In Episode 20 of the Together London Podcast, I talk to Felicia Pride about transmedia storytelling, collaboration, and people skills.
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Jonathan Kahn: I’m speaking to Felicia Pride, who’s joining me from Washington, DC today. She’s a creator, convener, and strategist. She teaches, speaks, and creates on the intersection of storytelling, media, and technology. Felicia, thanks so much for joining me today.
Felicia Pride: Thank you for having me, Jonathan.
Jonathan: So you do work in this area called transmedia storytelling. This is a fantastic term and I think one that is a bit difficult to get our head around. So could you just start off by telling us what you mean by transmedia storytelling?
Felicia: In the simplest terms transmedia storytelling is telling a story over multiple platforms, and each platform tells a different piece of the story. Often people think about transmedia as telling the same story over different platforms. But it’s really about thinking about how these different pieces and these different platforms can add value to the story. Using them to extend the story, using them to go where audiences are, using them to go deeper. But definitely each platform tells a different piece of the story. That’s the big differentiating element of transmedia storytelling.
I became very interested in transmedia, just the idea of cross-platform storytelling after working at book publishing. I worked there in the marketing department, so at a time where people were very nervous about the plight of the book publishing industry, reading, and, “people don’t read anymore”. All these things were going around.
It was my goal to try to think about different ways to reach audiences. When I started to think about books — and this is around the time that ebooks were being introduced — I noticed, or at least I thought about, the fact that it wasn’t necessarily format that grips people all the time. Often it’s the story. Then format becomes a preference, or it can become a way that they best consume information or that makes most sense to them.
So I started to think about content, storytelling, and narrative much more broadly beyond format, and thinking about format as a tool. More than leading with format, I thought about leading with story, leading with content, and thinking about different ways to disseminate the content across platforms beyond the printed book.
That got me very interested in transmedia and working with projects that think about different ways to tell the story, and think about different platforms that are now available to us to tell as story, but also to reach different audiences.
For me, my interest in transmedia, I know it’s a buzzword and everybody defines it differently, but I look at it as a framework. I’m very interested in the theories behind transmedia and how they can apply to different settings, and how they can apply to different projects, whatever the case is.
Theories like immersion — being able to immerse people into a story or into content. The idea of participatory storytelling, or just participation period, within a narrative or within content is very interesting to me.
Cross-platform delivery, story extensions, worldbuilding, those type of theories of transmedia interest me. I know the term is thrown around a lot, but I think that it provides a really interesting framework for a lot of different settings.
Jonathan: What I’m hearing you say is that we traditionally think of story, or media, or art as being the format itself. You write a novel because you’re a novelist, and a novelist doesn’t tweet or publish videos. You’re saying, “Well, hang on, why can’t we look at the story.” Now that there are all these different platforms and ways of engaging people, and time scales, and everything, even something as simple as the fact that Amazon now sells these very short books called “singles,” for example. Suddenly the idea of what a novelist is isn’t really tied to that form anymore.
Felicia: Right, and that makes people nervous, which is understandable. But I also think it opens up the door to collaboration across types of artists. I think it opens a lot of doors. That’s not to say that there’s no room for a specific format and leaving it in that format, and only that format. But I think that there’s something very interesting about this framework that transmedia provides when we think about audience engagement, when we think about community-building, when we think about extending the life of a project, and the promotion of a project.
This is me coming from a marketing background. There’s a lot within transmedia that I think could be helpful in that regard.
Jonathan: There’s two things, since you’re making me think of it. It’s filling my brain with these ideas. One of them is I had Rob Hinchcliffe, who I think you may have seen his talk when he came to Confab London.
Felicia: Yeah, and I loved his talk. [laughs]
Jonathan: He was on this podcast a while back. He worked with his agency TH_NK at the time with Channel Four on this project called the Utopia Inquiry. Basically they did the digital side of this — it wasn’t a documentary, it was like a drama. He said that in TV traditionally, mostly people think of the web or stuff that isn’t the program as being supporting material. They would do stuff like give you background to the characters, or outtakes or that kind of thing, where it’s supplementary.
