NGOs are often faced with incentives to tell stories on the extreme ends of the emotional spectrum. Some organisations try to make their stories extremely happy and uplifting, to excite their audiences into action. Other times, the pressure is to tell stories that are incredibly bleak and dark, in the hopes of scaring the audience into action. All of this is despite the fact that the best stories have both dark and light shades in them.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an amazing radio journalist for NPR, covering stories across Africa – and one of my heroes. In a quick interview, taken from an episode of the TED Radio Hour Podcast, she argues that the debate about “positive stories versus negatives stories” in Africa is important, but it’s not the only thing that matters. For her, the quality of a story is far more important than its “mood.”
Whether the story is a comedy, a tragedy, or mindlessly happy is second to its quality.
Like Quist-Arcton says, the most important thing is “telling a good tale,” and then – if the story is a good one, whether it’s dark or light – listeners will perk up and get invested in it.
Susan Moeller makes a similar point in her book Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War, and Death. She argues that media coverage of inherently dark subjects need not cause compassion fatigue. Instead, she argues, formulaic and bland journalism is what causes the audience to fatigue.
There are lots of problems with stories focusing solely on the positive or the negative, the first being that needlessly dark or mindlessly happy stories are boring! Stories that lack emotional variation feel flat and bland. Obviously a boring story will not be very effective at moving an audience to action, regardless of which narrative it conforms to. Another major problem with stories that focus only on the positive or negative is that they’re likely to oversimplify and leave out important facts. If a development story only tells the happy and hopeful parts, the audience will probably miss significant elements of the issue that are important.
I am certainly not the first person to discuss this subject; for more info, look no further than WhyDev’s Communications Director Rachel Kurzyp, who wrote about this subject here, saying, “I am concerned with the way NGOs are telling stories on behalf of the poor… I worry that NGOs aren’t doing a good enough job of explaining the complexities of development and poverty.”
There are lots of examples of bad story telling; look no further than Invisible Children’s early videos. But for the sake of being constructive, I would like to point out a few examples of good development storytelling that include a range of positive and negative emotions. These stories are not unnecessarily joyful or depressingly dark. Instead, they have a range of emotions that, combined with other good storytelling techniques, create compelling development communication that is likely to move the audience to action. If you’re a development communicator, I encourage you to follow the lead of these three examples:
Dr. Hawa Abdi: Vital Voices – This quick video is an animated story of Dr. Hawa Abdi’s life in Somalia, narrated by her. There are some dark moments in this story for sure, but the mood changes throughout, and at the end, we are left feeling inspired.
Invisible Children: They Came at Night – I think this is Invisible Children’s best video. (And they have produced a lot.) This twenty-minute film tells the story of a young man trying to escape the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, and how escape is not as simple as it sounds. It’s a powerful drama with emotions ranging from hope to fear to anger, to more fear and back to hope again.
Girl Rising: The Nepal Chapter – Produced in partnership with Room to Read, this short film uses a young girl’s real-life experiences to tell a powerful story about the importance of girls’ education. It’s part of the full Girl Rising film, which tells similar stories about girls around the world, all of them excellent examples of good story telling. As you might expect, the mood varies between depressing to inspiring. But, this film also has a powerful streak of stubborn determination that is sure to leave you ready to fight.
Let me conclude by encouraging you to worry less about creating a particular mood in a story and focus more on telling it well. Whether they’re sad, funny or happy (and the best stories are usually all of the above), quality stories that inspire the audience to action, can really change the world. As storytellers, our role is to honestly do the story justice: tell it well, and with whatever range of emotion exists in reality.
Featured image is from a rally in western Kenya. Photo by Daniel Lombardi.