This is my craft…

I was talking with a close colleague and friend tonight as we were working on a project, and we were trying to articulate the craft of visual storytelling. I was telling him that I have a friend here in Anderson, SC who is constantly introducing me to new people, and he uses my tag line, “This is my friend Bobby Rettew and he is a storyteller.” Then he follows-up with the phrase, “I am still trying to figure out how a storyteller makes money.” Well, Cordes Seabrook…this post is for you.

The craft of visual storytelling is tough to define…it is years and years of experience telling rich stories for broadcast television outlets across the country. It is years and years of judging and critiquing products for the National Academy of Television, Arts, and Sciences; Associated Press, National Press Photographers Association; and other local, regional, and national organizations. It is years and years of producing and leading teams of storytellers to produce shows, long format production, and numerous commercial spots for television and online distribution. But most of all…it is all about letting our stories tell themselves.

Telling compelling stories is not only understanding the mission of the project, but completely understanding the audiences you hope the message will compel to make action. It is understanding that the beginning, middle, and end is just the frame work for connecting the message to the audience; but weaving layers or messages tied together with a single red string.

The search for the red string is one of the hardest parts of the process…but once found, it makes the production to create the final product move increasingly faster. I was having dinner with Bob Dotson of NBC one night in Charlotte, and he explained to me that anyone can tell a story. But those who tell compelling, rich stories tell ones with layers and layers of messages…each connected with a single red string that crescendo at the right time, allowing the audience to full see the message through the subject(s) eyes and ears.

The approach I use aims to stay away from writing voice-over or track for someone to speak. Voice-over that connects all the sound-bites. The craft starts from the very beginning, with the interviews. The construction starts and continues during the shooting and interview process. This is the time to collect sound, great interviews. These interviews are collected in a way that tell the whole story from beginning to end. Each person interviewed has their own story to tell, adding to the the bigger picture of the final product. So it is the burden of the storyteller to guide each subject through an interview, so each person tells each piece of the puzzle. During this process, finding that one theme, idea, moral, ethic…the red string that connects all the pieces is crucial. Then while writing, we connect all the pieces using the red-string…to connect all the dots.

The red-string can be a person’s story, a subject each person reveals, an event that takes place…whatever is chosen, it has to make sense for the audience to grasp. Then using all the other elements, interviews, broll, natural sound, and music to fill in the gaps…guiding the audience through this visual timeline.

Visual storytelling is a craft…it is one that is hard to teach, articulate, and reproduce. This craft is also fraternal, you know when you meet another person that shares this same passion. We believe in the ethics of this moral enterprise, protecting the voice of the subjects that we so carefully provide as a platform to deliver a message. We are advocates for the people(s) voice…the voice of those who know the story the best. It is our ethic to properly represent that voice and bridge the gap between message, audience, and the subjects’ voice. If we are not careful, our writing sometimes de-humanizes the words they speak.

The business of this craft…to find those who believe in the craft and final value in advocating for the subjects voice. This visual storytelling enterprise closely represents that mission of word-of-mouth marketing, but we just provide a visual medium to communicate their message. We advocate for their message…because deep down inside, the audience wants to hear a story from those they relate. The audience relates to people that they can identify with, those whom they could see themselves replaced in the monitor or television screen. If that is achieved, and we can make the audience see themselves in the screen saying the powerful words…then we have achieved the goal of the craft. Visual storytelling is a craft…it is my passion.

The Interview – Documentary Approach to Storytelling!

No I do not mean a job interview, but this can be loosely applied. I am thinking about what it means to conduct an on-camera interview for a story using video. Once, again…a story. One of the most profound ways to tell a video story is through the eyes, ears, experience, and perceptions of others. Writing a story for the news, for video, or however you want to display the information can be done in so many ways. But one way is through interviews. We can write the best copy, but interviews provide that red-string that binds a compelling story together.

