The Art of Digital Storytelling

This week I’m reviewing a conversation between Hall Davidson, Director of the Discovery Educator Network, and Bernajean Porter, author of Digitales: The Art of Telling Digital Stories.  Their conversation can be found in the article The Art of Digital Storytelling.  Davidson and Porter discuss a number of ideas about digital storytelling that resonated with me as an instructional designer who wants to use digital stories as part of my work.

Porter describes digital storytelling as designing information, but with a personal angle.  She describes some of the components of digital storytelling that she teaches her students, including to live in your story (being connected to the story), sharing your lessons learned (or how does it change your understanding of the world), creating dramatic questions that keep the interest of your audience, and showing, not telling, the information.  These are some of the components that make digital storytelling different from presenting information in a Powerpoint presentation.

Porter also shares that “point of view” is one of the hallmarks of digital storytelling.  She explains that where documentaries typically have multiple points of views, digital stories may consist of the same information but with a personal connection.  An example she uses is an explosion in a coal mine.  Where the documentary would get the point of view of the miners, or the families waiting to hear something, or the rescue teams trying to get to the miners, the digital story would show a personal connection to the story, such as what I learned from the story and how it changed me (such as the heroism of the rescuers knowing they could die during the rescue, but still going anyways).  This personal connection is what gives the information the quality of a story.

Porter and Davidson also discuss the best methods for preparing your students to  think about the stories as they explore them.  The first thing is to get them to look for the defining moment in the story.  The “a-ha” moment, as Porter describes it, is the one moment of the story that brings clarification and understanding of the lesson in the story.  Students can then use this moment of understanding to be the basis of the story they create by sharing how it effected them.

Porter also states that, “You don’t go to the technology until your script and storyboard are robust.”  It’s not about learning the technology.  It’s about using the technology to tell the story.  We should always ask ourselves – how does the technology help me get my message across?  Is it enhancing the message that I’m trying to deliver, or is it distracting from that defining moment.  All of the assets that we use in our stories (images, video, audio, music, etc.) should be there because they have meaning to me as a storyteller, and then used to share that same meaning with the viewers.

I felt this conversation was an important reminder that there is an art to storytelling.  That it isn’t always formulaic, but instead shares common components that are some times difficult to define.


Grassroot Soccer – The beautiful game changing lives through healthy living

This week I’m actually showcasing two digital stories, both part of Grassroot Soccer, an adolescent health organization in Africa.  The first story is David’s Story – about a young man in Zambia who uses soccer as a way to share his story of AIDS and the hardships it brought to his family.   The other story is about Athi and her struggles as a lesbian wanting to play soccer in South Africa, and how it brought her the freedom she was missing.

dsc_0349bDavid Kapata is a 27 year old coach and program coordinator for Grassroot Soccer, and he brings a message of hope to Zambia which has an HIV prevalence rate of 18.2% among young people.  His mother died from AIDS when he was nine years old, and then his younger sister died from an AIDS-related illness seven years later, which left him bitter and angry.  But at the age of 16 he became a participant in the GRS program, eventually working his way up to coach and a GRS staff position

He was so inspired by the coaches that he worked with that he decided to become one of them from the time he joined.  It not only gave him an avenue to face his own fears about HIV and AIDS, but it allowed him to develop his own way in life.   He came to realize that because of his own experiences that he was able to relate to and comfort children going through the same situation.  As David states, “…I choose, instead of becoming a victim to fear, to take a stance and make a difference in my community.”


Athi grew up in Khayelitsha, one of the largest townships outside of Cape Town, South Africa.  Living in a township with a high crime rate, it was a particularly difficult place to live due to the violence against women and girls.  But as she says in the video, “football gave me hope… And when I’m on the field, I am free.”  Athi is now a coach for Grassroot Soccer, teaching other young girls that they can be healthy and live a healthy life style.  She feels that she and her players support each other both on and off the field.  But it’s her love of football that made the difference in her life. In 2015 her team won the Coca-Cola Cup, a major tournament.  One of my  favorite lines from Athi is, “I can show the world who I really am…All because of this beautiful game.”

