Telling stories: the uses and misuses of communicating for change

6 December 2011

Tell me a fact and I'll learn. Tell me a truth and I'll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever. Indian Proverb

Men practice an oral testimony interview during workshops in Karachi, Pakistan (see Article 4 of PLA 63) Photo credit: Panos, London

Stories matter. The first session of the Climate Communications Day for journalists and media specialists at the UN Climate talks in Durban focused on the importance of telling stories to get the right messages out. A good story has accurate information, but – crucially – it also has a personal angle. The trick, to quote Randy Olson, is getting fact and emotion together to tell an engaging story. How the story gets told depends on what needs to be communicated, who we are talking to, and what medium we are using. 

I was reminded about how our stories change depending on who we’re talking to when watching a play put on by teenagers at my local youth club on Friday night. If they were speaking to their parents, then they were more economical with the truth, and more cautious about how much information they gave away. If it was to their friends and they needed advice and support, they were likely to be more truthful.  Sometimes they exaggerated aspects of the story for dramatic effect. Sometimes they got caught up in fantasy.

If the storyteller can distort their own story, as those teenagers did, then telling other people’s stories is open to even more misrepresentation. We bring our own subjectivity, our own cultural perspective and our own agenda to what we are trying to convey.

When we are telling stories to inspire social change, we need to go back one step and ask some questions. Whose stories are we telling? Whose voices are we hearing?  And how have these stories been generated? Good communication is a two-way process.

To engage the public and have an impact on those who are involved in policy decisions, we need real stories, told by people in their own words. Participatory communication opens spaces for different ideas, stories and experiences to be told and heard, and for different realities to be shaped. It generates information that is complex, nuanced and context-specific. It recognises, values, and elevates local knowledge and can empower people to bring about lasting social change. Through participatory processes, information which favours the interests of the powerful is challenged.

But even when participatory processes are considered to have been carefully followed and have had an empowering impact locally, the messages coming out from those processes can still be misinterpreted and misused. Our own biases, personal or organisational, guide what we hear, what we decide is relevant and how we understand and convey the message. The demand for results-based evidence, for example, can determine how stories are selected, interpreted and even chosen to re-emphasise an organisation’s strategy or policy messages. 

A process which involves people’s engagement and enables their voices to be heard has participation at its core, whereas one that is concerned with the quality and packaging of the final product will prioritise this over the methodology used to make it. There is an inherent tension between these two communications objectives.

Some key questions we might want to ask before telling other people’s stories are: 

  • Whose stories and perspectives are we using when we take that information to a different audience and put it in a different context? 
  • How can we decide whose experiences and analysis should have influence?
  • How do we know that we really understand the meaning of what they say?

These are some of the themes examined in the recently published issue of Participatory Learning and Action:  How wide are the ripples? From local participation to international organisational learning, guest-edited by Kate Newman and Hannah Beardon.

When a pebble is thrown in the water, it has a visible impact - or splash - and then the ripples spread out, getting less defined as they lose momentum. Equally, local knowledge generated through participatory processes can have a strong local impact, but this may dissipate the further away from the source it goes. 

Contributors to this special issue of PLA relate their experiences of working for international non-governmental organisations and explore the challenges and opportunities for knowledge generated through participatory processes at the grassroots level to influence learning in these organisations. The issue gives insights into how this information can and should be used to inform good development practice and policy going forward.  We hope that you will share your reflections on how widely the ripples of your own participatory practice flow.

Nicole Kenton is the co-editor of the Participatory Learning and Action series.

Themes: 
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