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  • Shannon Honl

Is there an art to (digital) storytelling?

My beautiful talented mom.

There most certainly is. We all have encountered people who have a gift for gab or a way with prose. It’s enviable. My mother, Christine Thomas, is one of those people. She’s witty, extroverted, and charming. And she’s a talented storyteller! After retiring as Dean of the College of Natural Resources at UW-Stevens Point in 2020, she picked up her pen and began writing for Wisconsin Outdoor News. In her bi-weekly “Little Cabin in the Woods” column, she writes about humble everyday adventures afield with friends, family, and dogs.

In response to her article “Letting (muzzleloader) smoke get in your eyes,” historian (and friend) Jen Snyder responded, “this is the best […] thing I have read all day. All week. All year!” It’s true; my mom has a knack for it. But she would not be considered a digital storyteller. Instead, she writes using a fountain pen and paper, transcribes on a laptop, and audiences read the print copy from their snail-mail box. It doesn’t get much more analog than that.

So how is digital storytelling different? According to futurist and writer Bryan Alexander, digital storytelling must be “born digital.” It differs from traditional methods because the content is created using digital techniques, launched on a digital platform, and consumed using digital devices. Think of vlogs, blogs, podcasts, social media, and video games. All of which require access via smart TVs, tablets, computers, mobile devices, and gaming consoles.

But digital storytelling encompasses techniques inherent to traditional methods as well. Alexander discusses the elements ubiquitous to all good stories in The New Digital Storytelling. Components such as a storyline – incident, complication, crisis, climax, and resolution – and techniques like “mythmaking” and plot twists help capture an audience. My mom’s traditional storytelling methods certainly embody these constitutive elements. But how does digital storytelling exemplify this?

Digital stories are everywhere – news media, marketing, TikTok. Some jade us, and others enrapture, leaving us wanting more. One example I find particularly compelling is this 2023 vehicle commercial, which always brings the biggest smile to my face. What about this commercial resonates with me? Why do I feel so nostalgic and affected when I watch it?

Alexander argues that good stories pique interest, grip emotions, prompt reflection, and add meaning to life. But, maybe most importantly, they make human connections. The best storytellers do this by distilling a complex experience familiar to the audience. For Alexander, digital stories “are events conveyed to an audience through the skillful use of media.” And the commercial does this in ways unattainable via traditional methods. I’m not the guy in the commercial, my residence doesn’t look anything like his, I don’t have kids, and I would never wear that sweater. Yet, like others, I have spent many memorable miles on the road with my furry traveling companion. The hook worked

Happy times on the road with my best traveling buddies.

Thoughtfully crafted and well-delivered content is hard work that requires honed skill and probably some natural talent. Regrettably, historians sometimes fall short of the enthralling mark. Thankfully there are influencers, journalists, marketers, writers like my mom, and documentarians like Ken Burns to show us how the art of storytelling is done.


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