Better than storytelling: Four reasons interactivity is the future of PR

Many people in PR, advertising and communications put great pride in storytelling. Are they missing something?

Storytelling is a powerful tool. But storytelling is just one way of sharing understanding and spreading ideas. Like any tool, it has strengths but also limitations.

There’s another way: interactive experiences like apps, visualizations and games can also be used to share understanding and change what people think, feel and do.

If you don’t understand how to use this power, you’re missing out on an essential skill of the 21 century communicator.

In 2014, we’re only just beginning to realise the potential of this approach. Here are four reasons why interactivity is the future of public relations:

1. Interactivity teaches us things stories can’t

Linear media like text and video are very good at telling stories. That means they’re very good at giving people an understanding of what happened in a given situation. But stories are less good at explaining the way things work. This is a problem.

Many of the communications challenges we face aren’t stories at all. Often we need to explain how complex systems work, such as a company or part of a national economy.

When we’re trying to communicate the behaviour of a complex system, the best way to do that is to create a model of that system that people can interact with. That way, we can help them understand things that they wouldn’t by just being told about them. As the proverb goes,Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me, I might remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.

This is the reason that pilots and race car drivers spend hundreds of hours in simulators before they’re allowed to touch the real thing. Planes, ships and F1 cars are complex machines operating in complex environments. When multimillion-dollar vehicles and human lives are at stake, you need to understand how that system works before you interact with it in real life.

In PR and communications, interactive experiences can allow us to play with a system and discover its inter-relationships. An excellent example is Budget Hero, a game about the U.S. federal budget. Players must balance the budget – a difficult task, especially if you’re also trying to follow a particular policy like environmental sustainability or international competitiveness.

2. The public is ready

I’m 34. I’m old enough to remember a world without video games, but only just. These days interactivity is expected. Children get frustrated when they swipe a TV screen with their hands and the picture doesn’t change. Adults aren’t far behind. We all live lives immersed in interactivity at every turn. Most of us are gamers now; we’ve become interactivity-literate.

We’re expecting our discussions of big ideas to be mediated in an interactive way.

3. Interactivity is engaging

If they’re well-constructed, interactive experiences can draw us in and capture our attention in a way few other things can. They give us something to do, not just something to look at.

Take a look at these examples:

Each draws you in with compelling interactivity and the promise of something interesting to do.

This type of responsive system is like candy for your brain. The video game industry has discovered and implemented the powerful principles that make people keep interacting with a system. The explosive growth of the video game industry is proof of how powerful these principles can be. And they can be applied to any interactive experience, something I’ve written about elsewhere.

4. Interactivity can work on a budget

You don’t need triple-A game development budgets to make an impact with interactive projects. Depth and range of expression don’t correlate with size. You know you can affect people deeply with a small text or a 3-minute video. The same is true with interactivity. Even small interactive projects can attain great power of expression.

In addition to the interactive visualisations above, consider:

  • Drowning in Problems, a subtle interactive text-based exploration of mortality, by the maker of Minecraft
  • Oiligarchy, a tongue-in cheek critique of the petroleum industry by an anti-capitalist collective
  • Passage, an interactive experience about relationships and life choices played out in a tiny band of pixels

The examples are endless, and endlessly varied.

At the moment the techniques of interactivity are mostly being deployed for art and entertainment, plus some interesting experiments in journalism. It is an area ripe with opportunity. As communicators, it’s up to us to use this power to get the information where it needs to go.

A version of this post originally appeared on edelman.com.

2 thoughts on “Better than storytelling: Four reasons interactivity is the future of PR

  1. Thank you Phillip for this interactivity mini education. I am 70 and did not grow up in a personally computerized world. I have however, used them to write music for almost forty years, so it is a love affair. I have also been an avid Sci-fi fan for longer than that. I love your stories and look forward to reading them every day after I make my own entries on my music blog. I will look into the links you have shared, as the health of the planet, social awareness and personal responsibility for making sure your children’s children (should you have any lineage growing up in this world) have a world to live in. All best with your 365 day project. You are a fine writer! and thinker!

    1. Thanks for your comments, I’m glad you found this post useful! And I’m so glad you enjoy the stories.

      I grew up with computers but I must also have grown up with your music – I spent many an afternoon watching Mr. Dressup and Sesame Street when I was a kid in Montreal, times I remember very fondly. Both programmes were strong influences on me. Thanks for all the music!

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