SAY – Spinning a Yarn

What happens when you try to combine two topics apparently very different from each other? Who knows? We didn’t. And that’s why we decided to realise SAY – Spinning a Yarn: a training course on how to apply effectively storytelling methods to global education issues.

If you needed to search what “Spinning a Yarn” means, don’t worry: you are not alone. I did, as well. Apparently it’s a (very) Irish expression that refers to “telling a story”, possibly an articulated or long one. I think in retrospective it really describes well the time we spent in Ireland in September 2016.

It was a training course co-funded by the Erasmus+ programme (“What has ever Europe done for us”? well, a lot, apparently) and we met a group of 30 participants from all over Europe.

The whole hosting team the night before participants arrived! Left to right: Dee, yours truly, Bobby, Paul, Violetta. Cheers, guys! Well done! (we didn’t know yet, but we were celebrating in advance)

 The course was hosted by Development Perspectives, an Irish NGO with which I have the pleasure to cooperate since many years now (I joined their Insight programme in Tanzania, in 2014, and you can read that story here).  I really admire the quality of their work and I have to say, every time I am involved in one of their programmes, it’s first of all a deep learning experience for me.

We stayed at Castle Saunderson, a beautiful venue located in the northern part of Ireland that is not “Northern Ireland” (it’s complicated). And Ireland was for sure very present in another aspect of our time together: weather. We were just at the beginning of September, but the sky could easily change from this:


to this:

This is the “Castle” in “Castel Saunderson”. Nice, uh?

And so we tried to take the best from the situation, using every possibility to go out.

And the group? Well, the group was very much into hugging, right from the start (how annoying, frankly).


But thanks God that was not its only striking feature. People were competent, motivated and had a lot of experience in their fields.

Together we had a very intense and challenging week, and in retrospective it’s interesting to consider how people went through their individual journeys, and how the group developed as such at the end of the course. These pictures show how the emotions changed through the different parts of the programme, and I think they well represent the diversity of individuals and experiences we have had together.




So basically, the concept of our training was to work along two lines. On one side, storytelling: theory and practice, and how can we use stories to change our world. The other main pillar was Global Education: what is it, what are (some) of the leading theories in the field, what are the current scenarios. And how it is all very relevant to our lives. How to build the bridge between these two ideas, was our challenge for the week.

Bobby Mc Cormack, my colleague for the course and Director at Development Perspectives, was the leading expert on Global Education. And here goes my high, high praise: it is such a pleasure to work with him, the vastity of his knowledge and expertise in the field are such that he can turn every discussion or a simple workshop into a deep, thought provoking and engaging experience.


We worked on education and media, how through narration it’s possible to promote the values and ideas that shape our world. Even the most toxic ones, like racism or intolerance.



And of course, how can we contrast this action through activism and NGO work.

We analysed good and bad examples from different campaigns and charities through the years, and compared and discussed their effects, learning also about the theoretical studies that have been realised in the sector (such as the Schwartz model of opposing values, well presented here).

Very different approaches have been tried, to sensitise public on global issues. Quite recently, this campaign by Save the Children stirred quite the discussion on refugees:

“Just because it isn’t happening here, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening”.

(be warned, the video can cause strong emotions)

What is the best way to deliver your message?

The (in)famous campaign for “Live Aid” in 1984-85 (started as a response to the terrible famine that hit Ethiopia), ended up having very controversial outcomes. It raised almost $ 100 million, and while that sounds certainly as a good thing, no organisation was prepared to manage such a huge and sudden influx of cash. Besides, the campaign didn’t do enough to inform public opinion on the causes (historical, political) of the emergency, leveraging on the star factor of the celebrities that got involved and aiming at a strong emotional response – rather than creating understanding and information.

People would donate some cash to get rid of the white guilt, and forget about the issue completely. At the same time, the campaign may well have reinforced a post-colonial mentality (“poor Africa, what would they do without us?”), by providing a rather unilateral point of view, rather than raising a stronger, more structured reaction.

You will most likely remember this star-studded videoclip, a sort of who-is-who of the 1980s pop scene.

So in conclusion, while there seem to be a consensus about the fact that emotions should have a role, it’s still open to discussion what kind of emotions should be stimulated, and how. Activists and organisations of course have to learn as they go, and it’s comforting that a good body of research has been produced as a by-product, from which we can all learn.

And as a storyteller, what style would you choose? Probably, the best idea is to try a few different approaches, before deciding what works best for each of us. That was a really central aspect of our course.


Another very interesting session involved newspapers, and we analysed how they report their stories and represent the reality in which we live. To be honest, the picture I gathered of the Irish newspapers arena is not incredibly positive. The main papers range from “conservative” to “very conservative”, with a pretty biased distinct way of reporting news.



