Written by Moya Sayer-Jones from a conversation with herself! Moya is the Story Activist and founder of Only Human Communication. Only Human supports NFP organisations with narrative strategies to improve practice and share the value of their work.
Until about a decade ago, I worked as a novelist, columnist and screenwriter and I worked alone. Or so I thought. I would sit in my office, a beautiful old shearer’s cottage, in the middle of a scrubby paddock and for days on end, I’d barely see another soul. I’d sit there, at my desk, conjuring characters and situations from right inside my own head. Or so I thought.
Looking back now, that idea seems totally ridiculous, even stupid. Working alone? Really, Moya? Apart from all the people who helped bring the ideas to life, like the editors and designers and publishers, there were my original collaborators and muses to acknowledge. They were always there in that cottage too: standing invisibly beside me, their whispers in my ear miraculously transforming into the tap…tap… tap on the keyboard.
These ‘collaborators’ were the humans I had crossed paths with my entire life: my first best friend at school or the Muslim cab driver in Sydney or the woman in the next hospital bed who nursed her new baby while I nursed mine. All those people who I’d met, listened to, read about or simply observed through my life were still collaborating on what I could create.
It was their lives and longings that were now popping up on my pages and making the story. My name might have been on the cover but they were everywhere in the book.
It took until I was about fifty (yes, I’m a slow learner!) before I really understood the idea that nothing is created alone: no book, painting, play, undertaking or idea. I saw that all my work totally depended on what I had seen and heard from the humans I was writing for: their hopes, frustrations, epiphanies, the things that brought them joy. It was only through this ‘collaboration of perspectives’ that my work would be a genuine contribution. (And hopefully compensate for all those trees that had been felled to print it!)
Now, I might well be over-sharing here (and apologies if so) but in this last post for Stretch2Engage, I wanted to take time to remember that everyone is always co-designing with us. Even when we don’t think they are.
No man is an island… and no idea is either!
It’s very easy to get into a frame of mind that sees engaging people as an ‘extra’, something that we have to do or something that will fill the gaps of what we already know to be true. And it’s true of course, as skilled professionals, we do know a lot. But as the story above shows, everything we know or understand, has been informed in some way by the people we serve already. And this applies to all aspects of our life and work. As humans we are porous: others seep into us and we are changed by them. If we let them change us, that is.
In gathering the stories you’ve been reading here over the past 6 weeks, I’ve spoken to people all around the world who are constantly thinking about how to enrich and boost what they can achieve. Whether they were working in business, the arts, government or NGO sectors, their conclusion was always the same.
The only way to do what we do better is to acknowledge and actively include the people we are working for and with.
Many of our ‘thinkers’ told me about the difficulties they faced within their systems: the resistance by others to ‘wasting time’ or investing in unknown outcomes; the fear of change, the fear of failure, the megalomania of interest groups. Many spoke about fantastic projects that had fallen foul of outmoded system thinking and insufficient time or resources.
We could have talked about the ‘barriers’ forever (there were so many of them) but actually what everyone wanted to speak about, were the triumphs.
One of the most wonderful impressions I consistently took away, was the fearlessness with which these people continue to approach new thinking and innovation. Their whole demeanor changed too when they described the incredible benefits and satisfaction of doing engagement well: of actually creating spaces to include users, customers, patients, clients… people. They were excited and inspired and I hope you have felt inspired too.
May those humans who whispered in my ear while I tap..tap..tapped on the keyboard, have the opportunity to raise their voices loud and clear in your own work. Go forth and include!
Thanks so much to all our thinkers over the past weeks and to Shawn Callahan (anecdote.com) and Sophie Weldon (humankind.enterprises) for their time and ideas. There is so much to take into the face-to-face think tanks and apply to our own sectors.