Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

How 1 and 1 makes 3 and more lessons in storytelling from Ken Burns

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on September 10, 2012

Tumblr followers might have seen this video I discovered (via Maria Popova’s ever-excellent Brain Pickings) last week. It’s a short profile of the history documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, a man whose technique and style has become so recognisable, he’s even had an effect named after him.

Burns has a difficult job: make stories from the past compelling on screen. It’s tough because your characters are dead and the action you want to film has long since happened. You are left with interviews with historians, still photographs and empty buildings. As a former historian myself it’s a genre I’ve long thought needs a fresh approach – but I’ve been looking at it in the wrong way.

Watch this short film (itself superbly produced by Tom Mason and Sarah Klein) and you’ll see the Ken Burns approach isn’t so concerned with what we see. For him it’s all about crafting a compelling story.

And here are my notes from watching it a few times over.

Great stories: there are millions of them! It’s easy to forget sometimes, but the world is full of amazing stories happening right now, every second. Burns gives two examples from US history – and you’ll notice both stories have a ‘wow’ factor: they both make you go “shit, no way“. We need to pursue these stories more often – remember the flying rhino!

The good guys have very serious flaws and the bad guys are very compelling. Remember how Indiana Jones is scared of snakes? That’s a great example of a contradictory hero. No-one is interested in a tough guy who solves a problem with ease. We want to hear about people who are as scared, nervous and fallible as we are.

All story is manipulation. This is a debate point for factual film-makers but I think I agree with Burns on this one. He says it’s ‘good manipulation’ – using the range of storytelling devices within reach to make people feel something. Whether you believe in manipulation or not, you always want someone to care about your film, and that in itself is an emotion.

We coalesce around stories which seem transcendant. This is a nod to the universal story. The best stories – no matter who the characters are, when or where it happens – stick with us because they evoke common ideas that we can all relate to. The story of Julius Caesar’s death is retold 2,000 years later not for its political ramification but because it is a story of betrayal: we’ve all been betrayed (or been the betrayer) and we understand the story more deeply. The lesson: always look for the universal in your own stories.

We’re all going to die; story is there to remind us that it’s just OK. Finally in a very elegant nod to the universal story, film makers Tom Mason and Sarah Klein end their piece with Ken Burns wondering why he tells stories about the past. He reveals his mother died from cancer when he was 11.

…I try to make Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson and Louis Armstrong come alive, and it might be very obvious and very close to home who I’m actually trying to wake up. 

If you care about storytelling then watch this a few times over.

And, if you want more great wisdom on storytelling, you should watch these interviews with Ira Glass, this talk by Amy O’Leary and of course, download your free copy of Inside the Story.

30 free ideas for multimedia producers and digital storytellers

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on September 3, 2012

One of the first and best bits of advice I’ve ever been given has been this: write everything down.

Writing an idea down – making it physical on the page – engages your brain in imaging how that idea might happen. As the words form on the page, you think about logistics, treatments, audiences.

It also gives you the ability to vocalise and understand a problem. If a film you’re making isn’t working for some reason, try and write down why: if you can put your problem into words, you have power over it.

So for the last three years I’ve written ideas down as a matter of routine. I’ve got notebooks upon notebooks, as well as a 50 page Word document on my hard drive full of them. Many of the ideas are now redundant as I’ve moved onto other things, and following last week’s confessional, I thought I’d give some them away for free.

You never know, one person’s trash might be another person’s treasure.

A couple of disclaimers: I am fully aware most of these ideas are either lame or not original – that’s partly why I never pursued them. So I won’t be taking criticism in the comments about the quality or originality of the ideas, thank you. However, even if you don’t find any directly useful, they might fire off a spark into something else.

I’m publishing these under a Creative Commons Licence I’m calling the Call-Your-Mum-Licence (CYML 1.0). You don’t have to give any credit or anything, but if you do find a use for them, promise you’ll give your mum (or equivalent) a ring.

Right, let’s get on!

