Yesterday I gave two ‘interactive sessions’ in probably the most beautiful room I ever worked in. Wall-high Sol LeWitt murals and wide windows with a view over central Leuven formed the backdrop for a lively discussion on digital storytelling in cultural and heritage institutions on occasion of the Mediation in Transition conference in M-Leuven.
To address the most important issue first: there is no such thing as digital storytelling. There’s only storytelling in the digital age, and frankly speaking this isn’t much different from storytelling in the age of hunters, gatherers, dinosaurs and ICQ. This doesn’t mean it cannot be challenging to tell a story people react upon online. On any given moment, hundreds of stories are unfolding around you, on Facebook, Twitter, and in niche social spaces. Many of them are much more interesting than anything a museum can possibly offer, at least, in the right here right now (because Justin Bieber might have really died this time, and you don’t want to be the last person to retweet that, do you?).
So, how do you tell a story in the digital age that stands out, captures people’s attention and gets them to act, engage with your institution?
My favourite story for quite some time now and one I’ve been showing in workshops around the world is the story of the Troy public library. The surprising twists, genuine engagement and originality of the project are a constant source of inspiration for me and I can’t get enough of it, even after having heard and told the story many times.
There are a lot of reasons this story works very well in the digital age. Generalising these into lessons to apply to all stories in the digital age, I find four:
- The story is really unique and unexpected. Unexpected content is one of the three ingredients for a successful viral according to Kevin Allocca in his great TED talk on what makes videos go viral on YouTube, a lesson that also works for other forms of content.
- The story is told in the public space, in ‘active communities’. The streets, Facebook, general media: all the places where the story happens are easily accessible for most people and designed to foster discussion. Unlike your own website or Tuesday night discussion group people come to these places for stories and are, therefore, more likely to respond to them.
- The story is about the audience. The most important lesson I took from Nancy Duarte’s brilliant book Resonate is to treat your audience as a hero whenever you tell them something. People should not only be involved and directly addressed, it should be their story, the thing they are telling, to make it stand out. People usually listen to themselves.
- The story helps create real life connections, has a physical component. The most heavily discussed issue in Leuven, I believe each great story in the digital age needs a physical element to really turn people from simply interested into highly enthusiastic.
Looking at cultural institutions I believe point 1 is the easiest, as most of our content, collections, objects, etc. are truly unique and unexpected to most people. Point 3 is definitely the hardest. We’re very much used to telling stories that are about ourselves and the things we own (our collection) or care about (or values, mission). It takes creativity to tell a story that’s about the audience and even have them tell this story themselves, while at the same time making sure we get our message across.
At the same time countless museum guides, educators and enthusiastic volunteers engage visitors in such stories on a daily basis. Telling a great story is an art, it’s a skill, but it’s certainly not something incredibly tech and difficult. You certainly don’t have to be a social media guru in order to tell a great story, even online (it might even help not to be a social media guru…).
What I take away from the sessions in M-Leuven is that we’ll have to simplify our thinking about digital storytelling. It’s storytelling, and ‘digital’ is just the time we’re in. Of course is important to know and understand the tools of the trade and the options they provide for engagement and interaction, but they have nothing to do with the story. I don’t even think the mechanics of the web are that different from the mechanics of any group of school kids walking through your gallery (although the web might be slightly more forgiving).
Digital is not the difficult part in digital storytelling. Storytelling is.
Header photo by Amit Gupta on Flickr.