The PR BlogCreativityStorytelling & WritingSlow Storytelling is Making a Comeback

Slow Storytelling is Making a Comeback

The well-deserved comeback of long-form storytelling.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

The power of slow storytelling is mak­ing a comeback.

Must everything be short­er and faster on the internet?

It seems as if slow storytelling is mak­ing a comeback. Longer tele­vi­sion shows, longer games, longer YouTube videos, longer tweets, longer blog art­icles, longer everything.

Here’s how:

The Paradigm of Fast Storytelling

The nar­rat­ive speed has accel­er­ated. News cycles are flash­ing by. Updates and tweets are blaz­ing by. Social media is turn­ing into show business.

Twenty-four-sev­en news cycles and bite-sized advert­ising mas­quer­ad­ing as enter­tain­ment are com­ing at us like a furi­ous swarm of moths cloud­ing the sky. 

Yes, some are con­cerned. Social media pess­im­ists are fore­bod­ing the decline of civil­isa­tion due to our short­er atten­tion spans and noti­fic­a­tion addictions. 

Everything must be short:

  • Online videos must be thumb-stoppers.
  • Texts must be fast and snappy.
  • Tweets are short by design.
  • News must fit into a push notification.
  • Programmatic ads must scream.

We’re all in a col­lect­ive hurry, and we just can’t be bothered with too much con­text. “It’s just the way it is now,” I think.

Click, click.

Overdue for a Counter-Reaction

I grew up on the island of Alnö with about 900 fel­low dwell­ers. I moved away, got my stra­tegic com­mu­nic­a­tion and lin­guist­ic degrees, and ended up in Stockholm, the cap­it­al of Sweden. 

In Stockholm, I remem­ber being astoun­ded by the impa­tience of the city slick­ers; they sighed as they missed their sub­way ride — even though the next one was in just a few minutes. 

On Alnö, buses came by once every hour on weekdays. 

A city-life dec­ade later, hav­ing lived in Stockholm, London, and New York, I find myself being immersed in this Pavlovian con­di­tion­ing.

A five-second break today? No prob­lem. That’s enough to check my social feeds, cal­en­dar, and inbox, read a few head­lines and check dir­ec­tions on Google Maps.

In short: I’ve picked up the pace.
We’re long over­due for a counter-reaction.

Preserving Mental Bandwidth

A part of me loves the access­ib­il­ity and the speed of new inform­a­tion. Another aspect of me still feels attrac­ted to slow storytelling.

As a long-time fan of Marshall McLuhan’s idea, “the medi­um is the mes­sage,” I can’t help but think that we might have got­ten a few basic ideas wrong. 

Marshall McLuhan - The Medium is the Message
Marshall McLuhan (1911 — 1980).

Marshall McLuhan: “The Medium is the Message”

The medi­um is the mes­sage” is a phrase coined by the Canadian philo­soph­er Marshall McLuhan in the first chapter of his not­able book “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.”

Despite being one of the most influ­en­tial thinkers in media the­ory, McLuhan’s ideas are often widely mis­un­der­stood. “The medi­um is the mes­sage” is no exception.

The medi­um is the mes­sage” does­n’t imply that con­tent or sub­stance lacks import­ance, only that the medi­um in which mes­sages are sent will sig­ni­fic­antly impact humanity.

  • McLuhan pro­poses that intro­du­cing a new medi­um will impact human­ity sig­ni­fic­antly more than any­thing sub­sequently trans­mit­ted through that medium.

McLuhan views medi­ums as exten­sions of human physiology. Our abil­ity to build houses extends our human skin, as it pro­tects against the ele­ments. This added lay­er of pro­tec­tion and phys­ic­al safety frees up men­tal band­width for human interaction.

So, a house is a medi­um in McLuhan’s inter­pret­a­tion. All human tech­no­lo­gies, down to the camp­fire, are con­sidered mediums.

McLuhan’s insight was that a medi­um affects the soci­ety in which it plays a role not by the con­tent delivered over the medi­um, but by the char­ac­ter­ist­ics of the medi­um itself. […] McLuhan poin­ted to the light bulb as a clear demon­stra­tion of this concept. A light bulb does not have con­tent in the way that a news­pa­per has art­icles or a tele­vi­sion has pro­grams, yet it is a medi­um that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to cre­ate spaces dur­ing night­time that would oth­er­wise be envel­oped by dark­ness.”
— Wikipedia 1Marshall McLuhan. (2023, May 15). In Wikipedia.

