Storytelling: the most ancient of arts, under appreciated, and often overshadowed by technological advances.
We talk a lot about how a new piece of kit, or smaller camera will make journalism better – but then ignore how to tell the stories in the first place. Storytelling is a science as well as an art with rules and formulas, honed over centuries: every journalist should make it their business to understand the secrets.
A classic (non-journalism) example is James Cameron’s Avatar: celebrated for its use of the latest technology, but undermined by a crap, hackneyed, unoriginal story. Storytelling costs a percentage of what special effects do…but guess where Hollywood spends the big bucks?
The good news for you and me is good storytelling is free if you know how to do it. And sometimes it’s even quick. Next time you’re shooting a video story, audio slideshow, radio piece, interactive — whatever…try one of these simple tricks to make sure your story packs a punch.
Five simple tricks to spice up your storytelling
A classic of the television current affairs documentary but still pretty effective. It simply means returning at the end of your story to where you began. Maybe the same location to see how it’s changed or the same interviewee reflecting on what’s just happened.
It can be more subtle than that: gently bring in the music you opened your piece with to close it; or even bring up the same sound effects or natural sound if that’s what you used. It is a personal favourite of mine: I bookend with music in this audio slideshow about the prison campaigner John Hirst, and bookend with location in this 30 minute documentary about the 2007 UK floods.
Bookending gives the audience a real sense of time passed and reflection.
Not every story needs to be told in a linear way, despite the linear nature of the media we work with. Mess around with the chronology of your storytelling.
Sometimes it works really well to start with the powerful climax of the story and then work your audience back to that point through your story. You can use flashbacks literally to show events from the past in real time.
03. share media
Here’s an old rule of storytelling: “show don’t tell” (maybe it should be called story-showing); so start by really listening to whether you are telling a story or showing it. Stuck for a good way to get your subjects to show their stories? Give them the media to do it!
Veteran broadcast journalist Penny Marshall used this to great effect when she gave children in refugee camps in Chad pieces of paper and crayons to draw what they were too distressed to say. Film critic and director Mark Cousins built an entire film around the premise of giving Iraqi children a flip cam.
Just because you have the training doesn’t mean others can’t astound you with their abilities with a simple camera.
It is an accepted wisdom that when we hear someone talking and see them on screen, we see their lips moving. That is using video to document a persons thoughts in its simplest form. But you can mess around with this too.
Once you’ve finished an interview – especially if it has packed emotional punch – just keep filming, stop talking and let your interviewee look into your eyes or the lens. See how long you can get them to hold that look – usually somewhere between 5 and 10 seconds. If you want an example, check out this quickly cut promo by David Dunkley-Gyimah at the Southbank Centre.
Now you have an amazing reflective shot to introduce your interviewee; it gives the impression we are hearing their thoughts not just their words. Powerful indeed.
05. take your character back to their past
The best stories have a central character. Often they tell their story for us in the form of an interview, usually somewhere ‘contemporary’ to them, such as their living room. If they’re talking about a past experience, something is lost in translation.
Make the past live again for your character by returning them to the place where their amazing story took place (within the means of taste and decency of course). Not only will it make your character’s recollection far more vivid, it also gives you more interesting pictures. Click here to see how ESPN took a troubled wrestler back through his dark past – with great effect.
What’s the point of narrative?
Why bother with all this then? Telling a good story is what we’re all about. Your aim as a storyteller is simple: suck ’em in and spit ’em out. You need to hook your audience into your story quickly and ruthlessly, don’t let go for a second (they’ll try to wriggle free); and then spit them out in the other side. If you’ve done your job they’ll sit, astonished, covered in phlegm, trying to comprehend what just happened…but grateful to you for taking them on that journey.
Want more storytelling tips? Have you checked out “6×6 Skills for Next Generation Journalists“? It’s got a special chapter on storytelling.
Note: Several people have been in touch in the comments in the last week requesting more examples of great multimedia journalism and film making. I’ve tried to provide good examples in this post and will stick as many more up in the future as possible – thanks for your comments!
Here’s a snippet of war reporting…as you’ve probably never seen it before:
First of all, his access is quite extraordinary: the trailer suggests he’s been given some quite rare access to frontline troops, and allowed to film and publish what he wants, without censorship. Presuming he had an attached media-ops officer with him, they seemed not to mind him running ahead of advancing troops with a glidecam.
Secondly, visually it is extremely impressive. It’s a great example of the elegance the Canon 5D Mk II allows. The DSLR Newshooter blog has published an interview with Dennis in which he explains his rig in more detail:
I used a Sennheiser ME- 66 shotgun mic and G2 wireless system running into a Beachtek DXA-2s (I’ve since upgraded to a Juicedlink CX-231 with the Magic Lantern hack) which converts professional XLR mics into a minijack suitable for the 5D. I built custom aluminum ‘wings’ in a workshop to hold this audio setup…
I mounted my whole system onto a Glidecam 2000 HD with custom rubber pads on the mount and a foam ear plug to suppress the vibration of the the lens.
