Multimodality in storytelling — should we use it?

Rachel Carroll ✨
6 min readDec 31, 2020

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An analysis of my own experience using multimodality on Instagram stories and why I think it is critical for journalists in the digital age.

Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

Hopefully, by now, you have realised that alongside my journalism blog I also run several social media accounts that flag breaking news stories that offer my own thoughts and opinions.

Something I have experimented with on my Instagram account though, and occasionally on my Facebook page, is how to inject multimodality into digital storytelling.

In today’s technological world, it is not enough for journalists to simply use plain text when publishing stories on social media. If they want to grab users’ attention, then they must incorporate a range of multi-media elements as sadly, the internet is causing people and especially Millennials to have shorter attention spans. That is why many news publications have waved goodbye to the traditional methods of reporting and singular medium of print journalism (newspapers), and have embraced the new ways of presenting information by using multiple mediums and modes because it is much more interactive.

However, before I discuss my own personal experience with multimodality let me first explain what it is and why I think it is important for journalists in the digital age.

“Multimodality is an inter-disciplinary approach that understands communication and representation to be more than about language. It has been developed over the past decade to systematically address much-debated questions about changes in society, for instance in relation to new media and technologies.” Jeff Bezemer

In simple terms then, multimodality is a modern way of making stories become more interesting because it combines different ‘modes’ of communication such as pictures, text, videos, audio, graphics, iconography, and other forms of semiotic interactivity to compose messages to audiences. Jeff says that all of these forms individually create meaning so that when combined together, the narrative becomes even more meaningful. Language on its own is not enough to entice readers in 2020 so if journalists want their news to be noticed above the noise then they need to go the extra mile and incorporate multimodal elements.

That is why Instagram is so effective!

The image-sharing app allows journalists to publish multiple photos and videos on a story so all the information appears together in a slideshow format, very similar to that of a news bulletin. What’s more, users now have the ability to share any post they want from other Instagram accounts onto their own story which opens up a brand new world for sharing news and information. This is something I experimented with quite frequently on my own stories:

Selection of Instagram stories from my account: @RCarrollJourno

By sharing breaking news stories and giving my own thoughts, it helped generate dialogue between myself and my followers which is something that is not possible in print journalism. I also had a few people respond to my stories saying how they agreed with the comments I made and some even said it made them think about the news differently which I thought was interesting.

Moreover, because the app introduced ‘highlights’ in 2017, stories are no longer limited to just 24 hours. They can now be pinned onto a person’s profile allowing users who already viewed the story another chance to see it and those who missed it an opportunity to watch it for the first time. This was useful for me because it meant my stories were — and still are — receiving attention from people despite being published a few weeks ago.

According to 2020 statistics, 59% of Millenials watch Instagram stories meaning stories are vital for journalists trying to improve their digital presence as they have the ability to reach a wider audience. I found this when promoting my blog posts as I got more attention to my stories in comparison to my posts, so much so my Medium profile has now been recognised as a ‘top writer in journalism’, see my email below:

Another story highlight I created was called ‘COVID-19 vaccine’ and this was to educate my followers on the importance of the vaccine and to encourage them to get it when they are eligible. This was motivated by my frustration with the press for fear-mongering the nation by emphasising the small numbers of people who have experienced side-effects rather than celebrating the thousands of people who have not. For more information on this check out my last blog post! In the stories, I experimented with multimodality by using text, images, videos, icons, gifs, and polls with the aid of Canva.

Selection of Instagram stories from my COVID-19 vaccine highlight

I found images to be extremely effective, especially the moving images in attracting attention because the stories that had visuals received more engagement (by the story reactions) over the stories that just had plain text. This is supported by research that shows how the human brain processes an image 60,000 times faster than text. One follower responded to my highlight saying the visuals changed his experience of reading news because he did not know it could be so exciting. This made me realise that the information I was sharing was important because many young people do not actively search for this information so by posting content on Instagram, I was getting a whole new demographic engaging with news.

Another thing I gained from this exercise was how important it is for text on stories to be concise. A few of my followers said they read the news on the go, so because my information was brief it made it more appealing.

Out of all the modes though, I found polls to be the most effective because of its interactive nature. This advancement in digital technology has changed the way we consume news. By allowing social media users the opportunity to give their opinions on an issue, storytelling is no longer a one-sided conversation. It has become reciprocal and immersive which I found extremely valuable as it meant my own views were constantly being challenged and therefore expanded. And because of this, it helped me come up with different ideas to discuss in my blog, highlighting how beneficial multimodality can be for journalists. Not just because it increases viewer engagement and drives more traffic, but because it can help them find inspiration for future news stories.

What would I do differently?

  • Add audio. At the time I thought adding audio might confuse or possibly overwhelm my followers because there would have been too much going on. In hindsight, I believe adding a voice-over or even music would have increased my followers' engagement. Especially because 70% of Instagram stories are watched with the sound on.
  • Add the swipe-up feature. Unfortunately, because I do not have over 10,000 followers I was not able to do this. Instead, I copied and pasted my Medium link into my bio and told my followers to find my blog posts there. However, I believe having this option would have driven more traffic for my blog and would have enhanced my follower's experience. So I highly recommend all journalists and media outlets with a large following to take advantage of this feature.

Overall, I can now say that my perception of Instagram has changed. I no longer see it as an app for uploading a picture of a night out, but rather a key tool in sharing and consuming news. And for journalists trying to make it in this digital world, multimodality is the way forward. Multimodality is essential for all people, not just journalists, because it helps keeps followers engaged and interested. Therefore, I will definitely be incorporating multimodality in my storytelling in the future and I recommend you do too!

I hope my experience has been helpful but if you still want to know more, check out this video clip below:

Berit Henriksen in conversation with Gunther Kress on YouTube

Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts on mulitmodality and digital storytelling on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

I wish you all a Happy New Year or shall I say… Happy New Tier :/

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Rachel Carroll ✨

Well hello there and welcome to my blog that explores topical and broad issues around #journalism. I hope it stimulates you 😆 Twitter & Insta: @RCarrollJourno