Drones, phones and why most storytelling in the digital age sucks

by Paul Field, CEO EMEA of TouchCast

Molly was the best big sister. What she loved to do more than anything was share her passion for books, so whenever her younger sister Isabella woke early, while their parents were still asleep, Molly would get into bed with Isabella, cuddle up and read aloud.

In March 2010 Molly was diagnosed with a brain tumour. It was inoperable and incurable, and six months after her diagnosis Molly died. She was eight years old.

In those last six months — every day more precious than the one before — Molly wrote a book. It was about a little girl called Ella Rose and she dedicated it to Isabella.

After her death Molly’s family were supported by Haven House, a children’s hospice which, as well as caring for terminally-ill children, looks after families after their child has passed away.

Haven House gave Molly’s family enormous comfort and today Molly’s book The Adventures of Ella Rose is still in print, raising money for the hospice.

— — —

I’ve never before had the opportunity at a conference to conduct a scientific experiment — probably a good thing as I’ve no scientific qualifications — but at WPP Stream anything goes. This is why it’s billed as the Unconference for Unconventional Thinkers.

Discussions at WPP Stream

After around 30 people turned up to my Stream Discussion on the neurobiology of storytelling, I showed them a video about Molly’s immense courage and the fortitude her sister has shown having retained strong memories of Molly.

All that broke the silence for 30 seconds after the film had ended and before I spoke was the sniffling sound of tears being suppressed, several of which were mine.

This deep emotional response to the film was what I had expected because I knew oxytocin would be performing a neural ballet in the brains of those watching.

Neuroscientists tell us that oxytocin is produced when we are shown compassion or told a powerful story that follows a dramatic arc, of which more later. Researcher Dr Paul Zak has discovered that oxytocin induces empathy, which in turn motivates cooperation and generosity.

What happened next didn’t surprise me — and it was exactly what Dr Zak’s lab experiments have demonstrated.

I explained that Molly was my niece and the devastation caused by her loss is felt as acutely today as it was when she died. As I told them more about my brother and sister-in-law, as well as Isabella and Toby, the little brother Molly never got to meet, it was if the neural ballet was now being performed by Rudolf Nureyev.

I predicted they would remember the name of Haven House. Dopamine is another chemical the brain releases when exposed to an emotional story and this makes it easier to recall and with greater accuracy later.

I also suggested some of them would even make a donation to support Haven House because Dr Zak’s lab experiments have revealed people in a high state of empathy are more likely to give money to a cause related to the person or situation with which they empathise.

Hold this thought.

— — —

At Free Word, which promotes literature, literacy and freedom of expression, and where I am fortunate to be a trustee, we talk about how words change lives.

Think of the legendary figure of Scheherazade in One Thousand And One Nights. She saves herself from execution by keeping her murderous husband the King in suspense with a different gripping tale every night which she always concludes the following day.

Stories can change our attitudes, beliefs and behaviours, so it’s not surprising as traditional advertising loses market share to digital that marketeers and brand creatives are all talking about storytelling. But here’s what I told my Stream audience, many of them marketeers and brand creatives.

Most storytelling in the digital age sucks.

I think the technology behind the construction and delivery of a story is being placed before the story itself. The tech could be a VR headset, a live streaming app, or a drone shooting time lapse video. I’m all for enhancing a story using technology but I’m against taking a piece of tech and building a narrative around it.

Storytelling always starts with the story and I told my fellow Streamers they must understand the origins and science of storytelling… if their clients are to get a decent ROI on their spend.

You see, before the internet, before film, books, even pens and paper, humans told stories using nothing but our bodies and imaginations. The earliest cave paintings reveal we told stories about our fears and beliefs, and these were passed down from generation to generation. Stories are intrinsic to who we are and how we think. We use them to create memories and give meaning to our lives.

The psychiatrist Victor Frankl was a survivor of Auschwitz. He observed the prisoners who were most vulnerable to illness and death were those who had who had forgotten the people, places and events which made up their identity before they were herded into the death camp.

On the other hand, those who clung onto a strong narrative memory of their former identity were the most likely to survive.

If stories can save your life, there’s no doubt they’re a powerful tool for marketeers and brand creatives. How then do we tell them?

Two days before Stream I had dinner with Dan, a friend, and he told me about his mother. Dan’s in his mid-50s and has two sisters who are older and a younger brother. Their mother had been a loving parent who only wanted the best for them when they were children but she could be difficult and was always eccentric.

About a decade ago Dan’s mother disappeared. She hadn’t been answering calls and when Dan went to her home to investigate he found it had been sold and she was gone. Without explanation, she’d liquidated all her assets, amassing around £500,000. She was 70.

A fruitless search began. Private detectives were hired but no one knew where to begin looking. Her bank accounts had been closed and credit cards cancelled.

Five years later Dan got a call from the police who told him they had his mother. She’d been sleeping on a park bench and was penniless.

Emotionally she was spent too, but lucid enough to tell Dan that she had enjoyed the previous five years staying in 5-star hotels and dining in the finest restaurants. She’d been mainly in France, dividing her time between Paris, Province and Mediterranean hot spots like Cannes and Monaco.

