'Chief storyteller' to UN, NGOs: Tell their story, not yours

Tony Quinlan, founder of Narrate Consulting, speaks during the International Conference on Data Innovation for Policymakers held from Nov. 26-27 in Bali, Indonesia. Photo by: Marita Kurniasari / PulseLab Jakarta

What’s the latest story you’ve heard about AIDS or disability this week? Maybe about a homosexual who has been having trouble lately in accessing treatment in Uganda, or a blind woman who needed assistance to reach a decent toilet facility in her community in India?

These examples from different parts of the world come up all the time. Aid agencies highlight their plight in hopes of alerting donors, or as part of their advocacy campaigns. And they may be true, only that the story that came out may not necessarily explain what the potential beneficiaries need.

That’s what worries Tony Quinlan, founder of Narrate Consulting, a U.K.-based firm that helps collect stories for NGOs, companies and sometimes even governments to better inform their interventions and policies as well as improve their services, about the way aid agencies tell their story.

“I do think we listen to stories far more if they are about people … so it’s better to tell a story about individuals, a family or a small group, who recognize with humans, than to say, here’s a country and here’s the problem, to which readers would go, I don’t feel any empathy or resonance with the country,” Quinlan told Devex during the recent Data Innovation for Policymakers conference organized by PulseLab Jakarta in Bali, Indonesia. “But the problem is, we may not be picking the right ones, and we’re cleaning them up too much. And we’re writing the way we think they should be written.”

This must change, suggested the corporate communications veteran, who started his own firm in 2000 after being hounded for years by the power of story and narrative in changing lives. He got the idea from a book on anthropology while taking his MBA back in 1996, but it was difficult to convince the high-tech companies he then worked with to resort to storytelling instead of sticking to writing corporate principles that he found “rubbish.”

Quinlan explained humans make decisions based on brain patterns, not by processing information. Those patterns partly come from our own experiences as well as from the stories we get every day. And these are what greatly inform our decisions and the way we see the world.

“One of the things that I learned early on is if people believe a certain thing is happening in a certain way, you get, ‘but that’s not true,’” he said. “In Afghanistan, there’ve been doctors who’ve been attacked while doing vaccinations, because the rumor had gone around that these guys are not doing vaccinations, they are sterilizing. And you can say, ‘No, that’s not what we’re doing, and you can check,’ but people believe it.”

Here are a few excerpts from our conversation with Quinlan, who calls himself the “chief storyteller.”

What’s your perspective on the way aid agencies tell their story?

There was a time five years ago I can remember having a conversation with UNICEF. It was a heated conversation, where they would determine that for fundraising, they have to tell negative stories. They had to tell stories that scared their potential donors, that says, “Oh this is dreadful. I must donate.” Or what they tend to do is try to get very personal — let me tell you a story about this child in Delhi who’s been enslaved — painful stuff.

I get the need to tell something that resonates with the audience, but one of the things that we can do is collecting those stories from the ground, and then we share some of those stories with donors, and say, would you indicate what you think this story means?

It’s very raw, which also means it’s full of spelling mistakes and bad grammar and punctuation, which is great, because it means it’s natural. It hasn’t been cleaned up by corporate communications people like me. But if you give it to the donors, and they indicate how they are seeing the story, then very quickly you can see what their inclinations are. What would they be really interested in. You are not making any assumptions about them; you are allowing them to lead. And then you can go back to the system and go, “OK, now I see which ones are you interested in. Let me show you four more. Two of them were places we’ve had success, two of them places where we haven’t yet.” And in that point you’re engaging interest, you’re having a proper conversation.

So we assume donors want to hear about problems, we assume they want this one, that’s always the case. And they may talk about that, and maybe that’s what their opinion is if you ask the questions what you’re interested in, and they say I’m interested in latrines or sanitary programs, but actually if you dig deeper, there’s usually something else: [that they are] interested in family problems, this or that. And with you finding that out is more valuable and would be more effective.

Where do you think they can start to do better?

