Make More, Talk Less, Tell Better Stories: All In a Day's Work at StoriesLab

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"Go where your audience is and fashion a story you believe will engage them."

Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking at the first StoriesLab conference at Center for Social Media at American University in Washington D.C. StoriesLab is a project of StoriesLead and co-presented by Pride Collaborative. The focus of the day was the evolution of storytelling across multiple media platforms. And it was one of the most energetic conferences I’ve attended in a while.

Often, I find myself at conventions or conferences, and I rarely get an opportunity to meet other participants or engage in the work, itself. StoriesLab shattered that paradigm by offering not one, not two, but three interactive working sessions to help its attendees understand this unwieldy notion of multi-platform storytelling.

Dan Sonnett, owner of Sonnett Media Group, LLC, kicked off the day talking about the evolution of story. Starting at the very beginning with cave paintings and ending with his own work, including Half the Sky, the online extension of journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's book of the same name Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Dan chronicled how stories have changed over time. His work was a solid introduction on how to spread a narrative that started in a book into other forms like games and interactive websites.

I spoke next about transmedia and audience engagement. After sharing my project, NY_Hearts, to offer context for how one might create a multi-platform story, I joked that we would be tackling the hundreds of social media networks that exist, starting with the yellow (on the color wheel at left) and working our way all the way around.

Attendees looked at me like the man in the middle of the color wheel, and I reassured them, “No, that’s not what we were going to do.”

Instead, I gave a brief overview of Holistic Storytelling, creating narratives that include only the social platforms their organization uses, and maximizing their potential by using each for its unique voice instead of broadcasting the same message over all their platforms:

“Buy your tix here! Only $25!” 
“Buy your tix here! Only $25!” 
“Buy your tix here! Only $25!” 

It’s repetitive. And boring.

To energize and engage the attendees, we went into a working session where I put four giant white sticky pages up to represent our story, and each platform: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and live events. We chose a company with which we were all familiar, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. After brainstorming story ideas, we picked an obvious but easy-to-work-with theme: Join us on our circus adventure! Twitter became a “Ringmaster” who shared exciting deals and served as an information hub. We imagined a Facebook app that allows people to transform photos of friends and family into circus performers. YouTube became a place for “how-to” videos for making towel animals (led by a clown, no less). The videos would encourage its audience to go Vine, Twitter’s new six second video app, and share their own inventive towel animals. Finally, there was a beach ball scavenger hunt in which beach balls would be placed around Miami for people to find clues to the next, fun location. It all ended with a live circus on the docks in front of a Royal Caribbean Cruise ship.

All that in 20 minutes.

It was fun, invigorating, and it gave attendees an opportunity to see how a mulit-platform story might work for their own projects. After the exercise, attendees asked great questions – the most prevalent was: How do we do this on our own for little or no money? My answer: Do what you can. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the massive mounds of media these days, and first and foremost, we must fish where there are fish. Go where your audience is and fashion a story you believe will engage them. And then break it up into parts that are manageable.

My work session served as a launch pad for the next presenters, Aina Abiodun and Mike Knowlton from StoryCode. In their workshop, Mike and Aina created a mini story hackathon. We had just brainstormed and talked about how to engage audience for a big company, like Royal Caribbean. This was an opportunity to create a native story for new platforms that were more unfamiliar, like Social Samba, which allows creators to write a story that plays out over social media over a period of time. Attendees were instructed to tell a love story, and the teams came up with some super ideas – frogs, dogs and senior citizens all have amazing love tales, and StoriesLab attendees pitched them all in two minute presentations. In the end, the dogs prevailed, and the winning team was the first to eat lunch.

After lunch, Jessica Clark, a media strategist at AIR, led a workshop about measuring the impact of cross media projects. Jessica used examples from Localore, an AIR project that birthed an inspiring array of "full spectrum" media formats and talked about measuring impact, from conception through evaluation, for cross-media projects. Things really got going when Jessica brought attendees with nascent projects – everything from concept ideas to projects with business plans – to the front of the room to elevator pitch their ideas and get feedback from the rest of the attendees. It was super helpful, and put the perfect period on a big day of work by redirecting the conversation back to the attendees’ own projects.

Felicia Pride, Pride Collaborative, and the Center for Social Media should be commended for offering a real workshop day that introduced multi-platform storytelling to a new swath of entrepreneurs and creators. The opportunity to play and teach (as well as learning some new tidbits, myself) warmed my heart and brought a smile to my face. I encouraged attendees to fearlessly make the work they want to make. The energy we generated at American University shouldn’t stay there. It should inspire us every day.

I’m tired of talking. Let’s learn while we make fun stories.

James Carter is a dramatist, experience designer and producer. He was a founding member of terraNOVA Collective and its associate artistic director for eight years. He also served as season producer for The Ensemble Studio Theatre. Recent transmedia plays include FEEDER: A Love Story (terraNOVA/HERE, NYC) and NY_Hearts: LES (One Muse Presents & The Brick Game Play Festival) a site-specific audio story that guides participants on a journey through New York neighborhoods. Follow him on Twitter @jdcarter.

Images Provided Courtesy of the Author: 1) Social Media Frustration Wheel; 2) Notes on James Carter's presentation by attendee, Ally T.K.; 3) Mike Knowlton and Aina Abiodun talk about “story as software.”


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