A Million Ways to Tell A Story
Part of Space, Time, Machine and Monster at The Riverfront, Newport
People have been telling stories since they learned to communicate with each other. They’ve been recording stories since the first primitive figure was painted on a cave wall. There’s something instinctive and primal about the need to pass on your experiences, whether they be realistic or fantastical, to another or many other human beings.
Yomi Ayeni’s workshop A Million Ways to Tell a Story, held on 19th October as part of the Space, Time, Monster and Machine festival of Sci Fi and Fantasy Literature didn’t just stop at telling a story though. Yomi argues that the old narrative that people have an intrinsic need to tell and to be told stories is not quite the whole story. “People don’t want to be told a story, they want to be part of it.”
Looking at some of the most popular recent forms of entertainment, it looks like he’s right. If I asked you to list 3 of the TV shows you thought had the highest viewing figures over the past year, I’d be willing to bet that most of you named at least one of the following list of shows in your top 3:
- The X Factor
- Britain’s Got Talent
- The Voice
- The Only Way is Essex
- Geordie Shore
What have these shows all got in common? They’re shows that take everyday people and sell their own, everyday stories back to us. They sell us the perception that our day to day, sometimes boring, probably routine existences have a wider appeal, and some greater significance. They invite the viewer to link episodes or details that would normally seem coincidental and ordinary, into patterns of greater significance and they convince us that we too play central roles in our own showstopping dramas, and the only thing missing is the cameras to broadcast it. We tune in to these shows in our thousands because the message that comes from them loud and clear is “that could be me!”
Yomi Ayeni’s work takes this sense of identification one step further. Instead of feeling a vicarious connection to the could-be-me on your passively viewed television screen, he aims to build “meaningful connections” and work directly with his ‘audience’ to make them part of a collectively created story.
This approach isn’t entirely new. Fans of Lost may remember that when the show launched it was one of the first shows to integrate content that could be accessed independently of the programme. It wasn’t entirely clear to those who stumbled upon the Dharma Initiative website, for example, whether that content had been created as by the programme makers as part of the experience or if they had incorporated snippets of fact to build a story, without realising the full significance. Members of the viewing audience cracked the login codes and other information portrayed as classified on the Dharma Initiative website, penetrating layer after layer of information that linked to the original tv show.
Using immersive storytelling can be an incredibly powerful way of drawing in your audience and keeping them engaged and loyal until the end of the story. Some of Yomi’s projects, such as Breathe have lasted for weeks; his current project, Clockwork Watch, is designed to run for years and yet the audience never gets tired, or fed up. They’re hungry for more and have even set up their own communities, producing supplementary content that springs from the initial story and feeds back into it, enriching the story and further involving the audience, who have turned into active participants.
How do you inspire and nurture such an involved, loyal and generous group of participants and advocates?
1) Know your audience
If you [just] build it, they won’t come. You need to know who your audience is. What drives them? What scares them? How do you manipulate them?
2) Build in flexibility and be responsive
No matter how well you know your audience, you won’t be able to predict everything they do and when they’ll do it. Rather than trying to reduce their behaviour to a robotic formula, you should build in some flexibility to allow you to be responsive to the way in which the audience wishes to participate. A great example of this is the way that the Clockwork Watch project releases an in-character newspaper online that is written largely by the audience, for consumption by the audience. Content that largely fits the envisioned direction of the project is included in article format, but wider views aren’t ignored or rejected. Instead they are included in a “Letters to the Editor” section – still in character, still involving the audience and not denying their participative experience while preserving the overall storyline.
3) Aim for depth over breadth of appeal
This isn’t an idea that is exclusive to immersive storytelling. Business guru Seth Godin has spoken widely in the past of how the days of trying to offer a product with the broadest general appeal to the most possible customers are over. In a globalised society where your new idea, product, or show can be copied in a matter of weeks or months, the way to survive is to identify and aim your work at your tribe. In the context of immersive storytelling, this means moving to smaller, personalised experiences where people can have a meaningful connection with the narrative, rather than large studio generalist productions.
The principles of immersive storytelling aren’t just something to be used in small indie arts projects or avant garde student pieces though. They are just as relevant in any walk of life that depends on your ability to engage with other people and work with them to achieve a goal. This could be in marketing, where ‘storytelling’ is one of the big buzzwords at the moment. It could be in change management where you have to get a reluctant workforce to adapt to reorganisation or other big changes. It could equally be used in Education (surely just an extension of topic work?) or social media or… the possibilities are endless. The basic story remains the same, but it’s up to you how you choose to make it come to life.
More information about Yomi Ayeni’s Clockwork Watch project can be found here. Tick Tock: IPA, the latest in a series of graphic novels accompanying the Clockwork Watch project is due for release this month. You can pre-order a copy here for £5.00.