This post is dedicated just to the interview…not to the implementation of the interview into a story. One fundamental ideal I always carry with me comes from a long time journalist and NBC Corespondent Bob Dotson. I remember the first time I ever listened him to speak to a group of journalists (photojournalists) at the NPPA week long boot-camp in Norman, Oklahoma. The best way to conduct an interview is through a series of questions and statements; but what ever you do, ask the question and stare…make the interviewee fill the void. When you get back to listen to the tape, you do not want to listen to answers with your “Uhh Haa”, “Really”, or “Wow”. You want to have the interviewee’s audio as the only audio in the interview.

Conducting an interview is like telling a story…the interview needs to have a beginning, middle, and end. You want to create a conversation between you and the interview subject. Also…you want your interview subject to forget that the microphone and the camera are surrounding them!

When I conduct an interview for a story…I first think of how to make the technology go unnoticed. The first thing that needs to happen is that the wireless microphone needs to be put on the subject FIRST. It needs to be put on in a way so that it is hidden from the view of the camera and thus the final audience. I like to have the transmitter placed behind the subject, maybe of the pants waste-band, then the microphone and wiring under the shirt, blouse, or sweatshirt. The end of the microphone near the neckline of the shirt to pick up the audio of the subject. Then, the camera needs to positioned in a place that the subject is not focusing on the camera. It can be placed in the adjacent room where the lens can zoom to shoot through the doorway.

Once the camera is rolling, I like to start off with what I consider throw-away questions and answers. I ask a series of questions that have nothing to do with the subject matter at hand but merely to learn more about the person to gain trust. This is to build the conversation so that when the real questions are asked, the answers come naturally.

As I move into the questions that are the purpose for the interview, I am building up to the main questions, the main purpose of this interview. I always have notes of topics that I want to cover on a notepad, but in topic form so that I do not use the piece of paper to recite the question. I use the interview as an opportunity to explore the subject’s expertise, gaining knowledge not only for me as the storyteller but for the audience.

As I move through the questions…I always have a few questions that are the most important, the ones that require the best response. I place these appropriately in the line of questioning that makes sense and come out naturally. I build the interview to these questions where each question leads to the next response that ultimately leads to the questions that matter to the interview.

The Interview is merely the process of telling a story. Allowing the interview subjects to provide supplementary information that supports that main object of the story. The interview provides context and allows their “expertise” to bring credibility to the story and context to the audiences minds.

Conducting an interview is just a conversation, an exploration…learning more about their experiences and expertise. The video camera is merely a device to help us relay this story to the intended audience.

What does it really mean to tell a story? Finding the Zone!

What does it mean to really tell a story? What does it mean to be in the zone? To feel totally connected with the idea you are trying to reach into, understand, taste, smell, iterate? What is the zone…that common place that we feel extremely connected to something not beyond our reach, but beyond our discourse, the language that describes.

Telling rich stories is finding the zone of understanding, comprehension, imagination…and turning that realization into pieces translated so others with like minds comprehend and give language. Language is symbolic. Opposing arguments create connected drama.

I am always in search of a good story. One that puts me in the zone. I am in search of people that want to tell their story, regardless if they admit it or not. I am in search of people and organizations that have a story to tell but yet have no discourse by which to translate so others can see their viewpoint through their lens.

I am looking for layers. Stories with layers engage and are memorable. It is easy to tell the beginning, middle, and end…but what about the stories that are not that simple. Stories, layers, richness that require thought, context, and multiple viewpoints to bring the audience into the zone of complete and utter comprehension. Connection.

What is the zone…the true commonplace. The space that is closed between your idea of comprehension and the place where the orator brings you to see his/her viewpoint. You know that place. It is the place similar to the movie theatre when slowly but surely you loose your peripheral vision and you are totally and completely engaged with the storyline. You forget your surroundings so much that you can almost smell the flowers in the screen, you can feel the water around you. Have you been there before. What does it take to create you own theater? An emotional connection.

