The new world of business is filled with suspense and surprise. Which fast-growing startups will revolutionize their industries — and which will crash and burn? Which corporate giants will change with the times — and which will decline?
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.
Dana Winslow Atchley III, 57, wants to change all that. He uses modern tools — computers, scanners, video — to update the ancient craft of telling tales. He helps companies to harvest their artifacts, to surface compelling stories — and to render those stories in ways that are engaging and exciting. Call it Digital Storytelling.
Digital storytelling is more than a technique. In fact, it's become something of a movement among both artists and businesspeople. One convert is Bill Dauphinais, 53, of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PwC). He's been using it to teach members of the accounting and consulting giant about the PwC brand. Dauphinais has collected stories about PwC's founders, partners, and clients, and he's captured those stories on digital video and housed them on a PC. Now he travels the world, regaling employees with video tales of the firm's core values.
"Brands are built around stories," says Dauphinais. "And stories of identity — who we are, where we've come from — are the most effective stories of all. This is a powerful way to bring them to life."
The best way to understand digital storytelling is to watch Atchley in action. For the past decade, he's done a one-man show called "Next Exit," which traces his life story. The show is a remarkable blend of performance art, memoir, stand-up comedy, and documentary film. Here's how "Next Exit" works: Atchley strides onstage and sits on a tree stump. Beside him is a monitor surrounded by logs. He blows on the screen and — poof — a video campfire begins to crackle. On a wall behind him, tethered to a computer, is a screen of roughly the same size as one that you'd find at a multiplex. Atchley puts on a headset microphone a la Garth Brooks, grabs his wireless mouse, and begins. With the mouse, he opens an on-screen suitcase containing about 70 stories, most of them short digital videos that he has crafted from home movies, still photos, and video tapes. With the audience's help, he selects 12 to 18 stories for the evening.
It's a wacky and poignant narrative. Atchley grew up outside Boston in the 1950s. In the 1960s, he picked up two art degrees and landed a job as an art teacher, but soon tired of academic politics. He rechristened himself Ace (the Colorado Spaceman) — and spent most of the 1970s tooling around North America in a Dodge van. By the end of the 1970s, Ace was a minor American legend. Indeed, Lorimar Productions bought the rights to Ace, but nothing much came of the deal. "That was the end of Ace," Atchley sighs. "Hollywood killed him."
Atchley spent the first part of the 1980s producing short videos for cable television. "Then somebody gave me a Macintosh computer," he says. "I was hooked." Using QuickTime, Adobe Premiere, and Macromedia Director, he devised a system that allows him to tell stories through film, video, music, and photography — and to fashion a new show every time he does so.
When companies began to catch his act, they realized that Atchley had invented a powerful medium for them. The Coca-Cola Co. asked him for help with its "World of Coca-Cola Las Vegas" attraction. Visitors see live storytellers introduce digital stories about what Coke has meant to generations of drinkers — including a World War II soldier who brought six bottles into battle, drank five, and kept the sixth as a talisman. Visitors can also record their own Coke tale.
Since 1995, Atchley has conducted an annual festival for digital storytellers in Crested Butte, Colorado. The festival grows larger and more intense each year, and more and more big-league sponsors pay part of the tab. "This is Wild West technology," he says. "But it's really beginning to catch on."
Reach Dana Atchley via the Web (www.nextexit.com).
A version of this article appeared in the January 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.