Making science work for development

How to use storytelling in research

Tania Ghosh UKCDS Comms Manager
15 September 2017

Research and evidence are vital to tackle international development challenges. Evidence is required for policymakers to make informed decisions such as shaping the UK aid agenda to the general public deciding on who to vote for or even where to shop. However, events from the past year have revealed that this may no longer be the case. We are told we are living in a post-truth era. Put simply, a world where emotion and personal belief shapes public opinion over fact and reason.

For those of us that work with fact and reason – particularly in communicating research, this current climate can be tricky to navigate. Furthermore overseas development aid (ODA) has been under scrutiny since the financial crisis and has become a topic of contention during the last election and referendum. Most of us working in the sector know that the benefits from ODA spending far outweigh the negatives but how do we get this message across beyond the converted?

What further muddies the waters is the fact that the work we do is complex. For example, climate change is a huge issue. As a nexus topic, it draws in research across disciplines and sectors. How do we communicate information on topics such as these firstly within academia/international development sector let alone to the general public?

With these questions weighing on our minds, the London International Development Centre (LIDC) and UKCDS decided storytelling should be the topic for last week’s Comms Forum. These forums are an opportunity to share our work and discuss issues that affect our sector.

Why is storytelling important?

Storytelling can be a powerful tool to communicate research for development evidence. Since the beginning of humanity, we have shared knowledge and information through stories. The way we live may have changed, but stories will always have a place to inform and connect people.

In a post-truth world, it more important than ever that we look at ways of putting a personal – more human face to complex development challenges.

Facts and figures do certainly have their uses but can often remove the human element to the issue. By getting people to explain issues such as those that are facing development challenges in a personal way, will be far more likely to resonate with the general public than statistics.

To get some practical advice on how we can use storytelling, we invited BBC Media Action and Save the Children to share their experiences.

Sally Gowland, Senior Research Manager for Asia & Middle East at BBC Media Action explained how they use research in drama. They believe that ‘media and communication can be a powerful force for positive social change’ as:

  • Bypasses physical barriers
  • Cost effective way to reach audiences
  • Can reach both targeted audiences and people at scale
  • Facilitate exchange of information

Sally explained that BBC Media Action carry out high quality research in to their audience lives as it is critical to portray realistic and effective drama. In addition, evaluation through various methods is important to assess impact. To find out more about BBC Media Action Evidence and Learning head to their Data Portal.

Tamara Lowe, Head of Humanitarian Information & Communications at Save the Children shared how they use storytelling to shed light on humanitarian crises. Humanitarian communicators face numerous challenges:

  • Aid Critics
  • Donor fatigue
  • Short news cycle & newsworthiness

We were all shocked when Tamara mentioned that during the past six months there were 95 responses to humanitarian crises around the world, but only five were covered by the UK media. So how do you draw attention to these crises? Tamara shared some examples of successful campaigns for Save the Children such as ‘Saving Amena at Sea’. We all agreed that personalising the refugee crisis can help UK viewers understand the issue – the parent/child relationship is universal and resonates with many. In addition, the creative filming techniques made the viewer feel like they were in the boat further connecting the viewer to the issue.

The forum was a great opportunity for us to think about how we could use storytelling in our work and learning how other organisations use it effectively.

So how does your organisation use storytelling in research? Do share your comments below!


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  • Tania Ghosh