Nick Kristof on Story Telling and Development

April 12, 2010

Nick KristofHow can people who care about international development interest the public? Last month, CGD hosted award-winning New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, one of the world’s most powerful voices on issues ranging from women’s rights to global health to genocide. In this special edition of the Global Prosperity Wonkcast, I’ve put together excerpts of Nick’s remarks and the question and answer session that followed. For those of us who were in the room, it was a valuable glimpse into how Nick thinks about his work and his audience.

In his opening remarks, he spoke about how people initially understand arguments—emotionally, not rationally—and explained that he therefore tries to tell stories that make his audience connect with individual people. “We evolved to have a certain amount of compassion and empathy,” Nick said. “That empathy works when it's directed at one individual.” Empathy falls off quickly when the number rises—even to two people, he said.

When trying to engage an audience in complex development issues, Nick emphasized the need to present problems as fundamentally tractable. If he could write Half the Sky (his most recent book, authored with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn) over again he said, “I think we would have had a cover that looked happier, we would have had a first chapter that was a real triumphant one. I think there is a real problem of the development community turning off people because it seems to be a fundamentally sad story.”

During the Q&A, some audience members (economists!) asked whether Nick’s approach excludes important systemic development interventions, like infrastructure or economic policy. Kristof allowed that he’s unlikely to ever write a column about hydroelectric dams or exchange rates. However, he argued, getting people interested in the personal stories of poverty builds a constituency for improved rich-world policies.

Near the end of the session, Nick challenged development practitioners and researchers to do a better job of selling development issues—just as for profit companies sell their products. With traditional media outlets losing influence, he said, it is up to other organizations, including think tanks like CGD, to pick up the slack.

"Increasingly think tanks are doing what journalism used to. And, think tanks have been very good at producing solid reports and research. They haven't been very good at real outreach to go beyond the choir," Nick said.

Listen to the podcast to hear our condensed version of the event. You’ll find Kristof’s own blog here (and he’s also quite active on Twitter and Facebook). Have something to add to our discussion? Ideas for future interviews? Post a comment below. If you use iTunes, you can subscribe to get new episodes delivered straight to your computer every week.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.