In a recent conversation with Molly Sullivan, VP of Brand, Content, and Creative at Pegasystems, she said that before people buy products and services they first buy into ideas. And in order for them to want to buy from you, you have to have the kind of ideas that make them want to buy what you’re selling. And one way, a good way, for them to buy into your ideas is to be an effective storyteller that can share a compelling theme or narrative in a way that makes people not only listen, but also be a meaningful partner in charting the path they go on with you.
Having a meaningful narrative and being able to share it in a way that connects and enlists your target audience in developing that narrative is becoming incredibly important in building a community around your business. And being able to tell/share that grand story in a comprehensive and compelling way calls for a strategy that uses a variety of formats, channels, apps and any other way necessary to get connect your ideas to the right folks.
A person who has been helping companies tell stories, from Walt Disney movies (like Pirates of the Caribbean), 20th Century Fox (James Cameron’s Avatar), Showtime (Dexter), Microsoft (Halo) and even Coca-Cola, is transmedia storyteller expert Jeff Gomez, who is also CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment. I recently had a LinkedIn Live conversation with Jeff to learn more about what transmedia storytelling is, who it can work for, and how companies of any size can leverage it to more meaningfully connect with an audience. Below is an edited transcript from a portion of our conversation. Click on the embedded SoundCloud player to hear the full conversation.
Brent Leary: What exactly is Transmedia?
Jeff Gomez: Well, some say the Bible is transmedia. It’s whatever is communicated across multiple media platforms in fairly different and distinct ways, not simply repeated across multiple media platforms. The Japanese called it media mix and they were among the first to do it kind of elegantly in a coordinated and orchestrated fashion. And so I pinned that there as opposed to Star Wars, which happened in the late seventies and early eighties. The Japanese were doing it in the sixties and early seventies.
Brent Leary: So it’s not about just telling the same story or the same part of a story across multiple channels or formats. It’s about adding pieces to this story that are distributed across different channels.
Jeff Gomez: That’s it exactly. And in such a way that you don’t necessarily need to collect all the pieces in order to understand what’s going on. You can you know, each piece is kind of self-contained, but the the act of collecting them and putting them together.
You’re doing a little creative, imaginative work in your head. And when it’s done that way, it feels good. It’s like I am watching Spider-Man, No Way Home. But I did watch the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man and realized that he failed to save the girl all those years ago. And here he is saving the girl this time, redeeming himself all.
That’s awesome. That’s a kind of transmedia experience.
Making the case for transmedia storytelling
Brent Leary: Do companies understand transmedia and storytelling more today than they did in the past?
Jeff Gomez: That’s an awesome question. Between 20 years ago and ten years ago, we had a lot of explaining to do. Where is this transmedia? We would be asked. It was hard; it was difficult. People don’t think in terms of creating a super puzzle for the audience to assemble.
They also don’t think about and this being critical, Brent, and your audience needs to know this story is no longer contained within the purview of the narrative that is being presented, right? Story is no longer the commercial. It’s no longer the TV show or the movie story. It’s all of that inclusive of the stories that the audience are telling themselves about the content, are telling each other about the content, and are telling the storyteller about the content right.
We have become a meta narrative because of what Alan Berkson calls Pervasive Communication. Everybody in the world now has the ability to say whatever they feel on social media and what they say impacts us as corporations, as storytellers, as media and entertainment. So, we have to we have to consider them as a part of the transmedia experience.
That was impossible to communicate to our clients ten years ago. They didn’t get that at all. The job of the audience was to sit down and shut up.
Brent Leary: And buy, of course.
Jeff Gomez: And buy. Now, could you imagine any one of them saying that today?
Relationship between narratives and storytelling
Brent Leary: There’s corporate narrative, or narrative, and storytelling. What do you have to do first? Could you explain how this works?
Jeff Gomez: Any enterprise, any corporate endeavor ever ought to be assembling itself because our companies, our businesses are contributing something to the world somehow. Why would you want to do anything else, but to somehow be additive and positive in this world? So the deeper question that you must ask yourself is, what is that? What’s my story? How am I personally infusing my narrative, my story, the things that I had to surmount in life. The things that concern me about what’s going on in this world. How does that story get infused into what my company is about and what my products do right?
If you can answer that question, you will start to come up with a kind of foundational narrative. Now, I don’t mean the story of how you guys got together and built your company. I mean, the why. Why are you here? What are you doing with this thing? And what do these products have to do with making the world a better place? Once you’ve achieved that, then you can have fun telling a story about your product. That story, the advertising, the marketing, the interface with the rest of the world is informed by this foundational narrative. In doing so, that’s your North Star; that’s your why.
Selling Storytelling instead of Traditional Marketing
Brent Leary: How often do you have to change a company’s original thought process about their own product and their own customers in order for them to understand they are just being way too short sighted here?
Jeff Gomez: Brent, you are touching on the secret sauce. That is exactly the essence of what we’ve been doing for the past couple of decades. That’s a brilliant observation. And thank you for figuring that out.
