Plant your feet, and other storytelling tips

yourstory

Earlier this year I gathered a few VSO colleagues to join me on the Acumen+ Storytelling for Change course, which is all about bringing (personal) stories into your professional communication, helping you to connect with (and convince) your listeners as you present.

I’ve tried before, and failed, to complete online courses; free ones like these are even harder to see through. What worked this time? Mainly it was  committing to meet weekly as a group for the duration of the modules (guilt about letting other people down is stronger than the guilt of letting yourself down, it seems). But also genuine enthusiasm within the group for the topic, and a sense that the lessons were fairly universally relevant.

Here are some of the best bits of learning for me: Continue reading “Plant your feet, and other storytelling tips”

Something to write about

It’s been a busy few months, but I’m excited by the variety of stuff I get to learn (and write) about. Recently I’ve spoken to economists in Washington and Nairobi about grain storage and irrigation; to community leaders from Cameroon and India about child marriage and female genital mutilation; and to researchers about the growing intrusion of business onto the territory of humanitarian aid groups. (The latter also involved a demonstration of ‘Peepoo‘, a single-use ‘personal toilet’ – a sort of bucket liner that can be sealed and then rapidly sanitises excrement. Incredible, but true: more people in Africa have access to the internet than to decent sanitation.)

As the first regular contributor to Devex based in the UK, I’ve also been doing a lot of explaining to people here about who we are – and who we write for. Continue reading “Something to write about”

Scaling new heights

I’m doing some work for the UK-based Mark Evison Foundation at the moment – nothing to do with international development, but as a charity that helps young people identify, plan and complete challenges that they wouldn’t otherwise have the means to do, the ethos and target group are similar to previous projects I’ve worked on (even if these kids are starting from a somewhat easier level than, say, their Ugandan counterparts).

The foundation, set up in 2009, has been run entirely by volunteers till now. Along with another part-time colleague, I’ll be helping them build up their profile, expand the number of school reached, and improve how they organise their work. More news on that soon – in the meantime, check out the video, here, made by one of the first teams to win a grant – two 16 year-old boys who scaled the four peaks of the UK within four days, using only public transport in between mountains – and did it all accompanied by their dog.

A poor perspective

Seeing it from their side
Shifting the viewpoint

‘Very happy, very sad, or super determined’ –  the usual spectrum of emotions we assign to poor people, says sociologist Michael Woolcock.

His recent lecture at the Institute of Development Studies – watch it online, below – sets out to change that.

Woolcock begs for a more, well, human way of looking at what it’s like to be poor. How? Through the lens we’ve been using to look at other people’s lives since time began – storytelling, including in its more modern forms. Continue reading “A poor perspective”

Dear reader

Nairobi 2013 - let's not overstate the transformation
Nairobi 2013 – let’s not overstate the transformation

Whatever you might think of Bill and Melinda’s pro-aid stance (and there are many who disagree), the Gates annual letter is a well-crafted communications piece (mostly).  Here’s what it does right:

It creates a buzz.
Not easy for a publication these days. Of course, the authors are pretty well-known and have lots of money (they’ve handed out over USD 28 billion to date); they don’t exactly have to fight to be heard. Continue reading “Dear reader”

Get local

classroom-cSomewhat daunting to find myself speaking right after someone with three honorary doctorates and a knighthood last week – especially when Noerine Kaleeba opened her talk wondering why anyone would use Powerpoint (‘Where is the power… and where is the point??’).  Needless to say, the rest of the day – a seminar on HIV prevention organised by my former employers, BTC – was somewhat Powerpoint-heavy (presentations, including mine, available on their website).

As is often the case, the most interesting stuff came during the discussions. The formidable Ms Kaleeba, who founded one of the first AIDS support organisations in Africa and was once a lonely voice speaking out about the disease that claimed her husband, is still trampling over taboos. Continue reading “Get local”

Common goals

EU brochure on MDGsFreelancing on different projects all the time has one big downside: you’re pulled in only for a certain phase of the project’s life cycle, and once you’ve done your bit you’re often unaware of where your work has ended up, and what impact it might have had.

So it’s good to see the European Commission’s publication on the Millennium Development Goals out – just in time for the UN Summit last week. I had also edited their 2010 version (available, for now, here). This year, we struggled again to keep our clients down to the word limit – crowded pages with not enough white space just don’t work for a product aimed at a wider public – and ended up adding more pages. But it worked out ok, and the final editorial quality is better this time, probably due to fewer Commission folk making changes, and thankfully, a certain amount of trust in my suggestions. It also helped, no doubt, to have a first version to start from, with a format that could easily be updated. Continue reading “Common goals”

Pictures without pity

Which image of Africa would you rather see: skeletal, abandoned child, or healthy-looking working family?

Most people would say the latter; certainly most of those in the aid sector  – some of whom were discussing this at the recent PICS festival – now consider the starving child images not only unethical, but also unhelpful. They’re “not effective”, is the general view.

sunglasses
Provocative without the pity

But effective for what? Fundraising appeals today still deploy the same imagery, and the same language, as they did in the 1980s, when “poverty porn” made it to the mainstream with the Ethiopian famine hitting our headlines. That’s not only an indication that we’re seeing the same problems as we did three decades ago; it means we’re also stubbornly looking at them in the same way.

Continue reading “Pictures without pity”

How to tell it

yourstoryI hate wasting anything – time, food, money – so it drives me mad to see official publications, nicely designed and translated and distributed, that read like a copy-paste of an internal report. Or websites that leave you re-reading sentences and clicking through pages before you can understand what they actually do. It doesn’t matter how glossy or cool it looks. Overuse of jargon, heartsinkingly long paragraphs, and vague sweeping statements instead of actual facts – it’s a wasted opportunity to tell your taxpayers, partners and public what you do, and why it matters. Continue reading “How to tell it”