The zone is the place where the author/orator meet the audience and they dance to this merry little song where you can recite the words just the way the writer meant for you to sing. That moment at a concert where the singer on the stage pauses during a common part of the song and the audience sings without skipping a beat…you know the zone. The place where audience and author/writer/orator are in complete cadence.

What does it mean to tell a story? Well…it is helping the audience find your zone, their zone and see the same red-string, the same theme in complete agreement.

Blogging is more than just SEO & “Thought-leadership”

I have been really enjoying the conversations lately on #blogchat, hosted by Mack Collier (@mackcollier) on Twitter. The weekly Sunday night chat is wrapped around blogging, and this past week was specifically geared towards monetizing your blog. Why do we blog? Seriously.

Businesses and organizations use blogs for many reasons, but I think it is specifically to position themselves as thought leaders in a specific discipline or arena. It is a great way to have an immediate position on a topic or ideal and generate traffic when audiences are looking to consume information. The ulitmate goal, drive traffic to your “mothership” in the hopes to gain some monetary goal or position a viewpoint to raise some awareness.

My wife has been blogging for over two years. She has no reason what-so-ever to gain any type of moentary position from her posts. She used it as an outlet when dealing with the loss of her mother and our two children. It has become her outlet to articulate thoughts, connect with others, and theraputically sooth the soul.

So why do we blog? I honestly think…we as humans just want to be heard and we want to connect with like minded individuals. Whether it be gaining business from our thoughts or connecting with loved ones, we use it as an outlet to organize thoughts.

So why do we as business owners blog? This is why I am writing this post. It is more than just the SEO perspective. It is more than gaining business from blog posts…even though we will not admit it. Blogs are a place to articulate our thoughts and help us keep focused in our business. This iterative process requires time and thought to critically think, “why are we dedicating time to an outlet in the hopes to generate cash?”

Blogging takes focus! It requires us as business leaders to write a mission statement for the blog. The blog is our sounding board for business, our credibility platform to justify to the world we know what the hell we are talking about. It requires us to define a goal for each post and justify whether it warrants a post, then focus it to specific key words that closely align with our business objectives.

Blogging is our creative outlet to work through creative ideas. Through this online discourse, we find ourselves creating an argument for a great project, a great proposal, a great business plan, or even just get some responses on an idea.

Some of the smartest marketing gurus and most successful business people have successfully found a focused voice in their blog. They have a community of followers, a one stop focus group (or usability testing facility) for ideas and thoughts. They have used their blog as a platform to successfully write their business plan. We should learn from them…because it has probably taken them lots of time and diligence to refine their blog, their online business plan.

Big-box business have a hard time wrapping their heads around how to “monetize” a blog because the voice is way to big. They are having to go micro and use individuals within the organization to focus the objectives. But…they use other marketing platforms to generate their own equitable “SEO”.

Our thoughts are our voice, if focused they will engage those with like minds. When you hear the heavy blogging gurus talk about focus…it is more that just focusing the blog, it is focusing the business of writing the blog.

You have to be aligned: head, mouth, heart, feet!

After spending two days attending the InnoVenture Southeast Conference in Greenville, SC…I started to think about one of the speakers from the CHPRM’s Conference I attended last week. OK…let’s back-up for a second. Two different conferences, how in the world am I relating these two totally different topic areas: healthcare marketing and innovation/entrepreneurship?

CHPRM’s is the Carolina Healthcare Public Relations and Marketing Society who puts on two conferences each year, one happened this Spring. The opening speaker was a man by the name of Scott Regan who was talking about how to build a better brand. He said one thing that stuck out in my mind,”Be authentic! You have to be aligned: your head, your mouth, you heart, and your feet.” Hmm…makes sense. He then charged us with seven questions:

  1. Who are you?
  2. What is your product?
  3. How is it special?
  4. How is it different from others’ similar offerings?
  5. How can I demonstrate it’s trustworthiness?
  6. How can I demonstrate I am contemporary?
  7. How can I demonstrate cool?

