Storytelling Workshop: Using Fiction and Humor To Confront Emerging Challenges

Last month I had the pleasure of teaching a storytelling workshop to a group of students enrolled in the Collaborative Design MFA program at the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA).

The students in this program are focused on cultivating meaningful ways to address the emerging challenges of the 21st century: resource depletion, emerging technologies, and climate change, to name a few. They refer to these challenges as ‘wicked problems,’ since they lack a simple or singular solution. It is difficult to grasp these challenges in general since their effects may not be seen for many years.

I was asked to share some storytelling strategies that would help students envision and communicate the complex potential consequences of these ‘wicked problems.’ I felt the best approach to share with them was a method known as Critical Design, a term coined by Dunne & Raby who lead the Design Interactions program at Royal College of Art.

The goal of Critical Design is to create something that makes people think, sparks dialogue, and challenges narrow assumptions. As Dunne & Raby recommend, “The viewer should experience a dilemma, is it serious or not? Real or not? For Critical Design to be successful they [the audience] need to make up their own mind.” 

To accomplish this, you need to figure out a provocative story you want to tell and then choose the medium—object, video, photograph, publication, etc.—that would best help you move people to care about the issue.

How do you begin to weave this emotionally-gripping, futuristic, fictional story? I like to play satirist. Take the problem, what you know of its potential effects, and then start to imagine what else could happen if it persisted. Keep taking that outcome to the extreme and see where it leads you.

Why does this work? I think when you are attempting to introduce someone to a potentially controversial idea, combining fictional stories with humor can be an effective strategy for disarming our defensive intellectual guards.

Stories, and, more specifically, fictional narratives, have a unique way of captivating us. This passage from Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal articulates why fiction is effective in influencing our beliefs:

Fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence. Studies show that when we read non-fiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape.

Humor has a similar neurological effect on us. Last year, a stand-up comedian named Chris Bliss shared why he believes humor can break down our barriers in his TEDx talk “Comedy Is Translation“:

Flight-or-fight releases adrenalin, which throws our walls up sky-high. And then comedy comes along, dealing with a lot of the same areas where our defenses are the strongest—race, religion, politics, sexuality—only by approaching them through humor instead of adrenalin, we get endorphins and the alchemy of laughter turns our walls into windows, revealing a fresh and unexpected point of view.

Armed with this knowledge, the students set out to practice this approach. I asked them to start by reading a current news story. That week’s news brought us articles on lab-grown meat, implanting false memories through optogenics, a recipe for a bird superflu, and a fusion power station. Then, they were to play satirist and contemplate the future implications (especially on humans) of the subject matter of their article. Finally, they were asked to present their fictional story by making an object, mock website, altered photograph, etc.

Within half an hour, both groups grasped the concept and came up with some thought-provoking ideas. One group convincingly pitched a satirical commercial, and the other created a print ad for a futuristic water supply business. I was impressed with their work, especially since this was an unfamiliar way of thinking.

Clearly, solving wicked problems is unfathomably complex and takes incredible effort, but it is encouraging to see such a thoughtful group of motivated students who are dedicating themselves to spreading awareness and enacting change. I am really looking forward to seeing the work this group creates over the next two years.

— Laura Allcorn, Senior Content Strategist


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