The combination of the 5D Mk II with the Glidecam is quite effective – and quite affordable too.
Third, no doubt the storytelling will pack a punch too…but what kind of story will this tell of the war in Afghanistan? Although we can only go on the trailer at this point, does it glorify war? Is that something journalists should do?
The use of the music in this trailer, if anything else, seems to serve that purpose.
After quite a few weeks of work (and a trip to Iraq) my first ever multimedia project went online last week. It’s called One Week In Iraq and I hope it’s a vibrant snapshot of what life is like for the final British soldiers to serve in Iraq, many of whom are starting to come home.
At it’s centre is an interactive collage I created on the website Vuvox.com which was a joy to use; I’m very happy with the final result.
The rest is made up of short self-shoot films, including a piece about the work the soldiers are doing and a look at whether Iraq’s got what it takes to be a big tourist destination.
Here’s a summary of some of the practical journalism posts I’ve written this year.
Great free apps for multimedia journalists :: the most popular one by far, covering some online sites to aid journo production
Shooting multimedia-a lot to juggle :: the challenges of covering stories in multimedia in the field; in this case, Iraq.
The ultimate budget film making kit :: a guide to how I kitted myself out for video journalism on a £500 budget
The radio emergency survival guide :: how radio newsrooms should prepare for major news events
Making the most of your network :: a good example of how to use other journalists in your group
Three ways to instantly improve your newswriting :: a quick guide to broadcast writing
Five even quicker ways to improve your newswriting :: more tips
Covering court cases-the questions you were afraid to ask :: everything from what to wear in court, and where to sit
How to avoid being THAT annoying PR person :: advice for those unfortunate PR professionals
9 questions for newsreaders :: a checklist for newsreaders
The first draft video report I shot in Iraq is on Current TV’s UK website this week.
I’ve uploaded a draft to see how their target audience respond to it, whether they like it, hate it or don’t bother watching it, it will be interesting to see.
Sadly the quality of both the audio and the video have taken a battering in the upload, but the gist is there. It was shot on my Panasonic NVDX100, and cut on Adobe Premiere Elements. The music and non-video images are all published under the Creative Commons Licence, and found using some of the sources I described here.
It’s the latest step in my plans to build a multimedia website on my assignment with British troops in Iraq, before they finally withdraw in June. More on that soon! In the meantime, whether you’re a regular visitor, a media professional, or a passer-by, I’d love to hear your feedback on the film too – the good, the bad, the ugly…
WordPress doesn’t let me embed Current videos, so click on the image to visit the video.
To find out when and why I was in Iraq, check out this previous blog post.
My post on the challenges of shooting multimedia during a visit to Iraq this month proved a popular one (thank you!). A week of furious editing in both radio studios and on my own video edit software later and I’ve learned a load more. Here are the highlights…
8 more lessons learned in shooting multimedia
01. different mediums, different audiences
I wrote on a previous post how a difficulty of shooting for different mediums was juggling all the kit. Well, since coming back I’ve really come to realise how you also have to juggle different audiences some times. I went out primarily for my local radio station; the brief: meet local soldiers, find out about their life on the front line, get some good home references (like supporting local football teams) and messages back home to loved ones. Your typical local young house-wifey type content.
In taking out a camera though, I gave myself a second agenda – an audience on the web very different from my radio one. Now the challenge before me is to produce content for two different audiences with the same raw material. So something fun – like this; and something a bit more serious – like this.
02. different mediums – helpful sometimes
OK, so holding a mic and a camera ain’t easy but it can cover your back too. The external mic on my camera failed me on one interview, but luckily I had the same interview in mp3 from my Marantz recorder. A bit of tricky synch work and you’ve fixed the problem.
Self-shooting without a tripod made interviews a bit of a challenge. I had to be close enough to my subjects to pick up audio on my Marantz recorder, but far enough away to get a wide enough head shot. The result: most interviews were in extreme close up! Although close ups are often recommended for online video in its smaller 720×526 screens.
04. get to know your camera
I didn’t have enough time to really practice with my camera before I used it for the first time. I meant a lot of wasted tape as I tried to ride the iris or adjust the manual focus.
05. keep it manual
I don’t regret keeping all my settings – but namely white balance, focus and iris – completely manual.
06. log it
I logged everything as I shot, which has saved time in the edit. Also my logbook provided a great home for memes, sketches and ideas.