According to McLuhan, our abil­ity to cre­ate exten­sions of human­ity expo­nen­tially impacts our com­mu­nic­a­tion more than any mes­sage con­veyed as a result:

  • A light­bulb is a medi­um (an exten­sion of the human eye).
  • A house is a medi­um (an exten­sion of the human skin).
  • The tele­phone is a medi­um (an exten­sion of human vocal cords).

And so on.

Why is McLuhan’s ana­lys­is neces­sary? “The medi­um is the mes­sage” is a stark remind­er that a medi­um’s format (and its lim­it­a­tions) will massively impact human soci­ety — and the mes­sages them­selves, too.

We often default to seek­ing mean­ing in mes­sages but for­get to con­sider the medi­um’s inher­ent media logic.

Learn more: Media Logic is Dead, Long Live Media Logic

Dunbar’s Number and Cognitive Limits

Suppose Dunbar’s num­ber dic­tates the optim­al num­ber of per­son­al rela­tion­ships in a group. Why can’t we assume that there’s also a cog­nit­ive lim­it to the num­ber of nar­rat­ives we can stay inves­ted in? 

Robin Dunbar - Social Group Sizes - The PR Blog - Doctor Spin
Robin Ian MacDonald Dunbar is a British anthro­po­lo­gist, evol­u­tion­ary psy­cho­lo­gist, and spe­cial­ist in prim­ate behaviour.

150 — Dunbar’s Number

Most of you know Dunbar’s Number. It’s based on the idea that every one of us has lim­ited social bandwidth.

Dunbar’s num­ber is a sug­ges­ted cog­nit­ive lim­it to the num­ber of people with whom one can main­tain stable social rela­tion­ships. […] No pre­cise value has been pro­posed for Dunbar’s num­ber. It has been pro­posed to lie between 100 and 230, with a com­monly used value of 150. Dunbar’s num­ber states the num­ber of people one knows and keeps social con­tact with, and it does not include the num­ber of people known per­son­ally with a ceased social rela­tion­ship, nor people just gen­er­ally known with a lack of per­sist­ent social rela­tion­ship, a num­ber which might be much high­er and likely depends on long-term memory size.“
Source: Wikipedia

Read also: Group Sizes (From Support Cliques to Tribes)

There’s com­pre­hens­ive sci­entif­ic sup­port for the idea that we fil­ter all incom­ing inputs. We dis­card these inputs or assign them to a few more prom­in­ent storylines that we’re already inves­ted in. 2See Leon Festinger’s the­ory on cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance..

The explo­sion of avail­able inform­a­tion might neg­at­ively affect everything from atten­tion spans to cog­nit­ive over­load­ing. Still, the indus­tri­al revolu­tion also brought its fair share of less-than-for­tu­nate outcomes. 

Remember, our men­tal band­width has remained the same for at least 200,000 years. 3If any­thing, our brains are shrink­ing. Over the past 20,000 years, the aver­age volume of the human male brain has decreased from 1,500 cubic cen­ti­metres to 1,350 ccs, los­ing a chunk the size of a … Continue read­ing

Television Series and Superhero Universes

Lately, the charm of watch­ing a full-length movie has been rap­idly declin­ing; the story arc in a typ­ic­al two-hour block­buster is too short for me; there’s not enough time to get to know and under­stand the char­ac­ters of the movie, and the sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief suf­fers from being force­fully paced.

This is, in my case, thanks to Netflix.

I don’t watch Netflix for its assort­ment of movies; I binge on their tele­vi­sion shows (albeit that “tele­vi­sion” sounds a bit old-fash­ioned). An epis­ode is argu­ably much short­er than a full-length movie, but the storytelling spans sea­sons instead of minutes. 

