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Storytelling Is Serious Business: Narratives, Research, and Policy

The use of storytelling, through evocative writing, short films, infographics, and maps, to convey global issues is increasingly popular, yet few organizations are able to invest the time and energy needed to develop emotionally compelling and visually expressive content.

Date & Time

Sep. 30, 2013
11:50am – 2:00pm ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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The use of storytelling, through evocative writing, short films, infographics, and maps, to convey global issues is increasingly popular, yet few organizations are able to invest the time and energy needed to develop emotionally compelling and visually expressive content.

“Storytelling is almost the new black,” said ECSP Director Roger-Mark De Souza at the Wilson Center on September 30. Narratives can more effectively reach a target audience by enhancing their enjoyment, retention, and understanding of complex, information-dense issues. Bold stories can turn policymakers’ heads too. De Souza pointed out that organizations like the Compton Foundation – which is supporting the Wilson Center’s forthcoming national energy game – are providing grants to foster courageous storytelling and new ways to communicate the most pressing issues of today.

Dingaan Mithi, a journalist for JournAIDS in Malawi; Nathan Golon, an independent filmmaker; Dr. Shamim Hayder Talukder, CEO of the Bangladeshi NGO Eminence; and Gina Sarfaty, a mapping specialist at Population Action International (PAI), joined De Souza at the Wilson Center to discuss effective storytelling with a purpose.

“The More I Write, the More I Ignite”

Talukder founded Eminence in 2003 and has focused the organization’s research on reproductive health, climate change, and development in Bangladesh. He employs journalists in his technical group of researchers, he said, because they can translate the stories they find in rural areas to mass media outlets, which improves policymakers’ understanding of the problem. Eminence has also collaborated with international partners to increase media coverage, working with MEASURE DHS and Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health to increase reporting and knowledge of population and health issues.

“Stories are very powerful,” said Mithi, “they change how politicians think.” Mithi said his headline, “Realigning Family Planning in the National Agenda,” in Malawi’s Daily Times, made waves in the national government and sparked phone calls, both positive and cautionary, from prominent politicians. “The more I write, the more I ignite,” he said.

Journalists are not the only bridge between research and policy; Sarfaty explained how PAI created an interactive mapping website to link its advocacy campaigns to research. “Maps are inherently compelling,” she said. “They really have this unique ability to convey complex and intricate messages in a way that’s easy for people to understand.” The guided tour portion of PAI’s website takes users through a series of data sets illustrating areas where high rates of population growth, high projected declines in agricultural production, and low resilience to climate change overlap. Each map also includes information in its sidebar on how targeted health programs can address unmet need for family planning in these areas and help alleviate population, food, and climate pressures.

“It’s What You Don’t Include That Really Matters”

Golon has produced a number of short films for a variety of non-governmental organizations, including Weathering Change for PAI. He explained how overloading short films with statistics, information, and experts can be off-putting and overwhelming. “What works best is kind of a form of elegance,” he said. “It’s what you don’t include in your film that really matters.” Rather, he suggested, a good film leads viewers toward more information. “Let your film do what film does really well, and that is communicate human stories.”

All of the speakers agreed that telling stories about people is the most effective way to communicate with broad audiences. To help readers understand the complex population, health, and environment (PHE) stories he often reports on, Mithi said he tries to “take a typical story and give it a human face.” In the same vein, Sarfaty said her maps rarely stand alone; usually the page includes clips of women telling stories to accompany their respective country’s profile.

Talukder explained how Eminence used a photo of a pregnant woman named Rohema struggling to gather food on a muddy bank in Bangladesh in a campaign to bring attention to national health and environment challenges. The style of the image suggests that Rohema, who was in her second trimester, could be any Bangladeshi woman, he explained, and the environmental devastation around her, the result of flooding that ruined the nearest health clinic, would be familiar to many.

As Golon explained, referencing a film by the NGO Water Is Life (watch below), “sometimes simplicity is really the best way to go. It’s not necessarily talking heads, and lower thirds [text overlays], and names and information. Sometimes it’s just one five-year-old boy that works better than anything else.”

Reaching the Right People

The hope, said Golon, is “if you care about that subject, then you care about their issue and eventually the organization.” But storytelling should be just one tool in an arsenal. He urged organizations to use film and storytelling to lead people to other forms of involvement, such as a donation page or other ways to take action.

Golon also stressed the importance of a distribution strategy to ensure that people see a film or read a story. Eminence prompts its journalists to use social media tools in Bangladesh, and Mithi mentioned that JournAIDS’ presence on Facebook helps curtail drops in online readership from power outages in Malawi, where cellular coverage – and therefore access to Facebook’s mobile apps – is more consistent than electricity. “As a storyteller you need to keep with the times,” said Mithi. More than 60 percent of Malawians are young people, “so social media is gaining ground.”

At PAI, Sarfaty said the goal of the mapping website was to combine all their information into one easily accessible portal. PAI was “creating traditional publications and realized that climate change findings scattered across publications would be useful and compelling to show in one place,” she said. But she also explained how they have also tailored their distribution methods to match the needs and capabilities of their developing-country partners. PAI and its partners can distribute maps in hardcopy, on USB drives, or through email when users cannot fully access the website due to bandwidth constraints.

There are “so many different ways to tell stories now, we’re all constantly trying to keep track of that and use new formats to tell stories in compelling ways so it doesn’t get flat,” said Golon. He urged organizations looking to do more storytelling to “be open, be flexible, and [be] willing to do something a little dangerous and take a risk.” 

Event Resources:

Video Credit: “Four-Year Old’s Bucket List,” courtesy of Water Is Life.

Drafted by Laura Henson, edited by Schuyler Null.


Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more

Global Risk and Resilience Program

The Global Risk and Resilience Program (GRRP) seeks to support the development of inclusive, resilient networks in local communities facing global change. By providing a platform for sharing lessons, mapping knowledge, and linking people and ideas, GRRP and its affiliated programs empower policymakers, practitioners, and community members to participate in the global dialogue on sustainability and resilience. Empowered communities are better able to develop flexible, diverse, and equitable networks of resilience that can improve their health, preserve their natural resources, and build peace between people in a changing world.  Read more

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