The storyteller evolved – the fluid and authentic validator

Last week I had the pleasure of talking at the Documentary Campus Masterschool in Cologne. I’d been asked to speak about things transmedia (which is a term I still find myself using, not for pitching but definitely in my own development work) and multiplatform, and how to use these methods and ways of thinking to engage with an audience in a fruitful way. I thought I’d share part of what I was talking about, which ties into things I’ve written about earlier on this blog. They were true then, at least to me, and they still are. Three  things I talked about were fluidity, authenticity and validation:


The art of consciously letting go of traditional rigidness and purposefully embracing the flow of the stories and the volatile nature of the audience.

Fluidity is the art of moving with the flow of the story. I’m from a traditional media background and I know the comforting security of working against a deadline and having a set launch date or a broadcast spot, and then you’re finished with your program or your show and it’s broadcast and then you move on to the next thing.

It’s very reassuring, very stable and very nice.

Now I believe we need to be more fluid regarding our content and our approach to our audience. We know what we want to create, but if we know our audience and who we want to reach and affect with our content and our stories, we need to keep alive the possibility to react to things that are happening around us. Transmedia storytelling can help with this!

See – if we’ve applied transmedia storytelling methods to our project from the beginning, we have done some things. We have

  • described the world our story exists in, the world that makes up the foundation of the story we’re trying to tell in, for instance, our documentary. We know the rules of this world, the characters (also the ones not appearing in our main piece of content), their motivations, the environment – all the things that are not told in the documentary
  • drawn up some plans about other stories, parallel to the main one in the documentary, that can be told from other parts of the world we’re describing; perhaps on other media platforms, perhaps in other ways
  • analyzed our main target group and know some things about what platforms they’re on – are they predominantly Netflixing content or do they watch broadcast TV as well? Can we reach them on social media, and how in that case? What are their interests and their motivations? What engages them?

All of this allows us to be more fluid and more able to respond to movement among our target groups. If someone takes part of what we’re talking about, cuts it out from context, puts it together with other sentiments and starts an eager discussion about that, we can use one of the other story lines we’ve been thinking about to tell another facet of the same issue, reclaiming the narrative and guide the discussion in a desired way. In essence, fluidity is what gives us a fighting chance of retaining some semblance of control over the narrative.


The art of staying true to oneself and one’s core message in all aspects of communication and interaction.

Authenticity is another extremely important word to take into consideration. Be who you are, no matter what you are. Insincerity shines through, as does trying to hide something. You don’t have to be a do-good nonprofit organization, you don’t have to be Mother Teresa, you don’t even have to be very likable – just as long as you keep your authentic voice constant on all media and in all communication, so as not to give conflicting impressions to the audience and give them reason to doubt that you are who you say you are.

The world is full of companies trying to be something they’re not on social media, and making fools of themselves when they are caught out… so we should agree to simply don’t!


The habit of acknowledging the audience and their engagement, of celebrating their loyalty and involvement, and of basing this on a sound strategy.

The third one, validation, is as important as any of the others. I know that I’ve wanted to produce my content, publish it – on TV, online or whereever – and be done with it. Yeah, sure, I can talk about it with people and accept awards for it an so on, but on the whole, when I’ve come up with something, produced it and distributed it, I’m done with it.

Not anymore though. If we manage to create something that engages people, and we’ve managed to retain fluidity and autheticity, and we’ve even managed to come up with a great plan for interaction and engagement, we’ve embedded brilliant calls to action in the narrative, and we’ve gotten people to actually commit themselves… then we need to be prepared to validate their engagement.

We need to have strategies in place for how to celebrate everyone who engages themselves in our narrative. Is it enough with a Facebook ”like”? Do we need to acknowledge them and then challenge them further – if they want to engage themselves further? How do we showcase their engagement to other people? And how do we retain our authenticity and fluidity throughout this process?

Our content is moving to a future when it is becoming a long term engagement … for good and for bad.


