Digital storytelling can be a powerful tool for opening up practice within your organisation, but communicating any sort of message to the outside world needs thought and care.
One of the main issues I’m finding in my conversation with universities and colleges is how to align digital storytelling with their organisation’s communications strategy.
What makes a story?
Corporate communication strategies are typically based on determining a key message or narrative an organisation wants to convey, and then finding examples from within that support this.
Digital storytelling, on the other hand, works by uncovering the personal experiences of individuals and drawing out the most interesting angle, with the narrative emerging from this. Often, they will be based on the messy realities of life, problems that have been encountered and overcome, or even challenges that have been insurmountable and the effects these have on people.
These two processes are clearly quite different and can lead to tension, but there are steps you can take to get those responsible for organisational messaging on board.
Understanding the value
Best place to start is to think about why you would want to tell stories in the first place.
A workshop I was involved in recently at the University of Strathclyde looked to draw out the main reasons for storytelling on a research project. Participants came up with a range of reasons:
- Demonstrating impact to funding bodies through showing return on investment
- Making connections with people at an interpersonal level
- Getting a different perspective on your own activity
- Giving deeper understanding and motivation to the researcher
- Challenging the researcher to look at the impact of their work
- Clarifying the vision
- Evidencing that aims and objects have been achieved
- Encouraging engagement with research subjects and volunteers
- Showing the impact of the university at a local level
- Engaging key stakeholders
What I hope this shows is that storytelling can be as much about personal or professional development as it is talking to the outside world.
Engaging with authentic stories
Effective digital storytelling is about letting the storyteller take control. As much as possible, editorial intervention should be kept to a minimum to ensure that the story itself remains authentic and is a true representation someone’s own experience.
In the same vein, people respond well to stories that are perceived to be authentic, and are less concerned about high production values. Sometimes the slightly handmade quality of digital stories is what people respond to most, as I explained in an earlier blog.
Think about context
If you are releasing digital stories openly, think about the context in which they appear. It can often be useful to situate them in a different context or site, and to use a different vocabulary to distinguish it from strategic communications.
For example, I helped to create a website for Sheffield Hallam University last year for a student voice storytelling project. The aim of the project was to explain the nature of a masters course in technology-enhanced learning, innovation and change, highlighting the impact it had had on the participants. While there was a marketing element, it was also intended to encourage student reflection and enhance their learning. As a result, it was felt that it should be kept apart from other public channels.
It's hosted on a separate domain from the university to keep it distinct from the official university narrative. Each story has a detailed description, and the rationale for the project is clearly set out on the about page and stories sub-pages. Regardless of how someone might discover these stories there's an obvious route to information explaining each story and its background.
Involve the communications team early
Getting the communications team on board is vital as they will also have a stake in the success of your project. You shouldn’t get the impression that storytelling and corporate communication are naturally opposed. More often they align very neatly but it’s the method of production that can cause anxiety.
Be prepared to state your case clearly and take it back to the value of storytelling and why you’re doing it. They should also be able to give useful guidance on making best use of the organisation's social media channels, and help you devise a communications plan to increase the impact and reach of your project.
Learn from best practice
If you’re convinced digital storytelling is right for your project and have buy-in from your organisation, look at examples of best practice and training opportunities you can learn from.
One of the projects that I’ve been involved in supporting recently is with the University of Strathclyde's Images of Research - an annual competition and touring exhibition that presents research outputs in new and innovative ways.
While Images of Research has been running for a number of years, the university saw the value in revamping the format. They wanted to use a blend of digital storytelling and augmented reality to bring the work of the university’s researchers to life and open it up to the public. I was brought in to provide initial training as well as advice on aspects of the project.
I’ve been hugely impressed by the stories that have come out of Images of Research. I would encourage anyone that has the chance to visit the exhibition and see for themselves when it opens at the university’s Technology & Innovation Centre on 5 May. You can also listen back to a podcast from Dr Rachel Clark, who led the project, to find out more about it.
If you want to know more about how Jisc can help with digital storytelling in your organisation, please get in touch with me.