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Asking the right questions…storytelling

It was just yesterday I was working on a project for a group in Portland, Maine. An upstate portrait artist has been commissioned for a project and it was important to capture his story during the process. The artist’s name is Jerry and he grew up in Spartanburg.

The client for this project is actually an old friend of mine, Mike Redding. He is not old, we just worked together close to ten years ago.

He sent me a note with some of the questions for the interview and I could immediately recognize his thought process. One of the questions was buried in the midst of all the questions…and I wondered. It was a personal question that seemed to need a little extra attention.

I know Mike…there is a reason for this question. It was just not a throw away…it was important. Later, he sent me a note warning me Jerry might get annoyed with answering these personal questions and he actually might get mad. That immediately told me this topic was not only important to the story, but also a series of questions that needed to be asked.

People want to talk. People want to share their story. We just have to ask the right questions. When people like Jerry agree to an interview, they subconsciously agree to share the deepest part of their lives. We just have to be willing to ask the right questions at the right time. Most importantly…we have to remember the interview process is about trust.

I have learned not to dive right into the most controversial question at the beginning, unless I am working on a documentary or investigative story that requires me to capture that question immediately. We have to slowly work our way into the important questions. We have to learn to build trust.

I am asked so many times, “What do you do?” I tell people I am a storyteller. I find, capture, tell, and share stories for people to enjoy. But what I really do is ask the right questions.

Passion can be found in someone’s story!

Meet Dot…she is amazing and has a powerful story to tell. Many people camp out all night for iPhones, iPads, and other gadgets. She camped out all night to be the first in-line to receive free medical care. Why? She needed it and was willing to just about anything for the opportunity. To me…that is about as entrepreneurial as it gets!

From TheState.com
There were more than 1,300 patient interactions at the SC Mission 2013 this past Friday and Saturday in Columbia, SC at the State Fairgrounds.

Patients received healthcare, eye care, prescriptions and women’s care, including pap smears and mammograms.

The SC Mission aims to meet the needs of residents who are underserved an uninsured. There were about 1,000 clinical and non-clinical volunteers including about 500 healthcare professionals such as doctors, nurses and optometrists.

These individuals, those 1300 people that came through the doors have passion. Their story surrounds us here in South Carolina with over 250,000 people who are uninsured.

Many times we have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. Or we are not motivated to get the day started. Sometimes it is hard to make that first step on a project or we have been procrastinating with that todo list.

I took note this past Friday. People like Dot and the 1300 individuals that waited inline to receive medical care. Many of them made sure they were first in line, waiting all night.

Passion…very entrepreneurial to me!

iStock.com asks… “What is craft?” <-- I think they have an answer!

I love this video…I love the email they just sent. I agree with the video above…and I agree with their thought process.

Here is the quote from the email:

Your seeds of creativity
Craft is the root of our artistic passion and surgical attention to detail. It’s the beat of our creative drum. Watch and rediscover how our love of craft got us all into this creative racket to begin with.

Well…once again, I agree!

And one last time…I agree with this image in the email:

I am getting back to my roots. More to come!

Thanks iStock.com for confirming my direction and intuition!

we need storytellers…photojournalists…

I just received the latest edition of News Photographer Magazine in the mail. It is the May 2013 edition. I have subscribed to this publication probably since 1998, my early days as a news photographer at WSPA-TV.

I opened…flipped the pages…and I was overtaken by the powerful images captured in the month of May. The Boston Bombing, The George W. Bush Library Dedication, and even some images from the last year including a funeral from the Aurora movie shooting…powerful stuff.

I have no words to describe the images, the feelings, the emotion behind these images as they take us back…remind us. That is my point…these images reveal the unspoken language from these memories that we all sat back and watched.

These images were taken by experienced storytellers, photojournalists who risked so much to capture these images.

We see groups like the Chicago Sun Times fire their whole photography staff. I am not sure the motives behind this business move…but the numbers do not add up. This is a common trend in the industry. One of the main reasons why I am self-employeed…we photojournalists have a unique skill set that does not fit inside any job decription. We pay the bills with our passion to capture a story…the story as we view it…through our lens.

Michael Borland, President of NPPA, wrote in this edition his message titled “NPPA By The Numbers.” A few of these numbers stood out.

