Remembering, retelling and reshaping stories for research engagement

Participants at the recent SAIRLA International Learning Alliance (ILA) event in Ethiopia were set a challenge – to produce a very short pitch that encapsulated their learning and encouraged sustainable agriculture investors to listen further.  How easy would it be to undo years of academic training and tell an engaging story in less than 100 words? SAIRLA communication advisers Clare Gorman and Duncan Sones describe what happened next.

Picture restorers have to remove layers of patina built up over the years, to reveal the hidden masterpieces. The picture was there all the time – it just got to the point where most people couldn’t see it. For us, the process of communication training at the ILA was a very similar process.

Researchers are great at talking. Chat to any one of them in the coffee break and you will hear animated stories of extraordinary change and progress. But ask the same people to formally present their work and a strange transformation takes place. Years of academic training kick in and instead of a clear explanation of the problem and the research, a smoke screen of jargon pours forth.  So, a simple problem statement such as ‘we realised that we needed to help women in farming households access information to meet their needs’ becomes ‘systemic failure to address the information asymmetries for gender groups despite their heterogeneous financial positions and diverse value chain interactions with a variety of actors’.

To help its partners avoid the same pitfall, SAIRLA held a training session at the ILA specifically designed to encourage project teams to strip back and retell their research stories. To assist, a guidance note was prepared by a small working group the day before the event. A peer-review process was also included to remind participants of the importance of a people-centred story and to ensure that the material being presented was clear and reflected what would be interesting to a policy audience.

As a result of the peer review process, some projects flipped their presentations around and emphasised different elements of their work. A good example of this was the presentation by the Research and learning for sustainable intensification of smallholder livestock value chains (ResLeSS) project. Through the training they gave more emphasis to a game they had developed to facilitate conversations in the process of resolving land-use conflicts between farmers and pastoralists. The feedback noted this made a unique contribution and provided a story with strong human interest. As their pitch developed, the game, and its impact, were seen to be important parts of their story which supplement the core research narrative about the environmental and social impacts of changing livestock livelihoods.

Ahead of a ‘marketplace’ with Ethiopian stakeholders, the teams were also asked to think about what the invited guests needed to hear. This seemed to be successful. The guests, who included representatives from the UN, FAO, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture, were able to quickly absorb what the projects had achieved.

The training received some great feedback. First of all, there was a surprise at the revelation that with good preparation, projects could distil the essence of their projects into one-minute pitches that delivered both headlines and key features. As one participant said: “We made small attractive packages from our complex stories”. Another delegate commented: “It is mind blowing what you can say in a minute”.

The process had also made the participants think differently about what they had achieved.

One of the delegates noted that the short pitches and poster sessions paid dividends when the representative of the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture was able to list out the ideas she felt she would be able to harvest in the future.

Another said that the training had showed them how to hook partners and force them to see the positive aspects of their own work. A researcher talked about how this process made them reflect on the amount they had achieved she also noted their new-found confidence about sharing their lessons. The Ghana National Learning Alliance saw the value of localising their research in ways that resonate with decision makers and hit people’s interests. They felt that this approach is more likely to see their research becoming useful than relying on dense reports.

SAIRLA’s Learning Alliance Lead Richard Lamboll, from the Natural Resources Institute, put his finger on the problem in his closing comments of the ILA when he noted how strong the incentives to write in such a wordy way really are. For example, there is an academic industry of peer-reviewed papers that requires this language – indeed journal papers are still considered a key output for research programmes. And researchers will get promoted on the basis of the journal papers they lead or to which they contribute.

We hope that after the training, SAIRLA’s partners have the confidence to challenge what Michael Billig, Professor of Social Sciences at Loughborough University and author of ‘Learn to Write Badly: how to succeed in the social sciences’ rather bluntly describes as ‘self-interested valuing of difficulty and linguistic innovation’ and take one step closer to being multilingual enough to talk to academics, decision makers and indeed anyone with an interest in their research.

One of the delegates said: “I used to think I was writing research for publication. Now I see that I can deliver the findings of the research to create change.”

We look forward to finding out.

Clare Gorman and Duncan Sones are independent media consultants supporting the SAIRLA programme.