12:21am Monday 17 February 2020

Digital storytelling offers new way for older people to connect

DEFRA’s Sustainable Behaviour Unit wanted to explore whether the 50-plus age group was an untapped source of potential pro-environmental advocates whose stories could successfully influence other people to become more actively ‘green’.

A team from the Centre for Action Research in the School of Management bid for funding from DEFRA to explore the idea. During the two year project they helped a group of over-50s create short films which were then shown to a variety of community groups, who were then visited several months later to see if they had made any changes as a result of watching the films.

The research concluded that digital storytelling was a new way to help the over-50s make their voices heard but the intensive nature of supporting the film production meant rolling out the project more widely did pose some issues. The researchers offered several ideas about how this could be achieved, including creating an online storybank for others to use and working in partnership with community groups to run a ‘cascading storytelling pilot’ equipping them to run workshops to share and explore the issues raised in the films.

“There are nearly 20 million people over 50 plus in the UK and this number is increasing as the population ages so there is a potential army of eco-advocates waiting to be taped into,” explained lead researcher Dr Margaret Gearty.

“Our study reveals that using these short films as a discussion point with groups did help some people think more deeply about what they could do to be more environmentally friendly and did lead to some changing the way they did things, from growing more food, cooking from scratch, investing in a water butt and carbon offsetting on holiday flights.

“While it was an intensive piece of work to support the people to make the films and use them in discussion groups, we did find people responded to these personal stories and felt more engaged with the subject matter than if someone had just visited their group to do a talk.”

Dr Gearty and Michelle Williams joined forces with StoryWorks, based at the University of Glamorgan, to help people from Chew Magna in Somerset to create eight short films about various ‘green’ issues, from loft insulation, putting solar panels on the local school, to growing food and using water wisely.

These digital stories were then screened and used for discussion with various diverse groups, from young mums and the bowls club to a ‘green’ action group. The research team then visited the groups three months later to see whether the films had inspired anyone to make any positive changes.

The aspects which appear to be most effective in changing behaviour were:

  • Credibility and perceived authenticity of the storyteller: this was the most important factor affecting response.
  • Personality of the storytelling: warm, funny, showing concern for or generosity towards others.
  • Single voiced (not joint or multi voiced) stories.
  • Stories which provoke a reaction of some kind, even where this might have included negative emotions such as frustration or dislike, rather than a luke-warm response.
  • Stories containing paradoxes (e.g. the local country market jam being flown to a family member in Singapore) and illustrating trade-offs made by the storyteller (e.g. Andy discussing his dilemmas regarding flying).

“This project has shown that, when embedded in a workshop setting, digital stories did travel and travelled well and so can, in certain configurations at least, catalyse change. Essential to its catalytic potential was, in this research, the digital form of the story. This distinguishes the digital story from other performance or oral forms of storytelling because it separates the original storyteller from the story and allows it to travel. The research also showed the importance of that storytelling occurring in a social context – and highlighted some of the ways social process can encourage change at an individual and crucially at the collective level.”

The ‘Piloting digital storytelling and action research as an approach to stimulate pro-environmental advocacy and behaviour change’ report is available on the DEFRA website here.

The eight short films can be viewed on Vimeo here.

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