Strategic Storytelling and Communications for Impact

Students walk in grade groups to their classrooms at Birendrodroya Higher Secondary School in Mukli, lower Solu Khumbu District, Nepal. The Australian Himalayan Foundation with its local partner REED has delivered teacher-training for hundreds of teachers in theSolo Khumbu region of Nepal. Photo: Conor Ashleigh/Australian Himalayan Foundation.

Conor Ashleigh

27 Jul, 2017

Conor Ashleigh is a visual storyteller and development communications specialist working across both mediums of photography and video. Conor has worked in more than 50 countries for a range of clients in the development and humanitarian sectors. Find out more at his website.

Conor hosted a workshop on ‘Strategic Storytelling and Communications for Impact’ at RDI Conference 2017. The interactive workshop was part presentation and part small group discussion. Conor presented examples of how he has worked to communicate impact and tell stories that span the length of a projects, and attendees then had opportunities to share in small groups their own communications experiences and challenges. Below is a short set Q&A with Conor that reflects some key ideas that were explored during the workshop: 

1.      What is the benefit of storytelling/use of narrative, over and above traditional evidence (facts and figures)? How do these complement each other?
I see the details, the facts and figures of a project, as underwriting any narrative or human led stories of impact. It isn’t an either / or situation; more it is considering how best to personify a project which in many instances is working at a scale beyond just a few individuals and a single community. In such instances I would suggest that there is great power in communicating a story that can present an individual or collective experience where there has been change brought about by, or knowledge cultivated from a project or development initiative.

2.      Why do we need to communicate the impact of our work -isn’t it good enough that the work is done?
Today in the development space it is crucial for projects to communicate their impact. Communicating impact doesn’t just have to just be external facing communications, it can be peer reviewed articles, blogs, case studies etc. Most organisations today understand the need to communicate impact and generally have a good idea of who their audiences are. However it seems a lot of projects are still unclear of how they are going to communicate different stories for their different audiences.

3.      What approach to communicating impact do you think works best?
I advocate a long-term approach to communicating impact. This isn’t something that should be undertaken at the end of a project as staff compile final reports - it should be considered and planned for from the outset. By accompanying communities throughout the lifespan of a project, their experiences and perspectives can be documented along the way.

This long term approach to communicating impact isn’t just made up of externally-focused communications, it also emphasises developing project focused communications and most importantly participatory approaches to communication. There are still many organisations that see these three as mutually exclusive or difficult to undertake simultaneously.

By investing in long-term communications relationships, the opportunities for deeply engaging participatory communications is increased. This approach also leads to a greater depth in the project communications and finally it produces more short stories that are suitable for communicating to external audiences.

Of course, such an approach does have costs associated, however I believe that if it is budgeted for from the outset and it engages both project and communications staff there is a greater chance of it being valuable for everyone.

4.      What are the ethical considerations we need to account for in the communication of work with vulnerable groups or in challenging contexts?
I believe that when working with communities the same core ethical considerations apply whether someone is a communications specialist or a member of project staff. I have always maintained that it is more important for communications specialists to have a foundation in community development rather than rather than media production for example.

When I am undertaking my communications work I have the same approach of communicating with people that I had in previous community engagement roles. Strong interpersonal and cultural communication skills are crucial in this work. Informed consent is now standard across the development space and that is great. But how it is sought is crucial and this is one basic ethical consideration I always like to address. I’ve seen many instances of box ticking for the sake of compliance just as I have seen genuine consent gathered really well in a range of cultural contexts.

Another key ethical consideration is visual representation. There are still many images, both still and moving, which reinforce disempowering representations of communities and individuals from the majority world. This reiterates the importance of communications specialists with backgrounds in community development. 

Photo: Abdul Aziz, Hafeez Ullah and David McGill practice taking photos using a tablet. The group were participating in training in Commcare, a digital data collection application that can be used on tablets. In December 2016 AgImpact delivered training to the AVCCR dairy beef project in Pakistan.  Photo: Conor Ashleigh/Agimpact.


  • Conor Ashleigh
    Conor Ashleigh

    Conor Ashleigh is a visual storyteller and development communications specialist working across both mediums of photography and video. Conor has worked in more than 50 countries for a range of clients in the development and humanitarian sectors. Find out more at his website

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