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Creating Narrative Assessment stories

PICTO INTERVIEWCreating a Narrative Assessment story consists of four main steps.

Step 1. Inviting interviewees

There are two types of Narrative Assessment stories. Some stories can be told by a single advocate, while other stories recount a collective effort or a longer history, involving different people over time. In that case, several interviews will need to be integrated into a larger story or stories (see Step 4). Potential interviewees need to be approached in a way that makes the relevance and nature of the exercise clear. Narrative Assessment is a special experience for many advocates for whom it may be the first time to talk about their work from a deeply personal perspective. Generally, people will be pleased to share their stories, but it will be helpful to explain this special nature, the purpose of the Narrative Assessment and what is expected of them, also in terms of time investment (up to 1.5 hours of their time plus the checking of the story draft). How interviewees are invited to interviews has two important effects. First, done right, those invited become interested in participating. Second, how you introduce yourselves and your purpose will immediately begin to shape their expectations, which will affect what they share. Participants must agree to what they are getting into, what will be expected of them, how their identity can be protected, and what will be done with the stories they share. This informed consent must be secured before the interview takes place.

Step 2. Preparing narrative interviews

Interviews for Narrative Assessments are not like other interviews. A narrative interview is an interview that does not revolve around questions by the interviewer but helps someone tell their story. For Narrative Assessment, the facilitator helps set up the story, does very little but listen while the story is being told, and then asks questions after that enrich, clarify and build plausibility. Narratives have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The role of the facilitator is, thus, very different from that of a normal interviewer. Right before the interview, four actions must be taken to prepare the interviewee. Together, the four actions may take about 20 minutes.

Preparing the interviewee
The facilitator starts by explaining Narrative Assessment and the question or interest that motivates the interview. Many interviewees will be used to reporting and reports are not stories. Therefore, Narrative Assessment requires a mental shift. The stories Narrative Assessment seeks are personal: they encourage advocates to open up and share personal knowledge of developments in their work, in the form of stories from their perspective. While many people share stories frequently outside of work, a preparatory conversation and supportive interview can help bring about and sustain this mental shift. One strategy here is to lead by example. The facilitator, for example, could share with the interviewee how this interview came about.

Getting a sense for the story
While the purpose of the story will be defined already (in Step 1), the interviewee and facilitator should agree the story is to be that of the interviewee. Together, the interviewee and facilitator go through the following steps to prepare the telling of the story. It is crucially important to have at least some sense of the story before the interview starts. All stories have plots. They are an account of interconnected developments over time, with actors taking action, leading to some result. Stories are rich accounts of things that happened over time. For a good story, the interviewee must know what happened first-hand. Often there is a main message, something meaningful to the interviewee regarding these events, and the reason to tell the story – defining how it is built up. This main message defines the plot.

For example: something was learned, something worked out, or failed for reasons the interviewee understands. The NA facilitator needs to keep this in mind as, in some cases, the interviewee may not have the message of the story all figured out before the interview and the account can be messy with various back and forths. However, having some sense of what the message is about, and keeping what it is about in mind, is important for helping the interviewee to tell a story. It will be clear to them what is to go into the story. The exact nature of the message will develop through the telling of and through the facilitator’s probing questions about the story, helping to release memory and make sense of events and actions. This interaction may be the first time the interviewee reflects deeply on what happened and its meaning. This reflection will help the interviewee learn from the interview themselves.

The interviewee and the facilitator explore the question of the message until the interviewee finds they have defined it enough to tell the story, and the facilitator helps to make sure the story is rich and serves the purpose of the Narrative Assessment. A simple way to do this is to establish with the interviewee what the story is going to be about. There are two elements to this that both need to be discussed:

  1. What is the theme of the story: the set of things that happened that will be talked about. For example: how we changed our strategy from trying to have conversations with the government agency to organizing protest.
  2. What is the message of the story about: For example: what we learned along the way that made us realize we had to change our strategy in this way.

While the theme will always be identified in advance, there are times where the facilitator and interviewee will discover important messages during their interaction. These unexpected findings, messages that become visible during coached reflection, are a key contribution of Narrative Assessment. When these occur, it may be wise for the interviewee to name these new points and to explore these new messages further. One of these newfound messages may become the theme of the story.

Once the theme and message are adequately clear, it is possible and necessary to delimit the time and scope. If the timeline is too long and the number and types of actions too many and complex, there will be little chance to create a story with sufficient detail and context to be insightful and convincing. A clear idea of where and when the story starts and some discussion of how to pick which details to include (and often more importantly, exclude) along the way is necessary. The scope should be set so there is enough time to go into important details, clarifying things like crucial turning points at events, explanations of strategy, and reflections on reasoning at the time.

A way to set an appropriate scope is for the facilitator to discuss with the interviewee beforehand what developments the story will discuss, also going into the kinds of details that are important to show and make understandable how things happened. This can help the interviewee decide what story could be told within an hour. In addition, a facilitator can decide to adjust the scope if the story becomes so large (e.g., covering a multi-organization campaign over three years) that it is impossible to include the details necessary for an insightful and plausible story on how or why things happened as they did. In such situations, a facilitator can ask the interviewee to focus on a subset of events or actors or consider returning for a second or third interview.

Setting the timeline
Together with the interviewee, the facilitator decides upon the starting point of the story (time and place) and invites the interviewee to start from that moment. To help make this happen, the facilitator can ask questions such as: What was for you an important starting point in time for this story? When do you think this story should start? How did this begin? The facilitator will then locate the interviewee at that starting point by asking them detailed questions about that situation.

Stories contain many rich details. These same details may make it possible to identify people which at times may put people and/or programs at risk. Being safe means deciding in advance, during and also afterward what sorts of details may be dangerous to include and how to mitigate those risks. The first step in managing safety takes place once the scope and starting point are set but before the interviewee shares their story. At this point, the facilitator must ask ‘might this story contain any details that put anybody or anything you care about at risk?’ With that answer in mind, the facilitator and interviewee will collaboratively decide what to do.

Step 3. Conducting narrative interviews

Once the story is roughly framed, the interviewee will know what goes into his/her story, and the narrative interview can get started. Asking many further questions during the storytelling will not be necessary after that and can even be counterproductive, as it can shift attention towards what the facilitator is asking and distract the interviewee from building their story from their perspective as it happened.

There are five further tasks for the facilitator:

Helping to build the story
The main task of the facilitator is to encourage the interviewee to tell the story step-by-step, to stay in the moment, and to speak from their position, as it unfolds over time.

A story is an account of events over time in specific places, brought together into a coherent whole, conveying certain messages from the standpoint of the interviewee. A Narrative Assessment story is built from the following elements:

  1. It contains an element of transformation (something important changed).
  2. It presents this transformation as a movement over time.
  3. It contains actions by which this transformation happens.
  4. Characters (one of whom is the interviewee) carry it out.
  5. These actions take place in specific well-described settings.

These five elements are brought together in a plot (possibly involving crises and turning points). This plot has a point: a key message to take away from the story.

It is important not to treat these elements as sequential steps. They are interlocking elements that combine like the ingredients to bake a cake. With the preparation done, once the normal reporting mode is left behind, telling the story will often come naturally to the interviewee.

The facilitator can help, when necessary, to bring out the specific elements more sharply, by asking questions like: So, what happened next? Who did that, can you tell me a bit more? What kind of event was that, where that happened? So why does this matter for your story? The facilitator may also help the interviewee to explore what should go into the story, during the telling. An interviewee may very well move in different directions for some time, exploring different developments to see if they fit into the story. While supporting such explorations, the facilitator may help the interviewee to assess what should go into the story by asking questions such as: So how does this (actor, event, etc.) matter for the story for you? Or: Why do you think this is actually part of this story? Or is this another important story? It may happen that the story the interviewee tells consists, in the end, of a set of smaller interlinked stories that, when woven together, make the bigger story. That is not a problem for Narrative Assessment, but the facilitator and interviewee should develop a shared understanding of what the different smaller stories are and how they are related.

Helping to make the story plausible
An important task of the Narrative Assessment facilitator is to help make the story plausible. The facilitator needs to pay attention to the following three aspects of the story and ask questions where necessary to strengthen the story :

  1. Detail
    Detail makes stories insightful and plausible. Narrative Assessments ask for detail beyond conventional reporting. An important role for the facilitators is to ask for detail along the way, asking questions such as: Can you be a bit more precise about how that happened? How did you manage to get that invitation? What makes you think the minister took you more seriously at the meeting than before? Asking questions on this will often be necessary since interviewees will otherwise keep their stories at a general level.

  2. Context
    Stories that clearly place practice in context are easier to interpret and they are more plausible as they are embedded in a reality. This helps to understand why things unfolded as they did and if and how those circumstances match those of the reader. Facilitators need to encourage interviewees to put their story in its context, asking questions such as: ‘So why was it evident to you that the government would respond in this way?’ or ‘Why did the strategy you chose fit the situation in that province?’ Interviewees often take their context for granted so asking questions will often be necessary. How much and what parts of that context matter change depending on the audience (e.g., sharing with peers in other countries or donors). Key elements of that context will have to be included.

  3. Consistency
    Stories are more plausible when they are internally consistent and when they are also consistent with what we know about the context from other sources. Facilitators will be more effective if they can tell if the story fits the context as they are hearing it. This will give facilitators grounds to ask detailed questions. Facilitators must test consistency so they should prepare for the Narrative Assessment interview by reading up or having informal conversations with informed people on the theme and its context before the interview(s) start. It may be helpful to ask critical questions to explore consistency gaps and questionable silences or claims and so tease out details to strengthen the plausibility of the story. These gaps and silences may cover events that are in some way challenging and/or difficult, which makes them particularly important to capture. Examples of questions are: ‘What do you think made this work there, at that moment?’, ‘What happened that made you think it was your organization that made the key difference since we know other CSOs also tried to influence this ministry?’.


Reflecting and refining
It is likely that after the interviewee has completed the first telling of their story, the facilitator still has questions about inconsistencies, context, silences, or missing detail (gaps in the story). The facilitator needs to reflect constantly during the unfolding of the story and see if any such questions arise and ask them at a time when they will not overly steer the interviewee, possibly after the first telling thereby strengthening the story where necessary by asking things like: ‘Can we go back to the moment when...’. Asking questions about a story will likely trigger further memories. At this stage, there is a good opportunity to delve into those as well. It will be clearer what the important elements of the story are and what aspects of these might need further attention. Also, the interviewee may not have shared something considered not of importance and may rethink that, triggered by the questions. At this stage, looking back or reflecting, it is also appropriate to ask the interviewee to identify which parts of the story or stories they have shared link to the main message and how they do so. This exercise provides the chance to ask: ‘Are there other things you have not mentioned that matter?’. It also ensures that the facilitator and the interviewee have a shared understanding of the message and how it is rooted in the plot (the interconnected developments the story tells about). The facilitator may ask the interviewee, giving the interviewee space to reflect. The facilitator can also help construct it (finding the right language, looking back together). There may be different elements to this main message (for example: how we learned to work with Twitter; how we did this working with a social movement; how this helped to get the minister to finally address our issue). This main message and its different elements can be used to give the story tags, for later retrieval.

Completing and closing
After completing the above, the facilitator must also ask the interview if anything came up during their discussion that they think is sensitive. If they do identify something as sensitive, the facilitator and the interviewee must decide on how this information should be handled. For more information, see Chapter 5 on safety.

Finally, the facilitator should share with the interviewee what will happen next. This may, for example, be returning the cleaned-up transcript to the interviewee and scheduling a meeting or planning to interact over email to make sure the story reflects the telling and perspective of the interviewee.

To capture stories in all their richness, it is important to record and transcribe the interview in the original language. Given that the quality of a Narrative Assessment depends on details, and that the relevance of these details may not be apparent until later, it is not possible to trust the memory of an interviewer unless they are very well trained in note-taking.

Step 4. Distilling stories from the narrative interviews

Interview transcriptions or notes easily run into 10 to 20 pages. Those writing up a story will need to transform the interview transcripts or notes into a story that is meaningful and to-the-point for busy staff and other audiences to read. While the stories need to be easy enough to understand and engaging, they must do justice to the story as told by the interviewee. This requires condensing the story while retaining key developments and important aspects of the context. It also involves putting the interviewee at the heart of the story as the protagonist whose knowledge and experience are presented throughout the story. At the same time, the story also needs to bring out critical detail and consistency.

Stories can develop from a single interview, to share one advocates’ experience. It is also possible to develop stories about programs, implemented by several organizations or individuals, or larger events incorporating and connecting stories told by different advocates. These are different types of stories, requiring different forms of reworking.]

The single-interview story
During a narrative interview, an interviewee is not telling a ready-made story; they are constructing the story, reflecting, remembering, and adding on the spot. There may be main points and minor points, repetitions, and side stories. These things are what often make for a long transcript telling much more than the main story. However, based on the preparatory exploration beforehand and the way the story is told and concluded, the facilitator will be able to distil at least the main story from the interview, identifying and bringing out:

  • the main set of interconnected events forming a plot;
  • and how the telling of the events conveys a main message;
  • connecting characters with action;
  • over time;
  • in settings that are described so they can be clearly recognized and are demonstrably relevant to the message.

