Lance Weiler of the Digital Storytelling Lab on why narrative can help change the world
Researchers are intimately familiar with the magic of storytelling. A good story enables us to connect with others, provides context and relevance for data, and gives deeper meaning to the world around us.
Perhaps no one understands that better than Lance Weiler, Director of the Digital Storytelling Lab at Columbia University. So it’s not surprising that when Weiler tells his own story, it sounds something like the plot of the next must see indie film (or at the very least, an episode of Guy Raz’s “How I Built This” podcast.) After graduating high school, Weiler started interning at a film production company in Philadelphia instead of attending college. He worked his way up to become a camera assistant, training under the cinematographer who won an Oscar for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” He bought a computer after seeing an ad in a magazine for a model that had “editing capabilities,” and got together with a friend to try and make a film for $0. (They were able to shoot it, though it took 86 days for the computer to render the project.) They hit a roadblock when it came time to transfer the movie to film for screening, which at the time came with a price tag upwards of $30,000. So they started simply asking movie studios to lend them projectors, specifically a new machine Texas Instruments was rolling out that used digital light technology. The bold ask worked, and the two ended up orchestrating the first ever all-digital release of a motion picture. The studios came calling, but Weiler and his partner turned down the offers, electing to release the film themselves. They grossed $5 million.
Weiler went on to find his footing as a screenwriter, developing feature films and television projects, often mixing more traditional media with emergent technologies such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Then in 2013, he cofounded the Digital Storytelling Lab at Columbia. The Lab, whose mission is to “design stories for the 21st Century,” pushes the boundaries of what a story looks and feels like, and how we interact with one another when we consume it. Despite playing around with form and delivery methods, Weiler say the Lab’s ultimate goal is still to use narrative to help us better understand one another.
“We're very interested in the human experience,” he says. “Telling a good story has to start with the human experience. When we start on a project, we start by trying to understand what someone is thinking or feeling.”
dscout sat down with Weiler to talk about the power of collective narrative, the medium as an innovation driver, why stories are more powerful than data, and how the human experience is at the core of it all. (Not to mention what we can all learn from stand-up comics.)
Stories are at the core of how we communicate—with family, friends, and increasingly, professionally. For researchers especially, stories are so central to how we understand and explain the world around us. Why is a good story so powerful?
A love for stories is baked into our DNA. It harkens back to doing what we've been doing for a very, very, very long time as human beings. We don’t know what's going to happen in the next five seconds, so we tell stories to help us make sense of the world. And narrative transports us. There’s an emotional resonance, a universality within it. People want to relate to stories, to look for a piece of themselves in the narrative, find something that addresses a fear or a hope that they have. In that sense, emotion is the core of it.
Despite being so fundamental, it can be very difficult to tell a story well. It’s a skill, a craft. What do you say to someone who says: “I want to be a better storyteller”?
You have to read stories, watch stories, experience stories. You learn there are certain things that make them resonate. A cadence. A timing. A richness to the characters and a level of detail that makes a story believable. I think there’s actually a lot to respect and that we can learn from standup comedy. Especially comedians who use storytelling as a form, who really know how to weave a tale. When you watch how they do it, a lot of it is about timing. Detail. Delivery. The mechanics and the craft of a good comic are really quite incredible. Or look at the connection to improv.
Improv? Improvisational comedy?
Yes—with improv, you bring the audience in. You do it to create a sense of comedic relief when there's tension, and everybody laughs, and then people feel the tension dissipate. But you have to be willing to go there, to put yourself at risk for failure, because creativity does really rest at the edge of failure. But it is so electric when it works.
I’ll give you an example, something I saw recently at the Kennedy Center with the musician Ben Folds, who was there to perform. The Director of the Center came out on-stage to introduce him, and announces “In the next 10 minutes, Ben Folds is going to create an original piece of music right here on stage. He’s going to do it with the orchestra, and he's going to do it with your help.” And then they start soliciting suggestions from the audience. They ask: “What key should it be in?” The audience is shouting, “F!” and “A!” They’re on stage trying to figure out where the suggestions are coming from and what people are saying—they finally land on A-minor. Then they say “Well, this piece probably needs a title or lyrics,” and people start calling things out. Somebody finds a line from the event program, something about design and space, which sounds especially funny when you hear it in the context of, “Use this in a song.” Folds goes and sits down to start composing, and the first thing he does is play a couple of notes from the William Tell Overture—something that’s incredibly recognizable, so the audience laughs. Then he starts messing around himself, and starts with the various sections of the orchestra, saying “Try this,” and “try this” and “try this.” He weaves in some of the lines from the program as lyrics. And eventually he starts forming the song, and performing it with the orchestra. They start playing, and he starts singing, and when they finish the place just goes nuts, there’s a standing ovation. And then they announce that he’s going to be an Artistic Director for the Kennedy for the next year.
So much of that moment is tethered to the principles that we talk about at the Lab. One is the idea of “the trace.” If someone can see a piece of themselves within whatever a story is, it increases the engagement and the connection. Asking what key to use, asking for suggestions of lyrics—even though they only end up taking one or two of those suggestions, the group feels like they’ve contributed, they've helped initiate the project.
Then there's the idea of agency, and the tensions between ownership and authorship. Stories are no longer told by one person to many, it's now many telling to many. So you build in individual moments, like Folds composing on his own before going to the orchestra. Those moments allow time for reflection, so you can ensure dominant personalities don't just take over. We also think about how the task at hand relates thematically to the larger framework. In this case, these are classical music supporters so they had an understanding of what was required, composing a piece of music.
