Most of us are aware of the power of stories to help us communicate our research, whether we’re writing a keynote speech or a blog, or structuring an argument for our next research output. But I think stories can do more than just help us communicate better. By understanding the characteristics of good stories, it is possible to structure pathways that lead to powerful and effective impacts from our research.
Since before the written word, human beings have conveyed knowledge through the generations by means of stories. One of these stories is “the hero’s journey”. This archetypal story was studied by anthropologist Edward Tylor in the 19th century and by Jung in the early 20th century, and the research was popularised by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It has since been used to explain the enduring power of many of the world’s most popular books, films and religious texts. Campbell’s telling of the journey has seventeen stages, but here I’m going to condense it into seven major themes.
In a nutshell, we are introduced to a character (point 1) who has a problem (2). They meet a guide (3) who gives them a plan of action (4), before calling them to a specific action (5), which helps them avoid failure (6) and end in success (7). I will illustrate each theme with one of the classic hero’s journeys, The Lord of the Rings, but I’ll also explain using examples from my own research how each part of the journey can be harnessed to think about the impact of your research in ways that will deliver powerful benefits for those you seek to help.
1. You are not the hero of your research impact
The first part of the hero’s journey is to be introduced to the character, and this is the first point. This is the hero’s story, not yours. One of the first mistakes that we make on our pathway to impact is to think it is all about us; that we are that hero who is going to save the world through our research. The hero of an impact story should always be the person you are trying to help beyond the academy. As a result of your work, that organisation or those publics change what they are doing and collectively come together to do something incredible. It is those stakeholders who now as a result of your research change their world or the world. To take this first step on the hero’s journey in practical terms, you may need to do a publics or stakeholder analysis (see The Research Impact Handbook or my Research Impact Guides in the resources section of the Fast Track Impact website). So, the first step in the hero’s journey is to realise that as researchers we need to take on the role of the guide, not the hero, and as a researcher you can guide multiple heroes to their own hero’s ending.
If we look at The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins is the central character; the unlikely hero who is just a normal hobbit. There is nothing special about him, and many of the publics we work with will feel very similarly humble. The guide is Gandalf. This is a story about Frodo who comes from obscurity, who overcomes all of these challenges and succeeds in achieving his goal and becomes the hero. The story is not about Gandalf, although he is crucial to Frodo’s success.
There are two heroes in the story of my peatland impact: government and business. Both have a hero’s role to play if they can help restore damaged peat bogs that are contributing to climate change, flooding and loss of biodiversity. Now, a government minister can become a hero with a huge legacy if they are able to say that they stood up for nature and were responsible for restoring peatlands. The other hero is business. If a company has done everything it can to be as green as possible and there is nothing else that they can do, they have the opportunity to become the hero in a story that uses their investment to help fix damaged peat bogs. Whether it is government or business, I am positioning myself as the guide that can help them achieve those goals. I typically signpost them to other researchers as I don’t have all the expertise they need, but even in this role of connecting them to others, I am playing the role of guide, rather than trying to steal the glory myself.
For Fast Track Impact, the hero of our story is the researcher who wants to be first to discover something new or to use their work to change the world. This is not about my research or how I am going to change the world; my role is to guide others to be the hero in their own impact story.
2. Know the depths of the problem you seek to solve
The second part of the hero’s journey is where our hero discovers a problem. There was a time when our hero had peace, but this has suddenly been disrupted and they now seek to regain that peace and contentment. Broadly speaking, there are two types of problems that disrupt this peace: external problems (when thinking about research impact these will be problems that are external to our stakeholders, publics and their organisations, for example, a disease pandemic in a resource-poor country); and internal problems that may be more philosophical in nature (for example, the helplessness felt by professionals who do not have the resources to help everyone in their care). When we connect with the internal challenges of our stakeholders and publics as well as their external challenges, we instantly begin to connect with people on a much deeper level, with a message that resonates and that people want to share. We also begin to see new opportunities for impact (for example, in addition to trying to find a new vaccine or get more resources to address the external problem, we may also start treating the symptoms of trauma and burnout among health professionals).
