Story-telling in the digital age

Story-telling in the digital age

This isn’t really about digital: but surprising, powerful story-telling

Tomorrow I’m giving the keynote at SMX 2012 in Sydney. Here’s what I’m saying. -Jye

Digital and social media has not only changed the way we communicate with each other, but also how we interpret and develop perspectives on the world.  Search engines have become ‘decision engines’ and have changed our perspective on making both low and high value decisions, and the reputation of organisations.  All of which, is powered by content, communities & communications. Built mainly today on an infrastructure of search, social and mobile.

As a result, marketing and communications have changed just as significantly.  The evolution of which has meant that we are story-telling in an ever-changing ecosystem of owned, shared and paid media.

Last year, Oscar Nicholson wrote a piece for me on the evolution of story-telling. In short, a long, long time ago we told stories with the voice.  These stories were fluid and hence: shared, re-created, embellished and changed by various story-tellers and their audiences.  Not so long ago, printed and video stories ensured we thought of stories as linear experiences.  But today, in internet-land, stories are once again fluid, and the changes in technology and access have meant we are in a new age of digital story-telling.

YouTube is flooded with stories from budding pre-teen film editors; Instagram has never seen so many “selfies” (photos taken of your self in the mirror with a big pout) by teenagers, and Facebook has never seen so many photo albums of travels and adventures of everyone else.

Then we enter the land of memes.  Where content and ideas are created and re-interpreted over and over again. What’s important to remember is memes are not successful because EVERYONE gets them, in fact they are successful because they are incredibly TIMELY, sharp and often are built on a big ‘in joke’ with a group of people. These are fantastic forms of story telling. One of my favourites is Success Kid.  But something brand new and topical would be:

So what’s in a story?

Digital has a number of story-telling elements.  Digital is an ecosystem: not a series of channels. They are interchangeable, dynamic and ever-moving. Your stories, your brand and your team need to be as well.  The key digital elements to story-telling are search engines, mobility and social media.

Search engines

Search is where stories are found and heard.  More than simply ‘search’ engines, Google and the like have become “decision engines” and “opinion engines” for most of the population – we search here before most other sources.  Advocacy, shared-experiences and that god-awful word of “authenticity” have become vital, but often misunderstood: it is in the eye of the beholder (search engines and people) that they may be truly found (in search engines).

Reputation is also beheld in these answer-machines. BP (following the oil spill diaster) tried to buy up search words to minimise damage. Not everyone has that luxury.  Google’s collection of data and features like predictive search also offer up some really interesting (funny) stories about people.

Search should be a listening engine for story-telling.

Mobile and the four screens

Mobile is the future of where content will be accessed – and where stories are heard and re-told.  Furthermore, it is the ubiquity of that content across smart-phones, tablets, laptops and TV screens that will ensure its success.  Today (not the future) stories are shared via photos (Instagram), scrapbooks (Pintrest) and in locations (Facebook).  And for the APAC region, car screens are the 5th screen to consider.

This needs to be a 1ft, 2ft and 20ft ubiquitous story-telling experience for consumers.

Social media

Social media is where stories are found, shared and re-told.  Social media has changed the way we communicate with each other, but also the way we interpret the world around us.  But also the way stories are told: suddenly, ‘adjacent story-telling’ is the everyday.  Gavin Heaton put it best:

“Adjacent storytelling is not about naming your brand. The adjacent story is there – the one that you see out of the corner of your eye. It’s the story that stays with you long after you have forgotten the wording. It’s the feeling that reminds you that your experience is not singular and that we are connected more by our commonalities than by our differences.”


Songs need to be sung; stories need to be told

Creativity, story-telling and digital, should have structures in which they can exist.  This forms the infrastructure for your story-telling.  This is where content, communications and communities come into play.


This are the words and images that allow your story to take shape. They need tone, style and guidance. They need to be consistent, reflective, and relevant. They need to be understood in which the context they are told. Think of content being the way you want to tell your story.


This is how you narrate your story.  Where should your stories be told? What form should they be in? Which channels should they be found? Which character do you play? What scene are we in? Who’s dead and who’s living? It’s 3D and it is blu-ray.


Your advocates and stakeholders, your Facebook fans, your Twitter followers and website visitors.  Communities are those who narrate your story for you.  They are the  truest mirrors for brands and organisations, and the change in their perceptions of you are keys to understanding performance and positioning.

They are your most powerful story-tellers.  This is truly where “authenticity” lives.


Content is where your brand’s story takes shape; communications is how these stories are told and heard; and of course, communities are those who narrate your brand story for you.  These third-party advocates are your most powerful story-tellers and where positioning (perception) becomes reality.  Then apply this through your search strategy, social media engagement and access (mobile) points.

When I mapped this out, it literally looks like: content (search? social? mobile?), communications (search? social? mobile?) and communities (search?, social? mobile?) – addressing each point, allows me to understand exactly the context in which my story is going to be told, what story to tell and how to tell it.

This isn’t about digital, this is about surprising and powerful story-telling.

Jye Smith is currently Senior Vice President, Head of Strategy & Operations, Asia Pacific at Weber Shandwick. Ranked in B&Ts 30 Under 30, Jye a regular keynote speaker and workshop facilitator who specialises in digital and social media strategist.

There are 2 comments for this article
  1. Ravi at 8:59 pm

    Nice thinking Jye, as always. Context really is key, it’s importance often underestimated.

  2. Pingback: Jye Smith on social media, digital media and story telling - A Digital Perspective