30 free ideas for digital producers

  1. Amazing real life stories that emerged solely from data on a spreadsheet
  2. Stories about items (typewriter/kodachrome) going extinct
  3. Stories of the glamour days of air travel (PanAm etc)
  4. Missed connections on Gumtree
  5. Profiles of people who make a living pretending to be someone else
  6. “My first…” directors/writers/painters talk about the pain of getting the first film/book/painting done
  7. “Journeys that almost killed me”
  8. “Scene of the crime” – take people back the place where something major happened in their life
  9. Is Britain tilting? (apparently it is)
  10. Elderly people share one piece of advice they’ve learned in their many years
  11. Investigate how easy it is to plant a tree in a public place (apparently not very)
  12. Run for MP in the next election and make a documentary about it.
  13. Visit every World Heritage Site in the country and document
  14. A website/magazine about people for whom ‘OK isn’t good enough’
  15. A collaborative piece where people across the country find out where their waste goes
  16. A website where people can fill in a box to say sorry for something they’ve done (anonymously)
  17. An app that lets people photograph potholes/graffiti and sends it, plus location, to their local authority. The LA can then text them directly when the problem has been fixed.
  18. Competitions to bring people from around the world together to solve a big problem – crowd sourcing problem solving
  19. A platform to show news packages from around the world..how have different countries covered the same event?
  20. Films about people who do a dying trade (blacksmith/wood turner etc)
  21. If we could build the internet from scratch, with everything we’ve learned, what would it look like?
  22. Repackage out-of-copyright books in a more visual and engaging way
  23. An app that makes it really clear what food is in season and local to you for when you go shopping
  24. Use splitscreen/tallscreen to show two sides to an argument
  25. A simple, non-technical description of how web sites are made
  26. A celebration of unconventional solutions to problems
  27. A visual rundown of all the different types of material and  how long they take to decompose
  28. Take someone who’s in a bad place in their life on a creative journey (How to look good naked but with creativity not clothes)
  29. Get 15 brilliant people from completely different industries together to try and solve a problem in a weekend. Document it.
  30. A repository for unwanted ideas that other people can use and take inspiration from. In fact, let’s start it right now – share yours in the comments box!

UPDATE: Journalist Ben Whitelaw has added some of his spare ideas on his blog. Let me know if you do the same and I’ll link to them too.

Your online video shopping list

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on August 20, 2012

There’s an old analogy, which I can trace back to the 1990s, that says making a film is a lot like making a meal. 

It goes like this:

“You choose your recipe (subject and angle), write out a shopping list (treatment and storyboard), get some money (you need more than you think) and go shopping for the raw materials (shoot the pictures and record the sound). Then you return to the kitchen (cutting room) and start cooking (editing). The meal is made in the kitchen; the film in the cutting room.”

Harris Watts, On Camera

I like this analogy a lot, but it’s worth unpacking for 21st century video storytellers.

Choose your recipe

The big point here is you must have an idea of what your film is going to look like when its finished. You must be able to picture the opening, the closing and perhaps some key sequences in the middle. You must be able to close your eyes and hear your  potential interviewees talking, imagining what kind of things they’ll say. You should have a feel for the pace of the film – is it fast or slow? Upbeat or sad?

Ultimately your story should have a theme – a controlling idea of some kind – which you can summarise in a single sentence. You wouldn’t make a risotto for the first time without knowing what one looks like would you?

Write a shopping list

This always finds its way into my workflow, and I teach it to students and clients as well. Before I start filming I mind-map all the elements and use it to plan the shoot. I draw out the key ingredients: the interview, the sequences, the scenes, the other b-roll and anything else like music and graphics. Then from each of these segments I brainstorm ideas for how each one could play out.

A “shopping list” I drew for a short documentary in 2011

So around the interview bit I come up with different ideas for where I could conduct my interviews; I think about what questions I’ll ask. It helps me anticipate any problems which might come up during the shoot. Your first idea is rarely the best, so try and come up with unique takes on each segment.

I’m running another online video basics course with journalism.co.uk in September 2012. Click here for details.

Get some money

The quote above was written for television in the 1990s with its big budgets. These days I’d say video can cost less than you think. Certainly the hurdles to creating and publishing video have fallen through the floor. If you’ve got an iPhone or a flipcam – or even a webcam – the power to tell visual stories is in your hand.

