storytelling trends 2019

Storytelling trends for NGOs in 2019

NGOs, like organisations in other sectors, need to continually keep abreast of communication outputs and distribution methods in order to engage and sustain audiences.  As we enter a new year, Tim Webster looks at storytelling trends and techniques that NGO’s can harness in 2019.

The social experiment

The first storytelling trend to highlight is one of the most versatile; the social experiment video. Social experiment videos engage audiences on important issues in a creative format that overturn popular expectations or perceptions. They encourage sharing, due to their key elements of surprise and empathy. The simplicity of the format means it can be utilized to great effect to promote a diverse range of subject matters across environmental, humanitarian and development issues.

The videos work on a simple formula of presenting a situation or subject to ‘ordinary’ members of the public, on the street or in the studio, and then overturning perceptions and expectations through one or more challenges and reveals. For example, UNICEF’s social experiment film, Would you stop if you saw this child in the street? demonstrated the efficacy of the approach, when it captured pedestrians’ reactions to Anona, a six-year-old actor dressed in the clothes of a migrant street-child, compared with a well-dressed ‘western’ girl. The lack of regard towards the migrant girl highlighted ingrained societal prejudice, encouraging viewers to reflect on their own responses. The film has received over 4million views online. ‘The real price of water’created for UNICEF Somalia, won two awards in the Lovies 2018 after receiving over 27 million views worldwide; a testament to the power of social experiment videos.

The Last Generation

- Interactive documentary, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

Interactive documentary

With the development of new technologies comes the opportunity for new approaches to storytelling. Interactive documentaries can combine traditional multimedia techniques with newer elements such as 360, housed on micro-sites where audiences can experience the story through multiple media formats.

 Our Home, Our People’ is an engrossing online interactive documentary by the World Bank, exploring climate change vulnerability in Fiji through the stories of 4 individuals. The project was also viewed on VR headsets over 8,000 times at festivals and crucial climate change events such as COP23, attended by decision makers. In a similar vein, The Last Generation documents the lives of children living on the Marshall Islands, the low-lying atoll of islands in the South Pacific at the frontline of climate change.

Though not strictly ‘interactive’, 360 video still provides a uniquely immersive experience for audiences which can create high levels of empathy. Mudslide 360 documents the experience of one mother after her home was destroyed in the Freetown mudslide, Sierra Leone. The film follows the story from ground zero, to temporary camp and finally a new home, with the help of UNICEF. The film also harness binaural audio which mimics the experience of human hearing, further immersing the viewer in the 360 environment.

As 360 matures creating empathy is not enough in ensuring an audience takes action on an issue. Viewers also need to understand the structural inequalities and complexities of situations, so that they feel enabled to act accordingly. On the Brink of Famine is a powerful 360 film from Frontline that takes viewers into the humanitarian crises enveloping South Sudan to explain in detail the reality of life on the ground and assistance being given. It also takes advantage of Facebook’s new integrated 360 capabilities.

Because of bandwidth issues and the availability of technology, distribution can be limited to ‘first-world’ countries or events such as festivals or conferences. In the case of Our Home, Our People, 360 presented the perfect tool to transport decision makers to Fiji, to see for themselves the devastating effects of climate change.

Cinemagraphs

With a new focus on using niche social networks for marketing campaigns, cinemagraphs are seeing a resurgence in popularity. Cinemagraphs are still images with a moving element and can be created from either film footage or photography. Instagram is now the top-rated platform for social engagement and is a fertile platform for NGO’s to share powerful cinemagraphs.

An excellent example of cinemagraphs being used by an NGO is ICRC’s Syria Street, documenting the experiences of residents in one of Syria’s most violent neighborhoods. The isolation of movement that typifies a cinemagraph adds to the sense of loss and loneliness that now permeates a once vibrant city.

Their powerful, yet subtle effect, coupled with low production costs, means cinema graphs are almost certainly going to see a resurgence and become a popular storytelling trend in 2019.

Someone like you

- 2-way storytelling, Charity Water.

