During my first week here at Anecdote I sat in on an Anecdote Circle at a large Government Department here at Melbourne. It was the first time I had seen one of these run by Shawn and I was therefore very keen to see how he did it, and anything I could pick up and and use myself in the future.
One of the things I noticed quite early on was that Shawn would start by asking one of the pre-prepared, scripted questions and if he did not get him any stories from the group, he would follow it up by turning the more formal question into one that contained an idiom. So “Think of a time when you saw somebody manage (x) roles in a way that made you think, “Wow. If everybody worked that way, things would got a lot more smoothly around here”. Got followed up with; “when have things gone as smooth as clock work?”. There were many more examples of this throughout the session, and each time it seemed to get great results at eliciting stories.
When I raised it with Shawn afterwards he wasn’t even aware he used this as a a technique, but in talking it through and making him aware of it, he began to realise he used it all the time. He even told me a story that Mark had told him of doing some story elicitating work and asking; “When have you been most elated at work, or most disappointed?” He got a load of blank stares and shaking of heads, until one of the guys piped up; “We don’t get ‘elated’ or ‘disappointed’ we either get ‘stoked or ‘gutted'”.
I think the use of idioms and slang work in eliciting stories for a number of reasons. They give a far greater richness than can be delivered from just words alone. ‘Gutted’ has a far greater impact than ‘disappointed’ for example, it has a far greater emotional reaction. Also by using the right idioms for that audience it shows them you are ‘talking their language’ therefore building rapport, trust and the relationship. It shows you understand them and are part of their ‘community’. It also increases your chances of the question being understood.
This technique really came to the fore when we started collecting stories at a large electricity generating company. We were doing this out in these huge power stations, with he guys (and they were mainly guys) dressed in their work boots and protective clothing, with a natural distrust of us as “city boys”. Using idioms and slang in the majority of our questions really worked as a way to get them to tell stories. It put them at ease, used language and terms they understood, and created a degree of informality that seemed to help them to tell stories.
We have also used this insight into some of the questions we have developed for eliciting family stories in Zahmoo, which can be found in the ‘Online Resources’. Examples of using idioms include things like; “Do you remember a time when Mum or Dad went through the roof over something you did?”, “What was something your spouse has done that just blew you away?”, “Did you ever get off on the wrong foot with someone who then became a good friend?” or “Have you ever been at death’s door?”.
We also have used slang to get people to recall moments and tell stories about them. Examples include; “When did you really come a gutser as a kid?” or “What did you put the kibosh on that you wished you hadn’t?’.
I would therefore strongly recommend trying to consciously use idioms and slang when asking questions to elicit stories. The results I have seen in different settings, groups and people have proven to me they really do work as a way to help people recall moments, and therefore be able to tell stories about them. Go on, have a crack!
About Kevin Bishop