EVENT: Storytelling in Research Communications


Storytelling Jim Pennicci2Invitation to a ‘WonkComms Practicals’ webinar on 28 May 2014

ECDPM is pleased to announce the next WonkComms event, a ‘WonkComms Practical’ webinar, being broadcast and livestreamed on 28 May 2014 from 15.00-17.00 (Central European Time) on storytelling for research communications.

Karen Dietz, author of the new book “Storytelling for Dummies” and curator for the “Just Story It” website will speak to us from San Diego via Google Hangout.

Her book explains how storytelling is a key aspect of communications. It is a strategy and a competence, not just a tool, that depicts how our values are embodied in our work (not just stories to say we have values) in order to build relationships, with a goal to compel people to action.

In her presentation to WonkComms she’ll explain how stories are more than just descriptions and can be perceived as even more true than mere facts. She will outline how…

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YES! Getting the whole audience screaming orgastically is a sure-fire way to encourage them to tick the ‘this inspired me’ box on the form. YES, this was TedxMaastricht’s pitch night, giving seventeen people just six minutes each to showcase their interesting stories, life’s works or ambitions. 

The collective shouting took place during the only true performance of the evening. Drum Café provided the rhythm and a couple of drumsticks to each person in the audience. We all, (reluctantly and poorly, at first) clacked along to the beat, culminating in a huge cathartic release so raucously loud that films being shown in other auditoriums of the Lumiere Cinema had to have an enforced intermission. I wasn’t quite certain what their point was, but certainly it was good fun.

They were not the only act to try and get people out of their seats – but unfortunately the good intentions of Joon Meleze to unite the world through singing, hit a bum note. Awkwardly hugging the stranger next to me, half-heartedly bleating the cringe worthy words of their anthem did little to have a rousing effect.

A number of the speakers had personal stories to tell. We heard from a couple of Maastricht University students unhappy with the lack of inspiration in the university system – the fear of failure looming large over their studies and their frustration clearly showed. Chancing his arm, Erik ‘Hook’ Hamers was a rock-climbing amputee with a bespoke prosthetic that allowed him to conquer mountains and adversity. Don’t give up was his message.

The best speakers were those that had a genuine idea to share – like building interactive theatre spaces through innovative architecture in the middle of town squares, or finding the cross over between all three main science disciplines. 

Faten Aggad wanted to use innovative social marketing techniques to help break the glass ceiling and change society to allow more women into leadership.

However one young woman captured the imagination of everyone, winning the contest through her simple message of prevention being the best cure. Her heartwarming transformation from a teenager imprisoned in her own body, into a self-confident healthy adult received the biggest round of applause of the evening. She highlighted the growing problem of obesity, through society’s self-destructive habits meaning that we are all eating ourselves into ill health and major issues further down the line. Proper nutrition and education, she said, can prevent people becoming ill in the first place.

What even is social media any more and why do we need to attend conferences on it?

With Great Power Comes Great Shareablility 

I found myself asking these questions, and more, whilst listening to all the usual non-insightful social media plaudits given by gurus at the OECD event ‘The Power of Social Media’ at #SMWParis.

‘Video is the future of the web,’ ‘social media guidelines are fundamental’, ‘people want to connect with people’, ‘embed social into strategy’.

Sigh. Preaching to the converted, I tweeted. Amen, replied ‏@sordelheide .

As usual, the cynical side of me wanted to block out all the evangelising of several tools – yes we know Twitter is fantastic, life affirming and world changing. Jerome Tomasini, Head of News & Politics at Twitter France (@jerometomasini) gave a rousing speech espousing how Twitter has seemingly become the only way that any mammal with opposable thumbs should possibly be allowed to connect with each other; without which we would not find out about events literally minutes before the real news media did. The story of Twitter is utterly fantastical; we were shown a slick video of how suddenly the world is now full of citizen journalists leaping to action whenever a plane lands on a river, or how budding revolutionaries are rising up against the government all thanks to this wonderful 140 character American micro-blogging site.

Digital Diplomacy

But slowly my cynicism ebbed away when the sessions took a good look at the real power of it all. Yes it is really true that people want to connect with people and not institutions, but why and what do we get from that? Leaders like Obama are far more popular than their institutions on Twitter at 5:1. Twiplomacy is a thing. Which begs the question should we be doing more at ECDPM to have social media champions within the organisation?

