Livestock story-telling at ILRI—Part 1: Introduction, ‘Descending into the particular’

St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.

The 2019 institutional program meeting of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), which was held under a large tent on ILRI’s handsome Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, campus last Sep, tried out something new. Nine staff members were asked to present to the 200 or so ILRI staff assembled how they were helping ILRI to achieve one of its five ‘critical success factors’, which are: (1) get the science right, (2) influence decision-makers, (3) grow capacity, (4) secure sustainable and appropriate funding and (5) ensure ILRI is fit for purpose.

Two things distinguished these presentations from the normal presentations made at ILRI meetings. They were required to be very short (under 5 minutes each) and to tell a very personal story.

Three of these brief presentations were interspersed daily over each of the three days of the meeting. These personal stories were developed and presented by a variety of ILRI staff, from scientists to technicians to post-docs to administrative staff in the institute’s service units. Surprising many in ILRI’s largely scientific community, these personal stories became a major highlight of the planning meeting.

While none of the nine presenters of these personal stories were asked to highlight how livestock had influenced their lives and work, each of them had a major livestock story to tell.

As this story-telling was so affecting for the ILRI community, we thought we would share the stories with our wider community of stakeholders.

We begin below with the introduction to the story-telling and will be publishing each of the nine personal stories over the coming days and weeks.


Introduction to Storytelling at ILRI’s 2019 institutional planning meeting—By Susan MacMillan

Good morning. My name is Susan MacMillan. I’m a communicator in ILRI’s Communications and Knowledge Management Unit.

I have the privilege this morning of introducing nine ILRI staff members who will be telling you something of their personal lives and how their personal stories are helping them to serve one of ILRI’s five critical success factors.

As you know, storytelling makes explicit use of devices, techniques and conventions that allows us to connect with people on an emotional as well as rational level.

But I’d like us to delve a little deeper.

A few weeks ago, Michael Victor, head of ILRI Communications and Knowledge Management, pointed his team to a favourite podcast of his called Revisionist History, produced by the well-known Canadian writer (e.g., Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers) and thinker Malcolm Gladwell. Last year Gladwell made a three-part series on the teachings of the 16th-century founder of the Jesuit Order, St Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556). Michael recommended that we listen to it and I did.

In his podcast, Gladwell explores 16th century casuistry—a method or moral reasoning based on case-based logic and ‘descending into the details’ of a moral issue. The late 16th century was a world of great expansionism by European powers, when many ‘certainties’ were thrown into question. Novel problems, such as should ship owners be allowed to insure their ships (insurance in those days being illegal due to usury laws), required solutions. This world was not unlike that of our own era.

To think through thorny issues, Gladwell explains, Ignatius came up with a set of moral instructions for his followers:

First, set aside principle; second, ‘descend into the particular’; and third, listen closely.

Only in this way, Ignatius argued, could one fulfill one of the most important of human obligations—that of offering consolation to those who are suffering.

The Jesuit form of this casuistry required that one start with the details of a novel ethical dilemma of some kind and, only after exploring the problem by comparing several relevant cases, move from the specifics to a resolution of the problem. Ethicists began adopting this ‘case-based’ logic of descending into the details of a moral issue.

And there is something of a modern revival of this reasoning. In this podcast, Gladwell cites John Rock, a leading American scientist and devoted Catholic who co-created the birth control pill in the 1960s. By investigating the apparent contradiction between Catholic dogma and birth control, Rock compared this issue with others that were similar, descending into the particulars of each case, which led him to conclude that birth control and Catholicism were not, in fact, opposed.

It strikes me that ‘descending into the particular’ is at the heart of the story-telling you are about to hear this week.

It takes some courage to get up before this largely scientific audience and be sufficiently vulnerable to tell a personal, non-scientific story about serving science.

And it strikes me that it is the ‘particulars’ of these stories that you will be hearing that carry the day—they illuminate the lessons being offered in ways as unexpected as they are memorable.

Gladwell says he initiated his podcast ‘to journey through the overlooked and misunderstood’. I believe these stories point to some things we at ILRI are overlooking. The first thing St Ignatius taught his followers was the importance of listening—close listening. In that spirit, I ask you to set aside your preconceptions, your biases, scientific and otherwise, and listen to these personal stories, with your heart as well as your head.


This was not the only personal story-telling component of ILRI’s institutional planning meeting. Every staff member who attended the meeting was asked to fill out and submit an online form answering four personal  questions—(1) How do you help ILRI (e.g., which of ILRI’s five critical success factors does your work do most to advance)?, (2) What do you do? (3) Tell us one thing that you do that people might not know of, and (4) What contributions have you made to ILRI’s mission—and attaching a profile picture. Some 200 of these were produced in poster formats, printed and hung on three of the four walls of the big meeting tent, which made for some fascinating reading between sessions! The stories were as diverse as ILRI’s community, which is highly diverse in terms of nationalities, cultures, religions, disciplines, and so on.

Here, for example, is one from Michael Victor, head of ILRI Communications and Knowledge Management.