Aid can be better. Let's talk about how.

Want me to listen? Tell me a story.

If you’ve ever had any doubts that international aid or global health is a business, then one visit to an International AIDS Conference will clear them away. Between the free frozen yogurt from big pharma and bookend speeches from the Clintons, it was hard to ignore what a “sexy” disease HIV was last week in Washington D.C.

At a pre-conference meeting, I made a presentation on the nexus of storytelling and M&E, which begged the question—if program people could understand the key elements of a good story (i.e. protagonist with which we identify, obstacle, overcoming of obstacle and resolution), how would we represent the value of our programs? And I don’t mean the sad, formulaic, public relations pieces that many organizations use in which those on the receiving end are passive characters in the story, i.e. so-and-so was poor or sick, they received our help, and now they’re not.

I had arrived to the venue about an hour before I was to give the presentation to about 80 people from 30 some countries. The prior session was full of “shoulds” and summaries and the inability of some to relinquish the mic once they got it. As a result, people were staring off, visibly bored, as in many aid meetings. Even when the discussion got heated, it was merely an abstraction for many people in the room who were not part of the “in the know” group.

But when I broke up the room and had everyone tell stories of their most memorable experience working for their organization—my, how the energy changed! The guy who was nodding off previously now gestured wildly at his table. Everyone was engaged.
It made me wonder—how do we harness and use this energy in aid work, when much of the time our day-to-day work drains it?

(You can see a link to my presentation on SlideShare at: Storytelling and M&E from Jennifer Lentfer.)

Storytelling is already operating within international aid, just under the guise of measurement and management. If we’re honest, how many decisions are actually driven by organizational lore rather than objective data? Trust me, I am fully aware that stories are not “rigorous evidence” and that data can tell a story too. But to be honest, I couldn’t recall any major findings from the research presentations I attended at the International AIDS Conference last week. Then again, I’m admittedly a strange M&E professional who values meaning over accuracy.
If more stories were told by those of us in international aid and global health, would we actually learn more? Or be inspired to make the necessary changes in the ways we do business? Can stories unlock a flow or dynamic that could replenish and revive aid organizations?
What if, at major conferences like the one last week, people presented less information, evidence, and opinions, and told more stories?
I’d be listening. We all would.

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WHY STORIES?

1.     Stories “stick.”

  • Stories are what people remember and what people share naturally.
  • Stories have more resonance with people than more traditional presentation formats.
  • Where we might very easily forget a headline or a list or a number, we remember in stories.
  • We seek out stories as a way of making sense of our experiences and the world around us.

2.     Our brains like stories.

  • Stories touch deep psychological processes of perception, learning and memory.
  • Cognitive psychology tells us that the human mind has evolved a narrative sensemaking faculty that allows us to perceive and experience the chaos of reality in such a way that the brain then reassembles the various bits of experience into a story in the effort to understand and remember.
  • Stories balance the logical (sequence) and the emotional (empathy) aspects of our brains.
  • In many ways, our written behaviors and collaboration on the internet already mimic the qualities of oral societies.

3.     Stories cut through barriers.

  • Predating the written word, oral storytelling developed alongside the development of speech within every known culture.  Stories are a universal art form and are held within the fiber of every culture.
  • Anyone can tell a story, regardless of age, race, gender, level of “expertise” or position, or “high or low-tech” – an equalizer.
  • When you hear a well-told story about a fight between two brothers, your brain says, “Oh yea, my brother is just like that!”
  • Storytelling “tempts” people to listen to each other. This can open channels of communication between people from different backgrounds.
  • Stories give voice to otherwise silent perspectives and allow multiple perspectives to emerge.
  • The act of listening, suspending judgment, knowing each other – are all powerful in building empathetic relationships (and in the case of aid, strong partnerships).

4.     Stories inspire.

  • Humans like to imagine – stories are fun! They captivate us in relevant, compelling & credible ways.
  • Stories are not “simple” – they can sophisticatedly and elegantly convey complex, ambiguous and abstract concepts in concrete and practical ways.
  • Stories allow play to have meaning in the context of work (where we are not supposed to act “childlike”).
  • Stories inspire people towards action/change by capturing the imagination and leading by example, rather than persuading with rhetoric—‘what if’ rather than ‘that’s why’.

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This post originally appeared at: http://www.how-matters.org/2012/08/01/want-me-to-listen-tell-me-a-story/

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