By Kyle P. Vealey and Jeffrey M. Gerding
On Stories and Storytelling
Stories are everywhere in our personal, public, and professional lives. From casual conversations and social media posts to published explanations of complex scientific information, the act of storytelling affords humans a rhetorical capacity to engage with one another and the world around us. Stories bring cause and effect together into a cohesive event, thus helping us make sense of and impose—even just temporarily—a sense of stability to an uncertain world. Through stories, we are also able to articulate the complexity of firsthand experience into knowledge that is social, shareable, and lasting. That is, storytelling helps us communicate complex ideas to one another, particularly in ways that increase not only comprehension but also engagement, curiosity, and even excitement. Stories and storytelling are, and always have been, at the heart of technical communication (TC). With its emphasis on characters, settings, descriptive language, metaphor, and narrative structure, stories are arguably one of the most effective ways of communicating complex technical and scientific information—and as the articles in this special issue illustrate, the rhetorical potential for storytelling is far richer than even that.
Storytelling has a long history in TC, but until recently, it has been defined largely by a state of perpetual arrival—always arriving, never truly staying. Beginning in the late 1980s, Ben F. Barton and Marthalee S. Barton (1988) issued an early call to explore the existing “pervasiveness” of what they call narration in TC, despite such narrative elements being largely “devalued as a mode of discourse” (p. 36). Working against a constructed opposition between technical exposition and literary narratives, Barton and Barton argue that storytelling forms are already present in technical and scientific forms of writing: “one finds narrativity in such discourse genres as the scientific or technical article . . . [and with] projective scientific texts as scenarios, scripts, frames, simulations, games, case studies, and ‘what-if’ or ‘worst-case’ analyses” (p. 41). If taken more seriously, Barton and Barton wager, stories can help users read and use texts faster, process written content more effectively, and increase overall recall of information (p. 43).
In the decade after Barton and Barton’s call, Jane M. Perkins and Nancy Blyler (1999) take up the question of whether the field has fully pursued the advantages of storytelling for communicating across technical and professional contexts. As they note, while the subsequent decade has seen an increased scholarly engagement with storytelling (particularly in understanding that stories are deeply rhetorical and that, in turn, rhetoric itself is a “storied” practice), the field’s “existing research on narrative is still limited, not necessarily in quality but rather in terms of the amount of scholarship produced and its scope” (p. 10). In a survey of 11 major journals from 1990–1997, Perkins and Blyler suggest the focus of much research is not directly engaged with storytelling itself—instead, stories are used to contextualize larger ideas, animate data, or create a broader sense of relevance for readers. They conclude with both an optimistic note and warning for storytelling’s role in future scholarship: “we predict that, 10 years in the future, our field will no longer be marked by the muteness Barton and Barton noted” (p. 28); however, the failure to take storytelling seriously will exclude and deny us access “to important work on the topic of the political nature of reality construction” (p. 21).
While the question of whether the field has fulfilled Perkins and Blyler’s prediction is still debatable, it is clear that TC scholars continue to engage with stories and storytelling across a diverse range of topics. Specifically, stories and storytelling have shown up in research on DIY instructions (Van Ittersum, 2014), automotive repair work (Cushman, 2015), history of government nuclear facilities (Hirst, 2017), nonprofit organizations (Dush, 2017), pedagogical approaches to studying/teaching policy (Moore, 2013), scientific narratives and explanations (Forbes, 1999; Johnson Sheehan & Rodes, 1999; Journet, 2009), user experience and human-centered design (Ballentine, 2010; Jones, 2016), organizational crises and change (Faber, 2002; Marsen, 2014), empowerment of Black entrepreneurs (Jones, 2017), YouTube beauty community tutorials (Ledbetter, 2018), and historical accounts of marriage and maternity policies at IBM (Petersen & Moeller, 2016).
