British Universities Film & Video Council

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Connect with audiences through Digital Storytelling

Storytelling is a deeply intuitive way for us to communicate. Chris Thomson, Jisc Netskills, looks at the wider applications of this powerful technique in demonstrating impact within the education and public engagement sector.

Chris Thomson-smallAbout the Author: Chris Thomson joined Netskills as a consultant trainer in 2010. His previous role was as an educational technology advisor in schools in Sheffield and he also has experience of staff development in the commercial sector having worked at at Siemens Communications and T-Mobile. Chris has an MA in Geography from St. Andrews University and an MSc in Technology Enhanced Learning, Innovation and Change from Sheffield Hallam University.


Video is a great communication tool but producing it can be complicated and very expensive. Digital storytelling is a technique we have been exploring at Jisc Netskills for several years. We have found it is not only a very effective way for non-specialists to produce video content but also offers unique features that make it ideally suited to education and public engagement.

We are a training organisation that supports education institutions in using technology to enhance teaching, research and administration based at Newcastle University. We run workshops on digital storytelling, are involved in several storytelling-related projects with other organisations and are using many of the techniques as part of our own practice.

So, what do I mean by digital storytelling?

It has a surprisingly long history. It started life in the San Francisco arts community back in the late 1990’s thanks mainly to Joe Lambert and Dana Atchley. They had an interest in helping people find a voice through storytelling and they realised that digital tools were becoming available that could help them do that.

Until that point media production had been the preserve of the expert few but developments in technology meant that it was now possible for ordinary people to create their own short videos based on recorded narration and still images. It was a simple approach that allowed them to do powerful things.


The defining feature of these digital stories has always been about preserving authenticity. The person in charge of the story is the storyteller herself. The script is written and recorded in her own voice, she selects the appropriate images and produce the final video free of any overbearing external editorial control.

The groups that benefitted most from this form of storytelling were those who traditionally found it difficult to get their voice heard; local communities, ethnic minorities, marginalised groups to name a few. Creating digital stories became an important step in establishing their group and individual identities as well as getting their message across. By sharing their stories people became more able to affect change or become better at responding to it.

Stories of impact

Netskills’ involvement in digital storytelling started in 2010 when I joined the team from a role supporting digital media and elearning in schools. I initially saw it as a tool for reflective learning as it helped learners to create order out of their experiences and apply a meaning to it. But it quickly became apparent to all of us at Netskills that the applications are much wider.

We see the potential for digital storytelling as a way of describing the impact an institution, a project or a body of research has on its stakeholders. We’re currently working with Sheffield Hallam University to collect stories from students who have completed a postgraduate Masters degree in Technology Enhanced Learning, asking them to reflect on how the course has had an impact on their professional lives. As well as being a great exercise in reflective learning it provides a useful resource for the department to support recruitment and demonstrate the value of the course.

Earlier this year we ran a series of workshops on how Jisc-funded projects can use storytelling techniques as part of their dissemination activities. Traditional project outputs such as final reports contain valuable information but are often presented in a way that is difficult for people not directly connected with the project to relate to. If you are trying to demonstrate the value of what you have achieved through the project, these extensive documents don’t provide an easy way in for external audiences. Sat alongside other reporting methods, digital stories provide an effective way of putting a human face on the data, showing why the project was important to the people if affected.

How do you create a digital story?

The best way to experience digital storytelling is to create your own. Our Digital Storytelling Masterclass explores the ideas and skills in depth over three days but you can get started by following some simple steps.

Writing a script

Find a story worth telling. This is the most important thing to get right. A digital story can look lovely but if the story doesn’t engage you’ll lose the audience. It doesn’t have to be a tear-jerker but give your audience a reason to care about the outcome.

All good stories talk about change in some way so think about the “before”, the “after” and then the journey between the two. What has changed and for whom?

Your story isn’t going to be long. Digital stories tend to last two to three minutes so you’ll have to be concise. If you’re telling a complex story, focus in on one aspect of it; a significant moment, a meaningful image or object or perhaps a key relationship. Tell a small story to make a big point.

Find a gripping first sentence to grab the attention and make sure your final words clearly signal the end of the story and leave it resonating in your audience’s mind.

We’d recommend reading your story to someone before you record it. Watch for their responses. When do they seem most interested? Does their attention wander at any point. Fine tune your script until you’re happy.


Selecting media

Recording a voiceover can be done simply and cheaply using Audacity, a free, open source piece of software that is easy to use. Pick a good quality microphone and record in a quiet place to avoid distracting background noises or ambience.

Images are an important element so spend time finding ones that are good quality and enhance your story rather than detract from it. If you have your own, brilliant! If not, then searching libraries like Flickr for Creative Commons licensed images is the next best thing. Remember to attribute the creators and abide by their license terms.

Sounds and music can also add an extra dimension but are difficult to get right. has an extensive community library of sound effects and’s Music Store has a wide selection of good quality, Creative Common-licensed tracks.

Producing your video

Be prepared to spend a lot of time on the video editing! The aim here is to combine your voiceover and images but do it in a way that means all the different elements are working together for the purpose of the story.

Subtlety is the watchword. You will have a wealth of special effects and other enhancements at your fingertips. 95% of these look dreadful. You don’t want to write a powerful story then leave it reeking of cheese.

You could push the boat out and use professional software like Adobe Premiere or Final Cut to produce your story but that’s like using a sledgehammer to crack a very small nut. If you’ve never done video editing before is a great place to start. It’s a free online tool that gives you all the features you’ll need for digital storytelling.


Stories need to be told, even if it’s to just one person. Many people find it encouraging going through this process in a group of people they trust. Some storytelling can be very emotional and it’s important to make sure you don’t feel too vulnerable.

If you want share you’re story more widely, sites like Youtube or Vimeo are ideal but make sure that all media you’ve used in your story is properly attributed before publishing.

Then try it all again! Good storytelling is a skill that gets better with practice. Each time you try it you’ll learn something new. We’ve been doing this for several years now and we’re still discovering more areas to explore.


Chris Thomson

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