Digital storytelling: what makes a good story and how do you write one?
*Made you look. But fire does play a part here, as you’ll see.
In two previous blogs I’ve shared my reflections following a Guardian Masterclass with senior feature writer Jon Henley. I’ve drawn parallels between the evolution of journalism with learning and suggested how we might learn from the ways journalists are responding to the impact of the digital realm. But a large proportion of the class focused on the importance of storytelling when writing a feature article and how to construct and tell one well.
Many of Jon’s tips are helpful for those of us who write learning content. Stories play a critical role in the way we learn – and we start early: don’t we use fairy tales to teach children their very first lessons in life? But for adults too stories are an effective learning tool, helping us to engage more.
An important aside
Jon was careful to make the point that feature articles are not ‘news’. The news is factual, dispassionate, front-loaded. Whilst features are still based on facts, they’re embedded in scenes and stories that show rather than tell. Features are grounded in a time and place and the characters that inhabit both: the best features are about real people in real situations.
I encounter the need to make a similar distinction quite often when designing blends. Not all of what City & Guilds Kineo is asked to consider or produce is ‘learning’ in the conventional sense. Sometimes it is only information. That is, guidance or updates that need to be imparted or referenced occasionally but not designed and presented in a way that (ideally) transfers knowledge into long-term memory.
You probably wouldn’t wrap information or guidance up in a story but in learning they’re a powerful tool for introducing emotion and making the learner feel the content and stamp it more firmly in their brain.
A brilliant example of how learning can be deeply embedded in a story is in the Guardian’s digital storytelling project Firestorm, which was written by Jon. It is focused on the plight of the Holmes family as they sheltered from the flames in the Tasmanian bushfire at Dunalley.
Firestorm is an ambitious blend of long form writing, video documentary and interactive elements which explore the costs, causes and context of the disaster. I learnt a lot without even realising it was happening: how fires spread, how to fight fire, the impact of climate change on fire risk…
Visually it’s stunning – beautifully shot photography and film fill the screen and are accompanied by gentle, natural sounds (rippling water, rustling eucalyptus leaves) which further immerse you in that world. And at the heart of it all are the Holmes family, who tell much of their story themselves in audio and video that’s integrated seamlessly in the narrative.
The results were impressive. Where previously people had spent less than five minutes watching a Guardian video or reading an article, Firestorm saw an average dwelling time of 17 minutes with some staying for half an hour. Imagine if we could generate the same engagement in our learning: creating learners who don’t want to leave. (OK, maybe not too long as that will impact the bottom line, but then how much will truly effective digital learning save the business in the long run?)
So what, in Jon’s view, are the secrets to success? And what do they mean for us in learning?
1. The devil’s in the detail
When writing a feature article, Jon paints pictures of places, portrays characters, explores emotions. He achieves that through careful observation or ‘street level’ reporting. This isn’t about just repeating everything he sees and hears: it’s about interpreting in a way that is immediately more interesting and compelling.
I think we hold back from writing so descriptively, emotively – beautifully, even – in learning. And it’s a great shame as so many instructional designers are from a literary background. There could be a number of reasons: fear that we’ll dilute the message, undermine the seriousness of the subject matter, the end audience won’t like it or it breaches style guidelines. But I’m sure the opposite would be true in most cases. Let’s be brave and create content that our learners really react to on an emotional level.
The best way to do this is to understand the significance of the bigger issue but give it meaning by taking a specific focus and looking at how it affects one or more individuals. For Jon, “the people and the characters ARE the story. They must articulate your ideas for you.”
2. Dare to be different
Thinking ‘out of the box' like this is important. When Jon was asked to write an article to coincide with the documentary Benefits Street, he didn’t want to just write about benefits – that had been done to death already.
So he took a different tack and went back in time, searching through the archives to uncover who’d previously lived in the notorious James Turner Street. He found out that when it was built in the 1800s it attracted the prosperous working classes and continued to do so into the twentieth century. He now had a story – how did such a street become the UK’s most controversial road? What was the cause of its demise?
We’ll create more impactful content if we dare to stand out from the crowd, shine a light in hidden places, turn an idea on its head. Take statistics and data we’re given as source content and try and repurpose it in a way which realises the social, economic or broader relevance of what we’re saying and most importantly, hammers home that human angle. Fatigued learners will thank you for it.
3. Make the most of multimedia
The Guardian’s Firestorm seamlessly integrates text, video footage, pictures and audio into a rich interactive feature. One medium doesn’t distract from another.
We’ve worked with a broad range of media in the world of elearning for a long time and the very best courses use the appropriate media for each particular message. It wouldn’t be challenging to recreate Firestorm from a technical point of view using existing technology such as our HTML5 framework Adapt (you could say this editorial style of presentation is what it was born for) but are we thinking about the entire experience and the use of media in that holistic way?
Firestorm flows as a single page: you fall gently from one medium to another, barely noticing it. I would love the majority of our courses to achieve the same results. That means viewing each piece of learning almost like a mini blend: an opportunity to craft a cohesive, immersive, interactive experience. Scrolling, as opposed to paginated design, gives us an advantage here, but it’s also important to identify what type of media to use at the right time, to tell different parts of the story. (Turns out there was a lot to say about that, so I’ve written a fourth, upcoming blog on media types.)
4. Bring it all together
Ultimately it’s the power of the overall message that counts. And we’ve a way to go. Francesca Panetta, special projects editor of interactive storytelling projects at The Guardian, says:
“We’re really only at the beginning of what it can feel like to experience ‘media’ in a beautifully integrated and immersive way… When you consider how important the visual and audio senses are to your experience of the world, it seems crazy not to investigate cleverer, subtler and more compelling ways to make them part of web-based storytelling.”
The Guardian believe that the way the Firestorm team worked together was critical to their success. At times the designer, videographer, writer, developers and others were all in the editing suite discussing how text might run over images and what to do about it. Firestorm’s Editor said “it’s difficult to overestimate the importance of physical proximity, not least because that mini-cycle of ‘try it out, get feedback, iterate, improve’ becomes possible. It’s that mini-cycle, repeated many times over, that is at the core of a lot of successful pieces.”
Despite a lot of collaboration early on in a project, quite often our various disciplines execute the end results in silo. On certain projects, particularly those in which we’re adopting a more editorial style of approach, perhaps we should work more like a collective. Probably the projects I’ve been most proud of involved close working relationships with my team members and a shared understanding and ownership of the creative vision for the end piece.