Have We Made the Extraordinary Ordinary?


Introduce the protagonist, define the context, identify the challenge, and provide a resolution. And don’t forget the quote and a photo. It is a familiar format. The success story framework is one we use often to communicate the achievements of our project beneficiaries and demonstrate the value of international development. The power of stories is known, and they are an expected deliverable on most of Chemonics’ projects. We train our employees on how to capture them, package them, and distribute them.

But is storytelling a tool we use too much? Over time, if people read more and more stories about development achievements, do they have less and less impact? Essentially, have we taken the extraordinary and made it ordinary?

The Value of Storytelling

Research has shown that storytelling is a common thread throughout every known culture, and there’s no question that storytelling is a powerful communications tool. Telling a good story engages your audience on a different level than other types of information. In researching this blog post, I came upon an interesting video about the brain chemistry of people hearing a classic story—one with the arc defined above. When a person is hearing a story, different parts of their brains are active than when they are processing other types of information. Stories engage the parts of the brain that drive empathy and engage emotions. And people are more receptive to information when their brains are in “story” mode. When processing analytical information, like statistics, most people react with degrees of doubt, but when they are engaged in a story, they are more open.

So Can a Good Story Change Minds?

When I explain to people outside of development what I do and what Chemonics as a company does, I am sometimes confronted with confusion, skepticism, and even occasionally hostility. Why doesn’t my company focus on challenges here in the U.S.? Why do we invest in countries so far away? Can goals like eliminating extreme poverty even be accomplished? I have tried different types of answers over the years, including a mind-boggling array of statistics that show the investment is small compared to what is gained. I watch their eyes glaze over, and I wish they could have the opportunity to see firsthand, as I have, the real value of international development work on the ground.

Yes, meeting with project beneficiaries is personally enriching, a phenomenon that has been lambasted to an extent. But it also allows you to hear their stories, to see their accomplishments, and to better understand what investment in international development means. It takes an abstract concept and a dollar amount and makes it real, gives it a face and a name, a struggle and a triumph. This type of personal emotional reaction is particularly important when we are talking about development, a topic that is not always popular among U.S. audiences. In fact, when asked which types of funding they would choose to cut in a 2011 Gallup poll, 59 percent of Americans chose foreign aid. Since it isn’t feasible for skeptical Americans to go to Botswana, Afghanistan, Kenya, or Bolivia to meet with beneficiaries, storytelling can be a valuable shortcut.

Yes, but Quality Matters

In the end, stories still have tremendous value, and storytelling is powerful when done well. And that last phrase is the key. It is the evocative, potent stories that engage people rather than simple recitations of events. The format that can feel stale can also actually still be very effective, and has been so across different eras, culture, and media. What we can do as development practitioners is do our best to capture the real flavor of the work in the field, the stories that move us and motivate us, the ones most likely to elicit that unique neurological response and take the reader to a different and more open mindset.

When I facilitate success story training, I start with simple advice: tell the story you would want to hear. You can write it, record it, make it a video, or send it out in tweets, but if it is a powerful and engaging story, you have infused the extraordinary into the ordinary.

Martha James is a director of Strategic Communications and Outreach in the Strategic Solutions and Communications division of Chemonics. Follow her on Twitter: @MarthaJChem

Posted in: Strategic Solutions
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