Digital Storytelling

People think in stories. To communicate effectively, social organisations need to use this fact in the way they reach people online.

The trend Digital Storytelling concerns the collision of modern technology with an practice as old as human society itself. As long as there have been languages, people have used them to tell stories. Today these stories are finding new ways to spread through the internet and multimedia. Stories are important – they are what people use to give things a meaning. And as the world becomes ever more complex, and we are confronted on the internet with ever more information, these stories must bring us from these abstract associations back down to the level of concrete people and things. Raw information and statistical data can be understood, with some effort. But stories go deeper.


It doesn’t matter whether it’s an NGO, a CSR department or a government ministry, everyone wants their message to reach the greatest possible number of people. That's not easy, and that's why there are so many communications and PR agencies who are happy to help. But even small organisations can tell and spread their stories. Digital tools are making it easier to produce your own fairly professional-looking film, and social networks are a totally free mass communication channel. The way stories are received and spread has changed with digitisation – now we talk about “digital storytelling”. Whereas previously only a small minority had the means to produce and distribute books, photos or films, now anybody can do it with a smartphone and an internet connection. Admittedly, as the effort required has decreased, the attention span of the internet has  shortened. Unless it’s of something particularly extraordinary (like the camera-phone footage of riots in Egypt, Syria and Iran), high quality productions will reach more people over a longer period than grainy footage from a phone. That’s why the initiative charity:water (see Yellow Thunder) tell their stories not only using polished content and dramatic composition, but they also invest sizable sums in camera equipment and technicians. Platforms like PhotoPhilanthropy bring together socially engaged photographers and NGOs, so that financially restricted grassroots organisations are also able to impress with professional photos. 

People understand people, not organisations

But on the internet you don’t have to limit yourself to one big film or one single campaign. It’s important also to relate continually stories on the level of the everyday. This is precisely the kind of communication is happening over Facebook, Twitter and other networks every minute of every day – anecdotes and snippets of stories. And remember, a tweet can’t exceed 140 characters, and even on Facebook the message needs to be expressed concisely to stand out in the flood of posts. These anecdotes often have a chatty, informal feel. People understand people, and organisations only have a face and become tangible when they can can tell a story – about a burst water pipe, or the stupid coffee machine which only works if you whack it on the side. It’s through combination with this kind of easily digested story that serious and difficult messages are lightened up. The crucial difference between an abstract, faceless organisation and an engaging person is illustrated by the following example. “Mountains beyond Mountains” is the biography of Paul Farmer, founder of the NGO Partners in Health. It sold millions of copies, and surveys show that every other donor to Partners in Health was inspired to do so by reading the book. Farmer’s own book not about himself but about the organisation itself, on the other hand, was only read by a couple of thousand people.

The real art of storytelling: sifting out the irrelevant

The real art is to tell stories in such a way that they have a value for listeners in your target group and beyond, and that after hearing it people go on to relate the story to other people. Through being passed on, these stories gain authenticity and credibility, because then it’s not NGOs but neutral people recommending the content – people we know and trust. Students of the craft of storytelling now have the chance to experiment with new formats. Applications such as Storify let you combine tweets, YouTube clips and other streams into a coherent overall story. Videos are well suited to making complex connections comprehensible, and YouTube lets you insert links and comments. Animations work very well at explaining, but are very costly in terms of time and money. The human is a visual creature, and photos have become extremely important to our understanding of the world. Now thanks to smartphones they can be used to tell stories authentically from anywhere, with a sense of being live on the ground. If an NGO is opening a school, for example, it should relate this story as promptly as possible to its donors through photos and videos. With this kind of live reporting, technical perfection is less important. The boom in digital formats doesn’t mean print media dying out completely. The sensory experience of a well-produced booklet tends to have a more lasting effect. Admittedly, printed stories also tend to be more costly than their digital counterparts to produce. Whether digital or analogue, the important thing is that listeners, viewers or readers can identify with the story. Say an NGO supports blind mothers in India, the problem is that most of their potential supporters don’t have any direct access to the topic, not being themselves blind mothers, and probably never having met one. So the NGO needs to create relevance and empathy. The best way of doing this is to break down the issue into stories of individuals, hence making it tangible. Anecdotes about the everyday experiences of blind mothers allow a feeling of closeness and are more immediate than abstract conceptual systems concerning the phenomenon “blind mothers in India”. This reduction of complexity is crucial in getting people to perceive a problem as being soluble, and consequently wanting to be part of the solution.

Using light bait to get people thinking about heavy issues
Reducing complexity is important on the one hand in order to be heard. On the other hand you’re also walking a tightrope: what can be omitted without skewing the essence of the story? The Kony2012 campaign is a prime example of complexity reduction. But the equation “Uganda minus Kony equals everything’s fine and rosy” meant the NGO Invisible Children came in for a lot of criticism. That said, they also brought many people for the first time into contact with an issue that’s difficult and not easily accessible. There are various ways organisations can think about and engage in storytelling. They can gather stories their supporters and supported. The anecdotes of aid recipients in particular contain a wealth of potential lessons. These people can rarely be reached through expert dialogues and feedback forms. But when they’re allowed to tell their story, organisations gain valuable and penetrating insights. This is why Global Giving gathered, processed and evaluated 36,000 stories from aid recipients. (For more on this “story-hearing”, see trend Direct Feedback.) The power of stories can benefit not only the supporters but the supported. In Kenya the project I-Call provides explanations on subjects around healthcare and environmental protection through SMS soap operas. When packed into stories, knowledge is not handed down from above, but rather is made enjoyably accessible and such that the people actually want it.


Foundations, CSR-departments and NGOs haven't really used the full potential of storytelling until now. Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook and mastermind of Obama’s online election campaign, said the biggest factor in the failure of the platform he grounded, Jumo, was that NGOs weren’t able to tell the kind of stories which enthused and engaged their supporters. But surely social organisations in particular must have so much to tell about their work with people – emotional, absorbing, urgent stories. It’s a craft that needs to be learnt, however. For most NGOs, it will certainly pay to invest in digital storytelling: young people have good access to the necessary tools, others can pick up the basics in writing workshops. More and more NGOs are following charity:water and telling stories online – and not just success stories (see trend Productive Failure). Through a continual stream of online anecdotes, an NGO’s circle of supporters maintain awareness, and the organisation shows that it too is just made up of people, which makes for closeness and credibility.