Growing a storytelling platform: just add water and a little positivity

We talk with Crofton Steers of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada about the department’s storytelling platform, Good News Grows.

Growing a storytelling platform: just add water and a little positivity

Duration: 5 minutes, 5 seconds.
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What makes for a good story? Is it strong writing? An intriguing plot? A happy ending? Well, if you’re Crofton Steers, the answer is actually pretty straightforward: “A good story follows a character that we care about: one who encounters challenges, overcomes obstacles, and hopefully achieves a positive outcome -- or at least learns a valuable lesson along the way.”

“I want to hear stories where the hero prevails; stories that are uplifting and make me feel good. Don’t you?”

Crofton is the Manager of Storytelling Initiatives at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and if there’s one thing he’s passionate about, it’s telling a good story: “I want to hear stories where the hero prevails; stories that are uplifting and make me feel good. Don’t you?” I smile and nod.

Start spreading the news

In early 2020, Crofton and his small but mighty storytelling team began thinking of ways to better tell the human stories at AAFC, profiling the good work that the agriculture sector and the department does for Canadians. When the pandemic hit, plans for future stories fell by the wayside with other issues taking priority. But as the first wave began to subside, Crofton and the team dusted off their initial plans: “The pandemic really put a brake on things, but I realized it was also an opportunity: here we were, a department in an essential sector that was doing tremendous work to keep the food chain alive. There were so many great stories to tell and we really wanted to get the word out.”

With people increasingly “doomscrolling” throughout 2020, Crofton and the team felt that there was an appetite for good news, so they dusted off their original plans and looked at them with fresh eyes. They launched a storytelling initiative called Good News Grows (I love a good pun, and this one is gold), that features articles on the Canadian agricultural sector, but with a focus on the humans behind the stories (kind of similar to what we do at Living Digital). Good News Grows (let’s call it GNG to save time) spotlights a wide range of individuals and topics, like a researcher in the department who made a new discovery, the next generation of farmers and how they are learning through a pandemic, or even the food banks and community garden volunteers that received funding from AAFC and help feed those who need it.

What makes for a good story?

“While a scientific article is all about the research, a GNG article is about the researcher. Who is this person? What motivated them to do this research? How did they feel about it?”

Before putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, Crofton and his team ask: “Will this story make the reader feel good?”, “Will this contribute to our overall story?” and “Can the reader relate to this person?” According to Crofton, the focus on the human aspect is what makes GNG distinct. He used an example of an internal scientific research article on cranberries. To my disappointment, it wasn’t about perfecting the best cranberry sauce, but rather, how their anti-inflammatory properties can strengthen a chicken’s immune system: “While a scientific article is all about the research, a GNG article is about the researcher. Who is this person? What motivated them to do this research? How did they feel about it?”

GNG articles purposely bury the lead point of the story to focus on the person and their experience. Crofton believes that the human focus resonates better with people, and in my completely unbiased opinion as a writer for Living Digital, I have to agree.

“Human stories are the sugar that helps make the medicine go down.”

“It’s important for Canadians to understand how certain agricultural initiatives affect them”, explained Crofton. “Human stories are the sugar that helps make the medicine go down.” As he passionately discussed the important work of AAFC, I could make out a genuine twinkle in his eye – although that could’ve just been a dead pixel on my tablet. Still, I couldn’t help but be enthralled with his passion for storytelling.

Growing a platform

“Storytelling can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, so it’s really about finding a voice that resonates with the reader.”

Crofton helped launch and co-chairs a storytelling community of practice in the Government of Canada, and GNG is just one example of how departments are shifting the ways in which they’re telling their stories - like the team behind Simply Science at Natural Resources Canada, who I had the pleasure of interviewing last year. Stories that highlight the people behind the programs show Canadians the personal side of what we do, but as Crofton rightly points out, “Storytelling can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, so it’s really about finding a voice that resonates with the reader.”

And as the platform continues to “grow” (you knew that one was coming), Crofton hopes to leverage different platforms to get the good news out. Everything is still new and the official Good News Grows website just launched this month, but his long-term goal is to create positivity and engagement in the agricultural sector and among Canadians.
And Crofton knows that Canadians are interested in the stories they have to tell: “Our department deals a lot with food, and last I checked, everybody eats.” And they’re always hungry for a good story.

 
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