Storytelling, Digital Media and Constrained Communication: Town Hall

Watch the video of my entire Seattle Town Hall talk on January 13, 2010. Here is my slide deck with notes:


  1. Trust is perhaps the most critical element as the media become “democratic, decentralized and diverse” as you stated early in the presentation. There are many experiments in developing trust, like NPR’s model for curating local bloggers as reporters in the Hurricane Ida and Haiti disasters Universities are also in the enviable position of having scholars with credibility in their field, given their intense and often lifelong research in a field. Some universities are taking full advantage through platforms they manage, like the MIT Technology Review Others are wisely creating a crucible for the next generation of scholars, activists and journalists. University of North Carolina is a great example of community scholarship, multimedia journalism and activism. Seems like a really unreachable goal, eh? But check out the work created last fall by a group of 21 students and 5 faculty in the Galapagos Islands.

    Living Galapagos has won several awards for innovation and journalistic quality – all well deserved, I think. There is great storytelling by the residents, compelling photography and video, and the unveiling of thorny issues about economics, tourism and sustainability. Taken together, these can ignite passion in readers of the site. But, as you also pointed out – how does one sustain the passion? I did a cursory review of google looking for efforts to expand the message and link to others that can help, as Lance observed, to “take the news and translate it into things to do.” It’s just not there. Too bad. Let’s hope there are other elements in the works.

    I’m certainly going to keep an eye on UNC’s journalism program and share what I find here on campus. We have a real connection to activism through various programs that may help our students create the stories AND sustain the passion. We can do a better job of storytelling ourselves and also of training the next generation.

  2. You tweeted that Presentation Zen was his “bible” while preparing this talk, and it showed. I thought there was a great use of imagery without too much text on each slide to distract from the key points. As someone who had heard most of the talk content before, I think someone not in my situation would have grasped your core message — storytelling as a key method to build trust in the new networked environment.

    One thought I did have is that what if someone is really good at telling stories but also twists the facts to persuade people of something that might not be true? This came to mind when you showed how the Iranian TV broadcasters presented another view of how Neda’s death may have played out. What sort of things can we look for to distinguish this type of content from true, authentic storytelling?

  3. I thought the talk had a nice balance of information and personal stories and humor. If a talk is an onslaught of facts, it can be overwhelming for the listener to absorb. The humor in your talk (like the discussion of backpack journalism and Al Franken with the satellite dish on his head) helped provide “breathers” and keep the audience relaxed and engaged. Based on the “vibe” in the room, the talk seemed very well-received.

    I was also familiar with many elements of the first part of the lecture, and so I found the Iran material particularly compelling. I had never heard the Neda story or the government’s attempt to put forth their own version of how she died. Both videos illustrated in a visceral and memorable way your points about credibility in the digital age. Those videos were the key “takeaways” for me. Given that the title of the talk was in part in reference to Iran, you could have perhaps foreshadowed that more so the audience would see how the biographical and other material were leading into it.

  4. I really enjoyed Hanson’s lecture at Town Hall in Seattle. A presentation about storytelling, while itself a story, made for a dynamic program.

    One thing that I noticed to be in common between the storytelling in this presentation and another that I’ve seen by Hanson, is the use of emotional content. Both presentations utilized graphic video clips that caught the audience’s attention and tugged at its senses.

    Regarding the content of the program, the topics of media literacy and face-to-face communication are two that would be interesting to explore in more depth, as stand-alone topics. The necessity of these is evolving and becoming increasingly important.

    I found it interesting that the term “slacktivism” exists to describe the half-hearted or short-lived attempts at activism that are made via social media. This seems to be too broad of a term, as it discounts the fact that petitions are now distributed using mediums such as Twitter.

    In addition to the expert content (Hanson clearly has outstanding grounds for expertise), the presentation featured engaging visuals and slides with few text – always a plus for the audience. I look forward to the publication (or Tweeting) of his new book.

  5. The future of professional journalism isn’t exactly a land of hope and glory right now. That point was underscored for me during your talk Wednesday evening, when the conversation kept looping back to the question I hear more and more lately: Who needs people like me, anyway?

