Stories to inspire the end of extreme poverty

USAID’s new immersive storytelling experience brings you the stories of individuals, families and communities in transformation. Visit the hub at: Photo by: Bobby Neptune / USAID

I love Andrew Stanton. For those of you who don’t know him — you do know him. The Pixar filmmaker has written and directed some of the most emblematic animated films of recent decades, including the “Toy Story” franchise and “Finding Nemo.” Stanton spins a tale as well as anyone — emotion, adversity, humanity, transformation.

He summed up his strategy perfectly in a line he delivers from the TED stage in his talk, “The Clues to a Great Story” (note: while amazing, this talk does contain some profanity). The greatest storytelling commandment, according to Stanton, is to “make me care.”

“Please,” he implored, “emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically: Just make me care.”

5 keys to development storytelling

1. Find the humanity in every story you want to tell. While in our storytelling we often aim to highlight the good work we do, the most compelling way to do so is to find a “hero” and tell their story. Focus your narrative on those things that make us human — dreams being realized, adversities overcome. Letting raw humanity shine through your story helps your audiences connect.

2. Know what you want to say. It may seem obvious, but if you can’t easily summarize your story, you probably don’t have a clear premise.

3. Simplicity is an art. The most compelling stories are not necessarily the most complicated or detail-laden. In fact, excessive detail can slay a good story. And, in case it’s not obvious: no jargon, no technical speak, keep acronyms to a bare minimum.

4. Focus on the magic, not the man behind the curtain. While heavy on the humanity, a good development story is light on the process details or institutional puffery. If you tell good stories, your brand will be recognized on its own.

5. Emotion inspires action. Development work is powerful, inspirational stuff. Don’t be afraid to let some emotion bleed through.

And so what? Stanton makes movies. But what does Pixar have to do with global development?

The answer is: more than you think.

In his book “Winning the Story Wars,” Jonah Sachs set out a compelling premise: Humans have always needed and always will need shared myths. Although Sachs’s milieu is advertising and he’s chiefly talking about the marketers jostling for narrative, his central tenet holds true: Create stories that inspire people to act and share, or you immediately get forgotten.

As a community bound by the shared goal of wiping from the planet the most devastating forms of poverty, we can hardly afford to be made obsolete.

At the U.S. Agency for International Development, where I lead our new content division, part of my job is to train on storytelling. Like most global development organizations, USAID is a deeply technical place filled with incredibly talented, deeply technical people. Because we are taught to measure success in ways that we can, well, measure, those metrics also tend to infiltrate our communications.

We talk about bolstering livestock value chains, but not about the Ethiopian pastoralist who is finally freed from the burden of lugging heavy jugs for miles each day down a dusty road to sit in the sweltering heat and sell her milk before it spoils.

As a part of her morning routine, Dhaki Wako Baneta, a 24-year-old Ethiopian pastoralist, pours breakfast tea — mixed with cow’s milk, sugar and spices — for her family of five. As a part of a USAID-supported resilience program, families are learning the importance of nutrition for children in their first 1,000 days of life and the role of milk as a healthy resource. Photo by: Morgana Wingard / USAID

We talk about improved yields and isolated soil, but not about the proud Palestinian father whose love for his daughter underlies every improvement he makes to his farm.

West Bank farmer Osama Abu Al-Rub and his daughter Haneen share a love of strawberries. Osama is one of only 20 West Bank strawberry farmers and is receiving USAID assistance to boost the strawberry sector using modern methods for local sale and export. Photo by: Bobby Neptune / USAID

We talk about scaling up innovative solutions like chlorhexidine gel for cut umbilical cords — but not about the female miracle workers who, armed with a little tube and lots of heart, are able to overcome generations of deeply entrenched birthing traditions to save countless lives.

Nepalese female health volunteer Jharana Kumari Tharu counsels a pregnant woman and her mother-in-law her on how a simple tube of chlorhexidine antiseptic gel, applied to a baby’s cut umbilical cord stump, can help prevent infection and even death. Photo by: Thomas Cristofoletti / USAID

We talk about these things because it’s how we evaluate our work. But sometimes, but for the data, we miss the story.

Stories, Stanton reminds us, “affirm who we are.” They allow us to experience our shared similarities. They entertain us, but also teach us. They open windows to the world. That’s why last month, USAID was proud to launch the first 10 stories on our new immersive storytelling hub, Extreme Possibilities.

In development for the past year, Extreme Possibilities curates the beautiful snapshots, stirring video portraits and intimate human stories about the individuals, families and communities transformed by the world of the development community.

We all know that stories can inspire us to great things. In the tremendous fight to end extreme poverty, we could all use a little inspiration.

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