These two digital stories provide us with a glimpse into the lives of these two people who didn’t let the difficulties of life stop them from becoming role models for the many people they help.  It is the emotional struggle to overcome life’s hardships that make us intrigued by these digital stories. Something that we should always understand and appreciate as creators of digital stories.

Ohler’s Assessment Traits:

  • Presentation and performance – Both of these stories are presented on the same web site.  David’s story is a nicely crafted web site that leads us slowly through his story by using interesting images and a series of text blurbs.  Athi’s story is done the same way, but it also includes a short video presentation.  The video presentation adds a great deal to the story because we get a much better look and feel for Athi and the place where she lives.
  • Media application – I thought that the web sites were well done because they slowly revealed the story as I scrolled down the site.  And not every text blurb was associated with an image, so it actually gave more emphasis to the text when it was the only part that was visible.  And Athi’s video short was nicely produced with a voice over and accompanying text that made the few things she said seem very important.
  • Flow, organization and pacing – Once again, I thought the pacing was well done because the web sites let the viewer set their own pace.  And I thought the organization was well done because it gave a good introduction, but then emphasized the things that they accomplished, which is really what makes these stories so interesting.


Seven Steps of Digital Storytelling – my perspective

This week I’m reviewing another chapter by Joe Lambert in his book Digital Storytelling: Capturing Lives, Creating Community.  In this chapter, titled Seven Steps of Digital Storytelling, he gives us an in-depth look at how to actually create a digital story, and the components that we need to consider as we put together our own digital story.

There are a number of thoughts and ideas from Lambert’s book that struck me, and I wanted to reflect on a few of them.  First is the idea of “Owning your insights”, or finding what the point of the story means to me as the storyteller.  It’s important that we believe in the insights of the stories that we’re telling, otherwise there will be an in-authenticity to it.  We need to understand and express the meaning of the story in a way that leaves a lasting impression, otherwise it will soon be forgotten.  This expression doesn’t need to be flashy or overly produced.  I believe people know and appreciate when a storyteller really believes in what they are saying, whether it’s the tone of their voice, or the sharing of either difficult or joyful moments.

Lambert also talks about “Owning Your Emotions”, or knowing and experiencing the emotions that prompted us to tell the story in the first place.  It’s the emotions that will connect us with our audience, and sometimes it can be the most difficult part to include in the story.  A story without the emotion is just a description.  It can be any number of emotions that make a story memorable: fear, happiness, sadness, a sense of beauty, pride, hatred, love, or others.  And contrasting emotions can be highlighted within the same story.  For example a great sense of sadness can give way to pride as someone overcomes a debilitating loss.  The emotions can be subtle or blatant, but they make the listeners feel that the time they invest in listening to your story worthwhile.

I very much liked the quote from W.D. Wetherell, “A story isn’t about a moment in time, a story is about the moment in time”.  As Lambert shares, the story should be about that moment when change came into our life.  It may be that one moment when everything changed, or it may be that point some where down the road where we finally understand the meaning of the moment and how it changed us.  This moment of change is what our audience wants to hear.  How the events of the story changed us will reflect on how it will change the understanding of the listener.  We walk into a room one person, and we walk out a different person.

Lambert also shares a number of insights into the structures of stories, such as how we see our story (visually), how we hear our story (the voice-over, music, etc.), and how we sequence our story.  All of these dimensions of our stories are important to consider as we construct our story, and it was good to reflect on them in depth.  I would recommend reading this chapter to anyone considering developing digital stories of their own.

Sadness and beauty together.

Having listened and watched to a number of digital stories now, this one struck me more powerfully than any of the others because of the the sadness and beauty in the story.  StoryCorps  gives us this story by Beverly Eckert whose husband died on Sept. 11, 2001 in the attack on the World Trade Center. For the last 30 minutes of his life, her husband Sean was on the phone with her knowing that he wasn’t going to make it out alive.NYT2009021308495579C

Beverly tells how she met Sean when they were 16 year old students in high school  When he died, they were both 50 years old and had been together for 34 years.  Even without seeing Sean in the story, we get to know him because of her description of his “warm brown eyes” and that he was “a good hugger”.  On the day of the attack he called her and told her that he was on the 105th floor and couldn’t find a way out because of the smoke in the stair well.

