Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

10 common video storytelling mistakes (and how to avoid them)

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on October 24, 2011

Five years after Youtube’s birth there’s probably not a newsroom in the land that isn’t trying to do video journalism in some way or another.

I say ‘trying’ because, as you’ll probably have seen, the vast amount of online video produced just doesn’t cut it. It’s long, boring, technically poor – and amateurish. This is a big shame because online video – done well – has the power to be an art form, to touch people, to make them understand something, to make them care.

As well as training journalists all over Europe in how to do video storytelling, and watching a helluva lot of video stories, I’ve also been teaching student journalists at Kingston University how to do video for more than two years. And in that time I’ve seen all the classic mistakes made. Here’s my run down – as always, if I’ve missed one off, stick it in the comments.

10 common video mistakes (and how to avoid them)

.01 you don’t prioritise sound

I’m actually gonna stick this one at the top because it’s probably the most common mistake. I’ve seen far too many video stories where the interview is practically inaudible, drowned out by traffic, air conditioning or something else. The cause? Not using an external microphone.

Audiences seem quite happy to tolerate poor quality pictures – they don’t mind mobile phone footage for example; but they will not tolerate crappy sound. End of. Invest in a good quality clip microphone for interviews and a Rodemic or similar for on board sound.

.02 you get too caught up in kit

We’ve all met one of these guys before: a ‘depth-of-field-Dave’ who’s more interested in whether you’re shooting on a prime lens than what the story is. They’re the sort of folk who make those music montages on Vimeo where everything looks very pretty and is out of focus, but expresses no meaning.

Kit matters – to an extent – but I believe a good story is a good story whether you shot it on the iPhone 4S or a Canon 5D MkII. At the same time, a poor story is not rescued by a shallow depth-of-field…in fact, it looks just that: shallow.

(NOTE: you’ll almost certainly be able to trawl back through the archives of this blog and find posts where I rave about depth-of-field: let’s just say I’ve grown as a film maker!)

Image: Francois Schnell on Flickr

.03 you don’t use a tripod

What’s the quickest way to ensure professional looking footage in any situation? Don’t move the camera!

It’s that simple. Flip cams, iPhones and DSLR cameras are the most susceptible to looking amateurish when hand-held, because they’re so light. Invest in a light set of Manfrotto sticks and use them for everything. Of course, handheld footage is powerful, and necessary, in certain situations – but more often I see it used as a technique through laziness rather than intention.

[Update: Video journalism advocate Michael Rosenblum argues that tripods are unnecessary: have a look and see what you think]

.04 you don’t shoot in sequences

This one is the bane of anyone who has to teach video to fresh faces: I personally invest hours of class time in explaining, demonstrating and showing examples of sequences in action – and when they don’t appear in finished pieces it’s exasperating.

Sequences – put simply – are a series of shots, showing a single action, creating the illusion of continuous movement. They are the hallmark of cinema, television news and now online video. What’s the difference between amateurs and professionals? Pros shoot sequences.

.05 you parachute into stories

One great advantage of online video journalism over television news is the absence of such tight deadlines. Online, journalists in the future are likely to work inside niches, and therefore will have time to build up contacts, develop relationships and explore stories before taking out the camera.

I can’t underestimate the importance of spending time with your subject/character before filming. Photojournalists have always done this very well, and the photogs who’ve moved to video have brought with them their investment in character. Those moving from television tend to do things the TV way: a quick pre-interview on the phone, then turn up, get the shots and get out.

Which one do you think works better?

.06 you try to copy television

On a similar theme, another big mistake new video journalists make is trying to copy what they see on CNN. Let me be clear: television news is highly formulaic, and it’s a formula designed to work within the tough day-to-day rigour of turning a story round in 3 hours. It works great for TV and that’s good for them.

But to see that formula infect this new genre of online video is heartbreaking in someways – partly because it is so young, and the potential so great. So switch off your TV – and if you have to seek inspiration from anywhere, try your local cinema.

Image credit: Dave Kellman on Flickr

.07 your stories are too long

It’s a well worn (although difficult to back up) belief that online attention spans are short and therefore video should be equally short too. Whether this is true or not, video should always be as short as it could possibly be. As Orwell said, ‘never use a long word when a short one will do.’

