Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The “big reveal” and why it makes your stories better

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on December 5, 2011

Watch these two videos I have picked out of the video .fu library of awesome video storytelling:

They’re both quite memorable vignettes, one about loss, the other about finding someone. But they both have something in common: what you could call the big reveal – and it’s a potent storytelling tool.

The big reveal is about setting up a moment in your film where you surprise your audience by revealing a crucial part of your story: the answer to the mystery, the ‘will they live happily ever after?’ type question – or sometimes just something as simple as ‘what’s in the box?’.

To do this, however, requires going against an important rule in journalism: it requires you to hold something back from your audience.

Traditionally journalists structure stories in the classic inverted pyramid: most important stuff at the top, then adding less vital information as the story goes down. In broadcast, journalists often use a ‘figure-of-eight’ pattern to achieve the same effect. Both of these formulas are about giving the audience the big facts right at the top.

But the two films above do the opposite. They hold back information for as long as possible.

In Wait For Me, there are two reveals: firstly a short one at the beginning: revealing what’s inside the box; and then right at the end, revealing the details of her son’s disappearance.

In the Guardian’s Soulmates story, the fact this is an online dating story isn’t revealed until a minute in; then there is a lovely visual reveal, when we discover the person she is painting is her partner.

The big reveal is a good storytelling tool because by setting up a mystery, by holding information back – even for just a minute – you pique your audiences’ attention: they want to know what’s in the box, and will hang on to find out – in other words, they’re more likely to watch your story all the way through.

The narrative arc of the “Heros Quest” guide to storytelling is so successful because it begins by setting up a big question: will Luke Skywalker kill Darth Vader? Will the Man on the Wire make it across the Twin Towers? And it gives the audience an opportunity to figure things out for themselves, and feel the reward that comes with it.

The US screenwriter Billy Wilder said it best (the quote, at least, is often attributed to him):

“If you give the audience two plus two, and you let them add it up to it equals four, they’ll love you forever.”

It comes at the expense of direct, clear information – what news is supposed to be about. So it’s not something for the 6 o’clock news to adopt.

But of course, we’re not the 6 o’clock news – we’re the new generation of online video storytellers. Let’s experiment with the formula a little bit.

The 7-step-plan to turn your journalism degree into a career

Posted in Journalism, Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook on September 27, 2010

It’s that time of year again. Except this year the stakes have been upped once more.

If you’re starting your journalism undergraduate or masters degrees this month, then first of all: well done. There was another increase in j-course intake, but still (in the UK at least) thousands of young people didn’t get in. I hope someone has told you already that having letters after your name is not the ticket to a job interview it used to be.

These days you need a strategy to prepare yourself for a very turbulent and brow beaten journalism industry – and a road map to give yourself the edge over the competition.

7 steps, you probably haven’t been told, for turning your journalism degree into a successful journalism career

.01 Learn

“I guess it comes down to a simple choice really: get busy living, or get busy dying”

Andy Dufreyne

Image credit: mikebaird on Flickr

Learn at least 3 new skills. And I mean practical, technical, challenging skills: photography, video editing, data mining, motion graphics production, HTML&CSS, JQuery, infographics design, social media… the list goes on. If there’s one that isn’t being taught as part of your curriculum, then make it your business to learn it in your free time. Look for websites, books, blogs and e-courses specialising in it.

The aim is to become what I call ‘a jack of all trades and a master of one‘: do one thing really well, sure, but widen your skills base in as many other areas as possible. You might think ‘what’s the point at learning JQuery if I’m only ever going to be amateur at it?’ – but your amateur level of coding is valuable to people who know even less than you do (i.e. 98% of people currently working in a newsroom).

The renaissance-style ability to be skilled at many things is back in demand, and the polymath is set for a comeback. Being good at one thing is sooo last century, so use your free time to sharpen your range of skills.

.02 Practice…

“Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads.”

Erica Jong

You don’t get good at video journalism by reading all the books, making a couple of films, and watching TV. Trust me. I sweat away at making online films 4 days a week, and they’re still not nearly as good as I want them to be (and I’ve been doing this for five years).

While you’re a student you have a massive advantage over the rest of us: access to top-of-the-range gear and more free time on your hands than you know what to do with. You will regret not making the most of this, trust me.