TC’s quiet yet persistent and sustained engagement with storytelling was more recently examined by Nancy Small (2017), who noted that “as a discipline, we use stories and yet we seem to continue our indifference toward or even denial of acknowledging storytelling as a legitimate tool of the trade” (p. 238). To bolster our theoretical grounding for making storytelling a core feature of TC, Small suggests we clearly delineate what we mean by terms like narrative and story. Drawing from David Boje, Small describes narratives as coherent and often-linear accounts of events, whereby a clear plotline is imposed retrospectively. Stories, on the other hand, come before coherent narratives are formed and solidified, composed in bits and pieces from a series of events as they are told and retold across multiple times, places, and perspectives. These kinds of stories are what Boje calls antenarrative. A subtle but core theme running through many of the articles in this special issue, antenarratives are at once the fragmented and polyvocal stories told before any narrative coherence settles and act as a kind of bet on the probable shape of future events. Importantly for TC research and practice, antenarratives can be enacted as both method and methodology for revealing and dismantling narrative calcification, that is, the fixity of meaning in a stable and coherent narrative. Indeed, Small argues that antenarrative opens up a “willingness to think dialectically, to embrace alternative interpretations, to (re)consider outliers and silences, and to put potentially competing narratives into conversation with one another” (p. 241), thus offering TC scholars and practitioners “one way to answer the recent call for foregrounding [the field’s] role in promoting social justice” (p. 249). Antenarratives are transformational stories that invite different interpretations and imaginings of the future, bringing about, in Boje’s words, “a future that would not be otherwise” (Boje, 2008, p. 14). Authors featured in this special issue not only employ Boje’s antenarrative as a methodological framework, but also embody its spirit in reimagining the story of TC and its importance to our often fraught and uncertain world.
Storytelling and the Pursuit of Justice
With this issue, we want to mark a notable shift in TC scholarship and practice: storytelling, long relegated to a niche special interest, has become a central part of the work of many TC scholars and practitioners, particularly as a critical tool in the pursuit of justice. This change has been predicated in TC scholarship by the move away from “a pragmatic identity that values effectiveness” and “practical problem solving” toward a field that is more inclusive, committed to social justice, and eager to listen to multiple voices (Jones, Moore, & Walton, 2016, p. 212). Storytelling and social justice advocacy are closely intertwined, with scholars arguing for the importance not just of telling stories and amplifying the stories others tell, but actively “listening for stories as opposed to simply listening to stories” (Mangum, this issue) that foreground the experiences of the marginalized and oppressed.
In Technical Communication after the Social Justice Turn, Rebecca Walton, Kristen R. Moore, and Natasha N. Jones (2019) call for technical communicators to address and intervene in issues of inequality and systematic oppression through “intersectional, coalitional approaches” (p. 133). Central to such coalition building is the act of listening to multiply marginalized individuals, trusting the lived experience of those who point out injustices, and acting with humility rather than skepticism (pp. 134–136). “If we want to be allies,” they write:
We must all commit to learning more about injustices from those who experience injustices. Even those of us who experience our own forms of oppression can and should listen, learn, and engage with others whose experiences of injustice are different from our own . . . And if no one is telling you about injustices, that (of course) doesn’t mean injustices aren’t happening. (p. 136)
This invocation to pay attention to and seek out stories of all kind requires the field, particularly those of us “not living at the intersections of oppression,” to “listen more than [we] speak or lead” so that “the right answer, the next step, is localized and . . . driven by the collective agenda and the experience of those who have been and continue to be multiply marginalized” (p. 134). Indeed, the 4Rs heuristic introduced by Walton, Moore, and Jones (and revisited in this volume) reminds us that before the real work can begin, we must first strive to recognize and then reveal injustice, oppression, and our complicity in both (p. 133). As they write, “Revealing an injustice is a call to action, an investment, and a coalitional move on either end (either in the revelatory act or in the act of hearing, recognizing and accepting)” (p. 140). Through the acts of listening to, analyzing, amplifying, and prioritizing stories—especially those previously underrepresented in the field—scholars of TC open ourselves up to coalition building and, in doing so, take steps toward the last two of the 4Rs, possible rejection and replacement of injustice and oppression (Walton, Moore, and Jones, 2019). Combining the rich history of storytelling in the field with the urgent work of social justice reinvigorates narrative research and offers an invitation to approach our work with humility and a renewed commitment to the communities and stories beyond our field, our institutions, and our organizations.
