Internet notebook about my work: deep listening to facilitate positive change


Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Story telling demand survey

Listening to users is a first step when developing a new e-course. 
To develop the new frogleaps course on storytelling to trigger action for conservation, we did not only research the literature, but also did a few surveys on line and through skype and telephone. To articulate the demand, to map existing experiences with storytelling and to generate stories of successful campaigns. Through three mailings we reached about a hundred experts and received feedback from about forty respondents. In this blog article we present some highlights from our findings.

Stories to friends and colleagues about the business we are in
What stories do conservation communicators tell about their job during a birthday party? Most of them tell funny or unusual anecdotes. About the similarities between animals and human beings. About the amazing and successful reintroduction of a species that was thought be extinct. The indigenous knowledge that helped save a conservation issue. The awe and wonder we experience in a national park or when we see a bee pollinating an fruit tree. The links between nature and our health. The many things we can learn from nature. To fight the extinction of species living in our backyard, as every species is worthy of our effort, and each has a right to flourish. One respondent engaged in education answered:

My typical party’s story it is  that instead of answering the question about my job, I start talking about my ‘private’ forest. I am living in a place where the forest is “invading” my rooms through the open doors. I tell funny stories about different adventures with  biodiversity:  field mice cutting the wires of my computer, bats hanging in the corner of my wardrobe etc. Then after my  funny stories people usually start telling their own adventures with animals even in city flats.  After some of their stories I am able to the answer question – what is my job? My job is to provoke people into talking about their experience with nature very close to us.  I am doing it in my books and radio play. But everybody can do it: simply  chatting with friends or co-passengers in the train. Such conversations about one’s own experience with nature makes people think about nature as an important part of their life.    

Most respondents stressed the importance of telling something personal that touches the emotions and invites the audience to react. One spiritually oriented respondent said it in a very personal way:

I can tell it in the form of my private prayer to St Francis from  Assisi: “Holly St Francis, I am predicating your message by cultivating my private reserve area in my garden where I am protecting…weeds. Weeds may not be “nice”, but most of them are medicine plants. Our grandmothers cured our wounds when we were young using different weeds and leafs. Most weeds deserve protection not only because they are used in native medicine, they are also food for birds and butterflies. Most of all I am following  Your  instructions given to monastic brotherhood of Franciscans to keep some parts of the gardens of the monastery uncultivated as a place for wild creatures. Because  all God’s creation needs to be respected.” I hope that St Francis as holy patron of ecology will treat my conservation project in the same way as my prayer.  

Stories to local communities about conservation
What do you tell local communities about conservation? Respondents referred to our dependence on nature, the services it provides and how it enhances our lifestyle. One African respondent tells:

Our natural resources and farming harvests are also dependent on wildlife---birds, bees, butterflies, worms and wild animals. They all support nature by pollinating, spreading seeds, revitalizing the soil and creating a natural balance of predators and preys. Conservation is about supporting the nature of nature to benefit your own life, income, and security.

Respondents also tell about the need for local communities to manage their own environment, the opportunities for extra income and the enhancing of their security and resilience. The need to love their local nature: if we don’t who will? A respondent from Europe says:

I am asking people to try to imagine their  local  country as different species and habitats are disappearing one by one. How will the neighborhood  look like? How are we able  to manage our plantation without bees and birds?  How the landscape had changed since their childhood ? What changes are good and what bad for their heath and budget ? How it is possible to improve their life conditions. What a role nature can play in it.  Then I am telling story about “talking golden fish” and what had happened If somebody  wish to remove different elements of  nature and what if he wish to much  only nice elements of nature.  

One respondent mentioned that stories about what happened elsewhere can be a powerful to raise awareness. E.g. when Chinese farmers in South Sichuan Province, the largest producers of pears in that region of China, alerted their government to the absence of bees and that the year's crop was endangered, the government's unprecedented response was to insist on hand-pollination.  This story might be used to raise awareness that the use of pesticides for grain production in the US or elsewhere may cause other (fruit) farmers to face the same dilemma and may wonder if this method will someday, too, be their fate. 

Most effective stories
What stories about conservation have motivated people to take action? Some respondents said that experiencing nature is at the basis of a change in beliefs, attitudes and finally behaviour. Stories can help to evoke such experiences. Respondents were of the opinion that such stories either moved people emotionally or showed direct impact on their well-being. A good story also should be close to the experience and values of the audience. And nature should be presented with a human dimension. An example is the story about the reintroduction of Lynx to Masurian forest with the romantic title “born to be free”. One respondent wrote us:

The Jungle Book by Kipling inspired me as a child. It presents life of animals as adventures and makes them “human” in terms of feelings and characters.