Give yourself a specific project which focuses your practice – something which involves getting deep and dirty with this particular skill for at least 3 hours a week. If you want to learn photography, don’t just book out a camera and take random snaps: do a project taking portraits of the homeless people in your town (for example) and create a public platform for your work in the form of a website.

.03 Publish

“There is no such thing as boring knowledge, only boring presentation”

Dan Roam

Released under Creative Commons licence

Image credit: hejog on Flickr

Get really familiar and comfortable creating content for the internet, publishing it online, and marketing it. Chances are your career will depend on knowing how to do this. Don’t hope/expect a ‘techie’ do all the web stuff for you. Editing a film and uploading it (in the correct standards) to Youtube needs to be second nature to you. And so does using social media to make sure it gets watched.

This one is really important, because if you’re starting uni this year, you’re probably the last generation that may have a memory of life before the internet. There are kids coming up behind you who get millions of views on Youtube without breaking a sweat (see this article for examples) – hell, there are probably a few in your classroom right now.

Start a blog, begin a Tumblr, start audiobooing, whatever – you’ll need to do it now to get over beginner’s nerves and to give yourself time to develop your voice.

.04 Watch less TV

“The best assumption to have is that any commonly held belief is wrong”

Ken Olsen

I watch about 30 minutes of TV a week – and that will go back down to zero when the current series of the Inbetweeners finishes.

Since I cut back on my TV hours my life has got at least 5 times more interesting and exciting than it was before. I have quit my job, I have traveled all over, I have written two books and made a dozen films. What could you do if you stopped watching the X-Factor?

If you still need a fix of something that looks like TV then you would be well advised to fence off 36 minutes a week to watch two TED lectures. Short, succinct presentations from some of the worlds smartest people? Cha-ching!

Don’t just stick to ones about journalism or the media – pick a random one from a marine biologist and your eyes will be opened to new story ideas and issues.

.05 Lead

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood, and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Antoine De Saint-Exupery

A great way to separate yourself from the pack while you’re at university is to take the lead on something. The world (including journalism) is full of people who are happy to follow, to consume, to watch others take the chances – but not to take the lead and create something themselves. Are you one of those people? Initiative is a rare attribute – and therefore a very valuable one.

Start a collaborative reporting project and organise your fellow students to contribute to it. Take on the responsibility for being the editor, even when it goes bad, and you’ll learn a lot about yourself and the industry. If there is a problem take responsibility for creating the solution.

.06 Up your game

“It’s your thinking that decides whether you’re going to succeed or fail”

Henry Ford

Released under a Creative Commons Licence

Image credit: Ed Yourdon on Flickr

Here’s the thing: there are way more of you (people studying journalism) than there ever has been. Oh, and there are fewer mainstream jobs. That means increased competition and it means being average just won’t cut it. Five years ago we could all get away with being average at something – the current (and dying) economy is built on selling average stuff at cheap prices. This won’t last.

Don’t go into the jobs market place choosing to be average.  (Notice how I say ‘choosing‘ to be average, and not ‘being‘ average: average is a mindset, not a physical attribute. You stop being average the day you decide you will be awesome-or-bust, and spend every day achieving that.)

It’s not a simple switch however, and takes people months to come to terms with and apply – start now, and you’ll be rocking the free world before the ink dries on your graduation certificate.

.07 earn

“I never perfected an invention that I did not think about in terms of the service it might give others….I find out what the world needs, and then I proceed to invent.”

Thomas Edison

The great thing about being a ‘polymath’ (see point 1, above) is you can potentially make money from doing several different things at once. The internet has made this easier, faster and cheaper than ever. If you haven’t already, aim to turn at least one of your skills into a part-time business before you graduate. Know how to make an awesome website? Then you’ll know how easy it is to set up a web design company. Got a proper SLR camera and all the lenses? Then why not set yourself up as a one-person events photography business?

More than anything, it will get you used to the idea of exchanging your skills for money, and you’ll learn a lot of the basics of business which hold people back from great entrepreneurial ventures in the future. One gig a month shooting an event and you’ll be able to swap the Supernoodles for something nicer – and it won’t invade your study schedule.

Apart from the first one, these are not the traditional “skills the journalists of the future must learn” you’ll see on other j-blogs this year. Preparing yourself for the choppy waters ahead is more than just learning some multimedia skills and starting a blog: it requires a real shift in mindset, and that’s something few students are prepared for.

For more advice and practical skills for Next Generation Journalists click right here!

Have I missed anything off the list? Hit me in the comments box below!