Shop for raw materials

Here’s the big thing: the shoot is like the shopping expedition. You are merely collecting items to edit later on. This isn’t to belittle the shoot and the hard work that goes into it (you can’t make a good meal with bad ingredients, after all). However, to get obsessed by equipment and spend ages on complex super-slick camera moves misses the point: the film is made in the edit. It is the combination and contrast of images that tell the story, rarely the images on their own.

The rules of a good shopping trip apply: have a shopping list, know your way around the supermarket and get in and out as quickly as possible. You want more than enough of each ingredient so you can choose the very best to include in your meal. That means shooting more b-roll than you think you need, and shooting a longer interview than you’ll use.

Start cooking

As I said the real flavours of your film won’t emerge until the edit. That’s the magic moment when you combine your ingredients to create something greater than the sum of its parts. In video we are talking about the combination of images to create an idea in the audiences’ mind. Why does that matter? Because then the story doesn’t happen on the screen, in happens in someone’s brain: they own a bit of it, and it draws them in.

Too often – especially in journalism – we take the inverted triangle approach and tell our audience everything, instead letting them figure it out for themselves.

Anyway, once you’ve stirred all your ingredients together, leave it to simmer for 20 mins and add salt to flavour. But not too much.

Inside the Story is back (and free!)

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on July 23, 2012

It’s a short post this week and it comes in two parts.

Firstly, get the book

Yes, as suggested a few weeks ago we have re-released Inside the Story, after lots of demand from people who didn’t manage to get a copy in the first run. Frankly, the advice in the book is too good to be kept away forever, and we want as many people to benefit from it as possible. So, not only is the book back – and permanently – it’s also free.

The first run raised a more than $4,000 for the developing world charity Kiva, which blew our socks off. It’s more than we could have hoped for and so now the book is yours to keep for free. There is, however, an option of a voluntary loan or donation should you want to support the charity.

And finally, thanks to the hard work of some talented journalists/translators, the book is now available in three new languages: German (translated by Dieter Hoogestraat); Spanish and Catalan (translated by Alba Falcó and David Domingo).

So if you haven’t got yourself a copy yet, now’s the time. Just head over to Inside the Story and follow the download instructions.

Secondly, take the quiz

If you’ve already read Inside the Story, I need your help. The response was better than we had expected and many of you got in touch to say how useful it was to you.

That’s awesome, and we want to make more stuff like this that you’ll find just as helpful and inspirational.

So what’s missing in your digital storytelling world?

We’ve designed a very short survey to find out what you would find most useful. It’s anonymous and quick – filling it in will help make sure our next big project is as useful to you as possible.

Click here to take the survey.

And a bonus tip!

If you’re interested in starting your own innovative publishing projects and building a business around it, I’m running a workshop with the General Assembly in London tomorrow night. Tickets are still available – click here to get one.

Every day.

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on July 9, 2012

You’re probably a reader of this blog because you work in, or want to work in, digital publishing.

There are dozens of sub categories in this space like blogger, video journalist, web designer, fashion photographer, that you’ll identify yourself with, but they all boil down to a few broad skills: you want to be a writer, or a film maker, or a designer, a photographer, an audio producer, or perhaps the publisher yourself (and if you’re a tortured soul like me, all of them!)

Here’s the best advice I can give you about succeeding in these areas, and it is very simple. Whatever it is you want to do, you must produce it and consume it every day.

Produce and consume

Stephen King’s popular book about the craft of writing On Writing makes this point very clearly:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot”

Stephen King, On Writing

If you want to write, you must write every day and you must read every day. If you want to be a web designer you must design something every day and you must study good web design every day. If you want to be a film maker, you must find time to make films every day and watch films every day.

You don’t have to finish a film or a design a day, but you must devote a solid block of time to working on it.

Note there’s a difference between ‘simple’ and ‘easy’ and this isn’t easy. For many people, myself included, it involves getting up an hour or two before everyone else to put the work in before heading out to do the stuff that pays the bills. Or it means staying up late, or working on weekends (when I am writing this post, incidentally). It’s not easy. But it is simple.

There are things to help you. I recently started using 750words – a clever little platform which nudges you to write 750 words of something every day. It doesn’t matter what, it just has to be written.

