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Using storytelling to motivate citizen engagement

Yemi Adamolekun, Laura Keen, Praneetha Vissapragada   |   November 10, 2021   |   Comments

A man is riding on a public bus in Lagos, Nigeria. He stares out his window at the distorted outlines of the teeming city streaking past. Hitting a wall of dense traffic, the bus squeals to a stop, freezing the scene outside the man’s window. Amidst the tangle of yellow buses, cars, kekes (auto rickshaws), okadas (motorcycle taxis) and pedestrians, he spots a large pile of garbage on the side of the road, an improvised dump where one should not be. He removes his phone from his pocket and takes a picture. As he’s done many times before, he opens Twitter and tweets the photo to the handle of the state governor. A few days later, on the same route home, the man smiles as the bus tears past the spot, which has been cleared.

This story was recounted in a focus group in May, one of 12 that R4D conducted with Enough is Enough Nigeria, as part of Leveraging Transparency to Reduce Corruption (LTRC) — a joint initiative of R4D and The Brookings Institution that support the efforts of good governance and anti-corruption champions in the extractive sector through research, brokering knowledge and testing new approaches to overcome existing challenges and implementation gaps in the fight against corruption. 

The goal of this focus group, in particular, was to learn about how storytelling can be used to educate citizens and motivate actions that demand public accountability and better delivery of social services that would improve the quality of life of citizens. 

We opened the focus group by reading a true story written by us and Nigerian poet, Dike Chukwumerije, renowned for his storytelling prowess and passion for social issues. The story explores human suffering and the deaths that occured when corrupt officials failed to construct a promised primary health care facility in Yobe State.

We asked participants to reflect on the story and to imagine what would have happened if citizens had organized and demanded the hospital be built. 

But, as often occurs, one story begets another.

Inspired by what he had heard, a man told his own tale about the ways in which he fought back against government negligence and abuse. That is to say, the storytelling was working. It was making him reflect on similar situations in his own life and the ways in which he overcame them.

But why? What about our story prompted this participant to share his efforts? Had it been another story, would he still have spoken up? Would his story inspire others? What could we take from our own little anecdote to help others use storytelling more effectively, especially in settings of low trust such as Nigeria? How does one harness this powerful tool to motivate others to demand improvements in their community — just like the man on the bus did?

Luckily, we had written research questions to elicit this very knowledge. Here, we present the three primary lessons that we learned. We also hosted a discussion of these findings with a reading by Dike Chukwumerije in a webinar (check out the recording here).

1. Tailor your story and approach to sharing it, to your target audience.

The first recommendation to emerge from our work applies to the structure of the story, meaning the length, language, and medium. Will you broadcast it on the radio? Relate it in person? Share a link to a video? Based on the targeted community of interest, some mediums, length and languages will be more accessible and resonate better than others. This includes simple accessibility — some communities do not have access to the internet, for example — but, also, resonance. The story will be most successful if it targets a community with something personal at stake in the narrative. 

In our case, we knew participants in the focus groups needed to be users of public health facilities. During the discussion, they shared what it was like for them to struggle to access healthcare and saw themselves reflected in the story’s characters. Participants were inspired by relatable characters who were able to overcome obstacles together. At the end, many said they were newly encouraged to address a problem in their own communities. 

But how? That brings us to our next recommendation.

2. Use a story to make people feel something; then, follow up with a clear call to action.

When we wrote the story used in the focus groups, we had two goals: inspire action and educate people about what steps to take. But we realized there was a tradeoff. Leave out key information about which senator to call or which number to dial and participants might get lost in the process. Share specific, tailored details and risk losing the momentum of the story. After all, no one ever resolved to change the status quo by having a phone number read to them!

In the end, we opted to prioritize using the story to inspire a feeling, that deep sense of urgency many of us have felt upon hearing a rousing speech or seeing a film where someone corrects an injustice. But emotions are fleeting, meaning it’s critical to take advantage of your audience’s increased motivation by following up immediately with clear calls to action. In our case, we  should have handed out flyers with instructions on how citizens could contact their representatives. Or, we could have shared a sign-up sheet for an upcoming training on citizen oversight of government budgets. We will now engage the participants and support the actions they want to take..

But how do you know which call to action to encourage? This brings us to our final recommendation.

3. Low social trust can inhibit action so make calls to action safe and easy.

As we’ve observed in our previous research in Nigeria, low social trust is widespread and hampers the resolve of individuals to act to seek change. Many participants in our focus groups shared their fears about government retaliation and surveillance. Some mentioned the violent government crackdown in 2020 on protesters demanding reform of the police under the banner #EndSARS, referring to a notorious police unit known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. 

Indeed, we saw in the focus group data that there are some people who will never act—they just don’t believe it will matter or weigh the risks as too high. For others, the difference between shaking their heads at an unbuilt clinic and demanding its execution is in how easy you make the next step. 

For this reason, especially when fear of violence or retaliation is credible, it’s essential to suggest and prepare low-effort means of participation that are less likely to expose participants to risk. This echoes previous research from Betsy Levy Paluck who found large increases in the use of a corruption reporting app in Nigeria when citizens were sent a text message nudge to submit their reports, which was as easy and safe as sending a text in response.

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Nigeria is filled with poets, orators, filmmakers, writers, researchers, advocates and more who harness the power of a story to inspire their fellow citizens to imagine a different reality and then set them on a course to achieve it. What about you? How do you use storytelling in your work to drive citizens’ actions? Share your insight with us and tell us what aspects of storytelling we should investigate next.

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