A year ago, when I presented at Firestarters 3, I confessed my love of folk music.
Perhaps this was unwise, but I love the idea of folk music.
It’s built on the belief that there is no such thing as an ‘original’ version of a song.
The source is not important.
Folk songs exist in a state of perpetual renewal, you see. What counts is the interpretation.
It’s not the original version but people’s transformation of them that make up the substance of the song.
And at Wednesday’s Firestarters 6, Matt Locke made a compelling case for storytelling in the digital age being much the same.
Transgression, he said, is the true mark of effective storytelling these days.
Ideas change. Memes mutate. The story is what others make it.
Accept and design for that, he said, and you’ll harness the new models of attention that define online behaviour.
Give people the language to propagate the story for themselves.
Overall there was a powerful sense on Wednesday of traditions being reclaimed, supposed rules being revealed as mere conventions of recent history.
Because this ‘new’ model of story-telling isn’t new at all.
Yes, new technologies create new patterns of attention.
But from music halls to camp fires, stories have always been transmitted by groups. The ‘one big number’ mentality that ruled broadcast media was just an anomaly.
Ajaz Ahmed made a similar point about agencies. Their place in the creative process now – “factories that make 30″ TV ads and DPS’s” – belies their genesis as “ideas companies”.
And that’s something everyone at Firestarters would want to see return.
So, we’re back to – or at least prepared for – a world where storytelling is as much about listening and responding as it is talking.
Attention is the new currency. Recognising the new behaviours of audiences and adapting to the feedback is a critical part of remaining relevant.
And this takes work.
Matt Heiman talked compellingly about the agility required in digital storytelling. The story unfolds as the relationship develops between the assets (the content at our disposal) and the incoming information (the way people respond to it).
His job – and ours – is to create working processes that make joining these elements up as simple and efficient as possible.
It’s a modern-day call and response.
And it’s not just as it happens. This stuff takes preparation.
Matt H cited Milton Berle, a comedian who’s first five jokes would elicit signals from the audience that would define the rest of his set for that night.
When Matt L addressed Phil‘s question on balancing this need for both story structure and adaptability he gave perhaps the most practical and useful answer of the evening.
Have two plans.
A structured plan. One where you’ve outlined the beats you want to hit, and identified the key components that will generate attention.
And a responsive plan. One for contingency scenarios like too little or too much attention.
That adaptability takes groundwork, but it’s not something that an audience will – nor should – ever give you brownie points for.
In fact, as Ajaz suggested, it’s down to brands and producers of stories to inconvenience themselves for the benefit of audiences.
And as digital continues to disrupt itself more than it does anything else, the key evolutionary characteristic of innovation is simplicity.
But innovation is more than just a succession of developments that improve on what came before.
In fact, Ajaz told us that the best sort of innovation can create a “never-ending story” for a brand or company.
This entails not just product innovation, but social innovation – some form of “enduring mechanism” that creates a legacy and a self-perpetuating story of creativity.
Disney’s invention of the creative department. Ford’s innovation of the assembly line. Edison’s formalising of the R&D function.
These are innovations that don’t just change things once.
They set the initial conditions for perpetual renewal and for generations of stories even as attention patterns and behaviours change.
Just like a good folk song.
And perhaps too like the inspiring talks from both Matts and Ajaz.
Because once again, as thanks goes out to Neil Perkin and Google for organising another fab Firestarters, the next stage of the story will be what others make of it.