Layered storytelling – the art of the future


I think we can all agree that the world is a pretty complex place. It would be easier for most of us if it was simply cleary black and white, right and wrong, for and against, like a LOTR movie with all nuances wiped away. That is, however, never the case.

Whatever stories we want to tell, whatever experiences we want our audience to experience, whatever feelings we want to convey and whatever information we would like to communicate, we need to take this into consideration. We can achieve a great initial impact with a message, a story, that is clearly and shiningly black-and-white – easy to grasp, easy to encompass, easy to react to and easy to find like-minded people to ally with around. But for a longer-lasting impact, we need to think deeper, further and longer.

This is where the practice of layered storytelling comes in. In a series of blog posts from a couple of years ago, Gary Goldhammer from Hill+Knowlton talked about layered storytelling from their perspective, focusing on journalism and to some extent on marketing as well:

It’s about layers – not how media comes together but how it works together, while still retaining the “native” characteristics of the individual media types whether Paid, Earned, Owned or Shared.

This can’t happen with a media-centric or channel specific approach – we must be audience-centric and channel agnostic. Story and audience must sit at the center, powered by digital and social means. This is how ideas spread and ultimately can stand out in a fragmented world.

From this central idea, narrative “layers” cut across channels and forms of media so that we can reach more people at scale. A Layered Narrative allows space for interaction, sharing, collaboration and contribution. Every unique layer makes the source material stronger and the core story more engaging.

These are all good thoughts and principles. Through layers can we reach more, we can offer more, we can offer up nuances and possibilities and we can foster interaction. I feel, however, that we need to take it a step further. I’m talking about the ultimate release of control, and the trusting of our audience.

Think of your story as the island of an archipelago, and the audience as the people traversing the waters by boat. Underneath the surface, all your islands are connected, but it’s only the islands themselves that are approachable directly. They’re all connected, but separate. And it would require a wet suit and some scuba gear to dive below the surface and track how all the different islands are connected.

Now you can help your audience as much as you like, and show them how the different parts fit in. I talked about a process like this, when I wrote about building bridges a while ago. These bridges would be the links in your narrative – if you feel your audience needs them. Alternatively, you can leave it up to them to find the connections, and if they deem it necessary or desirable, build the bridges.

We need to dare be more fluent and more ”loose”, for want of a better word, regarding our stories. We can’t reflect the complexity of life, if we insist on a formalized, well contained story that is over and done and dusted in 93 minutes flat. And we need to be prepared to not try to hold on to our audience – instead allow them to be as clingy or non-clingy as they see fit; as engaged or as laid-back as they feel appropriate.

This is a big step for me as well, coming from a traditional media background, with a dire need to keep control over all aspects of production and distribution. I can certainly believe it is an even bigger step for brands, sponsors and financiers of different sorts; without control, how can anyone guarantee revenue? I’ll share thoughts on that in my next blog post.

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