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We’re all storytellers (and why it matters)

We’re all storytellers (and why it matters)

By Stephanie Buck

This post originally appeared on Until the Lions, and is re-printed here with permission.

“What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.” – Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie

In Ms. Adichie’s 2009 TED Talk she addresses the danger of a single story. Most of us who work in international development and storytelling recognize these dangers. We have seen the effects of media coverage (or lack thereof) of wars and poverty that project this single story of catastrophe in non-Western nations. We have seen patronizing charity campaigns that paint a flat narrative of helpless people waiting for a white savior. And we have seen how these narratives dehumanize people and ultimately hurt development.

But we also know that things are changing. And we all have a part in that.

Whether you work in communications, program management, research, monitoring and evaluation, advocacy, or some aspect of fundraising, you play a role in making sure that many stories are told.

It may seem strange to think of yourself as a storyteller, but that is exactly what you are. If you are writing a donor report or proposal, you are telling a story. If you write a blog about your organization’s or partners’ work, you are telling a story. If you are evaluating data, you are searching for a pattern so that you can tell a story. If you are trying to raise money or advocate for a cause, you are telling a story. If you are directly implementing programs, you will inevitably tell those stories at some point. If you work with others so they can tell their own stories, you also play a role as a storyteller.

All of these things play into a larger group of narratives so that we can challenge the power of the single story, and so we can create better partnerships for change.

Many of you have great sources of knowledge and deep understandings of the context and projects. You have built relationships with people who have moving stories. You have a fantastic opportunity to share those stories in your daily work and/or to let people and communities tell their own stories.

As a development practitioner/student/professor/journalist/human being, you have an opportunity to contribute to more diverse narratives. You can help lend nuance and complexity. You can amplify the voices of the people with whom you work. You can make sure that there is not one story that empowers the few and disempowers the many. You can help so that the single story does not become the only story.

We can start by remembering who the real protagonists are.

Adichie aptly made the connection between stories and power.

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

We all play a part in repairing that broken dignity. We are all storytellers.

Stephanie Buck is the creator and lead writer of Until the Lions, a blog dedicated to improving the way we tell stories for and about international development. She has served with development organisations in a variety of capacities in Ecuador, Peru and Washington, D.C. She currently supports communications and fundraising for the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs. Stephanie holds a Master’s degree in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies from the London School of Economics. You can also follow her on Twitter.

Featured image shows children at an educational camp in Udaipur, India. Photo from GiveWell.

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4 thoughts on “We’re all storytellers (and why it matters)

  1. […] article was entitled “We’re all Storytellers (and Why it Matters)“, was well written, but (I think) skipped over some critical details. Quoting the famous […]

  2. Thanks for writing this Stephanie.

    I’d like to point out some challenges and caveats to telling stories in development. First, one of the points of Ms. Adichie’s famous Ted Talk is that everyone has their own biases about the world. They are unavoidable. Biases are how we simplify and make sense of a complex and dynamic world. Therefore, it is very challenging to make observations about events in the world and tell stories independent of these biases. Second, straight observation is tricky and is often misleading. It may be observed that those who participate in a program (say microcredit) are better off after participating in the program. It could be, however, that these differences are caused by a selection bias where individuals who are well-organized, more motivated, and risk-loving participate in the program while individuals who don’t posses these attributes and abilities don’t participate. Straight observation will leave us unable to untangle what is truly happening. Is the program causing the observed differences or is there some other observable characteristic that is the real determining factor? Without data we don’t know.

    So, yes! Stories matter and many stories matter, but the plural of story isn’t data. It is precisely due to the power of stories that we must ensure that our stories represent reality. Good storytelling must be coupled with good data analysis.

    1. Hi Jeff,

      Thanks for your comment! And I totally agree that good storytelling must be coupled with good data analysis. I think the two can (and should) be quite complementary.

      Rigorous data analysis is important for understanding what works and what doesn’t, and also for helping understand why. Gathering in-depth interviews can also help give insight into data trends. I recognize that taking one story (or even several stories) without context (or even with context, but that is subject to a series of biases) and then trying to say that these anecdotes are indicative of broader trends is just not a good idea. And, unfortunately, it does happen a lot.

      I think the sweet spot is really in finding the stories that reflect the realities that data point to, and using each to support the other. And, where they contradict each other, to find out why. Data can be subject to manipulation and misinterpretation, and so can personal stories. I think we’re all trying to work hard to make sure that neither of those things happen.

  3. […] Who's responsible for storytelling in development? Stephanie Buck argues you probably are, no matter your position.  […]

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