If you have passion for your craft then this should come a little more easily. But even passionate people lose motivation and direction occasionally. These are the days where it is even more vital you keep producing and consuming. If you do it every day, even for just an hour, it becomes a habit (in other words: automatic). When you achieve this, your day won’t feel right until you’ve done your thing. Stephen King admits he writes 365 days a year – even on Christmas Day – and for him “not working is the real work.”

It doesn’t have to be for long, and it doesn’t even have to be productive or successful.

But it does have to be every day. 

A call for collaborators II

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on July 5, 2012

Are you an independent multimedia journalist already deep into reporting a big ambitious issue?

I’m just starting work on another big publishing project, but right now it’s a lot of planning, ideas and desk-based work. I’m always trying to keep busy telling stories but haven’t had the time to invest in finding a new one yet.

I figured, rather than wait for one to come along and embark on another solo project, this would be the perfect time to help someone else produce their story to a top quality standard. So I’m looking for someone to collaborate with.

Note: this isn’t the same as my call for general collaborators earlier in the year – Mo, Nick, Tony, David, Fabio, Gavin, Lindsay and Pablo thanks for your emails – I’ll be in touch.

Who am I looking for?

I’m looking for someone who is already well into the reporting of a story, has already gathered a lot of the raw materials but is unsure of how to produce it. Maybe you feel that you don’t know how to organise all the materials you collected, or you can’t figure out how to structure the narrative in the most effective way. You might also not be confident at editing and other post-production skills or how to get the story on the web. I can help you with all those things.

It doesn’t matter where in the world you are as we can communicate over Skype and email. However if you would like some hands-on producing then it would be useful (although not vital) if you were in the UK so we can transfer large chunks of media.

What stories am I looking for?

It should be an ambitious, deep reporting multimedia project that you have invested a good amount of time in, building relationships and contacts in the story, immersing yourself in it. I don’t have enough time to do any of the reporting myself so it should be near the end of the ‘gathering’ stage, ready to go into post-production.  There’s no particular subject matter that I’m looking for but I’ll pick the one that interests me most and looks like it has the best potential to be a great story.

You might have photographs, audio and even video to put together. Ideally the story is character led, with a strong engaging person at its heart.

What can I help you do?

I can work with you to shape your raw materials into an engaging, attention grabbing narrative full of all the right story ingredients, whether as a standalone documentary, website, digital magazine or even a one-off iPad magazine.

I have a fair few other commissions and projects on the go at the moment so this wouldn’t be a full time gig – but we’ll work hard together on it until its done and ready to be published. I’ll also help you turn it around swiftly so it goes live by the end of the summer.  I won’t charge anything for my time or claim any ownership of the content itself, although a producer credit would be nice.

How to get in touch 

If your project sounds like a good fit then first of all drop me an email and tell me a bit more about you and your project. I want to know who you are, what your story is, what stage it is at right now and how it fits the criteria above. I’ll get in touch with the ones that appeal to me and the next step will be a short Skype conversation where we can see if we’ll work well together.

To get in touch visit my website and click the big ‘Contact Me’.

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How to make boring things interesting in video

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on July 2, 2012

There’s no doubting that video is an incredible medium. It has the power to transport us to other worlds, feel other peoples’ feelings and can affect our emotions quite dramatically, when done well. Ultimately, video can move people to action.

Part of the secret to doing good video is choosing the right stories to tell with video in the first place. Read that sentence again and you get an important truth about video: it can do some stories, issues and subject matter really well. Everything else, it does badly.

What is video good at?

When I give talks, lectures or workshops about online video I usually start by laying out what video can and cannot do. This is my list of its favourite subjects:

  • explosions, fire, sparks and noise (ever wondered why these always lead the news bulletins?)
  • action and movement: every video must involve someone doing something
  • awe-inspiringly big things like landscapes
  • amazingly small things that our eyes can’t see – but also anything closeup in general
  • human stories and emotion – no matter how complex

What is video bad at?

Human emotions are probably the most complex things out there but video can convey them better than any other medium. When it comes to other complex issues however, video is out of its depth:

  • Politics and meetings: much of it happens behind closed doors, is polemic and involves little physical movement
  • Business, economics and theory: similarly non-visual at first glance
  • Statistics, numbers and data: video and data journalism don’t sit side by side
  • Interviews (yes, really): video is not designed for people sitting down and talking

However, almost everyone involved in video finds themselves working on the latter a lot of the time. The nightly news has to cover politics and the economy. A management accountancy firm has to make videos about management accountancy. We all have to run interviews (do we?)

