One morning in early October, I strapped my phone into a cardboard virtual-reality headset and peered toward the stage where the musical group MAE—(M)ultisensory (A)esthetics (E)xperience—was getting ready to perform. It was day two of the Future of StoryTelling (FoST) Summit, and I was sitting, along with hundreds of other attendees, in a darkened theater on Staten Island.
As the musicians began to play, their chords were synced to a virtual-reality animation viewable through the headset, and I was swept up—literally, it seemed—into a swirling world of color, shape, and light. It was a minute or two before I remembered that I didn’t have to simply look straight ahead at the stage. I could look up and to either side, and, depending on where I decided to turn my head, I could change the experience.
Making the shift from passive to active participant is at the heart of the FoST Summit, according to founder Charlie Melcher, president of New York City–based Melcher Media. The underlying philosophy of the storytelling-technology conference “is to celebrate the changing nature of the audience,” Melcher said. “In a world where we were passive consumers of content, we are now active participants in it.”
Melcher began his career as a traditional book publisher, but expanded into digital publishing, creating, among other thngs, award-winning apps. He founded the FoST Summit in 2012, inviting 300 people from the ﬁelds of technology, arts, theater, business, and communications to attend a one-day event to explore the impact of technology on storytelling. His purpose, he told participants at FoST 2013, was to create a community. “It was my desire to be able to spend time with all of you and for all of you to spend time with one another,” he said. “We’re not here just to attend the Future of StoryTelling. Together, we are here to create it.”
FoST has grown to two days and 500 attendees. To set the stage for collaboration and the exchange of high-level ideas, Melcher found that he had to think about reinventing not just storytelling but conference design. “We really had to blow up the conference model,” Melcher said in an interview with Convene. “This is not your ordinary conference. We want for people to be able to really learn from one another and talk to each other. That was really a central part of our founding design principles: How do we get this amazing group of attendees that we’ve curated to actually start talking to each other and learn from one another?”
‘You’re on a Hero’s Adventure’
For starters, FoST drew inspiration from the traditions of storytelling. “We think about taking our guests on a hero’s journey,” Melcher said. “We literally start the ﬁrst day by taking everyone on a private ferry, off of Manhattan Island, going across the sound to a place called Snug Harbor, on an adventure—to someplace that they’ve never been that feels like Never-Never Land.”
In FoST’s ﬁrst year, participants arrived at a dock that was just across the street from Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden, which was founded in the 19th century as a retirement home for sailors, and occu-pies 83 leafy acres on Staten Island’s north shore. Hurricane Sandy washed the dock away, but the experience of collectively traveling by boat was so valuable that organizers found another, slightly more distant dock where the ferry could land. “Then we load people on buses for literally less than a mile’s drive to campus,” Melcher said. “It’s unfortunate, but I just thought the boat ride was so important in helping to reset people’s brains and get them in the frame of mind for being at the Future of StoryTelling that we double-pay for getting people there. We could just do the buses and save the boat fee, but it’s such an important part of our adventure, signaling that you’re on a hero’s adventure.”
Snug Harbor’s landscaped grounds and collection of century-old columned structures look like “a beautiful New England college campus,” Melcher said, and the arrival via New York Harbor plus the venue help create an environment in which attendees are more open to experience new things, new people, and new ideas. Melcher asks attendees to leave their computers and their suits at home. Yes, FoST is a tech conference, he said, but “it’s all about an open, casual, sharing environment.”
Participants also share in what Melcher describes as a “meta-narrative.” FoST hires a troupe of local actors to create a ﬁction that encompasses all attendees. This year’s narrative was that Snug Harbor was the setting for a big, noir-infused Hollywood production — “A Snug and Deadly Harbor” — and that hundreds of FoST attendees were on set as extras. But the leads get into a ﬁght and refuse to perform, so the director has to choose a new leading man and leading woman from the pool of extras, and conducts screen tests with attendees. “So you’re both at a leader-ship gathering about storytelling, and you’re in an immersive story experience,” Melcher said. “Everybody gets the chance to become a star.”
