Cheese Sandwich – Becoming a better storyteller

I’ve just completed 4 days worth of training on digital storytelling with a handful of colleagues that was run by Alex Henry of Curiosity Creative, formerly of Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums. This is just a brief report written immediately after the event so my thoughts on it aren’t fully formed.

Andy Stewart and I had met Alex at September’s Culture Shock conference and had been planning for a while how we could work together. This was the culmination of all that.

It was a great experience. We were mostly approaching it from the point of view of supporting projects to create digital stories (but not exclusively). Even though I’ve done a fair bit of work around DS in the past this was the first opportunity to really sit down and experience it as an extended facilitated session.

The method Alex was following was based on the one devised by the Centre for Digital Storytelling in the States by Joe Lambert. The aim was to produce a finished digital story but the process of getting to that point was the most interesting bit. I’ve included materials on my own story as a way of illustrating what we did.

Day 1 was about getting comfortable with telling stories to each other and finding ways of bringing stories out of other people. We tried activies like using objects and single pictures to inspire stories, free writing (writing non-stop, even when you’ve got nothing to write about) and sharing these stories with the rest of teh group. The story I eventually produced started off as a free writing exercise.

Then we used Audacity to create a raw, unedited audio file that would form the basis of the final product.

These 2 days were for me the highlight. There was compartively little digital activity which meant we focussed on the creation of the story and seeing storytelling as a social act in a way I hadn’t realised before. A particular discovery for me was realising how important it is to keep the language simple and as authentic as possible. Putting on affectations and purple prose makes the story less engaging (and makes me sound more of a pillock than usual!).

As a group we had discovered quite a lot about each other by the end, very useful as the basis for working together more in the future.

Day 3 took place 3 weeks after the previous day. we used the time between to gather together or creating the images we were going to use which, as ever, I left to the last minute but did mean I spent a large amount of time in the attic with our photo collection, rediscovering lost memories.

The morning of day 3 was devoted to editing the audio we had recorded before the break, mostly a neatening exercise.

The afternoon was probably the most frustrating part of the process. The aim was to have created a rough cut with the sound file and the images all ordered but with no editing or effects. Having felt a certain amount of freedom during the first couple of days I was now trapped by the constraints of iMovie and it all stopped being a social process. We all noted how quite we had become as a group as we got on with constructing our timelines. A few technical glitches meant I left feeling overwhelmed and that I wasn’t adding anything to my story, just over complicating it.

Day 4 – Feeling ill didn’t help with my motivation initially and I was expecting more of the feelings of yesterday afternoon but in the end it worked out OK. My main concern was that the images I had chosen just weren’t right. I was trying to strike a balance between not so literal that the images HAD to be what I was talking about or too abstract. Slowly, though it began to take on more of a shape and despite a few hiccups iMovie seemed to get out of the way more so I could just get on with making the story. 

Adding titles, transitions and effects to the images was a fiddle and I was glad I’d done stuff like this in the past or I’d have been tearing my hair out.

I replaced some of the images that weren’t working and it seemed to make more sense. I debated whether or not to add sound effects to certain bits, worried that it might get distracting – I’m still unconvinced by one of them but the sound over the close of the story feels like it works well and has a role in the story.

Am I happy with it? Erm, yes, mostly? I wish I’d made it sound more conversational and less self-consciously “spoken”. I think the images worked well in the end. I’m not sure how I feel about other people seeing it (but I’m still blogging it so I can’t be that worried…).

I think we were all pretty exhausted by the time we came to showcase what we’d produced to each other (and a few invited guests) and I felt a little flat at the end. I loved seeing the other stories and the different approaches we’d all taken and I felt like I should offer more than just applause at the end of each but maybe a mixture of tiredness and that we’d been working so intensely for the day meant it was difficult to think of valuable things to say. That not a reflection on the whole process or the quality of the other stories.

It was importat to experience the whole process as a participant. Without doing this training it would be harder to put myself in the position of someone who is being asked to do this as part of their project. I was surprised by the emotional highs and lows and the impact of the various successes and failures had on me. 

This course made me feel vulnerable and exposed, but in a good way (!). We were dealing with personal issues in our stories but just creating something that you have invested time a creativity into that is then shared is uncomfortable and the people we’ll be supporting will feel that too.

Taking it forward

I’m going to spend a bit more time reflecting on this but I want to be able to articulate (and blog about):

  • what I learnt about the benefits of telling stories
  • how this model of storytelling fits with the work that Netskills and Infonet are doing
  • being clear about purpose, audience and impact for JISC funded projects
  • how to write better stories.