The audience is changing and there’s no turning back

The competition for attention is fiercer than ever

Transmedia storytelling can help us find ways to reach and engage


  • Look at the world of your narrative – what other voices can you find?
  • Think about your audience – research them – where, what and how?
  • Strive for fluidity, authenticity and to validate and celebrate your audience

Using the user – developing content in 2015

I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago endorsing the building of personas as a tool for content creators. I had a number of positive responses to the post, from people in the academic world as well as people from the creation side of the content business. Since a major reason I got in touch with personas as a tool to begin with is our close relationship with the User Experience laboratory at MediaCity Finland, I thought I’d share another tool – or, rather, method – that is very common in a number of fields, but to my knowledge not yet to any greater extent in the content creation field, not even when talking about multiplatform or transmedia projects.

User Centered Design is – to quote Wikipedia – a method or framework of processes in which ”the needs, wants, and limitations of end users of a product, service or process are given extensive attention at each stage of the design process.

This is obviously a very handy process when producing, say, a web shop, as these criteria are of the utmost importance for your users and your customers to have as smooth and intuitive an experience as possible.

I would strongly recommend anyone actively involved in creating and developing content for an audience to investigate UCD processes in greater detail. What I’ve found is that it complements the more traditional development processes in a very good way. For me, the greatest benefit about adapting a UCD-based approach to my projects is that it forces me to narrow down the options and the possibilities to the select few that are the very best ones when it comes to reaching an intended audience, enganging them in the intended way, validating their participation and following up with the scope of the long tail.

This can of course be done in a number of ways – co-creationally, or with the help of deep interviews and so on. The ISO standard for the design of interactive systems has six key principles to ensure the design is user-centered:

  1. The design is based upon an explicit understanding of users, tasks and environments.
  2. Users are involved throughout design and development.
  3. The design is driven and refined by user-centered evaluation.
  4. The process is iterative.
  5. The design addresses the whole user experience.
  6. The design team includes multidisciplinary skills and perspectives.

Now, if we translate this into content creation and development, we start to approach interesting areas. As these are methods infinitely suitable for the interactive and transmediated concepts and projects of today, when we need to make sure the narrative on all platforms not only fits logically together but also approaches and entices the audience in a way that achieves precisely the right reaction and engagement, involving the target audience – the end user – from the very beginning is a powerful tool.

The Great Narrative pt II

Some weeks ago, having just returned from summer vacation, I wrote a piece on what I termed ”The Great Narrative”. My point was simply that stories matter, and the stories we choose to tell and the way we choose to tell them matter even more. This goes doubly for the world of today, when the stories we are bombarded with are many times negative, infuriating, saddening or despair-inducing.

We as storytellers have a duty. We have to be part of the nurturing facets of humanity. We need to create stories that lead to the kind of society we would want, for us, for our children and for generations to come.

If all we tell are stories of catastrophes and desperation and atrocities, if all we look for are more clicks and more traffic and more engagement-based-revenue, our road forward becomes increasingly narrow until the narrative of us – i.e. the Great Narrative I talked about earlier – withers and dies in a commodified spasm of anguish.

I’ve talked to some people in the month since I wrote the last post on the Great Narrative, people who’ve approached me with theories and projects and ideas and suggestions, and it all gives me hope. If we can turn the tide, at least to some extent; if we can tell the great stories, the inspiring stories, the stories that make us look up into the sky in wonder… if we can do that, and at the same time, why not employ the same crafts used to enhance the more chaotic stories in the world today and do it combined with engagement strategies and actionable contact points and long tail thinking, then I can start hoping.

I read a great piece on storytelling over at the Daily Beast today, looking at how we employ storytelling throughout our years, and how stories and storytelling can ” give clarity, purpose, and strength to those whom we will one day leave behind”. Yes, indeed – but what stories we do tell, and what consequent impact they have… that is all up to us.