There membership is down roughly 3500 people resulting in a revenue short fall of about $374K. Is this because more and more news organizations are reducing photo staffs and those loosing jobs are not re-engaging in the organization in a post-news profession. I wonder what the percentage of these numbers are independent/self-employeed individuals like myself?

Am I a news photojournalist…no. But the organization I have been associated since 1998 is one of the few that provide the guiding principles for the way I run the creative side of my business.

Photojournalists bring life to our magazines, television, iPads, iPhones, video screens, and movie screens. We capture the slice of life that many forget to capture…those moments in time that help us remember. These images create change, provide a voice, give context, help us make decisions, and create a platform for public servants to advocate.

So let me ask you…the next time you are funding a project, do you want just a picture, just a video, just an image? Or do you want a story. Do you want an moment in time captured so when it is time to sell/adovocate with your next pr/marketing campaign…your audience connects, engages, and sees the story through “your” eyes.

Storytelling is about advocacy – stretching the emotions…

If you have not laughed, cried, cussed, or just gotten plain mad…then you need to check yourself at the door. Storytelling is about believing in something…standing up and allowing the emotions, the passion of the story to dominate your ability to articulate.

To bear the burden of an emotion…the emotion of crafting a story…you must take a position. You must advocate and see the life of the prose through the eyes of the story.

It must stretch you, make you shift in your seat, keep you up at night, and help you question why you chose to explain this reality.

When we craft…we share…we share something inside that is dying to escape.

We advocate…because we believe the words we write, the images we capture, the sounds we produce…they will help those feel the inner advocate we strive to share.

When we find, craft, and tell stories…we are advocates for a theme that needs an audience.

It needs to make those who receive *this* message share the same reaction when you were struggling to bring voice to that very story. We want our audience to get mad, happy, cuss…shift in their seats, stay up at night…so they can continue the mission we set out to achieve…to advocate.

Good stories creates powerful advocacy…stories of sharing. That is powerful word-of-mouth. That is powerful storytelling.

Content is KING: Leveraging 100% of your content for the 1%

Telling stories requires planning and focus!

Many times I get the call to consider working on a project that needs to be completed in less than a month…and the only focus for project is for an event. I always spend time meeting with the folks to listen to the project. We spend time thinking through the goals…but I have lots of questions and thoughts for everyone involved to consider.

Preamble:
Typically I like to work on projects that are more than just “emergent care”. What do I mean, the project has to have more than just the immediate “focus”. Many times I find the project only solves a small portion of what really needs to be communicated. I like to work on projects that have long-term thinking and provide long-term, residual value to the audience. More  than just one production that solves a short-term problem.

I am a business person and I am not-only try be a good steward of the resources provided to complete the project at-hand, but also be mindful of the content that is created beyond the production. I like to put together a comprehensive plan that leverage’s the stories that are captured.

Let’s Think Beyond:
I am a strategic communicator and the first thing I like to do is consider the overall communications plan from two perspectives: the campaign and the organization. I like to understand how this production fits into these plans. Why…because we are telling stories and we are capturing lots of content that *can be* used beyond the project. We probably use 15% of the content captured in the final production, that is 85% left over that is quality content…stories that can be used in other initiatives.

I like to think about the audience. There are many audiences within this particular project and across the organizations communication initiatives. I like to think…what audiences would connect with the different content we capture. What is the most compelling content from an interview we conduct and how can each response to a question fit into a bigger part of a communications plan.

I like to think delivery. We live in a digital communications era where sharing and consuming content has become a vital part of our daily lives. Let me share a few statistics:

From Edelman Digital:
“In 2012: 56% of consumer web traffic was video, YouTube users watched more than 36-billion hours of video and online video was the fastest growing ad format (up 55%).”

We are watching content  and consuming content through out the day. This content is helping us make decisions from the car we buy, to the physician we choose. But, also….this content cannot be consumed unless it is shared with a community. How about that 1%?

The 1% Concept:
This One Percenter concept is based on research from Jackie Huba’s book, Citizen Marketers. She discovered “that the most highly engaged particpants in a community make up a tiny percentage of the overall customer base but are vocal passionate evangelists who bring new customers into the fold through word of mouth.”