But there was no apology, she told them she didn’t owe them an explanation, even when Dan and his siblings pooled their resources to get her into a home where a couple of years later she died.

Dan’s family spent many hours discussing whether her behaviour was rooted in her childhood when she felt she had been overshadowed by her younger sister whom she had regarded as being smarter, more attractive and more loved by their parents. Disappearing gave her the freedom to be the special one. But this was speculation. Dan knows there will never be clear answers.

Gustav Freytag, a 19th century German playwright, suggested there was a common pattern in popular stories. It’s referred to as the Freytag Pyramid or Dramatic Arc, and Dan’s story follows this.

Imagine a roller coaster and the car begins on the left with the Exposition. This is where the scene is set and characters are introduced. Next on the track is the Inciting Incident where something happens to begin the action, usually a single event. In Dan’s case it’s his mother vanishing.

Then the car starts to climb as the story builds and gets more exciting. Freytag called this Rising Action. In Dan’s case it’s as the search begins and private eyes are dispatched.

The car reaches the top of the roller coaster. This is the Climax. The moment of greatest tension or the most exciting event. In Dan’s case it’s the shocking reunion with his mother and the revelation of where she’s been.

As the car starts to head down to the ground, we encounter events that happen as a result of the Climax. The confrontations about why Dan’s mother had walked out. Freytag calls this Falling Action.

We move down to Resolution when the principal character solves the main problem or conflict. In Dan’s case it’s his mother telling him she owes no explanation and Dan accepting this.

Finally we reach the Denouement. This is the ending of the story and of course in many novels or movies the storyteller can leave something hanging. This often guarantees the second book or sequel.

In my view, Freytag’s Pyramid goes a long way to show why so much digital storytelling sucks.

When Snow Fall from the New York Times debuted in December 2012 it was heralded as the benchmark for multi-media storytelling.

The delivery — text interspersed with video, audio, map and images — felt as beautiful as it did natural but this wasn’t what made Snowfall a landmark.

No, at the heart of its daring delivery and all those smooth transitions was a jaw-dropping story. An avalanche! 16 skiers engulfed! One of them — an attractive and smart woman — was described as ‘mummified by snow’!

The UK’s Daily Telegraph followed Snowfall with a six-part series on the West Bank called Meet The Settlers. The multi-media delivery mimicked Snowfall in every way but I for one struggled to read it and had no emotional response and felt no empathy as I’d done with Snowfall. The Settlers was like a visually-interesting Wikipedia entry.

Other so-called great examples of digital storytelling have also fallen short. Sortie en Mer is a film about someone on a yacht falling overboard, made ostensibly to promote the wearing of lifejackets. I recall only hitting a key on my Mac over and over to stop drowning. I had to watch it again recently to try to remember any of the dialogue, what the characters looked like, or simply what the story was.

The marketeers or creatives behind these digital spectaculars probably didn’t paid attention to the Dramatic Arc, let alone science.

Neuroscientist Dr Paul Zak highlights the importance of Freytag’s Pyramid in his extensive lab research on humans which show that character-driven stories consistently cause oxytocin synthesis.

He also reports that tension in a story produces cortisol which increases attention, a scarce resource in the brain. This explains why we love stories of triumph over tragedy, of rags to riches and of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, especially where risk-taking is involved.

Stories are better remembered and therefore more likely to motivate you if they are personal and emotionally compelling.

I work at a video start-up called TouchCast, a pretty cool platform for interactive storytelling and last year my eldest daughter Olivia, 11, validated the way we approached a documentary series we produced for the BBC called Story Of Now. Think of 20 interactive Ted Talks, shot beautifully on location, each presented by some of the smartest and most insightful people on the planet, and throw in Idris Elba as the curator.

The brief from the BBC was to deliver 20 five-minute stories, but each had to have an hour of interactive content inside it. TouchCast enables you to add anything from the web to a video, so technically there was no challenge. The hard part was figuring out how to tell each story so that it could be enjoyed as a linear experience or an interactive one.

Olivia watched our film on morality and was absorbed by The Trolley Problem, a dilemma philosophers have been wrestling with for years. Would you pull a lever that would send a tram hurtling towards one person if it diverted it away from five people on the track who would all be killed with certainty were you to not pull the lever? Olivia went to school the following day and told her classmates about the Trolley Problem.

Olivia had had a deep emotional response to a story, a strong memory had been formed, her decision — to not pull the lever — gave meaning to her life by taking a particular moral stance. And then she had re-told it, in turn forming memories and giving meaning to her peers.

Job done.

So if I were a marketeer using stories to persuade or win hearts, I’d start with the brain first.

To prove my point, I ended up Discussion at Stream with a question. Forty minutes after the audience had watched the film about my niece Molly I asked them to say out aloud the name of the hospice that had supported our family.

In unison, they all shouted Haven House.

Paul Field is CEO EMEA of TouchCast, a video start-up leading innovation in visual communications. Before joining TouchCast, he was Associate Editor of the Daily Mail and Publisher of Mail Digital Publishing. Paul also does some investing, consulting and public speaking. He is a trustee at Free Word which promotes free expression, literature and literacy.

To donate to Haven House go to http://www.havenhouse.org.uk/get-involved/donations/

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