“Going Dragon Hunting” – helping projects tell their stories

Storytelling workshop

Netskills is perhaps best known for its public workshop programme but that’s only a portion of what we do. A sizeable chunk of our time is spent running our own projects or supporting others, especially projects that are funded by Jisc programmes.

This support is often about helping research projects to communicate what it is they have achieved and disseminating that to the right audiences.

As part of that, in March a team of us ran two workshops called Storytelling Techniques for Project Dissemination.

Jisc-funded projects have traditionally been required to produce extensive final reports, some running to tens of thousands of words, to explain what they have done. Although its extremely valuable to have that level of detail it can make it hard for people outside the project to get a proper understanding of what has actually gone on and the impacts it has had. They can also contain a lot of technical language which is aimed at quite a narrow audience.

Jisc has been increasingly asking its projects for case studies in place of more lengthy documents but some programmes are also looking at augmenting written reports with more accessible digital media formats.

I’ve gained quite a bit of experience with digital storytelling over the years, initially in relation to teaching and learning but after an approach by Lawrie Phipps, programme manager for the Jisc Transformations projects, my colleague Will Allen, Andy Stewart from Jisc infoNet and I along with a few others started examining how storytelling would work in this context.

One of the outputs from that discussion was this workshop, designed to help projects use digital media to tell stories about their work. It’s not about trying to replace more common forms of reporting but finding ways of making them more meaningful and memorable to wider audiences, providing a better showcase.

To explain a bit more, Hanna produced a short video after the first workshop which captured some of the reasons why we felt storytelling was a valid approach for projects as well as some of the reactions to the approach from some attendees.

To give you a flavour for what we cover on the workshop here are some of the key themes…

Saving the World

Our main approach is to ask projects to think along traditional storytelling lines that anyone would recognise.

Projects will all have clear aims and objectives but these might not give a very clear idea of what has driven them to undertaken the work. Stories are usually about how some problem has been addressed or a hurdle overcome. The majority of Jisc-funded projects aren’t literally about life or death matters, or saving the world, but they are about making a big difference to people and institutions and that should be the core of the story so that the first thing we try to articulate.

Where’s the “dragon”?

Stories rely on recognisable structures (beginning, middle, end being the most obvious) but also other features.

If you have taken part in a project can you identify:

  • where did you start from? What was life like before you began?
  • the “dragon”, the major issue that you set out to “defeat”. This is the principle driving force behind your project.
  • the path you took on your journey (straight and easy or winding and full of dead ends)the heroes that helped you on the way
  • Where did you end up? What is life like now that the project is complete and what difference did you make?

You probably wouldn’t write a story using terms like “dragons” or “heroes” but by dialling up the rhetoric when planning you begin to understand how different aspects of your project fit together and how they make a story that would be meaningful for your audience. They’re the building blocks of stories that we’ve all grown up with, for the most part.

There are other techniques for mapping out stories like drawing emotional timelines similar to what Kurt Vonnegut does in this short, entertaining video.

He’s talking about classic literary forms but it’s possible to use these forms to map out the basic story structure of a project.

Making it digital

Only having a day for the workshop meant that there wasn’t really scope for creating digital media but we’re on hand to help the projects that attended if they need it. In a sense, once the story is written down, the hardest work has been done. Making it into a movie (like this sort of thing) takes a bit of skill and a lot of patience but pretty much anyone can do it. That process will be the subject of future posts.

It’s important to say that digital storytelling isn’t a short cut but the end results can be extremely powerful, using authentic, personal voices to grab an audience’s attention and demonstrating your project’s value. It does it in a way that is easy to share and also gives you a way to draw people into the more detailed explanation of the project.

But there’s much more to digital storytelling than using technology. It’s about a whole approach to communication and a different way of thinking about the work of the project in general. More importantly we help people see beyond the technology, which, in a nutshell, sums up Netskills’ whole raison d’être!

The future

I’m off to talk about the work we’ve done so far at a conference next week which I’m very excited about. There’s been relatively little work done in organisational digital storytelling as it’s primarily been used as a tool for personal reflection, community engagement, learning, therapy, and so on. So we’re exploring fresh territory here. It’ll be a great opportunity to make new connections with some of the acknowledged experts in storytelling as well.

The support for the projects that come on the workshops is ongoing but we’re also making the workshop available as an on-site offering so if you and your team want us to come and run it for you, please get in touch.