Once upon a time… Why link evaluation with storytelling?

By: Pablo Rodríguez-Bilella
ReLAC (Latin American Evaluation Network)
Truth, naked and cold, had been turned away from every door in the village. 

Her nakedness frightened the people. When Parable found her, she
was huddled in a corner, shivering and hungry. Taking pity on her, Parable
gathered her up and took her home. There, she dressed Truth in Story,
warmed her, and sent her out again. Clothed in Story, Truth knocked again
at the villagers’ doors and was readily welcomed into the people’s houses.
They invited her to eat at their table and to warm herself by the fire.
Jewish Teaching Story (Annette Simmons)

Stories are authentic human expressions that transport us to the core of the experience. Why are stories so powerful? There are several psychological reasons

Stories are a primal form of communication. For centuries, sharing experiences through story has been a primary method of human communication. Folk stories and fairy tales are passed down from generation to generation to share morals and ideas.

Stories are about connection.  When we listen to stories, our imagination adds images and details that connect us to the story. We empathize with the story’s characters and situations because we understand the details of their lives.

Stories are how we think.  Stories are our medium to explain how things work. They help us to understand our place in the world, to create our identities, and to define and teach social values.

storytellingStories provide order. Arguably, every time we describe an experience (e.g. a project or a program), we are telling a story.Therefore, it’s logical to use storytelling to convey how an evaluation has ‘made a difference’. Through skillful storytelling, we can learn from and apply the lessons of effective evaluators.

We are wired for stories. Stories are one of the best ways to engage an audience. Seemingly without effort, information is conveyed; understanding and learning is reinforced.  We human beings are really good at both telling stories and learning from them. 

Stories engage our right brain and trigger our imagination.  Just like reading a great book or watching a touching movie, stories leave a mark on us that lasts far longer than any spreadsheet or asset allocation report.

In our project Evaluations that Make a Difference we will explore how narratives and storytelling can facilitate knowledge transfer and learning. We believe that storytelling can have a profound impact on evaluation stakeholders. Storytelling, in its full glory, allows analytics to come alive in an emotional context that matters to decision makers. 

Sometimes, I feel that the field of evaluation has underestimated the power of a great story. We tend to talk about strategies, numbers and benchmarks, rather than human interactions, experiences and the lives of key stakeholders. The Evaluation Stories project aims to wake-up the evaluation world to the power of stories. 

In a previous post in this Blog, Ramón Crespo asked What if evaluations that make a difference are those that create conditions for change? This is an important question, indeed. Interestingly, when Ramón elaborates, he makes reference to central elements of storytelling. He wrote:

Evaluations can create conditions for change in many different ways:
By giving a voice to those who don’t usually get a chance to express their views;
By challenging program owners with uncomfortable questions; driving them towards the next stage in their organizational development;
By encouraging discussion of findings among stakeholders, using an open format (e.g. workshop) geared towards promoting change rather than presenting a closed report based on the interpretations of a single ‘expert’
Voice, questions, discussions… Key elements that we´ll surely have present in describing and narrating the evaluations that make a difference. 


Filed under The power of stories

6 responses to “Once upon a time… Why link evaluation with storytelling?

  1. Pingback: Había una vez….. Evaluación y narración de historias | Al Borde del Caos

  2. Pingback: Measuring value in Wikimedia projects | Finding Knowledge

  3. Adinda Van Hemelrijck

    I totally agree that evaluations can and must serve not only improvement of performance and policy or decision making, but also development as such. Since we’re talking about evaluations that are assessing/making a difference in people’s lives, it appears to me that we’re talking about a particular kind of evaluation, namely impact evaluation. Impact evaluation is quite different from performance evaluation: it judges a project or program’s value in terms of its contributions to or influences on impact, rather than its performance. A project can perform very well, yet have no influence on impact. Impact can be defined in different ways. In this discussion, we’re clearly talking about relevant, significant, and even transformational change (the latter being understood as systemic change affecting people’s lives in transformational thus empowering ways).

    The biggest elephant in the room for me though is not whether impact evaluation c/should contribute to making such a relevant, significant and transformational change, but rather how it could do so in a way that produces sufficiently rigorous evidence needed to influence and convince power holders, and how we will know it effectively did so. It’s one thing to give people a voice or create space to express their views; it’s another thing to make sure they are actually heard and can hold these power holders accountable. The latter is essential to make the kind of change that transforms people’s lives. For this, evidence need to be sufficiently rigorous.

    In accordance with the literature, it is suggested that participation is essential to create the conditions for change. The argument often used to dismiss participatory approaches, however, is to say that they are not independent and thus their findings are not objective (or not free from political influence and organizational pressure), therefore cannot be used for rigorous causal inference. In addition, it is often argued that it’s the role of project/program managers and policy makers (and not of evaluators) to make use of evaluation findings in order to influence change. Arguments countering this line of reasoning say that the use of evaluation findings remains limited if all these stakeholders (including beneficiaries and decision makers) are not engaged in one way or another, and that evaluations are never entirely free from politics. Relationships and interactions between commissioners and evaluators, between evaluators and evaluated, and among all those who could benefit from the use of the knowledge being generated, do influence not only the uptake but also the design and conduct of evaluations.

    So how do we define and assure and assess rigor of participatory evaluation approaches? I don’t think we can avoid this question. Evaluators and development practitioners do intuitively agree on the need for rigorous approaches, but rigor is often too narrowly defined as a methodological procedure that must assure scientific validity and thus objectivity (or independence), suggesting the use of counter-factual based approaches such as (quasi-) experimental and statistical methods. This raises an important methodological challenge for those who question the value-for-money of impact evaluation and wish to enhance its utility and value for better understanding and influencing transformational development.

    Could the analysis of the stories help us develop a broader concept of rigor that for instance combines scientific and participatory rigor, and as such becomes more suitable for empowerment-focused or transformational research and development efforts? If this question is at stake, I’m happy to learn and contribute…


    • Adinda Van Hemelrijck

      Sorry this is rather a comment on the previous blog post of Ramón Crespo about “What if evaluations that make a difference are those that create conditions for change?”

  4. I heard the stories at the EES conference and we are desperately looking for something like that to introduce the evaluation to our politicians. However, if we want them to understand, it needs to be short and crisp. I would therefore suggest (though I do not know how the printed version will look like) to hire a good journalist and make a short nice story of each, This would help us a lot. Good luck.

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