07. be prepared…
…for technical hitches. I was very positive about my budget film making kit earlier this year, but remember, pay peanuts and you get monkeys. Adobe Premiere Elements is great value for money, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why it crashes every time I try to capture video. And the image recorded is shifted ever so slightly to the left. And when I recorded video with my external mic plugged in but not switched on I got a nice blast of Iraqi radio on the soundtrack instead.
08. oh and one bit of advice to anyone else who takes recording equipment to a military theatre…
…don’t record anywhere near a military radio kit. Number of interviews lost: 2. Number of amazing pieces to camera on top of a moving vehicle lost: all of them
All the radio content has been broadcast this week on 96.9 Viking FM in the UK. Lots of content including interviews, audio slideshows and video is online – click here. I will put up all my audio shortly. And more video coming soon!
It was a busy day. Lots of last minute editing to do for my radio station’s week of reports on Iraq and content to put online; then bits to send to sister radio stations in Leeds and Teeside; not to mention a huge amount of local news moving including some important court cases and inquest verdicts….
In short, probably not the time to engage in a debate about the future of journalism.
I said: I love doing online journalism and multimedia – but how do we make money out of it?
Matt said: No-one will ever pay for online content – not when it’s free everywhere else
I said: so how will we make any money as video journalists online?
Matt said: once newspapers ditch print and we all have Kindles, they’ll have audio, video and text – in short you’ll be a VJ for a big newspaper, and people will watch your films on the underground.
I said: but what about in the meantime?
…we both shrug our shoulders.
I then tweeted the summary – and caught the attention of @jonshuler (here’s his website) and the following debate occured in 140 characters or less–a snapshot of the new media debate raging across the world
Three young media types trying to figure out the future of their profession. That’s the new media debate – join in!
update: Check out this video from Beet.tv: they interviewed online video producer Zadi Diaz at SXSW. Her advice for getting through the tough times: team up with other producers and see if you can come up with a good way to make it work financially. You have to think outside the box. When online money dries up Zadi switches to consulting/advising others to keep herself going.
They say multimedia journalism is the way forward; hell, it is the way forward. But sitting on a moving helicopter, flying over the rooftops of Baghdad, camera in hand trying to get a shot out the side, while also checking your audio recorder is working, with your seatbelt barely fastened….well it’s not easy.
That was the challenge I faced during my week with the First Batallion the Yorkshire Regiment in Iraq. On assignment for my employer – a radio station – I was also armed with a DV Camera and digital camera, hoping, desperately to come back with high quality video, audio and pictures.
Now the obvious question, looking at the picture (right) is why didn’t I just use the audio from my video pictures? A good question, but I felt seeing as my primary reason for going out to Iraq was for radio, I needed to make good rich quality audio my priority. I just didn’t trust the quality from my DV Cam. I think though, in future projects, perhaps not just for radio, I will use onboard audio.
But juggling equipment isn’t the only problem for a multimedia shooter, I learned. The big challenge is juggling content.
It might be easy to say ‘just take a camera out and use the on board mic for sound and freezeframes for images’ but that ignores the fact that all three mediums – audio, video, pictures – have their own methods and priorities. Your video demands clean white balanced shots and considered visual sequences of something happening. Your audio demands to have clear sounds of that something happening. And your pictures want to be well framed and capture a split second, not a moving image.
Voice overs or pieces to camera have to be written differently for video than audio as they demand different styles. The former is written as a slave to pictures, while the latter must cope without any pictures at all.
So, in short, it’s a bit of a mindfuck.
So how should the journalist approach multimedia stories?
01. with a good knowledge of each medium
02. with a plan of what the final products will be
03. with a variety of treatments: do some stories in just video, do others in just audio, rather than repeating the same content in different mediums
04. with a good bag which can carry all your equipment, and a notebook for logging everything and planning the final product
05. with a small digital camera- take a photo of everyone you interview in audio, for audio slide shows
06. smaller and lighter is better
07. when you arrive somewhere new, think over your video first of all, as getting the right shots is more complicated than getting the right audio or stills
08. and don’t just think in terms of audio, video or still images..what about interactive timelines, potted histories and discussion boards? If your final platform is online then all these are options you can bear in mind.
All I will say is it was a lot more challenging than I had anticipated-if anyone has any other practical tips then please, add them below!
“Weird and aimless”: that was David Mitchell’s summation of Twitter in his extremely witty must-read column in last Sunday’s Observer.
His brief description went as follows:
‘It’s a website where you express what you’re currently doing in 140 characters or fewer and that gets sent to all your “followers”; similarly, the “tweets” of those you “follow” are relayed to you – and you can do it on your phone, laptop, BlackBerry, iThermos or rape alarm.’
Pretty much sums it up. But the great thing about it, is it keeps coming up with new uses. For example, I discovered this week it provides an excellent living, breathing research tool for journalists.
