The relative underuse of audiovisuals in communication strategies in the non-profit sector reveals the tension between its storytelling power and possible difficulties for a more generalised appropriation amidst the battle for truth, empathy, and visibility.
Magdalena Mactas is an anthropologist, storyteller, audiovisual creator and communication specialist with over 10 years of experience in Institutional Communication and International Cooperation. Magdalena founded and works as a Consultant at MAG agency, in Geneva. IMDB profile
OUR DESIRE FOR STORIES AND THE MARK OF “THE TRUTH”
In the seemingly infinite sea of stories that are produced every day, film and video have an increasing predominance as a vehicle for storytelling, a trend that appears to be well established now. Our love for stories is millenary: narratives have been central to human life from immemorial times, as we’ve learned through the study of archaeology and multidisciplinary research. We love stories, and this is not only limited to fiction. News from a diversity of sources reaches us with powerful narration, drama, and even comedy, every single day of our lives.
Currently, we face the constant challenge to decide if we believe—or not—in many of the stories we are exposed to. The concepts of time, truth, reality, and other aspects of our human existence can be considered to be culturally “filtered” or even “determined” by culture or subjective perspectives depending on the story and the storyteller. Without getting into the discussion about fake news, the success of audiovisual content online (I’ll give some statistics below) might be connected with its power to drive emotions vividly, interpelling us. Let’s explore a little bit about this power of audiovisuals to bring an element of truthfulness into all kinds of stories.
AUDIOVISUALS IN A POST-TRUTH WORLD
As history film buffs may know, when one of the earliest films ever made, ‘“L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat”(1896) by the Lumière brothers, premiered in a movie theatre, the oncoming train on the screen terrified viewers and made them jump out of their seats in fear of being hit (or so the legend claims). This ‘illusion of truth’ that astonished the audience, was probably due to the lack of habitude to the illusion created by moving images.
Films and videos have the power to transmit emotion vividly. They also remind us of that old anthropologist premise about the authority that emanates from the fact of being there. Being “in the field”, as opposed to from a distance or a desk, is what makes the ethnographic method (the quintessence of anthropology) a trustable method: the observer or reporter is participating and observing the same reality as the persons that are being observed. That presence would indeed enable a more authorised version of the events observed or experienced, than if the reporter was away, in some other place, talking about that same thing.
In a similar way, films bring the images and the persons appearing in them to you in such a way that you get to be with them for a while, where those images are happening. And yes: these images are happening as if in the present, as time actualises somehow when You / We are watching that film. The emotion transmitted vividly, plus the feeling that you are somehow there where what you’re seeing is happening accounts for the power of storytelling of audiovisuals.
The filming of Trance and Dance in Bali directed by Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson (1936-1939, 1952) pioneers in Visual Anthropology. Photo is a screenshot from the film available at the Library of Congress. More info.
However, in a present context where it is clear that what we see or read might not represent facts but some version or interpretation of it, the power of audiovisuals to vehicle truthfulness might get tangled in a more complicated arena, as a tool to communicate or tell stories.
As many might be aware, we live in what has been called a post-truth world, which means “the disappearance of shared objective standards for truth” and the "circuitous slippage between facts or alternative facts, knowledge, opinion, belief, and truth".
One way to navigate this mare magnum of stories and versions of truth would be to stick to the facts. However, we are seeing that if the facts don’t suit some people, they just go finding some alternative facts. As a French philosopher once said: power creates knowledge. Or was it the other way around?
Video created by MAG Agency
SOCIAL MEDIA RULES
Social Media has seen an increase in the use and consumption of audiovisual materials and has also impacted how we form an idea of the Truth. Let’s see some facts—or at least, let’s see some figures:
By 2019, internet video traffic accounted for 80% of all consumer Internet traffic.
Viewers retain 95% of a message when they watch it in a video compared to 10% when reading it in text.
74% of marketers say video has a better return on investment than static imagery.
60% of businesses use video as a marketing tool, and its main channel is social media.
Video attracts 2 to 3 times more monthly visitors than other formats/contents.
Blog posts incorporating video attract 3x as many inbound links as blog posts without video.
85% of all internet users in the United States watched online video content monthly on any of their devices.
CATCHING UP WITH COMMS IN THE NON-PROFIT WORLD
What is the potential of audiovisual tools for creating social impact? Some years ago (I’d let’s say less than a decade), in my experience communication was still frequently considered as an optional tool or even as an unnecessary expense in many important areas of management and operations.
