“Once upon a time,” this article begins, “before there were mouse pads, moveable type, or even written languages, there were stories--and storytellers.” Indeed, telling stories works. Stories stick in the mind. Leaders from Jesus to Bill Clinton have known this to be true. However, it is possible to tell a story compellingly with few, or with no, words. Cave paintings, tapestries, sculpture, and music all tell stories. And storytelling is also a way of cutting through the cacophony of competing media and messages to which people are exposed on a daily basis
Roger Sametz, president of Sametz Blackstone Associates, has given a lot of thought to the fact that communication design is “uniquely situated at the intersection of verbal and nonverbal communications,” and that the combination is “a great perch from which to tell stories.” To illustrate the usefulness of storytelling for all kinds of commercial applications, Sametz includes case studies of communications design projects for clients ranging from the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research to the Boston Public Library to the city of Somerville, Massachusetts, which hired Sametz’s firm to design an environmental graphics program for its largest public park.
Sametz notes that there’s a high degree of consensus about what makes a good story, no matter what it is, and that those factors can be broken down into three categories: content, execution, and interaction. Content is obvious, involving factors such as relevance (the story should touch on issues the audience cares about); the use of a “back-story” (what happened before, or offstage, that has an impact on the story); a chance to view the world slightly differently; and an explanation of, or a solution to, a problem. Execution revolves around issues such as emphasis, repetition, variety, pacing, and emphasis. Interaction happens on two levels--between and among the “executed” components of content, and between the teller and the listener.
Sametz goes on to discuss making choices within these three categories in order to best assemble “a set of storytelling building blocks.” This involves looking both inward and outward--“inward to the organization and its culture… outward to the constituencies… to understand these groups’ expectations, needs, interests… and the experience you’re asking them to share.” Typeface, color, and voice matter greatly, and choice of media is also important: “How an image is cropped, if it’s silhouetted or in the context of a background… whether the image is crisply stationary or blurred and on-the-move--are all choices that either reinforce a story, or work against it. Content and execution must both work toward the same end.”
Storytelling, like branding, must be all of a piece. In other words, “if a story is about technological prowess and user-friendliness, but it is delivered via a Web vehicle that is hard to navigate [and] sends the reader down a dead-end tunnel,” it will never make its point, and may actually alienate the audience. However, when there is alignment among an organization’s goals, attributes, and promises, the audience’s needs, interests, and expectations, and the content, execution, and interaction of the “building blocks” of communications, storytelling, says Sametz, “can bring communications alive.”
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