I think there’s an awful lot that’s needed to be done; you collect real examples from the field, but you’ve got to do it in a way that allows people to say what it means, and not just as we see, collect lots of stories and then bring them back to a central organization and have experts say this story is about this one, because you’ll miss too much.

Experts get very blinded by their professional bias — and I [also] do too all the time.

In the past we did a project, which was looking at slum communities in Africa. In one particular community they collected stories and gave them to experts in aid agencies in D.C., and say, now you interpret those stories the way you think the original population did — and there was no correlation. The aid experts say this population in slums they want water, sanitation, health, but if you looked at the stories people told, they’re saying we want help to rebuild our social networks in our community, because once we’ve done that we could provide our own water and sanitation and safe housing.

Do you think aid agencies need to hire their own storytellers?

No. I strongly wouldn’t recommend it, in part because I think … it’s something that everybody needs to do a little bit of. My concern is always, if we have one person responsible then everyone stops being responsible.

I think what aid agencies can really do is build in-house capacity, and then to start spreading the material they get, because one thing I keep saying is that once you start gathering this stuff, you might start gathering it for one purpose, but as soon as you’ve started to share what you’ve gathered with other people, something for other purposes come out.

In Colombia, we did this project for the government. They wanted to understand people’s attitudes to entrepreneurship and innovation, because they had to change their economy because it’s not robust enough, it’s not resilient enough when things happen. But what was interesting was we gathered this material to start design interventions to understand what was going on, but as soon as we got it, and showed it to some other people within the Colombian government, one of them said, “Can I just get all of that data to hold onto, because I run a network of people who are starting businesses across the country? We said we’re advising them, so they can always ring us up if there’s any problem, but we don’t generally know what to do when they ring us with a problem, because we don’t have the answers. But you’ve now got 7,000 stories, all of which are about what people have done with business. So if I got that and somebody comes to me with a problem, I can go, ‘Here are 10 examples of what people have done to help you.’” So suddenly it becomes a knowledge source.

Do you find there will be resistance?

Yes. People would always resist. And often it’s the experts who resist, because some of these stuff threaten their status.  They have a lot invested, and rightly so, in being an expert on this. I know more about this subject than anybody else. And that’s great, because often they do, and we need them. But they may not have the same interpretations. So the thing I find really useful is actually bring those people in early to say help me understand this. One of the very first projects I did, we waited until the end of the project to hear the results, hear the conclusions. And the experts disagreed. We lost. The experts had the status. So we lost the argument. And that’s entirely sensible … So there will always be resistance. The thing is to get them early.

How about challenges in getting people to talk?

I don’t tend to. It depends a little bit who is doing the collecting. In Rwanda and in Ethiopia, we found particular women telling stories that were taboo, that they could not have told before. And they have been surveyed in questionnaire for years. And we’re like, “Are you serious there’s no story worth telling?” And they say, “Well there’s a story I’ve never told.” So we find this very easy. The difficulty is getting people collecting to step back and not intervene.

We also use a triangle. We say, “Tell me where your story sits inside this triangle.” So for instance in Libya, we asked, “What kind of justice is in your story?” And in one corner of the triangle it says reconciliation, another says revenge, and then [the other side] deterrence. And you could put any mark anywhere within that. So, it could be halfway between deterrence, revenge or wherever. And so the person who is telling it is the only one who can tell you where it sits. So that’s how they tell us what the story means. And that allows us to do some really sophisticated analysis if we need to do.

But what I have seen in some places, like in Bangladesh … male program managers who are collecting  the story are very clever. Rather than give a piece of paper or device to rural communities, they drew in a mud with a stick on the ground and said, “Here’s a triangle, here’s a stone, please put your stone where your story sits.” I went out with them as part of training them, and particularly with older women, they would tell the story, they’d put the stone down, and the guy would go, “No, no, your story sits over here.” And I’m like, “Come here, let me have a quick word with you. …” And then I’ll say, “Now let’s try this again. Next time, if she puts it somewhere and you think she might have put it in the wrong place, explain the three corners again, and ask her to replace the stone. If she puts it in the same place, congratulations, she sees the world differently from you and this is your chance to learn.”

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About the author

  • Ravelo jennylei

    Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.