Revisiting Storytelling

October 25, 2011 | LND | Methods & Tools |


Rating: 4.2 out of 5

By Riff Fullan, Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation

2010_riff_fullan copy“If many people from different hierarchies and countries come together there are always those who think they know less about a subject and participate less in the discussion. They may be afraid to say something wrong. To start with personal stories demonstrates that everyone has a valuable experience to share and we can share it in the language we feel comfortable” (reflection of SDC gender team member on using stories in a workshop context, SDC Story Guide, p. 30).

Conscious engagement with storytelling for knowledge sharing and learning began almost 10 years ago within SDC and was pursued with some energy, especially in the first years. It is worth reflecting on how it came about and manifested itself in work situations, and on how today’s context might offer possibilities for renewed efforts at exploring the method to strengthen individual and organizational learning.

Why Storytelling?
One of my first experiences of stories in a work context was as a participant in a face-to-face workshop: each of us was asked to bring an object that had a special personal or professional meaning. As an icebreaking exercise, we were asked to tell the stories of our respective objects. I was stunned by the variety of stories – some quite personal – that came out! Even though many of the participants had never met each other before, we quickly built up a strong rapport that lasted through the entire event. What allowed this to happen? The storytelling mode (and the courage of the first storyteller) created a space where we could all share something that we otherwise might not in a formal setting. It was also much more than mere information sharing: through the stories we gave each other glimpses into who we were as human beings, not just representatives of this or that organization. This also created a foundation of trust that smoothed the way for us to work together more productively.

In many institutional contexts the word ‘storytelling’ evokes confusion or amusement. Some say stories are only for play and not for serious work. This fails to appreciate that the acts of telling and listening to a story can provide a basis for new ways of looking at and interpreting experience and a basis for learning. Let’s think more about creating and telling stories…

At the individual level, stories:

  • create a cognitive map linking a set of ideas
  • retain a flavour of the emotion felt during the original experience
  • provide time for reflection on important or significant experience

In an organizational context, stories:

  • are media for information exchange (messages, interpretations of experience)
  • promote engagement between storyteller and listener(s)
  • are easily digestible (a lot can be conveyed in a few minutes)
  • can transcend language barriers (if drawings, photo and or video formats are used)

The SDC context
The Thematic Service Knowledge and Research (parent of the current Knowledge and Learning Process Division) started exploring storytelling in the early 2000s. A series of collaborative activities were conceived and implemented over several years, including:

  • in-house storytelling ‘taster’ exercises in 2003 and 2004
  • use of storytelling tools in several face-to-face workshops
  • a story tent at the 2004 SDC Dare-to-Share Fair
  • publication of a guide in 2006 on tools and SDC experiences with storytelling

Together, these activities gave staff and partners some exposure to using stories for making connections and reflecting on experiences.


At the 2004 Dare-to-Share fair Story Tent

Although storytelling continues to be used within SDC, there is no formal institutional promotion of it. But the context is changing…

Photo and video technology has evolved rapidly, leading to an explosion of people telling their own stories, for example through Youtube or Bliptv. Within SDC, the use of video has grown recently too, as an aid to telling stories about specific themes (e.g. Water), and in ‘social reporting’ around various workshops. The SDC networks Agriculture and Rural Development, Climate Change and Environment, Conflict & Human Rights, Decentralisation and Local Governance and Employment & Income have done this). At the same time, the SDC experience built up since 2003 working with stories as aids to learning in different contexts is an important additional foundation.

Linking Storytelling to Ongoing Learning

I can see opportunities for further exploration in this area. First is training and support to field staff to document experiences and learnings using video (e.g. of evaluation exercises, project visits). This can be employed as an internal mechanism at the same time as it is used to share experiences with partners and with the broader development community. There are challenges here: not everyone is a natural storyteller and you can expect variability in quality of outputs. However, with ongoing support, reflection and shared learning, internal capacities can be significantly enhanced.

Second – and for me more exciting – is to take storytelling a step further as a learning methodology. The most promising avenue here is to move away from stories as isolated anecdotes to integrating storytelling methodologies into ongoing learning processes.

There is not enough space here to elaborate on this, but as an example, consider a project team getting together at the halfway point of project implementation. They each capture their own perspectives on their experiences so far in a short video (3-5 minutes, or alternatively through oral storytelling, followed up with written versions). Each story is shared in a first round, then the team discusses the differences and similarities: why did different members of the team see things differently, have different turning points, different challenges? Where are the areas of convergence? Such discussion can lead to:

  • a shared understanding of project experience
  • the modification of approaches during the second half of the project
  • a stronger feeling of shared ownership

The above example offers only a taste of what can be done in using storytelling as a way to provoke group reflection and interpretation of experience, leading to shared learning and innovation in the ways we work. More sophisticated efforts at using stories as part of ongoing ‘learning trajectories’ – for example, by integrating them at strategic points of the project cycle  – can provide a certain richness to those trajectories, to promote deeper reflection, and to act as a kind of ‘glue’ that binds different actors in a project or team in ways that would be difficult to achieve using more traditional methods of monitoring and learning. This kind of approach would use stories as ‘pivot points’ for group reflection, to plan concrete follow-up activities as a project unfolds, and then to assess progress at a later point (possibly again integrating the storytelling methodology to strengthen the reflective element). The potential is high to enhance project evaluation as well as learning.

Perhaps the time is right to embark on another round of exploring the potential of storytelling to enhance reflection and learning within SDC? Who knows how it will end, but so far I like the beginning…

Further reading:

SDC KM Toolkit Storytelling Guidelines

Women’sNet, Digital Stories for Transformation

University of Houston, The Educational uses of Digital Storytelling

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