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Preserving The Story

Is a “live” storyteller better than a “recorded” storyteller?

To be honest, I hadn’t given that much thought.  Indeed, I was a major proponent of digitally recording great corporate storytelling presentations so that a vital history of the company could be retained after key storytellers had left.

Now, I’m not sure that is the best approach.

My epiphany came after reading an article this week in The Japan Times.  The title was “Aging hibakusha teaching young to pass on their stories” and the complete text can be found at http://www.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/nn20120808a3.html.

The essence of the story is that the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Museum has engaged witnesses of the atomic bombing to tell their stories to visitors and endorse a plea for peace (most often to elementary and junior high school students).  The emotional impact on the listeners can be readily imagined.

The problem is that the average age of the storytellers is 80.2 years, and many are in declining health.  The Hiroshima Municipal Government has sought to record these stories for future generations, but are aware that the loss of “the human factor” in live storytelling will be sorely missed.

An official of the International Peace Promotion Department stated, "We want memories of the bombing to be told by real human beings so that they are handed down as poignant messages.”

Their innovative solution is to train a new generation of storytellers as “witnesses” to continue sharing the message in a live environment.  137 applicants have enrolled to participate and they are learning the stories from the existing witnesses.

Since reading the article, I have been thinking back on the recorded storytelling presentations that have impressed me.  I then reflected on many of the “live” storytelling presentations that I have seen.  The in-person presentations were always more involving.

Oh, there have been recordings that meant a lot to me.  For instance, it was wonderful to have the chance to see and hear Will Rogers deliver his insightful, humorous commentaries.  Also, some audio recordings from early in the last century provided a depth that went beyond reading the words on paper.

I mentioned Boris Karloff in an earlier posting, and I recall director Peter Bogdanovich telling how the film crew on TARGETS burst into simultaneous applause when Karloff delivered an on-screen telling of “An Appointment in Sumatra” in one take.  I’ve seen the film numerous times and, although I also appreciate the scene, I don’t feel the urge to applaud at the end of the story as those on the set did.

Were the crew members too easily pleased?  Or did I have to Be There?

There is little doubt that most audiences invest more of themselves in a live performance.  Why spend so much money to go to a concert when professional recordings can be downloaded at a fraction of the cost online?  Critics have often told how Laurence Olivier’s shriek on-stage in KING LEAR sent a chill through them that has never been equaled.  Recordings don’t capture that “electrifying shock.”

Live performances also add an “anything can happen” feeling to the presentations.  Sometimes it is not unlike watching a high-wire act.  “Seeing it live” adds to the thrill.

That argues against immediately jumping to the idea of using recordings to capture important storytelling experiences.  We already tend to suspend disbelief when we listen to a good story.  Otherwise, we would be unable to enjoy the latest installment of IRON MAN or many of our favorite television shows.

When we add to that the emotional involvement of attending the live event, the advantage becomes clear.  This can create the ultimate environment for audience engagement.

What does this mean for corporate storytelling?  I would suggest that we probably shouldn’t rush too quickly into the video-capture solution.  There may be a different way…a better way…to capture those especially meaningful presentations.

Remember that advertisement “Is it live or is it Memorex?”  Not to disparage the product, but audiences CAN tell.

Thank you for reading.