A French respondent tells the story of the bat who returned by plane: A small bat that had departed from Germany fell down in a Spanish school yard exhausted from fatigue. It was rescued by the school children and sent by their teachers to a wildlife centre. It was fed and recuperated. The Minister of Environment of that time paid the air plane ticket for the bat back to Germany.  This positive and amusing story teaches important things:

About the migration of bats, their measurements and weights, their capacity to travel far despite the fact they are so small (children love to hear the heroic acts of small beings, as it is an example for them.
About the need for a habitat: trees in this case, more precisely dead trees in a forest used by bats
About the fact that children, adults and even a minister can help, each at his own level and that in reality they have succesfully done so.
It provides a personal satisfaction to know that somebody has helped another sentient being somewhere. That is reassuring and triggers your wish to help when it is your turn.

Respondents also pointed out that it makes a difference who the audience is and who the story tells, e.g. for local communities the person telling the story should preferably be another local. Quite often these stories are partly fiction, but with a message based on a true example. Many used comic books, radio or folk theatre to reach the local audiences.

For the general public it is important that campaign stories touch on emotions and humour.  Stories appealing to health and budget are also reported as motivating. Such stories can be connected to  food from ecological farms. Women magazines are a good channel for stories of young mothers about the relation between organic food and the health of their children. 

Most  respondents have little experience with techniques to make an effective story. Although they all stress the need for a positive approach and a happy ending, they often have no conflicts in their stories nor any heroes, villains or obstacles. Literature shows that a story with a conflict which is resolved by the hero, is most effective to engage the audience and communicate messages. One respondent from Meso America answered:

For me the heroes are the youth. The villains are the ignorant who only think short term. The obstacles are the lack of social capital and the happy ending is the fact that in this world there exist people just like us who have realized innovations in conservation and that you can do the same in the place where you live.

A French respondent answered:

In the positive stories that I tell, there are mainly heroes who act against the bad guys, but without elaborating on the negative impacts of their acts. I like to keep it positive. There is a villain, or a bad event, but the story is about the solution. The end is always happy or partly happy when there is still hope to do more. The story is focused on action. I give opportunities for action on different levels or difficulties depending on the action perspectives for smaller or bigger issues.

A third respondent referred to Chief Seattle’s 1851 response to the treaty to sell two million acres to the USA:

How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the meaning and experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees carries the memory of the red man.”

Respondents also refer to the importance of the mythology of cultures living in great dependence from nature, as nature plays a predominant role in the stories of such cultures. And the importance to ask local communities about the traditional fold stories from their grandparents. One respondent from Africa says:

Stories are precious sources of experience and wisdom concealed in the actors, their movements and happenings and the symbols applied. Many symbols are universal, such as sun, moon, sea, water, tree, lion, eagle etc. African stories are very much different from European, Arabic, and Indian stories. As far as I have read them they are rougher and their symbols and meanings sometimes hard to crack.  I don’t know whether European stories, such as fairy tales like Cinderella, are suitable i.e., consciously and or unconsciously understandable and meaningful. Therefore, I ask local grandmothers to do the storytelling of their tribes to the children.

A French respondent answered that the best stories about doing the right thing come from the realm of animals themselves, e.g. a whale that takes charge of an orphan whale at the risk of her life as it is already difficult to feed and defend her own baby whale; or a lioness that protects a herbivore orphan against other lions until the time it is fully grown.

These examples from nature make a huge impression on me as no one has taught these females to protect other small beings, especially when they normally belong to their prey. It touches my maternal fibres. It tells me that protecting life is encrypted in our genes, or at least in female genes (even if men may feel the same inclination to such compassion of course). In any case I do so without thinking: I had found a baby titmouse that had fallen from its nest on the a Parisian sidewalk. I put the small bird in a bush as high as possible and then phoned the Animal Welfare Organization to know if I had done the right thing. They told me that actually you have to put the bird back as high as possible in a tree to protect them against cats. And they told me also that other passers-by could easily have trampled the bird. I had difficulty to believe that. So I thought that we should circulate each spring a brochure “how to protect a small bird fallen from its nest”, so people could get the reflex do the right thing without thinking.

An e-learning course on storytelling: success factors
What would make the course a success? Respondents stressed that the  course should be short, fun and inspiring. It should also demystify the CEC Love. Not Loss message. It should be based on real life examples. It should provide users opportunities to interact and send their stories in. It should provide tools that users can immediately apply.


There is a lot of experience in the CEC network. Members share the importance of storytelling as an instrument for conservation. They have some degree of knowledge of the main features of storytelling. There is a demand for a short course on the various aspects of storytelling connected with examples from real life. We thank all the respondents for their time and the sharing of their expertise and experience. They will be mentioned in the colophon of the course that is due to be on line end of September.

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