Anthony Gooch @pitres director of public affairs and communications at OECD says, there are no easy answers.

But there has to be something that public, governmental and non-governmental organisations can offer on social media that drives engagement. In the private sector it is a simple funnel towards sales, but as an institution that was based purely on books and physical paper reports – an institution with no money – it has a lot of ideas. The best thing for OECD to do is share those ideas.

In 2008 he was afraid of what social media was becoming, and took a punt on the emerging tools. Now, 15% of all their internet traffic comes from Facebook. Their entire philosophy around the Better Life Index is that it is a completely online animal that encourages people to personalise and share. ‘We need to pose questions, not give answers’, he said. They have also shifted around 11 million e-books in the past few years.

Matched with the rise of social media, there is a declining trust in traditional media outlets and governments. OECD digital diplomacy expert Arthur Micholiet explained that social has filled the gap between the public and traditional outlets and power centres.

I guess this is why we are seeing Google promote social stories (from networks like Twitter and Facebook but also now rather aggressively from Google +) in searches. They tend to be viewed as more trustworthy if real people have recommended them. Twitter posts with photos in them drive 1.5x more engagement than those without, showing that people are looking for a raw exclusive window into lives, work and business that comes from a personal view point.

Indeed, contrary to my early sarcasm if you stop and think, it is amazing how Twitter broke the story of the Hudson River plane crash, famously coming from the mobile phone of a passer by, before the media took control of the information and created their own narrative.

The Game of Life

It has now become a game to see who would break the next big story first – in light of this even the BBC had to have an internal meeting to decide if they went with website or @BBCbreaking first (they have nearly 9 million followers now). Indeed the whole social media phenomenon has been driven by the slow gamification of life itself. One of the speakers Yael Swerdlow (@YaelSwerdlow), co-founded a photo sharing game – Snapcious. It harnesses the primal human desire to capture images coupled with the hit of serotonin whenever we get a ‘like’ or a reward for our efforts. ‘Photography is literally darkness illuminated by little bits of light’ and is ‘transcendental of age and gender and society’ she said. An example of how the digital world, content and our susceptibility to be drawn into competitions with our peers combine to make a powerful medium.

Run down lunch facilities at OECD

Run down lunch facilities at OECD

Real Life Connections

In the end what’s really great about these events, and the answer to the question of why do we attend, is meeting people – the real people behind the avatars. Federico Recalde, behind the @OECD_Centre  twitter handle – he said ‘the biggest take-away from this was to meet ECDPM’ – as we had done some work with them recently and become new best friends on twitter.

My own biggest take away was to meet Laurent Pichot who works for the French Ministry and runs their English Twitter account, showing that politics can be funny too. It’s important to show some humour and personality to maximise your impact on social media. So I’ll leave you with these two spoof Tumblrs he runs – fully endorsed by the institution- (one in French, one in English) http://chroniquesdiplomatiques.tumblr.com/  http://gifplomacy.tumblr.com/

For another point of view, read this blog by vice-president of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) in France.

Knowledge management in African agricultural policy

International development isn’t all about starving children or teaching people to fish. It should actually be about promoting policies that lead to a reduction in poverty, and working in cooperation with people to achieve these outcomes.

It is ten years since the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Policy (CAADP) was ratified in Maputo, Uganda. Much progress has been made and now the agenda looks at ‘sustaining the momentum’ built up in various parts of the continent. The implementing agency of The New Partnership for Africa’s Development  (NEPAD), responsible for putting into practice the policy, is taking steps to ensure that lessons, skills and data from over the last decade and into the future are not lost. This is known as knowledge management.

In order to implement the agricultural policy, much of the leg work is done by the Regional Economic Communities (RECs). They are groups of member states around Africa, working together on common issues such as trade and political cooperation, and NEPAD wants to examine how well they are performing within their CAADP teams.

Therefore each of the RECs were invited to attend a workshop in Johannesburg to assess the state of their knowledge management capabilities. Facilitated by partners in Europe, they were sent surveys asking a number of questions on a strongly agree-strongly disagree scale. These were then turned into a set of quantitative results showing in what areas they were strongest.

What is knowledge?

Knowledge can be defined as: anything that can exist outside a human being, known as explicit information or data; plus the experience, skills and attitude of people, which is known as tacit knowledge. Making sure that an organisation effectively captures, stores, shares or even destroys knowledge is a vital part of operation and can encompass a huge amount of tools and departments of a business.

