Campfire 15: The Sparks

For WXO Experimental Campfire 15, we invited AdventureLAB founder Klaus Paulsen to become our latest Firestarter with a talk based on his new book, Integrated Storytelling by Design: Concepts, Principles and Methods for New Narrative Dimensions. Read the full debrief here.

The topic of storytelling is always one that throws up some interesting ideas – see Campfire 3: The End of Storytelling for more on the subject – so once Paulsen had introduced the revolutionary concept of the “storyverse”, we let our Founding Circle loose and watched the Sparks fly. 

Stories are a platform for co-creation

Inspired by the idea of non-linear storytelling, experiential entertainment entrepreneur Louis Alfieri kicked off the conversation.

“In creating an experience, it’s really a platform for engagement and co-creation with a guest. You are allowing the opportunity for others to contribute to the creative process and take something away from that, as well as a shared experience and common bond.”

Louis Alfieri

The building blocks of the story become a platform for people to have their own non-linear story experience. Mike Lai is reminded of how Marvel have created a universe for their characters, compared to the more linear world of DC Comics.

“When you look at the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe in terms of plotting the journey of each of the characters, in older movies characters would come in and leave just to push the hero’s journey along. But now you have so many characters and you can literally follow a character’s arc across multiple movies – it may not be their own franchise, but you still can see that journey.”

Mike Lai

When creating a story, the audience is everything

Theron Skees points out that no filmmaker, author, or anyone who builds an immersive environment, would do so without considering their audience first. You’d never tell a story the same way in Southern California as you would in Shanghai.

“So as story creators, the audience is everything. Because the story doesn’t work unless it resonates with the audience that you’re telling it to. A large part of beginning your story is understanding your audience, as you might discover that a live performance is a better way to communicate with them, or writing a book, or spectacular fireworks.”

Theron Skees

How we tell stories will differ for audiences in different parts of the world – in Japan, for example, storytelling is often more open-ended. Alfieri recently wrote an article on the subject of storytelling and culture alongside Amy Kole, talking about the differences between storytelling in the East and West.

“The Hero’s Journey is a universal archetype that translates across all cultures. It’s a human development cycle versus an individual cultural one. What you have is a difference in what the hero represents, and how they make that journey, and how that’s interpreted culturally. In Western storytelling, you’re typically following one character through that Hero’s Journey. In Eastern storytelling, The Hero’s Journey may be a group of people or a community.”

Louis Alfieri

Charlotte-Amélie Veaux agrees that you have to build a story for your audience knowing the references and context they are going to bring with them. She’s currently working on an audio project inspired by Japanese mythology, and is discovering that people from different cultures will respond differently depending on the stories and references they have in their own history.

“It’s about how you bring in the illusion of participation. That seems very counterintuitive as immersive experience designers, but it can work. In our experience, there is no interactivity. But people really feel that they’re part of the story.”

Charlotte-Amélie Veaux

Turning an archetypal journey into a personal one

Alfieri thinks that the world of gaming offers a window into how we might use co-creation to turn the archetypal Hero’s Journey into a personalised one.

“When you play a game like Assassin’s Creed, you have the ability to interact on a linear level and play through the storyline as it’s written. You also have the ability to do mission-based experiences within that storyline, or the opportunity to also be an open-sandbox explorer and disregard all missions, disregard the storyline, and interact with people at your own will. They all function within the universal archetype of this character, with you as the participant influencing the outcome.”

Louis Alfieri

How can we design for this level of co-creation?

Eddie Kemsley wonders if, given that everyone engages with an experience or story differently, is it okay to create stories that appeal to certain audiences and therefore exclude others? Can we be all things to all men?

Jenny Gottstein also has concerns about designing for individuals when it came to the topic of trauma. “I’m really interested in learning how designers understand what trauma their audience might be bringing into their experience, and how to design appropriately without causing further harm,” she says. (This makes us think of Paul Bulencea’s thoughts on designing to accommodate trauma in Campfire 7: Is It Possible To Design For Transformation?)