As I walked through the InnoVenture Conference this past few days, I was surrounded by entrepreneurs, medium size to large companies, non-profits, etc. giving 15 minute presentations. These were more than just presentations but more like pitches. Each had to tell what made them special and what they needed to be successful, their elevator pitch. Some real good, some not so articulate. As I sat there…I thought about those seven questions and Scott’s quote: “Be authentic! You have to be aligned: your head, your mouth, you heart, and your feet.”

Creating messages with groups, whether it be a video message, direct mail piece, web landing page, or even a print piece…you have to think as it being a mini-elevator pitch for that particular situation. You have to get rid of the clutter.

I compare writing and executing a 30 second television spot and even 140 character tweet the same as an elevator pitch, asking myself those seven questions. It is easy to sit down and write a presentation for a pitch knowing your time is unlimited or even more than 30 minutes. But imagine having to to trim it to 5 minutes. It is just as hard as writing that same message in a 30 second spot or even a 140 character tweet. You have to be aligned, head, mouth, heart, and feet.

I was writing a script for a small business the other day and one of the first things I asked them to do is write out a one page description of their company’s message. From there, I sat down and spent time talking with them, challenging thought, presented opposing view-points, and began extracting a message. I am looking for that pitch, that memorable piece that if you were riding the elevator with Donald Trump, you would shake his hand, tell him what you do…enough so that you leave him with a taste in his heart to want to ask you to jump off the elevator and talk more.

I would much more prefer writing a memorable pitch, a memorable script, or a memorable piece of marketing that can achieve more in 140 characters (or 30 seconds) that two pages of boring non-sense. OK…I have written 2 hour documentaries and produced long form work that warranted story development, but the principal is still the same.

So what is my point here in this long drawn out madness? We have to be memorable, authentic to survive in this crazy game called business. It is healthy for us to ask ourselves those seven questions and not only apply it to our message, but how we do business. From state supported universities to major big box companies to small businesses…we are trying to leverage what we can to succeed. We have to be aligned in-order to be authentic.

I was talking with Russ Davis from Sandler Sales Institute today as he was explaining how he helps groups become successful. I felt like he and I were speaking the same language, helping people define their objective, understand their audience and goals, and refine the message…drill it down until it is memorable. That Russ Davis…he is a smart guy and so is Scott Regan and John Warner of InnoVenture. Where do you want to go and what do you need to get there? Ask yourself the seven questions and remember to “Be authentic! You have to be aligned: your head, your mouth, you heart, and your feet.” I need a dose of my own medicine!

Pubs are great places to find stories!

I was in Columbia, SC last week doing some work…and going to a conference. I was staying downtown at the Hampton Inn, and as I was finishing up an email when my stomach started the “I want food!” growl. So I thought, I will just take off out the front door and see where I will end up. A half of a block later, I found the Liberty Tap Room…neet bar and restaurant atmosphere. I entered through the side door, and as I made my way through the tables with families, friends, and various people laughing an chatting…I spotted the bar off in the distance. My destination, a quality brew, a small appetizer, and maybe listen for a few stories.

As I climbed up on the bard stool…I noticed the remnants of renovation, innovation.  This old building was transformed into a gathering place, once of industry…now a place to bring industry together for after hour food and spirits. After my first Mighty Arrow, I ordered a plate of chicken nachos to fix the fussing of my inner growl.

After the first brew…it was time for a change, so I asked the waiter for the beer surprise. Give me a pale and do not tell me what it is…but it’s your choice. I have no idea what she brought me…but it was damn tasty. Right as she laid it down in front me, a lady made her way beside me…placing an indecisive order for a drink and a beer. She wanted a cocktail and her friend (her husband) wanted a manly beer. They were looking at this fresco sculpture behind me, commenting on the detail and craftsmanship.

