Using a Storytelling Model for Evaluation Reporting by Amanda Kelley Corbin

Hi there, my name is Amanda Kelley Corbin. I am an evaluation analyst at The Human Development Institute (HDI), Kentucky’s University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, University of Kentucky. We help to improve lifelong opportunities and services for individuals with disabilities, their families, and the community. Before becoming an evaluator, I received an MFA in fiction writing.

Last time I shared how journalism can inform evaluation writing. Today I’m sharing how the elements of fiction writing can be applied to evaluation. While evaluation reporting is factual, it still tells a story. Components of fiction writing can be used to describe real world situations

Hot Tips:

Next time you sit down to write, try incorporating some of these into your work:

  • Character – There’s a saying in education, It’s people, not programs,” that could be applied to evaluations as well. It’s what happens to people that measures a program’s success, and it gives readers the opportunity to empathize. Readers feel more connected to stories about individual people than they do about data points.
  • Plot – Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. What action took place? In what order? How did one thing impact or lead to another? How did it impact the people involved?
  • Point of View – Whose perspective does your reporting take? Why did you choose that perspective? Which perspectives show the most impact? Which perspectives might cast more doubt on the impact?
  • Theme – What are you trying to say with your data? What’s it really about, under the surface? Provide context for quantitative data and dig into qualitative data to find deeper meaning.  
  • Setting – It’s often overlooked, but it’s important to communicate what it’s like where you are to readers who might be unfamiliar with your part of the world. What’s special about where your story takes place? How does the policy environment affect things?
  • Dialogue – While in fiction dialogue is usually a conversation between people, in reporting, quotes are a way to insert someone’s voice into your writing, whether it be an interview subject, a project director, a client, or some other stakeholder. Don’t underestimate the power of a good quote!

Lessons Learned:

Humans are hardwired for story, and narrative engages the brain in a way that data on its own cannot. Use that to make the story behind your data as impactful as it can be.

(Fun) Rad Resources:

They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein.

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9 thoughts on “Using a Storytelling Model for Evaluation Reporting by Amanda Kelley Corbin”

  1. Hello Amanda,

    Thank you for sharing your article. I really appreciated how you presented a different perspective about program evaluation. As someone who is new to the concept of program evaluation, this article really helped me connect to the different components of evaluation. Your idea of comparing evaluation to storytelling helped me further my understanding about the perspectives evaluators should have when evaluating a program. Your statement “it’s people, not programs” allowed me to think of program evaluation differently. While evaluators are looking specifically at the program and how it functions, it is important that they remember that the decisions they make directly impact the participants of the program. Hence it is important to look at the Who, What, When, Where, and Why about programs. Thinking of program evaluation in terms of a narratives helps humanize the process. Program evaluation goes from being about numbers to being about people. I personally believe that empathy is an important characteristic program evaluators should have as they would be able to connect more with the people involved with the program, whether this be the program operators or the program participants. As I have just recently started learning about program evaluation, a question that has popped into my mind was about how program evaluators can keep their biases out of the evaluation process. I wonder if thinking of evaluation with the storytelling perspective would help with eliminating bias’. Overall, I appreciate having a new perspective about program evaluation and hope that I can use this to continue to build my knowledge.

    Thank you,
    Kruti Patel

  2. Hi Amanda,

    I’m Summer. I came across your post from a task we had to look further into for our master’s program.

    What a wonderful post! Thank you for sharing such a well said insight. I come from a drama background and I feel what you’ve written here is a powerful testimony to all. Your perspective shares a position in which in order to get a message across, we must think of it as storytelling. I totally agree with you. I think of it almost as when we have a conversation with someone, they’re always waiting for that moment where they can also interact with your conversation – where it ‘clicks’!

    I think “evaluation” is just a fancy way of saying reporting on, and ultimately, every conversation you have with someone is some kind of evaluation in the sense that you are either asking a question or inquiring for a response. So, most definitely story telling is evident in evaluation as we are all evaluators through different phases of our lives.

    Wishing you all the best and many more prosperous writing endeavours.

    Summer 🙂

  3. Samantha Paradiso

    Hi Amanda,
    Your article title caught my attention instantly!
    Since beginning my current course (Program Inquiry and Evaluation) in my Professional Masters of Ed. Program, I have struggled to make connections between my studies and my role as a secondary educator. I found it so interesting that your background includes both storytelling and evaluation- two things I would have never thought would have commonalities. In conducting my own Program Evaluation Design for my course, I found myself focusing on the facts and creating a report from more of a scientific perspective which relies heavily on the data being collected. Your post reminded me of the importance of connecting with your audience/ readers and how creating a story from these facts can enhance the impact that the report will have. We want the people who commission these evaluations to see value in making the recommended changes to improve their organizations and what better way to capture their attention than to tug on their emotions? My question for you with regards to storytelling in evaluation reporting is what is the boundary for where storytelling begins to distract from the data itself? Have you had any feedback from commissioners that have asked for a more fact-based report or does this storytelling practice seem to work for you every time?
    Thanks so much for your time and inspiration!