    Unlike some of my colleagues in journalism, I long ago conceded that this is a legitimate question. I’m paid to tell stories about people and the things they do – sometimes those things are amazing, sometimes they’re terrible. And yes, sometimes these stories mean sifting through jargon-riddled SEC filings.

    But so what? As you said early in the evening, everyone can be a storyteller now – so who needs me? I believe in the value of the work authored by most professional journalists. But I’ll be honest; sometimes I wish I had a great big pause button to push that would put a hold on the efforts of professional journalism for a few days. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t say that to mean, “I’ll show you all what you’d be missing.” I’d like to see what parts of our society would show immediate signs of suffering. I’d like to see what non-professional efforts would rally to fill the void. I think we might find out who needs people like me – and who really doesn’t.

    There’s an immense amount of emphasis in journalism right now on new forms of storytelling. Out with the inverted pyramid, in with rapidly multiplying tools that let us crowdsource and interact and use postage-stamp-sized pictures of our faces. Some say we’re reinventing the wheel. But maybe that’s good — maybe wheels were what kept us earthbound all along.

    Still, reinvention probably isn’t enough. In order to truly know the place of professional journalism in a world where everyone can tell their own story, we have to re-envision. We have to redefine. And after that we can truly reinvent. Maybe you were right when you said citizens don’t need watchdogs. Maybe they need someone to disseminate, maybe they need filters – maybe they need a truth squad. And if we can find what they need, maybe I can find a way to keep paying for my pesky journalism habit.

  6. I especially enjoyed the way how you organized a bunch of little stories all compiled together to create a beginning into your lecture. Without really presenting from a list, you were able to deliver the same information with a more personal touch with your own stories. By sharing your own stories you engage with the audience from the very start on a more personal level. Also, I felt the choices of your photos served more as supporting roles in your lecture rather than overwhelming the audience and have it steal away the attention to what you had to say.

    I particularly liked what you said about the difference between a big corporate camera and a 600 dollar hand camera. It is amazing to see that in this society the difference between these two cameras are more than just size but also in the signified meanings that each represented. What then does it represent now when literally everyone has a camera in their hand?

  7. Great talk Hanson. Loved the deck as well! Your talk made me start considering some of the ramifications of “information overload.”

    But first, a quick story: When I was a child one of my neighbors got a puppy, tied her up in the shared back area of our houses and then promptly ignored her. Because she never got any attention, Trixie barked. And barked. And barked. It was super-annoying at first, but after a while I no longer heard Trixie barking.

    I was reminded of Trixie during the part in the talk on information overload. Can Trixie be seen as one possibility that will happen with information overload, particularly with crises similar to Iran elections or the earthquake in Haiti? What if there were 20 Trixies barking – could I turn them all out?

    We are all noisily assaulted daily by the metaphorical barking from a variety of media dogs every hour of every day. And, as a recently New York Times article pointed out (“The Children of Cyberspace: Old Fogies by Their 20’s”, technological experiences are both increasing and rapidly accelerating. What my eight year old son experiences with technology (iPhone, DS, Wii, tv) is very different from mine and from his 12 year old cousin does (iPod, computer games, DVD’s.) Since more information is available from even more arenas at a rapidly changing pace, how will it be possible for people to keep up? Will people learn to be able to listen in an increasingly fragmented world?

    Hanson suggests that people will learn to pay attention to trusted sources with the advent of the diffusion of journalism. I also think that the way the Iran elections became prominent was the shear volume of communication coming from regular people who were all saying the same thing at the same time. The people as a group became the trusted source. The people can be the journalist, the authentic storytellers. The roar of voices in these cases should be able to be heard all singing from the same sheet. Part of what will happen with media literacy in the upcoming generations will be able to hear the concert of voices and not just hear a cacophony of barking dogs.

  8. I enjoyed all of the Town Hall discussion, particularly the term Slacktivism. Slacktivism is a great word to describe the majority of users’ engagement in online causes. I wonder about the effectiveness of retweet campaigns to fight breast cancer, etc. I’m sure having a stream full of the same message does help raise awareness, but does it lead any of those people to take actual steps toward helping the cause? On the other hand, having the easy option of texting to donate $10 to Haiti prompted millions of people to act. I donated via text after seeing an entire Twitter feed of those messages.

    I was also struck by Lance’s comment that it was easier to bring Hanson into UW and create the MCDM program than try to re-tool the journalism program. This made perfect sense to me. Journalism schools across the country are struggling to keep up with digital media while continuing to teach the fundamentals of journalism. It was smart of UW to create an entire new program and focus on all aspects of digital and social media while also bring in CLP to teach entrepreneurial journalism classes.

    Additionally, I liked Hanson’s idea of stories being the tool that helps us cut through the noise and make sense of the massive amounts of information at our fingertips. And these stories resonate with people when they exhibit authenticity and emotion.

  9. Things that struck me:

    Twitter and authenticity. People now associate traditional journalism with distortion of truth, while assuming, for example, that anyone who claims to be in Iran during the elections (tweeting in English, as Hanson pointed out) is authentic. I agree with another poster here that perhaps the skill of detecting authentic and relevant messages from an ever-increasing sea of digital noise is one that will be better developed in future generations (who will also hopefully have better tools).

    Real time storytelling as a trend. I think this is an oxymoron— if a story is by definition, something crafted and intentional, how can this be done in real time? And if it is done in real time, see Iran elections on twitter, can we believe it?

    Media literacy education for young children. This used to consist of teaching teenagers to question commercial messaging. What would it look like now? Is this an ability that young children will naturally adapt, since they were not raised in the ‘blind trust’ era? I have a young child and find this an interesting question.

    I brought my husband to the talk (don’t worry, he paid! ) and thought it was a great overview of what the program is about from that perspective.

    Controversial opinion— I am starting to see the glossy stock photo / one word style of the Zen presentations book creep into presentations at work. While no one likes tons of bullets and ugly slides, I wonder if this new approach is at risk of becoming a cliche if people start using it as a template?

  10. Hanson,

    I really enjoyed hearing you speak at last week’s Town Hall. The delivery of your presentation was well organized, charismatic and engaging. I like how you started with a short story on your own life. In times of “information overload,” this is a good tactic to gain the audience’s trust. The personal accounts you shared gave the audience a glimpse at your character and created a more personable conversation. From what you did share, I admire that stayed true to yourself, walking away from a fancy career in mainstream journalism to tell your own stories.

    The integration of various forms of media (photos, video, cartoons, etc.) helped maintain the audience’s attention and serve the story. The videos were quite powerful, especially the one of Neda from the aftermath of the Iranian elections. I agree with you that these kinds of videos, shot by everyday people, on inexpensive equipment, portraying real time events, seem to be a trend in content distribution and storytelling.

    The content you discussed was relevant and thought-provoking. The role that social media in particular has played during monumental events such as the elections in Iran is inspiring. It’s incredible that even with mainstream media outlets being shut down, everyday people, now more than ever, have a medium on which to broadcast their voice.

    I thought the concept of “slacktivism” was also interesting and pertinent given last week’s devastating natural disaster. I think that getting involved with charities through social media is certainly no replacement for actually volunteering in person, however, it does serve well as a vehicle for the next best thing – taking action online. Mobile campaign fundraisers, such as those to raise money for the victims of the Haiti earthquake, allow individuals to give back in ways that are more feasible to them. Most likely, the same substantial results would not have been achieved had the fundraisers been promoted on tv or radio.

    The concept of “storytelling” is often correlated with traditional forms of journalism. It is after joining the MCDM and listening to speakers like yourself that I realize the importance of compelling storytelling in my day to day life – both when consuming and communicating content. I look forward to perfecting my skills so that I too can confidently and successfully tell stories which move audiences.

  11. In an age where “information overload” is a serious problem, I wonder when and how we will reach a balance of reliable, and manageable, sources to turn to online?

    A balance has to be reached. If not, it appears we may be off the deep end where there is simply so much information being published online with a myriad of motives lurking behind the material that we don’t trust anyone anymore. Or is that where we are already? Either way, a filtration system has to arise to moderate this information frenzy.

    Traditionally, newspapers served the filtration function. They still do, but now we aren’t willing to pay. And here we are, wondering how to sort out truth from fiction, or maybe trusted and not-so-trusted-but-still-entertaining sources.

    I found it interesting that more “trusted” blogs, such as the Huffington post, are now taking on the role of the filter. We should continue to see a rise in the number of moderators of the information floating about the Web, to bring some sort of balance. It will be a benefit to everyone’s sanity.

    As a visual storyteller, this also raised the question of how to create a feature that could give the audience some sort of new information. The audience will pay attention if they think that a gap in their knowledge may be filled by the video, podcast, etc. With so much information “out there” already, are there really any gaps to be filled?

  12. Hanson:

    Your Town Hall discussion was excellent and really served as a great example of how a presentation should be done. It was refreshing to see your teachings and the readings from this program come to fruition through your presentation. It helps me as I think about the art of story telling and what should and shouldn’t be included when telling a story or creating a small video or presentation. A common theme that is stressed throughout this program is how a digital media expert must stay abreast of new technologies and issues regarding digital media, how it is being used, and the political, economic and cultural ramifications of this. Your presentation, to me, was a great example of how a digital media expert would have to prepare a presentation in order to include up-to-the-minute information on communication technologies as it changes so rapidly.

    Watching the video on Neda made me feel a sense of angst as I think about how anything is now accessible to see with the common use of communication technology, including death. Though I understand the importance of this video, it makes me wonder if someone’s death is something people will continue to capture and show on the internet and through the media as hostility grows in countries like Iran. I can’t help but question where the boundary will be drawn on people’s privacy, but I know as more mobile devices are put in more people’s hands, anything, at anytime is likely to be captured. Regardless, this and the clip on the Iranian elections serve as a great example of how citizen journalism is changing how we get information and is now often informing us before traditional media.

  13. I agree with previous posters that the slide quality had a very PZ quality to them. I was trying to grasp what the core point of the presentation was, and I think I finally latched on to it at the end: “effective storytelling cuts through the noise”.

    I did have a thought similar to Katy’s – does the ability to tell a story garner a level of trust? Or does it just make you a favored entertainer? We can see how traditional news media had both – trust established by credible reporting and a certain dramatic air to make the delivery attention-getting.

    I do think that while effective storytelling does cut through noise, the trust issue cannot be secondary. But to your point, Hanson, you absolutely need to have the storytelling capacity layered upon your authenticity if you expect to have stamina in today’s media ubersaturation.

    Minor presentation nits:

    1. It felt like you were talking to the back wall a lot. I was in one of the back rows and I kept getting the sense you were talking over my head.

    2. It would have been nice to see you move out from behind the podium.

    1. I should expand a bit on nit #1. I had a corporate presentation coach work with me last spring in preparation for a 25-minute “RobG presentation” (these are, or rather were, terrifying events at Real). She’s a former news anchor turned corporate trainer, and one of the tips that she gave me really stuck.

      She told me to pick 2-3 anchors in the audience ahead of time in various locations. They should be people that you are comfortable talking to. By talking to them during the presentation, you get several benefits:

      – Your delivery is more relaxed and natural
      – You make eye contact with the audience
      – Your visual sweep shifts around purposefully, rather than flicking all over, or locking on the back wall or floor

      You can enhances this if you prep them, asking them to look encouraging / smiling during your presentation.

      It works!

  14. Hanson touched on two themes that are related. With the atomization of ‘news’ sources, brand names have become less trustworthy. But we still need filters. My sense is that brand names and filters will be more important in coming years as we go from hunter/gatherers to more advanced digital citizens seeking a stronger sense of place. In these early stages of the digital revolution information sources are an endless buffet. We are reveling in the options but also realizing it’s impossible and tiresome to check them all out. There is a greater need for people (or blogs or news organizations) we trust to point us to the most important sources. I’ve found that I am constantly weeding my rss feed and twitter sources seeking the best informants.

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