Methods, tools and techniques describe ways to gather data.

OVERVIEW

Storytelling, like its name says, tells stories to reflect reality. This approach is closely linked with others such as Most Significant Change, Case Studies and PhotoVoice.

Stories offer surprising perspectives and reveal hidden knowledge.

Storytelling is a powerful mode of human expression that helps make sense of the past and to understand possible futures. While coming together to exchange stories is an ancient tradition, evaluations also make use of personal stories through different narrative techniques to get information on the impact of development initiatives.” – BetterEvaluation

For social services, there are two main ways to use storytelling:

  1. Stories of change can be collected from clients and participants in projects and services. They build a bigger story about effects, reveal opportunities for improvement and record the experience of service users or project participants.
  2. These ‘bigger’ stories can demonstrate effectiveness and help funders, donors and the wider community see the value created. They can attract funders, donors, new members and volunteers, help raise public awareness and change attitudes. They can help recruit partner organisations.

Storytelling can move decision-makers in ways that hard numbers, statistics and reports often can’t.  Storytelling can express experiences deeply and illustrate things more powerfully than standard reporting on achievements.

New developments in storytelling

Modern digital tools let anyone with a digital camera or a computer tell a story of change. Recent software can group story fragments into categories. That allows analysis of patterns and trends in the data that can be used to create quantitative information.

Online media is becoming a powerful tool for storytelling because it lets people share experiences with organisations. They can tell their own story and record their words and share them with others. Author Beth Kanter says:

All Networked Nonprofits are comfortable using the new social media toolset — digital tools such as email, blogs, and Facebook that encourage two-way conversations between people, and between people and organizations, to enlarge their efforts quickly, easily and inexpensively.”

LOCAL RESOURCE

This short video by VisionWest in Auckland is full of storytelling. It uses a narrator and participants to show the effectiveness of the support services the organisation provides.

USEFUL RESOURCES
  • This overview of storytelling for evaluation has a range of useful tips to collect stories, how to analyse and share them.
  • This short video explains how to tell stories to sell products but most of the principles and messages also apply to using storytelling to communicate evidence about the impact of a social service.
  • This short video provides an overview of how a range of research approaches are combined into a storytelling approach.
  • “Becoming a storytelling organisation” – this one-hour video focuses on digital storytelling using the ‘Hatch‘ platform developed by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Jane Field suggests the goals of using storytelling in evaluation include:

  • Tapping into knowledge that practitioners gain through reflection on their own experiences.
  • Providing an environment that lets people tell their stories.
  • Helping practitioners to share their knowledge with one another more effectively.
  • Incorporating practice knowledge in project and service evaluation.

This article explain how to use storytelling for both organisational development and to evaluate effects.

The authors say that storytelling:

Focuses on assessing and describing impact in collaboration with as many relevant stakeholders as possible. We emphasise that storytelling (as we understand it) is a complementary approach in impact analysis and not a substitute for more common practices like data collection and analysis.

Overall, by using stories we hope to establish a closer link between evaluation and organisational learning. We particularly like storytelling for its appreciative approach towards the people involved, while at the same time opening minds and hearts for innovative and creative solutions.”

HOW IT WORKS

  1. Stories provide insights into services and processes, to show effects, demonstrate innovation and support numerical data.
  2. There must be significant trust between the story-tellers and the person recording the story so that people are willing to be open and know how their story might be used.
  3. Story collection usually begins with an interview, in groups or with an individual. There are different ways to record them. They include standardised questionnaires and open-ended notes, and different ways to gather and make sense of the data.
  4. When a person is listening to a story, both sides of their brain are working. The left side of the brain processes the words while the right fills in the gaps.

KEY PARTS OF AN EVALUATION STORY

Richard Krueger is recognised as an expert in storytelling. He uses it to make value judgments about a project or service. His website has a simple guide for using stories to build evidence and learn about a service or project. He defines an evaluation story as:

A brief narrative account of someone’s experience with a program, event, or activity that is collected using sound research methods.”

Krueger advises how to use stories to help programmes and organisations make sense of their services. Krueger also wrote a chapter for the Handbook of Practical Program Evaluation (2010) called “Using Stories in Evaluation.”

Five main parts distinguish an evaluation story from other stories. According to Krueger, an evaluation story:

  • Is a deliberate, planned effort using systematic procedures.
  • Identifies the source of each story.
  • Verifies stories with the storyteller or others familiar with the story.
  • Includes a description of how stories were captured and handled using accepted research protocols.
  • Includes a statement by the person collecting and organising the stories about the degree to which a story represents other individuals with similar circumstances.

Presenting stories as evidence of change

Jane Field suggests a story should not be used in isolation. She explains how to use stories to build evidence about a project or service:

  • Record stories under several subheadings; for example put similar stories together, or group stories under project/programme objectives.
  • Think about the representativeness of the stories; are they typical, extreme cases, responding to special circumstances …have examples been taken across the community or taken into account the different backgrounds of participants.
  • Step back and look for patterns; discuss patterns and differences in the commentary.
  • Compare results to other evaluation findings – stories should not be used in isolation.
  • Address credibility and perception issues.

When providing a report consider whether it’s best to include a lot of stories, in which case it may be best if they are short and to the point.

Alternatively document two or three long stories, and maybe use a couple of quotes from the other stories, which may support a story or offer an alternative perspective.

Advantages

  • Understanding the service or project from the viewpoint of the participants.
  • Reflects the importance of context and its impact on outcomes.
  • Allows the identification of unintended consequences.
  • Provides a means to involve participants in evaluation.
  • Experience-based knowledge that comes up in stories, can be more important in problem-solving than information gleaned by other methods.
  • Lends itself to participatory change processes because it relies on people to make sense of their own experiences and environments.
  • Stories can be systematically gathered and claims verified from independent sources.
  • Narrative themes and suggestions can be integrated into the organisation to help plan services and make decisions.

Disadvantages & Limitations

  • An individual story provides a perspective at one point in time from one point of view. So lessons learnt or a group experience needs to be carefully understood before drawing conclusions about causes or application in other contexts.
  • Stories are always subjective, can be complex and require care in how they represent experiences – which all means they take a lot of time to do well.