  4. Dear Amanda,

    Thank you for sharing such an impactful view and alternative way to sharing out evaluation information to a variety of different stakeholders. I really appreciate that you use your Masters in Fine Arts in fiction writing as an asset in your career as a program evaluation. Using a variety of different lenses to share you learnings to connect with people in a creative way is paramount and a strategy that I feel deeply connected to.

    Being an educator, I firmly believe in creating spaces for my students to have the availability  to create connection. Connection is fundamental when trying to cultivate an understanding and a meaningful picture of what is happening in the space around them. Your ideas around writing a fiction story using prominent fiction elements such as point of view, setting, theme, character etc are all elements that allow space for a sharing findings and creating an authentic platform that stakeholders can view the “true story” behind the scenes of what is truly being evaluated.

    Your comment “humans are hardwired for story, and narrative engages the brain in a way that data on its own cannot. Use that to make the story behind your data as impactful as it can be”, strung a cord to me. I fundamentally believe in differentiation and using your strategy as a tool to help foster facts and evidence through story is genius.

    Your reference of, “It’s people, not programs,” connects with the theory that many educators, including myself, have of putting students first, much like the process that we go through as an evaluator. The goal of putting an organization and or community first in order to create a better understanding and better place of action. Your suggestion to explore the program’s actions through beginning, middle, and end is a very logical way to approach laying out all the necessary information that beautifully makes connections for all stakeholders. I think that it is beautiful that you bring all these aspects together as a new way to share evidence.

    Some wonders that I have for you:

    What made you think of using this as a tool?
    How do stakeholders react to their evaluations being put into “story”?
    What has the feedback been?
    When you use voice and quotes do believe it offers a space for carrying the deeper connections and painting a realistic picture of what is happening in the organizations?

    I really appreciate you take the time to share your expertise in this and will hopefully use it and bring it to light in some of my graduate work and in my role as an elementary school principal.

    Jen Demuynck 

  5. Connecting with the Community
    Using a Storytelling Model for Evaluation Reporting by Amanda Kelley Corbin

    Hi Amanda!

    The title of your post really caught my attention! Maybe it is because I am a primary teacher with a love for storytelling or that I find it easier to understand concepts when they are told from a person not program perspective…either way I knew I had to dive into your post. The part that really stood out to me and helped me in understanding evaluation a little better was when you mentioned the saying “it’s people, not programs.” This created a new connection for myself in terms of understanding purposeful evaluation from a people based perspective. In understanding that evaluations are provided to help people first not the program. I love how you related each part of traditional storytelling to the evaluation process and will actually take this post into high consideration while I work on my final assignment. Thanks for sharing such an insightful connections!

  6. Hi Amanda!

    Wow – looks like your post resonated with many of us Queen’s University students! I just saw below that another couple of students from the Queen’s University Professional Masters of Education Program have reached out to you already! I am reaching out to you for similar reasons. I am currently enrolled in PME 802 (Program Inquiry and Evaluation), and one of our assignments was to reach out to someone whose article resonated with us, and after perusing through the first few pages of the AEA365 site, your article stood out to me the most. Growing up and having a love for literature, your article resonated with me a lot!

    As someone who is also new to the field of evaluation, I have had a bit of a difficult time connecting to certain aspects of the course which include the ‘data’ or the more technical side of things. One aspect of the course that has really resonated with me, though, is how perspective is so important, and how there is always a story behind the data. Your article allowed me to think about the ‘numbers’ in a different way, especially when you quoted that “it’s people, not programs.” Right now, we are creating a Program Evaluation Design project. In particular, I find outputs and outcomes of the program I am evaluating a bit difficult to define and dry. However, I really like in your ‘Hot Tips’ section how you broke down defining each aspect into character, plot, point of view, theme, setting and dialogue. When aspects such as numbers are broken down into more of a story than just simply numbers, I always have an easier time understanding the story behind data that is being conveyed.

    I appreciate you saying “narrative engages the brain in a way data on its’ own cannot.” Narratives provide life to the “numbers.” However, I think it was important that you also added Point of View in your ‘Hot Tips’ section. Oftentimes, when we convey information, our reporting does take on a certain perspective, and there may be perspectives we leave out. This reminded me of a TedTalk I watched a while back by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie titled The danger of a single story (2009). While taking on one new perspective is important, in evaluating, it is important to recognize the perspectives you may not have reported on, and how that may have helped or hindered your final outcomes.

    I am curious to know more about your story – you said that before becoming an evaluator, you received an MFA in fiction writing. What brought you to the field of evaluation? And what are your greatest takeaways in being an evaluator? I could see why evaluating would be appealing to me, especially after reading your article! Witnessing stories unfold in front of me daily and learning from various perspectives would be a fascinating aspect of your job.
    Thank you for your post, as it has reminded me the importance of narratives in both my project for this course, as well as in my professional practice as a teacher!