When selecting articles for this special issue, we looked for scholars attuned to such listening and coalition building in a range of contexts and with an array of methods and theoretical frameworks. In particular, we valued research that pursued social justice in ways that might challenge, inspire, and sustain the next wave of storytelling scholarship. The future of storytelling, we believe, is in recognizing the power stories have always had and, in doing so, advocating for research that digs deeper into what stories can be, can do, and can offer us as a field.
Contents of this Special Issue
The stories told, theorized, and applied in this special issue illustrate the versatility and wide range of potential storytelling still holds for TC. Moreover, they collectively show that storytelling is alive and well—and truly at home—in the field and profession.
In the issue’s lead article, Kristen R. Moore, Natasha N. Jones, and Rebecca Walton build on their work in Technical Communication After the Social Turn (2019) by expanding their 4Rs heuristic—recognizing, revealing, rejecting, and replacing—for intervening into systems and practices of injustice. Specifically, in “Contextualizing the 4Rs Heuristic with Participant Stories,” they elaborate on how listening to and deeply engaging with participant stories in local contexts is often necessary to recognize social injustice in our day-to-day work and to begin the critical effort of revealing it to others. With a theoretical framework deeply informed by Black Feminist Theory, Moore, Jones, and Walton draw from interviews with TC scholars and practitioners to offer strategies for continually recognizing and revealing unjust practices in today’s workplaces. As they articulate:
Pairing stories with heuristics provides opportunities to expand beyond what the individual user of the heuristic might, themselves, imagine. Our data suggests that stories are important touchpoints for a Black Feminist framework to understanding inequities, and we offer these stories to invite and stimulate the critical imagination necessary for redressing inequities, forming coalitions, and building a more just future.
The article positions stories as a serious matter for social justice work, largely because storytelling affords us the ability to listen to, create, and share accounts of injustice in effort to ultimately enact more socially just practices and systems in the world.
In “‘Changing the Face of Technology’: Storytelling as Intersectional Feminist Practice in Coding Organizations,” E. Ashley Rea examines the resistance strategies used by activist computer programmers to counter the dominant, exclusionary narratives that marginalize women, especially women of color, in technical fields. Rea builds upon Aja Y. Martinez’s (2020) theory of counterstories, described in this piece as “cultivat[ing] community through representation of minoritized voices” in order to “illuminate and challenge existing systems of discrimination and move towards a transformative resistance.” Rea’s study describes the counterstory practices of five women in activist coding organizations who use a variety of coalition-building strategies to resist dominant technical industry narratives, such as facilitating community-building meetups and providing access to coding education. Identifying such practices as counterstory offers TC scholars and practitioners working toward social justice a framework for examining different forms of resistance as they play out across professional contexts both within and beyond the field.
Erin Brock Carlson and Martina Angela Caretta, in “Legitimizing Situated Knowledge in Rural Communities through Storytelling around Gas Pipelines and Environmental Risk,” make a compelling case for TC professionals to listen closely and carefully to the stories of rural landowners living alongside the ongoing development of natural gas pipelines. Drawing from stories of 31 residents of rural West Virginia, they offer a way to engage these stories as a form of expertise rooted in lived experience. Doing so issues an increasingly important and timely call for TC professionals to not only acknowledge that “rural residents’ situated, place-based knowledge is expertise—expertise that should be valued by decision makers when environmental changes (and therefore, risks) are on the horizon,” but also amplify these stories of living in the wake of major technical and environmental development.