Participatory and 2-way storytelling

In a bid for simplicity and internal communication requirements, NGO films have been traditionally guilty of imposing their story onto the worlds of ‘beneficiaries’. As audiences become more aware of the voice behind the message and more savvy about ‘the truth,’ there is a greater trend towards participatory storytelling and an increased consideration of the point of view (POV) of a story’s subject. Now, more than ever before, audiences are seeking characters they can connect with, heroes they can relate to and cultural revelations.

Whilst well thought out traditional linear documentaries shot in a participatory mode offer an excellent way into the lifeworld’s of other people, connecting audiences directly with people on the other side of the world is a growing trend in NGO communications.

Charity Water’s Someone like you connects audiences with an individual facing water scarcity in Ethiopia. By putting in a few personal details the page matches the user with a like-minded individual, allowing them to meet virtually and learn about their life. The platform not only allows for a western audience to feel personally connected with an individual far removed from their daily lives, but it also gives the contributor in Ethiopia the opportunity to present their personal story in their own way.

Going one step further than this is WaterAid with their Chatbot, connecting their supporters directly with the people they are helping. Accessed through Facebook, the Chatbot connects users with individuals in Sierra Leone, learning about their life and keeping updated with their experiences.

In a similar vein, Reelmedia is currently in production of a web series for UNDP which challenges western participants to live on the international poverty line of $1.90 per day. Drawing on the trend of direct communication, we are developing a platform where participants connect with those living on the poverty line and chat to them about their daily experiences, providing a 2-way conversation and across completely different life-worlds.

Innovative use of social influencers

Given that the majority of NGO communication outputs are consumed on social media, drawing on social influencers and networks can be a powerful tool in maximising outreach. Celebrities, YouTubers and bloggers with large numbers of followers present opportunities for NGO’s to increase outreach within online communities, that would be otherwise hard to reach. Using infuencers in new and innovative ways is already on-track to become a storytelling trend for 2019.

There are various ways that NGO’s can partner with social influencers in their digital storytelling outputs. Getting your campaign promoted by the biggest names is great, but this isn’t always realistic or achievable, nor is it always the best way to reach your audience. Increasingly, NGO’s are working within local influencer networks that are specifically relevant to the target audience.

Our latest video project with UNICEF Burkina Faso features children interviewing their (celebrity) role models. For example, Alyah, an 8-year old who aspires to be a singer, meets Hawa Bousimm, a popular artist in the country. The videos are specifically aimed at children to encourage and inspire them to pursue their dreams and aspirations. The videos will be promoted by the celebrities through their own social media networks, which will ultimately further the reach of the campaign as well as encouraging Burkinabe youngsters to engage with the content.

As is true for all digital storytelling techniques, influencer marketing can be used most effectively when it is applied in an innovative format. ActionAid UK implemented their #BrutalCut campaign by interrupting social influencer videos with a short message from a Kenyan girl who faces FGM. The message appeared without explanation or warning – a ‘brutal cut’ – with the video linking viewers to a website where they could cut the message into their own social media content.

As well as working on literal and metaphorical levels, the ‘Brutal Cut’ campaign exercised influence on its audience in two main ways; firstly, the viewer was already engaged when the cut appeared meaning the campaign already had an engaged audience ready and waiting. Secondly, vloggers exert a powerful influence over their followers; by showing their support for the campaign, audiences were persuaded do to the same.

Alongside influencer marketing the ‘cut’ was aired on festival screens, cinema adverts, as well as high profile celebrities and online publishers such as LadBible and Pretty 52, cutting into their own content. The campaign was so successful that ActionAid secured unprecedented levels of lottery funding and had a combined online reach of over 152 million people.


If you are considering producing any of the content discussed in this article, feel free to get in touch for more insight and information.


Storytelling for change

Storytelling for change

Most people can think back to a time when a film has resonated with them to the point of making them think or feel differently about an issue. When it comes to filmmaking for development, organisations can utilise the power of storytelling though film to support and inspire real change. Here we talk a little more on the significance of storytelling and film as a medium to motivate change.

