The power of emotional storytelling

We all love a good story — whether it’s getting lost in a book or being fully immersed in a video game. Throughout the history of civilization, we have experienced storytelling in many forms. But in a digital age, we’re now emotionally engaging with stories more than ever.

Photo by Daniel Cheung on Unsplash — A Stormtrooper is about to tell his amazing story of working for the dark side

Let me tell you a story…

This is a phrase we often hear or use ourselves. According to Susan Weinschenk — a behavioural psychologist, “stories are very powerful. They grab and hold attention”.

We all have a story to tell — whether it’s fact or fiction. Storytelling is a natural way to process information. Stories make information understandable, interesting, and memorable. They help us relate to each other, they connect us, unite us, and form meaning for us. Storytelling is a way of life.

Sharing stories is a fundamental part of any culture. Families reflect on their day over dinner; friends amuse each other with jokes; children tell ghost stories at sleepovers; comedians entertain us with irony; old friends reminisce about the good old times.

We usually associate a story with a plot, characters, events, a theme and a setting. However, a story can also be a memory, value, moral, desire, or anything that holds meaning. They allow us to express feelings, share information, entertain others, or even evoke fear. We share stories in-person by using a combination of physical factors including speech and gestures. However, we also experience stories in conventional mediums — things or objects that can be touched, heard, or read.

Examples of conventional mediums can be found in books, where we easily lose ourselves in a gripping thriller; in music, we relate to the lyrics and composition; in film, we immerse ourselves in the drama and suspense; in art, we link our imagination to the artist’s message; even the IKEA instruction manual is a form of storytelling (although a lot of us have the tendency to ignore them). And behind each road sign, there is a story that helps us understand its meaning.

In this era, we are experiencing a cultural shift in adopting contemporary mediums such as social media, video gaming, and personal assistants. Through significant advancements in technology, we have the power to record, express and consume stories more freely. Take a news article, for example, you can follow it in a smartphone app or web browser, on social media, or even through your personal assistant such as Amazon’s Alexa.

We are also experiencing new social trends in stories, where we are growing a greater appetite for sharing and consuming stories. In contemporary media such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, society is becoming addicted to content. And through these mediums, people are discovering a new voice — a means to create their own stories.

An evolution of storytelling

Photo by Manuel Meurisse on Unsplash — Telling stories by the campfire

Historically, stories have been used to pass on knowledge from generation to generation. For thousands of years, civilisations have adopted different storytelling techniques to define values, morals, dreams, desires, and to even teach clans on how to survive. However, storytelling wasn’t originally formed by spoken language nor writings, but gestures and expressions — physical factors which we continue to use today.

Over the course of history, storytelling has evolved by different cultures adapting new and unique techniques. Indigenous Australians painted symbols on cave walls to help them remember important narratives; ancient Egyptians wrote literature (for wisdom and entertainment) on papyrus, walls, tombs, pyramids and obelisks; Shakespeare delighted cultures with fictional writings which have inspired future writers, shows and theatricals.

In 1888, the Roundhay Garden Scene, a short silent actuality film recorded by French inventor Louis Le Princeone, was one of the first stories that adopted motion-picture (film). In comparison to conventional mediums such as books and photography, the introduction of the film was contemporary for its time, and perhaps a turning point for storytelling.

In the 21st century (particularly in the last 20 years), we have witnessed stories transition from conventional mediums to more modern forms. Take film and television, for example, we can now stream content on our smartphones, tablets, and computers. Literature has also made a giant leap to technology, where we can now read stories on devices such as Amazon’s Kindle, or listen to them via audiobooks on our smartphones or in-car entertainment systems.

At this stage in the world, we have discovered the ability to experience stories remotely. We no longer need to be in the same room to have a conversion when we can use messaging services such as Apple’s FaceTime, and WhatsApp. And we can ping a quick message to a loved one in a text message. With the help of technology and contemporary media, friends and families in any part of the world can connect, and unite.

10 popular storytelling mediums we emotionally engage with

There are so many different ways we can engage with a story. But, here are 10 particular storytelling mediums which have an emotional impact on society.

Film

Photo by Myke Simon on Unsplash — The cinema, the place where we can experience visual artistic stories

We all love going to the cinema (or the movies) — it’s a huge part of our culture. When we go to the cinema with friends, family, or even alone, we immerse ourselves in a story, almost as if we’re experiencing another world. And when we walk out of the cinema, we think about the story and reflect on what either happened or what’s currently happening in the world.

Films have the power to influence. During World War 2, political parties used film as propaganda to motivate or persuade the public. A good film can impact the viewer by sending a message. And through strong storytelling, a film can affect people’s opinions and outlooks on life, for the good or bad.

Films can impact society in tangible ways. For example, Fight Club (1999), inspired the pop-up of real-life fight clubs across the world; The Day After Tomorrow (2004), changed people’s perspectives on global warming; and Super Size Me (2004), coincidently resulted in McDonald’s in removing the ‘super-size’ option from their menu. The stories told in each of these films have clearly influenced a force in social change.

