Finding the Stories Behind the Numbers

13 April 2016
SERIES Think tanks and video 12 items

There’s a lot you can learn from numbers.

In the world of public policy, numbers allow you to track statistical trends, identify systematic problems and evaluate an initiative’s impact. Numbers can also serve as reference points to make important comparisons – a 6.6 magnitude earthquake in Japan, 6.5 million internally displaced in Syria, 4,863 cases of Zika in Brazil – and as a way of making predictions – Clinton +10.8 over Trump, +3.1 over Cruz.

Numbers are, in many ways, the currency of the public policy world. While this offers many benefits to policy makers and researchers, it may hinder our ability to influence the issues we care most about. The world of public policy is one of numbers and systems, but humans are inspired by stories and individuals.

Stories drive our empathy. In the words of Atticus Finch, they allow us to “climb inside the skin” of someone else and “walk around in it.” Numbers don’t necessarily get us amped up and ready to change, but compelling stories about fellow humans often do. In order to have a greater impact on the public’s understanding of an issue, think tanks have to become more effective at finding the stories behind the numbers indicated in their research.  

As a filmmaker, I believe that film and video are incredibly powerful media for telling these stories. More and more think tanks seem to agree with this, and they are creating short videos to communicate their research findings. The ubiquity of video in the policy world is good news. However, far too many think tanks are using video simply as another way of reporting numbers. Very few are taking advantage of the medium’s ability to tell stories that shed new light on an issue.

This is not to say that film is a lousy way of conveying research. But just as a screenwriter must adapt a novel to make a compelling screenplay, a communications team must adapt a research report to make an effective video.  This requires more than interviewing the researcher and drawing up flashy graphics. If a video doesn’t offer information that can’t be found in the executive summary, it’s a waste of the medium’s strength. The most effective policy videos take the viewer behind the research, offering them a first hand look at the stories and images that define the issue being discussed.

This can sound like an overwhelming proposition, but it doesn’t have to be. It just requires asking yourself a different set of questions. As an example, here are the four simple questions that I go through when I try to adapt a research report into a video:

  • Who are the people this report is about? (i.e. who is affected by this problem, program, etc.?)
  • What does their world look like?
  • If I were living in their world, where would I experience the problem (or program, solution, etc.)?
  • How can I show an audience that experience on screen?

Once I’ve answered these questions, I go to those worlds, find those people, see the problem as they see it,  and document it.

This process does not have to be complicated or expensive. My favorite recent example is a 2014 video about street harassment released by the organization Hollaback!.  The video – “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman” – follows a young woman as she walks around New York City for ten hours, documenting the many instances of street harassment she is forced to endure. This simple video, produced for a few hundred dollars, answers the four questions above, offering a first hand look at the problem of street harassment that could never be achieved in a written report.

The video was incredibly effective. To date, it has received over 40 million views on YouTube. According to Hollaback!, it helped garner more mainstream press hits related to street harassment in the two months after its release than in all of 2013. Many policy makers I have spoken with have cited the video as an important reference that shaped policy discussions within their offices.

This is an excellent reminder that effective videos do not always require large budgets. What they do require are well-thought-out concepts that take advantage of the medium.

Combining Communications & Research

When thinking about video and research, it strikes me that there is a great opportunity to combine the production process with the research process itself. Arming field researchers with cameras and storytelling skills or – ideally – pairing them with a production team, gets everyone thinking about how to incorporate video in the early stages of the process. This allows for more time to think of strong concepts that can take full advantage of what the medium offers. It also means that videos can include the scores of stories and images that researchers have access to. Interviews used for research can be filmed, allowing the subjects and locations referred to in a report to literally jump off the page and giving the viewer/reader an opportunity to engage with the material in a more intimate way.

Remember, don’t just film an interview with the subjects; document their world – “climb inside their skin” and “walk around in it” with a camera!

After the field research/production phase, there is a tremendous opportunity for collaboration as the research is written – in the language of numbers and systems – and the video is edited – focusing on the more intimate world of stories and individuals. The result of this collaboration is a multimedia piece that allows audiences to zoom in and out of an issue and develop a more in-depth understanding of the problem and what can be done to solve it.

Evidence grounded in hard numbers is critical to understanding the effects of policy problems and the efficacy of potential solutions. However, the importance of statistics should not blind those of us who seek to make a difference on important issues to the value of stories. Video is a great medium to discover and share stories that give a face and personality to the issues we care most about. These stories offer policy makers and the general public a more comfortable way of discussing an issue and explaining its importance to others. By making an effort to identify the lives and stories that lie at the heart of an issue, think tanks can have an impact on policy that extends far beyond the final frame of their videos. +