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s home is a rural idyll, but a ring of power is discovered, and if it is not destroyed then his homeland will be invaded and destroyed. So the young and inexperienced Frodo has to leave his comfortable life and travel to the only place the ring can be destroyed; the evil land of Mordor. The external problem is destroying the ring, but Frodo also has to overcome the internal problem of his own insufficiency in the face of the challenge.
One of the problems experienced by governments in my peatland research is that they have international obligations that cannot be met easily with extensively damaged peat bogs. The businesses may have done everything they can to be greener, but they know that they are still having a negative impact on that environment.
Ironically, impact is a problem for most of the researchers I work with in Fast Track Impact. They do not have time to do their research, teaching and administration, let alone have work-life balance. So, impact is a new, unwelcome additional pressure on their time that takes them even further from their research and further constrains their already limited thinking time. As a result, many academics feel they are losing touch with their identity as a researcher. The external problem is the challenge of finding time to generate impact to a standard that can be measured, but the linked internal problem is much deeper.
3. Become the guide (instead of the hero)
Next, the hero of the story meets a guide who can help them with their problem. When trying to tackle a major challenge, on a psychological level most people want to be empowered to solve the problem themselves and become their own hero, rather than having to rely passively on another hero to save the day on their behalf. As a result, if you present yourself as the hero who will solve the problem your way, you are likely to be rebuffed (or potentially even seen as a competitor to be defended against or defeated). Most people want a guide who can enable them to be the hero that they believe (or want to believe) has always been hiding somewhere inside them. Our task, then, is to become the guide, empowering and enabling others to solve their own problems and become the hero of their story with our help, rather than doing it for them and stealing their glory.
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo meets Gandalf, a wizard who knows all about rings and how to destroy them. Gandalf also has a certainty of belief in the innate abilities of Frodo to complete the task, which empowers him to set out on his journey.
I know that I don’t have enough expertise to be the kind of guide that governments and businesses need to solve peatland challenges on my own, and so I have aligned myself with an organisation that has access to that expertise, as their research lead. I’ve worked with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) UK Peatland Programme for ten years and, as an organisation, it knows all about peatlands, and is connected to the wider research, business, practice and policy community. If anyone is going to be able to help you find a way through the evidence to solve problems as big as those facing peatlands, this is the kind of organisation that you need as a guide. Although I only work very part-time for IUCN, my role there gives me credibility as a guide that I could not have by myself.
In Fast Track Impact, the focus is more on me. Although I am an expert on research impact, I think my credibility as a guide comes more from my experience generating impact from the evidence I’ve published. I am trying to communicate to people that I am like them, facing the same pressures as a full-time member of academic staff at Newcastle University, but I am also achieving impact. I have both experience and expertise, which means I have learnt from my mistakes and therefore I can help you avoid the same mistakes. This builds trust in me as a guide who might actually be able to help simplify this and make it really easy for you to achieve what you need and be the hero in your own context, to discover that new thing or to change the world in some way. The need to generate impact is the external problem I can guide you on, but through my face-to-face trainings, podcast and articles like this, I want to become a guide to help you address the deeper problems that the impact agenda has created.
4. Give people concrete actions they can accomplish
In the next part of the hero’s journey, the guide gives the hero a plan of action or a set of tasks to complete. The plan or tasks, however, are rarely laid out in detail – there are missing links, riddles and opportunities to reinterpret and find new ways of doing things. If the hero does not have the resources or ability to perform the task, then the guide will give them some sort of aid, whether in the form of knowledge or tools. If you have positioned yourself as the guide, people will be looking expectantly to you for help, and if you are unable to provide concrete actions they can undertake and help them, they will quickly turn away to find a new guide.