The last is this notion of serendipity management. A lot of times what’s incredibly powerful is not designing everything all the way through. Ben Folds could have walked in with a new piece of music that he had already written—but the fact that he left room in the process for discovery made it even more engaging. Everyone felt that they were all collectively trying to beat the odds together to produce that piece of music in those 10 minutes.
You’re creating an environment that invites participation, but within a framework that’s already designed.
Yes. You’re engaging people and allowing them to feel like a part of what you’re modelling, and that they’re helping improve it. When people left the Kennedy Center that night, everyone felt satisfied. The audience. The orchestra. The conductor. None of them had gone through something like that before. It was the ultimate way to announce their new artistic director. Everybody felt something. Everybody experienced emotion and the thrill of that. It wasn't something that was crafted behind some closed door and brought out by some master. When the process is collective, there’s a sense of "all ships rise."
That participatory, collaborative, multi-disciplinary approach is a through line for a lot of the work you’re doing at Columbia, at the Digital Storytelling Lab.
Absolutely. But we’re kind of storytelling agnostic. We're very interested in the human experience. Telling a good story has to start with the human experience. When we start on a project, we start by trying to understand what someone is thinking or feeling. And then we start to prototype, usually with paper. Technology won't even come into it until we understand the emotional core of the experience.
What we’ve been trying to do with The Lab is build a space that allows for experimentation that isn’t dictated by emerging trends or bottom lines. Story is now an innovation driver. It’s used for mobilization, communication, healing, education, and entertainment. We’re thinking about: “What’s the space that allows all of that to happen? How can we experiment and create an environment that lets story do all of those things, and engages large groups of people?”
Our project Sherlock Holmes and the Internet of Things involves 2,600 collaborators, 60 countries, and 160 or so self-organized events all over the world. That project is challenging authorship and ownership, and also the way a story spills off of screen and into the real world and goes back again.
A lot of that creative problem solving comes from collaboration, from people in diverse disciplines tackling challenges together. And we look at how technology can come into play and help facilitate ideas and break new ground and connect people in interesting ways. Then we try to think about, “Ok, how can we use those ideas that can help tackle some of the pressing issues?” Because if a story is something that helps people understand the world around them, is it something that can help people change the world around them too?
That seems to be at the heart of one of your projects, The Empathy Lab, which is about using story to foster greater understanding between people. That's top of mind for a lot of people lately, especially as we’ve become increasingly aware what a divided space we're living in. And story seems to be one of the ways people are trying to bridge that divide.
There’s that classic saying about walking in someone else's shoes to get past the bias. That’s really the hypothesis of The Empathy Lab project: can we gain a greater understanding of others through human connection? We’re working with a lot of really interesting changemakers in technology and health and education and policy. There are groups that work with incarcerated youth, groups that advocate for patient care, groups that facilitate conversations about race. We’re trying to help amplify their work. Tell the stories of people whose stories aren’t being told, or if they are being told, it’s in such a sensationalistic fashion that it's just not helping anybody.
This spring we went to South by Southwest and did a project with GEAR UP, which works with kids for college readiness, and (pop star) Kesha. We brought in high school kids from all over the Austin area, and facilitated an empathetic conversation, exploring the issue of bullying. Based off of that, we’re helping build tools that can be pushed out through the GEAR UP organization, which works with 750,000 students all across the country. It’s those types of opportunities that are really exciting—how can you get creative and use story and play and collaboration as a way of saying, "Look, maybe we aren’t just designing something for someone. Maybe we aren’t just talking about consumer needs, but humanity's needs. What does that look like?" That's kind of the goal and the experiment of The Empathy Lab.
You mentioned sensationalism, which calls to mind a lot of things, but one is certainly this idea of fitting a story into a predetermined arc and having an editorial bias, as opposed to letting a narrative unfold organically. That’s something that can come up a lot in the corporate world too. How do you mitigate that?
A lot of the work that I do is about fighting for a chance to let something emerge on its own, to let it happen. There's a fine balance, because I'm not saying, “Oh, you're stuck in this space where you're always just ideating and creating and brainstorming.” I'm saying you're taking the time to really understand the why. You're taking the time to understand the potential voice and what the voice is trying to say. You're trying to look at it from a holistic perspective, and it's not just about a solution. It's not just about productivity. What's so amazing about storytelling is the reflective nature of it. In our society, we don't leave enough time for reflection. We kind of look down on it as this time when we aren’t productive. But the reality is, if you build reflection into a process, you will greatly increase the productivity and the quality of what you're doing.
Technology has made it possible for us to tell stories in so many ways—though you’ve also said, “We can't allow technology to dictate humanity.” How do we find the balance when it comes to stories? Continue to explore new ways of telling them without letting tech dictate what we’re saying?
It’s interesting, we were talking about this just the other night at the Lab. And the feeling was, don't even worry about the technology. The technology doesn't even matter. Get to what the humanity is, and once you understand the human dynamics, then say, “How does the technology help make someone feel something or connect people in ways that they didn't expect?”
I think at the end of the day, technology can be very intoxicating, and sometimes people use it to hide the fact that there isn’t much else there. But tech can’t make up for a lack of story. It might have a wow factor, but that’s not going to carry it. You can see this with Hollywood, where they’ve shifted into this risk mitigation mode, using data to try to predict where things are headed. There's a tendency to think data is a crystal ball and has all the answers, but what’s important is the human insight that makes sense of that data. It all comes back to story in the end, right? It's the stories that we tell ourselves to help make sense of the world.
Know someone you'd love to read about in a People Nerd profile? Tell us why