Data-Infused Impact Storytelling Can Increase Development Outcomes

Data-Infused Impact Storytelling

At the Technology Salon San Francisco on Data-Infused Impact Storytelling, a vibrant group of technologists and development experts gathered at the Vodafone Americas Foundation in Redwood City to explore how to be better storytellers in our efforts to change the world.

The discussion featured a curated group of participants, and discussion leads including:

Stories shape lives.

Stories that we tell ourselves and others create the context and emotional ties that can build movements and create social change. Steve Jobs famously said, “The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller”.

Data is also a beloved validator. Data helps build the evidence case for participants, supporters, and policy makers to prove that social change movements are working for the good of the people they serve and the greater global good.

Story alone is not enough. Data alone is not enough.  

Data defends, proves, and shows results. It highlights. We seek rigor in our data – but data can’t change our reality.  It Is only through story – the combination of thoughtfully placed data within a larger story that social change can be understood to occur. We all love narrative. The heart wins over rationale.

As professionals committed to impact on poverty, humanitarian, human rights, and climate issues, it is critical that we all become better storytellers.

Salon participants explored that the evidence suggests that people tend to care less about the many, the aggregate data. Humans are often moved and take action based on a single person’s story or image that they connect with. So we should ground our stories with data and enliven our data with stories.

For example, the Solutions Journalism Network encourages affiliated reporters to seek rigor and consider inspiration versus insight, and offering its readers healthy amounts of both.  One lens through which to evaluate or edit an impact story is to determine if there is enough insight to go along with slightly more inspiration and to ensure the rigorous reporting and narrative reinforce one another.

Who is investing in data-driven storytelling?

We know that as a community that we need to work on improving data-driven decision-making within narratives of inspiration, yet Salon participants quickly asked key questions around how data-driven storytelling can get seed funding:

  • Are investors, tech billionaires, VCs and philanthropists willing to invest in impact storytelling?
  • How can we show enough ROI for content that features issues in developing countries?

Salon participants shared stories of board chairmen and CEOs calling on their communications teams to do “big data story telling”, which left those teams confused on what exactly this means beyond buzzwords.

One participant mentioned how immersive technologies such as Virtual Reality can show a 30% return on investment for fundraising, yet another pointed out that corporations must separate their foundation’s and corporate successes, with dire consequences when they do not.

In addition to story, participants explored the importance of networks, partnerships, and distribution. We’ve moved from information scarcity to a period of information chaos, and the method of reaching our audience with reinforcing messages plays a big part in its effectiveness. Film and radio were celebrated for their ability to build empathy and reach many.

There are storytelling successes

Participants celebrated examples of Tostan and Skoll Foundation directly supporting enhanced storytelling that helped to scale its impact, such as the publication of However Long the Night, the story of Tostan’s founder, Molly Melching’s more than 40 year commitment to grassroots empowerment for women and girls in West Africa.

The participants shared several learning resources available to the public. These include Patagonia’s Stories We Wear videos, the human side of a coat’s journey from design to production in Sri Lanka. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast & Slow: chapter five on Cognitive Ease was named particularly helpful.

“In the impact space, communications has long been considered as an afterthought or a “need to do”, outside the key on the ground impact work,” one participant said after the session.

“It’s becoming clear that to create the kind of change we’d like to see, how we vision, bring key audiences into, and tell our stories can be some of the most critical elements of social change work. I hope investment will support the ability to create and share positive, data- and heart- driven impact stories that can change the world.”

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