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The Power of Digital Storytelling

By Susan A. Knight

Humans have an innate need to communicate and connect both socially and emotionally. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that storytelling—the embodiment of communication and connection—is present in every culture. People have always used stories to teach and share traditions and values, encourage reflection, and influence behavior.

What has changed, however, are the ways in which stories are being shared. Through the mix of media production tools and the Internet, digital storytelling has emerged as a powerful tool for communicating and connecting with others in a capacity that was once impossible.

Digital storytelling is the place where human services, art, communications, and technology intersect. Videos, photography, animation, and music are among the tools used to share a story and communicate a message. Through online platforms such as websites, blogs, and social media networking sites, these stories can be circulated more widely and more quickly than ever before. A growing number of organizations are taking notice and exploring the ways in which digital storytelling can be utilized.

Powerful Strategic Outreach Tool
Most community-based organizations engage in some form of outreach, often on an ongoing basis. An organization may wish to raise awareness among a particular target population about available resources and support services. Or, the goal may be to raise awareness and understanding among the larger community regarding a particular issue, in order to challenge negative stereotypes and build support for new programs and initiatives. Mission statements and mandates may vary, but these organizations all have goals for reaching a target audience with a message that prompts a specific response. Web-based communication platforms help make digital storytelling a powerful strategic outreach tool for achieving these goals. When used to its full potential, digital storytelling has the ability to deliver a message that is meaningful, enlightening, engaging, and mobilizing. In short, listeners are impacted by the message and moved to take action.

Personal Stories Create an Emotional Connection
A common feature of today’s digital storytelling is letting the individuals affected by an issue speak for themselves and share from their personal experience in a sincere, authentic way. By focusing on people and their personal stories, rather than on the issue itself in a theoretical or abstract way, it’s far more likely that the listener will experience an emotional connection. The listener gets to know the people behind the statistics and how an issue is affecting their lives. The authenticity of the story helps to make it compelling; such a story is far more likely to foster empathy and understanding in the listener, and far more likely to leave a deeper and more lasting impression.

In the spring of 2015, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released Positive Spin, a digital storytelling project developed by AIDS.gov to increase awareness and understanding of the HIV care continuum. The project is targeted specifically at black gay and bisexual men, as HIV in the United States disproportionately affects them.

To support outreach to the target population, Project Spin features a series of videos in which five HIV-positive, gay black men each share their personal story. In each video, the project participant describes the thoughts and feelings he had upon receiving his HIV diagnosis, and how his life has been impacted since the diagnosis. As the men speak openly about their lived experience with HIV, the emotions and perspectives shared are as varied as the men sharing them. The ability to see and hear the person sharing the story, through the use of video as the medium, is invaluable in helping the listener to make an emotional connection. The authenticity of each story makes it even more compelling and thus more likely to evoke a response that leads to action from the listener.

A Voice, Visibility, and Validation for the Storyteller
The Invisible People video log project also relies on the power of stories to make an emotional and personal connection. Launched by Mark Horvath in 2008, the purpose of Invisible People is to focus on homeless individuals who are so often ignored and essentially invisible to much of the larger public and make them visible. Horvath’s goal is to shatter stereotypes about the homeless, shift perceptions, and deliver a call to action to all segments of society. By allowing people who are experiencing homelessness to share their personal stories with the larger community, he believes this can be achieved, as summed up on the project’s website: “Invisible People goes beyond the rhetoric, statistics, political debates, and limitations of social services to examine poverty in America via a medium that audiences of all ages can understand, and can’t ignore.”

This aspect of giving a voice, visibility, and validation to the storyteller is significant, and helps explain why many of the most powerful digital storytelling projects are based around people experiencing homelessness. In addition to being rendered invisible and voiceless, this particular population routinely faces judgment based on myths and stereotypes that are often negative and dehumanizing. Through the opportunity to express themselves and share their stories, these individuals have their existence, identity, and humanity affirmed and validated. No longer ignored and invisible, they are seen as individuals like everyone else, trying to cope with life’s difficulties.

Capacity Building Needed to Achieve Successful Project Results
While the concept of storytelling seems straightforward and the success stories are inspiring, executing a successful digital storytelling project presents a number of challenges. In 2014, the Rockefeller Foundation teamed up with Hattaway Communications to produce the report Digital Storytelling For Social Impact. This report explores the use of digital storytelling by organizations seeking social impact through service delivery and community engagement. A key insight from the report was the need for capacity building among organizations in order to achieve successful project results, as quite often the required skills and resources aren’t present. Organizations struggle due to budget constraints, limited staffing, and a lack of in-house technical resources.

Given these challenges and organizational limitations, the most effective digital storytelling projects are often collaborative efforts. Organizations need to be willing to explore partnerships and retain expertise from outside the organization. Acquiring input and guidance from an outside organization or consultant that specializes in this type of work can be critical to a project’s success. This approach provides access not only to technical skills and expertise, but also to the lessons learned from past projects.

Before starting a project, there are a number of questions that an organization needs to ask. Does the organization have access to the necessary media production tools, and are employees equipped to use those tools effectively? How should program funds and staff time be allocated? What are the current industry best practices? Should consultants be brought in to assist with the design, development, and implementation process? Interest and enthusiasm are not enough to guarantee a successful project; a variety of skills are required to deliver an effective project that will meet the organization’s objectives.

Ethical Considerations
In addition to technical considerations, there are a number of ethical considerations associated with this type of project, particularly when an organization’s clients are involved. Consent for these purposes is often referred to as being a process or multilayered, due the many stages and elements involved. At the initial stage of a project when clients agree to participate, they need to be clearly informed of what they are consenting to. They should be made fully aware of the nature of the project and what their involvement will entail. Issues around confidentiality and ownership rights need to be addressed. Consideration must be given to the type of personal information that individuals will be sharing, and the impact this could have for the client in the short and long term. It’s also important that clients understand the concept of digital permanence once information is published online.

The potential response from viewers/listeners should also be addressed with clients where applicable. Once information is online and in front of a worldwide audience, there is the potential for criticism and negative feedback. Where clients may have access to such feedback, such as reading YouTube comments, they need to be adequately prepared for what they might encounter.

Web-based platforms, and social media networks in particular, are being used to facilitate rapid and widespread information sharing in every area imaginable, from entertainment to politics. As more people turn to social media to stay informed and connected, it’s inevitable that digital storytelling will become an increasingly powerful and relied-upon tool for outreach, service delivery, and social impact.

— Susan A. Knight works with organizations in the social services sector to help them get the most out of their client management software.