Five steps to telling stories of impact

Published on 27 October 2021

Vivienne Benson

Communications and Impact Manager

Stories are an intrinsic part of how we raise awareness, generate understanding and build engagement with the universal development challenges and our work to help those marginalised, living in poverty or with injustice globally. This makes the way we ‘tell’ stories about impact vital as a powerful way of reaching and building understanding amongst stakeholder audiences (such as funders, communities, partners, students) but also how we demonstrate our commitment to ensure diverse voices can be heard to foster truly inclusive, democratic, and accountable societies.

However, telling stories of how change happens is by no means a straightforward process. It is complex and nuanced as impact means very different things and is subjective to the context and the individual, as a funder. Despite this, it is essential that IDS and the international development sector more broadly finds ways to communicate about impact and the difference our work makes. This even more so when, like many other sectors, the global pandemic has intensified the challenges within the international development research community above all in reducing budgets and redirecting focus to the health crisis response.  

While the focus of funders and other stakeholders may have shifted to addressing the implications of Covid-19, immense challenges, such as the worst forms of child labour, lack of freedom of religious belief, and backlash on gender equality prevail and need our attention more than ever. In this context, storytelling is even more important to securing attention and demonstrating the impact of research not only thematically, relating to individual projects, but in building the case for the importance of social science research in contributing to positive actionable change.

This makes clear the need to consider deeply why, what, how and to who we tell our stories about impact. As well as making a compelling case on why we need to research these issues, we also need to present evidence of the value of our approaches and methodologies.  

Within the research community, storytelling is fundamental to communicating impact. However, we still have a way to go in honing our craft, and to strengthen how we identify, produce, and tell stories to engage key stakeholders including funders, media, and policymakers. In creating and sharing stories, here are five things to consider: 

1. Planning to create stories

Often people have great ideas for content but don’t consider the resources required to create that content – either as a one-off output or for ongoing publication and engagement. The aspect that often gets forgotten is the production process and workflow in developing these stories. This includes each aspect of audience (stakeholder)  mapping, theory of change, to content production and pipeline planning. 

2. Understanding audiences and their needs

At the first stage of developing any story, we need to define ‘who’ the target audience is, what is their understanding/awareness, what are their barriers to engagement and then: 

  • What will they be motivated by (story/why)  
  • Where is it best to reach them (channel/how)  
  • What format will be most effective (content/what) 

For example, funders might just want the numbers/statistics (there is still a storytelling art involved in this) and NGOs may want briefs and case studies to evidence the work they are doing.

3. Story format

The way in which any story is created and published should be based on how to best meet the needs of the target audience, including accessibility requirements but also the format with which they are most likely to engage. Stories should be told more than once and in different formats so they can be shared via different channels (online, print, social media etc.).  

For example, impact stories can have a variety of purposes and interpretations but often they are considered to provide tangible access to the impact and contribution of research work. Whereas, opinion pieces are editorials written by researchers, often in partnership with NGOs and/or policymakers and published in media outlets to reach a policy and public audience. These pieces are opportunities to contribute and engage in broader and topical debate that is connected to the research projects. 

Key when planning how a story will be told, is to consider producing videos, visual summaries (including infographics) and podcasts. These are a very powerful storytelling tool and most people are more responsive to highly visual and audio content as the brain processes it much faster than written content. This can be especially important when considering how to make content more accessible and engaging to different audiences.

4. Demonstrating impact  

We operate in a context where moments will arise where we are asked to tell the story of our research – with a short timeframe and before the completion of the research process.  

This can result in having to tell a story that doesn’t refer to all of the outcomes seen but instead refers to the smaller stories over time that demonstrate incremental yet crucial change. For example, this could be a conversation with a government minister that indicates a new understanding and an acceptance or the emerging evidence from the programme that contributes to a wider discourse. 

5. Tools to help tell our stories 

There is an incredible array of available data that can be included in stories to highlight and to evidence impact both from within research programmes but also from external sources such as social media, website traffic analysis or media engagement. This data can both amplify the effectiveness of a story but also improve understanding of what audiences engage with and the key messages that resonate.  

Complementary to these tools are more qualitative types of evidence, such as reference to the research in policy documents or survey evidence from individuals who have benefited. This can give a more nuanced, comprehensive view of change achieved and audience engagement.  

Impact stories must be defined by the audience  

When we develop stories about the impact that research hasit is vital to demonstrate the processes followed, contribution made, and influence achieved over time. For the story we then produce to be effective in building awareness and engagement, we need to know who the story is for and the best way and moment to tell it. The way we tell the stories may be quite different for our diverse audiences, but they will all serve the same purpose – demonstrating why research is relevant and necessary. Rather than communicating simple, extractive narratives, we will have shared compelling, persuasive, and evidenced stories that provide a full picture of how change happens and ultimately, impact.  





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