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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).

Engagement: Sustained engagement is the essential gateway to influence. Research led by storyteller Kendall Haven has shown that audiences become fully engaged in new information only after they perceive the content being personally relevant to themselves, and thereby establish an emotional link to the information through a personal viewpoint through which they begin ‘owning’ the story. Haven identifies Eight Essential Elements of stories that engage, establish relevance, and hold audience attention. Writer Bill Baker has summarized these same conceptual points.

Influence: Adequate influence describes a process by which the story changes the community’s beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors. For example, the wildly popular African TV drama Shuga is watched by over 500 million and has woven into the story the ideas of promoting safer sex and dismantling prejudices against HIV/AIDs. In the World Bank e-learning programs, we rely on story structures to similarly engage our audiences so that the information, including expert interviews, short talks, webinars, podcasts etc can successfully and positively influence them.

Several must reads include Kendall Haven’s research into the specific story elements that control a story’s influence potential, J. Hsu, and L. Widrich’s compelling work on the power of story to exert beneficial influence.  Also, Kendall Haven’s talk at WBG in 2014 on the science and structure of effective stories is also interesting.  Storytelling formats can be useful mediums to effectively influence perceptions of a wide range of stakeholders – from policy makers, practitioners, to general public on a variety of topics. At one end of the spectrum, the impacts of the collapse of the Antartica ice sheets on global climate can be effectively communicated to policy makers through such story telling medium.  At the other end of the spectrum, as Shuga has demonstrated, public health awareness can be promoted among hundreds of millions watching popular TV programs.

Through the Open Learning Campus, WBx portal we will leverage the power of stories to make the available information personally relevant and compelling. Watch for the increased use of storytelling concepts in our future programs and courses!

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Photograph, "Once upon a time" by ©digitalexpress via Flickr


Submitted by Samuel Otoo on

Great post Sheila. I find two of Bill Baker’s four elements especially relevant for reflection:
1. Storytelling is a pull, not push, strategy
2. Storytelling draws from both magic and logic

Submitted by Paolo Santori on

Really a great post. In these months, I'm writing a master's thesis about the importance of 'bottom-up approach' for assistance to developing countries and one chapter is about education. Yours is an example of what I mean using the term bottom-up applied to teaching.
Kind Regards

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