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A Technical Approach to Storytelling

by: Bill Brindley on 07/17/2012


As the CEO of an international organization, I know how important it is to tell a good story. Most donors want to know how we have helped people in the developing world, and there is no better way to demonstrate our impact than with stories from people that have been positively affected by the work done by NetHope and our 35 member organizations.

But it is not enough to write a blog entry or tweet on our success. To compete among the sea of content available online, there's a demand to rethink our storytelling and to make things more visual and interactive in order to draw attention from donors and resonate with consumers.

In a recent Huffington Post blog entry, Content Marketing Specialist Michael Parrish DuDell said, "today it's about the story, the narrative, the "why" behind "what." The future of business isn't just about innovating products and services; it's about innovating the storytelling process behind those products and services and doing it in the most compelling and authentic way possible."

With the variety of web applications and social media available, storytellers are no longer bound to text and have the option to take new approaches to developing narratives. London-based, transmedia production company beActive uses Pinterest to reinvent how fans follow the story of "Beat Girl," (http://pinterest.com/beatgirlworld/) their hit web series that features a 21-year-old girl's journey in love and music. Pinterest is a virtual bulletin board site organizes content into "pins," which can then liked, commented on and organized into a set known as a "board." For BeatGirl fans, they can watch clips from webisodes, learn more about characters through pictures and read reviews on the original book on the BeatGirl Pinterest account.

Pinterest and other social media are great ways for businesses to share stories, and these sites also help to inspire, shape or frame new stories. Storify, named by Time as one of the best websites of 2011, saw the potential for social media content to grow into larger stories and created a platform to facilitate that creativity. Storify allows users to arrange photos, tweets, videos and links that have been taken from Facebook and Twitter and craft them into a story that includes creator commentary. With this functionality, businesses can piece together trending industry news and add in unique commentary to establish a stronger brand. This also illustrates an organization's willingness to listen and participate in conversations around breaking development.

These storytelling techniques make the most of social media but I have yet to see the full spectrum of technology-driven storytelling. I see potential in mapping, and with thanks to our supporter Microsoft, NetHope has been able to begin sharing our global story in an interactive way.

Recently, Microsoft created a powerful tool called the Local Impact Map which we have used to showcase where NetHope members work around the world. NetHope's 34 member organizations are present in over 180 countries, with field operations in health, education, ICT skills building, conservation and emergency response. The interactive mapping solution pinpoints the country locations of our member organizations and allows users to find out which NetHope members operate in a given region or country. This technology can take users directly to the content that is relevant to them — whether they want to see how Mozambique as changed since their time spent volunteering there as a college student or see the humanitarian presence in Ecuador near their family's ancestral village. NetHope plans to further utilize this tool's functionality by working with its members to add more detailed impact stories to each location.

Other efforts have used mapping to tell stories — both local and global. NetHope supporter Esri provides a mapping platform that tell stories through a combination of intelligent web maps, multimedia content — photo, video, text — and web applications.  A story map can be easily authored to follow one person's journey, or compiled from a vast repository of freely available global datasets. The Esri gallery has a variety of examples, including one that takes users on a walk on the High Line in New York City and another that shows Global Crop Production. 

As technology continues to evolve, we will be able to crunch data faster and deliver information quicker. But we must remember that technology is not a silver bullet. An interesting story is at the core of any content that resonates with people. It's up to today's content creators and business strategists to pair stories with the correct media or technology to transcend modern online distractions and recapture our imagination.