What they’re trying to do now is transmedia storytelling, and transmedia commissioning at Channel Four is to say, “Well, actually if it’s going to be something digital, then we need to make it part of the story. We need to make it something that’s worth going to in its own right.”
Felicia: Right, that can stand on its own. Yeah.
Jonathan: The other thing it’s making me think of is, are you familiar with the company Punchdrunk, who do the immersive theater stuff?
Jonathan: They have a show over there in New York called “Sleep No More,” but they’re actually from London, that company. I’ve been to “Sleep No More” twice, even though I live in London, because both times I went to New York I was like, “We have to see it, it’s so amazing.” They’ve just opened their new show just around the corner from here called “The Drowned Man.” Basically, it’s a different story. It’s not Shakespeare. It’s a play called “Woyzeck.” It’s very similar. It’s got a very large set, which you run around and follow these people.
Basically, Punchdrunk theater says you don’t sit down in a theater and watch theater. You actually walk through a massive — basically like a film set — and you follow the actors. You can go in any direction you want, and you have to run really quite fast if you want to keep up with any specific actor and figure out what’s going on.
They interact with you and they touch you. They take you into secret spaces and performances. It’s all very different to theater as you think about it. It’s just very noticeable when you’re there that they use all these practices that are not traditionally part of theater, like game design. It’s very cinematic.
There’s all this sound design they do, which is very important to how it goes. There’s an incredible amount of coordination between all the characters. The timing of it is incredible, and it all seems to be coordinated by this soundtrack. You just go there and it’s overwhelming, all the different things happening.
It’s also this really emotional experience that you would never get sitting back watching. That’s at what you would call the artistic end of this. This production, they were doing it with the National Theatre here in London. It’s arts, right? You’re talking about marketing. I know you’ve done work in education, as well. Tell me about that.
Felicia: I just want to piggyback off what you’re saying, because there are conversations within theater about, it’s taboo to take out your phone and do something while watching a show. Now there are theater companies and theater productions that are interested in having the audience participate, whether it’s through live tweeting or whatever the case is. It does make people nervous, right? I think that was one of the things — I love books, but I had to break away from, in terms of here’s this idea in the industry that there’s something wrong with you if you don’t want to read books. Oh my gosh, you have to want to read books.
Then as I get older, I’m like, “Well, what if people just prefer the information in a different way? It’s not necessarily that it’s an intellectual thing. Maybe it’s just a taste thing, and maybe it’s just a preference.” That also I think has to do with me being a teacher and a educator, and not bringing this type of bias into the classroom. Yeah, it makes people nervous.
That’s what’s interesting to me about transmedia, is that even though I am a storyteller, I’m a writer by trade, I don’t just look at transmedia as a framework for storytelling. Even though it’s story-driven, that it only refers to media projects. I really am interested in how it can be used in other settings, particularly in the education setting.
I recently wrote this piece that pondered….One of the big challenges as an educator is definitely engagement. How do you have genuine engagement with your students? When I mean engagement, I mean from top to bottom. Not just them paying attention in class, but them being active participants in their learning experience, them being active participants in the designing of the learning experience.
When I think about transmedia I feel a lot of those elements that I mentioned can help with that. When we think about worldbuilding, whether that’s physical worldbuilding in terms of how the classroom and the learning takes place, but also content worldbuilding. How are we building this world, whether its unit, whether it’s a lesson plan, how are we building that out?
Thinking about — how can we create extensions that delve further into the story and other parts of the story that aren’t necessarily normally covered? How do we have students participate in the narrative, or the design of the narrative? How do we immerse them in the content?
A lot of the properties of transmedia had me thinking, “Oh, OK. These could be interesting principles or tools for educators.”
Jonathan: Can you give us some examples in your education work, like what formats you’ve used, how it works?
Felicia: Definitely, these are all new questions that I’ve been asking myself. But a couple of tools I’m really interested in using going forward, one is definitely trying to create immersive experiences in the classroom and what that might look like. Because, you have to meet objectives, you have to meet outcomes, you have to be able to test their knowledge of what’s going on. So trying to think about ways to create these immersive experiences in my classroom.
