What happens when we combine research with storytelling public engagement? I reflect on a research storytelling workshop conducted at the political ecology conference POLLEN20; and the training process leading up to it which involved 12 researchers working on environment and development issues from the University of Sheffield.
Where it all started: research storytelling at the University of Sheffield
It was on a stormy night in November 2019 when 12 researchers from the University of Sheffield braved the elements to do the most scary thing of all: stand up in front of a non-academic audience, with no Power Point slides for comfort, armed only with a microphone and the power of words. We shared funny and deep, scary and wonderful experiences and thoughts from our fieldwork in all four corners of the globe. Our reflections were crafted into 10-minute story arcs, steered expertly by our professional storyteller Tim Ralphs.
Tim Ralphs had conducted a research storytelling training process between September and November 2019 with 12 University of Sheffield researchers (thanks to both SIID and the CONVIVA – convivial conservation research project for supporting the process and the workshop, respectively). The training process involved unlearning some academic communication conventions such as using unnecessary jargon or overloading presentations, as well as learning some good practices for communication in general and particularly non-academic audiences: Thinking through what is/is not interesting and relevant from the audience’s viewpoint. Sharing emotions and humour. Including evocative details that help transport our audiences to the locations we are speaking about. Speaking in an accessible way about our diverse and complex research topics, from elephant conservation in East Africa via national parks in Indonesia to urban living in Colombia. (Some of the resulting videos can be accessed here.)
Workshopping with storytellers-to-be
At #POLLEN20, professional storyteller Tim Ralphs, Prof. Frances Cleaver (University of Lancaster) and myself co-convened the workshop: ‘Research storytelling: A beginner’s guide’ to share guidance and insights on using research storytelling for public engagement. We were pleasantly surprised – and slightly overwhelmed – by how much interest it generated, as we wanted to accommodate ideally all interested in the workshop, yet also had to ensure the three-hour virtual endeavour would be as interactive and engaging as possible for all participants.
What is storytelling (good) for?
Tim Ralphs kicked off the workshop by reflecting on some values of storytelling: he highlighted engagement with especially non-academic audiences given the privileged status that storytelling has in cognition and memory, making passion contagious through stories and the values shared within them, and researchers’ opportunity to reflect and step back on their usual work.
Ralphs also emphasised that in his experience of working with researchers, the principles of storytelling can be useful in a multitude of settings: in writing grant applications, research papers and even PhD theses, on social media, in teaching, job interviews, or in repatriating stories, i.e. telling them back to the groups which they came from.
Principles and practices of storytelling
Three permissions are crucial for academics to engage in research storytelling as public engagement:
1) Researchers exist and can thus feature in the story,
2) it is ok to present a single point of view, and
3) there is no need for citations, you have an authority to speak.
As a palpable example, we watched the story told by PhD researcher Itzel San Roman Pineda. Focusing on solidarity in tourism for development, she reflects on her fieldwork in in the Yucatán Peninsula (near Cancún), Mexico. By sharing tangible, evocative details ranging from being woken up by howler monkeys to getting to know indigenous communities, by sharing her own changing ideas, by choosing language that is deeply sympathetic towards her research participants and the environment in which they live, and by using humour very effectively, Itzel brilliantly crafts a story which drew in the audience both on the night and at the workshop. Workshop participants commended her for the effective way she used pictures to transport them to her field site, making abstract concepts tangible and concrete, while sharing her own personal journey so that Itzel’s learnings become the audience’s learnings.
So how do you craft a story?
Itzel’s story illustrated a range of good storytelling practices, applicable for our 10-minute oral sharing as well as other storytelling undertakings.
Tim emphasized the importance of staying on a theme: what is the story about? How can I ensure that my examples, style, structure resonate with that key theme?
Secondly, a conscious structure is important to help listeners follow the narrative: while Tim reiterated the importance of not following any one set prescribed structure or sequence, foreshadowing and reincorporation as well as framing are key. Asides/tangents can be useful, but, as with complicated structure choices, need to be framed and incorporated in a manner that facilitates listener engagement.
An emotional, personal arc can equally be helpful as a way to boost engagement, as we infer meanings from how a story makes us feel.
We very much appreciated the opportunity to engage with such a range of disciplines and experiences of storytelling at POLLEN20: our research participants were already using or are planning to use storytelling in exciting ways, including through research diaries, institutional mapping or graphic novels, which we very much look forward to seeing. Building on this positive space for mutual learning, we do hope to stay in conversation around the possibilities and challenges of storytelling and research – in political ecology and far beyond.
For our Sheffield storyteller group, it is fair to say the storytelling bug has caught us – various storytellers have stated how the training process changed the way they write and teach, with some using storytelling for their research now. Moreover, with storytellers Suma Mani, Jonas Cromwell, Itzel San Roman and Frances Cleaver, we are working on an academic paper reflecting more systematically on our storytelling experiences, and sharing some lessons in relation to it. Watch this space!