In popular culture, film franchises have a great emotional impact on its audience. Some of the longest-running franchises such as Harry Potter (8 films), The Marvel Cinematic Universe (11 films), and James Bond (23 films), have huge international followings. They have their fans hooked, emotionally tied, and even obsessed.

Fans grow an affinity with film franchises. They build a connection with stories that make them want more. And within time, people will continue to follow a franchise for nostalgic reasons. Take The Avengers, for example, fans across the world form online networks to share thoughts and ideas, engage with different narratives in books and games, and even take part by dressing up as their favourite superhero at Comic-Con festivals. People can become so emotionally engaged to the point where they want to take part in the story.

Video gaming

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash — Video gaming with friends — it's a social narrative

Whilst film is a very visual and emotional medium, video games take the viewer (or the player) one step further into a digital realm of interactive stories. In video gaming, players can immerse themselves in fictional worlds, solve problems, and experience the unexpected.

Every age has its storytelling form, and video gaming is a huge part of our culture. You can ignore or embrace video games and imbue them with the best artistic quality. People are enthralled with video games in the same way as other people love the cinema or theatre — Andy Serkis.

One of the earliest gaming narratives includes Zork — a text adventure game that involved typing commands such as ‘open mailbox’, ‘take lamp’, and so forth. In Zork, players follow a sophisticated story that includes solving puzzles. Whilst the game didn’t focus so much on the visuals, it was the storytelling aspect that drew players in.

Since the days of Zork, video gaming has evolved into a bigger storytelling medium. Players can now personalise their experiences more than ever. Take the Fallout video game franchise for example, in a post-apocalyptic world, players can customise their avatar, interact with different characters, spend hours exploring a vast landscape, and even manipulate their environment by crafting weapons and building structures. What makes Fallout particularly interesting is that the player’s decisions can influence the outcome of their quest.

Nowadays, players are embracing a new online culture where they can play together and experience stories together (as depicted in the 2018 film, Ready Player One). A recent example of online gaming includes Fortnite — a huge multiplayer online video game released in 2017. In just one year, the online video game drew in over 125 million players and has now become a cultural phenomenon.

Unfortunately, there is a negative (and even dangerous) aspect to video gaming. According to many studies, video games can increase aggressive behaviour and cause emotional outbursts. They have also been heavily linked to violence, aggression and anti-social behaviour.

Build-and-play video gaming

Photo by Wikimedia Commons — Nintendo Labo construction — a way to build and play your own stories

Nintendo has delighted the world with its iconic characters including Mario and Zelda, each with their own intriguing narratives. But it is the gaming giant’s vision to give people a completely different way of playing that is interesting.

In 2018, Nintendo launched a rather unique product — Labo — a ‘build-and-play’ concept that enables players to create their own gaming experiences. Labo games come as individual kits, each containing pre-made cardboard cut-outs and other materials, used to assemble a “Toy-Con” device. The construction is then compiled with the Nintendo Switch console display and controller. Each Toy-Con functions differently, and there are many different possibilities players can experience. Example constructions include a piano, fishing rod, and even a VR headset.

With each Labo construction, players can experience their own personal stories. For example, the physical keys on a piano can be pressed to make endless compositions; the VR headset lets players immerse themselves in whimsical 360º worlds, and the steering wheel and foot pedal bring them right into the action of a racing simulation.

Smartphones

Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash — Creating your own story on a smartphone

Pretty much everyone owns a smartphone these days; even your gran has one. We use these devices as personal companions to carry out different tasks. For example, we can use our smartphones to play music, take photos, record videos, navigate to points of interest, and connect with our friends and families. Not only is the smartphone a technological Swiss Army Knife, but it is a means for creating our own stories.

Messenger services such as Apple’s iMessage let people capture and share meaningful moments with friends and families — no matter where they are in the world. For example, someone can take a photo of a beautiful mountain during their holiday and send it as a ‘virtual postcard’, or record their child’s first footsteps and send it in an instant. These are memory-forming experiences that allow anyone to mark occasions, collect memories, and experience them as a society.

​Music

Photo by Hanny Naibaho on Unsplash — Interacting with music at a live concert

From Mozart’s classical compositions to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, society has experienced some truly innovative stories through music. Behind every song or composition, there is a story told by the narrator — an artist, composer, or lyricist. Take Eminem’s Stan (2000), for example, the song was written from the perspectives of a hardcore fan — Stan, a depressing pregnant girlfriend– portrayed by Dido, and the artist — Eminem. The song’s story was about Stan’s written letters to Eminem, and his slow descent into madness.

I can relate to what you’re saying in your songs,
So when I have a shitty day, I drift away and put ’em on — Stan — Eminem

Stories like Eminem’s Stan can have an emotional impact on an audience. People listen and relate their feelings and experiences to the words. Stories in music even help people “drift away” from the world.

Streaming services

Photo by Jens Kreuter on Unsplash — Online streaming; wherever and whenever we want it

Streaming services such as Netflix, Apple, and Spotify, have given people the freedom to access content whenever and wherever they want it. For example, people can stream the latest episode of Stranger Things to their smartphone whilst travelling on the train and then finish watching it on a smart TV in the comfort of their own home. This continuous type of storytelling allows people to seamlessly transfer from one medium to another; from the palm of the hand to the living room sofa.

