Story Editing

Story Editing is a set of techniques for changing people’s narratives about themselves and their social world.

We see Story Editing as one mechanism to prompt behaviour change. And we often test this mechanism as part of our on-the-ground interventions. 

Story editing comes from the observation that us humans make up stories about who we are without much notice. And that the plot and characters we weave together implicitly shapes our thoughts and actions. 

Take Hannah for example. She’s in high school and struggles with maths. Her mum reckons she’s got learning difficulties just like her. Hannah thinks, “I’m just hopeless with numbers.”

To shift the story Hannah tells herself, we might try:

  • Using the Pennebaker writing exercise over time. 
  • Story Prompting — to help Hannah explore alternative narrative paths. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Where we might help Hannah ‘try-on’ different characters. 
  • “Do good, be good” experiences – an approach that dates back to Aristotle, premised on changing people’s behaviour first, which in turn changes their self-perception of the kind of person they are. Here we might ‘surprise’ Hannah into doing something with numbers, and then provide feedback to shift what she thinks about herself.

We first learned about story editing from social psychologist Tim Wilson in his book ‘Redirect’

Story editing techniques are empirically correlated with lasting behaviour changes. But most of the data comes from lab-like settings with small groups of people.

So the big question we take into our work: How could we use story editing techniques to prompt change? When the systems around people (from our families to schools to the media) already gives us many different, sometimes conflicting, prompts that influence our narrative. We’re after interventions, then, that give people like Hannah the space to see multiple narratives. And move towards the ones closest to where they want to be.