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Using story - also referred to as narrative, or story-telling; in other words, stories based on lived experience - is one of the main features of the discourse of many oppressed groups, including people diagnosed with a mental illness.

Consumer discourse differs from medical discourse, bureaucratic discourse, research discourse, clinical discourse, management discourse and even carer discourse. These differences are fundamental to the ways different groups communicate, both inside their own group and outside.

For a detailed guide to telling and using story in all sorts of contexts, not just in committee work, see Speaking Our Minds: A Guide to How We Use Our Stories (

On committees, various discourses confront each other and often vie for space, prominence and authority. Some discourses have more institutional power than others, consumer discourse tends to have the least power of all, and most committees have disproportionately few consumers. This combination of factors means that using narrative is not only an art but a minority art. We have to learn to use this tool exceptionally well if our message is going to stick.

Nevertheless, many consumers believe we have an ethical obligation to use story in committee deliberations, especially the more important ones. And some of us believe committees would benefit if other (non-consumer) committee members used story too. Overseas studies have shown that it changes the way decisions are made, and it changes the level of comfort for everyone on the committee. It means narrative is seen as more acceptable, even essential, by many on the committee who would otherwise not 'get it'.

Narrative discourse plays a very important role in highlighting the effect that committees' decisions have on real people. It doesn't mean the story needs to be about a real person using services provided by the organisation that engages and funds the committee; far from it. Narrative holds a different way of thinking, a different philosophy about what counts as knowledge.

Unfortunately, many consumers have experienced working on committees that are ignorant about the use of story. For example, other members have a tendency to use 'story time' to read something else very overtly, or they take over and patronise consumers. Chairs have a big responsibility here, and they do not always live up to it. They might prefix consumer stories with comments such as "make it short now" or "not too long". (They never say this to other committee members.)

Attitudes such as this also underpin the idea that consumers need to be educated in meeting procedures and meeting etiquette, when we would argue that it is the committee that needs to be educated. Most committee members will be unaware that there is a problem; that consumer discourse is being inhibited by competing discourses.

There are ways we can learn to use story wisely - and not all the time and not too long and… There is a need for training here. (In fact, we'd argue that training in using story well is much more useful than training in how to take minutes or how a committee is structured.) Story envelops messages that privileged groups might otherwise misinterpret, redraft, overlook or just fail to understand.

When to use story

We all have a variety of ways of communicating with other committee members: story is just one of them. Different subject matter offers opportunities to communicate in different ways. Story, however, attracts attention because:

Whether you choose to use story in your committee work may depend on the type of committee you are sitting on. Generally, story is tolerated better on local committees than on state or national committees. However, paradoxically, it might be these high-level committees that most need to learn from it.

We do, however, need to be judicious in how many stories we tell, and very tight in the telling.

Using story effectively

We must take responsibility for the way we use narrative. If a consumer yells a narrative account at other committee members, all this shows is that the consumer involved is rude and that using narrative is unattractive.

How can we use story effectively when we are outnumbered by people representing alternative (but not better or more important) discourses? It's hard. In order to be confident and competent about using narrative on a particular committee, first consider asking for some time, perhaps 20 minutes at one meeting, to educate committee members about its use. Explain why using narrative is important, tell a short story (don't let anyone call it an anecdote, because this belies the importance of the narrative), and then join the story to social or educational theory. This demonstrates that you are passionate and can put forward an intelligible argument to explain your story.

Most committee members will need step-by-step help in understanding. Take nothing for granted. Make absolutely sure the chair knows exactly what you are going to do before the meeting. If people feel they have been misled more trouble will arise.

Using narrative doesn't come naturally to all of us. Some of us can be very long-winded. Some of us use narrative that goes nowhere; i.e. that doesn't envelop a message. Following are some key skills that we can learn to help us become better users of narrative.

Dealing with resistance

You might have to tell your story while people lean back on their chairs, fold their hands, read another document, look away from you, or even get up and leave the room. This is rude. It's also what people do if they are unconvinced of the value of something, believe something is a waste of time by virtue of the fact that you are a consumer, or feel embarrassed for you. When this happens, try one of the following strategies:

Story in action: an example

Melanie sits on the Board of a large organisation. She is a consumer with a particular interest in borderline personality disorder and a strong track record. She is also skilled and confident using narrative and sees it as 'the people's language'. This is the story she told as part of her work on that Board: