What scribes for the storytelling project need to know

As I polish up my upcoming book, “Story-centered learning for organizations working for change“, I am posting nuggets of wisdom that never made it online. Here is our outline for a two-hour scribe training session (assuming they will be using the two-story approach and interviewing broadly within a community over many months). What follows are some of GlobalGiving’s insights from training scribes in East Africa in this way from 2010 to 2012. We trained thousands of people (groups of 10 to 25 at a time) to go out and listen to people in the community where they live. Then we returned regularly to collect their paper stories and pay them a small reward per story collected.

Scribe training

apple-bullet-pointFirst, explain the project

The Storytelling project is (fill in your specific context). Some examples include…

  • our way to hear what people in this community want. When you tell your story about some event that affected you, you are helping others understand what it means to live here, to be you.
  • our way to decide what are the most important things that we could try to improve. You are helping us prioritize issues for our next project.
  • your way to advise us as we design the next project in your community.
  • your way to tell us what we are doing well, and what we are doing poorly.
  • more examples of local contexts here: https://chewychunks.wordpress.com/2014/03/13/how-orgs-adopt-storytelling-to-local-context/

People will ask questions. Be clear that it is not…

  • a marketing exercise for your organization. (Many organizations hear “storytelling” and think that this will generate those nicely crafted “impact stories” to sell their product to soccer moms and millennials. These and messy, real accounts of life and the organization is not the “change agent” in most stories – a community member is.)
  • narrowly asking about the impact of your organization’s work. If so, it won’t work.
  • an attempt to name and shame the bad actors, with no suggestions for what they could improve. Constructive criticism is helpful. Complaints without any thought about solutions are not.

apple-bullet-pointExplain what the storyteller is expected to do. You will…

  • introduce the purpose of this listening project. So in a sentence, we [who?] are asking for stories so that we can understand what is important, and what we can improve. If needed, show them your letter of authority to collect on our behalf. Then answer their questions.
  • Invite them to choose one or two stories. Explain what we mean by “story.” A story is your telling of a real event that happened recently, (last 3 months). A story is an episode, an anecdote, with a beginning, middle, and end, and a main character. Explain what happened. Focus on something that affected a person you know something about. (3 minutes)
  • Listen to them and write down what they say. This often takes 10 to 15 minutes. And about 1 minute into the story, feel free to stop them to start over if the story doesn’t meet our definition of a story. (No narrative, no identifiable characters, not time-bound.) An example of a story that isn’t time-bound is someone complaining about how the government doesn’t do anything good for the people in general, with no example given of such a failure. (12 minutes)
  • Point-of-view: As you write, be careful to write it the way it would sound coming out of their mouth, not yours. Pronouns matter a great deal in this analysis. So switching “and then I said” to “and he said” is a major error in transcription. At the same time, you should coach them to only share the highlights of the story. You only have the space of one side of one sheet of paper to use – on purpose – because we want people to pick out the elements of the story, not the epic details.
  • After the story is on paper, go through the survey with them, explain each question, and ask them for an answer. This usually goes much faster. (5 minutes)
  • We don’t ask for names, but we do want them to understand that their story will anonymously appear online, where others may find it if they are searching for a story about the thing they spoke about. They will be one of tens of thousands online. If they ask, “How will I find this story online,” show them the direct link to where their stories will appear in the upper right corner of every survey form. That link is to the web-form where it is entered, but the cover letter could and should include this link: http://storylearning.org/c/s?group_range=XXX (where XXX is replaced by whatever number is in the upper right corner of the form).

Note: The importance of carrying a formal introduction letter is explained in I don’t trust you but… along with a copy of one of these letters, used in Uganda in 2011. Tailor it to your context, and in some places it isn’t needed at all. In other places, it jump-starts the trust-building process.

apple-bullet-pointExplain how this will help the community.

Questions people asked our scribes covered these four areas:

  1. Agency (how will this affect people in power?) – by sharing their views, along with many others, it paints a clearer picture of what people need and expect from them.
  2. Relevance – you choose what to talk about. Pick something you personally care about.
  3. Convenience – participating may take a little time, but other people will handle the rest of the work. And the potential to influence community-level decisions and funding may be worth it. 
  4. Confidence in the system – if you want to build trust and confidence, you’ll need to follow up with them on what your learned in a reasonable time frame. People are used to be asked what they think by outsiders, who are never heard from again. Be the exception, and people will notice that!

When people feel that their voice makes a difference, it is easy to get them to share a story. If they can talk about what’s most important in their lives, and they trust the agent asking, they do readily participate. This isn’t a waste of time, because what they choose to share is something that is important to them (because our main story prompting question is designed for that), so you’re giving them an opportunity, and it doesn’t feel like you’re taking time from them.

But if an organization isn’t committed to acting on what it hears, and engages tepidly, it will be very transparent to the people in a community. They won’t share. Be ready to promise something (to listen and act and learn) and people will help you. Getting local people to be the listeners is an important way to build trust. Becoming a curious question-driven organization is important to creating the mental space internally to act on what you hear.


In 2011 our Uganda country coordinator Moses met with a typical big aid foundation. He recalled that their main interest was learning from us how we (GlobalGiving) managed to collect so many stories, tens of thousands every year in over 40 locations in two countries. They only were seeking a few stories for their own purposes (measuring their impact), and didn’t think building community ties was worth their time. At least they doubted their leadership would approve the funds needed to take this seriously. So they went the usual cop-out way of paying people to get just a few local voices on paper instead of letting the community own the process. As a result, the data amounted to nothing. Local trust deteriorated further. We never heard from them again. Listening had to impact, because their intent was to measure impact, not make a difference through listening.
When you give scribes a chance and can present compelling evidence that your organization is truly there to listen and serve a community, engagement will remain high.

This organization also asked Moses how we trained scribes; how he made sure there were no fake stories; and how he trained scribes to get storytellers to tell good useful stories, even when interviews took a long time (15 minutes each). We got scribes by recruiting young people with no jobs but local connections and paying them. The wages were modest, but enough to interest them. The training began with context, and moved on to role-playing. They would practice on each other, then go home and practice on their friends and family, and eventually they’d have 10-20 stories and get paid. Afterwards, a smaller fraction of these enjoyed this and went out to get 100+ each month.

My biggest regret was not having the capability to show them results in real time, like we have now. If I did this in 2016, I’d show them the power to ask any question of their own community, and let them drive the questions we should be asking of it.

We did give them feedback on the quality of their work. When we collected batches of stories on paper, our coordinators skimmed them for repeats (the easiest cheat), and for incomplete entries (also common). Then later, I ran code that found duplicates with older stories, and we excluded a few of those people from future rewards. But overall, about 95% of the collected stories met our standards, and showed great diversity. Our rewards were 10-15 KES or 300 UGX per story (about 10 cents each). So whereas collecting 10 stories might take 2 hours, that earned $1 – which is a day’s wages being an aperante on a bush taxi or selling vegetables in the market. From our point of view, $500 in scribe payments was a very cheap way to get 5000 stories – a colossal amount of feedback – compared to what an impact evaluator might charge for a days “expert” work. In 2009 we contracted with Kenyan expert that charged a “reduced rate” of $250 a day. And she could never get 500 stories worth of insights from just two consulting days of equivalent work.

After doing the initial training, we’d recommend doing a follow up meeting and doing one of these exercises to really illustrate the power of community stories in discovering the nature of social change:

apple-bullet-pointStory-centered-learning method in brief:

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