What it takes to tell a good story in rural agriculture

Israel Bionyi Nyoh

Storytelling in rural agriculture is different from daily news. CTA’s Senior Programme Coordinator, Communications, Paul Neate shows you how to prepare stories in the most unlikely places.

In the highlands of Kenya, a project developed an improved maize production system that doubled the yields of local farmers. Years later, when evaluators visited the project site they found that farmers were growing half as much maize as they did before. The project failed, did it not? Well, maybe not. Maybe it achieved a different success from that intended. The farmers produced just as much maize as before but on less land and with less effort and grew other complimentary crops like vegetables. The reason why they didn’t produce more maize? The market was 10 kilometres away and the only way to get their maize to market was for the women to carry it in baskets on their heads.

With storytelling the project communicates positively. It makes the difference in communicating well the outcomes. Storytelling transmits emotions, knowledge and experience.

In agriculture and rural development, good storytelling needs more than just a narrative. It requires careful approach, understanding and mastery of various communication tools. A poor story can send the wrong message or transmit wrong emotions. What, therefore, makes a good story in agriculture and rural development? How can you engineer a story such that it penetrates hearts and expresses the right message?

With more than 30 years of storytelling experience, CTA’s Paul Neate, Senior Programme Coordinator, Communications, shares his views on that. From managing farms during his university studies in the UK to conducting agricultural research in Syria to managing communications in Africa, Paul has a wealth of experience and a real feeling and understanding of agriculture. His perspectives on the subject reveal a step-by-step process to producing addictive stories in agriculture.

Understanding your audience

“You need to understand your audience and your motives for telling the story. Because ultimately with storytelling you are trying to make someone care about something and most effectively about someone else. The most effective storytelling is when you can put your audience in the shoes of your protagonist,” Paul says. The audience is key to developing the story, therefore: “Understanding who the audience is, what they already know about the subject. Do they care about the subject? Do they actually recognise the problem you see as a problem? This really influences the story you have to tell and influences the starting point.”

Purpose of the story

“Storytelling is just part of everybody’s life,” he says. People tell stories for various purposes: to make people care about others, a situation, a condition, or to make them laugh, cry, support a programme or a project. The purpose defines the story.

Find your story

Paul feels the real challenge in storytelling is finding the story. With the overwhelming amount of information available today, especially online and on social media, you can easily be sidetracked in searching a story. In the search for your story what you need to do is “get people to share their stories or get people to even understand they have a story worth telling,” he says.

Feel your story

It takes more than just an account to tell a story in rural agriculture. “I feel that to tell a real story you need to have a connection with it,” he notes. “I do believe to tell a story, you need to really feel it, you must have a real understanding of it.” For instance, leading communications in Ethiopia at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Paul travelled to West Africa to understand the farming systems in Niger. “It was only once I had been on the land and sat with the farmers and really felt the soil – pick up a handful of soil and let it run through your fingers and you understand what the farmers are dealing with [a soil with no substance, structure and moisture],” he states.

Identify key players

Paul’s advice on identifying story characters is clear: “When you are telling a story you need personalities. You need individuals, and you need actions that are ascribed to somebody. Very often you need the person who owns the story. This will probably be the lead researcher or the lead development person. But then from there, identify who can tell you which part of the story and connect you with that story.”

Map your story

The storyboard maps out sequences of a story, how it would unfold part by part. Paul’s advice on using the tool to plan a story is that “you need to start mapping out a good understanding of the whole story. Where is the beginning, where is the ending point and how do you get from one to the other? Who did what? When? Why? Where? and How? In some ways it is very much like planning a movie; you almost need to develop a storyboard to take you through it.”

Develop your story

To gather the story, you need to conduct “lots of interviews, do a lot of listening. I think the important thing is listening and it’s an active listening, where you need to be very engaged in it. You’ve got to be ready to pick up on nuances of things that are not being said,” Paul says. But, he cautions, “you need to be careful not to go with the story already written in your head. You need to hear what your protagonists are saying and you need to be ready to capture the things that can make the story come alive.”

Interview your story

Paul doesn’t tell a story unless he understands it. He looks at the storyboard after gathering the story to see lessons drawn from the process of interviewing. Do they change the story and hopefully making it a better one? It is then that he can start drawing the pieces together and following the storyboard, creating a logical sequence.

Tell your story

Telling the story is creating the thread that leads the person on the voyage of discovery through the story. “I don’t write the lead to the story until I have got to that point where the story is complete; only then can I write the introduction to it,” he says. “The introduction – your standfirst – is the last thing that you have to put together because that is the distillation. The one key message of your story. It is the heart of your story and you have to get it out in that first couple of seconds to capture the person’s interest.”

Check and test your story

It is essential to check with interviewees if your understanding of the story matches their accounts. “Once you have the story and you have told it, you need to go back to the protagonist,” he says, “to verify that what you have understood is what they meant and that can take a few rounds to make sure.”
Paul recommends testing your story. “Try it out with somebody who is not familiar with the story, but ideally understands your target audience, to try to see if it works.”

What makes a good story: tips and tricks

Paul’s guidance on making a good story in agriculture is this: “What makes a good story is making the story relate to people. Storytelling is emotional. When you are dealing with hunger, make people think about the reality of it. You need a sympathetic character. You need a feel-good factor, you need your audience to feel good about themselves, feel that they’ve learned something or that they can do something about it, they can make a difference. You want to get somebody to change their farming practice, you need them to value this idea and they will only take that on board if you can put them in the shoes of the person whose life has already been changed by it. It is all about change.”

Further reading

Scientific writing for agricultural research scientists: A training resource manual


Climate-smart agriculture success stories from farming communities around the world