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
Leave a Comment

Live from World Water Week

Although the official theme at this year’s World Water Week, an annual development conference held in Stockholm, Sweden, is “Energy and Water,” from the first session the speakers have adopted food security as an unofficial pillar. Many of the conference seminars and workshops formally incorporate agricultural themes into their discussions, and USAID is no exception. Earlier this week, USAID announced the final list of awardees for its latest Grand Challenge for Development, the Securing Water...

Read More »

Democracy and Governance: Hot Topics on Our Mind

As the head of Chemonics’ Democracy and Governance practice, I’m pleased to invite you to join us in an ongoing discussion about programming, trends, innovations, and experiments in this critical sector of international development work. To get the conversation going, I’m sharing here some thoughts that I hope will help structure our discussions moving forward. Initially, I want to emphasize that we’re eager to use this space to address any and all topics, perspectives, etc., on DG programming....

Read More »

Reflections on AIDS 2014: The Speakers You Haven't Heard Of

Movers and shakers from across the globe spoke at this year’s International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia. The likes of Bill Clinton, Executive Director of UNAIDS Michel Sidibe, and Sir Bob Geldof (the English musician of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” fame) were among those ticketed as high-level speakers, and their words received the lion’s share of the world’s attention. The big names drew the media, but what I found most inspiring and want to share with others were the participants...

Posted in: Health
Read More »

Promoting Inclusive Governance from the Land Up

The count of African countries supposedly increased by one in June, when a Virginia man planted a flag in the disputed territory of Bir Tawil and claimed himself king of “North Sudan.” He based his claim on the doctrine of terra nullius, "land not under the sovereignty of any state." The news article was something of a novelty piece, and despite posing a challenge to the region’s previous soi-disant ruler, the claim is dependent on legal recognition from the United Nations and other entities...

Read More »

Resilient Cities: Creating a Common Language

The fifth Resilient Cities 2014 conference in Bonn, Germany was organized by Local Governments for Sustainability, an association of 1200 cities, towns, and counties in 84 countries. The conference brings together city mayors, academics, international organizations, and donor agencies alike, and is one of the few opportunities that exist for city managers and experts to get together and discuss urban climate change adaptation. I attended the conference wearing two hats— as a USAID project manager...

Read More »

Welcome to the Compass!

Welcome to the Compass, Chemonics’ technical blog. We are excited to start this new venture, our first corporate blog, because we strongly believe that sharing ideas and experience helps us learn, grow, and ultimately do better development. When we began considering the idea of blogging, we asked ourselves a few key questions. First, why start our own blog? And second, what would we add to the conversation? The answers to both questions tie back to our mission of helping people live healthier,...

Posted in: Chemonics
Read More »