For Alfieri, it all comes back to the idea of world-building and the open sandbox.

“Some people will engage at a superficial level, some will immerse themselves in great detail. And some won’t be interested at all. That’s when you look at these different demographics, and create micro experiences for each of these different constituents. That gives you the freedom to interact with people, and for them to interact with the experience. A theme park is a platform – you control the overarching narrative story. But it’s an open sandbox. Once you’re within that space, each family is creating their own experience and their own moments throughout the day that you have no narrative control over.”

Louis Alfieri

An uncomfortable audience is no bad thing

Mat Duerden makes us consider whether our audience feeling uncomfortable because of non-linear structure is a bad thing, or in fact another way to get them to participate in it.

In experience design, there’s this concept of interleaving. Research shows that instead of teaching concept A, concept B, concept C, concept D, which is how we usually teach things, it’s better to teach concept A, D, C, go back to A, go to B, go to A, and so on – because people pay better attention. It can be uncomfortable for students. But in the end, they’re going to retain things more, because they paid attention more intentionally. So I love this idea of non-linear micro stories. Because within a story, we settle in as we know how it’s going to unfold. But if it doesn’t unfold that way, we pay attention even more, even though it might be uncomfortable.”

Mat Duerden

Micro stories lead to micro climaxes

Skees and Lai discuss how in a built environment, such as a theme park, the opportunity to create micro stories in different areas through attractions, shows and so on also enable you to introduce micro climaxes on a different scale.

“Certain spaces or certain times of day can have those climaxes. You could have a greater story that’s happening, but certain events could occur throughout that time period. You can blend micro stories with a greater storyline.”

Mike Lai

Integrated storytelling in the real world

According to Skees, storytelling can also be a powerful tool for convincing clients of the value of a creative idea.

“Selling a creative idea, or a story, to a client who is bottom-line driven is extremely difficult. But story is the way that all of us humans communicate the best. I’ve been the most successful when I’ve wrapped and encapsulated a business’ brand, audience and objectives within a story. Once you get the client to buy into the story, then you have a Northstar: something that everybody can align with, including the client. A story can be the tool that drives business.”

Theron Skees

Lai is interested in storytelling’s application in the customer journey.

“What’s really fascinating about micro stories is that we have a very similar diagram when we design for clients, where we break down a customer journey across multiple scenarios. Each of these scenarios are essentially micro stories. The customer gets to choose which of these scenarios they go through. They may occur in a different order. They don’t want to necessarily hear about the story of the brand. But they want to be able to see they’ve achieved their goal and their objectives along the way, and your brand is at this place, and this time, a part of that journey.”

Mike Lai

And when it comes to employees, Duerden also thinks that storytelling is the key to getting them to buy in on a brand’s mission.

“I did some research looking at organizations that have corporate social responsibility missions. It was only those employees that had opportunities to tell that CSR mission why they donated to certain causes that felt that it was even important. Just the act of storytelling got people to buy in. Providing opportunities for people to tell stories can help them then adopt the story.”

Mat Duerden

Skees agrees, saying:

“If your frontline employees don’t know how to communicate your brand story to your guests, you’re going to lose it. More time should be spent on how to communicate the story to guests, visitors and customers than on developing the story itself.”

Theron Skees

The WXO Take-Out

Whether you’re building a theme park or writing a play, working on the customer journey or educating employees, by thinking of stories as strings or building blocks of “micro stories”, you open up whole new possibilities for co-creation and deeper engagement.

By involving participants in the story experience design process, you also liberate them to go away and create their own stories, making you a better experience designer in the process.

As to whether we should bin all the old story structures – we think they still have a part to play, but by looking at how you can rearrange, remix and reimagine the traditional components of, for example, The Hero’s Journey, you might end up somewhere more unexpected, exciting and attention-grabbing than you otherwise would.

Buy Klaus’s book here and get 20% off when you use code SMA05.

Interested in taking part in discussions about experiences and the Experience Economy? Apply to become a member of the WXO here – to come to Campfires, become a better experience designer, and be listed in the WXO Black Book.