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Crafting meaningful stories to bring research methods to life

Stories engage readers. We can use stories to show how the ideas or strategies we are discussing might play out in a particular social, cultural, or organizational context. I often write about research methods, and find that stories can help readers see how the pieces of a research design fit together. Stories can be presented in a fully-developed research case, or as an engaging example inserted within an article or book chapter.

For my first research book, Online Interviews in Real Time, I thought it was important to include stories. Online methods were new and few robust descriptions were available that showed how they actually worked. I found six researchers who were doing interesting online research, and interviewed them. I crafted a section for each chapter called “Researchers’ Notebook: Stories of Online Inquiry.” Readers could see how each of these researchers handled ethical dilemmas or sampling. The companion website linked to additional materials from the researchers’ work.

Several books later, I am getting ready to write a new edition for Doing Qualitative Research Online and again want to include stories in a “Researchers’ Notebook.” I know that more researchers are incorporating stories, so I wondered whether their lessons learned might help me prepare to move forward. In this post I will share a few tips and examples I discovered in three open access articles. In a future post I will look at digital and visual storytelling and how I can use these approaches in ancillary materials.

TIP #1 – Inspire people and build their self-confidence with your stories

In “Storytelling in mentoring: an exploratory, qualitative study of facilitating learning in developmental interactions” D’Abate and Alpert (2017) talk about how stories can “bring a sense of relief to the protégés and to let them know that they are not alone—that certain situations happen to everyone” (p.7). The researchers pointed out that stories go beyond telling the protégé what to do or delivering advice on a problem (D’Abate & Alpert, 2017). Instead, they inspire. The results of this study demonstrate that because stories are more than just words, protégés are able to remember pieces of stories their mentors told them and apply them to their everyday life” (p. 10). While the mentoring relationships central to this study were in a professional setting, the confidence building and stress reduction they reported are the same effects I would hope to result from sharing stories in an academic research-oriented setting.

TIP #2 – Include a connecting strategy between current status and desired change

“Storybridging: Four steps for constructing effective health narratives,” as the title indicates, is set in a health communication milieu (Boeijinga, Hoeken, & Sanders, 2017). Still, the authors are concerned with how stories help people bridge the “intention-behaviour gap” (p. 925). In other words, they explored using stories to encourage people to follow through and do what they intend to do. Perhaps health behavior has similarities to the changes students make from having the intention of completing the degree to actually writing the thesis or dissertation? The concept of storybridging to help readers of my future book to navigate from good intentions to goal achievement is intriguing.

Boeijingaet al. note that “a vital element for narrative characters to serve as role models is that the target audience perceives the character as similar to itself” (p. 926.) Stories should include “a connecting strategy,” and illustrate how the characters in the story bridged the gap between the present and desired situation/behavior (p. 930). So perhaps rather than sharing stories about successful online researchers, my book should feature stories from student researchers?

The authors also described how, once a narrative was constructed to represent realistic characters in circumstances where they needed to make a change, the story was pre-tested. They read the story to people in a similar demographic and asked for feedback. Pre-testing to solicit feedback from student and novice researchers would be a valuable step with the stories I plan to construct.

TIP #3 – Communicate the realities of research

The third article is: “Storytelling as a qualitative method for IS research: Heralding the heroic and echoing the mythic” (Kendall & Kendall, 2012). One of the sources authors discussed was Joseph Campbell’s writing from 1964 about functions stories can serve. While my purpose is very different from either Campbell or Kendall and Kendall — the four functions of myth they described (p. 168) could be adapted to communicate realities of research:

  1. The experiential function. Stories that describe experiencing what the particular research approach or stage is like.
  2. The explanatory function. Stories that attempt to explain the methodologies, methods, theories, or research practices.
  3. The validating function. Stories that try to validate the legitimacy of online qualitative research.
  4. The prescriptive function. Stories that recommend ethical and appropriate behavior of the researcher.

After reading this article, I will be more intentional about the functions for selected stories.

By keeping the recommendations from this small set of articles in mind, I will be able to collect and construct stories that help readers understand the concepts of the book in memorable ways, build their confidence as new researchers, and motivate them to try innovative approaches.


Boeijinga, A., Hoeken, H., & Sanders, J. (2017). Storybridging: Four steps for constructing effective health narratives. Health Education Journal, 76(8), 923-935. doi:10.1177/0017896917725360

D’Abate, C. P., & Alpert, H. (2017). Storytelling in mentoring: an exploratory, qualitative study of facilitating learning in developmental interactions. SAGE Open, 7(3), 2158244017725554. doi:10.1177/2158244017725554

Kendall, J., & Kendall, K. (2012). Storytelling as a qualitative method for IS research: Heralding the heroic and echoing the mythic. Australasian Journal of Information Systems, 17(2). doi:doi:

Janet SalmonsJanet Salmons is an independent scholar and writer through Vision2Lead. She is the Methods Guru for SAGE Publications blog community, Methodspace, and the author of six textbooks. Current books are the forthcoming Learning to Collaborate, Collaborating to Learn from Stylus, and Doing Qualitative Research Online (2016) from SAGE.