The global development community often struggles with turning technical content into information that can be easily understood by non-technical audiences. By tapping into the art of storytelling, development practitioners can start to speak across technical boundaries and enhance impact.
After working in development communications for nearly two decades, I recently had a revelation. I realized that two usually distinct parts of common development communications — storytelling and technical — are actually more alike than not. Too often, when we discuss technical topics, from resilience to supply chain optimization, our inclination is to write or speak to audiences who know as much as we do about a given topic. But to achieve the ambitious targets of the Sustainable Development Goals, we know we need solutions that benefit from a wide range of experiences. In short, we need to speak across technical boundaries to learn from each other and multiply impact. One way to achieve this is to communicate about technical approaches the way we tell a good story: simply, clearly, humbly, and personally.
Old advice is good advice: use simple language
Sometimes it feels like we are swimming in acronyms and jargon. I was recently speaking with a colleague and realized that not only would people outside our field be confused if they overheard us talking, people inside my own company would probably need a translator. To communicate well, no matter your audience, use simple language. Explain the jargon and technical terms you must use. Only use acronyms when they are widely understood. In short, don’t make your audience work to understand you.
Don’t be afraid to connect technical work to your mission
When I see a blog post by one of Chemonics’ technical experts describing the advantages of a particular technical approach, I see their passion for their subject matter in every line. But sometimes, I’m left thinking “so what?” Sometimes the posts lack context. When writing about a specific topic, don’t forget to pull back and remind your reader what’s at stake. No matter what development subfield we are in, we are fighting the same battle. Connect your ideas and experience to your larger mission. The Sustainable Development Goals are a useful construct for this. When writing about even the most obscure methodology, ask yourself how it moves the needle on one of those goals.
Use evidence of success and failure
In the same way that it’s important to connect your technical work to a larger goal, including evidence of success and failure makes your communications authentic and useful. What did you try that didn’t work before you hit on the right approach? Why didn’t it work? How did you decide it didn’t work? How did you pivot to find the right solution? No single approach can be scaled as-is across the entire world. Sharing the process and evidence you used helps others avoid the same pitfalls. Being frank about what succeeded and what failed also builds credibility with your audience: They see you as a more honest storyteller, which creates a stronger foundation to continue engaging with them time and time again.
Allow yourself into the story
For me, this is the biggest gap between storytelling and technical communication, and the hardest to overcome. Development practitioners often remove themselves from their own stories to put beneficiaries at the forefront. That is understandable — our shared goal is for people to live healthier, more productive, and more independent lives. In technical communications, though, the practitioner can and should be a part of the story. Your experience in the field informs others. Using your own voice and sharing your own anecdotes strengthens your technical message.
Communicating technical approaches to a wider audience is challenging. These are a few of my ideas for making technical communication more like a story, but what do you think? Should technical communications be left as they are? Are there other ways to make them more relatable? Let me know your thoughts below!
Blog posts on the Chemonics blog represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Chemonics.