There are two types of action that we can suggest to people when we are planning for impact. The first action is an intermediary step: it is to engage more with you. By making it easy for people to engage more deeply with you, it becomes possible to provide them with the knowledge, skills or tools they will need to solve the challenge and be the hero. This step is important if the people you are working with don’t feel ready to take the plunge and undertake the ultimate action that will solve the problem. Instead, you give them the time and space to prepare for what comes next. The second action is the ultimate task, plan or idea that will enable the person you are working with to solve the problem. The key is to pitch the idea but be prepared that some will instantly get it, while others will need an intermediary action they can perform that takes them closer to being able to perform the ultimate action.
Gandalf as the guide tells Frodo who he will need to work with to achieve his goal, and gives him directions to Rivendell to meet them and start the journey together. Later in the story, when it appears that Gandalf has died, Frodo and his companions meet another guide who gives them each a gift they will need to complete the tasks in front of them. The first action he is given is simply to leave the shire and meet Gandalf in a safe place to learn what he should do next. Although scary, this is just a first preparatory step that is achievable with the confidence and skills he has at this point in the journey. The gifts that are given later are part of the ultimate call to action, as they are designed to help Frodo actually destroy the ring.
In my peatland work, the first step was to bring together researchers and members of the business, practice and policy community in a series of events over a number of years, to learn from each other about how we could solve the problems together. From these meetings, we built a shared understanding of where the scientific consensus lay, and where there was divergence and more work to be done. Then on the basis of the evidence we could all agree upon, we had the knowledge and tools to start taking the ultimate actions needed to restore damaged peat bogs.
In Fast Track Impact this is about engaging with me through social media, listening to my podcast, using my online resources or coming to a training event. These are easy to do, intermediate steps that enable you to learn more about impact, find out about useful tools you can use, and come up with a plan for engagement and impact. Now you have a clear plan of action that you can achieve no matter what your experience or confidence level, the career stage you are at, or the discipline you are in. You know what you have to do and can now start taking the ultimate actions that will achieve impact.
5. Call people to action
This step might seem like it is part of the previous step – we’ve got a plan of action already. However, I have separated this out, because so many of us stop short of ever making a call to action. As a result, our plan, tasks or evidence-based approach is known about but never acted upon. If you think back to many of the biggest actions you have taken in your life, you usually had the knowledge of what to do long before you took the action. But then there was a call to action that galvanised you into taking that step at last. It takes some courage to make a call to action because people may say “no”. However, if you don’t, then there will almost always be some people who would have said “yes”, if only you had asked. I’m not saying we should always hit people with a call to action as soon as we have something that we think could benefit them from our research. This is a journey, and you should be taking the first four steps as slowly as necessary to build trust and credibility, and enable people to understand the actions you are proposing, why they will be a benefit and how you can help them as a guide. At this point in the journey, after they have been engaging with you (whether online or via face-to-face events or meetings) people are much more likely to try something out based on your research, compared to going in straight away with your ideas. Engagement is good but at some point we need to turn engagement into impact. It is surprising what people can be empowered to do, based on one conversation, or one request from one person, at the right time. So what is your call to action?
In The Lord of the Rings, a “fellowship” of companions is formed to help Frodo destroy the ring. Their first meeting descends into chaos as nobody can agree on the best plan. Then Gandalf quietens them all and says “You’ve got to do something. This is what I suggest you do. You’ve got to go to Mordor and Frodo is going to carry this ring”. There is a time for talking and planning, and a time to decide and act.
In my peatland research, we moved beyond our series of meetings where we discussed the scientific consensus and what could in theory be done, to devise evidence-based policy actions that could actually be achieved. As a result, millions of pounds of UK public funds and European money has now been invested in restoring peatlands, and we have a policy mechanism that enables businesses to invest in restoring peat bogs that now has 21 projects in the pipeline.
In Fast Track Impact, the call to action is contained in The Research Impact Handbook; part two of the book describes five practical steps to put what you have learned in part 1 into practice. At the end of each of the five chapters there is a list of specific actions that you can perform to take the next step. If you come to one of my training events, I will encourage you to sign up to my follow-up training, which sends you those five chapters of my book with videos and resources, one by one each week. The free online training on my website is also based around these five chapters. Each week, you get clear calls to action that enable you to actually put your plan into practice and achieve impact.