    Warm regards, ?

    The Danger of a Single Story Ted Talk (2009):

  7. Kristine Waddell

    Hello Amanda,

    I am a middle school teacher from British Columbia, Canada and I have recently begun pursuing a Professional Master of Education through Queen’s University. I am very new to program evaluation and trying to sort through the vast amount of information, while determining how it can be best applied to my own practice.

    Your post caught my attention and I found myself instantly relating to your thoughts. I am a Language Arts teacher and I spend a great deal of time with my classes on the elements of writing. While I have been enjoying learning about program evaluation, it has been challenging at times to comprehend all the intricacies involved as it seems more clinical in nature. However, the way you explained how evaluation can be seen as a story has really provided clarification for me. Your reference of, “It’s people, not programs,” connects with the theory that many educators, including myself, have of putting students first. Also, your suggestion to explore the program’s actions through beginning, middle, and end is a very logical way to approach laying out all the necessary information.

    My school has five traits which serve as the guiding principles for our community, one of them being empathy. Recognizing that empathy has a role in program evaluation is an interesting concept. I know that I connect more with people and stories than with data, so approaching evaluation through this lens is a novel concept. Also, the setting often plays a pivotal role in a story, yet its importance is sometimes understated. I appreciate that you described the need to explain the time and place for our evaluation as it provides additional insight about the unique aspects of the location. I had been wondering if it was feasible to incorporate voice into a program evaluation. Your explanation of how dialogue can allow for perspectives to be included in an authentic and appropriate way was helpful.

    Overall, I feel as though I have a new understanding of how to approach program evaluation as you provided a familiar concept to me from which I can now layer on new information. Thank you.

    Kristine Waddell

  8. Hi Amanda,

    It looks like your article struck a chord with more than one of us in the Queens Master of Education program. My name is Kelly Shuto and, like Alyssa who commented above, I am also a student taking a course in program evaluation. I am a kindergarten teacher and I very much appreciated your straight forward and human centred approach to program evaluation. The way you explained the steps of story writing and the parallels to evaluation made the process much clearer to me.

    As a kindergarten teacher, my job is to make things relatable, understandable and, most importantly, the why needs to be at the forefront of everything we do. When you said, “Humans are hardwired for story, and narrative engages the brain in a way that data on its own cannot. Use that to make the story behind your data as impactful as it can be,” at the end of your article, it connected to everything that I had been thinking throughout the course.

    As I have been learning about evaluation, I have been thinking about how the evaluation process is similar to teaching. How do our own biases affect how we assess students? What information do we have about the students that might affect how we speak to them, teach them or learn with them? How much collaboration is necessary and when do we step back? How much does our relationship with each student potentially form some biases regarding their potential? When assessing students learning and growth, what outside elements affect the assessment, conversations, relationships, outcomes, etc. each day. How much does our own life and our own emotions affect how we teach and how we speak and how we listen? Everything we do in our classrooms each day is based on authentic human interactions and real human stories.

    You are exactly right when you say, “While evaluation reporting is factual, it still tells a story.” Everything we do tells a story, even evaluation. I now see evaluation from a completely different perspective since reading your words. I was struggling with the black and whiteness of evaluation but also all the gray of having so many choices and theories. I know see that evaluation is telling the story of a program and it’s participants and the perspective we take just has to be authentic, clear and explain the why behind the program.

    Thank you for your article. I very much enjoyed reading it and reflecting on the parallels between evaluation, storytelling, teaching and everyday life.

  9. Hi Amanda,

    My name is Alyssa and I am currently completing a Master of Education at Queen’s U in Canada. I am currently enrolled in an evaluation course and one of our assignment is to reach out to the evaluation community. I was looking over recent post and yours spoke out to me the most.

    To be completely honest, I don’t have much experience with evaluation and I found that your post made it seem more “human”, relatable and it was beautifully written.

    I enjoyed how you divided the Hot Tips into different sections that relate to writing and evaluation. When reading reports on program evaluations it can become very dry if you don’t include some of the tips you suggested. I strongly believe that it’s important to include quotes from the participants so that the reader can relate and like you mention “don’t underestimate the power of a good quote!” I remember reading about a program evaluation on indigenous training and the thing I remember the most is not the stats but what people got from the program, how they changed their perspective/attitude, etc. I love reading about people’s experience. Don’t get me wrong, I think data is very crucial when it comes to evaluation but to relate to the people being evaluate seems to also be as important.

    I also read over the article you linked “The Science of StoryTelling: What Listening to a Story Does to Our Brains”, and I found it very informative. I never really thought of how different parts of the brain are activated based on language. Like if you talk about food, the sensory cortex lights up. The tip I related to the most was the simple story is more successful than the complicated one. I totally agree that if you use simple language, you are less likely to question what the author means and it’s more likely to stick.

    Thanks for sharing this great post and if you have any tips or resources for a newbie learning about evaluations and assessment, feel free to reach out.

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