If you can tell your story in 90 seconds, why bulk it out to 3 minutes? You’re just wasting everyone’s time. This requires a certain ruthlessness – but if you can train yourself to ‘kill your babies’ as the saying goes, you’ll be a better journalist for it.

.08 you don’t understand storytelling

There are too many journalists who call themselves ‘multimedia storytellers’ or ‘digital storytellers’ or ‘visual storytellers’ but who have never read Robert McKee’s Story or The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (NB: affiliate links).

Storytelling is an ancient art, a craft, that survives human generations because it is without doubt the best way to help people comprehend the world around them. If you care about storytelling at all, you’ll try to master its secrets.

.09 you tell and don’t show

I remember the first video story I did while training at City University some years ago. We felt pretty proud of ourselves: we had a good story and what we made looked like a proper TV news package. But our lecturer wasn’t impressed: ‘you’ve just made radio with some pictures over the top’.

Image: mac_ivan on Flickr

And she was right: our film was laden with long rambling voice over scripts, dull soundbites and the pictures were wallpaper that didn’t add to the story. I’ve always remembered that lesson, and now remember the importance of using pictures to show the story happening and not to describe it.

.10 you don’t play to video’s strengths

Finally, video today is used because it can be, and not because it should be. There is too much video coverage of conferences, long interviews with boring people, and attempts to use video to cover council politics.

Video is good at some things: emotion, action, movement, detail, processes. It is terrible at other things: numbers, meetings, politics, court cases, and anything that doesn’t happen on camera.

The solution? Use video for its strengths – and keep the camera in your bag for the rest.

Some of these are one-step quick actions which will instantly improve your video storytelling; the rest are mindsets and attitudes that take longer to change. But until we get past those, online video storytelling will not improve.

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Five simple tricks to spice up your storytelling

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 2, 2010

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

01. bookend

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.

02. flashbacks

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.

04. reflection

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.

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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!

10 new years resolutions to make you a better multimedia journalist

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 1, 2010

What will 2010 bring?

It’s sure to be an eventful year in journalism and multimedia and I’ve already spelled out a few of my predictions for the year. But how can you prepare yourself for all the twists and turns? If you’ve already given up smoking, joined the gym and don’t need to loose any weight, here are 10 resolutions to make you a better multimedia journalist in 2010.

01. Learn a new web skill

You can’t live in fear of code, CMS, templates ‘and all that geeky stuff’ any longer: if you don’t know a bit of HTML the other 50 people going for your dream job will. Or maybe only one of them will, it doesn’t matter, they’ll still probably get the job.

There are two myths about learning web languages: 01. it’s really difficult; 02. it costs money. They’re both false.

Learning any of the basic web languages is both relatively easy and free. You can fork out £40/$60 on “HTML for Dummies” if you want but it’s not necessary. I’ve just spent a few hours over Christmas lounging on the sofa teaching myself Javascript on my laptop.

If you’re still not convinced, think about this: society is moving increasingly online and news definitely is. How much of a handicap is it to be unable to speak the language of the web? It’s like moving to France without knowing a jot of French. And then trying to get a job on Le Monde.

Four things you can learn:

  1. HTML/XHTML
  2. CSS
  3. Javascript
  4. J-Query

02. Read up on business

I’ve said several times in recent articles and videos, as have many others, there is potential for journalists to employ business skills to create small, nimble journalistic ventures which return a profit. Even if most balk at that idea, multimedia journalists – especially freelancers – should tool up on business skills to maximise their profits.

Again, don’t be scared off by the unfamiliarity of the subject. Use the New Year to grasp the nettle and dive straight in. I’ve been reading lots of business books over the last three months, investigating how journalists can employ business knowledge in a news environment. The results will appear in a new e-book here in the spring.

In the meantime, study successful business people and find out how they made it work. And remember this, the most successful businesspeople often come from non-business backgrounds:

  • Richard Branson (him off Virgin) left school with few qualifications. Despite being  dyslexic, he set up his own magazine.
  • Duncan Bannatyne (off that there Dragons Den) was a beach bum until he turned 30, when he started selling ice-cream, now he’s worth more than £100m.