In “Amplifying Indigenous Voices through a Community of Stories Approach,” Richard T. Mangum heeds recent calls to apply an antenarrative analysis as both method and methodology in TC narrative scholarship. Specifically, he blends antenarrative analysis and indigenous storytelling methodologies in a case study of documentation surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline’s construction in 2016-17. Through analysis of a corpus of documents organized into dominant and counter narratives, Mangum offers three models for understanding the relationships between these competing narratives. In the first model, “dominant versus counter narrative,” those who hold power delegitimize, replace, and erase existing counter narratives with those reflecting the dominant group; the second, “layered narratives,” avoids simplified binaries by acknowledging each story as a distinct and equal layer in a larger metanarrative; and the third, “community of stories,” avoids equalization in favor of recognizing the metanarrative as being comprised of many diverse, overlapping, evolving, and relational stories. At the heart of Mangum’s work are three visual metaphors that illustrate these relationships, in order, with powerful images: water protectors facing off against a line of police in riot gear; a series of glass plates that create a single image when viewed together; and intersecting circles, one for each story, inspired by Indigenous hoop dancing. Together these models and their related visualizations offer TC scholars an approach for solving complex problems that rejects any one perspective in order to “look for, excavate, and amplify subordinated counter narratives.”
Sweta Baniya and Chen Chen’s “Experiencing a Global Pandemic: The Power of Public Storytelling as Antenarrative in Crisis Communication,” offers a timely application of antenarrative analysis to crowdsourced stories about the COVID-19 pandemic. Baniya and Chen look at two media platforms that allowed every-day people to submit stories of their experiences during the pandemic: the UnCoVer Initiative blog from China and the Nepal PhotoProject Instagram account from Nepal. They identified four different capacities of these stories—“critical storytelling and reflections,” “building collective knowledge,” “developing solidarity,” and “establishing coalitional spaces”—that demonstrate how “non-Western rhetorical practices and values’’ were used to “challenge the mainstream narrative and the power structure . . . to strive for equity and justice” in both countries. Through extended excerpts and vivid description of individual stories, Baniya and Chen develop a rich portrait of the ways antenarratives function to reveal, reflect upon, and reject injustices perpetrated by governments in times of crisis. In doing so, they call upon scholars and practitioners of TC and risk communication to “develop a more critical perspective on crisis relief policies and strategies” and to be “more aware of how collective knowledge can be built as a social justice action.”
In the final entry for the special issue, “‘From Homeless to Human Again’: A Teaching Case on an Undergraduate ‘Tiny Houses and Technical Writing’ Course Model,” Erin Trauth reports on a community partnership with Tiny House Community Development (THCD), a nonprofit whose mission is to build tiny homes and offer construction-based career training for community members experiencing homelessness. Throughout her piece, Trauth describes students listening to the stories of people THCD serves, weaving those narrative elements into the creation of instructional documentation, informational brochures, and a guidebook for a career readiness construction training program. Her teaching case exemplifies a pedagogical approach that suffuses storytelling throughout the complete lifecycle of a community partnership, highlighting how stories, in her words, “allow for students to truly understand the stories of those the organization serves, construct well-informed technical communication personas, and creating engaging, human-centered deliverables.”
Conclusion: Sustaining Storytelling in TC
By asserting that storytelling is no longer in the process of arriving but is firmly, fully here, we also acknowledge an important facet of storytelling research in TC: it is in a constant state of evolving and changing, retelling its own story as practices and methods and values evolve to keep pace with movements both within and beyond the field. The six articles in this volume each show a mature, established arena for study, one that pushes deliberately and confidently toward new ways of thinking about and doing the work of TC. Rather than continuing to look backwards, we see the authors in this issue as laying down the beginning of a story that will be continued by those who see stories and storytelling as an invitation, a challenge, and a promise of more fruitful work to come.
