Leaving lists: A return to storytelling

Kelsey Down | Manager, DDM Story Lab | @kladown23 | December 1, 2016

On a blustery March day earlier this year, I crossed the street in front of my office building, scrolling through Twitter on my phone. As I settled onto a bench, my thumb lingered over a compelling headline: "An open letter to the strangers in Whole Foods who surrounded me after news of my father’s suicide."

I had five minutes to spare, so I opened the article. The story moved me to tears within three minutes, sitting alone at a downtown bus stop, waiting for my ride home from work.

At the time, I was an intern steeped in listicles, writing pieces like “12 moments that might make you regret having kids” and “14 thoughts you’ve had on Valentine’s Day.” Blinded by digestible bullet points and short-form articles, I had forgotten the potency that a few true sentences can carry.

From that moment I started to see stories everywhere, and to seek them out. Instead of clicking through Buzzfeed's lists of puppy GIFs, I ventured onto their Reader page. I saved Washington Post feature stories and editorials to read on my commute.

I had discovered an insatiable taste for meaningful narratives.

Somewhat serendipitously, just weeks after my epiphany at the bus stop, I accepted a full-time role managing the DDM Story Lab — an initiative formed to "re-imagine storytelling,"" as it pertains to online journalism and other digital content. And so it happened that storytelling became my profession.

List fatigue leads to new appetite for stories

As I spent more time exploring the landscape of digital media, I noticed a pattern. While listicles and other short-form articles have maintained immense popularity over the last several years, a new undercurrent of audience demand is starting to displace them from their spot at the head of the table.

Last year, marketing expert Jayson DeMers predicted that 2016 would see listicles and clickbait wane in favor of more meaningful, high-quality content — “user appetites,” he predicted, “will be more discerning.”

Now, I don’t think we will ever see the last gasp of lists or clickbait, because these types of stories (and yes, they are stories in their own way) will always appeal to the human mind for their tidy format and straightforward simplicity. In fact, back in 2014, WIRED writer Rachel Edidin published her own list of reasons we could be sure that list articles aren’t going anywhere, and why that shouldn’t worry us. She points out that listicles, especially when executed well, perform specific functions that long-form pieces just can’t accomplish in the same way.

But DeMers is right about readers developing a palate for higher-quality material.

Take this study by researchers Keith Quesenberry and Michael Coolsen, which traced the popularity of various Super Bowl ads in relation to their structure and content. Quesenberry and Coolsen found that commercials following a traditional plot structure — from exposition to climax to denouement — performed the best among viewers.

Perhaps we can attribute such success to the unique way a story affects the human brain. Paul Zak writes that an effective narrative arc can stimulate oxytocin production, evoking empathy within an individual. This emotional engagement then helps us to remember information better than if it were presented as, say, a list of facts.

Facebook’s legendary algorithm might also contribute to the resurgence of the story, especially with its August rollout of updated news feed standards. Its new emphasis on rewarding higher-quality posts over clickbait headlines could certainly affect declining readership of lists and other short-form articles.

But whatever the root cause, more and more content producers are recognizing storytelling’s popularity over the past year or two, and the wisest ones are capitalizing on its success. Take a look at Great Big Story, Future of Storytelling and Buzzfeed Reader for just a few examples. Each of these organizations either produces or highlights stories that follow some sort of narrative arc. Each story reaches for something beyond the surface, something deeply rooted that speaks to the universal human experience.

A story can comprise more than just text

But that’s where their commonalities end. Great Big Story produces its stories in video format; Future of Storytelling leans heavily toward immersive technology like virtual reality; Buzzfeed Reader publishes articles and personal essays that typically home in on current social issues.

My point here is that a story can take nearly any form. After all, stories originated as an oral tradition before anyone ever thought about writing them down. And with so many resources now available to content professionals, why should we limit the story to the written word?

I’ve seen spellbinding stories told online through comics or three-minute videos that proved to be just as effective as text-only articles. And in the same light, the DDM Story Lab team tries to complement traditional news articles with alternative formats like image quotes and infographics. Some of these formats don’t tell stand-alone stories, but help to complete the story being told in a more traditional article.

A changing audience demands changing content

Don’t get me wrong — I love lists. I love quick-and-dirty articles that I can skim in 30 seconds or less. These formats will likely never leave us, and I don’t want them to. But the best, most compelling stories have infinite staying power.

If we want to evolve and adapt to new audience demands, we should turn our talents to storytelling.