The interesting narrative


Andrew Milner


Consider the following:

‘The Local Support Group in X started its operational phase in 2008 with a focus on three priority areas: spaces, identity and culture. The first project was the establishment of a ‘creativity desk’ to attract young people and organize a number of thematic labs on modern forms of artistic expression (music, dance, street art, etc). A wider community project was then launched under the name Y to collect the memories and stories of the area’s inhabitants … This allowed members of the community to share their visions of X over the years and create a sense of belonging and social cohesion at a time of significant change.’

Now read it again. This time, try and determine how far you got before your attention wandered. The passage is not chosen because it’s the worst I could find, in fact, the point is it’s no worse than many others. It’s about people and events, yet it remains abstract. Not only is not much fun to read, it’s also tantalisingly uninformative. We’re told about ‘different community actors’ and a project to collect ‘memories and stories’, but none of these is even sketched individually, let alone coloured in. It could and should be more interesting than it is.

Why don’t we make more effort to make reports interesting? I can think of a couple of reasons: first, organisations and their programmes often operate on a large scale. Picking out the effects on an individual is either impossible or gives you a completely false impression of it. Second, the backgrounds of most of us will be in some kind of social science, with its po-faced impersonality and its devotion to the case study. As a literary diet, it’s not very satisfying. And it’s not very persuasive. You won’t make the phrase ‘poor and marginalised’ come to life, no matter how many times you repeat it. I also suspect that somewhere at the back of this is the feeling that, ‘it’s medicine, it’s not supposed to taste nice.’ Stories are frivolous, reports are serious. The two should be kept apart.

I don’t believe that. It seems obvious to me that people are more readily engaged by what happens to other people, than by what happens to institutions or organisations. It should be possible to use stories more often than we do to dramatise the effects of an intervention or a problem, so that readers are led into more general consideration of the subject.

So how do we go about it? People from Aristotle to modern management consultants have theorised about the elements of a story. A quick web search will produce any number of variants but a common view is that there are five of them.

Character – who the story is about

Setting – where it takes place

Plot – what happens

Conflict – the problem or circumstances against which the character or characters have to contend

Theme – the underlying ‘message’ or value the author is trying to convey.

I believe that, for our purposes, they are reducible to three rules:

Rule 1: Don’t be boring.

Rule 2: At some point in the account, something has to happen to somebody who is recognisably an individual.

Rule 3: If this isn’t possible, see Rule 1.

Inspired by a Stanford Social Innovation Review workshop on storytelling I’m attending at AVPN in Singapore next week, let me suggest some general guidelines

  • Where you can use the experiences of an individual to highlight what you are trying to say, do.
  • If you can use their own words, do.
  • Use as few words as possible. There’s a masterly bit of laconic storytelling in a Randy Newman song where he is describing a flood in New Orleans: ‘River rose all day, river rose all night. Some people got lost in the flood, some people got away alright.’
  • Restrict yourself to describing circumstances and characters immediately relevant to the story. Don’t be led into ramified descriptions of events, organisations, etc. Think what readers need to know for the story to make sense, tell them, and stop there.
  • Restrict yourself to single nouns and adjectives where possible
  • Use discretion when cutting and pasting from existing documents. The chances are you’ll be importing some of the flaws you’re trying to get rid of.
  • Keep technical terms to a minimum. Where they are indispensable, apply the same rules as to the narrative in general – in other words, explain them as briefly and clearly as you can.
  • Avoid jargon.

Am I ever guilty of these lapses? You bet! Am I riding a hobby horse? Of course I am. Is the point I’m making trivial? I don’t think so. As an editor, I’m a professional reader. I have to read this stuff and probably you do to. But nobody else does and unless it catches their attention, they’re unlikely to. At a time when philanthropy is constantly being urged to reach beyond itself and collaborate with other sectors, talking to ourselves might not be the best idea.

Andrew Milner is Associate editor of Alliance magazine

Tagged in: AVPN

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