‘On the Edge of Something’
But the reality is, everyone already is a star at FoST. From the beginning, attendance has been almost entirely by invitation. Each year, conference alumni are invited back, along with a handful of new people. There are also a small number of tickets reserved for people who apply for them, but as word of mouth about the event has grown, fewer than 10 percent of those applications are accepted.
This year, Melcher added a Future of StoryTelling Festival, which was open to the public. “I could probably sell all 500 tickets [to the Summit] in a minute to the ad agencies or to any one category, but we intentionally keep a mix,” Melcher said. “So we have some corporate-marketing-type people, we have some advertising/branding-type people, but we have content people, journalists, ﬁlmmakers, authors, musicians—all of these traditional types of storytelling. We also intentionally bring the tech community—the big Microsofts, Googles, Facebooks—but also the small developers. Someone from Greenpoint [Brooklyn] who is making an awesome game or a mobile application of some sort. We consciously are trying to mix it up. One of the things people comment about FoST is that they meet people who they’ve never met before, but who they somehow have something in common with.”
That’s been the experience of Michelle Broderick, chief marketing officer for Simple, a Portland, Oregon–based online bank. “I’ve stopped going to traditional conferences,” Broderick told me at lunch, which was served outside at round tables. “People who come to this are on the edge of some-thing, and I want to be around people who are playing on that edge.”
Broderick also appreciates the multidisciplinary nature of the audience. At a traditional conference, where attendees’ backgrounds closely mirror one another, she said, you’re likely to “revel in conﬁrmation bias all day long.”
‘A Visual Translation of Ideas’
FoST speakers are experts in a “broad swath of topics that we think are all of great interest,” said Carolyn Merriman, who has worked with Melcher Media since before the Summit began, and is FoST’s senior creative producer. Speakers “include people from masters of traditional forms of storytelling, pioneers of new forms of storytelling, people who are creating the cutting-edge technology, people who are thinking about new business models and new distribution models. We are looking at, how does big data factor into this? What about the science of multisensory storytelling?
From the beginning, organizers were faced with the challenge of enabling speakers and participants to sit at a table together and exchange ideas—“to cross-pollinate, essentially,” Merriman said—without relying on lectures. “It was really important to us,” she said, “that everybody in the room could be a part of the conversation.”
The solution was to create short ﬁlms that encapsulate a speaker’s ideas, allowing participants to prep ahead of time, so they show up ready to delve into the conversation. “The ﬁrst year we hoped it would work, we didn’t quite know,” Merriman said. “[The ﬁlms] ended up working out really well and have been a really wonderful tool for us.” The ﬁlms are also available to the general public on Vimeo.com and on FoST’s website; they’ve been viewed more than 4 million times.
Participants watch any of the 30 speaker videos online, and “then we send you a very simple survey and you choose your favorites,” Melcher said. “At the Summit, to sit in a comfortable room around a table with that speaker and 25 other people who self-selected to be in that session.” Merriman added: “Given that we’re a storytelling conference, we want the ﬁlms to not feel just like ﬁlmed interviews, but actually be short ﬁlms that are beautifully crafted and become a visual translation of ideas. FoST doesn’t have huge budgets for them, so we look for like-minded folks that want to be a part of our community.”
FoST makes sure that the big ideas in each presentation are covered, but also gives ﬁlmmakers a lot of leeway. “We keep a close eye on the editorial piece and have some comments, of course, but we really look for these to have their own point of view,” Merriman said. “Then we work with the ﬁlmmakers and just check in at a few points along the way during the edit and make sure to get the speakers’ sign-off before sharing. That’s pretty much it. The speakers always really enjoy the process, and are often able to get a lot of use out of them as well. And, ironically, we have actually found that this is a way to be incredibly efficient with our speakers’ time, because they never have to prep any kind of long talk.”
The ﬁlms “set the stage for high-level, roundtable discussions where everyone has already watched the video and comes prepared for this super seminar with this expert,” Melcher said. to really know the speakers. They get onstage, they give their talk, everyone applauds, and if you’re lucky, out in the hall afterwards you can exchange your business cards and say, ‘Thanks, great talk!’ Here, you get to spend an hour around a table, face-to-face with this speaker, engaged in a real conversation with them, and people love that. By the end of the hour, you really know the speaker, they get to know you.”