Ballentine, B. D. (2010). Requirements specifications and anticipating user needs: Methods and warnings on writing development narratives for new software. Technical Communication, 57(1), 26–43.
Barton, B. F. & Barton, M. S. (1988). Narration in technical communication. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 2(1), 36–48.
Blyler, N. & Perkins, J. (1999). Guest editors’ introduction: Culture and the power of narrative. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 13(3), 245–248.
Boje, D. (2008). Storytelling organizations. SAGE.
Cushman, J. (2015). Write me a better story: Writing stories as a diagnostic and repair practice for automotive technicians. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 45(2), 189–208.
Dush, L. (2017). Nonprofit collections of digital personal experience narratives: An exploratory study. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 31(2), 188–221.
Faber, B. (2002). Community action and organizational change: Image, narrative, and identity. Southern Illinois University Press.
Forbes, C. (1999). Getting the story, telling the story: The science of narrative, the narrative of science. In J. M. Perkins & N. Blyler (Eds.), Narrative and professional communication (pp. 79-92). Ablex.
Hirst, R. (2017). Stories from the secret city: Ray Smith’s art of narrative as rhetoric. Technical Communication, 64(1), 6–26.
Johnson Sheehan, R. & Rode, S. (1999). On scientific narrative: Stories of light by Newton and Einstein. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 13(3), 336–358.
Jones, N. N. (2016). Narrative inquiry in human-centered design. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 46(4), 471–492.
Jones, N. N. (2017). Rhetorical narratives of black entrepreneurs: The business of race, agency, and cultural empowerment. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 31(3), 319–349.
Jones, N. N., Moore, K. R., & Walton, R. (2016). Disrupting the past to disrupt the future: An antenarrative of technical communication. Technical Communication Quarterly, 25(4), 211–229.
Journet, D. (2010). The resources of ambiguity: Context, narrative, and metaphor in Richard Dawkins’s the selfish gene. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 24(1), 29–59.
Ledbetter, L. (2018). The rhetorical work of YouTube’s beauty community: Relationship- and identity-building in user-created procedural discourse. Technical Communication Quarterly, 27(4), 287–299.
Marsen, S. (2014). Lock the doors: Toward a narrative-semiotic approach to organizational crisis. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 28(3), 301–326.
Martinez, A. Y. (2020). Counterstory: The rhetoric and writing of critical race theory. Conference on College Composition and Communication.
Moore, K. (2013). Exposing hidden relations: Storytelling, pedagogy, and the study of policy. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 43(1), 63–78.
Perkins, J. & Blyler, N. (1999). Narrative and professional communication. Ablex Publishing.
Petersen, E. J. & Moeller, R. M. (2016). Using antenarrative to uncover systems of power in mid-20th century policies on marriage and maternity at IBM. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 46(3), 362–386.
Small, N. (2017). (Re)kindle: On the value of storytelling to technical communication. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 47(2), 234–253.
Van Ittersum, D. (2014). Craft and narrative in DIY instructions. Technical Communication Quarterly, 23(3), 227–246.
Walton, R., Moore, K. R., & Jones, N. N. (2019). Technical communication after the social justice turn: Building coalitions for action. Routledge.
ABOUT THE GUEST EDITORS
Kyle P. Vealey is an Associate Professor of English at West Chester University, where he is one of the co-directors for the Professional and Technical Writing Minor Program. His research and teaching focus on technical communication, rhetoric of science, and visual rhetoric. His work has appeared in Journal of Business and Technical Communication, IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, Programmatic Perspectives, Business and Professional Communication Quarterly, and Rhetoric Review. He is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeffrey M. Gerding is an Assistant Professor of English at Xavier University. His research and teaching focus on technical communication, the rhetoric of civic engagement, service learning, and digital rhetorics. His work has appeared in Journal of Business and Technical Communication, IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, and the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy. He is available at email@example.com.