Also, I’m very interested being able to use worldbuilding. Using that as a way to build curricula. For instance, a curricula project that I worked on was “Slavery by Another Name.” I literally had to use narrative development, and have a story arc, and pull out the characters, and think about this world in order to build the curricula.
Jonathan: This was a documentary, is that right?
Felicia: Yeah, it was a documentary about forced labor in the United States after the Civil War. It’s a little known history, but it’s a very expansive history that goes deep into other parts of that time period. Had to be able to capture that in a way that made sense for English teachers, social studies teachers, civic teachers, et cetera. I used narrative development. I used very crude sort of worldbuilding elements to it in order to create this curriculum. Going forward in my work I want to be able to use that tool to create very rich curricula or lessons using that as a tool.
I’m also very interesting cross-platform. How can I deliver information to my students across platforms, particularly those platforms where they are? The classroom is one of those places.
But often the classroom itself can be a barrier for some communities, for some students. Thinking about ways to deliver the information across platforms, to deliver different parts of the information across platforms, that’s also something that I’m thing about a lot in my classroom.
Jonathan: It’s interesting. I know a friend of mine told me, a couple of years ago she was a teacher in the UK. She was asked to give a presentation to parents, which I think she, in the end, refused to give, basically, which said, “It’s really bad to use Wikipedia.” That’s what they’re I supposed to tell their children because they had this problem where they want to test the children and they feel that knowing the answers from the Internet is cheating.
I can sort of try and sympathize with it, like, “Well, I was trained,” the teacher’s saying, “To get them to process information and read it back to me. This doesn’t make sense when they can just find it out using a machine.” It’s quite threatening to their worldview.
Felicia: Yeah, it’s interesting because I do see a lot of resistance, particularly, to technology in the classroom. But the thing is, there’s still a lot of things that, even these “digital natives,” these students who are used to using a phone, and maybe used to using computer, there are still things that they have to learn. In my class what I find is, even if the Internet is available to them, knowing where to go, and how to evaluate the legitimacy of a website, a lot of data literacy skills. It’s shifting in terms of what we have to teach, but we still have to teach them things, even though the technology is available.
We still have these digital literacy gaps that we need to fill. There’s been a shift, but the shift has definitely been uncomfortable for a lot of educators.
Jonathan: Yeah, that seems like a theme in what you’ve been saying. We’ve been brought up in certain structures, and cultures, and, basically, silos about where certain activities happen. “Literature happens in paper books, and learning happens in classrooms, and children read textbooks,” and all these things are falling apart. Or documentaries you watch on television, for example. All these things are falling apart. What I’m hearing from you is that one of the problems with that is that we, who have been brought up in the silos, are quite attached to them, really.
Felicia: Yeah, I’m remembering our earlier conversation talking a lot about conditioning. I think that’s part of the conversation, too. We get conditioned to believe things have to be a certain way. We want to turn out students who are critical thinkers, and creative, and imaginative, yet the systems and the structures that we have in place, I won’t say do not at all, they don’t necessarily completely support that.
We have to take a step back and look at what type of students we want to help nurture, in terms of what we want them to become, and help them become, versus the systems, and the processes, and the information that we use and that we pass down to them.
Jonathan: The interesting thing is, if you think about the public school system here or there, it’s very similar. If you think about the constraint under which it was designed or built was this kind of industrial economy where, at the end of this process, you’re supposed to basically get a job in the factory, or maybe get a good job in an office. That isn’t the world that you or I actually face out there — definitely not in the rich world.
Felicia: Also when you think about industries like book publishing, you think about theater, these are industries that are pretty traditional, but also known to not be that open [laughs] or inviting. I think they’re feeling the impact and effects of that. That’s also interesting when we think about those types of artistic fields, and wanting to bring in new audiences and new spirits, and new creators and new media makers. In order to do so, some of the thinking has to change. This is the same thing as the classroom. I can’t be on my pulpit relaying information to the subjects. It’s just not going to work.