The aim of films for development is to create content that affects and moves an audience to point of inspiring action. The challenge lies in engaging an audience in the first instance so they will immerse themselves in the world you are portraying; audiences want to be entertained and enlightened simultaneously.

‘Storytelling involves not the assertation of power over others, but the vital capacity of people to work together to create, share and affirm something that is held in common’

— Bourdieu

Navigating uncertainty

The world we live in is full of uncertainty, therefore audiences look to documentaries and other visual media to inform them and provide answers. This could be one reason why in recent years there has been a noticeable shift towards audiences engaging with films that promote a cause. The hugely successful film Blackfish, which highlights the ill-treatment of Orca’s in captivity, lead to huge public outcry, forcing SeaWorld to overhaul their policies and operations. Alongside the focus issue of the film, Blackfish also brought the cause of animal welfare to the agenda of the global public. For development and humanitarian organisations this presents an exciting opportunity to get their messages out to the world through film, in a time when audiences are demonstrating higher levels of engagement in cause-based media. None the less, having a cause to shout about is only half the battle. The success of films like Blackfish are not down to the relevance or importance of the issue they’re portraying, there are countless worthy causes in the world, but it the causes that get turned into great stories which are the ones that get heard.

Development and humanitarian organisations deal with extreme crisis situations that many people would be unable to fathom or connect with being just told the facts of a situation. Therefore it is the task of filmmakers like ourselves to connect facts with emotion. To do this successfully relies on creating interesting narratives, told through strong characters that an audience can empathise with. Often films for change will be communicating the stories of communities and people who have starkly different cultural and political realities to the audience, therefore it is vital that the audience is given the opportunity to relate to the characters represented on an emotional level. Additionally, for the subjects of the film, the ability to tell their story can be healing in itself in that their suffering is no longer in silence; it re-empowers them.

‘Now more than ever before, audiences are seeking characters they can connect with, heroes they can relate to, cultural revelations’

— Jon Fitzgerald

Storytelling confronts stigma

It is through the sharing of stories that we enable dialogue and discussion around issues, often issues that had previously divided people or that people felt unable to discuss publicly. For example, a big issue for humanitarian organisations is tackling the spread of HIV/AIDS as well as the stigma attached to those who live with the virus. This year we made a film for ITPC celebrating the achievements of HIV activism, taking a retrospective look backwards at the journey. As the film moves through the 1980’s to the present we can see how the stories being told around the issue have progressed over the years. The telling of stories has slowly encouraged more discussion around the issue which in turn has lead to less stigma, a greater understanding of HIV/AIDS, as well as better responses when dealing the disease.

It is through storytelling that we can re-establish our sense of community with one and other and take a more collaborative approach to engineering positive change in the world.


Character-led storytelling

Putting people first: creating emotional connections in films for Development

NGO films are tasked with communicating complex development issues in a short space of time, in a format that will produce high audience engagement rates. When creating films for development, the challenge is in finding the balance between representing an issue authentically, whilst simultaneously creating a film that will grab the attention of your audience. The resounding consensus is that stories, specifically people-centred narratives, is what ultimately connect with people and move an audience to action. In this article we discuss the art of storytelling and how we can successfully apply the principles to create engaging films for development causes.

Telling stories is intrinsic to the human psyche, they give us information to help us to understand the world around us and our place within it. John Yorke, acclaimed screen writer and author of ‘Into the Woods’ theorises that ‘storytelling is an indispensable human preoccupation’, it is a good story that will resonate with people, therefore when creating films for development, crafting great stories around issues should be a primary focus.

Yorke proposes that every story, whether it’s being told in a theatre play, a novel, a documentary, a Hollywood film or even a reality television programme follows the same basic three act structure: a journey into the unknown (act one) to discover a truth (act two) which will allow us to comprehend something outside of ourselves (act three). Another way of understanding this structure is simply by the idea that every story tells the process of change from ignorance to knowledge. Capturing positive stories of change is predominately what development films seek to achieve; whether it’s the change in a character, a community or an environment, this three act structure can be applied universally.

‘The journey into the woods to find the dark but life-giving secret within’

— John Yorke

Powerful personal narratives

As well as considering structure, the power of a personal story should not be overlooked as a method to connect an audience with an issue. Organisations are often attempting to engage and unite wide audiences on issues that have the potential to be polarizing. Issues that polarize people can often stunt progression of solutions, as people become bogged down in ideology rather than engaging with practical solutions to the problem. NGO films seek to cut through this discourse in order to facilitate solutions, one way of doing so is by crafting character-led narratives. For example, not everyone is in agreement on the causation of climate change, however, a personal story of a family dealing with the devastating effects of drought has the ability to transcend the arguments for and against and connect with people through shared emotion. Ultimately, it is the generating of empathy which will resonate with an audience and move them to action.

‘People identify with heroes, living through them, participating in their journeys’

— Jon Fitzgerald

Accountability to communities

Alongside the ability of character-led stories to produce an empathic response in audiences, they also offer opportunities for a collaborative approach to the film production, giving contributors the voice and the agency to tell their stories. As filmmakers, an awareness of the balance of power between ourselves and our contributors is vital to make certain that we create horizontal power positions. By doing so we can ensure that we retain integrity to our subjects narratives throughout the film production process, as well as open lines of communication.

By approaching filmmaking for development with a people centred focus, alongside a solid understanding of the art of storytelling, organisations can create films that will stand up to the competition to achieve their aims and accelerate action.


The stories we tell

The stories we tell

As filmmakers it is our craft and our passion to tell stories. Storytelling can be used as a powerful expression of experience that reconciles differences and orchestrates conversation and change, however, it can also be mis-used and present false realities which can cause harm to people and situations. There is a constant conflict of power in storytelling, as with every story that gets heard, other untold stories remain hidden or suppressed. Often it is these hidden stories that films for development are concerned with telling. Here we speak further on the politics of storytelling and the responsibility that we as filmmakers must acknowledge when creating films that tell the important stories of others.

Storytelling is an essential way of keeping a sense of agency when we are confronted with disempowering situations; it gives us a voice. When we transform events or experiences into stories, we restructure reality into narratives that give us a sense of power that we have some control over the events that befall us in life. In the case of making films on development and humanitarian subjects, the concept of giving people the ability to feel powerful is extremely important given the crisis situations that are the topic for many development films. Often the only action available in such situations is to tell the story of what is happening with the hope that bringing awareness will facilitate a physical action towards positive change. For example, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing tells the previously untold story of the genocide in Indonesia in during the 1950’s and 60’s. As a result of the story being told and heard by so many, the genocide is now being investigated to bring some justice to the victims of the atrocities committed.

‘Storytelling is a vital human strategy for sustaining a sense of agency in the face of disempowering circumstances’

— Michael Jackson

Stories shape the world around us

Stories hold immense power over the way we view the world, in particular the way we view ‘otherness’; situations and people outside of our usual spheres. When making films for development we’re tasked with communicating the stories of ‘others’, often to an audience whose lives and experiences are in stark contrast to those whose story we’re telling. The story told will either confirm that ‘others’ do not relate to our realities and validate prejudices, or it will break down these boundaries that keep us divided between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Our aim when making films for development is to bridge the divide by telling stories in a way that connects people emotionally and supports the positive progression of ideas that will motivate change.

‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’

— Joan Didion

Everyone can be a storyteller

The effect that a story has on the way we view a person, a community or a situation is greatly affected by who is telling the story and how it is being told. When making films for development we want to allow the people whose experiences have formed the story to be a storyteller themselves. For example, in our practice we don’t speak about or for people, we simply facilitate them being able to speak for themselves. In our short film series we made with UNICEF Burkina Faso, all of the films are narrated by the contributors themselves. Alongside supporting the authentic representation of characters, hearing people speak about their experiences in their own words serves as an effective method to connect the audience to the issue being presented.

When used effectively, storytelling through film can motivate real and lasting change in the world by engaging with people on issues that matter.