After last fall's Future of StoryTelling summit in New York City, founder Charlie Melcher asked me to write a short essay summing up the experience for a book that would be sent to attendees. As a member of FoST's board of advisors, I was happy to do so. But since the one-day summit featured nearly two dozen roundtables headed by people ranging from Robert Wong of Google Creative Lab to Shannon Loftis of Xbox Entertainment Studios to Eddy Moretti of Vice, it was impossible to sum up the entire thing. So here's what struck me:
Every successful conference puts an idea in play. For me, the second annual Future of StoryTelling Summit was all about rediscovering the audience. During the last century, mass media—newspapers, magazines, radio, television—forced audiences into an increasingly passive and marginalized role. To the extent that audiences mattered at all, it was as consumers—“eyeballs” to be lured to some destination, sorted into demographics, packaged by the thousand, and sold to advertisers. Those days are ending—and one of the most important things we can do is explore the implications.
We need to remember, first of all, that storytelling is a partnership, an act of co-creation, not a matter of the author leading the audience by the nose. But this raises questions of control—as in, who controls the story, the author or the audience? After 150 years of mass media, we find it all too easy to assume that by taking any posture other than utter passivity, the audience is going to usurp the role of the author: It’s choose-your-own-adventure or nothing. But that’s not actually what most audiences want.
If you look at the stories people respond to—popular TV shows with a strong social media following, for instance—they’re the ones that have a strong author, an author with something to say and a compelling way of saying it. How could it be otherwise? People want a story they can immerse themselves in—an emotionally gripping narrative they can in some way inhabit. They’re asking to be a passenger, not an onlooker. So as an author, how do you make room for them without giving them the wheel? That’s the question.