What’s fascinating about streaming services is how they have become a powerful force for social change. People have quickly moved away from purchasing CDs and DVDs in favour of on-demand content. However, because of the improved accessibilities and practicalities found in streaming services, people can engage (or overindulge) with new stories more than ever.

Personal assistants

Photo by Thomas Kolnowski on Unsplash — Your personal assistant is waiting

Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Google Now are popular personal assistants that are rapidly appearing in people’s homes. They use voice AI to enable people to converse with them. Users can ask questions or assign tasks such as access a calendar, play music, make to-do lists, set an alarm, and retrieve real-time information.

There is a conversational aspect to personal assistants. The use of wake-words (such as “Alexa”) initiates a process of question and answer. Interestingly, personal assistants are programmed with human-like personalities to make the storytelling experience more memorable. This makes people want to engage even more. But it’s not just about obtaining information or completing tasks; it’s also about experiencing the conversation.

Personal assistants can also be customised to people’s needs, interests, desires, or even curiosity. For example, Amazon’s Alexa can be enhanced with new ‘skills’, which are apps that give the personal assistant more abilities such as controlling a home smart device, play a game of ‘true or false’, make random fart noises, and even read bedtime stories to your kids (creepy)! The social aspect of Alexa’s skills let families emotionally engage with stories to form their own delightful memories.

Brand advertisement

Photo by Amos Bar-Zeev on Unsplash — A story of Coca-Cola on the beach

In the advertisement industry, storytelling is employed as a powerful channel to emotionally engage with an audience. This is often known as brand storytelling. Global brands including Coca-Cola, Nike, M&S and Apple, successfully relate, involve and connect with their audiences to share values, increase sales, and outgrow competition. They establish and develop storytelling by using key elements including tone of voice, emotional design, relatable and memorable humour, and drama and suspense. These vital ingredients increase engagement and leave a big enough impression for the story to be memorable.

In 2007, UK retail giant John Lewis launched their first TV advert with ‘Shadows’ which captured the imagination of millions. Since then, John Lewis continued to emotionally engage with its audience by a launching a series of heart-tugging TV adverts such as ‘Bare and the Hare’ (2013), and ‘Meet Buster’ (2016). Buster the dog brought so much joy to the nation, that the story started a social media storm where thousands of people posted photos of their beloved pets.

Social media

Photo by Viktor Hanacek on Picjumbo — Social media from the palm of your hand

In contemporary media, people freely converse and express themselves using text, pictures, emoticons, videos and more. They have the freedom to tell stories through social media (Facebook and Twitter) online broadcasting (YouTube), Photography (Instagram and Snapchat), encyclopaedias (Wikipedia), and online publishing (Medium).

Facebook is perhaps the most used social media platform in the world. It has a phenomenal impact on society in the way that people engage with their websites and apps daily, hourly, or even by the minute! People obsessively scroll through a neverending wall of stories to feed their appetite for new content — photos, videos, posts, inspirational quotes, bucket lists, funny memes — the list is endless.

Social media has given people a new voice. Anyone can hide behind a computer or smartphone and instantly publish an opinion via a status update, tweet, or video. Social media users are effectively digital narrators; each telling their own story. However, the flipside of social media is that people can be negatively perceived by what they communicate. People can also fall victim to online bullying and privacy issues. Where storytelling in social media helps people connect, it also has the power to divide society.

Online publishing

Photo by Medium — A place to read and write big ideas and important stories

It would be rude not to mention the online publishing platform Medium, as it was the very place this article was written. As a base for social journalism, amateur and professional people can publish their writings and documents, which can then be read, applauded (with ‘claps’), and shared.

Contemporary media like Medium is an enabler for creating inexpensive and distributable stories, which can be shared and retrieved digitally across multiple channels (such as websites, apps, and so forth). Medium also gives people like me a voice, where I can hopefully inspire you with my own thoughts, values, and meaning — stories.


Conclusion

Storytelling is an important part of any culture; we share stories as a natural way of communication to help us understand and process information. Stories can grab attention, engage an audience, and even influence social change.

Throughout history, society has invented innovative ways for creating and sharing stories; from the humble book to social media. In today’s digital age, stories are more interactive and accessible than ever, making our experiences more unique and personal.

Products, brands, and services have taken advantage of new storytelling mediums which we engage with; they can emotionally connect with their target audience in so many ways.

With the power of contemporary media, people are no longer restricted to playing the part of the reader; they can now create and distribute their own stories as ‘digital narrators’. However, storytelling in the digital world has a dark reality where it is easy to be badly perceived, and fall victim to privacy issues and online bullying.

What is the future of storytelling? Will technology continue to change the way we interact with stories, or even reinvent storytelling altogether? How can we control our appetite for stories? And will there be extra measures for taking care of privacy, mental health, and wellbeing?

However the future of storytelling will unfold, there’s one thing we need to make sure we do: to take extra care of ourselves, and each other.

Is there a particular story that had you hooked and emotionally engaged? Or is there a story that you often share to influence or delight others?