Front garden stories, back garden stories and highlight reels

A message came through at Dare last week that was reinforced on Tuesday by The Writer‘s storytelling event. It’s about the version of your story that you present to the world, and how that compares to your real story or the way you see your story yourself.

Karen McGrane, whose brilliant keynote you can watch on the Dare website, believes that insecurity comes from comparing your own behind-the-scenes with other people’s highlight reels. This isn’t new, but social media and the web mean that those highlight reels are much more in your face, wherever you turn. Carefully edited Facebook photo albums, LinkedIn pages that list achievements and and important connections, Klout scores, Twitter followers and retweets… Other people’s success and confidence is all around us, bringing into stark contrast our own failings and weaknesses and mistakes.

And then this week, storyteller Nick Hennessey talked at The Writer’s event about ‘front garden stories’ and ‘back garden stories’ in the context of organisations. The way I understood this is that there’s the version of a company’s story that’s presented to the world, through advertising, press releases, brand and so on. This is the front garden story: the way the company wants to be seen and the values and principles it claims to have. Then there’s the ‘real’ story that’s experienced inside the organisation: the values that are actually demonstrated, the way people behave, and the inevitable mistakes and lessons learnt. This is the back garden story – the unedited, authentic, this-is-how-it-is story. I don’t think there was a suggestion that the two stories should be the same, but that there should be an awareness of the gap between the two and what that says about the authenticity of the company.

(This ties in with another Dare presentation, on culture and change, by Dave Gray. Dave talked about ‘espoused theory’ (what we say we value) versus ‘theory in use’ (the values we demonstrate) and the impact the gap between the two has on culture. His full talk will also be available on the Dare website shortly.)

One of the things that I think made Dare different to other conferences was that it allowed – encouraged, even – people to tell their own personal back garden stories. Most industry conferences that I attend have agendas filled with people sharing the secrets of their success, demonstrating their award-winning projects, doling out pearls of wisdom to help others reach the same great heights. The thing is, we all know that we’re usually only getting half the story. Behind the shine, every great success is preceded by failures or mistakes or learning experiences, whatever you want to call them. Every project has its obstacles and backward steps. And every individual has downs as well as ups while working on those projects or doing those great things. We just don’t often talk about those bits.

At Dare, those uncomfortable, painful, challenging experiences took centre stage. We listened to people who’d made (or narrowly avoided) bad decisions, had projects that didn’t go to plan, battled depression, or taken great risks that didn’t always pay off. And while there may not have been so many practical, actionable takeaways as you might get from other conferences or events, every single person who attended did seem to find real value in Dare. For me, it’s because the stories were authentic and allowed me to compare my own behind-the-scenes with other people’s behind-the-scenes. There were no highlight reels at Dare – not in the conventional sense, anyway. The highlight reels here mapped psychological or emotional milestones rather than career paths and material achievements. And once the first few brave people shared their back garden stories, everyone else started doing the same. It’s what prompted my last post, and it’s also prompted some very honest discussions that I’ve veered away from in the past.

On a personal level, I think it’s very helpful to keep in mind that distinction between behind-the-scenes and the highlights reel – it sounds obvious, but it’s something that’s all too easy to forget. But there’s also an important message in here too for teams or organisations, about how you portray yourself and the way you work. Nick pointed out that, these days, we’re pretty good at spotting a phony, inauthentic story, so that front garden versus back garden question is a good one to keep in mind when telling your own story.

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