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Storytelling for systems change: Listening

Storytelling for Systems Change: Listening to Understand, Centre for Public Impact, November 2023



Case Study highlights

‘Storytelling for Systems Change: Listening to Understand’ from @CPI_foundation @DusseldorpForum and @handsupmallee explores what it takes for government and philanthropy to listen to stories meaningfully.

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How are stories used by govt & philanthropy? What gets in the way of stories being listening to, and how could they be listened to more meaningfully? Dive into @CPI_foundation @DusseldorpForum @handsupmalle’s report to learn more.

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“I work with communities who are engaged in inspiring systems change work. Yet, so few of their stories are being heard. I want to understand why and support them to tell their stories more effectively.” @DusseldorpForum

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“Stories, in their many shapes and forms, are a part of human nature and humans are immersed in them: they are experienced as deeply individual and as integral to relationships between people; they provide explanations, meaning, and entertainment; people die for them, and people dismiss them as trivial; they enlighten and obscure; they enable judgement and reasoning and they seduce, persuade, and distort. We show that, by holding on, it is possible to listen to stories for the narrative evidence they provide, the cognitive value they possess, and the important ways in which they can enrich public reasoning” ― Sarah Dillon and Claire Craig


We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which this project was created, and pay respects to Elders past and present. We also acknowledge First Nations’ ancient connection to storytelling and how it shapes our world and our connections to it.

This second phase of our Storytelling for Systems Change work would not be what it is without the contributions of many. Click here to see the names of everyone who contributed.


This report doesn’t begin with an executive summary. It doesn’t have one at all. Instead, it begins with an invitation for you, our readers, to engage with the following pages in whatever way feels right to you.

You may want to read this from start to finish, and that’s fine. Or, you may want to engage with the report using a less linear approach, focusing on what resonates most with you.

We have resisted summarising our findings into a single page because that’s what we heard good listening asks of us. Good listening asks us to avoid simplifying stories in order to fit neatly into a public-facing document.

We heard that when people listen to understand, they listen in a way which can hold tensions and contradictions. More often than not, executive summaries smooth over these tensions to pull out pithy key messages. We want to resist this.

We know that our decisions as authors matter. What we feature, exclude, and how we order and present the information is all an exercise of power. We want to try to subvert the traditional power dynamics as much as possible (noting, of course, that this is still very far from perfect).

We want to offer you insights into what we learned in a way that doesn’t centre us as authors, but centres the voices we heard, as well as those who are reading it. So, we invite you to dive in and explore as you want.

We offer suggestions at various points about where you may want to move to next. Of course, you may want to choose a different path altogether.

Each of you will bring your own perspectives to this report, agreeing strongly with some points while hopefully disagreeing with others. These differences are enormously valuable.

We hope you enjoy exploring the insights that follow as much as we have.

The seeds of this story were planted in 2021. They were planted in the rich soil of an observation from Teya Dusseldorp, Executive Director of the Dusseldorp Forum:

“I work with communities who are engaged in inspiring systems change work. Yet, so few of their stories are being heard. I want to understand why and support them to tell their stories more effectively.”

From these original seeds, a seedling grew, which needed tending and nurturing. And so emerged a partnership between the Centre for Public Impact, Dusseldorp Forum, and Hands Up Mallee, who agreed to work together to explore what these seeds might become.

As the seeds were nurtured, several branches began to grow. We called the first of these branches Storytelling for Systems Change: Insights from the Field. This branch offered a range of insights. We learned that stories can be used to change a system, as well as to evaluate, understand, and showcase the change occurring in communities. We also heard that stories require different approaches – stories that attempt to enable change look different to those seeking to celebrate change.

We learned that great stories privilege the voice of the storyholder; are resonant, clear, and relatable; and are guided and bound by agreed protocols. However, we also heard that technical, structural, and institutional barriers can hinder good storytelling.

In addition to offering insights, this branch also surfaced some questions. One question stood out to us – how might we increase the number of funders and enablers (from government and philanthropy) ready and willing to hear and respond to the stories that communities are telling?

This felt like a critical question. We know that to have an impact, stories need to be heard. So what does it take to create the conditions where people in government and philanthropy are able to listen deeply? As Fiona Merlin, Measurement Evaluation and Learning Coordinator from the Hands Up Mallee Backbone team, asked: how can we cultivate an audience who “listen to understand?”

This question catalysed the growth of this new branch in a different but related direction – a branch which explores “storylistening” in more depth. What follows is our attempts to gather and share what we’ve heard.

  • If you want to understand how we define “stories” and “listening”, move to the next page.
  • If you want to learn more about our ways of working, skip to how we worked.
  • If you’re keen to get straight into the findings, jump ahead to what we heard.

Our first phase of work did not offer a formal definition of stories based on the academic literature. That’s because we wanted our conversations to define stories for us.

Similarly for this branch, we have tried to resist being drawn too deeply into the tangle of literature which defines stories (and storytelling and narrative) in many ways. As Sarah Dillon and Claire Craig highlight in their book Storylistening: Narrative Evidence and Public Reasoning, “Wide-ranging reading reveals no consistency in the use of ‘narrative’ versus ‘story’ across disciplineand sectors.”

However, we noticed that in many of our conversations, people used the terms “stories” and “qualitative data” interchangeably. For us, they mean something different, and this distinction is worth exploring.

As we see it, the key difference between qualitative data and stories rests in where power sits. In the context of qualitative data, researchers shape the questions and decide how they will be asked, analysed, and interpreted. As Dave Snowden, founder of The Cynefin Co. explained, “In qualitative data, whoever is asking the question owns the story.” In the context of storytelling, however, the storyholder decides which stories to tell and how to tell them. Perhaps most importantly, the storyholder owns the interpretation of their stories and observations.

Participatory research approaches, such as Most Significant Change and Participatory Narrative Inquiry, go some way to addressing the power imbalances in qualitative approaches. However, many would argue that this is not enough. Dave Snowden pointed out that as soon as you ask someone to tell a story in an environment other than their own, you’ve changed their story. For this reason, he suggested that we need to involve those telling their stories in the gathering process, and “we need to listen to the stories being told in the street, not the stories being told in workshops.” While this may not always be possible, working to ensure that the locus of power sits with the storyholder, rather than the researcher, appears to be a key feature of effective story work.

One final thing to note is Cynthia Kurtz’s observation that the word “storytelling” in the report title is imperfect. Cynthia emphasised that “storytelling does not change systems. The universe of manifold interactions that surrounds stories changes systems…Calling the entire world of stories storytelling is like calling the water cycle rain. It’s so much bigger than that.” We agree. And we hope what we’ve written here goes some way to engaging with the important nuances that Cynthia highlights.

  • If you want to spend more time reading about styles of listening, move to the next page.
  • If you’re interested in learning more about our methodology, skip to how we worked.
  • If you’d prefer to move straight into what we learned, head there now.


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