The Art and Power of Digital Storytelling

One of the most valuable skills any writer and content producer may have is the ability to tell a story. Good stories draw the audience in. Great stories make them care. And when people care, they share those stories—and keep coming back for more.

 

No matter the medium, good stories all have the same elements in common. In an interview on ICFJ.org (the website of the International Journalists’ Network), Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Jacqui Banaszynski advises content creators first to put the story in context so the audience knows the world it comes from and then to choose the most appropriate medium for the subject—digital or print. She names these further elements as essential, too:

 

· Find the humanity at the center of a situation.

· Look for the universal theme or meaning in individual situations.

· Be as specific and vivid as possible.

 

Unlike the days of print, however, in the digital age, journalists and authors have the luxury of layering in multimedia elements to tell their stories: text, photos, voice, and video—or all of these. At the end of 2012, The New York Times did just that and caused quite a stir in the journalism community with its six-part multimedia report, “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek” Composed of text, audio, video, photos, slideshows, and infographics, the presentation was a cohesive and brilliant example of how content producers can and should use digital tools in the service of storytelling. Each “character” in the story had a “bio card,” and just as much as in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the terrain featured as a character too. To make it so, The New York Times team produced a visual fly-over of the terrain, using satellite imagery. Poynter Institute’s Jeff Sonderman gives a full report on how the Times produced the series in an interview with the project web team here.

 

While perhaps not many stories need the breadth of tactics that the Times deployed in “Snow Fall,” all enterprises producing digital content can draw on the same rich techniques. While planning any piece of content, the author should ask the following questions:

 

· What is the point of telling this story?

· Who is the audience?

· What medium would work best? Text? Photos? Videos?

· How can I best use the natural flow of the narrative to capture the audience’s attention and get them to care?

 

Part of the art of digital storytelling is not only creating the narrative flow, but presenting it visually. Ask yourself these questions as you decide what elements to include:

 

· What part of the story is best served through text?

· What can only a photo or slideshow convey? (Images usually work best in capturing individuals or moments in time that have meaning on their own.)

· What purpose might audio or video serve?

· Would an infographic or other chart best explain complex data or geography?

· How does the layout tie all the elements together to preserve the narrative flow?

 

Before starting any project, have a clear plan. This point seems basic, but if you try to wing it, your audience will know. Remember also that a larger project will most likely require strong collaboration among teams. Most large media companies have multiple editors working on a single project for a very good reason. Different people with different talents are not only best for creating different components of a project but should also serve as editors of one another's work, reviewing and refining the story as it evolves. A great piece of advice often imparted to young writers is after writing a piece, put it aside for a day. When you return to a story, you will often remember details that you missed and notice sections that are unclear or not presented particularly well.

 

Once you have the story as you want it to be, spread it proudly. Don’t ever be shy about sharing a good story—especially when it’s yours.

 

Written by Jennifer Ha is the Senior Director of Content Strategy at FM. She blogs here.