The Art of Storytelling: Improving Data Quality and Usage

Storytelling is a powerful tool that researchers can adopt to engage participants, stakeholders, and others, as it produces an effective mode of communication that can inspire interest and push for collective action. As of March 2020 and due to Covid-19, the global shift to work from home and remote research efforts sparked growing challenges about data collection, particularly for marginalized communities and vulnerable persons. To this regard and with consideration to social distancing protocols, data collection methods have been drastically altered from face-to-face to remote settings (phone, video). This is of particular relevance in the MENA region given the existing lack of regional data available needed to map and address social, organizational, political, economic (and other) matters – despite the recent advances in survey research. By identifying some challenges the MENA faces and anticipating those it will face in the future, we can begin to explore mitigation strategies that prioritize the robustness of data and the visibility of scholarship to garner wider interest, reach, and implementation. To this end, we will explore why researchers should strongly consider the use of storytelling throughout the cycle of their study and reporting efforts as it could strengthen collaboration and bring about data justice.

Researchers as storytellers

Researchers know too well that without data it is difficult to understand and gauge the climate of any area of study. However, this message in itself is not convincing for others to join in on this effort. Rather than focus on the need to get ‘the data,’ researchers should focus on the intrinsic motivation of participants. In other words, sharing what the data can do, how it will be used, and/or how it may help advance society (e.g., individuals, civil society, government, private sectors, other) will assist in the quality of participants’ performance. In fact, intrinsic motivation is reported to increase the quality of reporting, which leads to more robust data than providing monetary incentive, which increases the quantity of respondents. This process shifts the focus from the need to collect data (researcher perspective) to a collective action for a greater good (participant/community perspective), which takes into consideration the participants’ motive. This can take place from the inception of a study in the data collection phase, avoiding vague language such as ‘women participants needed for interview’ (alongside some demographic information) to highlighting the purpose and aim of the study ‘we are interested in speaking with women to gather insights on working from home during Covid.’ Despite what type of data researchers are collecting (e.g., quantitative, qualitative, mixed methods), the messages shared with the public should relay a storyline that garners the attention of participants and additional stakeholders alike. Researchers should consider applying narratives and scenarios that relate their research to a non-expert audience, who are vital for the quality of the data. Applying clear language that avoids jargon in all research protocol, tools, and reports offers a way in which framing the research can be a more communicable and engaging process for far more people. In sum, an interactive answer to the ‘so what’ question is a necessary component to promote a collaborative effort between researchers and participants.

Storytelling and data justice

Data justice is built on pushing for impartial visibility, representativeness, and treatment to persons and groups who lack technology-access and are often subjected to data-driven discrimination. While researchers focus on minimizing research biases, the sudden push for remote research processes and their negative impact on marginalized communities should be carefully navigated. For instance, as the datafication continues, this process limits the participation of groups of people who have little to no means of electricity and/or technology. This is a central issue in the MENA region and should heavily be considered in how we can mitigate data justice and address it as a social justice issue. Engaging participants in storytelling and reporting is one way that this process could be mitigated. The central drivers of the data are not researchers, they are participants. Without engaging marginalized populations, nuanced conditions will remain indistinguishable with no clear baseline that measure progress and engage community members who can provide specific information on a regional or local level. Although researchers are important in the process, empowering regional and local participants and collaborators and involving them in the data usage and messaging could begin to address data justice.

Participants as community storytellers

Often, researchers collect data and make strategic decisions on behalf of their sample populations, which reinforces the role of researcher as ‘expert’ leaving their participants quite disempowered in the process. Key informants, who are valuable because of their status in a community, and who are often referred to in reaching participants, should not have a unidirectional role (transmitting data from the community to the researcher). Rather, they are often community experts and leaders who can share research results and strategy to their community. This partnership creates a dialogue amongst researchers and community members that builds rapport, which is crucial given the high mistrust in institutions in the MENA. This also builds a community that transcends the researchers’ physical presence, and makes key informants and participants the primary storytellers. This makes sense given their position as insiders who can maintain cultural integrity and push for policies that are critical in the strategic and implementation process. Furthermore, information sharing produces cultural sensitivity, commitment, and support of others, especially in work where researchers are pushing for behavioral or social change. Thus, key informants and other trusted community members can build the confidence of community members and adequately share information as agents of change.

Storytelling, in other words, is a science that researchers can adopt to make meaning from the data collected. These stories can deliver data-driven facts through narratives, details, and expression, that insight empathy, interest, and action. Covid might have pushed for researchers to consider alternative ways to work, but a virtual working space has certainly pushed for new demands and innovative ways of thinking that we can all adopt as we continue to challenge traditional methods with more timely and robust ones.


Claudia Youakim, Ph.D., is a sociologist, educator, author, and DEI strategist, who serves as the Deputy Director of Knowledge Management and Research in the Center for Inclusive Business and Leadership (CIBL) at the American University of Beirut. She can be reached on twitter @cyou824. The views expressed in this piece are her own.