Digital Storytelling

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Defining digital storytelling

The term “digital storytelling” describes a range of approaches and technologies so being able to point to any particular instance and say it is a definitive example is problematic. Lambert (2013) highlights the problem by questioning “in the 21st Century, what storytelling is not intermediated by a digital device?” (2013:37) It is helpful to look back at its emergence and to see how it has developed as a way of attempting to put boundaries on the definition.

Where authors talk about the appearance of digital storytelling as an approach, even an ethos, they refer to the establishment of the Centre for Digital Storytelling (CDS) in California in the 1990s (Davies et al 2010, McLellan 2007), specifically to the work of Dana Atchley and Joe Lambert. McLellan (2007) describes how the phrase was coined by Dana Atchley after he began incorporating digital multimedia into his stage-based storytelling performances. Although Atchley passed away in 2000 selected elements of his work are still available at his website,

Lowenthal (2009), based on Lambert (2013) describes digital storytelling like this:

“A digital story, in the CDS tradition, is a 2-3 minute personal story told with the use of graphics, audio, and video. It includes many, if not all, of the following seven elements:

Point (of View)
Dramatic Question
Emotional Content
The Gift of Your Voice
The Power of the Soundtrack
Pacing (Lambert 2002)

These elements, coupled with the short duration, are what differentiate a CDS digital story from other types of digital stories or other media (e.g., film / TV / YouTube / blogging).” (2006, p298)

This description combines elements of pure narrative and basic storytelling with aspects that are enabled through the use of technology, for example, the use of soundtrack.

McLellan (2007) characterises digital storytelling in a similar way, “short (three-to-five minutes) movies featuring images, video clips, soundtrack, and narration” (2006:65), but also points to the fact that it uses technologies that are inexpensive and widely available helping it to become a medium which is a very personal form of storytelling. Most digital storytelling projects are reliant on technologies that are aimed at consumers rather than seasoned digital media professionals.

One of the first major digital storytelling projects in the UK was the BBC’s Capture Wales under the leadership of Daniel Meadows. Despite the BBC’s involvement, Meadows (2003) stresses that these digital stories were fundamentally different from normal TV productions. The aim was to bring the BBC closer to the communities it served in Wales by facilitating workshops where digital stories about life in Wales were produced by individuals. This, he says, extended a tradition first developed in the 1930s of “listening to the voice of the people” (2003, p191). This digital storytelling project was qualitatively different. Meadows highlights that the main difference was to do with editorial control.

“Contributors are not just originating their own material, for the first time they are editing it too. This is what first excited me – and still excites me – about Digital Storytelling, for no longer must the public tolerate being ‘done’ by media – that is, no longer must we tolerate media being done to us. No longer must we put up with professional documentarists recording us for hours and then throwing away most of what we tell them, keeping only those bits that tell our stories their own way and, more than likely, at our expense. If we will only learn the skills of Digital Storytelling then we can, quite literally, ‘take the power back’” (2003:192)

It is this empowering of the individual through the creation and sharing of their own, authentic story that is a hallmark of “traditional” digital storytelling, although it is present to different degrees in examples of the genre.

Another difference with other forms of broadcast media is the lack of “digital spectacle” (Lambert 2013, McLellan 2007). Lambert argues that other forms of broadcast media encourage passive consumption by attempting to keep the audience’s attention through the choice of energetic music and rapid editing. McLellan claims that digital storytelling “…is far more intimate and participatory, with less flamboyance, yet with deep and lasting power” (2007:69).

The growth in the use of digital storytelling can be linked with the development of web2.0 technologies as described by Merchant and Davies (2009). This has put more advanced tools within the reach of non-specialists who might want to produce their own digital stories, but it has also provided a wider range of outlets for storytelling in different forms.

McLellan (2007) suggest a broader definition of digital storytelling beyond the CDS model, describing “a number of other practices and forms of expression”.

“These include the interactive narrative forms from hypertext, web-based narratives combining image-sound-animation-video, the virtual cinema of narrative games or game-like conceptual pieces and other practices of using digital media tools (video, motion graphics, animation, etc) to explore both nonfiction and fictional narratives.” (2007:70)

As well as moving away from the CDS model of short, image based movies, McLellan is also talking here about how other, more specialist types of media might also be used for storytelling purposes.

Another emerging field concerns the use of digital storytelling through the use of interactive data visualisations. It is an approach typified by the work of the Guardian media group in the UK and the New York Times in the US. And has been demonstrated by Hans Rosling’s Gapminder project ( These visualisations, often, but not always interactive, present large data sets to the reader in a way which attempts to make them meaningful (Segel & Heer 2010).

Digital Storytelling in Use

Most of the academic writing about digital storytelling focusses on its pedagogical uses. This marks a step away from the original uses of the medium as a tool for community-based projects and personal histories (Lambert 2013, Meadows 2003) but it is perhaps unsurprising that it finds such a natural home within learning. McDrury and Alterio (2001) describe how storytelling can be an effective tool for reflective learning as it allows for people to express their affective responses to learning and enter into dialogue with an audience.

This use of digital storytelling for reflective learning and practice can also be found discussed generally in Barrett (2006) and Jenkins and Lonsdale (2007). More specifically It is also becoming increasingly used within medical education according to Sandars and Murray (2011), Haigh and Hardy (2011) and Stacey and Hardy (2011). Chung (2006) has discussed its relevance to integrated arts education thanks to its opportunities to develop “multiliteracy, aesthetic sensitivity [and] critical faculty” (2006:33) and Czarnecki (2009) has outlined digital storytelling’s usefulness for developing conceptual skills in constructing narratives and problem solving as well as developing technical ICT skills.

Outside of education it has been used widely with community groups, especially as a way to give voice to traditionally marginalised groups such as immigrants (Rose and Grainger 2012), people suffering from dementia (Davenport 2011) and “at risk” youth (Wales 2012). Digital storytelling’s use as a way of documenting local history and local voices is demonstrated in the Culture Shock project run by Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums (Culture:Unlimited 2011)

What is less well documented is the use of digital storytelling within organisations either as a tool for staff development or for more outward-looking purposes as promotion or stakeholder communication. Certainly there is a great deal of crossover with marketing and advertising, examples of which you can find with organisations using stories as a way of talking about their products or projects. Omaha Mutual Bank in the US uses the personal testimony of a range of clients as part of their marketing strategy ( and Coca Cola’s main corporate site has a section devoted to videos about the corporation’s community work as well as how it is meeting its environmental responsibilities and other brand related media (

Although both these examples show storytelling in action they are quite far removed from the idea of “digital storytelling” that is the focus of this study. The videos look to have been produced by media specialists using high quality equipment. They are what Reissner might describe as “overt” and “agreed” forms of storytelling (2002:6), in other words stories that are broadcast outside the organisation that are approved by management or corporate strategists. Meadows description of the work with Capture Wales is of a style of digital storytelling that is more focussed on the authentic voice of the individual with limited third party editorial control.

It is my hope that through this case study to open up areas for discussion about how organisations might use this more “bottom-up” approach to digital storytelling and if such an approach is advisable or even possible!

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