The Power of Narrative, Part III: Format Matters

In previous articles (Part I and Part II), I discussed the importance of narrative and the messenger. In this final part, I want to talk about how the vehicle and format of the narrative is also important. For example, 2-to-5-minute YouTube videos can only convey so much in meaning. They are effective only when the message is simple and limited in scope. This applies to almost all video messages, including movies, documentaries, and newscasts. Podcasts, on the other hand, tend to dive deeper into a subject. Because they are limited to audio communication, the speaker must paint pictures with words, which takes longer than showing a video. Above all, podcasts tend to be longer as it takes longer to get across a cohesive message through auditory means only.

Why is that important? A recent Pew Research survey revealed that almost half (47%) of Americans prefer to consume news by watching it. Another 34% prefer reading it, while the remaining 19% listen to it. While there are different outlets who approach the news in myriad ways, overall, the fact that most Americans understand the world through televised shows is something to ponder. Given time limitations, the message often gets reduced to minute-long soundbites. Yet, that doesn’t exactly do justice to the format. While moving images can be short, they express much more than what is being said. For example, images of a natural disaster may say a lot more than the number of fatalities ever would. Images of street protests can overestimate their importance, especially when the crowds are small. There is a lot more going on than our conscious minds may perceive as we consume a never-ending flood of images and video.

All of this becomes even more complicated in the world of social media. One of the unique traits of social media communication is its ability to amplify polarization. As each individual gets a customized flow of information, our differences tend to be exacerbated. On the one hand, niche groups that could never have had the ability to connect with each other can do so now. On the other hand, the overall population loses unified sources of communication and points of reference. Because of social media, neighbors can literally live in parallel worlds, where every fact and event is interpreted through a radically different lens. No wonder the rise of social media has coincided with an increased polarization in the political sphere in recent years. Social media may not have caused it, but it has certainly amplified it.

When considering narrative format, the point is not that some are good and others bad, but that we need to be aware of how they are affecting us.

Is the solution simply to retire all screens and only consume information by reading? Often, our knee-jerk reaction to any new technology whose impact is unclear is simply to reject it. While that may be possible for some, it will become increasingly difficult for most. When considering narrative format, the point is not that some are good and others bad, but that we need to be aware of how they are affecting us.

Recently, I started using an iPhone app that tracks my screen usage. It has been a surprisingly useful addition to my phone, giving me more awareness and control. So instead of rejecting technology, let’s use it to help solve the problems it has created or amplified. The main point is to take stock of how we consume information and entertainment. Oftentimes, this will have a direct correlation to our mood.

If narrative is our way to truth, the way this narrative is delivered matters. Let’s pay more attention to form, even as we also examine content.

Reality Changing Observations:

1. How do you prefer to get your news?

2. Has your social media consumption brought you closer to or further apart from your friends and family? How so?

3. How can different formats shape the message being communicated?

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