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Written by 4:47 pm Digital Focus, People Focus

Did Social Media Kill Storytelling?

Written by 4:47 pm Digital Focus, People Focus

Mankind has been telling stories right from the very beginning, but has social media – and the immediacy it brings – killed storytelling?

Every great communicator is, at their core, good at storytelling. They are able to keep their audience engaged while presenting their ideas. Humans have been telling stories for ages – cave paintings show our early drive to document events so that others will know what happened. Folklore got passed on between generations by the telling and retelling of the stories. As a child, you were probably comforted by a bedtime story as your eyes grew heavy. There’s a lot to be learnt about what makes a story good, what makes a message traverse different cultures, generations and ideologies, but there is no getting around the fact that humans are geared towards relating to one another through stories. We empathise, learn and develop morals based on hearing both fictional and real stories. And then? Social media hit us. 

Short and sweet and instant

Psychology Today put it succinctly, digital media is teaching us to value immediacy. Why listen to a simple twenty-minute fable that teaches a certain moral when you can deliver the punchline in five seconds and continue with your life. The prevalence of Snapchat and TikTok shows that our attention span has dropped even further than 280 characters to just a few seconds. Don’t get me wrong – there are pros and cons to both the old and the new – imagine how much more ground you could cover if you only took in the headlines of novels, journals and articles before moving on. The trade-off is the lack of depth you’ll be able to gain on any one subject, the lack of emotion you’ll feel towards any one thing because you’re already consuming the next thing. 

That trade-off is an interesting space for content creators to work in. On the one hand, we know long-form media speaks to our humanity; we can evoke emotion, paint a beautiful picture and truly get ‘the whole meal’ of the message across. But will your audience give you the actual time to view it? AdAge‘s research shows that 33% of YouTube videos viewers drop-off after 30 seconds, with other platforms showing an even harsher drop-off rate. To put it another way, modern storytellers are stuck between ‘the rock’ of needing to tell moving stories that can affect behaviour and ‘the hard place’ of viewers not being wired to allow the chance of that happening. 

So, what does that mean?

Do we declare storytelling DOA and accept that there is no way to truly appeal to the core humanness that connects us all? It might be frustrating to hear, but yes and no. 

Yes, storytelling in its traditional form is probably best to keep for bedtime. But this does not mean storytelling cannot, or rather has not, evolved to fit the new canvas it must be painted onto. Off the top of your head, you could probably point to three memorable TV adverts that moved you – sometimes to laughter, sometimes to tears. Either way, you most likely have first-hand proof that short-form media is capable of evoking something within you. It’s apparently even likely that you remember what brand or product the advert was promoting too, which is great news for marketers. 

It is important, however, for your messaging to completely be tailored for your audience and the platform that houses it. To go back to cave paintings, if the artists didn’t use recognisable symbols, i.e. stick figures to represent people, we’d have even less chance of understanding what they mean. They used relatable vehicles as the means to tell their story. In the same way, finding that common ground is essential to gaining and retaining your audience regardless of the length of time you manage to hold their attention. 

The middle-ground

A good personal experience I have of managing this tension was when Digitlab rebranded. Our new humancentric philosophy needed a big announcement, and I was tasked with scripting a manifesto video that got into our new positioning. The humancentric nature of our business required a strong aspect of storytelling; our fingerprint logo is very personal and needed something to help filter our brand messaging from a high-level business idea to a personal connection.

Initially, I wasn’t aiming at a specific duration but, when my first attempt landed at over five minutes, I knew it would need some chopping. And so the reverts began; with each person that read over it, there were more edits to get the messaging ‘closer to home’. I honestly lost track of how many reverts I did on the script, but there were definitely three complete overhauls of it as I inched closer to understanding the parameters that we were playing in – with the tension between telling a story both excellently and concisely being the major hurdle to overcome.

Eventually, we ended up with this – a two-minute compromise between evoking emotions and getting our point across. As a team, we were extremely happy with the result and I was grateful for the lesson on tension-management. 

In closing, it’s likely that this tension won’t go away anytime soon. The digital playing field is always evolving, and storytellers will need to continue adapting the way they tell stories to be effective. Storytelling isn’t dead, it has just been reimagined to continue its relevance to new generations. If you’re a storyteller that’s struggling with managing this tension – don’t give up, our humanness is still a powerful force that we need to be reminded of. Just please don’t let your message be packaged in a way that makes it irrelevant! 

Tags: , , , , , Last modified: June 26, 2020
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