Think inside your boxes – find new ways to reach and engage an audience

Last week I read a good post by Jay Bushman on ”6 expert tips for multiplatform content creators”. One of the points stood out to me in particular – the need to throw out the manual and think in new ways regarding platforms and tools and possibilities. For Jay, this is about looking at platforms in new ways and about using different platforms in ways they were not necessarily intended to be used in.

The more I think about applying this to my own work and projects I consult on, the more I believe that for me it’s about starting this train of thought way earlier than that.

At the beginning of any project there is (hopefully) a solid story waiting to be told and explored. Most often, this story also has a main platform it’s attached to – if it’s a book, a movie, a web series, a graphic novel, an online experience or something else. If it’s developed in true multiplatform or transmedia mode, it also has a suitable number of other possible – or even probable – platforms to spread the story out on or continue affiliated stories on.

What I feel would be beneficial would be to take this initial story and port it to other media. Not necessarily for actual production, but for the added value of looking at the content, the narrative, in another light, and see which new avenues open up.

For instance, if you re-imagine your book as an online choose-your-path adventure, you will be confronted with several challenges. How do you hook your audience? What does a user journey look like? How would you hope to achieve virality? What happens when the user reaches the end of the experience – where do you point them.

The experience of this mental excercise can be directly taken back to the initial property and be used to enhance the offering the book consists of.

Vice versa – if you have an online experience you want people to engage in and interact with, try to port it into a movie script. You’ll soon be confronted with the traditional challenges of building a credible narrative that will keep your audience interested and engaged for a couple of hours at the least. This material can then be taken straight back to the online experience you want to produce and be used to influence the narrative to make it more engaging and exciting.

I could give a number of other examples, but I think you get the general idea. In short, I believe we shouldn’t simply think outside the box – we should instead carry all possible boxes with us in our toolbox, and put our ideas in one box at a time and see how the boxes influence how we view our content.

Simon Staffans is a content and format developer and media strategist, employed by MediaCity Finland. He works with multiplatform storytelling, transmedia development procedures and great stories. Contact him at simon.staffans(at) or follow him on @simon.staffans.

The art of finding an audience

Almost to the day a year ago I wrote a post on audience engagement, talking about five points I believe are essential when it comes to reaching the point of meaningful interaction with an engaged audience, and the harnessing of that power in the long run.

I still stand by my points from that post, nothing has changed in that regard. But this post has come about as a direct result of a number of workshops and consultations I’ve done over past year or so, which have led me to the conclusion that we need to realize some very crucial things about our audience to begin with.

I’ve talked with and consulted on a number of projects and programs, where the audience has been a part of the equation. But unfortunately, many times the audience has been a fairly theoretical part of the equation. It has become apparent that many who start out creating content, producing a campaign or a project or looking to distribute what they’ve created, have a skewed notion of who their audience is, leading to misfiring attempts to gain traction and , in the end, wasted time and resources.

This has been the case for fiction franchises I’ve evaluated, innovative apps I’ve consulted on, even long-running TV properties.

To be able to consult these and future clients better, I’ve started looking into different ways of actually finding out who your audience is and who you should target initially as well as in the long run. One solution I am in the process of evaluating is taken from the world of User Centered Design and marketing – the building of personas and the most adequate way of using these for a storytelling-based property.

There is an abundance of litterature and web sites dedicated to the building of personas – i.e. ” fictional characters created to represent the different user types that might use a site, brand, or product in a similar way” – which has become a cornerstone in User Centered Design processes. I feel it is a method well worth looking into for anyone starting out creating content, no matter what kind of content it is .

The first step would be to carefully construct your personas. Who will be interested in your franchise? What kind of people are they? What are their goals, their needs, their hopes, their wishes? How technologically advanced are they? What will make them interact, what will turn them away from your content? As I said, there are many sites online ready to assist you in creating the right personas for your specific project. What you need to do is think beyond the marketing needs of most persona-building advice and tweak them to suit your long-term storytelling needs.

