Shorthand is a platform that enables simple yet stunning visual storytelling for journalists, artists, statisticians, and any storyteller looking to explore dynamic digital means of telling their tales. In a time when empathy and compassion often feel scarce, storytelling with tools like Shorthand re-engage the emotion of an often jaded audience through paced, intentional, and visually dynamic storytelling.

Over the course of my time in academia, I have become quite in touch with how little I know. Everyday, actually, the pool of knowledge, the bank of content of which I am aware I need to learn gets bigger and bigger. So, naturally, I try to absorb as much knowledge as I can just to combat the growth of that pool of uncertainty, but the rate of understanding is always slower than the rate It feels like a sprint, one where I can see the end, but the faster I go, the farther away the end gets. It is an absolute race to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible.

In that spirit of panic learning, I have become an avid speed-reader. I remember having a deep pride in my ability to speed read, to skim, to find the gold nuggets of information in a sea of text at school. The structure of the piece? I know it like the back of my hand and could find the heart of it blindfolded. Anecdotes? Fables? Stories? Merely obstacles on my mission to dig up the seed of ground-truth planted and hidden deep within the essays of the old men of antiquity.

But with so much practice in my race for information consumption, out of repetition, habit, and training, I have a really hard time not speed reading.

My group, the Lab for Social Machines, is working on a project called the Local Voices Network. It is constituted of a “unique physical-digital network designed to bring under-heard community voices, perspectives and stories to the center of a healthier public dialogue.” In short, we have a lot of audio of people telling stories from their lives. As a part of my research, I’ve been reading the transcripts of these people’s stories. Some are deeply personal, raw, and emotional. Yet, while reading, I’ve found myself flying through them, zooming through the details, feeling little empathy or any emotion at all, only looking at it through an academic lens racing to find the key nuggets of information. And what a disrespect and disservice to those storytellers.

I’ve found now, that when I listen to the audio of those stories, slow down, hear them word for word, hear the emotion in their voice, do I feel some emotional tug.

I believe that is a key problem with media consumption in American democracy today: often, we feel little empathy, no compassion, and no emotion when we read or see stories that should be truly moving.

Of course, how the story is told plays a primary role in the consumer’s interpretation and the emotion they feel. However, I believe the medium is also key.

In order to feel more empathy and compassion when taking in stories, I’ve tried to give more attention to the emotionally stirring mediums. I’ve found them to be longform, often audio or video based, more based in detail, characters and humans, images, key moments, and so on. In these formats, we humanize the people in the story, feel their pain, visualize their circumstances, feel the emotion in the voice of the speaker, and empathize.

In my experience, I have found it to be more rare for text based stories to offer that same punch, both due to my incessant speed reading and the sometimes one-dimensional nature of the text I read (often news, often academic, and often cold).

Getting to the Point…

Shorthand enables text based stories to  paces the reader and allows for easy, efficient, but stunning and deeply impactful visual storytelling. The visual storytelling of Shorthand allows artists, data visualizationists(?), storytellers, journalists, scientists, and whoever to collaborate on teams to tell a story that engages the reader. This collaboration enables illustration, photography, video, and data visualization to be enhanced by beautiful  and informative language, and enriches traditional text-based stories, pushing them into a second or third dimension of communication.

The slow and intentional spacing of a story segmented not by paragraphs but by the consumer’s scroll rate allow for the writer to place emphasis on a single moment, a single image, a single line of text in a way reminiscent of  to oral storytellers when they hit the climax, a moment of suspense, or a key moment of loss.

No longer can you zoom through a moment, zoom through a visualization, take only what you want to from the peice. Rather, the  writer has a bit more control over what moments stick out in your mind as important, influential, and meaningful.

I’ve attached examples of stories that use illustration to promote empathy and emotion in stories whos punch can be diluted by news outlets, stories that break down data visualizations into more consumable packages, moments where Shorthand has been used for advocacy, and a visual artist who has incorporated Shorthand into their art to create an array of stunning self portraits.

Finally, Shorthand is incredibly easy to use. I’ve linked one I’ve created about croissants here that took me less than 10 minutes. They offer extensive tips on general storytelling and how to use their tool on their page, The Craft, that is useful for those who use the platform as well as for those who choose not to. The platform is not free (but offers a free 30 day trial if you want to check it out).

Overall, I would highly recommend this tool and other tools and media like it to re-engage emotionally distant or jaded audiences to reinvigorate and bring passion, emotion, compassion, empathy etc. back to what can sometimes feel like a dying or apathetic democracy.