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The art of using M&E to tell a good story

Remember being tucked into bed and transported into a fairytale world by your parent’s voice as they read you a bedtime story? Hanging onto every word, we would eagerly listen to the same stories over and over again; stories passed down through generations, which we remember and love well into adulthood and will likely share with our own children.

Stories are not only helpful for putting children to sleep – fable, allegory and parable have long been used to share ideas and moral lessons with children and adults alike. Good stories hook us in, capturing our imaginations, emotionally engaging and entertaining us with suspense, humour and interesting characters.  

Our innate love of stories and their ability to cut through barriers, makes them a highly effective way to communicate the impact of your development project with others. Our brains store information in story form and telling a good development story will not only help convince your grant manager, project director, team or community partners of the value and impact of your intervention, but help to ensure that it is top-of-mind when decisions are made, or best practices are discussed. Stories can also form a useful part of an evaluation process and participatory evaluation techniques like Most Significant Change rely on them to collect evidence of impact from stakeholders.

Unlike fairytales, social development stories need to be substantiated with evidence. Adding the right data supports the validity of your story. This information does not need to be boring or distracting and can, in fact, add greatly to the impact of your narrative. Photographs, video and the voices of partners and beneficiaries can bring your project to life while providing real evidence of your activities and impact. Statistical data, when carefully presented, can tell stories and communicate ideas.

A statistical story is one that doesn’t just recite data in words. It tells a story about the data. Readers tend to recall ideas more easily than they do data. (UNECE, 2009)

Consider the three different ways of communicating the scale of the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa presented in the slides below:

Which would you remember?

Stories are most effective when told using plain language, in a journalistic rather than an academic style. Journalistic techniques such as the headline; the lede (or lead), which draws the reader in; and the nut graf, which explains the value and essence of your story, can all be usefully employed in your storytelling. Visual techniques can also help to summarize and draw attention to key story elements.

Visme has published useful storytelling tips used in great Ted Talks. These techniques include:

  • Immerse your audience in the story
  • Tell a personal story
  • Create suspense
  • Bring characters to life
  • Show. Don’t tell.
  • Build up to S.T.A.R. moment – “Something They’ll Always Remember”
  • End with a positive takeaway

There is much to learn from those who have mastered the art of storytelling. At Data Innovator we have found this approaches useful for writing project case studies, presentations, and even conceptualizing infographics.

Author/s: Gabby Kelly & Jerusha Govender

Other useful resources:

Making data meaningful: A guide to writing stories about numbers. 2009. United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. Geneva: United Nations.

Improving M&E: How to tell our story better. Lentfer, J.