Thanks to Alex for a great 4 day course and thanks to my co-participants for being supportive, encouraging, constructive and great fun into the bargain! 





What do I mean by “digital storytelling”? Part 2

If You're Not Confused

The last post looked at what I perceive to be “traditional” digital storytelling; a short, personal narrative, usually in the form of a slideshow-style movie. It’s a very effective method of telling stories digitally, but not the only one. 

If we make an assumption that a digital story should fulfil a number of criteria:

  • Contains a “narrative” of some description (I’ll examine what “narrative” can mean in a future post)
  • Is enhanced by digital media (but need not be exclusively in the digital realm)
  • Is intended to elicit some form of emotional response from the viewer

…then that gives us large scope for including many different approaches.

Without going into too much depth at this stage, to help explain DS in workshops I’ve run, I’ve described a sort of simple narrative continuum that runs from “Strong” to “Loose”.

  • Strong narrative – has a very clear structure and aim. Could be characterised as a “once upon a time” story. Most movies, novels etc would come into this category. A single author’s voice is guiding the audience step by step through this narrative.
  • Loose narrative – There is little or no guidance from an author how to move through these naratives. The audience is presented with fragments of the story and they play a more active role in constructing their own narrative from them. Imagine wandering casually through an art exhibition.

Digital stories could appear at any point on this continuum and still meet the 3 basic criteria I mentioned above.

Stories in text

Blogging itself come in many different forms but many, particularly those that involve some sort of personal or group reflection on experiences. Easy incorporation of digital media through uploading or embedding can add extra colour to these stories and hyperlinks to other sites (and stories) place the narrative in a much wider context.

Single blog posts can be seen as stories in their own right but over time the whole blog becomes an extended story, potentially showing personal transformation over time.

Here are a few examples

Hopefully, when complete, this blog will also tell a the story of my progress through this dissertation project!

These can also be dialogic stories as the audience add their own comments, “amplify” the story using social media or link to them through their own blogs.

We can extend this out to include social media sites themselves. Currently Facebook is rolling out a feature called “Timeline” to its users. This is a way of presenting all or a selection of a user’s interactions on Facebook in one place and in chronological order. The stories already exist, as they do on services like Twitter, of LinkedIn, but “Timelines” is a much more conscious attempt to present these as a whole narrative. The video on the site linked to above strongly shows this.

There are tools starting to emerge like Storify that allow users to take elements of social media spread out over disparate services and produced by multiple users and to create coherent narratives from them. This is being embraced the growing number of “citizen journalists” and event organisers as a way of capturing the flows of communication, adding a layer of meaning or commentary to them and sharing them with a wider audience.

Stories in sound

Like blogging, podcasting is quite an established use of web2.0 technology where the method of telling stories involves recording the voice instaed of text. It’s more complicated to incorporate other media in these such as movies or images but, like blogs these stories can still exist in a wider social media universe.

  • Mr Daisey and the Apple Factory – This American Life podcast including a story about a journalist’s visit to Foxconn’s manufacturing plants in China.
  • Audioboo – Deputy Mitchell’s channel for recording the work of his class and personal reflections.

Stories with maps

This is the UK Sound Map, produced over 2010 and 2011 by the British Library.

Members of the public were encouraged to record sounds they came across using their smartphones and publish them using a service called Audioboo. As well as sharing these sound recordings out over social networks, Audioboo also “geotags” the recordings, adding metadata that includes the latitude and longitude of where the recording was made.

These “Boos” were collated by staff at the library and, thanks to the geotagging, it was possible to place these recordings on a map. 

These sounds then offer a loose narrative of life in the UK at a particular time.

A more sophisticated example would be the Nagasaki Archive, a Japanese project to capture the experience of the atomic bomb dropped there in 1945 and how it affected the lives of the residents. It uses Google Earth as a basis for an immersive, multi-layered experience, using maps, overlayed images, social media and written testimony from survivors. 

If you have the Google Earth plugin installed for your browser you can view the interactive map here.

Below is a short video demo, hosted on YouTube.

Mapped stories acknowledge the fact that stories take place in space as well as time and can exploit the growing number of easy-to-use technologies around digital mapping to present those narratives in spatial context.

Stories with data

This is an emerging field, although it could be argued it’s been emerging since the Crimean War! Data can be presented visually to convey a message that remains hidden in its raw form. 

Current proponents in this field include David McCandless, a data journalist who explained his craft and what it can achieve at a TED talk in July 2010.