Jonathan: Let’s talk about some of your other work. As well as being a teacher, you also do work through an organization, the Pride Collaborative. What’s involved in the Pride Collaborative?
Felicia: It’s interesting. What we do is we, in a nutshell, help to elevate media projects. We do that in a variety of ways. One of the projects that I mentioned earlier was the “Slavery by Another Name,” which was a PBS documentary. What we did was we developed the education component for that film, so that educators could bring the content into their classrooms. It was standard-space curricula. We had training videos for the educators. We had teaching guides.
What was interesting is that the curricula were built around media assets. Every lesson plan had an audio asset, had a video asset, had a primary source of text asset in it, along with activities. It was really, really media-rich, and teachers could pick and choose based on their classrooms and their communities.
The other interesting thing that we did was we wanted to think about how to engage teachers around this content, because it is a heavy history. What we did was we co-developed a digital storytelling workshop where teachers learned about digital storytelling using iPods. We wanted to be able to use a tool that could be fairly accessible for their classrooms, and inexpensive.
We toured the US, went to six cities and did these digital storytelling workshops using content from the film. Video assets, music, pictures and images directly from the film, and educators created their own stories based on that.
That was a really, really great project, and a great way to engage the teachers and provide them with additional value that they could bring into their classroom, beyond just the content of the film.
Jonathan: That was a PBS-funded project?
Felicia: That was a PBS-produced project. It had a lot of wonderful funders attached to it, including the National Endowment for the Humanities, et cetera. We are looking to expand the education component actually, so I’m very excited about that. When I say we elevate media projects, this was a great media project already. Then we came in and helped to elevate it by developing this education component. We also did something very similar for this NPR radio show called “State of the Reunion,” which is a really wonderful show. Each episode goes to a different city, and really tries to dive in and get to know the culture of that city, and produce these wonderful little-known stories about each town.
What we did is we developed a digital curriculum that went with that project or that show. One of my interests is how can we use seemingly nontraditional media in the classroom? That’s one of my big interests.
When I come across something, when I say, “Wow, this has a lot of teachable moments in it,” or, “This has a lot of potential for educators,” I’m always interested in how can we develop something to bring it into both traditional and nontraditional educational spaces.
Jonathan: For the radio people or the TV people, that also means that all this research and effort they’re putting into creating this artifact as it used to be, or their show that goes on at a certain time, they’re now actually seeing a broader effect from that work?
Felicia: Exactly. It’s definitely extending the life of the project. That goes back to my book days. I was always interested in how can we extend…Because the book promotion cycle was, “OK, we give you about six weeks, or if you’re lucky, three months before it’s pulled off shelves.” In our heads, we have this three-month period we have to push, push, push, and then we have to move on to the next book. In my head, I’m like, “Well, it’s a new book to someone who hasn’t heard about it.”
How can we extend the life of this project and really have this slower rollout, if you will? Really be able to connect with different audiences and think about how this book can be attractive to different audiences? The education audience, the student audience, the whatever.
Jonathan: It’s so exciting, because all of this stuff is still totally up for grabs. People are just figuring this out — like what does it mean to be an author?
Felicia: Yeah. [laughs]
Jonathan: There are the stories of the young people in their bedrooms making millions of dollars selling novels on Amazon. There’s the fact that ebooks mean you don’t even need a publishing deal and all that. It’s all being worked out. It’s nice that nobody has it figured out yet, I think.
Felicia: I think that’s exciting. But for companies who have to report to people, investors, and who aren’t that nimble or flexible, it can be very nerve-wracking.
Jonathan: I want to ask you about one of your projects, the Create Daily. Talk about that.
Felicia: This goes to your point of, “What does it mean to be an author?” I am an author seven times over. I have written seven books. I thought an author meant, and I thought a writer meant that you write, and you get paid handsomely for your writing. I’ve learned very quickly that that’s not the case. I did learn that a lot of my artist friends have this pull between producing their life’s work, and then eating and finding work here and there, and trying to pay the bills while they’re working on that novel that’s taking six years. You know?