Which allowed us to work on how values of an entire society can be shaped by the stories in which we are immersed. It was pretty shocking to realise how a simple story (a parliamentary discussion) is described using words like “attack” and “war”, to evoke feelings like fear and threat in the readers. The media agenda – on that particular day – was completely dominated by negative stories, and reports of violence.

We are what we eat – and I think this is more and more true when applied to what we “eat” through our brains and senses. In our societies it has become of basic importance, to create opportunities for people to have access to pluralistic, unbiased, fact-based information.  And to equip citizens with the tools to navigate through the sea lanes of today’s information.


So we moved on to work on how to contrast these negative narratives of the world?

First of all, we need to be able to recognise fake stories and manipulations when we see them.  There is a growing need for some “media (and internet) education”, to equip young people and citizens of all ages with tools for critical thinking, fact checking and hoax-busting.

Waiting for the governments to take action (yes… will they?), NGOs can play a very important role in this.

Always listen to Honest Abe.

So we examined a lot of interesting stories from the internet. Like the following pictures. Only one of them is real. Can you tell which one?

(Hint hint: the subject killed many, many people).

An UFO flying over a green field?
A US President attending a school event, and getting it all wrong?
A giant sea monster caused by radiations?
A tourist taking a picture in New York, on a nice September morning?

So, which one is the real picture? In case you are guessing “But of course, the one with G. W.”, then the answer is… wrong! That picture is a famous fake, which of course went viral because everybody wants to believe a good story. Even if it’s fake. This is the real picture, as documented by a number of reliable sources:

Poor, poor G.W.! So many people considered him “STUPID”, for the wrong no reason!

So, the morale of the story is: when receiving information, trust no-one. Right, not even me.


Continuing our work on media, we met Emmet Sheerin, a talented documentarist currently working for Trocaire – Irish NGO operating on global issues – and examined some of his work, a documentary shot in Palestine, and a few shorter videos that use satire to raise awareness to shift public interest.

Check, for example, this one (Sheerin is playing the main character in the video):

Cool, right? I found it a brilliant satire of the kind of crap (not only the Wurst kind) that we are surrounded with, every day. That’s an alternative way of telling a story, choosing irony and a “funny” angle to pass through defenses, and still deliver quite a powerful message.


We told and shared stories using many different forms, from ancient tales of our planet

Not quite this one, I didn’t use this as source material for my work. But there are dinosaurs on the cover, so it must be good.

to sharing personal stories of transformation and change.

Story and props from Argyrios, from Greece.

Using also forms of storytelling that are different from the spoken and written one, like drawing our vision of “Ideal future”


and a session on Understanding Comics (thanks Michele, big shout out for sharing your experience and helping me to move the first steps in this big world!)



Which led to a beautiful art gallery, and presentations of personal stories – similar to what I have done earlier this summer in “Share the Right Story“:



Comics really are a powerful and universal form of storytelling. Their huge advantage of working with comics is that it’s easy to start (and difficult to master, of course), and they reach every kind of audience.

Check for example the following two pictures. One is made by me a 4-years old. They show that everybody is a born artist and storyteller. Very effective, no?



And of course, Nature. We tried to use every moment of open and clear sky to go out, and experience the Outdoors. We led the group through a few experiential activities inspired by the “Hero’s Journey” (of course, being on this blog – what did you expect?) – and that led to a few really powerful experiences with the group.

When weather allows, there is something unbeatable in an Irish green fields / blue sky day.


The following montages, realised by our media team, show the emotions of some participants at the beginning, in the middle (the Dark Cave), and at the end of our adventure. I find them really suggestive and effective!

Hanka, from Czech Republic.
Michaela, from Romania.
Christina, from Greece.
Chrisa, from Cyprus.

The programme included also (one of our favourites) an “Open Space” afternoon, in which participants were in charge of different parts of the programme, and they proposed wonderful sessions on narrative arcs, personal marketing, creative writing, video making, storytelling through food – and more. A really inspiring afternoon.

Paul seems proud of the programme for the afternoon!
Creative Writing essentials with Debbie.
Try to match pictures and stories. Who did what?
Personal marketing and branding with Eva.

We also worked on the concept that good news should receive a fair amount of attention, while often media focus on negative ones – for a political agenda, or simply because bad news are easier to sell. Either way, it’s about time we change this attitude.

We tried to do it for example, by sharing examples of good and encouraging stories. This is the latest speech by Al Gore, who ten years after “An unconvenient truth” is back to tell us that we can make it, and global warming is a battle that can be won.

In conclusion, that was one memorable experience. Emotions were still pretty strong at the end, and I was left with the clear feeling that such work is relevant and necessary.

Stories have the power to inspire and change the world. And we need honest and passionate agents of change who are willing to tell them. And you? How do you want to be involved?

If, after reading this – or even if you just watched the pictures, it’s OK anyway – you want to be more involved, for example you or your organisation could apply to host a follow-up event, or organise a similar course. Feel free to contact us and we will be delighted to discuss the idea!



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