Although this uses modern technologies to get across its story, as this article from the Guardian in 2010 shows, the techniques owe alot to pioneers such as Florence Nightingale.

Interactive stories

Making perhaps full use of digital technology, some storytellers are making interactive experiences to convey their message.

Inanimate Alice describes itself as a “digital novel” by author Kate Pullinger and digital artist Chris Joseph. It uses a mixture of text, images, animation, sound and music within an interactive framework to tell a story that is emerging over a number of chapters. It’s different from the examples above as it’s fiction but also that it is entirely professionally produced. The technologies involved are not immediately accessible to non-experts, at least at the moment.

A more recent example would be One Millionth Tower, a browser-based documentary put together as a result of a collaborative project between a local community, architects and digital artists and exploits recently developed web standards like HTML5 and WebGL to create an immersive series of stories about life in a tower block in Toronto. Incidentally, it also uses data to enhance it’s story; the virtual environment that the story plays in reflects weather and light conditions in Toronto at the time.

NOTE: You need to view this website with a browser that can support HTML5 and WebGL such as the latest versions of Chrome or Firefox. You can watch a non-interactive version below.

In summary, this is not an exhaustive list of different types of digital story and almost all these approaches can be used for non-narrative reasons but they are all methods that storytellers can appropriate. Some of these techniques, especially stories using data and interactive stories require a lot of expertise but are still useful to demonstrate the variety of ways of digital storytelling.

Header image – If you’re not confused by B Tal – By-NC

What do I mean by “digital storytelling”? Part 1

Al Lado del Camino

See Bibliography for the references in this post

It’s crucial that I define what “digital storytelling” actually is right at the outset. There is another question higher up the chain , namely “what is storytelling”, which also needs to be answered but involves a much more complex answer so, purely for convenience I’m going to push it to one side for now.

If you want a short answer, try these. Digital Storytelling (DS) is:

A short, first person video-narrative created by combining recorded voice, still and moving images, and music or other sounds.” (Centre for Digital Storytelling –

Gravestock and Jenkins put it equally briefly:

“Digital storytelling combines a narrative with images that support and enhance the narrative” (2009: 250)

Both these definitions derive from the origins of digital storytelling as a methodology. McLellan (2006) documents how DS partly emerged therough the efforts of Joe Lambert and Dana Atchley in California in the early 90s. They and others were keen to explore “how personal narrative and storytelling could inform the emergence of a new set of digital media tools” (CDS – 

The reason they were so interested was “the power of the personal voice for creating change.” (CDS). The focus of the San Francisco-based Centre for Digital Storytelling, that emerged from their work, was very much on empowering communities and individuals to participate in society.

“The premise for digital storytelling is very simple. It is designed to help people tell stories from their own lives that are meaningful to them and their audience, using media to add power and resonance, and create a permanent record.” (McLellan 2006, p70)

McLellan’s quote above highlights another important aspect of DS. It is about story first and digital second. This is further emphasised by Gravestock and Jenkins (2009, p252). The digital means are just that: means. The end is the telling of a story. This is helpful for widening the definition of what makes a digital story as I’ll explain later in part 2.

There are 2 examples from the UK that demonstrate this community voice approach to DS:

  • Capture Wales
  • Patient Voices

Capture Wales is a BBC Cymru Wales project for documenting “real-life stories made by people from across Wales” and as such is creating a braoder meta-narrative on life in Wales over the last few generations (Meadows 2003). I often use one particular example from this archive to introduce people to the concept of DS and although it uses archival footage rather than still images as most digital stories do, it gives a clear picture of how different digital media can be combined to tell a personal and meaningful story. 

The Miner’s Wife

Patient Voices, started by Pip Hardy and Tony Sumner in 2003 is storytelling for a very particular social purpose. The stories are created by people undergoing medical treatment…

“…so that those who devise and implement strategy in health and social care, as well as the professionals and clinicians directly involved in care, may carry out their duties in a more informed and compassionate manner. ” (Patient Voices)

The examples of storytelling that can be found on CDS, Capture Wales and Patient Voices adhere to a particular format of DS which comes from the methodology of the projects that created them. The stories are created in workshops that take place place over several days where the story tellers are encouraged to form their stories, locate images and other media and combine them using software like iMovie or Moviemaker. This has led to a very recognisable form.

In part 2 I want to expand this idea of digital storytelling and show how it can encompass many different forms of narrative and technology.

In part 3 I’ll begin looking at the pedagogy of DS.