By Emily Verstege
In a household with two little kids, we’re pretty into stories right now. My favourite children’s books are the ones with a grabby plot, a few jokes pitched squarely to the parents, and which offer an opportunity for conversation long after the final page has been turned. We’ve had some important conversations recently after reading, for example, Young Dark Emu and Welcome to Country during NAIDOC week.
At ARTD, since coming across Gabrielle Dolan’s Stories for Work, we have been thinking a lot about the role of story-telling in evaluation. While facts and figures go hand in hand with the kind of qualitative and quantitative data we use in evaluation, we know that story-telling is an important way to appeal to our audiences’ emotional selves. And we don’t—necessarily—mean emotions as in tears and tantrums; we mean engaging with evaluation information in a way that deeply resonates with the reader. Neurobiological evidence shows that story-telling sticks because it triggers the release of the so-called ‘love hormone’, oxytocin (the same chemical that bonds mothers with their babies).
Dolan describes four types of stories for work: triumph, tragedy, transition and tension. Author Valerie Khoo describes eight ‘power stories’, including stories about passion, your customers, your product and your pitch. These are both great typologies, but neither is quite right for evaluation. Like Dolan, we think there are four important types of stories evaluators can tell.
For all these stories, but particularly for personal stories, it’s useful to think about the role that telling stories plays in evaluation. As Oliver Sacks said, ‘Telling our life stories is perhaps one of the most powerful therapeutic tools available to man.’ Very often, evaluation participants are motivated to share their stories as a way of processing their own emotions, or to pay it forward to others who might be thinking, feeling or experiencing similar situations. These are often stories about hope, survival and resilience. As evaluators, our role is to hold these stories precious and to retell them faithfully and fairly to evaluation commissioners. Story-telling is an important evaluation process, not just a way of describing findings.
Stories aren’t for everyone. Some people really engage with stories and find them the most convincing type of evidence, while others aren’t swayed by them. They might enjoy stories, but they need to read numbers and nuggets of quantitative information to get on board with your evaluation findings. In our experience, story-telling works best when there is a strong narrative accompanied by factual text. We’ve observed a strong relationship between the use of stories and the use of our evaluation findings. How might you tell a story in your next evaluation?
In our next blog, Ruby will share some simple tips for writing stories that stick by cutting the clutter in your written work.