Summary of Beltane Brunch | Digital Storytelling – Learning from the Big Picnic Project

On Wednesday 12th December, Andy Crofts and Max Coleman (Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh) spoke at one of our Beltane networking events about their experiences of digital storytelling. Here’s a summary of the presentations and discussion…

What is digital storytelling?

There is more than one definition out there and this isn’t something that we were too concerned about in the discussion. Andy and Max’s definition, as it evolved during their project, was a voiceover accompanied by still images (either photos or drawings). They felt that less visual movement, as compared to videos, means people listen to the story more.

What was Andy and Max’s specific purpose for using digital storytelling?

In recent years, the Botanics has become aware that edible plants are a great community engagement hook. An opportunity came up to be part of the international  Big Picnic project, which looked at edible gardening and required participants to undertake co-creation with communities. Digital storytelling was the co-creation approach and Andy and Max took here in Edinburgh, and the purpose was to address the fact that a number of communities near the garden almost never visit it, and many individuals in these communities are also facing food security issues. A total of 16 countries and 19 partners were involved with the Big Picnic project and each took a different approach (e.g. Berlin did stop-motion).

Did Andy and Max have special skills related to digital storytelling?

Not especially! Andy currently works as a community gardener at the Botanics but he does have a background in other areas, including start-ups. Max’s background is in botany and he is currently a science communicator at the Botanics. Both Andy and Max were aware of digital storytelling, but had previously thought it sounded like a lot of work.

How did Max and Andy work with local communities?

It took them a little bit of time to get to grips with the co-creation approach. Their intention was to make local people comfortable and then let them drive the programme. Their approach could be described as ‘food-enabled co-creation’: if you give people something to do together, like eating, people open up in surprising ways.

The community participants suggested doing a video rather than the usual posterboards exhibition. After chat with an external communications consultant about various options, the participants went for digital storytelling. Participatory video making, with each group member having a different role, was also floated, but the group wanted to do something where technology was in the background rather than the foreground, and the focus was on individual stories.

When working with the local community participants, there was the challenge of having people coming over several sessions for a few hours at a time. Each participant worked at a different rate, so Max and Andy ended up with several participants working in parallel. As the facilitators, Andy and Max needed to learn to trust that the participants would get there in the end (some of them, anyway – not all stories were completed) and to go with the flow. 

The individuals who told their stories were not, for the most part, the community participants who were involved with the project from the beginning; instead, the latter recruited the former. In recruiting participants for a project like this, dignity was something that had to borne in mind: outwardly identifying anyone involved as ‘food insecure’ was not something that could be done. 

The Botanics is seen as a middle-class venue, and with that comes psychological barriers of some people feeling it is not ‘for them’. (One woman, who had lived in the area for 40+ years, had only been to the Botanics twice – both times on school trips.) Partnership working was a way around this: Max and Andy worked with Crisis Scotland and Pilton Community Health to recruit project participants, and the group work was done at the latter’s building rather than at the Botanics.

Communication approaches had to be adapted for each community participant to help ensure participants kept on attending the sessions. As a rule, email did not work – text message was better. In the end, though, the communication approach needed varied for each individual.

What kit and other resources did the team use to make the digital stories?

Six iPads, a couple of good-quality microphones (the mics cost around £100 each), a couple of inexpensive mic stands and a couple of cables. The number of iPads was one of the limits on group size (i.e. six iPads meant a maximum group size of six people). In terms of software, the team used iMovie, plus photos and the camera. The two things which the team got professionals to do were illustrations and subtitling; neither was that expensive. [YouTube can also be used to automatically generate subtitles, but these will still need some editing.] Unsplash and Pixabay were useful for rights-free images. 

How will the stories be shared?

For the stories involving community participants, there is an ongoing dialogue about consent. At present, the stories are not publicly visible online. However, some of the community storytellers were very keen to have their stories heard by people in positions of authority and the Botanics will be taking these stories to the Scottish Parliament in early 2019.

At the same time as Max and Andy were undertaking digital storytelling with local community participants, they also did it with a number of academic researchers working on food security. For the researchers, telling these stories is part of their role, so the same issues about consent do not apply and the stories are being shared widely in public spaces.

What makes a good digital story?

The most important thing is the story. Photos and other images add to this, but they only have value is there is story to tell. The story should be short – no more than 2-3 minutes – and have a clear story trajectory of context, challenge, climax and resolution.

Max Coleman sketching out the vital story arc

As a rule, unless, a speaker is very fluent and to the point, it works best if the story is written out before and then read out and recorded. (If the storyteller isn’t literate, storyboarded images could be used instead.) It’s essential to keep the story focused; reading out something pre-planned also reduces the need to edit out ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ later on.

Is there any more information from the session?

Check out Andy and Max’s slides from the session and the Big Picnic project.