Why Storytelling is So Powerful in The Digital Era: Ashley Fell (Transcript)

Ashley Fell at TEDxUniMelb

Full text of social analyst Ashley Fell’s talk: Why storytelling is so powerful in the digital era at TEDxUniMelb conference. In this talk, Ashley shows how, even in our world of screens, social media and ever-emerging technology, it is the timeless power of storytelling, harnessing the unmatched visual platform that is the human mind, that best informs, instructs, involves and inspires audiences.

Notable quote from this talk:

“Our biggest fears globally are no longer spiders, snakes, and heights. But rather we fear low Wi-Fi, we fear the buffering circle, and, most importantly, we fear the low battery symbol when all forms of communication and connectivity cease to exist.”

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Ashley Fell – Social Analyst & Communicator

I wonder what your favorite story was when you were younger. Perhaps it was a story that your parents read to you over and over again.

Well, mine was “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle. You see, it’s a story that evokes emotion in me, because it’s the book that my mom used to read to me over and over again. You know, back in the day, when we actually read books.

But if you’re familiar with this book, you’ll know that, as the name suggests, the caterpillar is indeed born very, very hungry. And he actually eats really well for the first week of his life.

Monday, he ate through one apple. Tuesday – two pears. Wednesday – three plums etc.

But then, if you’re familiar again with the story, you’ll know that on Saturday, he tends to splurge just a bit. And I think, it’s really cute at the bottom; it says, “That night he had a stomach ache.”

Now, a good story is one that you can identify with, and I identify with the protagonist of this book. You see, sometimes I’m like, “I’m going to eat really healthy this week; it’s going to be awesome.”

And then it gets to a certain point in the day, or it gets to the weekend, and you kind of eat everything that you can see.

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But all this is to say, I guess, that we again identify, and some of you might not identify with this. You might be really disciplined. So I thought, perhaps for you, it could be that we could, maybe, create an adaptation of this book. And maybe we could call it “The Very Hangry Caterpillar” because, I’m sure, a lot of us have felt that emotion at one time or other in our lives.

But all this is to say that stories are extremely powerful.

Well, my name is Ashley Fell, and I’m the head of communications at McCrindle Research. We are a Sydney-based research agency.

Now, I bet you’re wondering, “What does research have to do with communications?” And I have been asked this question before in my life when I studied a Bachelor of Communications. And any arts degree students out there will understand my pain, I think. We get a bit of a bad rep sometimes.

But I just want to say in our research, that we discuss a lot about the future of work, the future workforce, and what’s going to happen with digitalization, and automation, and things like that. And a lot of that focus is on the STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and math.

And while I don’t want to undermine what these amazing students do, our research has shown that it’s those that have the soft skills, the interpersonal skills, the communication skills, leadership that are going to have a really great chance of withstanding automation when the robots come and things like that.

So I was thinking, we’ll let the science students have the STEM, and I reckon us, art students, will take the CLASS. [Communications, Literature, Art, and Social Skills]

But really, communications? What does communications have to do with research?

Well, in our research, we deal with a lot of data that looks like this: quantitative, surveys, statistics, numbers etc. We also deal with qualitative data, which is long and wordy research and findings from surveys and in-depth interviews and focus groups.

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We also deal with the ABS. Not sure if anyone has had any experience with that, but we analyze this data because, frankly, not many people wake up wanting to pour over spreadsheets every single day.

So that is our job; that’s what we do. We analyze the data. We analyze this kind of data, and we turn it into this. We turn it into infographics, and this is our passion. This is – we are all about bringing research data to life. You know, important research sitting in statistics and Excel spreadsheets isn’t going to get the kind of cut-through that it needs to get in the world that we live in, because our world is changing.

You see, we’re living in a time of great change. In Australia today, in the generation that we’re living, you know, our education, our learning styles are changing, our classrooms are changing.

We live in a world where the concept of sharing has changed. We live in a world where the concept of a story has changed – and even for us young adults out there.

So much so that we’re living in an age of digital disruption. We are living in what we call “The Great Screen Age.” You see, we are spending more time on our devices than we ever have before.

And it was two decades ago, in the year 1997, that the amount of time we spend on electronic media surpassed the amount of time we spend in face-to-face interaction. And so in this “Great Screen Age,” not only are we spending more time on technology, but our attention spans are getting shorter.

Just to depict it to you visually, what is happening in our world today. So this is in 2005, outside the historic location of the Sistine Chapel – people gathering for the inauguration of Pope Benedict. Do you note the small Nokia phone in the bottom right-hand corner?

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Fast-forward eight years later to the inauguration of Pope Francis in the exact same historic location. And this is what it looks like.

We are living in technologically integrated times. It’s almost as if we are filtering the current through the technological lens. This is the world that we live in; our world is changing.

And, as I mentioned, our attention spans are contracting. The ABC content-rich website with multiple news programs and all that kind of thing – the average visitor is spending just three minutes and 55 seconds, and that’s one of the top-rated sites. You know, YouTube and Facebook up that average, but for content-rich sites, it’s just three minutes and 55 seconds per day for the average user.

But how much has this changed for my generation? For your generation?

You know, if you are a uni student, and your age is under the 23 kind of age thing, then you are classified as Generation Z. And I’m just above that, I’m Gen Y. And these are some of the other labels given to the emerging Generation Z: the “Digital Integrators,” the “Screenagers,” the “Generation Connected.” They’re the “iGen,” “Digital Natives,” “Dot Com Kids,” “Generation Gamers,” and the “Click’N Go Kids.”

What is the one central theme in all those labels? Technology, isn’t it? And it’s interesting because we know that Generation Z and all of us are global now. We are globally connected, as well as digital, social, mobile, and visual.

And our biggest fears globally are no longer spiders, snakes, and heights. But rather we fear low Wi-Fi, we fear the buffering circle, and, most importantly, we fear the low battery symbol when all forms of communication and connectivity cease to exist.

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