Storytelling – An underappreciated art

If someone asks me whether I am a storyteller, I’d say no.

Truth is, stories pervade the cracks of all our everyday lives. We narrate incidents, needs, and hopes, amusing and informing anyone who would listen. Almost unconsciously, our brains stitch together disconnected events, transforming them into personalised tales of interest. Aren’t we all, then, storytellers?

For NGOs like ours, stories are the translators we rely upon to communicate to you the inspiration and impact that drive our work. Every poster, every proposal, and every conversation, needs to perform this storytelling function for us to be able to expand our reach and build support for our vision. This of course means that storytelling is an essential skill to hone, especially for those of us working with communications, fundraising, and partnerships.

Here are some storytelling challenges and opportunities I’ve encountered through my experimentation with writing and design.

Having a clear intent
Every day, through each poster and document, I am aware of our vision and conscious of aligning every collateral to it. In fact, rarely do we encounter doubts in our minds of the vision behind our content, having passionately committed to work towards the purpose of our organisations. A broad rationale alone, however, is insufficient to successfully tell stories.

It is perhaps useful for us to approach storytelling as a tactic and be purposeful in incorporating its elements into the different strands of our work. This clear intent can lift our communications strategy from its shadows and accord it the attention it deserves.

Making connections
Bring in the human element. Evoke emotions. Build empathy.

Oft heard suggestions as these are, I have always struggled to imagine them beyond the inclusion of emotive photographs while creating communications collateral. I suspect though, that in attempting to communicate the problem, the solution and the impact of our work in disjointed parts, we tend to miss out on an opportunity to elevate the interest of our audience. Instead, building an impactful story arc, and using a central character, emotive language and sensory details, are some tricks that could transform mere words into the beginning of a relationship.

Having just completed my nth reading of the Harry Potter series, I am inclined to take inspiration from JK Rowling, and explore how these gripping elements that built personal connections between millions of readers could be brought into the relatively drab world of PPTs and funding proposals.

Choosing characters
Of course, perhaps the most successful elements of Rowling’s magical masterpiece are the characters. The readers empathise with and root for them, willing the story to an ending we all anticipated, and yet waited for with bated breath.

Could storytelling for nonprofits be that much different? Can we not also be more purposeful in building the characters that carry the story forward, and uncover the layers of emotions they may convey to different demographics of audiences? What a name, a context or an identity can do for a data point is, to stick to the theme, almost magical. The Girl Effect video, is a lauded example of this use of a single character to tell the story of millions.

Marking trends
A lot of the work within the development sector is highly nuanced, and spread across months and years of experimentation. Condensing all that we want to communicate into single posters or paragraphs is not just difficult, but also impossible to do as we touch base with our audience mid-way through a project. How then can we persuade the audience to remember the bits of information they received across a span of months, and understand the trends of growth or improvement conveyed through them?

Carrying forward the tone and characters of a story across multiple collateral could aid in this, even through the subtler aspects of storytelling like the use of brand colours, consistent tone of design and recurring themes. Charity Water, through their social media accounts, does this extremely well through simple yet memorable visuals, and impactful captions.

Every blank page is overflowing with the expectation to be memorable. We want our audience to remember what we said, understand it and be personally impacted by it. In writing and reading for this blog post, I have been re-energised to pinpoint my attention towards telling stories through my work in the development sector. Through the humdrum of a busy work week, it is easy to get lost in the minutiae and spend hours analysing the exact positioning of a line or a dot on a Google Slide deck. Perhaps you can join me in taking a step back every once in a while, reading the stories we tell, and wondering if it is indeed a page turner.

Posted by Urmila Reghunath

Media for Development: Some knots to disentangle

From the videos we create to attract potential donors, to the posters we design for awareness raising campaigns, and the words we choose to fill our impact reports, we are constantly in the business of media creation as workers in not for profit organisations. Media, in its myriad forms, is our tool to communicate to the rest of the world why our field of work is important and how we are contributing to social change. But an oft ignored story that our collaterals tell, is that of who we are as an organisation within the complex weave of the development sector. 

