Lucky for us, we are living during what feels like nothing short of a storytelling renaissance. Recently, a number of creative types have been expanding on what it means to expertly tell a story -- from TED talks on “framing the story” with Pixar writer and producer, Andrew Stanton, or novelist/art aficionado Tracy Chevalier, to highly addictive podcast series like Serial. Beyond the classic genre of narrative fiction, writers, musicians, and visual artists alike have taken to finding new ways to hook an audience: through multimedia. We consume hours of podcasts, photo essays, online radio, viral videos, blogs, screencasts, web essays, and the like, each week, and often find out about our next story “fix” through social media sites like Twitter or Facebook. Much like Gatsby, the draw for these stories is the “essence”: the moment of metamorphosis in which a character transforms, an ideology changes, a vulnerability is exposed. That “human context,” as storyteller Peter Aguero describes it, allows for connection between the storyteller and the audience. Chevalier suggests that humans “are wired...to tell stories. We tell stories all the time about everything;...we do it because the world is kind of a crazy, chaotic place, and sometimes stories, we're trying to make sense of the world a little bit, trying to bring some order to it.”
While the human context piece -- that promise of connection of that possibility for personal growth as a result -- draws us in, what keeps our attention is the way in which modern day multimedia storytellers have been designing their stories. Multimedia design is particularly important for academic storytelling, in which the teachers need to give the message -- the lesson -- the best possible chance at “sticking.” Rich Mayer, professor of psychology at UC Santa Barbara and arguably the authoritative voice on multimedia learning, outlines the technological nuts and bolts of what makes for an effective multimedia story in his Handbook of Multimedia Learning (2014). He calls on instructional designers (instructional storytellers, if you will) to bend technology to support the learner’s cognitive processes rather than bend the learner to “serve technology” (16). In its most basic form, this means acknowledging that people learn better from words and pictures together than from words alone. Specifically how instructional designers de-clutter their presentations to streamline the story is a much longer discussion -- but one I will likely take on in the coming weeks.
To me, the most exciting part of all of this is where the artists’ and theorists’ ideas intersect. Regardless of the medium, the media, or the message, the most important aspect of an excellent story is the extent to which it appeals to the listener. Is it audience-based? Human-centered? Contextualized? If it can consistently do these things, it just may be Great.