How to Find the Story

Photo by Greg Rakozy.
Photo by Greg Rakozy.

Sometimes the most difficult part of talking about international development is figuring out which story to tell. There is so much information related to the programs, and so much pressure to show some sort of impact. There are no hard and fast rules for determining which story to tell, but here are some tips that can help.

  1. Listen.
    Really listen to the people you’re working with and to the people whose stories you’re trying to tell. Even if this is part of a monitoring and evaluation assessment, don’t get so focused on what you have to measure that you lose sight of everything else.Last year I was on an assignment in Peru with an organization that focuses on dialogue and peacebuilding. They tasked me with helping assess the impact of one of the organization’s most recent projects. That meant interviewing some of the partners from the region, including one from Guatemala. While the process wasn’t perfect, asking open-ended questions and not putting my task list first helped draw out a story I never expected. The story resonated with people who were familiar with the region, as well as with people who knew nothing about Central America.

    Of course, not everyone you talk to will be open and honest about their experiences. Sometimes trust has to be built up first, or there needs to be a trusted person present. And that’s OK. Find out what matters to the people you’re trying to help. Draw in their voices. That’s how you find the Who and the What of your story.

  2. Ask Why and How.
    Once you’ve established who and what you’re talking about, make sure to ask why this is happening or why it matters. This will provide context that will help you and your audience understand the story better, and answer the question as to why anyone should care (including your protagonist).

    When developing a story, it’s also important to ask “how.” How does the situation affect the person, community, or country? How is such an injustice allowed to happen? Or how do certain norms, policies, and procedures continue to let it happen? How are people already making a difference? And how can they continue to do so? The list of potential “how” and “why” questions could keep going. But I’ll stop here.So you have your who, what, where, when, why, and how. Now what?

  3. You can center the story around a challenge, problem, or conflict.
    This will help focus your story, whether you’re writing or sharing a story through photography or video. Whether the conflict is internal or external, centering your story around a challenge that someone has to overcome (even if s/he fails) helps keep the audience’s attention, and keeps you from rambling.
  4. Include relevant details that make the story come alive.
    While your story needs to be focused, details are also important because they provide context and help humanize the person or problem you’re describing. Sometimes the details are actually what capture our attention most. For example, this New York Times article on paying ransoms stuck with me because the details made it come alive. The details turned the story from abstraction to something almost tangible, or at least memorable. I didn’t remember the title of this article, but I remembered the line about counting cash ‘on a blanket thrown in the sand.’

These are just a few suggestions to help you find the story you may be struggling to tell. For more tips, check out some best practices from investigative journalism. Thinking about our work not as projects or programs, but as important issues that real people deal with, can help us tell these stories better.

What are some tips that you use to find the story? Share in the comments below.

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