Storytelling and Stakeholder Engagement Toolkit: Resources for making data matter

Evidence from vaccine research is particularly useful to decision makers, yet many researchers do not prioritize broad dissemination beyond peer-reviewed publication, which limits the audience for results to technical audiences such as those in academia. The purpose of this toolkit is to share resources for stakeholder engagement and storytelling to make data matter, highlighting the PneumoNepal PCV Impact Economic Data Study (PIES) approach as an example. Our resources follow a five-step process that uses stakeholder mapping and audience-specific messaging techniques:

Step 1: Compile a message/audience matrix

The first step in doing any communication is to define and understand your key audiences. To communicate research findings, it's often helpful to explicitly map out the key messages (and associated proof points) and how they match up with these key audiences. To begin, you can use a message/audience matrix to answer and organize the following information:

  1. What are the key messages?
    • Look for the most succinct, overarching key point/takeaway messages from your work
    • Is there a call to action that can be related to each? If so, include it – be as explicit as possible
  2. What is the corresponding data/evidence – aka proof points?
    • These are the “facts and figures” that support the larger key messages (there are likely multiple proof points for each message)
    • Which of the data/analyses generated are supportive of each message?
  3. Who is each proof point important to?
    • Who would benefit from the detailed information and broad takeaway messages of your research?
    • Who could use your analysis to inform their own decision-making?
    • Who would find your results/analysis compelling?
  4. Why should they care?
    • For each proof point/takeaway message, why is this research important to each audience? What needs or evidence gaps is it filling?
    • What are the implications of each proof point for each of the various audiences identified in question #3? How could/should each audience use this information to optimize their own decisions and actions?

Step 2: Map stakeholders to determine engagement path

As part of your study communications activities, you may already be engaging with key stakeholders on a regular basis; if this is the case, you likely already have a stakeholder map – whether it’s documented or not. Generally, it’s worth the time investment to consistently maintain a stakeholder map document for your study or research team, regardless of your intention to use storytelling techniques to help disseminate your results. Detailed, written stakeholder maps have two main benefits:

  • They are a useful tool for planning dissemination/engagement; the activity of creating a written stakeholder map can be the perfect forum for creative and analytic brainstorming about who your study’s key audiences are (and what their needs/goals are), and once written they are a helpful reference for future brainstorming about communications and advocacy plans
  • As written documents available to all study team members, they are an important part of knowledge management and internal communication, and ensure that information is accessible – even after disruptive events (e.g. team member turnover)

Stakeholder mapping is best undertaken by discussing with a group of knowledgeable team members/partners – it’s often an iterative process. Key questions to consider include:

  • Who are the key stakeholders involved in decision making in this setting?
    • What are their professional and personal associations/connections?
    • What are their goals, priorities and preferences? What systematic constraints/rules do they operate within?
    • What about them could become an impediment to achieving project goals? How could we mitigate these risks?
    • Conversely, how could they become assets to help achieve your study/communication goals?

A comprehensive stakeholder mapping document is extremely helpful in determining a path to engagement with each key stakeholder for each of the key messages and proof points you’ve outlined in your message/audience matrix. You will likely also find that it helps provide additional information to further fill in the message/audience matrix. Often this becomes an iterative process, with the information and discussions about the message/audience matrix informing further discussions about the stakeholder map, and vice-versa. They’re all important conversations to have, and intentionally allocating time for them will help ensure your communications plans are robust, well executed, and effective.

For storytelling purposes, your stakeholder map can be used to determine the best route to sharing stories with your key audiences. Using the information about each stakeholder and their goals, priorities, preferences and networks, you can determine the best prospects for engaging with them. Some key questions to ask include:

  • What types of stories will be most compelling to these stakeholders?
  • What format(s) should storytelling assets take to best resonate with key audiences (e.g. video content, social media materials, written stories, audio content, printed collateral, etc.)?
  • What are the possible distribution mechanisms/outlets that will effectively engage key stakeholders, and how can stories/assets be tailored to suit?
  • What resources do the study team and key partners have to produce and disseminate story assets, and how can they be used to best achieve study communications goals?

The above considerations are the core information needed to complete the final column of your message/audience matrix (“Ways to engage”), as well as to begin planning the next step: identifying your stories.

Step 3: Find compelling stories

With a firm understanding of key stakeholders’ needs and the key messages from your work that are relevant, it’s much easier and more efficient to begin a targeted search for related stories. Based on this information, the best course of action is to speak with as many on the ground people as possible to get an idea of:

  • What the compelling stories are
  • Who the characters are
  • What the story arc looks like
  • For multiple stories, how they all intertwine and relate to each other
  • Ultimately, for each of the stories you find, how they relate to your key messages/proof points and how to best approach to be most compelling to your target audiences

Of course, the types of stories you encounter will be diverse and likely all interesting, but it’s best to keep as narrow a scope as possible, letting your key messages and goals guide which stories you choose to chase.

Step 4: Package stories for priority audiences

One of the most helpful uses of your message/audience matrix and stakeholder map will be to help guide your plans for packaging your stories. Based on each stakeholder’s preferences and goals, you can determine the best format the stories can take. Some considerations might be:

  • Who is the stakeholder accountable to? For example, the opinions of elected officials’ constituents can be important motivators – for these stakeholders stories shared broadly in the media (including social media), or social networks can be effective, so stories should be optimized for these spaces (e.g. social-media length videos).
  • How does the stakeholder usually consume information/advice? For example, a decision maker in an international health NGO may turn often to conferences/events in their particular field – stories and their associated messages shared in these venues (e.g. as part of a keynote address) are likely to be effective.
  • What networks of contacts are influential to the stakeholder? For example, a high-level political appointee such as a Minister of Health may turn to individual or group experts like the National Immunization Technical Advisory Group (NITAG) for guidance – so meetings with these advisors can be impactful in influencing decisions.

Once the format is chosen, the final step is to produce the story assets and operationalize the process of getting the asset in front of your target audience. The exact dissemination plan will differ depending on the asset(s) itself and audience(s) targeted, but should be consistent with the decisions made in steps 1-4 and, as always, prioritize the overarching goal of conveying your key messages to each stakeholder in a compelling way.

Step 5: Implement engagement strategy

With assets and a robust plan for their dissemination developed, the final step is actual implementation. The most important consideration is the allocation of resources to these dissemination activities. For storytelling and stakeholder engagement to be successful, they need to be sufficiently planned for and resourced. Although many researchers are preoccupied with other priorities, effective dissemination of their work is critical to its actual utility – unseen and unused data does no good.

When considering the resourcing of storytelling and stakeholder engagement activities, it may be obvious that the capacity of your research team is too limited for an endeavor like this to be successful. If this is the case, consider working with experienced communications and advocacy partners and professionals.

While often resource-intensive, broad dissemination of research findings is important to ensuring evidence-based decision making. By promoting the use of evidence by decision makers – using these methods or others – researchers can be sure that their work is meaningful and impactful.