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Storytelling in Many Shapes and Sizes: Ideas from the USAID Website

There are so many new story formats for the web! USAID shows us how to combine stunning visuals, emotional soundtracks and well-written texts to engage hearts and minds on different platforms.

Did you know it takes eight seconds to scan a webpage? Before you have finished reading this sentence, someone will have scrolled through your page and decided whether to stay.

So how can we grab their attention? Through stories of course! It is no secret that people love stories more than jargon and dull statistics. Stories capture our imagination. They use emotion to get their messages across and create a more lasting impression.

The USAID websites draw heavily on storytelling. And its communicators clearly know that the challenge is not just what story to tell, but which formats work best for different purposes and platforms.

Pictures, videos, music and text … there are many narrative formats to choose from if you want to resonate with different audiences. Here is an overview of what we found on USAID’s websites.

CATCHING THE EYE: SHORTER FORMATS

Shorter formats don’t only arouse people’s interest quickly. They are also highly shareable on social media.

Short videos

For distribution on platforms like YouTube and Vimeo, USAID produces short videos (rarely longer than 5 minutes). For example, have a look at this story about protecting wild bees, narrated by beekeepers and set to beautiful imagery and music. The story comes first. It is only at the end that viewers learn that this is a USAID project.

Not all of USAID’s videos are stories. The USAID weekly series, for example, provides snappy summaries of recent activities. There are also videos about USAID’s sectoral strategies, using engaging imagery from projects around the world with a slick soundtrack. Key messages are presented in subtle subtitles.

Multimedia and photo stories

USAID also shares powerful visual stories in the form of large images, with only short explanatory texts to provide context and key information. 

The Selma Votes story on empowering rural Tunisian women to participate in elections is a great example. Following a short video like the ones described above, there is a photo story with emotive pictures and short texts to provide key facts about the related USAID project. USAID has also begun using the visual storytelling platform Exposure to tell stories like Mom Knows Best.

Photo galleries

In the era of social media, photo galleries are the shortest way of telling a story. You need a stunning picture and a good caption to grab your audience’s attention.

Besides simple gallery formats like this one, there are also more complex formats, for example when photos are coupled with audio testimony and explanatory texts.

On the photo-sharing platform flickr, USAID uses galleries to tell stories about the organisation itself: official visits, meetings etc. It also tells project stories, for examples on “Haiti’s High-Tech Revolution” in the health sector. Formats like Flickr albums, are a great way to niche audiences that may not have come across your work.

BUILDING COMMITMENT: LONGER FORMATS

While shorter storytelling formats are highly visual, longer formats are an opportunity to help share more detailed information and serve to build commitment among audiences. They are much more likely to use more written and spoken words.

Text-based stories

USAID uses the Medium platform to share written stories. The format is a classic 5-minute read, bringing together a well-structured text with two or three images, and possibly an embedded video. In the story on a Buddhist nun in Thailand protecting tigers, the plot comes first, followed by some general background information and, in the end, a short description of USAID’s specific contribution.

USAID also hosts even longer story formats with reads of up to 10 minutes divided into chapters. While they appear to have discontinued this approach in 2018, we thought we would share this 2017 (pre-pandemic!) story about efforts to stop deadly viruses in bats before they can appear in humans.

Blogs

Until 2018, USAID also ran a news blog that occasionally featured stories about their projects. Blog posts are no stand-alone texts, but function as part of a whole. A blog is well suited to present a timeline of events, functioning as a kind of anthology, a growing collection of stories that remain relevant.

Podcasts

Podcasts are a demanding format for both audiences and their producers. However, they are very well suited to engage target groups who are already aware of an issue and interested in deeper information. USAID podcasts include the 10-episode-long USAID Leads series from 2018/2019, which featured discussions about policies and strategies.  

CONCLUSION

In USAID’s many web formats, the story always comes first. The story takes time and space to unfold, playing with the viewer’s imagination and creating an emotional connection. Information about the organisation, as well as its achievements, are not pushed forward, but built naturally into the story.

With a combination of visuals, music and language, USAID has customised its content for different platforms and diverse audiences. We SDG communicators have so many stories to tell. Let’s keep finding them – and finding better ways to tell them!


This post is published in partnership with Engagement Global, a German service agency working on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) to engage civil society on issues of development co-operation.

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