Message in a Bottle: Digital Storytelling

These days every CEO wants to be a Chief Storytelling Officer too.

You’d think that to successfully tick this box, executives must hone their oratory to become insightful, slick, yet charismatic raconteurs.

Indeed, there’s a growing infrastructure dedicated to supporting this approach. There’s a LinkedIn Group, and 5,060,000 Google commercial hits for Corporate Storytelling.

But the really hot trend in storytelling is moving in exactly the opposite direction. With Digital Storytelling the story, not just the storyteller, is king.

In our own business, Story fountain Ltd, the focus is on content. We help companies to create, tell and deliver their corporate stories. Our emphasis is on harvesting and retelling authentic stories that are easy to pass on.

These days an authentic story gathered from inside the organisation – not a “broadcast message from the chief,” holds trumps. Scrapbooks beat storyboards. Engagement – not artful oratory – is the winner.

Digital Storytelling takes what we already do in our daily lives and applies that to larger organisational narratives.

These days, what matters is the ability to assemble our story informally from a digital scrapbook of images, heritage artefacts, memories, and visions of the future. What matters isn’t smooth delivery – it’s compelling content.

Among friends and family, we regularly show digital photos, scanned wedding photos, cellphone videos, youTube clips, online genealogy search results, tweets, Facebook and more – all to tell a story.

Building up a patchwork quilt of images and associations from multiple sources creates an emotionally powerful story. Mood and authenticity are more important than production values when we gather around the “digital campfire” to share a story.

In the age of Flip cameras, 3G phones and youTube, narrative-building techniques like these are an unquestioned part of our daily lives. Today there’s a Center for Digital Storytelling.

But where did this concept originally come from?

Look back and you’ll see the advertising industry long ago bought into “storytelling” for its premium productions. The lead taken up by the 2006  Honda “Impossible Dream” commercial was followed also in 2006 by Baz Luhrmann’s casting of Nicole Kidman in the Moulin Rouge-style Chanel ad. Around the same time, Volvo introduced us to a one-armed surfer who survived a shark attack.

Look back even further and you’ll find the true grandfather and founder of digital storytelling was Californian Dana Atchley. He was dead by 2000, yet 20 years ago his work matched today’s cutting edge. And he had absolutely none of today’s digital tools.

Profiled in Fast Company shortly before his death, Atchley and his Next Exit roadshow blended performance art, memoir, stand-up comedy, and documentary film. It was he who invented the “digital campfire.” Much of his work, such as Born to fish, was personal.

But it was Atchley who also pioneered digital storytelling for corporates. His story for Coca-Cola about Kenneth Crites, the man who took six bottles of his favourite beverage to war in the Pacific – and brought one safely home – has overwhelming poignancy for me.

I too have a wartime family story built upon the very same archetypal “message in a bottle.”

My uncle was an RAF bomber pilot shot down and killed in the first wave of the Normandy invasions in 1944. My mother never spoke a word about her younger brother, after whom I was named. On the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994, surviving relatives of the airmen were invited to the coastal village where the plane had crashed and the 5-man crew lies buried, for a thanksgiving tribute by our gracious French friends.

The highlight was a magnificent dinner after which our hostess rose to deliver a moving toast to her English visitors.

“In 1914 my grandfather buried a case of 12 bottles of his finest Calvados apple brandy to hide them from the advancing Germans,” she told us. “After the Armistice in 1918 they drank two bottles to celebrate the peace, and soon after another bottle to celebrate my father’s birth.” War came again in 1939 and her father buried the surviving nine bottles before Hitler invaded France. When the case was dug up in 1945, only five bottles survived the bombardments. Two were used to celebrate V-E Day, the third to toast our hostess birth and the fourth for her marriage.

Then she held up the ancient bottle containing perhaps two inches of precious surviving liquor and told us: “Today, my friends, we shall drink the very last of my family’s Calvados that has survived two world wars, in tribute to the sacrifice made by your English airmen.”

The tiny droplet on my tongue was pure spirit, in all senses of the word. 27 years later I can taste it still. And I believe its power helped to heal my mother’s own war-locked memories.

If Digital Storytelling can help us to recapture the spirit of our endeavours, it is worthwhile indeed.

Richard House


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