Last week I was invited to the Future of Storytelling conference, a one-day summit focused on storytelling in the ever-changing face of technology. Oddly enough, to learn about the future of storytelling, I had to take a step back in time.
When I was told the conference would take place on Staten Island, only accessible by ferry, I was a bit hesitant. “Maybe this is just a really elaborate way to fire me,” I told a coworker. Regardless, I showed up at the docks bright and early and awaited my somewhat precarious fate.
Arriving in historic Snug Harbor, the group of Warby Parker-wearing, iPad-toting digital folks stood in stark contrast to the venue itself, originally an oasis created for “aged, decrepit and worn-out” retired sailors of the 1800s.
Filing into the grand auditorium, we took our seats and aptly began the day with a story. Raconteurs from The Moth, a non-profit organization dedicated to the art of storytelling, took the stage to tell fairytale-inspired vignettes. During these stories, a rare thing happened. I completely lost the urge to look at my phone, or check my emails. I was completely enthralled with the story of a flight attendant’s mission to be kind to those around her despite their ugly nature, and the story of Mother Theresa’s doctor who faced a bout in international diplomacy in his quest to save her life from an infectious disease.
After the story presentation, we moved on to roundtable discussions led by notable writers, authors, storytellers and experience makers. This time, instead of choosing to stay away from our phones and computers, we were asked to put them away, introduce ourselves and engage with each other in discussion.
Dr. David Weinberger from the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society led one of the roundtable discussions that really stood out. He began the session with a video explaining how information has changed over the course of time. Pre-Internet information was linear and mostly static. In the digital age, information is defined by differences. For example, to really know what an apple is, you have to figure out what its opposite (an orange) is. Today, information and understanding are defined by the holistic view of dissenting opinions, facilitated by links online. The Internet itself is a limitless abyss of knowledge and understanding. Of course, people curate this information, often blurring the lines between cold, hard “facts” and subjective opinion disguised as “facts,” which can only be battled by a discerning eye.
What the day’s stories and discussions helped me remember was the function of storytelling: to entice an audience and to engage people. Although all the conversations were completely different—led by do-gooders, marketers, scientists, toy makers, designers, and even freaking Al Gore—their goals were the same: to entice and engage.
I thought about my own work as a digital content strategist and all the politics that go into making branded content and remembered one very simple thing: we need to make content that people want to engage with and actually read.
We have to apply the principles of storytelling and think strategically about the way that we present the information. The Moth storytellers took ancient fairytales and spun them into new tales of Jet Blue and modern day medicine, adhering to the principles that made these stories successful while catering to the audience sitting before them.
We can’t compromise the integrity of the story in order to conform to a brand’s typical messaging or to stay within its comfort zone. We need to go all-in and aim to create good, enticing content if we’re going to make this work.
We also need to think about how we present the stories online. As Dr. Weinberger pointed out, the Internet has changed everything when it comes to presenting stories and information. Our job is to play to the Internet’s strengths in order to present the story in the most engaging way for our target audience.
In the end, I made it off of Staten Island, and sailed back to the island of Manhattan feeling inspired to tell a tale another day.