The Power of Story

How very analog of me.  After I quit my job in network TV news, I used digital technology and social media to produce a documentary film five years ago, a sequel in 2008 — and leveraged that experience to head up a graduate program in digital media our of Seattle.  Now I’m going to write a book.  About storytelling.   You may remember, “Once upon a time…”

This isn’t about bedtime stories (although we can draw a couple of lessons from them).   It’s about how to apply the fundamentals of storytelling to a vastly changed media ecosystem.  And why that can convince people to pay attention to us.  (It also requires us to pay attention to them by the way.)

Here’s the model I’m trying to develop.  By its very nature, I need to connect with you to make it work.  Yes, yet another voice is calling out in the digital wilderness.

With all our digital communication platforms, from this one, to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube to e-mail and mobile technology, et. al. the barriers to entry to communication are low. And when I say “communication” I mean, the ability to reach people beyond our immediate social circle of friends and family.  This kind of communication requires both content, and a digital distribution platform that takes it out of our social circle to people who don’t know us that well — if at all.

It’s wonderful, exciting, deeply disruptive to legacy media and other traditional institutions and profoundly democratic.  But it’s also noisy, confusing, and cheap.  Too cheap.

Television, magazines, newspapers — we once saw them as primary information providers because we knew if someone went through the expense and effort to collect, filter and distribute information, it might be worth our time and attention.  And that “someone” usually was a brand-name institution that carried a certain amount of credibility.

Back then, the barriers to entry to mass media were high.  You needed millions of dollars in capital to pay for the printing presses, satellite dishes, computers and cameras.

Today, a split-second decision to type a few words then click a mouse sends a thought into the public arena.  Tell your friends to do the same thing and you’ve launched a campaign.  Except that today, it might not carry the same weight because it’s just so easy to share.  More voices may be more democratic, but they also bring more noise, and more competition for scarce attention spans.

So that has me asking two fundamental questions:

(1) How do we persuade someone to pay attention?

(2) How do we keep them engaged to that they actually want to participate in a transaction based on that communication? (i.e. to take action — Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody’s Holy Trinity of Sharing, Collaboration, and Collective Action).

My answer: you need to reach out to a particular group of people, then convince them of a value proposition.

So how do they calculate that value?  How about:

– Is the information relevant to their lives?  Does it have utility?  Can they relate to it?

– Is it worth engaging in an ongoing relationship of mutual benefit with you? (this involves “effort” — second only to “attention” as a valuable currency today).

“Storytelling” helps resolve this value proposition.  How?  People will engage with stories to which they can relate and maybe even help make sense of their lives.  That’s the heart of the traditional transaction between storyteller and audience.