The workshop used the quantitative data from the surveys to start a discussion, to see it instrumental for “integral development”. This approach aims to develop optimised ‘knowledge ecosystems’ in which organisations are equipped to create added and sustainable value for their partners, clients and members. This thinking is based on the principles of systems thinking and is closely related to concepts like organisational learning and innovation systems.


The discussions served to really get to the heart of some of the issues and they found that there were four main areas that the Regional Economic Communities needed further action. They were split into an objective and then an action plan.

Strategy: There needed to be a wider knowledge management strategy that is based on the work already being done, coordinated by the implementing agency of NEPAD.

Management and leadership: KM needs a buy in from high managers and leaders, because the organisations tend to be hierarchical in structure, it can be that the person with the greatest skills and knowledge is not as respected as someone more senior in the organisation.

Inventorying: Using a tool to capture and share knowledge at a broad institutional level

Monitoring and evaluation: Reinforcing KM M&E frameworks to track user satisfaction of products and services

These will form the basis of an action plan that, if implemented, could go a long way to supporting the agricultural policy development in Africa.

World Bank Round Table on Social Media

World-Bank-logoLast week we (@EFBarker and I)participated in a round table on social media in international cooperation and it highlighted that whilst organisations are getting more socially mature, there are still many barriers to effective communication.

Jim Rosenberg head of online communications and social media at the World Bank shared his experiences of how he has sought to mainstream social media throughout his organisation – having had no predecessor in the role of global corporate online & social media.

Whilst it is still a relatively new medium, the worldwide trend is towards transparency and openness. He said we have to ‘meet people where they are, at the languages that they speak’ and the we have to forget old habits of guarding the information we produce.

We think that if we are preaching democracy and empowerment, it’s important that our work is approached in the same way. The consensus was that in a forward looking organisation, social media is not seen as a threat to their work, but an opportunity.

Getting the most out of social media isn’t as easy as waving a magic wand. It’s not just a one step fix. We must listen and engage, as well as speak. Rosenberg is a strong advocate for creating a feedback loop – in order to make sure that your message doesn’t just go out into the ether without capturing the response and using it to inform the rest of your work.

We live in a data-centric world, and being able to monitor what is happening to your messages. Mike Krempasky, an expert on the Obama campaign and co-founder of RedState.com, said that we need to be constantly testing and evaluating incrementally. Feedback must be captured systematically in order to adapt what we are doing for the right audiences, and a structure must be in place to do that.

How many audiences can you effectively reach?

When resources are limited, let the data inform us of where our best chances of impact are. Creating a French language blog or twitter feed might not be the best use of our time when the majority of our potential audience deals in English. However, on that point, it is useless to think in terms of large populations – every country is made up separate groups, regions, sub-sets of individuals. Mike says that in order to be be good at social media, we should be creating global plans and executing them locally.

Choose tools, such as the Weekly Compass newsletter, that are easily measurable, as are the number of hits on the blog. Asking to show impact is unfair, but chances are that with an effective feedback loop, a properly monitored set of data, then a clearer picture of how you are reaching audiences can be built.Test and optimise what you are doing.

So how do you best communicate research?

To be more social you need be be transparent, and in order to get the most out of social media, you can’t just push messages out. The best way is to open up research for questions, ask for input before it’s been published. Some people have been including twitter derived research within publications, using it as an invaluable crowd-sourcing network. Create a life for the arguments, points or questions you are raising. When it’s published, record a video talking about it, write a blog, invite people to comment and engage with it.

Involve people on the ground in policy discussions, even before the policy is formulated. This can be done by asking questions on twitter, being engaged with local populations. It ought to be a part of researchers’ jobs and work stream that it is an integrated tool to be used appropriately and successfully.

In order to approach this, you can’t just do it ad-hoc. Both Krempasky and Rosenberg agree that it should be like any other business plan – identifying by risk, resources, time SWOT analysis etc. Ask what is the end state you’d like to achieve, examine the current state you’re in and plot out the path to get there. The best thing to do is to approach it with the same amount of rigour as anything else, write down what you want to accomplish, really understand the goals and figure out how to measure it, and make it a part of your core operations.

Lastly it is important to remember to always be valuable to people – the content is king.