If you have wonderful content, wonderful stories to tell…why not leverage all 100% of that content to engage the most loyal fans…your 1%. This is why I believe that Content is KING. Yes…the stories we capture have more than a shelf life span…they are valuable stories to be told and used beyond on little event, one little campaign, one little production.

These stories are connections…emotions…words of advocacy. They do not deserve to be put on the shelf and used down the road when you think it might be appropriate. We should leverage all 100% of the content captured in a production to engage that 1%.

I want to work with people who want to do more than just one production…I want to work with people that want to treat their all their content as prized possessions, stories to be told beyond the one event, the one project, the one production. I want to help people capture and tell stories to create more than a movement…I want to work with people to create a series of movements over time…advocating using all the stories we capture.

Content is KING!

Chief Justice Finney – A Story of Black History in South Carolina

Chief Justice Finney - "Proud To Be A SC Lawyer"

I had the pleasure to meet Chief Justice Finney a few months ago while working with the South Carolina Bar Association and Melanie Lux on video project. Ernest A. Finney, Jr. was the first African-American Supreme Court Justice appointed to the South Carolina Supreme Court since the Reconstruction Era.

Mr. Finney is one the attorneys featured in the “Proud to be a South Carolina Lawyer” video series by the South Carolina Bar. The series is designed to promote a true representation of South Carolina lawyers and their commitment to their clients and the community.

From the moment I walked in the door…I felt like I was walking into a history book, a walk back in time as we heard his personal testimony where he earned the right to lead the highest court in South Carolina.

But we knew his story was powerful, but more powerful was the love and respect that he and his wife shared over the years. As they sat side by side during the interview, they shared those special moments in time…time that has been written in the history books of South Carolina. They shared the first time they met and the numerous years they advocated together for “civil rights.”

Mr Finney earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Claflin College in 1952 then enrolled in South Carolina State College’s School of Law, from which he graduated in 1954. In the beginning, he was unable to find work as a lawyer, so he followed in his father’s footsteps and worked as a teacher. In 1960, he moved to Sumter and began a full-time law practice.

In 1961, Mr. Finney represented the Friendship 9, a group of black junior college students arrested and charged when trying to desegregate McCrory’s lunch counter in Rock Hill, South Carolina. In 1963, he served as chairman of the South Carolina Commission on Civil Rights. Mr. Finney was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1972. He was subsequently appointed a member of the House Judiciary Committee, making him the first African-American to serve on that key committee in modern times.

In May 1994, the state’s general assembly elected Mr. Finney to the position of Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court, effective December 1994, making him the first African-American Chief Justice of South Carolina since Reconstruction.

Here is his short story that was produced for South Carolina Bar’s “Proud to be a South Carolina Lawyer” video series.

*Reference information for this post came from the SC Bar Association and Wikipedia.

Telling stories in annual reports…stories take the main stage.

This is a project I have enjoyed working on this past summer. This year, The Duke Endowment released their annual report using storytelling as the main communication initiative. I worked with them to find and tell stories inside each of the grants they support, exposing the audience to true core of this initiative.

I love how they used an integrated communications approach on so many facets:

1) They use artwork to paint the picture of the initiatives. As you look through the report, everything appears to be painted on a canvas.

2) The report has an online version inside their website with video as a major component. Each video is a story from inside the grant The Duke Endowment supports. I love this approach, because it paints a visual picture how the grant truly impacts individuals.  This done by allowing the person to tell their story using their own personal narrative.

3) Love the printed report that is colorful and integrates QR codes linking the audience from the printed story to the video.

4) Finally, they distributed through their network using an email blast along with making the videos unlisted on their YouTube account. This is done so they can effectively track the analytics. They know that the views on the videos will be coming directly from the email blast via the annual report online.

5) I love commitment to video specifically the use short documentary storytelling. I work closely with their communications team to find, create, and produce the video content. They were very committed to telling rich stories, allowing each video to maintain their voice using the subject’s own personal narrative.

Quick Links to learn more:
1) The Duke Endowment’s Online Annual Report – CLICK HERE
2) The Duke Endowment’s Printed Annual Report – CLICK HERE
3) The Duke Endowment’s YouTube Account – CLICK HERE

Are you a storyteller? A practitioner or a technician?

