Digital Storytelling and the Rise of “Layered Narrative”

(Cross-posted from

MERCEDES-BENZ BRINGS US the story of a baby named “Crash,” a miracle to his parents for surviving a collision that, by the looks of the car his mom was driving, should have been impossible. It’s a chilling video piece, dramatic yet real; produced, yet personal.

But that’s just part of the story. There are also copies of the accident report; a freeway map to show where the accident occurred; and another video of the baby’s post-accident first steps. Another story about an aspiring athlete nearly killed by a drunken driver connects to pictures of the totaled vehicle and a live highway video feed.

Each of these narratives continue beyond the microsite. Web and iAds show us the storytellers but this time emphasize safety features. A slogan underscores the safety message and links to more information about Mercedes cars.

This is not the first experiment in telling a story differently based on the medium in which it’s told, with each line of narrative adding new information rather than repackaging. The Living Stories project tried it with journalism, and NBC’s “Heroes” did it with original webisodes and digital comic books.

Life is linear but living is not — and neither should be our storytelling.

As traditional online and social channels multiply, the way we tell and consume stories needs to change. We can’t express the same story the same way across media platforms — new distribution methods, from blogs and Twitter to tablets and smart phones, require that we tell distinct elements of a single narrative depending on the channel.

Each story layer contributes to the whole — the layers rely on each other, held together by the connective tissue of human emotion.

Welcome to the Age of the Layered Narrative.

Our Brains, Rewired
Today, right now, should be a new golden age for storytelling. We have all the information we could ever want at our fingertips. And that is the problem.

This blessing of plenty is also a curse. There is so much, coming at us so fast, that our brains can’t handle it. So in a desperate attempt at cognitive self-defense, we create more distance. Stories are now “content,” and words like “post” and “engagement” are the cold lingua franca for the Always On generation.

Our species craves stories; to us, stories are the intellectual fuel that drive us and bind us to each other. Thousands of years wired our brains for narratives, but a couple decades of e-mail and the Internet ripped our circuits and rewired our synapses, turning our minds into short attention span theaters.

Nevertheless, time is an arrow and technology is a bullet train — we can’t turn back nor should we. Our brains have adapted to a world of social media, 140 character bursts and life at light speed.

Fortunately, while our world can’t change, the way in which we approach storytelling can.

The solution: The Layered Narrative
If stories bring us together, then we need to make stories — narratives — the universal DNA of digital communication.

People have shared stories for centuries — from cave carvings to campfires and books to television, this is how culture passes through the generations. We tell stories, embellish them and create our own. Storytelling is as universal as breathing.

Many brands, however, haven't done this very well. The “early days” of social media marketing — you know, 2005 or so — saw brands simply putting their commercials on YouTube or posting press releases on their blogs. The "stories" were meant to be consumed, not shared. Narrative became lecture and story became content. The digital world expanded but how brands approached this new reality did not.

Layered narratives allow more space for interaction, sharing, collaboration and contribution. Every unique layer makes the source material stronger and the story more engaging. And because our involvement is essential to the story, we allow the story to transcend technology. We become the “social objects.” 

Research tells us that people need to be exposed to information multiple times before they remember or, more importantly, before they trust it. Layered narratives fulfill this need for a variety of touch points, giving people room both to consume and explore a story as well as inject their own layers.

And if people can find and assemble these layers, so should search. Smarter algorithms and social data will put the river of content into context, giving preferential treatment to layered storytelling. The parts will gel and rise together.

Layered narratives help ensure that marketing is not just integrated but that it also cohesive. It’s time to clear the way for a new generation of brand storytellers who abhor silos, crave interaction and embrace leaps of function and format as well as faith.

Multiple layers, varied content — but in the end, one powerful story.

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