Storytelling: ancient tool of modern innovation

For the University of Canterbury (UC)’s Chelsea Rapp, the ability to ‘spin a yarn’ is more than an enviable talent, it’s a valuable professional skill.

  • Journalism students

University of Canterbury (UC)'s Chelsea Rapp

University of Canterbury’s Chelsea Rapp.

In addition to being one of the oldest tools of human civilization, storytelling is a powerful instrument of modern innovation that allows us to better understand things we know little about and help us make sense of the world around us.

We’ve used stories to teach and communicate for millennia. Before there were pictures on screens or words on pages, history was passed down via oral tradition.

And it’s something we all still do, every day. We tell our young people about history, science and each other. We tell them how to be moral, how to fit in and how to be successful.

But why? Do the facts of our lives need narrative?

The truth is that stories are all around us and in a world full of forgettable lackluster messages, facts are more likely to be remembered if they’re part of a story.

It’s a tactic used regularly in advertising and sales, lawyers tell stories to their juries, doctors tell stories to patients – even a job interview is a story.

Powerful communicators are great storytellers because they know how to structure their stories for negotiation, conflict resolution, consensus building and more – they have the innate ability to capture an audience invested in the outcome of their narrative.

But storytelling is constantly evolving and there is no one group better equipped to embrace this in an ever-evolving digital age, than our young people.

Today’s young people are the first generation of truly digital natives. They tell stories through social media and online content every day.

As a constant in their lives since they were born, social media could be considered part of their generational DNA, creating a generation of shorter attention spans, a need for instant gratification and an inherent conditioning to building relationships digitally through chat, text and more recently, Zoom.

Their understanding of and experiences with storytelling will forever change the ways in which we communicate. Digital literacy and proficiency are integral components to an inevitable digital future, and we have to be ready.

UC understands the critical need to invest in the capability and skills required to future proof and prepare for the new and unexpected directions of our creative economy and its Digital Screen Campus (DSC) is working hard to ensure Aotearoa New Zealand can better share our unique stories with the world.

An ecosystem dedicated to nurturing the future leaders of our digital screen industries (film production, game development and cross reality), the DSC’s first academic offering, the Bachelor of Digital Screen with Honours, will include courses like Screenwriting, Animation, Screen Sound, Cinematic Arts, Game Development and Game Arts.

It will also be home to Aotearoa’s first qualification in Indigenous Narrative, a course that provides undergraduate ākonga [students] with an understanding of the approaches to Māori and Pasifika storytelling in digital forms.

The fundamental principle of the minor is to foster and cultivate the use of Māori and Pasifika storytelling across different domains and Industries in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The cross-disciplinary aspects of our new curriculum are a collision of education, industry connection and practical experience woven into the very ethos of the campus, because it has to be.

As we guide the next generation of future-focused leaders, it’s imperative the methods in which we teach, and relay information are adaptable to our audience.

We have to change our expectations for, and the way we engage with this next generation of innovators and the best way we can support, advise and encourage them is to listen to the stories they have to tell.

Their ways of working and communicating will be vastly different to our own and if we fail to listen or meet them where they are, then we will miss an incredible opportunity to be a leader in this future, digital world.

Our young people are the main characters of their stories, but we are the narrators. We have the ability to guide their futures, showing them what is achievable, what is wise, what is right and what is out of reach; more than anything we have the ability to tell them what is possible and what they’re capable of.

The story we’re writing now is arguably the most important story of all.

Let’s make it count.

Chelsea Rapp is Programme Manager of UC’s Digital Screen Campus and Chairperson of the New Zealand Game Developers Association. She presented this talk at the 2023 CATE Conference, currently underway at Te Pae in Ōtautahi Christchurch.

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