So as I was sitting in the morning church service, there was a piano selection performed right at the beginning. As I was sitting there listening to this beautiful melody coming out of this grand piano; I thought this grand piano has been sitting at the front for a long time but I have yet to notice how beautiful it sounds. The soloist was playing this instrument in a way that brought out the tremendous musical range. The soloist was completely engaged with the piano, focused on the song, the notes, the stanzas. Why have I never noticed this piano before?

The audience was completely engaged in the music, tied to every note, anticipating the next stanza, watching as the soloist’s hands interacted with the keys, playing notes with methodical movements from one to the next. The piano has the potential to play that well…but it is the soloists interpretation of the music selection as she used this instrument to bring the story of the song to the ears of the audience.

About a week ago, I had someone question me whether the advent of Flip Video devices would create a drastic reduction in online video production industry? A great question. But as I listened to this soloist interact with this grand piano, I began to think about this question even more. My first response to this individual was simply whether I am using a Flip Video device, a high definition pro-sumer camera, or a $70K Sony HDCAM….it is not the device that tells the story…it is the practitioner who interprets the technology to create and deliver the story.

True practitioners, real storytellers know how to evolve with technology and maximize it’s potential to meet the needs of an audience. I think of a story I produced a few years ago about an Opera Singer on his way to re-merge as an Opera Sinder, my friend Ron Gattis.

When I first started working in video production (broadcast video production), I used what was called BetaCAM video devices. The camera weighed 30lbs and was the size of medium size briefcase positioned on my shoulder or on a tripod heavier than the camera itself. We would take the results of the video taping and use two large BetaCAM decks (Two large VCR’s) to edit between in a linear mode. One mistake and there was no going back…time to re-edit. Using that set-up, I won six Emmy Awards and numerous other AP awards for Television Excellence.

I tell this story…and many journalists before me endured broadcast video camera larger than this where the camera was split into two pieces.

Now, I work with a camera less than half the size, half the price, and edit on a laptop. I can deliver my stories to audiences broader than the DMA I was working in during my broadcast television days. I put the video into the laptop and can move the video around, manipulate it in ways that would take a major post-production house of 10 years ago tons of money and weeks of production.

The technology is changing, but I still have to use it appropriately to deliver a high quality story in a manner that allows the audience forget they are watching this story on a screen, remove their peripheral vision. Whether it is a theatre or a computer screen…I want to create that story within an interface that is interactive. You know what I mean, that moment when you are sitting in a movie and you are so involved with the story-line, you forget you are in a theatre. It is all about being in the “Zone” from both an audience perspective and a practitioner perspective.

Do you think that if the soloist was given a keyboard device that was no bigger than a laptop, she could render a melody worth sitting and listening too? Do you think Ansel Adams could render a beautiful landscape using a pin-hole camera that was created from a Quaker Oats cylinder? The ability for a practitioner to tell a story is embedded in our DNA, whether it is a Flip Video Camera or beautiful state of the art Grand Piano.

So next time you hear that beautiful melody/harmony coming from a Grand Piano…think for a minute, is it the Grand Piano rendering those beautiful notes….or is the vision of the soloist interpreting the potential of those keys and bringing you the audience into “their” world. I love telling visual stories!

When does creativity strike…forcing ourselves into the box.

When do you find yourself creating your craft or your works of art? I find myself completely in my creative zone in the middle of the night. I do my best work probably around 11pm. I have even found myself getting out of bed at 3am to execute a creative idea in the edit bay.

I am a procrastinator…yes, when the pressure is on – I perform my best. I wonder if it comes from days as a journalist? Each day I had two or three hard deadlines where I had to deliver final products from a story we found that day. I wonder if it is because I have to force myself into the creative box. Yes…when I cannot figure out how to create and execute…just force myself into the creative situation.

I found the video above and it spoke to me. Creativity sometimes has to be forced. We sometimes wait and expect inspiration to mystically appear with some pixie dust or an epiphany. When I need creative inspiration, I find myself jumping in the car, rolling down the windows, and blasting Elton John, Adele, or Billy Joel as I scream down the interstate. Some people ask, what happens when it rains? I just roll up the windows and sing louder.

I like the rush of creating under pressure, delivering when no one else can deliver. Sometimes we hope that inspiration will find us, but in the business world…sometimes we have to force ourselves back into the box!