Impact Insight Series

From the Ground Up: Human-centric Storytelling

At Makmende, when we talk “Impact Insights,” we aim to shine a light on some of our clients’ most important impact, and then talk about how different kinds of communication tools can be used to amplify that impact.

“One of the most important aspects of good storytelling is framing the story in the right way”

We sat down with Alexandra Waldhorn, seven-year Communications Officer at UNESCO’s Institute for Educational Planning. We asked about the impact our collaboration helped bring to UNESCO programming. Here’s what she said.

What do you consider to be the most rewarding aspect of your work? 

“I’d say it feels most rewarding when we have increased two-way communication and really see engagement with our audiences. When we see engagement (and this can come in many different forms) I think that’s really the most rewarding thing because you know that people are responding, and hopefully it’s influencing them in a positive way. For example, perhaps it will lead to some type of change in their behavior or impact their professional practice.

Whether it be something as small as a comment on social media or reply to a newsletter or even bigger impact actually leading to a change in how they work professionally, or some real type of technical assistance or a research project with you. That information uptake is critical to our work in communication.”

We couldn’t agree more. Our work aims to go beyond content engagement towards practical, real life application for the organizations that we work with. 
Alexandra Waldhorn
What about the most frustrating roadblocks you run into?

“The most frustrating thing is when you feel like you’re sending a message out and you are not absolutely sure that it is reaching the right hands. Part of our mission is to make sure that the knowledge that we produce and our expertise becomes a global public good. This is where the motivation in our job in communications, or, knowledge mobilization, to make sure the information is there for the right people and it’s usable in a way that counts.

At the end of the day, we know who our audiences are. We know what channels they like to use. We also know that their time is extremely limited and there’s a lot of information. However, sometimes, even if we think we have the right channel and format, we cannot always understand the impact or know how it was exactly understood. We are working on gathering more information to understand this important link more but of course, it will always remain a challenge to keep abreast of who’s getting the info, and whether or not they’re sharing it with the right people, and especially because we work with so many countries.”

In an ideal world, who would you like to be communicating more with? And about what?

“Our primary audience is officials from ministries of education. 

This also requires us to think about all the people who are in the background of education. Not necessarily just the teachers or the head teachers, or students, but people who really imagine education and design education systems and how they function, and all their partners also. 

We would like to know them a little bit more personally and we’re trying to find more precise info on them: who they are, and their preferences for information and communication, and how it differs also across the different levels of an education system.”

Working across all levels on a local to global scale is what Makmende does best. In education systems, Alexandra and her experts are faced with the challenge in uniting their many stakeholders on urgent impact issues. We asked her how it’s done. 
What is it the core in uniting these stakeholders and of what you do in terms of impact and its urgency? How have you seen firsthand the impact of communication in helping support that?

“Our mission is really to support ministries of education with planning and managing their education systems. We do this through capacity development and training and then also through access and use of knowledge.

We use a number of different channels to reach our audiences. This is mostly ministries of education and all their partners. How we communicate with them and how we reach them can have an impact. Who opens up a new publication from us? How do they apply a new tool or methodology? Who may join a training course? We have a lot of different training courses, and our audiences have to be made aware about all these opportunities from us. We definitely see the impact of our communication in that sense. 

If we don’t communicate, and if we don’t communicate correctly, we’re not going to have any engagement and possibly we’ll have reduced beneficiaries. We also try and break down complex information and put forward the really key parts of the research, tools development, and methodologies that we’re working on and best practices with the aim of really having them all become global public goods and opportunities for countries. So that it becomes accessible and impactful for planners so that they can foster quality equitable education for all.

One of the most important aspects of good storytelling is framing the story in the right way. On this particular project, We Teach Here, we chose to go with user-generated content, which meant the teachers filmed themselves in their daily lives with a phone. Filming in refugee camps provides its own set of challenges to overcome, and allowing teachers to tell their own stories became a necessity, but also a way to empower them to tell and frame their own story in a way that felt good for them and was accepted by their community. Looking at daily life through their lenses, made the videos – and the whole We Teach Here film series – even more personal and authentic. This was then supplemented by material filmed by a professional crews.”

On a conceptual level, you know your audience, you know the main mission of what you’re trying to do. What would be the biggest kind of roadblocks or challenges that would come with that? 

“With We Teach Here, we had the resources and the opportunity to do something really impactful. Not every project has that. 

When these elements all come together it’s amazing what we are able to produce. We can’t underestimate the scale and scope of what it entailed. We can’t do it for every project, but it worked well with We Teach Here because the pieces fell into place. We strive to give each project justice in communications, to give the airspace, the time, and also the creativity necessary in telling human stories for all the different types of projects we work on. I’m sure there are so many more amazing stories that we could highlight, but we don’t have the resources to always go beyond more traditional formats. It’s also up to the fund. Some projects have more funding so we can do more communications. “

Those human interest stories are there in every project, but you need so many different aspects to come together to be able to reveal explore that. What would you say about how the process went in terms of what you set out to achieve and the end result? 