My advice would then be to take this all a bit further. When you know what your different personas are like – what they are likely to engage themselves in, what they are likely to share on social media and so on – the next step is to conduct some research. Where are these personas IRL? Where can you find people that are the most like your personas? Where do they live, what do they do? How much alike are they to your personas, and in what ways do they differ? And what impact do these differences potentially have? Which of them have a following online already and could have the potential to become beacons for your narrative?

As a natural follow-up to this – find who these people interact with, why and how. This will give you valuable information as to how you could frame and voice your own campaign and your own content. Let this knowledge and these conclusions influence how you approach your intended audience – basically, mimic their behaviour and output, tweaked to suit your own content and narrative, observe what happens and draw your conclusions – how could the output be tweaked? What kind of reactions did you get? How did people engage, and did you reach the intended target groups?

This is the approach I will be taking with a couple of the projects I’m involved in at the moment. I’ll post any future findings regarding the use of personas on this blog, but I would dearly like to hear your thoughts on the matter. Have you tried using personas in the way described above, or a similar way? How did it work out for you? What were the pitfalls and the key aspects?

Get ready to do a Dark Detour

DD2 2

Last year Steve Peters and Alison Norrington launched the first installment of Dark Detour, a Halloween multiplatform ghost story that gained a considerable amount of interest as well as eager participants. This year they’re back, bolstered by the addition of Jenni Powell and with a new rabbit hole to dive into, called “All That Glitters”. I caught up with the trio to ask them some pertinent question about this years project (which is successfully crowdfunding over at IndieGoGo, now looking to unlock some stretch goals):

So, what made you decide to do a season 2 of Dark Detour? What were your final experiences of season one and what conclusions did you draw from the process and the outcome?

Alison: We’d always planned to make Dark Detour an annual event – an anthology if you like, but we wanted to see how things played out last year before we made any promises or announcements.  Our final experiences of Season One was that we were excited to deliver a story in real time over social media, that ARGs are far from dead, that Steve is awesome at creating puzzles and that working across 2 timezones really works for us!

Steve: I considered Season 1 a success, and I think we stumbled onto a unique way to tell a story that I hadn’t quite seen before. We really tried to do things in a way as to be accessible to as many people as possible, and people sure seemed to have fun in the process. We wanted to crowdfund again this year partly to gauge interest as well, plus we wanted to grow our audience as compared to last year.

Jenni: I have the unique experience that I was actually a participant in season 1 and now I get to go behind the curtain and experience that in season 2.  It gives me an opportunity to give the player point of view in order to help us make season 2 an even stronger experience.  I also have a lot of interactive storytelling experience myself from my work on The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy.

When we discussed this second season earlier, you mentioned adopting a new take on crowdfunding? Would you care to elaborate – what kind of a new take, and why?  

Alison: We were inspired by Elan Lee’s gamification spin on the crowdfunding process – where retweets and challenges added community, not directly equating to more funding, but to more fun!

Steve: Well our new take really concerns the stretch goals. Once we hit our goal (a few days ago), I blatantly stole Elan Lee’s Exploding Kittens mechanic in that we didn’t ask for more money from people we’d already gotten money from, but instead asked them to do things that a) were fun; b) were free; and c) helped spread the word and get more people involved.

Last year the two of you, Alison and Steve, did the project between the two of you. What made you expand?

Alison: A few things!  Workload of course – we both worked a ton of additional unexpected hours on Dark Detour last year, but we wanted to bring in Jenni Powell and Nick Tierce because we know they will bring some fun creative muscle too.

Steve: Reality! Alison and I wore ourselves ragged last year, so we wanted to not only divide and conquer the workload a little better this time, but also sought out people we knew could bring really creative things to the table. It’s a win/win/win/win. :)

Jenni: We’ve actually doubled the team and I think that’s going to help so much.  Pretty early after the conclusion of season 1, I reached out to Steve and offered myself up as help as I know how much work these can be and felt I could be a big asset…I guess they agreed and here I am!  :)

Care to lift the lid on the project a little bit? What can we expect? You’ve mentioned a Nordic twist – how will that play out?