The evolutionary cycle of media for development work has seen the use of ‘shock effect’, of positive imagery, of decontextualised stories and of innovative campaigns that attempt to bring the reality of distant suffering uncomfortably close. As producers of this content, we must be aware of our responsibilities to the stakeholders we work with and the consequences of the way we choose to represent them and our work. Through this short post, I hope to explore a few of these messy knots and share some questions I find useful to consider while creating media content.

 Am I relying on a ‘shock effect’ to draw in my audience?

We have all seen, and been shocked, by the heartbreaking and now infamous photograph of a vulture eyeing a starving child in famine stricken Sudan, taken by Kevin Carter. The photograph and the photographer have both been the centre of much attention and criticism, and offer a classic example of the use of shock effect in humanitarian campaigns. In ridding the people in the photograph of their individualising features, their dignity, and their consent to being represented that way, ‘shock effect’ campaigns that use photographs such as Kevin Carter’s not only violate ethical codes, but also present the subjects of the campaign as the disenfranchised ‘other’. 

While working in a sector that is so deeply ingrained in attempting to alleviate suffering and injustice, it is not rare for us to encounter shocking visuals that bring to the fore the horrors of hunger, or war, or violence. We must, however, be careful to evaluate the nature of such imagery (both visual and written) that we use in our communications and to ensure that we respect the dignity and privacy of those in the stories that we share.

 Am I contributing to the narrative of a ‘grateful receiver’ and a ‘generous donor’?

Stakeholders, beneficiaries or partners? Donation, charity or contribution? The power structures veiled behind the meanings of these words reflect a post-colonial world order, patriarchal mindsets, the hierarchies of class and caste systems, and other such hegemonic structures. Using images of young black or brown children smiling at the receipt of international aid, is a typical instance where the rhetoric of a ‘grateful receiver’ and a ‘generous donor’ is repeated. Contributing to this narrative can undermine ongoing efforts to break free from the very same repressive structures and can be disrespectful of the complex socio-cultural history of a given community.

It is ours to shoulder, as members of social justice movements and as individuals enjoying certain privileges, the weight of understanding and evaluating the nuanced meanings of our communication and delivery.

 Am I stripping a story of its contextual complexity?

In an effort to evade the aforementioned pitfalls, the development industry has embraced its creative side and in the recent years we have seen very many impactful billboard campaigns, animated short films and humanitarian artwork. Catered to fit a minimalist aesthetic sense and the extremely scarce text-space available on social media, these campaigns are often designed to cut right to the crux of the message. While this is an extremely effective strategy in many respects, it is useful for us to introspect whether the story does justice to the complex contexts that it takes place in, and to ask ourselves who benefits from the blurred complexities. As in the example explored earlier, the use of the smiling faces of black and brown children to homogeneously represent the ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘developing’ world, does not speak of the local contexts of the children or of the many identities they occupy, and conveniently brushes under the carpet colonial and racist histories.

Similar criticism could hold true for the stick figure cartoons we draw, or the 280-character stories that populate our social media handles. Instead of refraining from the use of such creative storytelling methods, we could add to them some flourishes that hint at the many untold stories that we have chosen to not elaborate upon.

 Am I violating any ethical codes of consent, privacy or security?

The importance of respecting the rights of consent, privacy and security of personal information needs no introduction. We each closely guard everything from online banking passwords to Facebook profile pictures and biometric data. In creating our media libraries too, we must carry forward this diligence and verify that no media or personal information is published without consent, or in a way that endangers the privacy or security of those represented. While this last question might be a staple and obvious one to consider, it is often tricky to adhere to these standards within the complex dynamics that are at play in our field work. Developing comprehensive guidelines and policies that dictate the creation and storage of such content can, however, help us navigate these ethical and legal considerations with relative ease.

It is the ethos of an organisation that is distilled into the way we tell every story or communicate every milestone. In the tone of our communication lies secrets of our place within the complex development sector riddled with competing power structures, of our political leanings, and of our commitment to each of our partners and stakeholders. Closely paying attention to this tone, and being aware of its implications, is therefore a critical step while creating media for development work.

Posted by Urmila Reghunath