Knowing your audience

Finding the moment of change: How to capture the story in your research

By 25 January 2016

In a world filled with so many voices clamouring for attention- where so many facts and figures flood the internet and swarm across media channels- how do you find the story in your research? Not just the story OF your research- the procedural beginning, middle and end- but the story WITHIN it that will capture the attention of your chosen audience. How do you find the story that will make them turn away from all the other noise and data and listen to what your evidence has to say?

We often put a lot of emphasis on HOW a story is delivered- we live in a world where the medium is crucial in accessing the right people in the right way. However, if you have not first identified the right message for that medium then you are wasting valuable resources and energy.

Just as you might decide to use social media or produce a suite of printed documents or launch a visual media campaign, you have to decide which story most effectively encapsulates the message you want to communicate. The story is the vessel that holds your message together. It allows the audience to understand what it is you are trying to show them.

Essentially ALL stories revolve around a point of change. In order to create an effective story you must find the moment of change (either negative or positive, big or small) which most clearly illustrates your point. However, deciding which moment (and this ‘moment’ can in fact be taken from a long time period- the importance lies in the contrast) can be more difficult than imagined.

Below are some basic steps which should help you piece together an effective story which can be used as a communication tool. And not simply a tool for journalists or communication professionals. A story is anything that records a process. It is the most powerful means of getting your message heard, whether you are talking about climate smart agriculture, a new low cost digital radio or male circumcision.

  1. What is your message?

Before you can find the story to illustrate your point you must be clear as to what that point is.

  1. Find the moment of change.

Imagine your research as a chronological series of images. Choose the images that stand out- the snapshots that illustrate change. This change could be small- perhaps even a lack of evidence leading to a re-evaluation of an initial hypothesis. Or it might be an example of positive social response on the ground, a particular rice crop raising yields in one area for example. Change is a central element of any story but it must speak to your message clearly.

  1. Begin at the beginning.

All stories need a beginning. For an audience to engage and respond they need to feel secure in their understanding of the progress of the story. Thus once you have identified your moment of change you need to identify the point of entry for your audience, normally a period of stasis, or a particular moment which illustrates the need for the change which will later come about. The beginning is vital for throwing into relief the central moment of change, revealing any positive or negative impacts by providing contrast.

  1. End well.

Just as the beginning does not need to be “once upon a time” nor does the end have to be “happily ever after”. Indeed ending well here does not necessarily mean finding a positive image to leave with the audience- it may be that there is no positive image, that change was negative, that your evidence highlights a desperate social need. The important thing is that your ending leaves a clear impression on the audience. It should summarise the contrast within the story and point to the potential futures beyond the story- it is your chance to point to the message clearly.

The ending of the story does not have to correspond with the end of your project- it is only necessary that it relates clearly to the point of change upon which the story hinges.

  1. Make it flow.

Once you have your beginning, middle and end you must create a narrative around them which uses the language your audience best responds to. It may be that you are writing a case study in an evidence brief, or maybe a news story for print media, or a blog for an organisation website; all these forms demand different styles of language but essentially the story formula remains the same. Similarly with visual campaigns or film- ensure the beginning clearly leads to the middle point of change and that the contrast and message are clearly illustrated in the ending.

  1. Make them look beyond the story.

Words alone are not always enough- incorporating images and videos help enrich stories on the web. Videos are especially effective if the story is not dependent on them. The audience should be able to understand your story and your message clearly without looking further BUT always allow your audience the chance to investigate for themselves. By providing reading lists, or embedded videos or media links you are providing further gateways to your research and increasing the power of your message. Sometimes an audience wants to look beyond a story before they will fully believe it.

 

How you choose to present your story will affect the audience you reach and their form of engagement. Here are some examples of how stories can be adapted for different audiences and harness different online technologies to different effect.

CIFOR’s Forest blog brings together stories of its research and the communities surrounding it.

Firestorm: The story of the bushfire at Dunalley was an online feature produced by The Guardian in May 2013- it illustrates how multimedia can provide a powerful addition to your online story.

Fighting poverty, hunger and malnutrition with neglected and underutilized species (NUS): needs, challenges and the way forward is a Bioversity International Publication which incorporates smaller stories of impact into its overarching story of change in order to provide clear representations of need and potential change.

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Laurie Huggett

Laurie is the editorial manager of Research to Action and a senior associate at CommsConsult, a global development communication consultancy. She believes that good communication has to be the basis for all positive change. Experienced in producing editorial and digital content for global development organisations as well as designing and running websites, implementing advertising campaigns and writing press releases for national and international media, Laurie understands the benefits of a well-designed communication strategy. This awareness forms a useful backdrop to her real passion for research and writing.