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Storytelling

Anecdotes and Simple Observations are Dangerous; Words and Narratives are Not.

Heather Lanthorn's picture

In a recent blog post on stories, and following some themes from an earlier talk by Tyler Cowen, David Evans ends by suggesting: “Vivid and touching tales move us more than statistics. So let’s listen to some stories… then let’s look at some hard data and rigorous analysis before we make any big decisions.” Stories, in this sense, are potentially idiosyncratic and over-simplified and, therefore, may be misleading as well as moving. I acknowledge that this is a dangerous situation.

However, there are a couple things that are frustrating about the above quote, intentional or not.

  • First, it equates ‘hard data’ with ‘statistics,’ as though qualitative (text/word) data cannot be hard (or, by implication, rigorously analysed). Qualitative twork – even when producing ‘stories’ – should move beyond mere anecdote (or even journalistic inquiry).
  • Second, it suggests that the main role of stories (words) is to dress up and humanize statistics – or, at best, to generate hypotheses for future research. This seems both unfair and out-of-step with increasing calls for mixed-methods to take our understanding beyond ‘what works’ (average treatment effects) to ‘why’ (causal mechanisms) – with ‘why’ probably being fairly crucial to ‘decision-making’ (Paluck’s piece worth checking out in this regard).

Storytellers Redux: A Development Slam

Maya Brahmam's picture

We had an interesting experiment last month with our very first Development Slam – modeled on the idea of a Poetry Slam – that was held with Aspen Institute’s New Voices Fellows and the World Bank Group’s storytellers.

The Slam allowed people to share their experiences in an interactive way with their peers and allowed the audience to participate as well via an open mic.

The Danger of Stories

David Evans's picture

Who doesn’t love a great story? In development, we have wonderful stories to tell. We tell stories about children going to school because of cash transfers in Tanzania and about women in Costa Rica who are empowered through their jewelry businesses. The World Bank recently sponsored a day of development storytelling. Armendáriz de Aghion and Morduch recount the following story of a microcredit borrower from Mexico:
 

“Consider the story of Mrs. Braulia Parra, who lives with a family of seven in a poor neighborhood in Monterrey, Mexico, in a home with cardboard walls and dirt floors. Illiterate and inexperienced in the workplace, Mrs. Parra took her first $150 loan from ADMIC, a local microlender. The loan allowed her to buy yarn and other sewing supplies to make handsewn decorations. Each week she sells about one hundred handmade baskets, dolls and mirrors, going door-to-door in her neighborhood. After ten loans, Mrs. Parra had earned enough to install a toilet in her modest home, as well as an outdoor shower. Building a second floor was next in her sights.”

These stories inspire us, but we have to be careful. Stories are dangerous.
 

Why Stories Matter

Ravi Kumar's picture

Children in the classroom. Kenya.

When Jane Otai said there are flying toilets in slums of Nairobi, most of her audience, like me, was trying to figure out what she meant.

A few others laughed softly. Because there are no toilets, she said, “people just do it [in bags] and throw it on the rooftops.” And it is really difficult for women and girls, she added.

The Power of Storytelling

Maya Brahmam's picture

Think back to your childhood…do you remember your favorite story?  Whether it was Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves or Pinocchio, I bet you can recall every detail. Why do stories hold such power over our imaginations and why are they being talked about so much in businesses today?

Steve Denning, former Director of Knowledge Management at the World Bank, explains in the Science of Storytelling posted on Forbes, “Slides leave listeners dazed. Prose remains unread. Reasons don’t change behavior. When it comes to inspiring people to embrace some strange new change in behavior, storytelling isn’t just better than the other tools. It’s the only thing that works…” In fact there is scientific evidence that storytelling mimics the way our brain works, and this is why we remember stories so well.

Will Midterm Evaluations Become the Dinosaurs of Development?

Milica Begovic's picture

I argued a few months back that information we get from story-telling is fundamentally different to what we get from polls and surveys. If we can’t predict what’s coming next, then we have to continuously work to understand what has and is happening today. (See: Patterns of voices from the Balkans – working with UNDP)

Methods we’re all used to using (surveys, mid-term evaluations) are ill prepared to do that for us and increasingly act as our blindfolds.

Why stories?

As I started working through the stories we collected, this question has become even stronger.

To give you some background, we started testing whether stories could help us:

Youth at the Forefront of Anti-Corruption Movement

Joseph Mansilla's picture

Jiwo Damar Anarkie from Indonesia is a young co-founder of the Future Leaders for Anti-Corruption (FLAC) a local NGO, and he uses storytelling and hand puppets to teach integrity to elementary school students.
 
"They're very young, at the stage where character building is still possible. Storytelling is one of the most effective ways to do so," said Anarkie.
 
The organization did an initial road show in four schools in Jakarta, and later built partnerships with Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (KPK, Corruption Eradication Commission), allowing the team to reach more schools in more cities as well as to train more storytellers and purchase more hand puppets.