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Storytelling

New thinking on digital storytelling

Maya Brahmam's picture

I have been reading with interest some of the questions posed on storytelling inside the World Bank. The recent blog post by Bruce Wydick is a case in point. Reactions ranged from positive to some uneasiness around the idea that we’re using stories to share results, when we’re generally more comfortable with a “Just the facts” approach. One concern seems to be that we might surrender our decision-making to the emotion of a good story versus hard evidence.

In fact, doesn’t the word fabulist mean someone who stretches the truth a bit, by telling stories? I was therefore not so surprised to find storytelling used as an explanation for NBC news anchor Brian Williams’ recent troubles. A Washington Post article about Williams noted, “Former colleagues reveal a man who took such delight in spinning yarns that he could sometimes lose sight of where the truth began and where it ended.”

We have examined brain science and other areas to figure out why stories are so compelling, and I’ve blogged about this in this space before. Storytelling is compelling because it’s memorable, shareable (nice feature in this digital world), and relatable (people respond and retain for longer material with an emotional content).

A Storied Approach to Capacity Development

Sheila Jagannathan's picture

Engaging individuals to share their knowledge and learning on development challenges and solutions with the wider community is a core value of  the WBG’s Open Learning Campus.  In this context the story is often a powerful learning tool.  This idea is not a new one; in fact, stories have been a universal form of knowledge transfer for over 100,000 years as a way of connecting people and creating a common perspective on social, economic, political and cultural issues that they care about.

However, the above statements apply only to effective storytelling, which requires sustained  engagement with the community, and adequate influence over the learning and knowledge accretion process of the community. Research has shown that information alone—even critically valuable information—without the context, relevance, and engagement provided by effective story structure—is markedly ineffective in changing core attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors (in influencing).

#1 from 2014: Anecdotes and Simple Observations are Dangerous; Words and Narratives are Not

Heather Lanthorn's picture
Our Top Ten blog posts by readership in 2014.
This post was originally posted on January 23, 2014

 

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).

In this post, I try to make the case that there are important potential distinctions between anecdotes and stories/narratives that are too often overlooked when discussing qualitative data, focusing on representativeness and the counterfactual. Second, I suggest that just because many researchers do not collect or analyse qualitative work rigorously does not mean it cannot (or should not) be done this way. Third, I make a few remarks about numbers.

Weekly Wire: The Global Forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.
 
Tightening the Net: Governments Expand Online Controls
Freedom House
Internet freedom around the world has declined for the fourth consecutive year, with a growing number of countries introducing online censorship and monitoring practices that are simultaneously more aggressive and more sophisticated in their targeting of individual users. In a departure from the past, when most governments preferred a behind-the-scenes approach to internet control, countries are rapidly adopting new laws that legitimize existing repression and effectively criminalize online dissent.

Is vote-buying always bad for development?
International Growth Center
Elections in the developing world suffer from considerable problems such as ballot fraud, low voter education. electoral violence, and clientelism. If developing world elections do not revolve mainly around policy accountability, there could be important consequences for economic development

How to Write About Development Without Being Simplistic, Patronising, Obscure or Stereotyping

Duncan Green's picture

It’s all very well writing for wonks, but what about the poor comms people who have to make all those clever ideas about nuance, context, complexity etc etc accessible to people who don’t spend all day thinking about this stuff? Oxfam America’s Jennifer Lentfer has a good piece on this on her ‘How Matters’ blog, discussing her work with a class of international development communications students.

Her central question – ‘How can a new generation of communications professionals embrace nuance without turning the public off? (After all, nonprofits are competing against cat videos)’

Quote of the Week: Yuval Noah Harari

Sina Odugbemi's picture

"Everybody since the ‘60s has been saying the nation is a fiction, the nation is an imaginary unity, but people didn’t connect the dots and say all human endeavors sprang from the same principle.” 

- Yuval Noah Harari, author of the international bestseller Sapiens. He is a professor and lectures at the Department of History, Faculty of Humanities, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Quote of the Week: George R.R. Martin

Sina Odugbemi's picture

"An artist has an obligation to tell the truth. [...] that the true horrors of human history derive not from orcs and Dark Lords, but from ourselves. We are the monsters. (And the heroes too). Each of us has within himself the capacity for great good, and great evil."

George R. R. Martin, an American novelist and author of the international bestselling series of epic fantasy “Song of Ice and Fire,”  that HBO adapted for its dramatic series Game of Thrones.

How Storytelling Can Help Turn the Tide on Climate Change

Roxanne Bauer's picture

There is no shortage of discussion on climate change; it seems almost pervasive these days. The media report extreme weather events, animal extinction (think polar bears floating off to sea), health problems, and the political push and pull around the issue.  The problem is also prevalent in popular culture, with magazines running special issues, movies showing the end of our days, and video games that presenting post-apocalyptic scenarios.  Yet, we have very little consensus about how to deal with it.

Robert Redford recently wrote a blog post calling for more storytelling on “complicated, politically charged issues like our environment and the need for swift action to combat climate change.”

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.


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