After a few minutes of listening, I piped up and said hello. I noticed they were somewhat quite yet looking around almost like they felt out of place. What did I learn, after three kids and running a small tile laying business, this is the first time they had been out alone to have dinner in probably five years. This was their five year anniversary. They were lost without their kids, their business, and the other things in their life. So I bought them a round of drinks and we talked…well they talked and I listened. These two were totally in love, with each other, their life, their kids, and most importantly, their Clemson Tigers.

I thought I hit the jackpot in Columbia, SC…we were surrounded by Gamecocks. My bar companions that night re-affirmed with everything that was right with the world. Being a small business owner, the desire to have children, having a lovely wife, and our Clemson Tigers.

You never know who you will meet? You never know what connections you will forge. Sometimes it is fun just to go grab a beer in a place where you have never been before, and let the listening ear guide you. It was nice to meet this couple. They had a story to tell…it was fine by me if I meet them again.

Everyone has a story to tell…are we listening?

How political candidates use video to tell their story!

New media is a great new tool that has helped political candidates reach out beyond the traditional outlets, and tell their story. We witnessed history as the first African American ran for the highest political office in America, and he used the power of new media to reach his target audiences…his masses.

He engaged with YouTube, email blasts, Twitter, and other means to distribute his message. He coordinated this video message with television advertising. Then he used all of this connection points to bring the masses to watch a one hour television special from the eyes of his audience, telling their story. He was the host.

The one thing I have noticed when he used online video messaging, it always came from him looking directly at his audience. It was not these taped interviews where he was looking off camera, submitting to q&a from media outlets and pre-produced interview sessions. He had a script, it was well crafted, short and obtainable in one sitting, it was phrased in active voice, and he looked at his audience directly eye to eye, face to face.

He distributed these video messages with that same strategy that they were crafted. He used email blasts with embedded images that gave the illusion that someone was going to click the video and it opened up a landing page where the video would rest. Lots of times it was a place to sign-up to donate, sign-up for a newsletter, or commit to attending a rally or function.  He made this process easy…his team programmed and planned for the user interface to be easy and mindless.

He drove traffic to his YouTube site which housed all of his messages, this done by embedding the YouTube video within the landing page. This helped with SEO and creating digital connection points so that the keywords (the issues) where found easily when people used Google to find information. He created the illusion of the digital conversation.

We as business owners can learn a lot from this campaign, this practice, this initiative. People want to here from us, our story! They want to see us say it. They want to know what we look like, our expressions, our emotions, our passionate delivery. If you have listened to the critical analysis’s of his presidency, they spend a lot of time talking about his expressions. This conversation comes from digital penetration…he has made all of his emotions available but showcasing them on a regular basis for the world to see. Wouldn’t we be so lucky to have the same effect? These tools are out there for us to use! What is your story?

Building a campaign using the “Red-String” of Storytelling

So what is the Red-String when it comes to telling a story? Hmm…well it is the underlying theme that connects all the layers within a story. Bob Dotson of NBC’s American Story talks about telling a good story. A good story is one that is memorable…one with layers. Layers of individual stories bound together by an underlying theme or story-line, hence the “Red-String.”

Think about the best book you have ever read, or one of your favorite movies. It is a bigger story built around little micro-stories connected together by a “Red-String.” Each little scene or story is placed ever so appropriately at the right place, at the right time, in the right sequence to build and “argument” or thought.

Let’s take a look at the “Red-String,” as it is shown here graphically. This is the only way I know how to explain this concept.

As you notice the relationship is somewhat of a linear relationship between the audience’s engagement and time. Over a period of time, the story-line is moving along as the audience engagement increases during each micro-story or plot. As the story-line moves along, the audiences engages with some intensity during the rising and falling actions of each plot. As the story progresses through each plot, from one to the next, it is held together and connected by the “Red-String.”

At a specific point, at the right time…the author brings all the plots together with a reveal or rising action. This is where the “Red-String” ties the knot bringing all the story-lines together reveal the bigger picture, the main plot-line.

