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Home » “TELL-TO-ACT” – a storytelling and protreptic dialogue concept

“TELL-TO-ACT” – a storytelling and protreptic dialogue concept

A concept to aid strategy and communication implementation in organizations and projects

By Andrew Julius Bende – Daily Leader – Civil Connections –

With contributions from:

Dear reader,

To start off this little write-up or blog as one would rather call it, allow me to set a few reflection questions to ponder as you read the rest of the gather-up. Or maybe, take a minute or two to reflect on them before you read the rest – the latter is more rewarding I would argue, but you decide.

Here we go.

  • When is a word a buzzword?
  • What do we honestly mean when we state our missions, visions, values, and goals?
  • Do we really mean them and live the values we load into them, or are they just for fashion?
  • Do we give enough rigor to the words – values – actions interplay in our strategies/work?
  • Beyond the secretariat, what place do the rest of our stakeholders take in our strategic processes? And implementation and reflection underway? Are we accountable to them?
  • How do we mobilise and engage the communities around us in our work?
  • What becomes of the story we find in the community before our project story?
  • Who owns the story of what we do? Who is the storyteller? and whose story is the most vital?

These are questions randomly derived from engagements and strategic dialogues within development work and the way we work with communities or set our goals. They are in no way specific – rather quite open, and intentionally so because their purpose is to tincture reflection, and not to be answered in a flash. There is no wrong answer by the way, as long as you have the conviction that your way creates a real impact for your organization and the different stakeholders you work with – and especially so those that look up to you for your support/services.

But these questions are also symptomatic to our field as an NGO – or call it the development work field because I am sure it is not the first time you have stumbled over them or at least been tasked in one or another conference or workshop, or an article or even a development book to ponder precisely the same.

These same questions and many more not taken here for fear of bombarding you, are also the foundation and the guiding flags for our recently launched project – TELL-TO-ACT or TELL2ACT, whose funds were granted to us at the beginning of June 2022 by Globalt Fokus – Denmark, under their Capacity Building modality. The objective of the project is to support the development of value clarification around organizational strategies and the way we engage our communities in these, and it is a 5-partner project running for 8 months (read about the project here.

Our motivation for launching such a project:

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), experts, staff, and volunteers in development work know that good intentions and innovative projects are not enough if we are to succeed with our projects and make a difference in the world. It is our ability to deal with complexity; build bridges of understanding across borders and cultures; the ability to create ownership and motivation among our partners, followers, employees, and all relevant stakeholders that is centrally/all-important (CISU, 2022).

Research from among others, consultancy Mckinsey points out that 70% of implementation plans in organizations fail. This is due, among other things, to the lack of involvement of all relevant stakeholders, where often the strategy is planned by a small group without the involvement of especially the grassroots. Another reason is that those involved find it difficult to see the meaning of the strategy or project, which commonly relates to failure to find common value for the work we are involved in. And finally, it can be difficult to understand the strategy because it is communicated unclearly and far from reality. For example, NGOs must continuously decide on many buzzwords and concepts, which can be difficult to translate and use concretely. As a result, energy, human and financial resources are wasted.

Effective implementation is complex and there are no simple solutions, but if we work to continuously develop concrete and useful tools that qualify the implementation work, there is much to be gained in terms of cooperation/collaborations/partnerships and finances/resources. Storytelling and dialogue methods play a decisive role here.

The project puts useful building blocks in place using storytelling, and protreptic dialogue:

Let us start with storytelling:

Research (Professor David Boje) shows that storytelling is one of the most effective methods for communicating, creating/mobilizing followers, developing and implementing strategies, etc., because stories are the way we communicate and recognize our contexts and lives. In addition, storytelling can create understanding across cultures, political attitudes, and ethnicity. For example, we know from other research (Princeton University) that storytelling helps to overcome resistance; that it creates trust and loyalty, and neurologically the same centers in the brain are activated when we hear a story as if we were experiencing the situation in reality.

There is a lot of knowledge and inspiration to be found in indigenous people’s storytelling (Cajete, Native Science), which focuses on building communities and long-term sustainable development in society and among people. In his book “True Storytelling – Seven Principles for an Ethical and Sustainable Change-Management Strategy”, Jens Larsen reflects on the need to think about storytelling as not just an act of telling and hearing stories, but as a wholistic approach to discovering the ethical grounds for our engagement in our work and the people we work with, by being both true/ethical to who we are, and what the contexts we work in really call for, but also making space for all stories around us/other stakeholder voices.

Based on his work and studies of native storytelling, Jens’ true storytelling model seven principles include, 1. You yourself must be true/ethical and prepare the energy and effort for a sustainable future, 2. True storytelling makes spaces that respect the stories already there, 3. You must create stories with a clear plot, creating direction and helping people prioritize, 4. You must consider timing (own note: both from a Kronos as well as Kairos perspective because these are fundamental in facilitating us to harness the right energy for what we do), 5. You must be able to help yours and other stories on their way and be open to experimenting with new inputs and ideas, 6. You must consider staging (own note: setting a conducive and supportive context for the story), including scenography and artifacts, 7. You must reflect on the stories and how they create value. These set the tone for our project’s journey with storytelling towards ethically mobilizing communities towards our missions and thereby creating ownership and authenticity of our work along the way.