I’ve had similar experiences, so I wanted to do something where…It’s also just hard to find opportunity and stay on top of opportunity, when you’re in this cycle of producing your own work and taking whatever job comes your way that might pay next month’s bill.
I was really interested in creating something that would connect media makers, and content creators specifically, with opportunities. Opportunities in two views. Opportunities that would help them finish their projects, because I think that’s important.
I find that sometimes we don’t finish. Not finishing sometimes is fine. But those projects where we know we need to finish and we just can’t, because maybe lack of resources or whatever the case is. I wanted to start something that would help that aspect of a creator’s life.
Then the other aspect of a creator’s life about finding paid opportunities while you’re creating these masterpieces, and paid opportunities that value your talent. I see gigs and jobs all the time that really undervalue what it means to be a content creator and a media maker. They upset me. [laughs]
Anyway, I launched the Create Daily last April. I took a very crude lean startup approach, but basically was like, “What is the least thing that I could do and launch immediately?” So I did it as a one email a day, one opportunity a day.
We send one opportunity a day to content creators. That could be funding, like grants. That could be a fellowship. That could be a travel opportunity. That could be a speaking opportunity. That could be a free course that might help them with their professional development. We do that once a day. It’s called the Opportunity Daily.
Then every Monday we send around a curated list of flexible job opportunities that are high value. We also include full-time jobs for those creators who want to work full time and work on their projects part time. We try to focus on high-value, flexible opportunities. My motto is, “If I wouldn’t apply to it, I don’t include it.” [laughs]
Jonathan: It’s a kind of personal curation piece there?
Felicia: Personal curation, and I think that’s what’s very important to the Create Daily, is actually looking at opportunities and me, being a creator myself, finding things like, “OK, this would be great for my friend.” Now I just have this much bigger network of friends that I send these things to. Next steps are we’re working on a website that’ll be a clearinghouse of opportunities on both sides, gigs and project opportunities. That, we’re working on now.
Jonathan: The awesome thing about that is just listening to you speaking about all your projects. You have a lot of different things you’re trying at the same time. That’s a nice way to look at someone’s career or someone’s work, or an artist, or whatever. You don’t have to have one single story that you tell everybody, one single thing that you do at any one time.
Felicia: It’s interesting you mentioned that, because that’s something that I’ve actually struggled with. Again, with my own conditioning that a career has to look a certain way, and that you should pursue it a certain way. Now I look at my career as being mission-driven, where I use storytelling and media to engage audiences. That’s what I do, but it’s also project-driven. I do that through projects, versus necessarily jobs or gigs.
Jonathan: We had a Skype call, and I remember really, really clearly you said that you don’t even like picket fences. I just remembered that line.
Felicia: [laughs] Yeah, when I went after my American dream and it shattered. It shattered in front of me. When it was shattering, I said, “Wait a minute? I don’t even like picket fences. What am I doing?” Right? It was really, really eye-opening on how we can act and do things unconsciously. Yeah, I remember that, too. [laughs]
Jonathan: That’s a good line. I think you should keep that one in the shtick. We’re coming to the end of the time here. I want to ask you, I am working on this conference called the Dare Conference in just a few weeks here in London and it’s looking at some of these themes of what we were just talking about now. Figuring out what we want to do, what our mission is, how we can try and position what we want to get out of work in a way that actually can also help the people who pay us, or the people we work with and all that stuff. We’ve realized that what we’re talking about, the event, it’s lots of people telling their stories in several different ways.
What it’s really about is people skills. Because in the web industry, we spend a lot of time on techniques and tactics and technical skills about how do you make stuff? How do you program and write and design all the different stuff?
Actually, we’re really good at all of that. If we need to find out how to do any of these things, we can just search for on the Internet and find out. What’s really, really hard and what we don’t focus on is the people skills. How do we talk to people? How do we talk to ourselves? How do we have compassion for people who are trying to work with and work through all these changes?
You’ve been talking a lot today about how uncomfortable it is for people for their whole world to be changing, whether you’re in book publishing or education, or whatever it is. And so when we are the digital people, we think we want to reinvent all that stuff and fix all these problems.
