Sometimes we become so comfortable in sending out our stories on the same old channel, in the same old way, that we forget to focus on how people want to see it or interact with it. It’s like putting up a website and hoping people visit it because you think they should, and, you know, you worked really hard on it. Or your product is targeting 35+ year old women, but you don’t “do” Facebook because it’s beneath you. Good luck with that. Believe me, creating content is the easy part, it’s how you deliver it and where you place it that can be a challenge. Especially when you have a story to tell that isn’t getting the audience it deserves.
This came to mind recently at an event I was at for CBC’s The Current. The show was in Winnipeg to do a town hall on missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW). The town halls are passionate discussions, where much of the audience is made up of people from the community who have a keen interest in The Current, or are already involved-in and quite knowledgeable about this national issue.
In addition to the town halls, The Current brings along a bunch of Virtual Reality (VR) headsets loaded with their documentary, Highway of Tears. It’s a short film about Ramona Wilson — a young woman who went missing on the infamous highway in 1994 and was found dead a year later — as told by her mother Matilda. The virtual reality aspect to this documentary makes for an immersive, emotional experience that hits pretty hard. And with those headsets on, there’s no looking away from it. The film takes you back-and-forth between standing on the desolate (and densely wooded) highway as huge trucks whirl by, to being in Matilda’s home as she sits across from you and confronts you with her heartbreaking story.
When you think VR experiences, you usually think of a fun game to play, or a journey over some beautiful landscape. You don’t think hard-hitting, serious documentary. Or at least I didn’t. So I was skeptical at how a story like this would play. I was surprised at how my thoughts changed on VR docs immediately after viewing. I found the story profoundly impactful. And as a woman watching, I found it completely frightening.
A few hours before the town hall, CBC held a viewing event inviting anyone to come watch the VR doc. We were set up in the University of Winnipeg, which is bursting with students and young folks. And luckily plenty of them dropped by. Even the local Quidditch team took a break from selling butterbeer and fudge to check it out. When all was said and done, over 400 people came and watched the documentary.
Now, can you guess who the majority of viewers were? Would you believe 18 to 30 year-old men? Yep, that particular demographic made up about 70-75% of the total viewers. What do you think brought them over to check it out more than anything? Yep, the tech.
I’m not saying that many of these men wouldn’t have watched this doc without the tech, but I do think the tech was a huge lure. There were many a headset put on an eager dude ready to try something new. Thing is, when the headset came off, there was usually silence or hushed questions. And when asked, “What did you think?” There was no negativity towards the storytelling style or the issue it was presenting, instead I heard things like: “That’s tough to watch.” “Wow, that was not what I expected.” “I couldn’t look away from the mother.” “I had no idea.”
As a person who lives for trying to reach people through storytelling and good content, these statements were fascinating and, to be honest, sometimes quite surprising. Yes, the town hall had a lengthy, passionate debate about the issues, but that short VR doc reached — and affected — many people who wouldn’t have attended that forum in the first place. And to continue to work on effecting change and working to solve this national issue, aren’t those the exact people who need to see these stories as well?
A couple months later and I’m still thinking about that documentary and how it made me feel when Matilda looked at me as she held her daughter’s photo up, daring me to look away from it. I’m pretty sure a few of the viewers I met that day are thinking about it too.