In one of the most moving parts, she described how she asked him if it hurt to breathe, and he said “No”.  But she knew that he was lying to spare her feelings, or as she said “he loved me enough to lie”.  Instead of talking more about escape, they talked about the happiness in their lives.  She told him that she wanted to be there with him, to die with him.  But he said no, that he wanted her to live a full life.  Again thinking of her and not himself.

In the end he just kept saying “I love you” over and over, until she heard the sound of something crashing, which was the last thing she heard on the phone.She sat with the phone for a long time and didn’t want to go to sleep again so that the last day with her husband wouldn’t end.  But in the end, she went on to live a life for both of them, and she said that “she likes to think Sean would be proud of me”.  Sadly, Beverly died in 2009 in an airplane crash as she was going to celebrate Sean’s birthday.

May they both rest in peace.

Ohler’s assessment criteria –

  • Originality, voice, and creativity: Beverly’s voice is what makes this story so powerful.  It’s clear that, as she tells the story, she still feels the pain of this experience very deeply.  She speaks softly throughout the story which gives us the feeling that she doesn’t really want to be telling the story, but that it’s too important to her to not tell it.   And you can also hear in her voice a little lift when she talks about living her life for Sean.
  • Media application: StoryCorp does an excellent job of making the video interesting by writing out her words as she says them in a variety of shapes and sizes.  This writing helps us focus on her words, but it also includes drawings of other key elements of the story, like an image of Sean, a picture of an escape route, holding hands, and more.
  • Economy: The story is only 2:44 minutes long, but it feels like a life-time of sadness and beauty wrapped up in the short story.  There are no extraneous parts, with each part giving us an important part of the story.


Emotions and Interactive Digital Storytelling

Doing a deep-dive today into digital storytelling research with a look at research from Zhao, Zhang, and McDougall (2011) titled Emotion Driven Interactive Digital Storytelling. The premise of their research is that most interactive digital storytelling is based on participants achieving specific goals, whereas their research indicates that emotion can be the driving force to move the story forward.


The author’s work is based on Smith and Lazarus’ cognitive-motivational-emotive theory, which states that there is an “appraisal process” that affects how the participant will respond based on their current needs and situation.  Two players may react similarly or very differently to situations based on their personality.  For example, the emotions of the participants may vary from attacking in anger, fleeing, or avoiding the situation entirely due to anxiety.

The research was based on creating an interactive digital story based on an episode of the TV show Ugly Betty.  The participants were shown the episode, but at different points in the narrative the story would stop and the participants were asked what emotions they were feeling at the moment. Based on their emotions, the story could go in any number of different directions.  The result was that each participant would see a story based on their own emotions.

In their research, empathy with characters in the story was a driving factor for how the participants navigated the story.  When they felt the emotions from a particular character’s perspective, they tended to influence the story based on their feeling towards that character.  And there was a significant difference between female participants (who tended to feel empathy towards the character and that character’s situation) and male participants (who tended to make up their own goals not based on the character’s situation).   The researchers also found that the participants preferred method of interaction with the game (game-players vs TV watchers) also had a significant influence on the results.

This research is an indicator to developers of interactive digital storytelling that emotion based story development can be an interesting and compelling means of player interaction that will create a unique story based on their personality.  As an instructional tool, it can be used to increase participation and interest in digital storytelling.


Radika’s Dream

Another story about how soccer (the beautiful game) empowered someone to strive for their dreams.  This time it’s a story from Nepal.  Radika’s Dream is a moving story about a girl in Nepal who wouldn’t let her dream of playing soccer be squashed, even when she was scolded and beaten by her mother for playing soccer.


