Dana Atchley (1941-2000): A Digital Storytelling Pioneer

Dana_atchleyHave you heard of Dana Atchley? Before his death in 2000, Atchley was a bit of a legend and certainly a pioneer in the digital-storytelling front. His clients included Coke, EDS, Adobe, Silicon Graphics and many others. He even worked with Apple as a charter member of the AppleMasters program. In the '90s, Atchley was helping senior executives create emotional, compelling talks that used the latest technology to create "digital stories" that connected and appealed to audiences in a more visceral, visual, emotional...and real way.

Dana Atchley's ideas about technology and storytelling were beginning to shake things up in the '90s. If Atchley would not have sadly passed at the young age of 59 back in 2000, presentations — even in the world of business — would be far more appropriate, engaging, and effective today.

Here's what Dana Atchley said about digital storytelling:

"...digital storytelling combines the best of two worlds: the 'new world' of digitized video, photography and art, and the "old world" of telling stories. This means the "old world" of PowerPoint slides filled with bullet point statements will be replaced by a "new world" of examples via stories, accompanied by evocative images and sounds."

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Take a look at what FastCompany was saying about Dana Atchley in 1999 in the article What's Your Story?

"Tired of delivering the same old business presentations in the same old way? Then join the Digital Storytelling movement, and take a lesson from its founder, Dana Winslow Atchley III. You may never use slides again."

"So why does communication about business remain so tedious? Most businesspeople describe their dreams and strategies — their stories — just as they've been doing it for decades: stiffly, from behind a podium, and maybe with a few slides. Call it Corporate Sominex."

"Digital storytelling is more than a technique. In fact, it's become something of a movement among both artists and businesspeople."

These bits from the FastCompany article sound so promising, don't they? I get excited reading this, thinking about the possibilities. Yet, since 1999, how much has really changed? Nearly seven years have passed. Some people are indeed using the digital technology in presentations the way Atchley envisioned. But there is such a long, long way to go before we rid the business world of the "corporate Sominex" phenomenon.

This year the Digital Storytelling Festival, founded by Dana Atchley and his wife, Denise, in 1995, continues in beautiful San Francisco. There is a lot to learn there. I hope the festival is, once again, the start of something big.

Not a fair fight: Your data vs. your audience's experiences and emotions

BoredYou've heard me speak about the importance of connecting with the emotional right brain of your audience members before. It's fundamental, yet often neglected. Here's what the authors of Why Business People Speak Like Idiots say:

In business, our natural instincts are always left-brained. We create tight arguments and knock the audience into submission with facts, fiqures, historical graphs, and logic....The bad news is that the barrage of facts often works against you. My facts against your experiences, emotions, and perceptual filters. Not a fair fight —facts will lose every time (emphasis mine).

If your presentation does not connect, if you bore and are not memorable, then all your great data will likely be for naught. People have a tendency to over interpret their own personal and vivid experiences, and may ignore or be very skeptical of new information — no matter how scientific or objective — that is contrary to their current belief.

Professor Richard Brislin (my graduate school mentor) of the University of Hawaii, touches on a very similar phenomenon in his book Understanding Culture's Influence on Behavior. In a section on theoretical concepts in intercultural communication, Dr. Brislin discusses why people make incorrect attributions or dubious conclusions in spite of evidence to the contrary.

For example, let's say you read many reports in respectable periodicals that conclude Seattle is a very good place for young graphic designers to find high-paying jobs. Complete with this evidence, you begin sending off your resume, contacting companies, and looking into housing in the Seattle area. Later, while talking to one of your best friends, Lisa, and informing her of your desire to relocate to Seattle, she becomes practically apoplectic. "What?" she says. "My brother has a design degree from Berkeley and has been up in Seattle for over a year without finding a full-time design gig!" Lisa then goes on to tell her brother's horror story in Seattle.

So now you have the word of one friend vs. loads of factual, detailed documented information which runs contrary to your friend's opinion. Who do you believe?

Citing early work by Sherman, Judd, and Park (1989) on social cognition, Brislin suggests that it is highly likely we will be more persuaded by our friend's testimony, which was surely more colorful, emotional, and vivid compared to the reading of labor reports in periodicals. Also, I would say that the fact Lisa is "telling her story" about her brother makes her information memorable.

So what does this have to do with presentations? Two things: (1) As presenters, we have our work cut out for us. Our audiences bring emotions, experiences, biases, and perceptual filters that are no match for data and facts alone. And (2) we must not make the mistake of thinking that our data can speak for itself, no matter how convincing, obvious, or strong it may seem to us. We may indeed have the best product or best research, etc. But if we "plan" a boring, ego-centric, "death by PPT" snooze-fest, we will lose. The best presenters target both the logical left and the emotional right. The audience, after all, is comprised of human beings, is it not?