Even if this idea has changed vastly, the auxiliary place that communications sometimes still has in international cooperation remains a challenge to overcome, in some cases. Prioritising communications as a managerial asset might be important for a sector that needs to appeal to emotion linked with empathy and cooperation in its mission, vision, and strategy.
Whilst humans are inherently compelled by stories, and while the non-profit sector continues to rely on the links made between people to make a better world, professional communicators in cooperation and development often see themselves growing distant from the power of storytelling for reaching their audiences. Perhaps this is because the complexity and the fast pace of working life might bring forward other priorities, as many communicators are expected to be generalists and extremely specialised in multiple things at the same time.
Videos can bring life to cooperation efforts that so often end up in a report read by no more than 5 people once in a lifetime. They also offer a response to the general public, as we can see in the example taxpayers who are increasingly eager to know what has been done with their contributions. Also, it can help create a sense of community, beyond the local level.
THE “OTHERS”: AUDIENCES, BENEFICIARIES AND EMPATHY
On the audience side, it is thought that reading and hearing stories make people more capable to empathise with others: “It teaches us about other people and it’s a practice in empathy and theory of mind,” said Joseph Carroll at the University of Missouri-St Louis. It comes down to the idea of cooperation, meaning that empathy enables cooperation, a more effective survival strategy than the “free rider”—that is, the strategy to try to survive by oneself, without cooperation nor contribution.
Not only is storytelling a way to build cooperation among human societies, but many stories are about cooperation and empathy themselves. And when thinking again about its power for producing social impact in cooperation/ development/ humanitarian, we can’t forget about the actual protagonists of the story: the “beneficiaries”.
Many times stories reflect the work that an organisation has done in some communities. But the participation of the communities can also be an added value to achieve that cooperation, and video has the power of bringing this aspect into the light. However, in conflict areas or where vulnerable populations are being “assisted”, privacy matters or protection of identities might be an important aspect to take into account, even for security reasons.
What about the audiences? It is a premise of communications strategies that the audiences determine the channels and the message. But, in some areas, audiovisual channels might not be accessible among the targeted audiences. In this case, it can remain a part of the communications strategy if combined with other resources. While audiovisuals might be a good means to overcome the barrier that could be posed by languages, it might not be sufficient to transmit the complete / accurate message. If images can speak for themselves, they might mean different things in different contexts or within different communities or cultures. Images are a language and they can also be symbols, and the way they are put together can produce sense that can lead to different interpretations. Getting the audience to participate in the crafting of the message can be a good solution for avoiding error in the message that it’s aimed to be transmitted.
Getting the audience to participate in the crafting of the message can be a good solution for avoiding error in the message that it’s aimed to be transmitted.
BEYOND NEWS: VIDEOS AND CULTURAL HERITAGE
Apart from a communication tool, audiovisual language can also represent a way to preserve cultural heritage and practices, events, traditions, knowledge, and so many other human activities. In this sense, UNESCO declared the 27th of October to be the World Day for Audiovisual Heritage (WDAH) in 2005, in order to help “build global awareness of the various issues at stake in preserving audiovisual heritage.”
The audiovisual language is a way to tell stories, and this goes from the ephemeral to the archivable, from a TikTok appearance to a conference speech at the Human Rights Council, from a person crossing the Mediterranean sending a message to a loved one, to the multi-million dollar production studio.
HOW TO DO IT?
The technical means to create audiovisuals are simpler nowadays, and the costs are much more accessible than they were in the past. You can do it yourself or you can reach out for help without needing to spend too much, or you can invest more and sweep away the limitations.
In our experience at MAG agency, and according to statistics, videos for social impact are needed for reporting, information, fundraising, and educational purposes, among others. And of course in this pandemic context for remote collaborations, events, and meetings!
What elements must a video have? Without going too much into detail (it can be the topic for another article… or video!), some of the elements that videos for social impact need to have (according to clients and as proven—again—by stats) are: music, captions, and sometimes voice over.
Above all, the power of video lies in the power of story: to create empathy. Even in a 10-second video, even with the simplest elements; because we crave stories! Because through them we can imagine ourselves in other peoples’ shoes as we see why people live and think as they do.
What are your thoughts or experiences with audiovisuals? Do you use them or would like to soon? What do you like more / like less about it, what challenges do you see for its application?
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