Actually the reason it’s hard isn’t because it’s hard to write websites. It’s because it’s hard to help people change or to change with people. I wonder what you thought about that, and also as well as that, how, where transmedia could fit into that challenge?
Felicia: Yeah, I think that that is incredibly important. Even when I think about some of the media makers and creators that I admire, they have wonderful people skills. One in particular, the ability to rally people around their work. And that’s something that I’ve been really, really — and I don’t know if “study” is the right word — but really, really trying to think about in my own work, but also pinpointing that as a specific skill that these media makers have.
And it really, really helps them to get projects done. They’re able to get people to believe in their projects, to get people to rally around their projects, to get people to give time and resources. It’s a really, really incredible skill and I think one that definitely, when you think about designers and web people, that’s what they’re doing.
Really often, even in the work that we do, even though people think that it’s technical, it is a product of something else, right? Even when I think about me wanting to change my own website, it’s not necessarily, “Oh, I just hate the way it looks,” but it’s a product of something else. I want a larger goal.
Being able to help me understand how a website can help me reach that goal or help it to draw that goal out of me. I may not know how to articulate it. I think that’s incredibly, incredibly important and powerful.
I’m definitely seeing that in working with a lot of nonprofits to help them use storytelling to engage their audiences is that really, I think they get the importance of storytelling. I think they get that.
Where I have to use people skills is having them understand the importance of a real strategy for it. Helping them understand the various tools that are available. Helping them understand that it’s important in the work that they do. That it’s important for them to tell their story in the work that they do, so they can continue doing their work.
The people skills is really, really, really important. I’m thrilled to hear that the conference is going to really, really think about that and focus on that because web designers are strategists [laughs] , they are so much more in addition to being technologists.
Jonathan: The central theme of it for me is that in some part of our brain, we have this fantasy that we can just do it all on our own, that we can just hide in the corner. It’s a bit like the myth of the artist just working in a studio with a typewriter, and there’s just that one person on their. I mean, there probably are…
Felicia: I call it the Batcave for writers, those who like to be in the Batcave. [laughs]
Jonathan: Obviously there are still things that people can do on their own, totally on their own. There’s just not many of them in digital work. You were saying, even your own personal blog is kind of a connection thing. But to deal with the kind of complexity and change we’re facing, which you have to do, whatever you’re creating digitally requires you to work with other people, and that’s really hard. That’s partially because of the conditioning of the culture we were talking about before, where we are conditioned and brought up to follow instructions and stay within our boundaries.
We’ve been talking today about breaking through all these different boundaries, being a teacher and a documentary maker at the same time, all the stuff you’ve been talking about. We all have to do that, even if we’re a programmer or even if we’re a writer, even if we’re a designer or a researcher. That is a big part of our job.
Lots of people don’t realize that, who we work with. And we don’t really give that as much attention as we should. It often ends up making us feel bad because we’re like, “Well, this isn’t working for me. Why not? I’m trying really hard to do this correctly, and it’s failing.”
Felicia: Even just you’re talking about the collaboration part of it. When we think about digital projects, it’s interesting to me when the digital department is so separate and doesn’t work with the marketing department. And the digital department doesn’t work with the communications department, or only when the communications department wants something, do they work with digital. That’s definitely got to change. [laughs] Being one who is able to break down silos, one who’s able to bring people together, and one who’s also able to and understands how to bring up peoples’ needs, their strengths, and how you can organize that into this big puzzle that’s going to become the project, I think is an incredibly important skill, and not easy. [laughs] Not easy, but…
Jonathan: That’s certainly not easy.
Felicia: But definitely necessarily.
Jonathan: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for this chat, Felicia. It’s been really interesting.
Felicia: This has been great, yeah.
Jonathan: And I feel like we have another couple 40 minute chats available, so I think we should come back in a few months and see where each of us are.
Felicia: I think that would be great.
Jonathan: It’s been great speaking to you.
Felicia: Thank you so much, and the Dare Conference sounds wonderful.