How? Well, later this week I am flying out to Iraq to spend some time reporting on the work of British troops in the closing days of Operation Telic; the advent of control being handed to Iraqi troops. Now I’ve only been given short notice of the visit – well 5 days to be precise – and that’s hardly enough time to dig through A. Leo Oppenheim’s Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilisation.
I need the facts and I need them fast. But as well as reading up on the basics of the Iraq occupation, I need to be following the latest news and developments before I head out. That’s where Twitter comes in. With Tweetdeck installed, I have had constant updates on all the chatter involving “iraq” and “basra” for the last 3 days. I know who’s talking about it, and when big news stories happen they appear as news feeds.
Best of all it’s live, it’s fresh.
For those that would come back saying Twitter is not a reliable source – well, actually if the sites it links to like the BBC and CNN are reliable then what’s the problem?
And on that whole “reliability” issue, well let’s go back to David Mitchell – he sums it up perfectly:
‘…readers should always question the veracity of what they read and the motives of whoever wrote it, and in the internet age more than ever. People who allow themselves to be made credulous by stylish typesetting and a serif font are screwed. And if Wikipedia, while being very informative in most cases, teaches a few lessons about questioning sources, then that’s all to the good.’
Let’s not forget Twitter as a good tool for collecting information, as well as publishing it.
I’m leaving very shortly; in the likely absence of any internet connection in Iraq this will be the last blog for a week or so…
Students like to moan a fair bit. The course is too expensive, the work’s too hard, the lectures are too boring, the exams are badly organised…it goes on.
But imagine trying to study in Baghdad.
Having been a student since the Iraq conflict began I’m ashamed I haven’t even considered what it’s like to study in one of the most dangerous country’s on earth. Perhaps it’s because I just assumed education has been cancelled amid the daily carnage of market bombings and kidnappings.
But it goes on. And for Iraqi students this week is the start of their mid term exams.
According to Correspondent Sahar, writing for the fascinating Inside Iraq blog, the scariest part of the exams for the students is not the pressure of the exams, the last minute revision or the panic of a topic overlooked…it’s the fact that the exams have to have a fixed timetable.
That means they’re effectively “sitting ducks” for the next ten days.
Usually, lecturers are forced to adopt a random timetable that’s never the same for more than a week, to avoid the kidnappers, the snipers and the bombers.
As Sahar says, it’s something the students are sadly used to as an unimaginable addition to the stress of study:
Snipers pick inhabitants and students walking from college to hospital or back. One car stops in front of the entrance, lets out one handcuffed young man, waits for him to take a few steps away … and then he is shot, bait, it turned out. Naïve students run to his aid only to be shot at by snipers on a rooftop of a high building in Haifa Street.
News this week that the pope of poverty, Bob “da poyple are fookin’ doyin'” Geldof is planning on launching a TV channel devoted to promoting peace.
Funded by Point of Peace, Geldof’s developing the idea with his production company Ten Alps and will announce whether the channel will launch later this year. Let’s just hope it’s not 24 hours of black-and-white charity commercials set to Coldplay.
Among journalists there’s a parellel debate running: whether or not war correspondents should report conflicts with a bias towards peace.
Peace Journalism, as it’s known, has been enshrined in a book by Jake Lynch and Anna McGoldrick; I’m yet to read it, I’m afraid to say, but us City journos were given a taster this week courtesy of Roy Greenslade.
Essentially it argues journalists can and should promote a peaceful resolution to conflicts. It’s a noble aim, and you can’t argue its intentions, but pragmatically, it’s not to clear cut.
Asking too much?
War reporting is ahistorical peace journos say. Each day we’re told the bare facts: the what, where, when and who. But not the why and the accusation is that reporters don’t give us the origins and consequences of the violence we see on our screen.
Fair enough. I think we can see this in the day-to-day reporting in Iraq, Gaza and Afghanistan. We’re told the “latest”, and (in Iraq) reminded yet again “the country is sliding ever closer to civil war.”
So here-here for more indepth analysis on our screens. But it’s not so simple: reporters and producers suffer one major limitation – time.
Can you report the latest and give indepth analysis in 90 seconds?
And this is where the problem with peace journalism lies. If you look at some of its recommendations they jar with reality:
- Avoid portraying conflict as a battle between two forces over the same goals.
- Don’t just report a suicide bomber from one group killed scores from another – explain what the motivations are.
- And show the invisible effects of conflict – mental illness, depression etc, not just the visible effects.
Great goals – but where’s the time to do it?
This isn’t to say I disagree with the concept at all. There are some really good recommendations from Lynch and McGoldrich that would really benefit journalism. Things like avoiding showing the human rights abuses and/or suffering of just one side; avoid showing opinion as fact and avoid blaming someone for the conflict.
Just try telling that to the hardened hacks in the field.