Storytelling done differently: a new way to explain complex topics

In journalism, content marketing, or anywhere else where the art of storytelling is crucial for engaging readers, people are constantly trying to develop new ways to tell stories in order to create a stronger bond with the people who consume their content.

While there are many things that separate good stories from the bad, the really great stories are often the ones which manage to place a strong narrative and analysis in a clear context. Put another way, these articles are the ones which tend to explain to readers why they should care about the information they’re consuming, and show how it fits with the knowledge and understanding they may already have about a given topic.

This goes right back to that Journalism 101 question: ‘so what?’. Answering this successfully often means offering context which helps to bring the value and importance of the story to the fore.

Of course, there is a ‘however’: sometimes stories are already so complex and long that – at the risk of stating the obvious – adding more stuff to them only increases their complexity and length. Any geopolitical issue is of course better understood in a broader context, but the risk for information overwhelm is real – how much context is too much context? And, how do you design for this?

Luckily, the industry is constantly trying to make storytelling better and easier and technology has now provided a solution to how you present these vast amounts of information.

We sat down with Julia Köberlein, one of the founders and the CEO of Kontextlab, a tech startup that has developed a solution for understanding complex topics via CMS. Anyone familiar with MindMaps (that memory tool beloved of countless educational institutions) will understand the philosophy behind this creation, though technology enables a much more intuitive and in-depth approach for creating digital knowledge maps.

They even launched their own magazine called Der Kontext, where they present complex topics in a different manner and, as the name suggests, where they do so in context.

What’s the idea?

Julia says that KontextLabs started because the founders identified one important problem with the established publishing setup: the difficulty to present, publish and consume in-depth news stories. It is an interesting situation: technology has progressed beyond all expectation, yet when it comes to presenting articles, news or content, many publishers still follow the old conventions of print.

There hasn’t been a massive paradigm shift: publications might flirt with different formats but these articles are notable for being different, rather than signaling a broader change.

Julia and her colleagues began to wonder something else too: if information is presented in an easily-explorable, interactive interface, would it be easier to form your own opinion about something? Would readers find themselves spending more time on page?

“Let’s take a tech topic as an example, such as blockchain. Many people are still really confused by this and while there might be lots of articles focusing on the background, there’s not enough space to explain everything you need to know to be able to form your own opinion,” says Julia.

It was the realization that while there might not be any need to write any more articles on a subject like blockchain, there was a great deal of merit in developing a new format in which stories could be told and issues explored.

“We talked to a lot of people and they would say that they lacked sufficient background information and connections between different aspects of the topic”, Julia adds.

So, at Kontextlab they developed software for making digital knowledge maps because – as Julia points out – visualization had been hugely underestimated and under-developed.

“A lot of people did not believe that this is very important. But actually, mapping is relevant. The brain understands information much better when it is visualized and I think that about 90% percent of the information that you process comes through your eyes.” Julia says.

Back for a moment to those MindMaps of old. Their effectiveness is down to the fact that by creating a map you’ve become an active participant in the learning journey. You’re creating links and connections between ideas, which in turn help you to remember things. It’s a principle that works in presenting information too. “The key lies in user experience and people’s need to interact with something”, says Julia.

That’s why they started thinking about how they could present complex information in a more compelling and more comprehensible way.

people really like this playful approach, where they can play with the maps, explore, get deeper into a subject they’re interested in and see how it all connects together

How it’s done?

They started Der Kontext, not your usual magazine, but a place where they use their digital knowledge maps to tell stories.

“We don’t have a lot of different articles. We focus on something like two different big topics at any one time. We try to map all the different perspectives along with all the relevant information, which is needed for an in-depth understanding of a topic. Context topics are designed to be in addition to what you read habitually: they are there when you want to learn more about something.” says Julia.

Designing an interface which enables the reader to see how topics fit together and connect is much more visually appealing. But, it’s not just about aesthetics: every dot on the map can be clicked on to open up another article, explainer or media file, so the reader can genuinely explore a topic, zoom in and out and follow their own interests through a subject.

“For example, let’s say you’re interested in blockchain technology. And you really want to know what it means for the economy. If that’s the case you’d go into the economy area of the map and perhaps read up on that. There you might find a connection with some social issues, so you might delve into that, all the time being aware of how one connects with another. Maybe you can find points connected with your area of interest that you might never have thought of before. That’s how people open up different perspectives on one topic.”

She also adds that people have the opportunity to explore topics in a playful way and find other aspects of certain stories. For those who know what they are looking for, there is a search option, which is used to find specific content.

And the impact?

You might be asking what kind of impact this way of reporting, presenting text and data, has on the audience, and you’d be right to.

Well, that’s a story in and of itself, because Julia says on average their readers have a very impressive acting time of over nine minutes. This is, as she says, quite a long time for online magazines. Maps behind a paywall have been known to keep users engaged for even longer.

“We also get feedback in person and via email. We’ve learned that what people really like is this playful approach, where they can play with the maps, explore, get deeper into a subject they’re interested in and see how it all connects together. It’s different from using Wikipedia, where you click on one link, then another one, and after four or five clicks you forget what your initial question was.”.

One big advantage for publishers is that articles can stay relevant for longer. Because stories are added to a matrix and are presented as part of a bigger story, it’s possible to add additional stories and articles as new information becomes available, or new perspectives uncovered. Stories are, after all, constantly growing, so it makes sense that the information around them should too. Keeping stories together in this way should mean that stories have more of a chance of remaining relevant and becoming evergreen content.

Visualizing information is penetrating all industries and Julia thinks that the way the data and stories are presented is going to become increasingly important in the future. As the content market gets increasingly saturated, savvy publishers need to look at different ways to engage their readers. Perhaps thinking far outside the box like this is the answer?

We thank Julia for talking with us and are excited to see what lies next for the Kontext Labs.

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