Oral storytelling has probably been around since the beginning of humankind.
Although how humans communicate has changed dramatically over the last 50 years, the fundamentals involved in telling a good story have pretty much remained the same. An excellent verbal story plays on the audience's emotions by triggering universal feelings that resonate within them. It's about grabbing your audience's attention and immersing them into your narrative. When this is done effectively, it can spark imagination and transport the listener on a captivating adventure.
But there is more to storytelling than this. A good storyteller is passionate, understands how to sway emotion, and can create a memorable experience. This is what separates BlueCampfire founder Nicholas Falduto from the rest of the pack.
Nicholas always had a knack for writing. He described it as a 'creative itch' – one that existed long before he graduated from Rutgers University. Reading, creative writing and story sharing are pursuits that Nicholas was incredibly passionate about. He enjoyed creating complex, believable stories with likeable characters you could relate too. And he was good at it right from the beginning.
After graduating from University, Nicholas was torn. He wanted to pursue writing full-time but had just spent four years getting a degree in criminal justice. At first, his degree won out. But after a few internships here and a few jobs there, the drive to wholeheartedly pursue his passion was too great to ignore.
And so he made his decision. He would concentrate on what he liked doing most: writing stories.
But little did he know that his stories would soon be heard in homes across the country - reaching thousands of eager listeners through the power of voice technology.
All thanks to an encounter with a 'talking hockey puck'.
It all happened during the Christmas of 2019.
When Nicholas found out he could play Jeopardy on his mother's brand new Echo Dot — he was hooked. After spending countless hours routing through new categories and answering clues, his mother took the hint and got him an Alexa device of his own.
That would be the beginning of something special.
"When my parents bought me one of these 'talking hockey pucks,' I began to really explore the skill store. I eventually found out that an Alexa skill was an exciting way to engage with and share stories, and so the inner creator in me kept on thinking; I could make something a little bit different than what I see here...a little bit more how I like it." - Nicholas Falduto
Nicholas was determined to build out his stories on Alexa. Although he was well-versed in traditional long-form and short-form writing, he was ready to create within the hazy boundaries of this emerging tech. He wanted to harness the unique elements inherent to voice technology and interactive storytelling such as branching narratives, logic and intents.
But what genre appealed to him?
Growing up, Nicholas lived in an area of Pennsylvania riddled with abandoned buildings and an old coal mine - a spooky setting that influenced his early love for scary stories. Stories that had you questioning reality and kept you up at night. The more believable the narrative, the more engaging and heart-pounding the experience.
Nicholas not only had a soft spot for unsettling tales, but the genre seemed to pair nicely with voice. It was settled. He would build out the first iteration of his spooky series: 'Campfire Stories' as an Alexa skill.
Using ADC (Alexa Developer Console), Nicholas coded his first draft of Campfire Stories. Sadly, it only worked about 10 percent of the time, and so he began wondering if an alternative solution was out there. He quickly found himself heading down a google rabbit hole in search of a better way to design for voice.
Nicholas then stumbled across Voiceflow.
I thought to myself, heck, this is the stitching that's going to hold it all together — not only the content — but the ideas, the logic and the sound FX as well. - Nicholas Falduto
By eliminating the necessity to code, Voiceflow (Storyflow at the time) helped Nicholas solve many of the challenges he was facing while enabling him to build faster and more creatively. It was time to re-think his Campfire Stories skill within the context of what was now possible with Voiceflow.
Using a pencil and a blank sheet of paper, Nicholas re-built Campfire Stories using flowcharts. He then took those drawings and quickly ported them into Voiceflow. Because Nicholas is a visual thinker, having a tool that made it easy for him to conceptualize his ideas in an organized manner was crucial. It was easy for Nicholas to determine the pace at which his stories were developing along with the elements he should implement next to keep listeners guessing.
But there was one function within Voiceflow that he found incredibly powerful: variables.
In Voiceflow, variables allow you to capture and store user information to build more personalized Alexa skills.
With variables, Nicholas could push his interactive stories in varying directions. He could shake things up and provoke uncertainty within an audience.
First, he would get the user to quantify a variable. He would then take that variable and - depending on what the user response was - lead them down a new path or storyline. It was an organic and creative way to take the user inside the narrative where any one decision could change the fate of a story's character.
"With variables, it gave me the opportunity to quantify what a user may not even realize they are choosing or thinking. The story is really listening to you as much as you're listening to it." - Nicholas Falduto
With his story-based voice app freshly revamped, Nicholas released Campfire Stories to the masses in the spring of 2019. Since then, Campfire stories is ranked as one of the top Alexa skills on Voiceflow and has grown immensely in popularity, with countless users requesting for more stories to be added.
Campfire Stories has built up a reputation among its users for creating an intimate and immersive listening experience quite unlike other story-based skills.
It's no surprise that the skill has become a bonafide crowd-pleaser. Today, thousands of users across five different countries listen to Campfire Stories regularly. On top of that, the skill sees more than 500 new sign-ups each month.
So what does Nicholas do to keep up with the popularity of his beloved voice app?
Simple. He keeps writing.
To satisfy the demand for more content, Nicholas adds an original story to his skill every two weeks. He even created a website where users can submit their own spooky stories for the world to hear.
With the success of Campfire Stories, it is apparent that the unique combination of spooky narratives and voice assistants is an unbeatable duo. This continues to drive Nicholas to further invest more of his time into his newfound love: creating captivating, interactive stories for voice that can harness the imagination of others.
"...the skill I made with Voiceflow really helped lay the foundation and answer the questions as to what I’d like to do and how that can serve others in a greater picture." - Nicholas Falduto
If you would like to learn more about Nicholas and his Campfire Stories skill, visit his website at bluecampfire.com
KQED's new interactive podcast series 'The Voicebot Chronicles' is far from your typical listening experience. See how they made it all work
From empowering teams to designing faster than ever to shaping voice and conversation design for the future – great conversations start here