Digital Storytelling Strategy
BY Victoria Spencer — January 21, 2022

What if I told you that the “future” of storytelling the way people often think about it—Twitter and blogging and Internet-centricity—isn’t really the future at all? What if all of these “new” developments in storytelling are actually references to 100 years ago?

This is one of the theories that scholars Frank Rose and Paul Woolmington—who will also lead a workshop at this year’s FoST summit—discuss in their one-day Columbia University seminar, Digital Storytelling Strategy. Woolmington is a communications expert and advisor to companies like Coca-Cola and Google, and he has watched the storytelling landscape change over the years from a marketing perspective. Rose has a background in journalism and has written several pieces about the media industry’s response to the digital age. One of these works is a best-selling book called The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories.

Their seminar promises to “teach students how the immersive digital experience can be used to engage customers and prospects in a whole new way.” A big part of that lesson is retrospective.

According to Rose and Woolmington, the major overlap between storytelling past and present is collaboration. Throughout history, storytelling has been oral and participatory. Even with the invention of written media, creation has been a communal effort. Rose explains that Charles Dickens, one of the greatest writers in English literature, published his works serially, evolving his stories based on conversations he overheard about them in the local pub.

Broadcast media, like television and radio—today often compared to more modern digital works—is actually just a fluke in a history of storytelling in which audiences usually contribute. “We often think of [the storytelling landscape] in terms of new media and old media,” Rose says, “but old media isn’t really old at all. It’s basically an aberration.”

A 1987 article in New York magazine called “Couch Potatoes: The New Nightlife” suggests that “the Couch Potato phenomenon result[ed] from three increasingly important facts of baby-boom life: marriage, children, and home video (not necessarily in that order).” Rose adds that baby boomers came of age just after it was becoming both possible and economically efficient for media to be broadcast to a wide, receptive audience. Radio, television, magazines, and newspapers begged to be passively digested. Rose puts it bluntly: “[For a long time,] the couch potato was the model for how people consumed—literally—media.”

With the rise of the Internet in the 1990s, few believed that people would embrace the shift from passive to active media consumption so quickly—but they did. The millennial generation, which is native to the Internet rather than the TV, has learned to expect their media to be interactive. Rose and Woolmington claim that instead of consuming stories like their couch-potato parents, young people prefer to take a participatory role. And today, with more media platforms available than ever, we have a rich variety of channels with which to engage.

Rose and Woolmington guide their students through these various channels at what many consider a key moment in the history of storytelling. We’re going back to our roots, where storytelling is a communal, participatory process, but we have dozens—if not hundreds—of technologies available to help us do so. “Don’t just chase shiny objects,” Woolmington warns. Just because virtual reality exists doesn’t mean it’s right for a particular story. “It’s much more about the macro techniques you’re using at a micro level.”

Both he and Rose believe that essential to the future of storytelling is a concept called the “story world.” The story world is the ecosystem of a story, including all of the ways people can inhabit it. Star Wars is a series of movies, but it’s also a collection of blogs and action figures and fan fiction that add up to an entire world, created by fans and professional media-makers alike.

In fact, Star Wars is one of the earliest examples of how cultivating a strong story world can contribute to a story’s success. In the 1980s, after the original Star Wars trilogy came out, sales fell flat. The movies were over, and the kids who had been the original audience were getting older. The company responded by putting their lawyer, Howard Roffman, in charge of licensing. “His friends were like, they’re trying to get rid of you—they put you in charge of looking for a new job,” Rose reflects jokingly. But Roffman realized that all of the items in the franchise could work together toward telling the same story.

“All these stories had to be consistent with the movies but also consistent with each other, otherwise the integrity of the mythology was stripped away,” Roffman says in a TEDx Talk he gave in 2010.

According to Rose and Woolmington, part of what feels so compelling about the story world is that it offers fans different levels of engagement. Someone can sit back and watch a Star Wars film and be done with it, or they can choose to throw a Star Wars–themed party and watch the TV series and read the numerous fan sites. Rose explains, “One of the things that the research shows . . . is that people always want to inhabit a story. If it’s a story that matters to them, if it’s a story they really like, it’s not enough to read it and close the book.”

So as much as the future of storytelling is about consumers engaging with media in more immersive ways, it’s also about media-makers letting go enough for their audience to truly participate. Woolmington speculates, “Star Wars wouldn’t be Star Wars if it weren’t in those early days for the fanatical fan base, and if anything, George Lucas could’ve killed the franchise if he’d put controls on it. The typical approach—for big corporations, at least—is to clamp down on anything that feels like it’s out of my control.” To tell their stories to an audience in a meaningful way means that companies have to fight that impulse.

Woolmington likens the letting-go process with the idea of loosening your muscle memory. He and Rose teach their students to use actions and types of thinking that might feel unnatural to them—especially those who only know how to think of their audience as a group of couch potatoes. As the seminar teaches, the more companies can learn to collaborate with their audience, the more engaged people will be.

While the future of storytelling will likely include its fair share of Oculus Rifts and Leap Motion sensors, its core might be made of the same stuff of oral histories and Dickens novels: When it comes to the future of storytelling, we’re building it together.