A single interview can usually be boiled down to a 2-3-page story. Sometimes, one interview ends up containing more than one story; and from one transcript, more than one can be distilled. To stay as close as possible to the interviewee’s form of the story, it is advisable to maintain the wordings, the style of narrating, and the first-person perspective of the interviewees as much as possible. Stories are written from the perspective of the interviewee. To get the feel right and stay in the perspective of the interviewee, it is helpful to listen to key bits of the interview before and while writing the story. Cleaning up grammar, hesitations and the like is advisable though, as it will raise the clarity and quality of the story, making it a more compelling read.

To make a story interpretable for different intended audiences, the facilitator may add information. This may be necessary since the original audience (the facilitator) is not the intended audience. The interviewee may have told their story rightfully assuming that the facilitator has insider knowledge on, for example, the setting, actors, or events. The facilitator needs to consider what information, for example, about the setting of the story, should be added to the story for an intended audience and then ask the interviewee to check the draft to see whether the adjusted rendering still does justice to their perspective.

Sensitive information may need to be adapted, in particular when the story is meant for external audiences.

After drafting the story, the facilitator must send it to the interviewee for checking, giving them the opportunity to correct the draft. In this exchange, the facilitator must tell what they have added or changed in the story and why those decisions were made.

Sometimes, a story that an interview tells consists of a few interconnected smaller stories. For example: ‘How I built a relation at a ministry’; ‘How an opportunity to influence a policy developed at that ministry because of a political development’. In such cases, we speak of a ‘composite story’. Those will be more common still with stories built from more than one interview. At times, these smaller stories can be separated, while for other purposes, they are better kept as one story.

The multiple-interview story
Many advocacy trajectories involve several organizations working in alliances, multiple events over a longer period, and more than one advocate. Stories from different interviewees can be put together in a single story. As this is more complicated, the multiple-interview story is more challenging for facilitators than the single-interview story and may require some additional support from the trainers.

When advocates have worked together very closely, there may be a single composite story to tell by combining different interviews into one, with one plot that the interviewees all agree on. In that case, the process of building the story may be similar to that of a single-interview story, be it that you include different advocates’ voices into it. In that case, the facilitator may need not write the story in the first (I) person but, rather, to take up the role of a narrator, telling the story but ‘existing outside of it’ (telling what happened and what advocates did, etc. in the third person, (he/she/they). In some cases, the narrator will also have to at least partly formulate the plot and main message (and thus also the rest of the story), bringing together different voices into one story (which may shed a different light on the same sequence of events).

For example, a facilitator has conducted a set of narrative interviews with advocates from four different organizations, about a campaign over several years in which each played a role. This set of interviews will have to be reconstructed into one single story that ties these together. The question is how to do this without imposing an interpretation that does injustice to the interviewees. Based on the different interviews, the facilitator can decide that the interviews each show a different part of the campaign (from a similar perspective or a different view on it). A challenge is how to define the main message. It can still be possible to do this while drawing on the interviews, as they together may provide input for this based on their similarity. For they all engage the same difficult context and all contribute to the same result, offering part of a sequence of events that contributed to a certain outcome.

The facilitator can introduce that starting point at the beginning of the story and then proceed including the different voices of the interviews in a single story. Within these parts, the principle remains the same of maintaining the voice of the interviewee as much as possible, with main elements (events forming a plot with a message, characters, action, and setting) distilled from the interview as with the single-interview story. The narrative will have to create text elements connecting those voices, and also a concluding part confirming the main message, and reflecting on the different elements.

A multi-interview story will be longer than the single-interview story. It’s important to decide upon an acceptable length for your audience and adjust the story accordingly. If the case under study is complex, with many story strands, facilitator(s) may also decide to create several stories from the same set of interviews.

An example applying this approach for a Cordaid program can be found here, also in French, in which the authors of this manual worked with this approach.

Here too, to make the story understandable for different intended audiences, the facilitator may add an introduction, some information, for example on the setting, to help these audiences understand the story. This may be necessary since the original audience (the facilitator) is not the intended audience. Again, sensitive information may need to be adapted, in particular when the story is meant for external audiences (more on that in the section on safety).

After drafting the story, the facilitator sends it to the interviewees for checking, giving them the opportunity to correct the draft. In case of variety in perspective, the facilitator might want to address this in a meeting with all interviewees where possible. If no agreement is found, it can be decided to resolve this by focusing the stories on agreed elements, with further reflection on plausibility as a key factor deciding what should go in. If different accounts continue to be plausible also after this reflection, stories can highlight the different experiences as partial and/or reflecting different angles.