Stop worrying about spin and get on with telling great stories

10 October 2017

The dreaded ‘spin doctor’ passed into the British national consciousness in the late 1990s. Before then the word ‘spin’ had less toxic connotations. To many people (and according to the Oxford Dictionary) it could simply mean tailoring your messages for a particular audience. The loathing that spin by politicians and their communications staff came to provoke is nicely summed up by Alistair Campbell’s (the alleged father of spin) experience of coming to the rescue of a person who had been assaulted on the streets of Islington in London. This was shortly after he resigned as Tony Blair’s Director of Communications amid major controversy. The very grateful and battered man received some first aid and kind words from Campbell before being helped to his feet and being handed his business card along with an offer of further assistance. Campbell later recounted that the man read the card with a look of great surprise: “But I hate you” he proclaimed rather miserably.

Complex change versus simple stories

IDS recently organised a seminar asking whether spin had a valid role in the telling of research impact case studies. Were we really suggesting that Downing Street spin doctoring could help strengthen our story telling? The impact case studies in question were less those evidenced technical evaluative pieces one finds in reports to donors than those glossier pieces published in university prospectus, on research programme websites and have just been included in the new IDS annual review. We looked at several of these and tried to identify what they had in common and what some of the challenges had been in developing them.

The debate quickly focused on the tension between complex change processes and the need to tell simple stories to non-academic audiences in order to engage their attention. Aha so here comes the justification of spin. Well no not really – the common characteristic of all the examples of the stories of change we heard was that they are all supported by evidence.  In some cases the claims are quite modest - awareness raised and debates informed. Whereas in others there are direct causal links between the research and changes to policy and practice. In other words we believe they are true. The spin of the Labour years may have been usurped by concerns around fake news, however the central accusation has not changed – in these cases we think they are lying to us.

You can keep it simple without dumbing down

With impact case studies the real issues seem to be around keeping things simple without dumbing down and being realistic about what some audiences value the most. On the first point I am reminded (as I often am) of Chip and Dan Health’s formula for sticky story telling. It is not about lying, exaggerating or distorting. Their formula is SUCCES: Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional and you must tell a Story. This can be pretty challenging and some of these characteristics can seem easier to deliver than others. Academics’ perceived credibility should not be taken for granted and you have to deliberately choose to simplify narratives and give concrete examples. As for emotion, this is not about charity type pity campaigns or development porn. Simply remember that those of us who chose to work in development studies and those that want to fund it are generally united by a common interest in reducing poverty and inequality. There are ways to acknowledge these values in your copy without going all gooey.

As for the second issue around what our audiences may be looking for, this is perhaps even trickier. It does not matter how much those of us in research organisations like to explore learning about impact and implications for research approaches, politicians tend to prefer instrumental impact – where research plausibly leads to changes in the law or in policies and practice that may directly or indirectly change lives. Of course there are a range of ways research makes a difference. A lot of the time research just does a great job of contributing new knowledge to the world. Or if you are very lucky it might help people think differently about a particular issue and so move on academic debate and approaches in this area. Or it might increase the capacity of people to use research more effectively or help make marginalised voices heard. So whilst Nobel Prize winners may grab the headlines with ground breaking discoveries that can transform lives, networks of academics are much more quietly advancing scientific knowledge and improving development processes through a myriad of complex pathways to change.

Don’t be afraid to tell stories that will please your audience

The hard truth is instrumental impacts will work best for most donors and politicians. They work best for the tax-paying public also and if we were to be completely honest they work pretty well for many of us. IDS staff and students felt intensely proud of our Ebola work that successfully influenced the humanitarian response to the outbreak and contributed to the saving of many lives. We are still impressed by colleagues who publish a rigorous study in a journal that influences the academic debate. However it’s Ebola we talk about to our non-academic friends down the pub.  

In some cases you might be advised to listen to your partners and funders when it comes to deciding how to tell a compelling story about your work. Donors have been known to frame stories of change around revenue raised or money saved (the instrumental impact) rather than around the building of local research capacity which subsequently led to these positive outcomes. Again this is something of a no-brainer if you rely on public funding at a time when spending on aid is under enormous pressure. Is this collusion with spin doctors? I’d argue it’s the co-production of a very positive and accessible research impact story. Try to imagine being an MP standing on one of your constituent’s door step – which story would you tell?

Good storying telling is also about accountability

As one colleague suggested in our seminar perhaps we need to do some spin on spin and call it something like: ‘Strategic Simplification’. We need to be realistic and understand that short, simple and compelling impact stories are here to stay. Donors will continue to need them, the media need them, Ministers need them, and universities and research councils need them. Telling these simple engaging stories and developing detailed, nuanced and evidenced learning that furthers our understanding of research impacts are not mutually exclusive activities. We can and must do both.

There is another reason I am passionate about great story-telling that promotes the impact of research. It is simply not good enough to hide behind non-linear theories of change condescendingly explaining it’s all very complicated. Most research is publically funded and so if we can’t give the public reasons to support what we do we are in big trouble. We are accountable to them and that means pulling out the best tales of change that are supported by evidence and telling them clearly. Good story-telling should not be seen as a chore but as an obligation. And you don’t need an Alistair Campbell to do this. Once you have the key ingredients and the desire to use them, as one of the seminar participants put it, “they practically write themselves”.

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