Writing For Progress: The Science of Storytelling

By Adam Ahmed Samdin and Sean Tan

“I am here today to make a pitch to all of you. My pitch is this: to consider development as something to write about. We can change the world.” –Tony Lambino.

Even during his teenage days, Tony Lambino, keynote speaker for the All-in Writer’s Festival 2016, has been expressing the need for social change, and to help those in society who need it the most. When he was 13, he was in a popular band in the Philippines called the Smokey Mountains, using pop songs to sing about social issues. Unlike the traditional folk or rock music which were more mainstream, they used contemporary pop music to spread their message.

Today, as the head of public policy at Ayala, a corporation from the Philippines with a large focus on social corporate responsibility, he is still trying to influence the masses and make a difference in his society. His passion for making a change still remains strong today.

“That is the power of words… They matter. The words of writers’ hold the attention of many. With this attention, we have a responsibility to do something positive with it.”

As writers, we have the power to influence through reaching out to an audience, no matter how big or small. Wielding the mighty pen, we have the power to write for progress, which to Tony, is a power everyone should use to further progress and development. He stressed the importance of strategic communication to encourage others to commit to change, and how storytelling achieves this.

Tony used to be the Head of Communications at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), working with scientists who were creating new varieties of rice which are more resistant to floods and diseases. The challenge for the scientists was to make their revolutionary research more known. As a writer, Tony worked with them to help. He soon realised that presenting their research to other groups made it inaccessible, as people are generally unmoved by statistics and facts. So he decided that he was always going to begin with the story of Asha, a poor farmer, to better connect with audiences.

“Stories make concepts like reducing poverty less abstract, and more understandable.”

Soon, more people began to get to know about the IRRI and their work. The story of a farmer allowed the masses to see how their research directly benefits the lives of others. Stories compel people to act because they bring out emotion, tenderness, and most of all, stories empower people to empathise with someone they might not even have met in real life. This is the difference stories make: from a slate of words, we better understand and connect with others.

In an interview with him, he expressed why exactly the stories of the individual matter so much.

“Statistics just show the problem. Stories show the conflict real people face, and the violence of expectations they experience.”

Stories are able to drive home the technical point statistics are only able to express. They help to capture emotion, consequences and life, whereas statistics and research are unable to do the same. Statistics are most useful to convince experts in a field. In the participatory realm, when building a coalition, it is important to have stories to sell an idea. When we write about stories, we enable people to visualise and directly see problems, which will influence readers to act on it. With more people affected by the need for change, or at least when more people are aware of this need, more can certainly be done in the name of development. With that, he also talked about the difficulties of finding these stories in today’s world.

“In today’s world… If you’re lazy, it just won’t work. You can’t expect to sit in an office all day and expect to find stories. You actually have to go out there and find out the real stuff...If we go to where the stories are, there are way too many stories. Then we can find the best one for our narrative.”

All his life, Tony has been spreading the message of making a difference in the world. From the days of a famous child singer to his work at the World Bank, he has always been trying to make a world a better place. Likewise, he has loved stories for as long as he remembers.

“I once acted in a film, and I realised that i really love the backstage parts of the film-making process: The storytelling, the editing, the directing. So, my hope was to find a course that combined media and storytelling. I was glad to found a course like that in (Harvard’s) Kennedy Business School.

At the festival, he got the opportunity to influence many writers to write about development; to write about the poor, socio-political change, and progress in the world. These issues might not seem important, but they do matter most to the people affected by these conditions. And with the correct framing and stories, we have the power to make it matter to everyone too, and in the process, further development.

At the beginning of his speech, he gave all of us a pitch.

“I am here today to make a pitch to all of you. My pitch is this: to consider development as something to write about. We can change the world.”

We all have the power to make the world a better place. Will you use it?

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Adam Ahmed Samdin and Sean Tan are students from Victoria Junior College and are members of the Victoria Press.