Something interesting happens when you ask someone to share an experience (narrative) AND then ask them to tell you what that story means. Often you’ll find that the interpretive layer that a storyteller will construct about their story covers more than what the story itself addresses. The danger of taking a story at face value is emphasized because of this dynamic.

Try and visualise what happens here …

  • Someone tells a story of an experience that they, or someone they know, has had.
  • The story us externalised in doing this. It’s almost as if the story is now a stand alone artifact, sitting in front of us.
  • As an artifact, there’s a potential multitude of interpretations depending on who is hearing the story
  • By asking the storyteller to provide an interpretive layer of the story, the story itself morphs and becomes more comprehensive.

We call this process “signification” i.e. a storyteller signifies the meaning of the story.There are different way to signify a story:

  • You can ask someone to put a title to the story (the title in itself is very telling about how they view the story)
  • Request a set of thematic tags (again, the tags ascribed to a piece of narrative will often not appear in the story itself)
  • Assess the story against an interpretive framework based on core philosophies associated with the field on interest e.g. if you’re gathering stories about justice, ask the teller to signify the story against the fundamental of justice.

When a person tells a story, they relive an experience. Then, when asked to signify the story they take a step back and gain perspective on the story (externalisation), which then helps them to unpack the story further (signification).