© Helvetas

Communication—Not Just Theories, but also Stories

FROM: Sabin Selimi , Zenebe B. Uraguchi – 31. May 2021
© Helvetas

Imagine you have an idea that you’d like to pitch to your partners or potential funders. Rest assured that you’re convinced it’s a good one and that you may be able to reach as many partners and funders as possible.

Yet, the point here is whether you’ll be able to convince them to adopt and act upon your idea. This’s because selling an idea is a lot more difficult than selling a product or service.

This brings us to the inclusive systems approach, often called the market systems development approach (MSD). As we wrote in this blog on the approach, despite the progress in applying and generating relevant practices (and also evidence), there’re several misperceptions about the approach. Part of the problem is the way we communicate about the approach.

So, what to do?

The purpose of communicating about the approach shouldn’t be to convert “the other side”. Rather, it should be to demonstrate the value of the inclusive systems approach to existing methods of doing development in an improved way for improved results.

We think the power of storytelling can be very impactful. Stories communicate values and real impact in a way that is relevant, digestible, and memorable.  Allow us to explain how and why.

First thing first

Have you heard the word “status quo bias”? It’s a situation where people prefer things to stay the same by doing the way they know how to do it or are convinced it’s the best way to do it.

People who’re advancing the inclusive systems approach and its values often tend to compare the approach with other approaches. They then tend to refer to the other approaches as “traditional”, “conventional”, “direct delivery” and so on. This may be due to the lack of proper words for comparison or it can also be without any bad intentions in mind.

First, such a way of communicating may be counter-productive. It has the risk of entrenching others who have doubts about whether the approach really works.

Secondly, the inclusive systems approach did not emerge from out of the blue. It’s based on several decades of development work, including the “conventional”, “traditional” and “direct delivery” ones.

Hence for stories of inclusive systems approach to make sense to others, perhaps we should always start by emphasizing the benefits of the approach. This’s more than appealing to emotions, but to demonstrate how the approach is “transformative” in bringing impacts. This also saves us from being caught up in explaining complex terms without properly looking at what the opportunities from the approach are and how they can be facilitated.

Demonstrating impact through visual storytelling

Amar Numanović & Zenebe Uraguchi wrote in 2017 that “clear thinking is the basis of telling good stories. However, development practitioners, like us, often get trapped in ‘clutter’ — the state of having unimportant details and less relevant jargons in the storylines.”

Put differently, communication is a personal transaction between people. It should therefore retain its humanity. Without human stories, visualization often becomes a bunch of drawings.

Progress briefings or reports, for instance, are often readily available on the website of many development projects. All it takes is finding the right menu, a bit of scrolling, downloading the file, opening it… and reading through a report that runs to tens or even hundreds of pages!

In this age of fast information flows and short attention spans, the donor or a stakeholder is very unlikely to bother to read all that. They’re constantly being bombarded by information from myriad sources. Most are unlikely to have the time, or the inclination, to delve far into a long report or a document explaining the inclusive systems approach, especially if it’s densely packed with text.

The old proverb that a picture tells a thousand words is nowhere truer than in the inclusive systems approach. Our brains’ inherent capacity to respond to visual stimuli rapidly, tapping into emotions along the way, is part of our biological makeup. When visuals like photos and videos are compelling, there’s a huge potential to make them work for your purposes.

One needs also to use visuals well. Photos and videos will only be the start of the story. Using visuals will illustrate and lend authority to what one’s saying. Statistics hold weight and tell their own stories, but people tend to feel that they’re impersonal, boring, and sometimes even harder to understand.

When it comes to demonstrating impact, visuals say: “this’s what our work really means for our target groups like women, young people, and other vulnerable groups.”

Storytelling means accountability

Storytelling is an accountability tool. It’s proof that something actually happened. To this end, stories are fabulous tangible complements to the work that we do. This’s is where communication and the monitoring and results measurement system play a role!

Stories from the inclusive systems approach don’t have to necessarily be limited to the target groups, but they can also involve the development communicators reporting from the field through video, or the innovative documentation of lessons learned by project staff. This’s where communication and the knowledge management and learning component become handy!

Delivery of the right kind of message to the target audience in the right manner is very important in communication for development. Evidence uptake and knowledge management and learning to synthesize project findings into user-friendly formats is one way. The evidence summaries and learning briefs are of particular importance for policymakers to give them—to use a movie-based analogy—a “trailer”. The scalability of the results of a project depends upon how findings or lessons from a project are presented to the key stakeholders.

Moreover, stories should be considered essential to any progress briefing or report demanded by the donor. Reporting requirements can seem burdensome, especially when you have the impression that the donor never reads what you invest so much time in producing. So, why not include a story or something visually compelling to entice them to have a proper look? This way you reinforce in their minds that your inclusive system of MSD project is worth investing in!

Brevity: storytelling means fewer words

Despite the detrimental effect on our eyesight, humanity’s screen-shrinking shift from laptop to tablet to mobile continues, even more so in the time of COVID-19. Mobile-friendly content means using fewer words and turning instead to visually appealing mediums in the form of photos, videos, and interactive information transmission.

While academic pieces and long-form journalistic articles will still have their place, this tendency is good news for visual communication professionals. Expect more infographics and more visual stories.

Using a video or a photo will lend authority to and illustrate what you are saying. Images convey messages faster than words can alone. They will get to your targeted audience very quickly. Sight is our most dominant sense. Our brains process visual data 60,000 times better than they handle text.

While we’re certainly not fans of using negative imagery to publicize causes, who could forget the image of a 3-year-old Syrian boy whose lifeless body was photographed washed up on the shore of the Mediterranean last year? Suddenly, Europeans who previously seemed ambivalent began clambering to take in refugees. Images hold the power to personalize and humanize an issue.

A forecast published by Cisco makes an evidence-based prediction that video will account for 82% of the world’s internet traffic. Expect video content to make an even bigger appearance on our screen. For us working in development using the MSD approach, this translates to greater use of video in advocacy campaigns.

Stories reclaim the newsroom

In this age of rapid digitalization where we can all publish online and share opinions, there’s greater potential than ever to let people tell their own stories. At RECONOMY, this is exactly what we’re trying to do with the Inclusive Plug video podcast. The last few years saw a trend within large development organizations where communication specialists turn their offices into newsrooms.

Video podcasting or vlogging can work in favor of MSD projects. Why? Well, they enhance accountability to the public and the donor by directly demonstrating how money is being used to achieve real results.

This form of communication also affords development organizations complete control of stories they want to broadcast without involving the media as a third party. Telling stories via a video podcast also encourages comments from viewers, responding to the same, and making this an effective way of engaging with the public.

Let us tell you something: the days of throwing together a quick press release or publishing a long report on your website are over. Stories matter, not just theories.

 

Related readings

Communication Manager of the RECONOMY Program
Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies