Innovative Storytelling

Houston Civic Writeathon

Once upon a time, we all embraced storytelling. Before we could write, we shared our dreams and experiences through oral traditions, paintings and dance. When we developed languages, we crafted complex narratives to make sense of the world around us. But as our technologies and understanding of the world grew increasingly compartmentalized and discretely quantifiable, we began to value dry facts over richly woven information. In businesses and classrooms, we started asking for all of the data instead of seeking all of the insights the data were supposed to lead us to.

It took 21st-century brain science to surprisingly (and thankfully) show us the error of those ways. Recent insights into how our brains work shine a light on what cognitive neuroscience pioneer Michael Gazzaniga describes as “our species’ profound relationship with storytelling.” As biology would have it, humans have evolved along with storytelling — good stories help us learn, remember and connect. In turn, we have evolved our technologies to enable us to share our stories anytime, anywhere, leading us into new era of storytelling in which we can successfully marry technological progress with our innate need for narratives.

Ubiquitous You

From brand storytelling to data-driven storytelling to public relations professionals reframing themselves as “storytellers,” it appears everyone is eager to return to the campfire and tell their tales. My organization, TED, provides a platform for global thought leaders and innovators to share their stories, yet still devotes an entire segment to creative Storytelling. Heck, there’s even a whole new conference dedicated to the Future of Storytelling.

Today, instead of having to wait for your turn at the podium, you and any person on the planet with access to a cellular phone, mobile device or computer with internet access can now share your experiences with the world, 24/7, online. Consumers now dominate the content creation process, posting more new content on YouTube in one month than was created by the three major television networks in the past 60 years.

With all of that content flooding the web and potentially drowning out your message now, you need to figure out not just what message you want to communicate, but also how to best tell your story, rise above the noise, stay a step ahead of competitors, and, even better, leverage some of that crowd-generated content to help your company tell its own story.

It’s time to get innovative.

Venture Beyond Social Media

Distilling messages and crafting compelling stories is what we do at GlobalWrites. I also consult on branding and social media. If you want more tips in either of those areas, feel free to poke around those sites for more ideas and resources. For storytelling via social media, there are dozens of tools you can use to reach audiences and tell your stories, and dozens upon dozens of social media blogs that aim to teach you how to effectively do so. From short-form posts on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, to long-form blogging on WordPress, Tumblr, Medium and Google+, to visual storytelling on YouTube, Instagram, Vimeo, Pinterest and Vine, to audible sharing via podcasts and SoundCloud, the variety of tools you can use seems endless.

Social media is already quite established as storytelling platforms. So what’s next? Try transmedia. Not to be confused with simple social media, which represents the platforms, or multimedia, where the same content is distributed on multiple media formats, transmedia is the strategic use of specific platforms or formats to tell various parts of the story that can then be experienced and synthesized in parts or as a whole. USC Professor and author Henry Jenkins explains: “A transmedia story represents the integration of entertainment experiences across a range of media platforms.”

The video game industry leads in the transmedia arena, with extensive experience in allowing audiences to choose their own adventures through the content and in extending the storylines to feature films, graphic novels and other media that expand the story’s universe beyond the game. Imagine using a blog to provide in-depth insight into your brand, with embedded YouTube interviews from key departments’ channels, peppered in with Instagram snapshots from various team leaders’ accounts and Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn posts-as-quotes from relevant social media accounts. By treating all these elements as parts of a broader story, it allows the audience to experience and interpret the story in more diverse, personal ways, depending on and through which media they select to consume the content.

Redefine Reality

The video game industry is often at the forefront of storytelling innovation: Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are other gaming strongholds with the potential to transform how we tell and experience stories. Augmented reality is already being used in museums and retail environments to breathe life into physical objects. Businesses can use AR to add layers of information to everyday artifacts, potentially giving products and tools their own personal histories. Wearable technologies like Google Glass with the capacity for AR and VR use are also entering classrooms and workrooms as effective tools for learning, participatory storytelling and next-gen journalism.

With nine virtual reality films about to make their Sundance 2015 debut, virtual reality has surpassed being just a gimmick. Coupled with 4DX-capable environments, VR can allow storytellers let their audiences experience and explore new worlds, “live” unfamiliar events, immersively challenge hidden biases and probe their capacity for empathy. VR technologies like Google Cardboard and Oculus Rift are leaving those old plastic 3D-movie glasses in the dustbin — the potential is extraordinary for these tools to enable people to follow a quark as it develops into a nanotech device, dive the Marianas Trench, live a day in the life of your CEO, ride the conveyor belt as your product, or explore alternative energy sources as if they were actually there.

Interact With Environments

The explosive impact of mobile technology on how we share our stories and experiences of the world is still in its nascency. Mobile may already be transforming the way people experience concerts, sporting events and retail, but so much more is possible. Think beyond using smartphones and tablets as second screens that complement content consumption in physical spaces or on larger devices: You can now make the walls talk. Technologies like Nest can now even respond to you as you sleep. Who knows: The next era of business communications could be populated by branded devices that become characters in our everyday lives, shepherding us on the path to smarter consumer habits and more efficient workflow that boosts our productivity.

Interactive technologies that leverage RFID and NFC are emerging that bring us closer to the always on, always connected future of the “Internet of Things”…a future in which our gadgets and environments can not only notice a person’s presence, but can actively interact with them and with each other, communicating, sending notices, asking questions or engaging people in participatory entertainment. As artificial intelligence (AI) and self-learning software progress, and “Big Data” gets even bigger, we can start leveraging all that content in the cloud to teach computers how to help us tell our stories, as well. Believe it or not, today more news is being written by robots than you would think.

We live in exciting times, with rapidly evolving tools to help us rethink and redefine storytelling. Tomorrow will bring even more possibilities: We’re still at the dawn of biotechnology, nanotechnology and AI development. Can you imagine what stories you could tell with any of these disruptive technologies, with all of their potential to drive innovative ideas, try new things, and figure out what works? If you can, please share your ideas with us in the comments below!

How do you tell your stories? No matter what storytelling innovations may lie ahead, all-that-glitters will not hold up without the foundation of a thoughtful, well-crafted story. Looking ahead, the winning brands and organizations will be those who can best harness the power of innovation to create and share stories that craft a strong identity, weave compelling narratives, humanize data, and, ultimately, strengthen the connection with their audiences. 

Grace Rodriguez amplifies ideas and interactivates experiences as TED’s Creative Director for TEDActive. She combines design thinking with new technologies to create novel environments, opportunities, strategies and events that foster disruption. She crafts play-labs for innovation. Grace serves the City of Houston as a founding member of the Mayor’s Innovation & Technology Advisory Board, as a micro-philanthropist, and as co-founder/-curator of C2 Create, TEDxHouston and TEDxYouth@Houston.