Storytelling is always evolving, and that’s a good thing

Much has been made of how digital technologies and mobile devices have resulted in shorter attention spans. That’s doubtless true—can you think of a time you made it through an article without at least one other thing vying for your attention? Technology has enabled the easy creation and distribution of all types of content, meaning that the options for our attention have risen dramatically.

Rather than being a recent development, this trend is just the latest in a decades-old progression from longer-form content across all channels to more accessible, bite-size pieces. Print publications have largely been supplanted by digital content; traditional broadcast programming has been replaced by shorter pieces on YouTube; the tyranny of over-the-air radio stations has given way to iTunes Radio, Pandora, and Spotify. And with these innovations, the traditional forms of storytelling and their distribution have also evolved.

But let’s take a step back and acknowledge that effective storytelling has always exploited the limitations and possibilities of available formats at the time as well as how people prefer to get their content. And great storytelling has always superseded formats: Shakespeare’s work has been adapted to suit different eras while retaining its essence. Keith Haring only needed a blank city wall. Often, storytellers can use the benefits and limitations of those formats to enhance the impact of their ideas.

Readers of this blog will know that our company is fond of its vinyl. When you play an LP, you quickly remember that when it was the preferred format for recorded music, the artists basically had a captive audience. Once you drop the needle on the first tune of a side, you’re along for the ride. So to excel, artists had to create, record, and sequence an album of around 45 minutes (more than that and the sound quality drops considerably) in a way that would pull the listener through.

Now I can say from experience that most albums have at least a little filler. The 1968 Sly and the Family Stone release Stand! has some of my favorite tunes of all time—“I Wanna Take You Higher,” “Stand!,” “Sing a Simple Song,” “Everyday People,” “You Can Make It if You Try.” Mixed amid those classics is a nearly 14-minute song called “Sex Machine” that is every bit as interminable as James Brown’s song by the same name is a perfectly distilled piece of funk. Why did Sly do it? Besides the fact that he was churning out a lot of product at the time and may have needed a respite, he likely also knew that most listeners aren’t going to get up and try to move the needle just to skip a song they don’t like. By contrast, think how easy it is to hit “skip” or “next” on your phone when a song comes up that you don’t love. And love is the new measurement for success. A mere “OK” or “pretty good” often warrants a pass since passing is so easy—since we know we have better options at our disposal.

Thought leadership has undergone a similar evolution. Fifteen years ago, the 3,000-word article, usually in a printed journal, reigned supreme as the vessel for a serious discussion of business issues, analytical rigor, and detailed examples. In the time before mass adoption of mobile devices, the only reason someone would put down their print journal was to pick up another print journal. But as times have changed, the emphasis has shifted to tantalizing headlines, shorter articles, and lots of visuals.

So what does it mean for companies trying to reach and engage their target audience with content? And how should they adjust their approach?

Longer-form content is still hugely important, but it—like the LP—is no longer enough to attract and keep an audience’s attention. In a world where executives have so many competing demands on their time, many won’t even think about dedicating themselves to a 3,000-word article—unless they can be absolutely sure that it contains valuable insights. We want every single word, like we want every single song on the album, to add value, or we’ll skip it and look for a piece that’s more to our liking or more to the point.

That’s why it’s important for companies to create multiple entry points in multiple formats to this more substantive content. But rather than seeing this development as the end of a more sophisticated era, companies would do well to embrace these opportunities. Now the paths to your ideas are limited only by your creativity in using different channels—from social media, multimedia (videos, podcasts, webinars), and shorter-from content (blogs) to more visual models of storytelling (infographics, online interactives)—to reach your target audience.

What’s more, these formats enable new types of storytelling that not only make more of an impact but also enable companies to track user behavior. And all of that helps content better support your overarching objectives, from reputation building to sales and business development.

In subsequent blogs, I’ll dig deeper into how some of these different formats can open up new ways of connecting with your audience.

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of Leff. He's spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he's had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of "lean content creation" as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

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