The other nice surprise is that the attendees in the room have gotten to know one another as well, because they’ve asked questions or shared insights or talked about their own challenges. “So when people leave our sessions,” Melcher said, “they’re grabbing each other and saying, ‘Hey, we should talk,’ or ‘I can help you with that,’ or ‘Me, too!’ So, FoST is becoming incredibly powerful for building relationships between people, both friendships and business collaborations.”
‘Very Fun, Very Creative, Very Social’
In addition to the roundtables, attendees participate in workshops led by artists, storytellers, and technologists. “If the roundtables are more left-brain, the workshops are meant to be right-brain, and literally getting your hands in there,” Melcher said. “A lot of them are designed to get people sort of hands-on with the storytelling tools of the future — whether that’s drones, or code, or virtual or augmented reality [AR], or learning from a master, or a unique form of storyteller that we’ve had.”
At FoST 2016, participants could build a chat bot, ﬂy a drone, learn the basic skills for producing a VR experience, or create a puppet performance under the direction of a supervising producer from “Sesame Street.” “They are very fun, very creative, very social,” Melcher said. “If you’re coming live to an event, then we should celebrate you being there live. We shouldn’t ask you to sit quietly and not make a sound or move your body at all for hours on end in a dark auditorium. We’re all about empowering our guests to learn from doing and having the experiences themselves.”
FoST also includes a Story Arcade, offering a curated selection of new technologies and new forms of storytelling. “[In 2016] I think we have 35 different pieces,” Melcher said. “And it’s everything from the latest in VR and AR and olfactory and multisensory. We bring amazing things, and in many cases we bring the creators there as well, so that they’ll talk about their work while you’re experiencing it.”
On the second day of the 2016 Summit, attendees participated in the two-year-old FoST for Good initiative, which links non-proﬁt organizations with the FoST community and other resources to devise ways to use storytelling to help solve social problems. Attendees in eight sessions tackled challenges for organizations such as the Earth Day Network and the United Nations Foundation, with experts that included NASA astronaut Nicole Stott and U.S. Senator Chris Murphy. In the session I attended with Murphy, which worked on behalf of Sandy Hook Promise, groups covered whiteboards with a thicket of Post-It notes ﬁlled with ideas for preventing gun violence.
Unlike other brainstorming sessions, where good ideas may or may not come to fruition, FoST for Good partners with creative agencies and sponsors that provide the resources and commitment to execute a project within a year.
‘The Storytellers With the Technologists’
The Future of StoryTelling has become a year-round community, with FoST hosting quarterly salons and organizing “tech tastings” and cultural outings. The organization helped curate a “Sensory Stories” exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York, in 2015, and co-hosted the 2015 New Storytellers Conference at the Phi Centre in Montreal.
FoST also has taken what it’s learned from producing the Summit and helped spread that to larger communities, such as a day of programming that included speakers, workshops, tech tastings, and performances for 150 marketers at the USA and Syfy television networks. “Throughout the year,” Melcher said, “FoST will organize and curate innovation days or tech tastings for private companies and organizations. Much like our smaller-scale tech tastings, these events aim to introduce people to the latest immersive storytelling technologies.
“Our mission is to bring together the storytellers with the technologists, so that we create powerful stories that are enabled in new ways through these technologies,” Melcher said. “The future of storytelling is about reminding people of the importance of the stories ﬁrst—it’s all just shiny objects if you can’t ﬁgure out a reason why people care. It’s very much baked into our DNA, to remind people that storytelling is what connects us, but that there are new tools that enable new kinds of storytelling.”
Earn one hour of CEU credit. Once you’ve finished reading this article, read the following material:
- “Your Conference Needs to Focus on Providing 4D Experiences,” an article by Velvet Chainsaw Consulting’s Jeff Hurt about the need for conference organizers to offer opportunities for attendees to experience deep learning, deep play, deep reflection, and deep connections — available here.
- “Immersive Technology: What You Need to Know,” a guide to immersive technology, including platforms, equipment, and pros and cons, by Centerline Digital’s John Kaplan — available here.
To earn CEU credit, visit pcma.org/convene-cmp-series to answer questions about information contained in this CMP Series article and the additional material.
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