05 Storytelling in the digital age

By Martin Thomas, Writer

At the end of this blog post you’ll find a six-word story of such heart-breaking pathos that you will be desperate for more.

But first, as a reward for those who resisted the temptation to skip straight to the six-word masterpiece, let me tell you a story about storytelling.

Anyone would think the days of the written word are numbered. We’re obsessed by images – preferably ones that move. Content is still king, but we have neither the time nor the attention span to read anything that takes more than a few seconds. Show me a video or a powerful image and I will give you my attention; write me a story and I will move on with barely a backward glance. The soaring success of YouTube and Instagram illustrates powerfully just how true this is.

But is it really? Are we really so terminally distracted that we’ve lost our ability to engage with anything longer than 140 characters? Or do we just have to try a bit harder to give our writing an edge that’s sharp enough to cut through all the digital noise and connect with our audiences?

According to writing lecturer, poet, journalist and all-round content guru Anna Kiernan, who ran a fascinating workshop on storytelling at YCN this week, what those audiences really want remains unchanged. They long for material with which they feel an emotional connection. They want honesty, authenticity and clarity. And above all, they love a good yarn.

We understand the importance of effective storytelling at Red Setter. One of the things we do with our clients is work with them to articulate what’s special about them and what really matters to them and then help them tell their story in a way that really grabs people’s attention. That’s why we went along to this week’s workshop.

Same as it ever was

One of the key points to emerge was that the skills you need to tell great stories – stories that truly grab people’s attention in our digital age – are just the same as journalists and advertisers have been using for decades. And they’re skills we use every day at Red Setter.

You need to capture your audience’s attention within seconds (news journalists knew this golden rule before Twitter was so much as a twinkle in Jack Dorsey’s eye). You need to trim all the fat from your copy – and when you think you’re done trimming, you should probably trim some more. And you need to be crystal-clear about your message by focusing on why you do what you do without getting derailed by the what or the how.

The hero’s journey

Another age-old approach that can be employed in digital communication is the monomyth, or hero’s journey, a story template that’s been used countless times over hundreds of years and is almost certainly the basis of some of your favourite films and books.

Broadly speaking, it involves a three-act story that starts with an introduction to a hero, who is then presented with a challenge, which they tackle by going on an adventure. After some dark moments and challenges, they meet a mentor, who helps them come to terms with the challenge. Armed with their fresh insights, our hero engages in a final conflict, overcomes the challenge, then returns home, forever changed by their experiences.

You might think you’d struggle to employ this template for the launch of a new yoghurt, perhaps, but it offers a useful way to at least start thinking about how to shape any narrative. And it isn’t so far away from the structure of many case studies and marketing messages, which often introduce a situation, present a problem, highlight the dangers of not tackling that problem, and then explain how to solve it.

Six-word stories

And the six-word story? That was Anna’s closing exercise. We were asked to write a self-contained story in just six words about an object in the room at YCN. Once we’d decided on our object, we were asked to list 12 words about it. Six of them were descriptive and functional; six were more intangible – capturing feelings or memories evoked by the object. Then we had to lose three words from each list and compose a story from the remaining words. You should try it – it’s fun.

I chose a mirror and came up with the following (my extra definite articles and preposition were forgiven): The mirror’s framed reflection sparked the anticipation of love.

But that’s not the story I referred to at the start. That was one that’s been attributed (probably erroneously, it turns out) to Ernest Hemingway:

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