ScreenRant lists 15 reas­ons why tele­vi­sion shows are super­i­or to movies:

  • More char­ac­ter growth.
  • Not restric­ted to one theme.
  • New char­ac­ters.
  • Bite-sized snip­pets.
  • Unpredictability.
  • Longer runtime.
  • Room to adapt and change.
  • Infinite pos­sib­il­it­ies.
  • Less rat­ing restrictions.
  • For a spe­cif­ic audi­ence.
  • More time to digest.
  • Room for more com­plex stories.
  • An addict­ive hobby or pastime.
  • We’re still in the golden age.
  • More con­trol from creators.

I’ve spent many hours fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of the Walking Dead’s main prot­ag­on­ist, Rick Grimes. As a view­er, I’ve been inves­ted in Rick’s life’s ups and downs (mostly downs) for a long time, but I still have no idea wheth­er he will make it.

There’s no deny­ing the lit­er­ary qual­ity of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic saga, The Lord of the Rings. Still, when it comes to sil­ver screen adapt­a­tions, it’s tough for LOTR dir­ect­or Peter Jackson to com­pete with the rich­ness of lore in shows like Game of Thrones, where the storytelling spans sea­son after season.

And it seems like movie­makers are catch­ing on, too. 

See how Marvel’s string­ing typ­ic­al block­buster-length movies togeth­er to cre­ate longer arcs for their char­ac­ters and add more depth to their cine­mat­ic Marvel uni­verse. 4Regarding cine­mat­ic uni­verses: It’s com­mer­cially clev­er to devel­op one par­tic­u­lar brand audi­ence over time instead of attract­ing new audi­ences from scratch with each new release.

Games as Long-Form Storytelling

My guilty pleas­ure (or obses­sion?) is to watch Let’s Play walk­throughs on Youtube. 

Read also: DayZ for Days

I’ve been at the edge of my seat through games like The Last of Us, Detroit Become Human, and Uncharted. I’ve dis­covered new worlds through games like God of War, Far Cry, and Assassin’s Creed.

In-game storytelling has seen tre­mend­ous devel­op­ment over the last couple of years. Watching social media nat­ur­als play their way through a good nar­rat­ive is immers­ive and cap­tiv­at­ing, even if you don’t play these games yourself.

More giant story-driv­en games might take a skilled play­er up to 40 hours of act­ive game­play to get through, espe­cially if they are into explor­ing and side missions. 

For instance, the anti­cip­ated title Red Dead Redemption 2 deliv­ers an impress­ive 60+ hour story cam­paign:

Long-Form Content in Search Engines

Longer forms have oth­er advant­ages, too. 

If you’re into digit­al mar­ket­ing or com­mu­nic­a­tions, you’ve prob­ably thought about how to rank on the first pages of Google’s SERP (search engine res­ults page) for your keywords. 

A study by SerpIQ sug­gests that 2,450 words are the “sweet spot” for rank­ing 1 – 10 on Google: 5A study by Moz indic­ates that long-form blog posts tend to do bet­ter not only in search rank­ings but in social media as well.

Average Content Length of Top 10 Results - SERP - Slow Storytelling
The aver­age con­tent length of the top 10 SERP res­ults (serpIQ).

Also, accord­ing to Hubspot, you get more back­links as well:

Backlinks vs Word Count - Slow Storytelling
Backlinks vs word count (Hubspot).

(And for those who don’t write art­icles that often: 2,000 words are quite a decent length: you’ve barely read 900 words of this article!)

I’m not sug­gest­ing that longer is always bet­ter in every way. However, we might have under­es­tim­ated our basic human need for depth and con­text — espe­cially in this fast-paced, digit­al-first landscape.

Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing it with oth­er PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

1 Marshall McLuhan. (2023, May 15). In Wikipedia.
2 See Leon Festinger’s the­ory on cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance.
3 If any­thing, our brains are shrink­ing. Over the past 20,000 years, the aver­age volume of the human male brain has decreased from 1,500 cubic cen­ti­metres to 1,350 ccs, los­ing a chunk the size of a ten­nis ball. Just saying.
4 Regarding cine­mat­ic uni­verses: It’s com­mer­cially clev­er to devel­op one par­tic­u­lar brand audi­ence over time instead of attract­ing new audi­ences from scratch with each new release.
5 A study by Moz indic­ates that long-form blog posts tend to do bet­ter not only in search rank­ings but in social media as well.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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