Digital stories are ideal for communicating ideas clearly and persuasively, especially when talking to audiences from varied backgrounds. It has applications in teaching and learning, public engagement, personal reflection and marketing.
At Netskills we’ve been exploring the benefits of digital storytelling for the education community for a few years.
But lately it’s storytelling’s value to public engagement that we’ve been spending most time on. Stories provide an excellent way for institutions to demonstrate the importance and the impact of what they do. A research team exploring the topic of ageing in society could tell the stories about how new treatments have affected someone suffering from arthritis. Or a museum could open up an archived collection by showing how the stories behind the objects they hold tell us more about the world, a little like Radio 4’s recent '100 Objects' series.
I want to share my reflections on two questions that arose; one about the ability of stories to influence people emotionally and the other about their perceived authenticity.
The risk and reward of emotional engagement
Emotion is a difficult area for academic communication. Traditionally, good academic writing is about clarity and objectivity. Emotion doesn’t really figure.
Appealing to someone’s emotions is an essential element of good storytelling. If you aren’t affecting someone on an emotional level it probably means you’re telling them a boring story!
Watch this digital story by my colleague Steve Boneham. It packs a real emotional punch and it works all the better for it.
The dividing line between affecting someone and manipulating them isn’t clear. For me, manipulation happens when the audience’s emotions are exploited in such a way that it obscures what a more objective point of view would show, or seeks to divert attention away from the facts. Sadly, you can see it happen a lot in politics, where really strong narratives about issues like climate change, immigration or benefits are not borne out by the data.
Stories aren’t a benign force. Like most powerful things there can be a light and a dark side to their uses. Storytellers need to apply their conscience and think ethically about the story so it appeals to the emotions rather than subverting them.
Do you trust the storyteller?
The other issue that came up in discussion was about the authenticity of a story. Digital storytelling’s impact comes mainly from the fact that the person you hear telling the story is the one who wrote it. There’s an honesty and immediacy to digital stories as a result.
The question here is about factual honesty rather than emotional manipulation. Bluntly, do you trust the storyteller?
Any story is a filtered presentation of events. The storyteller is trying to help you understand the meaning of a situation and that’s as much about what they leave out as what they put in.
When I watch a story like Rebecca’s, I don’t doubt that the story she is telling is “true”. This is mainly because she is a central character in her own story and that it’s her voice we hear. She’s very articulate but she hasn’t over-embellished the script. I imagine this is how she might tell me the story face-to-face. There’s also an honesty to her story as she talks as much about the hurdles she encountered as her successes.
Opening up like that can be uncomfortable for some people. There are going to be things you choose not to tell. Some things might make you feel too vulnerable. But sometimes opening up will give people a reason to empathise with you. You could play safe and make your message very bland and impersonal but for me that’s when I really start to question something’s authenticity and ask if I am being sold a corporate line.
As someone pointed out about Steve’s story during the workshop, technically it has rough edges. It’s not as slick as something you would see on telly but that makes it feel all the more authentic.
Telling effective stories
It’s worth remembering that with storytelling for public engagement, the story itself is not the be-all and end-all. The story gives the audience a window onto something much bigger. It’s a chance for you to help them understand the importance and impact of your work, inspire them, lead them to explore or get more involved.
Digital storytelling is a powerful tool for achieving that but to do it effectively you have engage your audience emotionally and use an authentic voice.
Want to know more?
Netskills is running another free workshop on digital storytelling for public engagement in Bristol on the Thursday 24 July. Places are limited so book soon.
To get you started producing your own digital stories we have produced the video below on what makes a good story.
If you’re still unsure what we mean by ‘digital storytelling’ then this short video about our workshops will help you.