“If I were an architect designing a building I would look to nature – to the great creator, to God, if you like – for structures and principles, for design and style, for strength and beauty and for methods that have evolved over time. As communicators, we can do the same.” ~ Ffion Lindsay
When I started in the industry (a not-so-very-long-while ago) telling beautifully written, expensively produced and prime-time placed stories was all the rage. Our objective was to use great storytelling techniques to pique interest and sell stuff.
Fast forward to today and while the end result is the same – we produce work that gets consumers to act in the affirmative – how we go about is marred by incredible time pressures, minute budgets, excessive speed to deliver and hundreds of little pieces of content that make up a whole. How we tell stories has been turned on its head.
In examining the history of storytelling, its function has stayed the same while its form has evolved. We have moved from myths and primitive dance where we retell a tale through voice and gestures to digital narration where we tell a tale through audio, written and visual pieces of content (Yılmaz & Mehmet-Ciğerci, Utley). In the olden days, storytelling meant sitting at the feet of the elders and listening to their voices transport you on an imagined journey.
When television began, this evolved from oral to written to visual and today, a myriad of black screens and audio devices deliver those stories. I think it is fair to say that the communal participatory experience of storytelling has found more of its relevance today than it did in the past. I believe this is the extent to which we can equate storytelling to content and vice versa.
Enter technology in participatory storytelling
The 21st century sees content creation being held and led by many more content-generators. The internet has introduced fantastic opportunities for our creatives where the content they produce now lives on platforms which introduce a complexity in how they tell stories. The consumers of the messages, stories and products are also fellow narrators. The fragmented media space, which the brands and consumers live in, creates an even bigger complexity for advertisers and their ability to break through.
This fragmentation also applies to the stories that we tell. The age of one-way, show-and-tell ads has finally met its end. We instead have to break them up in such a way that they are highly detailed pieces of information that act as hooks. They have to be specific and complete, intriguing and live within one larger, memorable narrative. The sum of the whole.
Someone made an analogy that it is like viewing a photo album – where many little stories tell a well-rounded holistic tale.
The message is the medium
Placement of the pieces of content to tell the holistic story is where the magic lies. This begs the question as to whether creatives fully understand or appreciate the channels which they create for and the media industry as a whole.
The point here is that content needs to be bespoke to a channel if it is to break through and a lack of understanding of how that channel works, how it is consumed and the impact it may have diminishes the power of message delivery.
We see media as technologies, channels and processes that enable and facilitate mass communication, made up of a broad range of sub-sectors such as television, radio, cinema, newspapers, magazines and the actors of new technologies who have blurred the boundaries. The internet, the digitalisation of the media environment itself, social media, gamification etc. have, in effect, shifted and transformed the media industry into an industry of content services. Co-creation is the new standard.
Studies over the years have shown our brains are not hardwired to understand logic or retain facts for very long. Our brains are wired to understand and retain stories. Content creators need to therefore reinvent how they tell stories and tell stories that inspire, that explain, that transfer, that build and that engage.
Content is meant to provide entertainment, satisfy curiosities, teach important lessons and endear people toward something (a brand, an ideal, a product). It also has to live in an environment that delivers that content well, so it can be received well. Because content heard well inspires action.
Kagiso Musi is the group managing director of Meta Media South Africa, a new data-led media player in the country. She leads the Johannesburg and Cape Town offices with a list of blue-chip clients. The agency focuses on analysing and uncovering insights from the most granular forms of data and utilising that data to help clients win.