So the question then is: how do we make this shit interesting?

“There’s no such thing as boring knowledge. Only boring presentation.”

Dan Roam

I start with this quote in mind. Although I’m putting down business, politics and data as video subjects, there is no denying they are hugely interesting subjects in and of themselves. But to make them work on video we have to put in some extra work.There are some tested techniques filmmakers use to inject interest into potentially dry stories – many of these you will recognise from television, where programme makers face this challenge regularly.

In other cases, we are still struggling to make it interesting – so there’s potential for disruption from brave new film makers (that’s you).

.01 humanise

Tell a real human story as access into the issue. Ever wondered why news packages about gas price rises always start with an old lady filling up her kettle and worrying about her winter fuel allowance? That’s how journalists try to get people to care about a story that is actually about oil prices and Russian diplomacy.

This, incidentally is the secret behind great films that promote either non-profits or business. Duckrabbit’s TV campaign for Oxfam uses the real story of a donor to make us care; this series by Phos Pictures uses the same device to advertise -wait for it: a gym. It almost made me sign up, and I live 4,000 miles away.

.02 visualise

If every story should be human, it must also be visual. Video, like photography, graphic design and web design is about using images to convey the message – not words. A common crime of directors is to rely on dialogue, voice over and interviews to tell the story when ideally people should get it with the sound turned off.

At its most simple: if you’re filming an interview with an IT specialist for your website, don’t just film a straight interview. Make it visual: film them at work, going for a walk, cycling to work, eating lunch, playing squash whatever – it’s the eye-candy video is made for. Done well, visually led films can turn an interview with a blogger (snore…) into something quite wonderful.

.03 surprise

Amy O’Leary makes the point in this talk that surprise is a key element to a successful story. We love surprises because they release happy chemicals into our brains. You can hook your viewers on the surprise drug in two ways: you can be clever with your narrative to create a set-up and punchline throughout a piece (difficult) or you can smack them in the face with a wet fish.

For example, if your bread and butter is a weekly video interview with a leader in your field, why not do the interview while they’re getting their haircut? I’m serious. Find an amicable barber and you’ve got something easily set up, that fills its purpose and is visual at the same time…all while sticking annoyingly in your audiences mind. (If you manage to pull it off in your organisation, let me know!)

UPDATE: jump down to the comments section to see how Reuters do this effectively with a strand of their videos

.04 be useful

If you can’t be interesting then at least make sure your video is useful. Some people will sit through a 20 minute panel discussion if they know the information is important to them.

If you can’t even be useful, then for the love of God…

.05 be short

Some people say videos on the web shouldn’t be longer than two minutes. You can definitely tell a good story in less than this. While I don’t think there is a hard and fast rule, I do believe anything longer than five minutes is a result of laziness or ego (please note: I am regularly guilty of both of these).

Does your video have an upside down flying rhino in it? If not, it probably doesn’t warrant being longer than two minutes.

That said, if you’ve got a great human story, that you’re telling visually and is packed full of surprise: then please, I will give you hours of my attention. 

So in summary: if you can’t be interesting, useful or concise, you’ve picked the wrong medium.

The video decision workflow

To help you out I’ve designed this video decision workflow which puts all the above points into place. Start at the top and hopefully it will help you decide whether or not to tell your next story in video. As well as journalists and documentarians, it is also designed very much with commercial factual video in mind too. I know there are a lot of B2B magazines, agencies or industry websites out there wanting to use video but doing it ineffectively.

Please note: although the image has a © symbol on it, I am releasing it under a Creative Commons Licence for attribution. Please takeaway and use, but give credit if you publish it elsewhere. 

Adam Westbrook's Online Video Workflow

Click to enlarge

Inside the Story: now on sale!

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on April 26, 2012

And we’re off! It’s taken months of work, several hundred emails all over the world and lots of late nights, but Inside the Story: a masterclass in digital storytelling by the people who do it best is now on sale!

On the website you’ll find more about the book, more about Kiva, the charity receiving the proceeds from book sales, and the checkout button to get hold of a copy.

