacity for memory in examinations, it has not been a very empowering learning process, or a good preparation for the questions that will be coming up in life…all this is unfortunate to our times, because in the early 2000s – in our personal, professional and public lives – we are surrounded with questions that have no simple answers.

Communication of the second kind is characterised by its dynamic/creative voice, how things could be, calls forth the new. Strategic Questioning is a form of this ‘communication of the second kind’.

A Strategic Question:

  • creates motion – enables the structure of the conversation to move from the static to the dynamic
  • creates options – looks for alternatives (while avoiding questions which suggest a specific alternative eg. ‘have you considered…?’), instead asking what else is possible
  • avoids ‘why’? questions – such questions ask people to defend or justify their position, or talk about the present in terms of the past
  • avoids ‘yes/no’ answers – ask questions which defuse dualistic, binary thinking (which sees things in terms of black/white, either/or, right/wrong) by getting people to do some ‘thinking work’, and moving them from a passive into a creative state
  • is empowering – allowing someone to take what is already in their head and develop it further, rather than putting ideas into their head
  • asks the ‘unaskable’ – there is tremendous power in asking ‘taboo’ questions, as such questions are usually unaskable because they challenge the values and assumptions on which something is based
  • is a simple, not compound question – addresses one thing at a time, and minimises the need for analysis

Strategic Questioning is really part of a broader ‘family’ of questions, the first series of which are not strategic questions, though they are necessary for strategic questioning to work because they set the context:

Context Questions

  • Focus Questions: gather information that is already known, identifying the situation and they key facts necessary to understand the situation. Example: ‘What are you most concerned about in your community?’
  • Observation Questions: concerned with what someone has seen and the information someone has heard regarding the situation. Examples include: ‘What do you see?’, ‘Which sources do you trust and why?’, ‘What do you know for certain and what are you not sure about?’
  • Feeling Questions: concerned with body sensations, emotions, health. Examples include: ‘How do you feel about the situation?’, ‘How has the situation affected your own physical or emotional health?’

Strategic Questions

Once context-setting questions have been asked, then a group can be moved into Strategic Questions, which may include:

  • Visioning Questions: concerned with identifying ideals, dreams and values. Examples include: ‘How would you like it to be?’, ‘What about this situation do you care so much about?’
  • Change Questions: move from the static to the dynamic, how to get from the present to a more ideal situation. Examples include: ‘Who can make a difference?’, ‘How did those changes come about?’, ‘What will it take to bring the current situation towards the ideal?’
  • Considering Alternatives: questions which enable someone to imagine or identify (preferably more than two) alternatives. Examples include: ‘What other ways could you meet your goal?’, ‘What are the consequences of each alternative you see?’
  • Personal Inventory & Support Questions: identifying someone’s interests, potential contributions and the support required for them to act. Examples include: ‘What would it take for you to participate in the change?’, ‘What support would you need to work for this change?’
  • Personal Action Questions: designed to get to the specifics of what to do, when to do it, and how. Examples include: ‘Who do you need to talk to?’, ‘How can you get others to work on this?’
stylised image of black and white head with maze through brain, question mark in brain and exclamation point at mouth

Using Strategic Questioning in Organisational & Social Change

In her assessment of how organisations have typically approached change, Peavey identified key flaws in the modus operandi:

Many organisational leaders and social change workers have been taught the process of determining in their own mind or in their group a policy or ‘idea’ which would be a positive change. They set about marketing this idea to the public through speeches, leaflets and meetings.

As many working in social change are all too aware, this approach is often risky, as there is no broad-based ‘buy-in’ or ownership of the policy or idea. People are rarely convinced to adopt a new position through rational argument, especially where it conflicts with deeply held (and sometimes unconscious) values.

Our ability to overcome to move beyond this deadlock depends in large part on our ability to have effective conversations, especially with those who hold different views to ourselves:

In many societies people are taught to have defensive and combative conversation styles, expressing opinions rather than opening up to the growing edge of what one is coming to know. The consequence of defensive conversations is that while one is listening to the ideas and opinions of others, one’s inner eye is focused on what one will say to rebut the position of the other.

