A plea to reimagine the story of change

24 August 2022

Following an interesting conversation with Enrique Mendizabal, I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to be honest about ‘stories of change’ or ‘impact stories’ being published by think tanks and others. They are, more often than not, boring. 

We propose that it’s time to reimagine the story of change: to put people at the centre, to bring in multiple perspectives, to provide enough context and texture to be able to truly learn from and engage with the stories.  

We’d love to research this topic further, but for now, I share some initial insights and perspectives from my experience and conversation with Enrique.

The problem with existing stories of change

We used to think of them as case or episode studies. And they were more research outputs.  

Over the years, the focus shifted to demonstrating and celebrating success – as a communication and/or monitoring, evaluation and learning tool. The methodologies adapted accordingly. Funders required them, and think tanks and NGOs obliged. 

While I’ve contributed to and advised on numerous stories of change, I’ve never been satisfied with the outcome, confessed Enrique. He finds them to be:

  • Predictable – ending, as expected, in a successful change. 
  • Linear – starting with a challenge and ending with ‘our great idea’ to solve the challenge. 
  • One-dimensional – focusing on a single storyline and from a singular point of view. 
  • Uninspiring – offering few new insights and certainly little, if any, inspiration for action.

I couldn’t agree more.

If you ask people why they write stories of change, they might say it’s an attempt to share learning with others who are pursuing similar goals (and certainly I would advocate for stories of change over quantitative indicators any day!). Or a public relations exercise to raise an organisation’s profile and demonstrate credibility among current and prospective donors or partners. Or both. 

Most current stories of change might satisfy donors but fall short of meeting learning or public relations goals. 

How we might reimagine them

As Cast From Clay writes in The Think Tank Storytelling series: ‘It’s not just about telling a story – it’s also about making it a good one.’ 

My conversation with Enrique started when he shared this BBC How things fell apart podcast. ‘This is a good story of change’, he wrote on our team Slack channel.

While it’s not labelled a story of change, that’s what it is. And it works because it:

  • Puts people at their centre – both the story protagonists and the audiences.
  • Provides detail, context and texture to the change that took place.
  • Brings in multiple perspectives.

Good storytelling is a skill. At OTT we often hear think tanks and funders talk about hiring a junior researcher or an economist to write their stories of change and advise them to hire a journalist instead. 

Enrique told me about a UK-funded project he worked on tackling Trade and Poverty in Latin America, where they hired a journalist to write about the same topics that the researchers were looking at. The journalist published a series of articles, like this one, or this one, while the researchers published a series of research reports and policy briefs

I worked for a four-year research consortium on drugs, development and conflict in Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar in which we asked storytellers and artists from the three countries to help tell the life stories of the people we were talking to, in addition to many peer-reviewed academic publications.

It’s not about either/or – both types of output serve important functions and audiences and require different skills to produce.

Last week I talked to a former colleague from another research project who’s completing her end-of project report. As she painstakingly sifts through the immense output of several years’ work across multiple countries, she pieces together the project’s story; its impact. She thinks of her work as a mosaic. Different colours and textures, some pieces large, others tiny shards. But this mosaic might be destined to exist only in a log frame and evaluation report. This feels like a shame and a loss. 

What next?

As far as I can see, there aren’t any studies out there on how think tanks are producing and using stories of change and whether they make a difference (let me know if find any).

Here are some of the questions we’d like to help answer (shout if you’d like to fund a small study):

  • What are the different formats research organisations are using to tell stories of change? Who’s writing or producing the stories?
  • What are the most common motivations, aims and target audiences for stories of change?
  • What is their reach? What are the perceptions of their quality, relevance and usefulness among target audiences? And what are the impacts of these stories – are they achieving their intended aims?
  • What are the resources invested in producing stories, and what are funders willing to invest in stories of change?

Have you come across any good stories of change? Tell us: @onthinktanks @louballcomms.