One small change of note: I announced yesterday the book would sell for US$5.00. After some more user testing, we’ve decided to sell the book in pound sterling instead, as it means sales are processed automatically and you won’t have to wait long for your copy to be available.

So it’s now priced at a sterling equivalent (give or take exchange rate fluctuations) of £3.50. You can buy with PayPal, your debit/credit card or Google Checkout.

And a final important note: Inside the Story is on sale for a limited time only: just four weeks. That’s when we’ll donate all the money to Kiva and the book will go off sale. If you want the book, it’s vital you get hold of it soon!

Click here to go straight to the book itself.

Inside the Story: quality counts

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on April 25, 2012

The countdown is on! There are less than 24 hours to go until Inside the Story: a masterclass in digital storytelling by the people who do it best is released upon the world. You’ll be able to buy a copy from 0800 BST tomorrow, Thursday 26th April 2012.

The English version will be live from tomorrow and German, Spanish and Catalan editions will be available in the next few weeks.

But how much is Inside the Story going to cost? Good question. We’ve thought really hard about pricing and we want this book to be affordable and make lots of money for Kiva – who we’re raising money for.

So I’m thrilled to announce the book will be yours for a ridiculous $5.00!  It’ll be on sale in US dollars, which will be converted to your local currency when you buy (but it’s roughly €4.50 or £3.75) – an absolute bargain.

It means we’ll need to shift lots of copies to raise all the money we want for Kiva though – so in exchange for getting in cheap you must promise to share it with as many people as possible! But there’s a catch: Inside the Story will only be available for a matter of weeks (so don’t hang around).

How to tell quality stories like a pro

You’ve had a week of sneak previews and there’s space for just a few more. In the last week, I’ve previewed advice from the book about how to plan stories like a pro, structure them properly and use design to your advantage. And that still covers a mere third of what’s in the book!

If Inside the Story is about one thing, it’s quality: it is aimed directly at producers, film makers, video journalists, photographers and designers who are in hot pursuit of creating remarkable stories for the web – stories that really impact people. For most of us, we fall short a lot of the time. So what are the secrets of achieving quality?

A great person to ask is Richard Koci Hernandez: a pioneer of multimedia storytelling – for which he’s even won an Emmy. In a great chapter which rounds off the book, Koci shares six tips for anyone who wants to aim high.

“Spend time everyday consciously shooting pictures, recording sound etc. Work deliberately on improving a multimedia skill, because practicing your craft is one of the biggest productivity payoffs around.”

Richard Koci Hernandez, Brian Storm and John Pavlus in Inside the Story

If you thought there was an easy way round getting good at storytelling you were wrong! Koci is backed up by another multi award winning producer, Brian Storm, Executive Producer at MediaStorm, again nominated for a prestigious Webby Award earlier this month. For Brian there is one sure-fire path to achieving good quality.

“We look for projects that have deep reporting, especially a commitment to coverage over a long period of time. Then we spend as much time as necessary in post production to pull the best possible story from the coverage.”

Brian explains more about the secret ingredient of quality storytelling and how to apply it to your projects. And perhaps counterintuitively, a final word from yet another award winner: John Pavlus, who’s produced multimedia for NPR, the New York Times and the Atavist among others. For him, the secret of achieving quality is something else entirely.

“Make it suck”.

Trust me, it makes perfect sense when you read his full article – and there’s only one way to do that! Sign up to the Facebook page, join the mailing list, and make sure you’re on this website tomorrow morning.

Inside the Story will be on sale for a limited time only – a matter of weeks, so don’t hang around!

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Inside the Story: designing good stories

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on April 24, 2012

Are you excited yet? There are less than 48 hours until Inside the Story goes on sale!

I’m personally psyched about the whole thing for a few reasons: firstly because it’s the culmination of three months of work, hundreds of emails all over the world, lots of planning, writing and designing, and I can’t wait to have something to show for it. Secondly because now I see the finished product I reckon it’s going to be incredibly useful for hundreds of journalists, film makers, publishers and producers who are flirting at the edges of remarkable, but aren’t quite there yet (I include myself in that).

The third reason is the most important. I want Inside The Story to do more than help digital storytellers: I also figured it could make a real difference to people all over the planet. That’s why 100% of all the money from each sale will be donated to Kiva, the developing world entrepreneurship charity.