And what is protreptic:

In addition to storytelling, and in recognition of/connection with the jungle of concepts and values that NGOs are presented with today, another effective tool/model central to our project is the dialogue form Protreptic, which focuses on clarifying concepts and values and creating common value-based understanding. It can be, for example, buzzwords such as sustainability, regenerative management, and co-creation, but also values such as justice, equality, freedom, responsibility, trust, and solidarity, which must be the foundation of and for the collaboration internally and externally among partners, organizations, and projects.

Protreptics, which means turning the individual, the organization, and society towards the essential and ethical, has roots in Ancient Greece and the philosopher Aristotle. As a form of dialogue, Protreptic has been revitalized by philosopher and professor emeritus at CBS Ole Fogh Kirkeby. Protreptic is a tool that can help us achieve a greater and more nuanced understanding of the concepts we work with so that they become the glue that binds us together and from which we can act. Questions can be, for example: “Why is the concept essential for life & development work?” What is the opposite of the term? What human qualities are required to live up to the concept? Etc.

Finally, on dialogue the connecting glue:

Our project’s central component is the ambition to facilitate true dialogue among organizational and project stakeholdership by using storytelling as a method of mobilization and communication. On top of protreptic as a tool for dialogue about the principles in our work, and what values these carry. But what is dialogue? Or for that sake true dialogue?

Let us borrow a quote from Paulo Freire’s ‘Pedagogy of the oppressed’, to offer a start definition for dialogue. That “… dialogue as a human phenomenon, (is based on) something which is the essence of dialogue itself: the word. But the word is more than just an instrument that makes dialogue possible; accordingly, we must seek its constitutive elements. Within the word, we find two dimensions, reflection, and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed – even in part – the other immediately suffers” (Freire, 1993:60).

According to Freire and many likeminded theorists, thinkers, sociologists, anthropologists, and academics, when we say words or for that sake talks to each other, this is a mere presentation of processes or clouds of thoughts that have already happened in our minds without a presence in physical space, but which gain form or physical existence when they are spoken. In this sense, the words we let out are reflective of what our minds are uptaken with, and in this way a presentation of our reflection on the world or context in which we find ourselves – and by this giving it form, so those we are in interaction with can gain access to it for their own interaction with it and in that way be part of what Freire calls “naming the world” or simply said, giving definition to what and how we are experiencing our context at all times, and creating a shared sense of what the world is and the place of the self/ourselves within the world[1].

For Freire, dialogue or word is also fundamentally for the intention of not only ‘naming the world’ but for causing action – facilitating us to act within our world/context, because once we have named it, the world then communicates to us with what and how we need to do in it. So, for Freire, the word is only complete and beneficial to the world when we both send out our reflections and act upon them within the world we have created. But Freire cautions that the word for word’s sake does not lead to actions – it is only the true word that creates action, because it is only a true word that is constitutive of the true world/context we find ourselves in, and thus a world we can act in/interact with. To give us a concrete illustration of this, let me paraphrase Freire as follows…

He suggested that “Human existence cannot be Silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, with which men and women transform the world” (Ibid:61). … An unauthentic word – a false nonrepresentative of truth and reality, is a word deprived of its dimension of action and reflection. This word suffers because it does not lead to authentic action in the world, or for that sake a true naming of the world. This word is then “changed into idle chatter, into verbalism, into an alienated and alienating “blah”. It becomes an empty word… On the other hand, if action is emphasized exclusively, to the detriment of reflection, the word is converted into activism. The latter—action for action’s sake—negates the true praxis and makes dialogue impossible (Ibid:61).

Another factor in Freire’s framework of dialogue is that it has to take place on equal terms for those involved in it – all must have the right and opportunity to say the true word or name the world for that sake. To Freire, “… while to say the true word… is to transform the world, saying that word is not the privilege of some few persons, but the right of everyone. Consequently, no one can say a true word alone – nor can she say it for another, in a prescriptive act which robs others of their words” (Ibid:61). This unequal right and access to the word – or naming of the world cannot qualify as dialogue according to Freire, it just ends up in a ‘prescription’ of the world for others, which in the end sums up as what he calls a “blah”.

Our project borrows inspirations from Freire’s reflections above in understanding true dialogue.

In summary, our project can be framed as follows:

TELL-TO-ACT dialogue concept combines – TRUE STORYTELLING – as a tool/method for ethically mobilizing and creating commitment within and towards our organizations and projects. And PROTREPTIC DIALOGUE – as a tool for searching for meaning and values in the terms/words we use in our work. Where the two translate into – value-based strategies and how we ethically mobilize and create commitment among our communities around this, towards equal co-creation in our work.

Our combination of true storytelling and protreptic dialogue in this project is also an ambition to co-create preconditions and usable frameworks for NGOs and other institutions/actors in development work to ethically reflect on their role and their ambitions in facilitating development through their strategies. True storytelling through its seven principles offers its power to create room for all involved to come up with their story based on an ethical foundation and their context no matter what it is, and in respect of other stories in the contexts we work in and accepting them as central in the co-creative process, we have embarked on. Protreptic on the other hand facilitates a process to clarify the value of the terminologies, language, ambitions, etc. that we work with on an everyday basis for the sake of continuously reminding us of what we say and if that is what we want to mean.

And, although it is quite an ambitious work we have embarked on, it is a work in progress – our aim and hope are to create dynamic frameworks that tincture continuous reflection and improvement of our praxis over time.

The project partners include the following:

Read more about the project here: