Storytelling in the development world is a powerful communication technique used to inspire and connect the audience with an organisation’s mission, vision and values. It may be used to illustrate the impact of a project or programme, provide evidence of project achievements to donors and stakeholders, raise awareness, and call to action.
Indirectly, storytelling can also help identify challenges, gaps and/or failures in project design or implementation, inform decision-making and provide direction for future programming, raise funds, draw lessons learned, provide insights, solutions and/or recommendations, generate knowledge, and enable learning and development.
Good storytelling is an accurate and reliable illustration of results, from a beneficiary’s point of view. It may be considered subjective – read more on this in Is Storytelling Subjective? and is difficult, if not impossible, to measure. It is context-specific, personalised, and provides qualitative information for project colleagues reporting on results. Stories respond to important questions such as Why? and So what?. Often, they are able to capture and illustrate any unforeseen results or impact, whether positive or negative. Last but not least, storytelling has the power to create emotional connection with the audience and make a lasting impact.
Below, we present the five steps to good storytelling:
- Define objective and jot down key messages
Prior to developing a story, think of its purpose, objective/end goal and start with jotting down key messages which you would like your audience to take away. What would you like your audience to feel? What do you want them to do? What is the expected result? Are you trying to raise awareness, illustrate impact, or encourage donations? Be clear about the end goal. Include any important background information which your audience should be aware of but do not overload the story. It is best to focus on one key message per story.
- Know your audience
Knowing your audience is crucial and defines important aspects of your story, such as the tone, language, selected character(s), key messages, and more. Is the story primarily intended for donors and stakeholders, or for the general public? Are you focusing on a specific age group, or geographical location? Where is the story going to be published or uploaded? Keeping your audience in mind, you can move on to developing a story.
- Seek consent
Remember to obtain Informed Consent from your story character(s). If working in the field, bring informed consent forms with you and prior to asking a person to sign, make sure to explain what you are going to do, what the story is for (objective) and for whom (audience), and how and where it will be used (published, uploaded, broadcasted, etc.). Mention if the story is planned to be publicised on social media platforms and translated into a local language as this will increase chances of people to know the story character personally, which may in turn have negative consequences. Anyone should be given an opportunity to refuse participation or not to reveal personal information. Inform the person that changing or omitting their name, age, or any other personal information is an option. If this is requested, ensure that it is clearly marked in the form, and that the request is fully respected. Should the story character be a minor, ensure that you clearly communicate the above information to their parent or a guardian, and obtain an informed consent from them.
It is a good practice to also run the draft by the story character before finalising, this way allowing them to make corrections and suggest changes. Run the final draft by them again prior to publicising. Finally, send the story to them once it is published thanking for their participation and valuable inputs. Some organisations also reward their story characters with a small gift.
- Build trust
During story development, dedicate time to understanding the context and building trust with the story character so that they are more willing to share personal experiences and provide honest feedback on the project or programme. Welcome their views and opinions, whatever they are, and provide the space for them to lead and do it their way. Avoid giving a pre-written script to your story characters, let them express themselves. If you are trying to illustrate impact a project has made on a community, but show no interest in the wider context or things that you feel are not important, you may lose their trust. Show genuine interest in their lives, and they will open their world to you.
- Create lasting impact
By keeping the story simple yet memorable, focusing on the story character and what they have to tell or show to the audience, you will create a lasting impact both on your audience and potentially on the life of your story character. Be attentive throughout the process, listen to understand, let them lead, and close with a powerful message.