The power of storytelling in research - Jackson Millwood, Content and Communications Lead, Thriving Communities Partnership

The concept of storytelling is nothing new (in fact it has been a valued way of passing knowledge across generations in Aboriginal culture for thousands of years) but it is a space that is ever evolving. In a world teeming with content and information, hard data, facts and figures; it’s easy for our research and our message to get lost in the fray.

The power of storytelling in research - Jackson Millwood, Content and Communications Lead, Thriving Communities Partnership

With the rise of so many social platforms and communication tools (and the fall of concentration spans), storytelling has developed into an entirely new artform. In order to stand out, be heard, and inspire action, we don’t need people to see, we need people to feel. Blending creativity, emotion, and experimentation into the communication of our research and messaging can open up so many new doors, ones we may not have ever thought of opening. Most importantly, it allows people to connect with your work, see themselves in it and not only understand, but feel your message.

When we focus solely on the numbers and statistics, we risk separating humanity from our work.

When we focus solely on the numbers and statistics, we risk separating humanity from our work. Fifty is just a number. But fifty human stories, fifty human lives, fifty hopes, dreams, emotions and futures tell a much deeper story and one that is incredibly important to tell.

In my time at TCP, a lot of my work has focused on the Fostering Financial Stability for People in Prison Research. Coming on board in mid-2021, I sifted through more than a thousand speaking notes from our lived experience representatives, each of them capturing a unique experience, emotion or human quality - each a part of a unique story.

When examining the rich qualitative data from our project, I am reminded of a word from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, one that captures a feeling I’m sure many of us have come across.

Sonder - the realisation that each random passer-by is living a life as vivid and complex as your own (extended, eloquent definition below)*. I feel that this connection to human stories is innate and is a central driver of action and changes in behaviour.

From our prison research, 10 overarching insights, 45 sub-findings and 45 key opportunities emerged after months of drafting and collaboration (just numbers, I know). The report is dense - a necessary aspect of delving into such a complex space - but it is how we communicate the narrative within these insights that the impact and opportunity for change lies. To ensure our research isn’t left on a shelf to gather dust, action and change must be our ultimate goal - therefore, evoking ‘sonder’ and emotional connection in our readers must also be our goal.

Attention is a chemical reaction, it is the activation of cortisol in your body; what is released during a fight or flight response. Empathy, understanding, and that innate human connection - that’s oxytocin, released from the hypothalamus and believed to be the chemical that helps us feel what others are feeling. In order to motivate a change in behaviour, as communicators, storytellers and researchers, we need to harness these chemicals through the way we share our data and insights. And most importantly, we need to do it in a way that honours the voices of lived experience that we’re hoping to represent.

Storytelling must engage with the ‘what’ - the story itself, but it must also understand the importance of the ‘how’ - the telling.

Stories can help us draw clear lines of connection between problems and solutions, making tangible how one action can lead to another. All the elements of a story; a protagonist, problem, goal, struggle and solution, are integral facets of how we communicate a clear and poignant message to our audience. Whether they be messages of organisational vision, social impact or the story that lies within new research, utilising storytelling can offer huge benefits for engagement and give life to our communication strategy.

TCP has always harnessed storytelling through the participation of lived experience. It is one of the things we do best. When we work with lived experience in qualitative research, we go beyond counting people as a number or percentage, but rather bring to light their whole selves and their experience as we examine and engage with the issues of the research topic.

I hope that the story we have told through the prison research can continue across our partnership and throughout our communities in a variety of different ways - roundtables, presentations, podcasts, even a friendly chat over lunch. Most of all, I hope that together we can channel all modes of storytelling to start changing the narrative around the corrections system and build a better understanding of how we can support the humans within it, as well as fostering the motivation and inspiration to make real change happen.


*Sonder - the realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own - populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness - an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

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