Kiva are a real innovative non-profit: they crowd-fund loans which are given to people wanting to start their own business in countries like Kenya, the Philippines and Indonesia. The money lets these entrepreneurs invest in equipment, supplies and anything they need to get started, but would never be able to afford on their own. Incredibly, in the last six years 760,000 people have been given help starting a business with more than $3million in loans – and 98% of those loans actually get paid back!

It’s a simply brilliant way to help people help themselves and master their own destiny. Inside the Story is going the extra mile though: every penny will be given to Kiva as a donation, rather than a loan; Kiva estimate every dollar donated generates $10 in loans – so if we make $3000 through selling Inside the Story, that could create $30,000 in loans. Epic.

That’s why this book will help up your career, and the career of someone else. Remember it goes on sale Thursday morning at 0800 BST. 

Story design like a pro

All this week I’m giving teasing glimpses at the great knowledge and advice you’ll find in Inside the Story – written by some of the finest digital storytellers in the world. So far, we’ve had a look at how to prepare stories like a pro, and how to structure them in the most engaging way. But the book isn’t just for film makers. There’s advice too for web designers, photographers and interactive designers too.

What does it take to capture people on the page and engage them with your story? For Monica Ulmanu, interactive designer at the Boston Globe, it’s all about focus. Monica creates amazing multimedia interactives for the Boston Globe’s website – there are some must-see examples in the book. So what is the secret to good design?

“Focus your user’s attention on one element at any given time. Carefully craft your design so that particular element stands out. Constantly ask yourself: What do I need to show right now to make the message clear, the story easy to follow and uncluttered?”

Another peek inside Inside the Story

Monica follows this up with some great graphic-design tips on how to direct a viewers’ eye through the page. It’s advice echoed by web designer Sergio Acosta, co-founder of Designing Stories. He says web design needs to move away from making templates and instead use design to give the visitor an experience – in essence a narrative.

“Storytelling design is the experience a web designer creates out of a narrative. So, look for the visual cues and the key words that will set the design apart.”

And when it comes to creating immersive experiences, the New York Times is up there with the best. In Inside the Story you’ll get to hear from the NYT’s Multimedia Editor Andrew DeVigal, who leads the team responsible for some real innovations in multimedia storytelling, including a story which was commended in this year’s World Press Photo Awards.

…great journalists ask those questions in which the answers provide insights and pushes us to think in entirely new ways. In asking these questions, curiosity often leads to innovation and in providing new angles to a story or situation.

Andrew gives examples of how his team solved problems and created a new way of experiencing stories on the web  – you can find out what they did on Thursday.

Inside the Story: how to structure your stories

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on April 23, 2012

There are just four days to go until Inside The Story: a masterclass in digital storytelling by the people who do it best goes out to the world, in a bid to raise as much cash for charity as possible.

And today I’m psyched to reveal what the front cover of the ebook will look like, thanks to the brilliant people on the Inside The Story Facebook page. Last week I threw up three front page design ideas and over the weekend, they’ve all been voting on which one they like best. And here’s the winner!

Front cover of Inside the Story

It features a mesmerising image taken by visual journalist and contributor to the book Jonah Kessel.

On Friday, I let you have a peek at what advice the book has about how to prepare your stories. Today I’ll show you what the best digital storytellers in the world have to say about how to structure a story properly.

How to structure your stories like a pro

When it comes to creating a narrative in the most effective way, no-one knows more than the contributors to the book, who all have scores of stories under their belt. Amy O’Leary is one of them: she’s a reporter on the New York Times and has been a producer of This American Life.

For Amy, it’s all about the start.

“Don’t be afraid to confuse your audience; suck them in with one gorgeous moment and use the rest of your piece to explain what the heck it was they just saw.”

I’ve written before about those vital 10 seconds at the start of every piece – something Amy echoes on her page in the book. She’s got some great advice on other ways to hook your audience right off the bat and reel them in. Many digital stories I see suffer from a boring, irrelevant opens so it’s important to make sure that doesn’t happen to you.