Here’s the deal, Brent. I grew up in a chaotic environment. There were a lot of times that it was so tough. I didn’t know how I was going to go on. The things that saved me Brent were not so much other human beings, particularly early on. It was stories. It was the thoughts and actions of great characters, you know, heroes. Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, Sherlock Holmes, Gandalf and Frodo. These are characters who face overwhelming odds and use their minds, but also a little physical action to get out of the situation and succeed and make the world a better place as a result.
I understand the value of telling a story that’s going to reach millions of people. I’m excited by that because I know what it’s like to be on the other side of that. So a big part of my job, and that’s the job of my team, is to stand in front of these people who own the stories and who have access and who have agency, and tell them and to remind them how special that is. And how they need to think bigger.
Their preoccupation is with making the next quarter. Their preoccupation is office politics. And rivalries and knuckling under to pressure from their corporate masters. And I go in there and say, “do you know you have this magical, wonderful thing? Here’s I’m going to show you how cool it is. And show you how to think about it in a way that more people can understand how cool it is to see”. And we understand the production processes across an array of different media platforms.
So we can help you to create a transmedia strategy that rolls out elegantly and in concert. Symphonic narrative to engage your audience. And when they hear that, when they listen to it and act on it, that’s the highlight of my career.
The TikTok Lesson
Brent Leary: How do you get the right mix and tell the right piece of the story in the right channel? I could see you’ll capture this kind of audience if you bring this piece of this story to them in a comic book, or you’ll get this group of folks if you tell this story arc with a short video clip. How do you decide that kind of stuff?
Jeff Gomez: I did not get this TikTok. What is this picture? And so, like anyone of our age, ignoring TikTok was the initial strategy until I started to to figure out that the algorithms in TikTok tended to expose the right kind of content to millions of people quite rapidly, right? You can develop a following on TikTok ten times faster than on YouTube or Instagram.
Well, okay, that’s kind of interesting. Now, I guess I have to look at some TikTok. How do people interact with this? What satisfaction are they deriving out of it that’s distinct from any other platform? And what kind of stories can be told on that platform?
What I realized was there is something going on here and by breaking the code, I can advise my clients about the narrative extension of their story world. How it would best show up on top. And that’s really what I’ve been doing with film and television and YouTube and Facebook and audio podcasts and so forth. It’s really just a matter of, of truly diving deep and figuring out how human beings interact with the content in ways that are deeply satisfying to them.
Enter Narrative Design
Brent Leary: How will storytelling and transmedia be most different in five years?
Jeff Gomez: We you know that from learning – from when you were a kid in second grade and started to figure out how the world works – it gives you a feeling of agency, a feeling of power when you can snap those pieces together. And it makes a bigger picture and a bigger one and a bigger one that is a special kind of writing, that’s a special kind of storytelling called narrative design.
Narrative design. Everyone in your audience ought to start looking into narrative design. We got that term from video games because a video game storyteller, a writer or developer of video games, needs to create a narrative that is incomplete without the participation of the player, right?. So, I’m going to let the player fill in these blanks, interact with these characters, complete these quests, fight these monsters, and so forth.
I can’t tell the whole story. I have to design a story that needs your participation in order to complete it. Well, this kind of design sensibility is what Kevin Figgy does with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, right? He is planting seeds and Easter eggs and all these different movies that the audience is sitting there going, “Oh, I get it all”.
That’s from this movie. They’re putting it all together and so forth in much the same way. By the way, that someone’s sitting in a stadium watching a ballgame or and filling in the statistics and the and the histories of the players and the different teams and so forth. And that’s where that passion comes from.
That’s where that ardor fan comes from. So now we are going to formalize narrative design and we’re going to tell new stories with it. Not just interactive stories, but what story? World stories and so the design sensibility is going to be like a customer journey as, you and Alan put it, where there is no story without the customer and, and the customer wouldn’t even be there without the story of the product, and so forth.
So in the next five years, we are going to start to master the art of narrative design.
The Journey – From Hero to Collective
Brent Leary: So, is the hero in the hero’s journey now the customer?
Jeff Gomez: The notion of the hero’s journey, where I am the hero and I am going to march out into the world and conquer things and I’m going to take on the challenges and defeat the bad guy, get the treasure and bring it back so that my family, my community will benefit. That, to me is a lot about the assertion of right and wrong right.
I’m the hero. I’m right. My values, my concerns. I’m going to assert them so that that I can win, right. I think if too many of us do that, you get what you’re seeing on social media right now, a lot of people asserting their rightness or wrongness.
Brent Leary: They call it personal branding.
Jeff Gomez: We’re going to switch to the collective journey modality. So we’re moving from a hero’s journey to collective journey. Where we collectively exist in a system, a story world, a system that has flaws in it. And in our job as as storytellers, as people creating products and as the audience is to kind of navigate across this system, to fix it, to repair the system.
Do you see what I’m saying? So this isn’t about killing a bad guy or defeating your rival. This is about looking at the greater system, which has some problems. And those problems, if we don’t solve them, Brent, we’re in big trouble, right? Things are getting a little complicated, so we need to solve them. And collective journey storytelling will teach us, will give us a new narrative modality.
And that narrative modality is one where we get over ourselves, where we reconcile and where we repair the system. If we can figure out how to do that, life will get a little bit better than it is right now. I got to tell you…
This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it’s an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.