I think it went way beyond our expectations. This has definitely been the most human, most emotional, most impactful, I think, piece of communications work that we’ve ever been able to do

Alexandra Waldhorn

“As the communications officer, based in Paris, I’m often one step removed from my colleagues who are implementing the projects in countries, whether it be technical cooperation or research. From a communications perspective, Makmende could actually be there and this brings so much to how we are able to convey a message, a story, and our impact. We used to have trainees come to Paris and we could do video interviews with them, or sit down with them, and get to know them. But then COVID stopped all of that, and a lot of work and training shifted online, and all of a sudden, I fell even further and further from the people that we work with and I have had to find new ways to tell stories. I think the teachers of refugee project removed that distance. All of the sudden, we could be close to the story again.

We really loved the idea that you’re using local talent. You don’t have to fly in crews, which is also environmentally friendly and part of IIEP’s approach to building capacities locally. There is, of course, that element of the craft and the story and the editing. But actually getting the raw material. It’s really aligned with our mission too, because when we’re working with countries, we really put the emphasis on the countries to drive change and to come up with what they want their education system will look like. There’s ownership and sustainability and it’s similar to the way Makmende operates.

Using local talent is really about connecting and working with crews to be able to facilitate that trust, that bond. Of course, there’s the curating behind the scenes and designing, but that intimacy is quite special, which we aimed to see reflected in the film. There’s an authenticity to what has been created.”

How have you measured key results and how have you seen the impact of this film?

“It’s still very much in the moment, we’re still using it, as it is unfortunately still very relevant. We started releasing it with our partners at Education Development Trust on World Refugee Day for the teaser. 

There was a big summit called the Transforming Education Summit, on the heels of COVID-19 and realizing that 90% of children around the world had their learning impacted. The UN in collaboration with UNESCO decided to convene a big global event to ensure that there’s enough education, financing and investing in education. 

We first shared the videos in June at a “teachers’ village” that was set up with countries from around the world coming. The videos showed on loop there for all of the visitors and the teachers area. And then in New York in September was the big summit, so then the videos were used also in a panel in a side event. So there’s been this type of impact where it’s been used in really high level political opportunities for dialogue and advocacy, and then also, of course to help share the research findings in country to hopefully have an impact on policy-making and in developing educational plans.

Then we had a social media campaign and UNESCO and our partners, Dubai Cares really helped us with it on around World Teacher’s Day. We had really great interactions on social media with UNESCO’s field offices around the world sharing it, other foundations sharing it, teachers sharing it, even of the researchers sharing it.”

It’s also about engaging. How did that format engage? Did it enable you to engage with a specific audience more on a human level? 

“Yeah, definitely. We’re using it in so many different ways and it really shows a different side of our work, and what our work accomplishes. Most recently, it was shown in Kenya during a dissemination workshop among education officials across all levels, and the teachers’ service commission, and others. We are also planning for an online regional synthesis document that will cover key findings across the three countries shown in the film series, and we will host a policy forum where we will showcase the film, to continue to amplify the voice and importance of teachers and good working conditions. 

We are also using it in communication materials, university visits, conferences, and showing it to our donors and partners.  It shows a different side to us. It just brings us closer to our ultimate beneficiaries, which are the teachers and the learners who are all impacted by educational planning and management. In this sense, it brings us closer to what our final goal is.”

What’s the biggest takeaway for you in terms of this approach? Has it kind of revealed anything that you think, okay, as a communication specialist, this is more important than ever to kind of bring that forward into our future communication? 

“This year, we are celebrating our 60th anniversary, so we’re planning a yearlong celebration, looking back on our milestones and our impact, but also forward thinking, like why are we more relevant than ever before, especially with all the global challenges we’re facing today?

And as part of our planning for this event, we did include the We Teach Here films and the video on crisis-sensitive planning, and this is the type of thing that we want to do to show how we’re going to be working into the future. So it’s informing other priority communication plans.

It’s also just a reminder that we can tell these stories and even if we can’t do a giant endeavor like this for everything, we can still think about how we’re explaining something to our audience – in a human, dignified, beautiful, way. I think we’re we know that it works and we know that we can do it. And for priority projects we will, we want to do it again because it’s an investment that really pays off and it’s a valuable long-term asset for us and our institution.”

Communicating really can bring you closer to the story – and the impact your work has. Working with Makmende, IIEP-UNESCO was tell real life stories from the very individuals they work so hard to support. Varying formats aligned with the organization’s values of grassroots, human-centric storytelling and turned these insights into creative assets that they’re already seeing returns on. Stay tuned for more on our socials, and check out the final videos here!