Storytelling for Economic Development in Asia

Feature | 30 March 2012

Organizations have ignored the power of stories in favor of official reports, formal speeches, and press releases. Fortunately, the last decades have seen the art of storytelling being tapped to achieve practical results. Find out how ADB is using stories to inspire change, connect staff to strategy, harvest tacit knowledge, lead people into the future, and more.

The Oomph of Stories

The exemplary achievements of the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority are widely documented, its many international awards putting it at the same level as other world-class organizations. But listening to its general director, Ek Sonn Chan, talk about blindly digging for pipes because all the utility's blueprints were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge regime, eschewing international consultants and tapping local expertise to rebuild the water supply system, or seeing smiles on the faces of slum dwellers as they get piped water for the first time, evokes a totally different experience. Through stories, Mr. Chan effectively expresses his commitment to the organization, imparts its values, inspires trust, uncovers tacit knowledge (that is always difficult to convey), and generates an emotional connection with listeners.

Stories have many advantages over communication tools commonly used in organizations, such as email. They create sense, coherence and meaning, even for abstract concepts; connect people and ideas by condensing even complex, multidimensional messages; inspire imagination and spark action; and showcase different perspectives. They allow the articulation of both emotional and factual content, giving expression to the know-how in peoples' heads. Grounding facts in a narrative structure augments the likelihood that learning will take place and be passed on. Storytelling can produce effects that more serious and conventional forms of communications cannot.

Stories that are short and sweet, stripped of unnecessary detail, and easily tucked in conversations or documents find many uses in organizations. So, too, can anecdotes about successful (or not so successful) project teamwork here and there. But these stories must enable listeners to imagine themselves in similar situations. If a story is too removed from the audience's reality, it will lose relevance and fail to make an impact. This is why champions like Ek Sonn Chan are able to convince his listeners to institute their own water reforms. Not only is Mr. Chan able to transport them to Phnom Penh at the time of the water utility's transformation, but he is also able to sell the idea of them solving their own challenges.

Storytelling in ADB

For a while now, ADB has been using films to showcase accomplishments. ADB-organized conferences have had their share of compelling stories delivered by engaging speakers. And short, punchy, and streamlined articles highlighting results and lessons learned from projects abound, e.g., Knowledge Showcases, Learning Curves, and Country Water Actions.

In 2009, ADB took storytelling to new heights by using it to capture, store, and relay its past and present staff's vast knowledge at the level of the organization. This first-ever knowledge harvesting expedition using storytelling yielded hours of reminiscences preserved in audio format. ADB staff talked about their early years in ADB, how things were done back then, the complex situations they faced and the tricky judgment calls they made, the colleagues who inspired them, and the projects that consumed their waking hours, and more. The exercise gave birth to two contributions - the ADB Reflections and Beyond publication and its audio companion, Beyond: Stories and Sounds from ADB's Region. They transmitted ADB's values and led people into a possible future for ADB. They also whetted in-house appetite for storytelling in other contexts and applications.

The overwhelming success of the two products reinforced the value of stories in ADB. More and more staff now use storytelling to collect and connect in team or community-building exercises, in workshop warm-ups, in back-to-office reports.

In 2010, ADB embarked on its most ambitious story-driven exercise yet. It launched the ADB Sustainable Development Timeline multimedia project, which currently hosts over 11 hours of sympathetic reminiscences and expertise rendered in video from 72 ADB staff. The material is broken down into 1-5 minute snippets covering a veritable plethora of topics, e.g., communities of practice, corporate governance, gender equity, forest conservation, knowledge management, renewable energy, sustainable infrastructure, etc. But, beyond these, the interactive platform also contains short documentaries of projects shot on location, sounds, B-roll footage, animations, graphics, voice-overs, videos, statistics, photo essays, etc. The product has been warmly received, both in and outside ADB, and augurs well for ready use in staff recruitment and induction, learning and development, conferences and other events, education, and external relations.