The Psychology of Storytelling

Transmedia storytelling is one of the most exciting developments to hit entertainment, branding, marketing, and advocacy in the last few years. Transmedia storytelling is a ‘story experience’ both for—and with—an audience that unfolds over several media channels. This is a big deal for two reasons. First, it represents the continuing shift from a technological to human focus.  Second, storytelling and narrative tap into a fundamental form of human communication and connection, engaging our imagination and through that, empathy and creativity. Early Transmedia Franchise: The Matrix

Transmedia storytelling is a hot topic for  A Think Lab because it has broad social and commercial implications. We are living in a time of media convergence where transmedia is the norm, not the exception. The lines are blurring, not just between technologies, but also between traditional roles of producer-consumer roles. Today’s audience lives in an interactive and participatory world; they expect and demand that ability to actively engage.

Transmedia Storytelling: The Reemergence of Fundamentals

Transmedia storytelling weaves together individual strands of a story into a larger and richer interactive fabric and offers the audience multiple ways to participate, through content production, collaboration, and interaction. When the story has authenticity, coherence, and integrity, it provides a common language that unleashes vast amounts of creativity and invites maximum engagement through audience participation.

The Matrix franchise is one of the early and best-known transmedia pioneers. The main narrative presented in the Matrix movies was self-contained but, for the enthusiastic fan, it could be enriched by information, back story, and character development obtainable only in the video games and Animatrix DVD. Social media connectivity plays a central role in the success of transmedia storytelling not only because content can flow across media channels but also because social media and networked communications have created an audience that understands, enjoys, and seeks out this kind of activity and collaboration.

As media psychologists, we find transmedia storytelling exciting because it represents a movement away from the technology for it’s own sake and toward human experience. In spite of the breadth and dazzle of media technologies, transmedia storytelling is really about using technology in the service of a higher goal: connecting through storytelling.

Transmedia storytelling, because it constructs a story across different platforms and invites audience participation and collaboration, is simultaneously linear and multi-dimensional, and both individual and collaborative. Transmedia storytelling is not the same as taking content and ‘repurposing’ it for different media; it builds a story universe (what psychologists call a narrative) and invites the audience in. The storytellers take advantage of the characteristics of each medium—traditional and new—to contribute a distinct part of the narrative that is satisfying as a standalone experience. Yet each part also adds a unique and meaningful contribution to the overall story experience. Transmedia storytelling has multiple points of entry making accessible to different types of consumers and media-users. It relies on the audience and so it by necessity treats them with respect.  It does not “sell” them, but rather invites them to become co-participants to expand the narrative.

Companies have created remarkable immersive environments through story in Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) that tap the “collective intelligence” and integrate media experience with reality. ARGs are transmedia experiences that integrate platforms so seamlessly so that the real world becomes a functional extension of the gameplay. Players participate in an evolving narrative, seeking out and gathering information from multiple media sources to solve puzzles, and interact with characters and other players, real time in the real world. “The Beast,” created to promote the Spielberg film A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and I Love Bees, developed to engage fans prior to the release of the video game Halo 2, gathered thousands of participants who formed collaborative communities to solve problems presented by the narrative.

Many early adopters of this approach came from big budget entertainment franchises and product launches. In spite of these expensive and complex examples, however, transmedia storytelling is a fundamental approach to communications—internal and external—that all organizations should adopt. The drivers of the success do not rest on the economics, but on the quality and integrity of the story. While many scholars and practitioners approach transmedia storytelling with game studies or fan culture roots, the true power of transmedia storytelling rests on the story, not the articulated media elaborations. A story is created and experienced, first and foremost, in the mind. Engraving of early storytelling

The Psychological Power of Storytelling

Transmedia storytelling is very exciting, but it isn’t new. It is the ultimate mashup of ancient traditions and new communications models. There have been stories and messages delivered across different media every since the Cro-Magnon man figured out that mineral pigments like iron oxide and black manganese could be applied to the sides of rocks and caves. Whether chronicling life, communicating with others, or creating an inspirational image, there were stories being told. Media technologies have come a long way since cave painting and have so many new capabilities, that the orchestration of a story across multiple media platforms can be a complex creative endeavor. This is was a significant enough shift in application that in April 2010, the Producers Guild of America added a transmedia producer designation so the producers who expand a storyline onto three or more platforms can get credit.

Even with technology’s increasingly sophisticated and jaw-dropping capabilities, the tools are becoming simultaneously more accessible and user-friendly. So much so, that the boundaries are blurring not just across technologies but also across the people who are creating, using, producing, augmenting, distributing, hacking, mashing, and every other ‘-ing’ imaginable.

In spite of all the excitement, however, the human brain has been on a slower evolutionary trajectory than the technology. Our brains still respond to content by looking for the story to make sense out of the experience. No matter what the technology, the meaning starts in the brain. The transmedia producer may get the credit line, but the success of the transmedia effort rests on the resonance, authenticity, and richness created by the storyteller.

Stories are authentic human experiences. Stories leap frog the technology and bring us to the core of experience, as any good storyteller (transmedia or otherwise) knows. There are several psychological reasons why stories are so powerful.Stories are how we think

  • Stories have always been a primal form of communication. They are timeless links to ancient traditions, legends, archetypes, myths, and symbols. They connect us to a larger self and universal truths.
  • Stories are about collaboration and connection. They transcend generations, they engage us through emotions, and they connect us to others. Through stories we share passions, sadness, hardships and joys. We share meaning and purpose. Stories are the common ground that allows people to communicate, overcoming our defenses and our differences. Stories allow us to understand ourselves better and to find our commonality with others.
  • Stories are how we think. They are how we make meaning of life. Call them schemas, scripts, cognitive maps, mental models, metaphors, or narratives. Stories are how we explain how things work, how we make decisions, how we justify our decisions, how we persuade others, how we understand our place in the world, create our identities, and define and teach social values.
  • Stories provide order. Humans seek certainty and narrative structure is familiar, predictable, and comforting. Within the context of the story arc we can withstand intense emotions because we know that resolution follows the conflict. We can experience with a safety net.
  • Stories are how we are wired. Stores take place in the imagination. To the human brain, imagined experiences are processed the same as real experiences. Stories create genuine emotions, presence (the sense of being somewhere), and behavioral responses.
  • Stories are the pathway to engaging our right brain and triggering our imagination. By engaging our imagination, we become participants in the narrative. We can step out of our own shoes, see differently, and increase our empathy for others. Through imagination, we tap into creativity that is the foundation of innovation, self-discovery and change.

Social media technologies have created a demand for fundamentals: authenticity, participation, and engagement. Special effects and funny Super Bowl ads are fine, but they are expensive one-offs if they do not touch the core of experience. I don’t care how you calculate, that’s not going to get you a very good ROI. When organizations, causes, brands or individuals identify and develop a core story, they create and display authentic meaning and purpose that others can believe, participate with, and share. This is the basis for cultural and social change. This is a skill worth learning.

Pam gives workshops and presentations on transmedia storytelling and finding your story for corporate, nonprofit, and advocacy groups. She  also teaches Brand Psychology and Transmedia Storytelling and Audience Engagement through Persona Development at Fielding Graduate University.  These courses are offered through both the Master of Arts Program and through a special 3-course certificate program.  See details on the certificate at  Fielding Graduate University offered the first PhD program in media psychology in the world and still remains at the forefront of the field.