The best way to empower people is to help them find their own way to the ideas and strategies that reside inside of themselves.

When to Use Strategic Questioning

Times of uncertainty, conflict and confusion – and opportunity-generating crises – call for a different approach to communication.

Peavey identified a range of opportune times to use Strategic Questioning, including when:

  • your organisation is undergoing major change
  • when you need to understand the life experience, rationale or degree of commitment of the resistance to your campaign
  • you have been working on something for a long time and have run out of ideas
  • you are feeling isolated or are cynical that anybody cares about the things you care about
  • your group is fragmented and conflicted – strategic questioning will help clarify positions and look for new alternatives
  • a group only sees one or two alternatives and needs to do some creative thinking together

All of these situations are junctures where there complex issues and no simple or ‘known’ answers that ‘first kind’ communication will yield. ‘Second kind’ communication is needed for the ways forward to be co-created and revealed.

The Ethics of Strategic Questioning

Peavey placed a strong emphasis on the ethics of using Strategic Questioning, and the need to keep our own identities and opinions – our egos – out of the process.

Often we confuse our opinions with our essence as a living being. Our belief structure and our values are very close to the core of who we think ourselves to be…in the old model of power we’ve been taught to think that we’re superior, and that we have the point of view which everyone else needs.

Strategic Questioning does not require that the practitioner forget about his or her own opinions, which would be disrespectful to oneself. It only means that you carry your opinions in a way that does not interfere with the dialogue, the respect and the exploration of alternatives that you are trying to achieve.

Try to imagine putting your opinions in your pocket before doing Strategic Questioning – they’re still there, you can touch them, but they’re not interfering with the task at hand. Strategic Questioning is about an empathic approach to listening, not manipulation or control of the conversation – keep as little of your own personality from interfering as possible. Design your questions to let the answers emerge from the person or people affected, rather than offering your own suggestions.

Some approaches to help with this are:

  • use curiousity in lieu of judgment
  • check that your questions do not include assumptions
  • allow others’ feelings to be expressed without attempting to ‘fix’ them

Peavey also points out that using Strategic Questioning may change the questioner, as well as the questionee, as new  perspectives are revealed:

When we open ourselves to another point of view, our own ideas will have to shift to take into account new information. If you want to control the outcome, you are really fundraising and using questioning as a ploy to get a person’s trust – if you take satisfaction in conversion, please do not use Strategic Questioning.

More detail on the principles, approaches and techniques of Strategic Questioning can be found in Fran Peavey’s Strategic Questioning Manual.

Have you found that changing how you ask questions changes the dynamic of your conversations?

It can be difficult to keep our own opinions out of the process of listening to others – what techniques have you used? 

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The Spirit of Occupy – A Visual Story

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group of people holding up series of A3 letters that spell out 'Another World Is Possible'

Visual storytelling has been the subject of a number of Crux posts thus far, so I decided to take my own advice, test my fledgling iMovie skills and put together the following clip set to the song ‘Under Pressure’ by Queen, featuring David Bowie:

The clip conveys the uprising of people in places from Iceland, Tunisia, Egypt, the US, the UK, Greece and elsewhere against financial and political corruption and oppression, the response of authorities to that uprising, and a sense of hope.

Excepting a few words on placards and signs (and of course, the song lyrics), the clip uses no language. The song by itself carries a powerful  emotional arc – coupled with the choice and sequencing of a range of emotionally-charged images, it has resonated with people who have left comments on Facebook and YouTube.

With a little promotion through social media networks, it has had over 700 views since it was posted on 4 May – how far it travels remains to be seen.

However the main point is that with readily available, easy to use tools, and a basic understanding of storytelling and social media, it is possible to create compelling messages and get them out there.

Have you used any kind of video to convey a story about your work? How was it received – was it more effective in terms of reach than other forms of communication like articles and images?

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