The first seven days (or so) of February mark ‘National Storytelling Week’ – something which really resonates with the team at Collingwood. It’s what we do, and here’s why…

Often, people find it hard to quantify how and why storytelling can be a catalyst for change. It can be viewed as something ephemeral or additional, but non-essential. However, in our world of education and training, there is a narrow focus on information exchange – the transfer of facts and skills between individuals in order that they will do things better, or differently.

Resonating with us because of the happy childhood memories it can evoke, ‘storytelling’ often sits within the realm of fantasy, make-believe, creativity and other ‘nice-to-haves’ that don’t get the mortgage paid. But it’s our traditional perceptions that underestimate the power a good tale can hold over all our lives – and its capacity for bringing about change.

How does storytelling work?

Why put your child to bed and look through a good book? To help them learn to read and develop their written skills. Tick. But in truth, it’s so much more that that. Reading helps little ones to see the world through someone else’s eyes and empathise with them.

Bedtime books are crucial during formative years because they can help to establish the differentiators between ‘good and bad’ or ‘right and wrong’, from the comfort and safety of a duvet. Most childhood stories go some way towards highlighting concepts such as personal responsibility, cause and consequence, social influence, decision-making – and positive or negative role models.

The underlying messages within kids’ books will usually involve moral dilemmas, often modelling behaviours, friendship and teamwork. Stories can also help us recognise and assess risk. It’s no surprise that cultures have used fables to reinforce value sets the world over, since our species could gesture and speak!

Have you ever found that when you’re trying to explain something, you say: “For example…” and share an anecdote? This is the most basic form of storytelling. The human condition seeks to ascertain context for information to sit within, in order to help us process information.

Stories help us to buy into ideas, behaviours, facts, beliefs – because they show us the ‘why’. Furthermore, as voracious consumers of stories in TV, media, books and verbal dialogue, we instantly apply these stories to our own lives. Do I relate to this? Is this right or wrong? What would I do in that situation? So engaged are we in the simplest of stories, that we make value judgements that inform our own attitudes, choices, and behaviours. Then we act.

Storytelling in practice

A good story – however it is delivered – can cause people to take action. This could be anything from avoiding single-use plastic to choosing a religion; helping with a humanitarian crisis or buying a pair of shoes. Stories and behaviour change go hand-in-hand.

A few years ago, we worked on a small project with Bradford Council. We wanted elected members and officials to be more aware of the rapidly-growing field of safeguarding and the many issues therein – including the challenges around protecting victims of domestic abuse.

In discussion, we realised that the only way to improve safeguarding practices was to start with the survivors of abuse themselves. We needed our learners to understand the complex cycle of entrapment felt by victims – and how certain interventions did or didn’t work. Perhaps most importantly, learners had to engage emotionally with the subject matter in order to affect real change.

I interviewed three women who bravely told me their stories. We then turned their accounts into a narrative, delivered as a monologue to camera by a trained actor. During the training day, each participant watched a video privately, before sitting with a domestic violence expert who gave further information and answered their questions.

The event was so moving and motivating that we ran some more, and soon the DVDs had become hotcakes and were being copied and used in educational settings across West Yorkshire. So powerful, honest, informative, and motivating were these simple pieces, that we realised we had to make more.

Now, Real Safeguarding Stories is a free bank of online videos retelling the real-life accounts of abuse survivors.

Safeguarding practitioners, community leaders, trainers, teachers, and many more professionals use them to help educate people of all ages on many aspects of safeguarding – from child sexual exploitation to modern slavery, sexting to domestic homicide.

This multi-award winning project works because of its simplicity. These powerfully told true stories can inspire people to recognise and respond effectively to safeguarding issues. They have motivated policy and procedural change to improve services.

Feedback from learners is that they are so much more confident because they understand what to look out for, and what to do. That they’ll act. 17,000 plays and counting. Good stories affect change.