6. Avoid failure
In the sixth part of the journey our hero recognises their fallibility, and the possibility of failure becomes apparent. However, they draw on the expertise of their guide to avoid failure, whether getting help from them directly or more indirectly drawing on the wisdom they have learned previously from the guide.
When people realise that they have a personal stake in the impacts we are helping them generate, failure has a cost. As that cost becomes apparent, people are more likely to engage with the evidence or support we can provide to avoid failure. However, this cost is not always immediately apparent, especially when a person has not yet responded to the call to action. In this case, the guide in the hero’s story often makes the cost of inaction explicit, as a way of motivating the hero to take the next step or complete their mission. Psychological studies have shown that people are typically more motivated to do things that avoid them losing something they already have, than to do something that will get them something they want but do not already possess. Advertisers regularly use this insight in manipulative ways (just think about negative political campaigning) and it is important to think deeply about your role as the guide in this part of the story. To avoid becoming manipulative, it is important that you are transparent in your approach (identifying and declaring any potential conflicts of interest), and make sure you are clearly seeking the best interests of the other person.
Before the Fellowship of the Ring sets out, Gandalf warns them of the grave consequences for the whole of Middle Earth if they fail in their mission.
In my peatland research I worked with IUCN UK Peatland Programme on a Commission of Inquiry that looked at the consequences of not fixing damaged peatlands (inaction leads to much more costly problems in the long term as peat bogs are left to erode, leaking carbon, losing wildlife, colouring water and causing flooding).
In Fast Track Impact I warn everyone I train of the negative unintended consequences of engaging with impact for the wrong reasons in ways that the evidence would suggest are unlikely to work. When we engage with impact primarily to get research funding, promotion or for institutional rankings and prestige, we are no longer the guide. We have become the hero. It is all about us, and the benefits we can get for our careers and teams. The people we are ostensibly trying to help can usually detect this very quickly and are rightly suspicious of our motives. They know instinctively that we’ll drop them when the going gets tough, and that at any point they may be left alone without a guide, or worse, become subservient to our goals as minor characters in a story that will make us the hero rather than them. That’s why I ask everyone I train to remember why they first wanted to become a researcher, and to engage with impact from those authentic, intrinsic motives. Only from that place can we genuinely become the guide in the hero’s journey, facilitating benefits for others and celebrating the end of their hero’s journey with them wholeheartedly.
7. Facilitate success
The final part of the hero’s journey is achieving success, usually facilitated by the guide, who has just helped them narrowly avoid failure. Part of our role as guides is to help the people we work with to envision what success will look like. As they imagine themselves achieving their goal as the hero of their story, we empower them to continue on the pathway to impact and achieve their own success, with you as the guide and them as the hero.
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo ultimately destroys the ring, based on the instructions given to him by Gandalf.
My peatland research has contributed to the development and launch of the Peatland Code, enabling businesses to partner with government, landowners and with third sector organisations to fix peat bogs across the country. We are now working with the United Nations to look at how these kinds of tools could enable us to get more money from both public and private sectors to restore degraded peatlands around the world.
With Fast Track Impact, when you start reading The Research Impact Handbook or when you come onto a course, one of the first exercises you complete is to imagine the impacts you could achieve from your research. The book and course give you the tools you need to achieve success, but you have to go on your own journey to use this guidance to achieve impact. As a result, 95% of the researchers that I train change their approach to impact in response to the course, and 62% say that they achieve new impacts within six months of doing my course as a direct result of that training.
When you make your stakeholders and your publics the hero of their own impact story, and you position yourself as their guide, you can enable people to achieve things they never dreamt were possible. With limited time, as guides we can enable others to achieve impacts based on our research without having to do it all ourselves. When the focus is on their story rather than ours, we get to celebrate success with them, and move on to guide others who want to see similar benefits. When we understand the power of the story, we don’t just write better talks and articles, by following the hero’s journey we can use that power to achieve impact.