Embracing the new literacy: Telling your story digitally

Written by
Tom Ritchie

19 Jul 2017

19 Jul 2017 • by Tom Ritchie

The way we communicate is ever evolving. Today, thanks to modern technology, we can send swathes of information across global networks at the click of a button – and can interact, socially and professionally – almost instantly.

Radio presenter, journalist and social psychologist Dr Aleks Krotoski defines the ability to understand these methods of communication as the ‘new literacy’; we are now required to be literate in social media, instant messaging, podcasts, and consuming and disseminating information in countless other ways.

As presenter of BBC Radio 4 series Digital Human, which examines the relationship between human behaviour and the use of the internet, Krotoski is fascinated by storytelling – and using new media to tell stories in innovative ways.

The new literacy

New channels of communication have had a profound effect on the way stories are told, she explains. Where once they took the form of didactic messages, delivered from the top down in a conventional format, they can now be developed by everyone and shared using multiple media, drawing on numerous sources. And a change in storytelling must be met by a willingness from organisations to experiment with the way they tell their own stories.

She advises companies to “tell stories in different ways. See what happens when you put your story in a different medium; it’s about crafting that story for your purposes,” she urges.

Her view is that, much as literature and music defines and reflects a generation’s tastes, technology both influences, and is influenced by, its users. ‘Literacy’ is constantly evolving alongside innovations in communication, from radio to television and now the internet.

“Your media era defines you,” says Krotoski. “We give to technology our experience; how we choose to use it, the importance that we give to technology, those are all socially contrived concepts. So naturally, we will have a digital script associated with each cultural moment in time, because that’s how we operate socially.

“Geniuses don’t just regurgitate what they’re told, they take in concepts and synthesise them and produce something new. The future workforce is going to have to synthesise vast amounts of data, vast amounts of information and create something that has internal consistency; that is coherent and means something to people.”

Creating community through storytelling

Born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and brought up in the US city of New Orleans, Krotoski came to prominence as a presenter of Channel 4’s late evening video gaming review show, Bits, and has presented Digital Human since 2011.

Inspired by the American author and storyteller Garrison Keillor, her fascination with the art of relaying information via stories has led her to explore the endless possibilities of new media.

“I’m coming to terms with the fact that is everybody is a storyteller,” she says. “We tell the stories of our lives everyday, through verbal and non-verbal methods of communication.”

“Everybody” includes organisations and, for corporate storytelling, the key story to communicate is origin. Being able to explain your company’s purpose coherently can clarify its identity, argues Krotoski.

“Knowing your origin story helps to solidify and cement the narrative you want to get across”, she says. “The origin story is compelling because it’s usually very personable; at the moment there’s a lot of first-person storytelling.”

She adds that as well as crystallising direction, stories can also build trust. By relaying business messages to employees, polling their opinions and looking for insights, the story told to the outside world can only become stronger.

“If you are able to create a narrative within your organisation that incorporates everybody’s perspectives, or at least passes by everybody’s view on what is happening, you will have a sense of community within the organisation.”

She believes this sense of community can encourage staff to stay with the company and enhance their creativity and innovation, also bleeding into the interactions between businesses and their primary customers.

“Say you’re running a plumbing business; you might think that you don’t have a story to tell about plumbing, but in fact, there might be a story that makes you more compelling to a customer,” she suggests. “These new means of communicating allow many who don’t have a traditional skill in storytelling to tell a story in different ways. You will get feedback that reaches you in a different way.”

Creating all-rounders

Given the evolution of communication, what skills will be needed by the next generation of digital literates? Much has been made of the need to encourage take up of STEM subjects, as a way of future proofing workforces; in particular, young women, who are currently under-represented in these fields.

Krotoski, named as one of the games industry’s 100 most influential women in 2006 and a “top ten girl geek” by CNET, is well placed to offer insights. During her tenure on the Bits gaming show, she was regularly sought out by young girls asking how to get involved in technology, and recommended studying a broad range of subjects, rather than over-specialising.

“They’d ask ‘should I take a game design course?’, and I’d say ‘no take an English literature course, take a psychology course, biology, maths, something else you are interested in’,” says Krotoski. “If you take that knowledge into your games or technologies, your web designs, you’re not just regurgitating how the technology has been built with men in mind.”

Thinking creatively

This all-round approach will be required in future workforces, she asserts. Rather than a system of rote learning, in which the technology is central to understanding, developing the skills needed to interact with technological advancements should be prioritised.

“It’s about having world criticism,” argues Krotoski. “You may not be incredibly skilled in a specific area, but if you have the ability to synthesise, to think creatively, to problem solve, to be resilient, and have digital skills, you will be able to learn quickly how best to tackle questions arising from lack of knowledge.

“To compete globally, rather than churning out doctors or accountants, think about how to create people who can slot in and enjoy what they’re doing across any particular specific area,”she concludes.