Design research. Social good.

Posts tagged ‘storytelling’

(1) Multiple rabbit holes – Total Recall (2012)

Walking in the Upper West Side, I spied a billboard: “Tell us your fantasy. We’ll make it real.” Intrigued, I took out my phone and entered the website listed at the bottom of the poster. There I received the following message: “We’re sorry – This content requires Adobe Flash Player.” 

This was a frustrating-no-flabbergasting user experience. And one that just should not be happening in a 2012 transmedia campaign for a summer blockbuster. When I finally got around to looking up the site at home, I found a compelling (but limited) Surrogate-esque storyworld. The next day I saw another billboard in Greenwich Village – “Beware of Rekall: Don’t Let Them Blow Your Mind” directing me to a different website.

This one actually worked on my phone, and with an aesthetic reminiscent of the recent Internet Blacklisting Bill campaigns – featuring a dot org url and a censorship theme. Here, audiences are targeted in a smart way with regard to the billboard placement  – certain neighborhoods in New York definitely evoke a certain ethos. This is about knowing the audience and creating multiple rabbit holes – or entry points for them to follow. Transmedia campaigns need to employ multiple mediums to deliver a message – each adding a unique contribution to the development of the story. It s about engaging the audience, drawing them in, and rewarding the curious and loyal.

(2) “This is not a game” philosophy – Prometheus (2012)

Like the “No Rekall” mock Public Service Announcement, a large part of transmedia storytelling is creating a believable fiction – a credible alternate reality. In some of the best cases, the storyworld blends with Real Life so seamlessly that we don’t even know when we’ve entered the rabbit hole (or are playing a game). Take Peter Weyland’s 2023 TED Talk. First glance, this appears to be bonafide TED Talk  – it is posted on TED.com, after all. This was the first time TED used its platform for promotional purposes – fans didn’t see it coming.

This move brilliantly demonstrates the “This is not a game philosophy” by transcending the “rules”  – what we expect from a “game” –  guidelines, pieces/equipment, a playing field, and defined outcome. By blurring the boundaries between game and reality- we enter the immersive world of the alternate reality game.

(3) Here we are now, entertain us – A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Alternate Reality Gaming was born on the Internet, combining interactivity and storytelling to create a truly immersive storyworld. The classic example is the well documented Jeanine Salla, Sentient Machine Therapist, from A.I. 

Starting with this name and intriguing title listed on the film poster curious fans were drawn into a highly complex interactive game so large it is simply referred to as The Beast. Leaving trails of breadcrumbs, clues, for curious fans to discover and advance, this alternate reality game pushed the limits of interactivity. The boundaries of the game were unknown. The platforms, playing field, and outcomes were all out there waiting to be discovered and developed.

The fact is, going to a site and pushing a few buttons isn’t going to entertain us anymore (if it ever did). We want to be immersed. We want to use our brains. Our imaginations. We want to work together. We want to contribute. Here’s the key: for effective transmedia storytelling, meaning has to be designed by the audience as much as by the creators.

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At TEDxPhilly I witnessed a beautiful thing – a community coming together to celebrate its changemakers. TEDxPhilly placed a premium on people who think and do differently. The interplay between technology and culture was fascinating. The focus on sustainable and accountable practices was both thrilling and daring.  Everyone was buzzing from the powerful ideas people were sharing.

And everything was gorgeous. Naturally, I am someone who revels in these things. The venue, The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.  The speakers. The attendees. The signs. The program. Gorgeous.

Some of the talks, however, could have been better.

I say this as a rhetorician. And as someone deeply invested in the art of the TED Talk. To date, I’ve helped 130 of my students give “mini TED Talks” – the talk of their lives in 5-minutes or less.

TED prepares TEDx organizers with a toolkit, tips for presenters, aka the TED Commandments.  I know, because I am a TEDx organizer for our campus event in March.  Then, there are the TED Talks themselves to guide speakers, a powerful collection of (mostly) exciting and engaging oral presentations.  But between the TED Commandments and learning by example, I feel there is much room in terms of providing guidance to speakers who are charged with “dreaming big” and sharing ideas that can change the world.

Many of the talks I saw at TEDxPhilly were good. But they could have been excellent– with some guidance. This is tricky because too many rules leads to a cookie-cutter presentation. And that would be the end of TED. We would stop watching the talks. What makes the TED Talks such a phenomenon is their creativity, their humanity, their diversity.  Give one person a data projector and 18 minutes and see what happens. The best ones use all of their available resources to find the freedom within the form.  It’s about getting back to storytelling.

Early morning, after TEDxPhilly, I began to draft some main topics I could develop to help people give these talks.

Things speakers need to consider:

  • Audience engagement/participation
  • Story/story arc/narrative thread
  • Point/purpose
  • Examples/anecdotes/slice of life
  • Delivery/style
  • Authenticity/voice
  • Pacing/timing
  • Structure/Organization
  • Visual engagement/slides/props
  • Meaning in the data
  • Take aways/ deliverables
  • Purpose/significance/the “so what”

When speakers are faced with a presentation, it seems there are three main questions to consider. I see these as the holy trinity of a good talk.

  • What is the story you are telling?
  • Why are you telling it?
  • How are you telling it?

Sounds simple. But each of these points can be an insurmountable hurdle in the quest for the holy grail – a brilliant TED talk.  I would like to hear from students and TEDx presenters about what they found useful in preparing for their talks.


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