One of the most powerful statements from Radika is when she said, “Being a girl…are we allowed to dream?”  Raised in a society where girls are meant to stay within four walls, she shows all of us the power of not giving up on our dreams.  She talks about how she didn’t have any equipment when she was growing up, so she played barefoot with her feet painful and swollen.  That still didn’t stop her.  And being the only girl in her neighborhood who wanted to play soccer, she had to convince other girls to play soccer too.  So not only did she break down the barriers on a personal basis, but she also convinced other girls to breakdown those same barriers.

And Radika talks about the pain of her family wanting her to marry and raise kids.  She knew she wanted something different, even to the point of dreaming of playing with Ronaldo, one of soccer’s greatest players. Her strength shines through when she talks about how she had to fulfill her dream herself because she didn’t have any help from her family, friends, or neighbors. And then one day, a man approached her and asked if she wanted to play for a club team.  Just two weeks after she joined the club she was named captain of the team.  She was so proud because she showed her mother and her society that a girl can play football like a boy.  “And girls can dream…”

This was a very simple story with very basic production values.  It was just a series of photos and Radika narrating the story.  But the story is powerful because of the content and emotion behind it.  A lesson to all of us instructional designers who want to use digital storytelling in our work.

Ohler’s assessment traits:

  • Story – The story is the most powerful part of this digital story.  It’s about a girl striving to reach her dreams in a society that doesn’t normally allow this type of activity.  But through a series of images and the narration we get a real sense of who Radika is, and how much she wanted to play soccer.  And the images often emphasized the emotions of the story, like the picture of Radika feeling the pain of being told not to play.  It was a very powerful image.
  • Content Understanding – It felt as if Radika really felt the story as she told it.  Even though her English was not the best, she was still able to convey the strong emotions because she lived the story for so many years.  This was not a story about a quick redemption, but about a long struggle that began when she was very young.
  • Sense of Audience – If felt that Radika was talking to two audiences.  First, she was talking to the world.  She wanted to let the world know that even in a remote place like Nepal, young girls are struggling to reach their dreams.  And secondly, and probably most importantly, she was talking to other girls who might be in her same situation.  I got a very strong sense that she wanted every girl to dream, and then to got out and achieve those dreams.




A Road Traveled – a look at the roots of digital storytelling

This week we got to explore the roots of digital storytelling with Joe Lambert in his book Digital Storytelling: Capturing Lives, Creating Community.  Chapter 3 of the book is titled A Road Traveled – The Evolution of the Digital Storytelling Practice.  It is a fascinating look at how Lambart evolved from an early participant in the American folk song scene to his later involvement with the San Francisco theater scene and on to involvement with early storytelling in short films and eventually landing in the middle of the early days of the revolution in digital storytelling with computers.  He ended up as the founder of Story Center where he continues to ply his craft of teaching storytelling to others.

Reading Lambart’s story brought a sense of how all of these different phases of his life are tied together by one common theme – telling the story.  As he points out, coming out of the folk music movement  there was “the sense of significance that resulted when a person ‘found their voice and made their story heard’ was fundamental to our healthy living.”  It was the voice of the common person that mattered to them, not the wealthy or elite.

This voice of the common person was also found in the San Francisco Bay area in the progressive theater culture that was thriving in the 1980s.  According to Lambert this was a time of experimentation and it was a struggle for him to make ends meet,  but it was also a time when many artists were interested in telling their own stories as a counterbalance to the commercialism of the 80s.

And there was a new force that was coming into play – computer technology.  With the advent of personal computers a “Digital Tsunami” started in the early 1990s that would change how stories would be told.  Interactive multi-media became something that everyone could work with to tell their stories.  Creating web sites and presenting stories in the new format became the focus of his work.  And teaching this skill to others was where he focused his talents.

But it was always about the stories.  As he said, “I am moved by the stories more than the organization required to get to the stories.”  This is lesson for all instructional designers.  That in the end, we need to tell the stories, and help others tell their stories.  The methodology is a useful, but whether it’s folk songs, or theater, or web sites, we need to keep the focus on what brings us to these methodologies in the first place – the story.