Amy, Poul and Claudio's pages from Inside the Story

So you’ve hooked them in. Now what? Poul Madsen is the founder of the Bombay Flying Club, a multimedia collective based in Denmark, but usually found in all corners of the globe. For him, it’s vital every moment of a film, article or multimedia story has drive.

“From the very first frame, everything in your story – audio and/or visual elements – must point in some direction that makes sense to your viewers. Usually this means forward!”

How to you achieve forward drive in digital storytelling? Poul goes into the details in the book. And once you’ve propelled your viewer through your story it’s time to wrap it up, and according to director Claudio Von Planta that is where resolution comes in. Claudio’s been making films for 20 years, including the hugely popular documentary The Long Way Round which followed Ewan McGregor biking through Africa. Claudio’s page is crammed with nuggets like this:

“It’s always wise to develop a human-interest angle as a secondary focus where you explore how the characters in your story deal with adversity. This approach can offer an exit if you miss the primary goal.”

Claudio also offers advice for storytellers developing investigative films, and longer feature films – all of which require a strong resolution.

There’ll be another preview tomorrow, and in the meantime get on board the Facebook page and the mailing list!

Inside the Story: setting up your story

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on April 19, 2012

First of all, an exciting announcement.

After three months of work, Inside The Story: a masterclass in digital storytelling by the people who do it best is ready to launch, and will go on sale one-week-today: Thursday 26th April 2012 at 0800 BST. It’s now more important than ever that you’re a fan of the Facebook page or subscribed to the mailing list to make sure you get your copy!

The English version will be available first, with editions in German, Spanish and Catalans on the way in May. This is totally a fundraising exercise, with every penny from each sale being donated to Kiva, the developing world entrepreneurship charity.

But what’s in the book?

I’m really confident you’re going to love Inside The Story. For a start, there’s no other book, or website, like it. It’s a real masterclass in what it takes to create high quality, remarkable stories for the web. If you’re making films, designing graphics, animations, websites or podcasts and struggling to make it as good as you know it can be, you’ll find this book incredibly useful.

The contributors are almost all award-winners, and are behind some of the most popular productions on the web – you can get a sneak at some of the names here. And all their advice is ridiculously practical. To give you a taster, for the next week, I’ll be releasing short previews of some of the contributions.

How to set up your story like a pro

Let’s start at the beginning. How do you set up, research and prepare your stories to give them the best shot at being remarkable? The resounding thought from all our contributors is that preparation is key – and so are people.

Drea Cooper is one half of the team responsible for the quite extraordinary California Is A Place web series, which portrays fascinating characters from the US west coast with beautiful heart-breaking flair. Their latest film, Aquadettes, which tells the story of a group of elderly synchronised swimmers will get an airing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Drea gives some great advice about finding the right people in Inside The Story, and for him, finding characters is key:

Whether it’s fact or fiction, dynamic people and characters bring stories to life.  Any film, short or long, should have a dynamic person at its center.

But, Drea warns, it’s really not as easy at all. California Is A Place is celebrated for the incredible characters it features – and in Inside the Story Drea reveals how he, and partner Zachary Canepari go about finding them.

A sneak preview at some of the pages in Inside The Story

Once you’ve found the right person you need to make sure your research is up to scratch, says producer Ben Samuel who makes documentaries and history programmes for the BBC, on his page.

“Whatever field of human endeavour your story focuses on, there are experts who – more often than not – will be happy to give you an excellent grounding in the topic. And secondly, if your research isn’t quite up to scratch, there will be people who will clock your mistake, no matter how obscure your subject matter is.”

If you’re stuck for where to start researching, Ben gives some brilliant advice about where to start with your research, and a clue to the best research source of them all (and no, it’s not the internet).

Finally, some great practical advice from Guardian photojournalist and film maker Dan Chung, based in China. Dan’s covered everything from the Japanese Tsunami aftermath to life inside North Korea, stories you can’t just stroll into.

“Prepare yourself physically and mentally if the story requires. Think about the possible scenarios that will unfold and make contingency plans for them – both journalistically and technically.”

He outlines his preparations for each story in more detail in Inside The Story, one of more than two-dozen hand crafted chapters by some of the best digital storytellers on the planet.

So here’s the drill: find out more on the website….join the Facebook group…and tweet out loud: #insidethestory! There’ll be another sneak preview on Monday.

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