How to tell a compelling story about your project

  • By Laurie Goering and Zoe Tabary, Thomson Reuters Foundation
  • 01/03/2017

Mbayan Fam looks out over the deforested sea inlet where she and other local women work gathering salt and have replanted trees to stop erosion and provide shade in Keur Mboucki, Kaffrine, Senegal. TRF/Megan Rowling

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Start with a story if you can. Imagine you are excitedly telling your next-door neighbour or your cousin about something really interesting that’s happened in your project. You have just a minute or two to do it, and that they are completely unfamiliar with the project. How would you start?

You probably wouldn’t recount everything that’s happened so far in chronological order, or list all the organisations involved in the project, or give precise details of where it’s geographically located. You’d likely start with a single example of what’s most interesting or memorable or colourful – the thing that sticks in your mind.

Would you keep reading if a story started this way?

The families of Zargissa village keep their savings in a box locked with three padlocks. The system is designed to keep the community’s money safe - not just because it takes three keys to open the box, but because all of them are held by women.

What if you just can’t find a good story? Do you have some colourful detail you could share?

In the hot mid-day sun in northern Burkina Faso, temperatures can reach 40 degrees. But in the green shade of the community tree nursery, a cool breeze offers welcome relief.

How about seeing if you have an unusual or striking fact?

Of the 200 families living in Myanmar’s Antu village, only one had cash savings three years ago. Today 90 percent of families have access to emergency cash to help in times of crisis.

You could also try asking a question:

What does it take to get climate funds to local communities?

Remember that the most important part of your story is the first paragraph or two. If you haven't caught your reader's attention by the end of that, they may not read on.

Next, briefly state the problem you’re trying to address, and why addressing it is important. To persuade your reader to keep going in your story, after the nice start, they now need to understand why this matters. Often a few simple sentences can work fine.

Climate change is bringing more frequent and severe droughts and floods across the Sahel, ruining crops and worsening hunger in villages already vulnerable because of poverty, economic shocks or conflict. Reducing vulnerability, by helping families protect their harvests, save more money and get through shocks without sinking further into poverty, is important because it can save lives and lower pressures that can lead to worsening conflict over land and water.

Now you can begin to give the details of what you’re doing, where it’s happening, who the partners are and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Project Resilience is working to reduce the vulnerability of 50,000 people in northern Mali by helping them plant tree nurseries, improve the health of their soil, and start village savings and loan associations. The three-year effort, carried out by a consortium that includes The International Development Group, the University of Zare and WorldRelief, is working to....

Make the language as simple to understand as possible – think again about how you’d say this to your neighbour over dinner. To make it most effective:

  • Cut the jargon. Many readers don’t understand jargon or academic terms. Try to write in the everyday language you use to talk to family and friends. Before you refer to “gender mainstreaming” or “post-2015” ask yourself if your grandmother would understand what you're talking about.
  • Avoid abbreviations. Too many references to DRR, SDGs, etc. create alphabet soup. Many people won't understand them so don't use them without explaining what they mean the first time you use them. A lot of abbreviations in an article are alienating even when the reader does know what they stand for. Try to find alternative words or phrases, such as “people uprooted from their homes” rather than IDPs.
  • Keep sentences relatively short and simple, or vary sentence length. Putting lots of clauses in your sentences will make them harder to read.

Quotes make a story great. A powerful quote that provokes some sort of emotion can help readers relate to a situation they're unfamiliar with. If you have a good quote, put it high up in your story if possible. Quotes that are full of jargon or figures should be avoided. The best quotes are someone’s reflection or view on something, rather than a listing of facts and figures. Those can be used outside of quotes.

A good quote: “Before we started this savings group, I worried about feeding my family. Now I am confident, and I sleep well at night.”

Not such a good quote: “With inputs of 55,000 tonnes of improved hybridized seed purchased by the VSLA over the 2015-2016 early monsoon growing season, farmers were able to increase sorghum harvests per hectare from 250 quintals to 260 quintals,” said Senzou Mohammed.

It can help support your story if you include a quote somewhere in it from someone outside your organisation about the importance of this work. Try speaking with a local official, traditional leader, religious official or other respected person who is not part of your effort, for an outside view of how effective it has been or what they have been impressed by.

Kim Le Win, the local government’s gender expert, said the project was the most effective she had seen in changing attitudes. “I have seen programmes come and go, but this one seems to be making lasting change because it is working with men as well as women,” she said.

Include examples where possible. If you’re talking about “alternative livelihoods” for example, give an example. Including a “such as” or “for example” will help your reader understand better.

The project aims to give drought-hit crop farmers alternative livelihoods, such as selling tree saplings or raising fruit for sale.

Better yet:

The project aims to help farmers who lose their crops to drought find other ways of making money, such as by selling tree saplings or raising fruit for sale.

Include some colourful detail if you have it. Telling your reader a bit about what a place looks, sounds or feels like gives them a real feeling of what it's like to be there. Is it hot? Dusty? Are there no trees within sight? Can you hear cattle bells? Are the cattle fat or thin? Is the local reservoir full or nearly empty?

Focus on people's stories. Looking at the experiences of a single person or family can be a powerful way of bringing a subject alive and enabling the reader to identify with the people you are describing. Tell one or more of these stories in your article if you can.

Before the end of your story:

  • Talk about what was achieved. What has actually changed? What roadblocks were overcome to get there? What questions or challenges remain? What remains to be done?
  • Explain the significance of what was achieved. In the community or communities where you work, and more broadly, why does this matter?

Before you send in your story:

Check figures and spellings of names of people and organisations. And then check them again. These are the easiest things to get wrong and an error can discredit your piece.

Propose a headline. It should be short, interesting and contain no jargon or acronyms. The best headlines have a strong verb.

When you've finished ask yourself:

  • Is the piece interesting? Would I read it if I didn’t already know about this?
  • Would my grandmother understand it?

 

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