Alison: Oh yes, there’s a Nordic twist!  Last year our story was set in US – a journey from NY to LA.   We’ve brought the story to the English moors this year but have sprinkled a distinct Scandinavian flavour – one of our main characters and some very real mythology can be expected!

Steve : There may be lutefisk. That’s all I’m gonna say :)
You can expect us to use some new, different platforms to tell our story this time around. Plus, we have some more spooky social media tricks up our sleeve that I can’t divulge.

Jenni: Seeeeeeeeecrets.

Final question – why should I as a viewer/user engage in this? And how do I do it?  

Alison: Firstly we’d love you to join our community.  Facebook is the primary place to like us and then if you could help us reach our stretch goals and unlock Jay Bushman (as a first) we’d be super excited!  Then you simply need to follow our main characters social media accounts – still to be announced.  If you like jumping into rabbitholes, All That Glitters is for you – there’ll be some demystifying and figuring out to be done over the 4 days that we’re ‘live’..  Is ‘live’ the right word??……

Steve: You should take part if you like fun, interactive stories that feel like they’re actually taking place in the same world you live in. Because all you do is follow a few people on social media, the story will come to you the same way all your friends’ stories do, which makes it feel pretty real. Plus you never know when they might reach out and interact with you on a one-to-one basis.

To take part, go to and register. Then, when Halloween approaches, we’ll email you to let you know who to follow/friend etc. That’s it!

Jenni: And, you know, how often do you get to get together with a group of people…some friends, some strangers…to help move a story along in a way that your actions have real effect?  For a week, you get to step outside your normal routine and dive into other people’s lives and experiences and actually have a real impact?  There truly is nothing quite like it.

DD2 team

The Great Narrative

Over the summer I’ve actively tried to avoid doing what I’ve been doing for the past couple of decades – craft stories, design and produce them and tell them to an intended audience. I’ve found that I tend to absorb myself in my own projects to quite an extent, and in turn have found it difficult to find the time to take part of other stories, however interesting, timely or urgent they may be.

This summer I’ve put almost everything on the shelves and concentrated on not being the producer but rather the consumer. I will admit, it has been a bit of an alarming experience.

The prevailing narratives – large and small – are a constant worry on the mind. If it’s not ISIS and terrorism, it’s #BLM and shootings, or failing integration projects, nationwide bankruptcies, a consistently widening gap in income and wealth distribution, an ecology and a climate on the verge of upheaval… We are constantly, unendingly, bombarded with apocalyptic messages, which in an unrelenting battle for clicks get blown up and scandalized into every extreme possible.

I know, this is not news to anyone who has access to even the most feeble of news sources. We all experience this, daily, and handle it in different ways – some get worried, some get angry, many have developed a highly refined sense of indifference, a few take what action they deem appropriate and necessary.

But I have an increasing feeling – perhaps even conviction – that we as storytellers have a great responsibility as a part of the larger picture. I believe it’s time for us as storytellers to evolve – or rather, evolve our thinking. I read an article that the voices of the world are dying, as large parts of biological ecosystems, previously teeming with life, are becoming increasingly monotone, if not outright silenced. And the voices that are left in the world are either screaming in agony or busy greasing the wheels of hundreds of years of enterprise – be it in the form of progress, of globalization, of gadgetry, of startups or something similar.

The emptiness at hand is something we need to address. We need to fill it with stories – stories that point to and lead the way to a time and place where the old voices are welcomed back. Yes, this is a future where there is sustainability in the world. Yes, it’s a world less hungry for what passes as ”success” today, less focused on monetary gain. Yes, it’s a future where what counts as a ”good life” has been re-imagined.

As events become stories, these stories eventually turn into legend, the legends become myths, and in time, ingrained truths, taken for granted. But we need to start telling these stories in the first place, for the chain to remain unbroken. The canvas we’re all painting on is the fate of humanity. So the questions I’m pondering now are – what stories do we tell? How do we make them convey hope, how do we turn them into something that guides the way to an imagined future where we stand a chance? Is it even possible?