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.