So this translates directly to any marketing campaign. It is my opinion that any effective marketing campaign capitalizes on building relationships with target audiences, delivering small messages over time. These messages build to a bigger “reveal” or “call-to-action.” These messages are little stories, micro-stories connected by the underlying theme of the campaign, or the “Red-String.” The point where the main “call-to-action” is placed is at the right time when the “Red-String” ties the knot.

Social Media Technologies are just another technology that is added to the bag of tricks; but what they really are….they are just distribution points. Some professionals refer to them as connection points, a point that allow users to interact with distinct audiences. Social Media outlets are just a bit different because they carry one inherent value that closely relates to word of mouth marketing, they use relationships as driving force. To build engagement, your must build trust…to decide to become a “friend,” “fan,” or “follower.”

The “Audience Engagement” axis is extremely important part of this discussion. Lots of professionals create Social Media “accounts” and immediately start marketing the goods/services. Unless you are “Hot” brand…you need to spend time building audience engagement before implementing an effective “call-to-action” campaign.

This is where the idea of “listening” is so critical. As in any relationship, trust has to be gained and the relationships have to be forged. As the trust builds, and the conversation increases, the audiences grow. And slowly over time, the stories can be distributed to create an awareness for the campaign. This is where the true effectiveness of the “Red-String” ties the knots of the stories, the campaigns, the message.

So in the world of storytelling, are you telling those stories that are connected by the “Red-String?” Is your campaign relevant or just a bunch of little messages with no direction, purpose, of relevant placement. What is the “Red-String” in your campaign?

The desert really does flood!

When I worked for KPHO-TV in Phoenix, Arizona…I never knew what story I might be covering on a day-to-day basis. It could be anywhere in Arizona, Mexico, California, or even across the US. We were the flagship station for Meredith Corporation and you never know where the story would take us.

I remember it vividly. I worked Sunday to Thursday…so the page would come at 10am Sunday morning preparing me for my 2:30 – 11pm shift. At that time, we communicated using alpha numeric two-way pagers and mobile phones. As I would wake up to the bright Arizona sun, the pager would hum across the bedside table bearing my assignment for the day or even for the week.

It was required for me to keep a week’s worth of clothes in my full size blazer along with enough video tape, cable, and water to cover the story. I have been in an FBI standoff in the middle of the Arizona desert heat that reached 120 degrees. Dehydration was a reality. As photojournalists based out of Phoenix, we were also required to be trained by Phoenix Fire Department…how to cover stories in the heat, wildfire blazes, and structure fires. Covering stories was more than collecting sound bites and broll, edit, then put up the dish and get on air by 5pm…it was about understanding and adapting to our environments. It was about making the most of what we had and finding ways to work smart and efficient to collect, complete, and distribute compelling stories effectively and efficiently.

This hot morning, the buzzing pager gives me the message…heading to western Arizona to find a town underwater. Not sure when I will return. Hmm…I am in the middle of the freaking desert. A town under water? Is the assignment desk speaking in tongues or are they playing CYA since we have burned all of our helicopter hours for the month and they want to know if what the scanners are saying are true.

Out of the shower (better take one since this sounds like I might not get one for a few days), grab the camera and batteries, and off to Wenden, Arizona. When I get there…this what I found. Needless to say, I was out there for four days, slept in the Blazer and captured and produced dozens of stories of destruction and loss. I worked closely with a great writer and reporter Laurie Raymond.

So many stories, so many visuals, so many lives changed…including mine. I never thought I would see a desert town underwater.

A story with layers: My Great Passion

Meet my friend Ron Gattis. I am not sure where Ron is now, but I know one thing…he is passionate. His passion is infectious, so much I decided to follow him for three months to tell the real story of Ron Gattis. There is a story within this story…one of passion, heart-ache, and hope. This one has many layers connected, one with a single red-string…he wants to sing again on the “Big Stage.”

These are the stories I want to tell, to find, and bring to audiences. Imagine finding stories like this within organizations, ones with layers, ones with something that provide a connection with so many audiences. Thanks Ron for sharing your passion. This story was produced in 2005.