03. Make audio slideshows

If you haven’t made any audio slideshows yet, pledge to make at least one in 2010. They’re great because they’re relatively quick and cheap to make (a second-hand SLR and audio recorder could set you back perhaps £300; Soundslide software is just £50) and the results can be stunning.

They’re also removed of the production distractions of shooting videos, so you can focus on telling a great story.

The weekend audio slideshow challenge:

  1. Got a free weekend on the horizon? Start thinking of story ideas near you. All you need is one or more people to interview, and a setting with the opportunity for great photographs and great sounds. Set it up. On Saturday morning go and record the story and take lots of pics.
  2. On Sunday morning go through your material and craft it into a story on paper. Then edit the audio together using Audacity (free software) and create a slideshow in Soundslide.
  3. Sleep on the results, and after making changes, upload the final piece on Monday morning. Use social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook to share it. And you could even try to pitch it to a paper.
  4. Repeat as many weekends as possible.

04. Learn a new design skill

I think New Years Resolutions should be about learning new things, not prohibiting things (can you tell?). Here’s another.

A journalist with a great visual eye makes for a good multimedia storyteller. Composition, colour are really important, especially if you’re working in video or photography. But there will be more calls for interactive designers in the future. People who can create stunning data visualisations using Java and design software.

If none of the resolutions appeal to you so far, think about learning how to use Photoshop (or even cheaper, its open source equivalent GIMP); of how about Illustrator or DreamWeaver? And start bringing in some design blogs into your blog reader. I gave some suggestions in my best of the blogs post.

Join a network like Deviant Art or Behance to show off your work.

05. Pick up a microphone

This is an appeal to make 2010 the year you take audio seriously. If you’re shooting video or audio slideshows, audio is half of the magic, and coming back with poor sound quality shouldn’t be acceptable.

Spend some money on a decent microphone and spend some time learning how to use it properly.

6×6: audio

In my e-book “6×6 skills for multimedia journalists” I devote a chapter to getting good audio. Click here to download it.

06. Have personal projects

Life shouldn’t be all work, work, work – even if we are lucky enough to call journalism our job. Devote time to personal creative projects. They’re a fantastic way to keep your creativity vitalised.

Make it the part of journalism you love the most – writing maybe, or shooting video, or designing graphics…and give yourself a project just for the hell of it. It’ll keep you in a happy place I promise.

Ideas for personal projects

  • Create a tumblr account and use it to post your own creative bits and pieces
  • Start writing that novel or screenplay. Go on, just write the thing!
  • Design a new range of awesome posters
  • Create an audio portrait of an interesting area or neighbourhood over the space of 6 months
  • Start creating blogazines instead of boring old blog posts

07. Aim to double your blog readership or website hit rate

Challenge yourself to create a website that really sells you and gives value to readers. The key, as all the blogging mavens tell you, is creating great content. Make 2010 the year you stop posting funny videos or rants about something you read in the paper, and focus your content.

What value can you share with other people? What do you know about that other people will want to know about it? If you’re a journalist, there’s a good chance there’s something you can share.

This very post is a good example. I was close to writing a “my goals for 2010” post, and bore you all with my plans for next year. Then I thought I could add much more value to your day by coming up with this list.

08. Devote time to storytelling

One of the things I learned in 2009 was about the importance of storytelling, how most storytelling nowadays is crap, how many of us think it’s something we’re born with or that it’s easy.

Storytelling is in fact a craft in itself: choosing the characters, developing a narrative, conflict and climax. Take time in 2010 to learn more about this mysterious and under-appreciated art. A good place to start would be to get hold of a copy of Robert McKee’s excellent book Story. He’s been quoted all over this blog in 2009.

09. Collaborate and hookup

One of my aims for 2010 is to collaborate more. Teaming up with other people, especially those who have strengths where you have weaknesses is really fulfilling. Collaborating also gives projects a better chance of getting funding and of getting finished. So don’t go it alone in 2010.

At the same time, talk to more journalists, and collaborate on ideas for the future of news. More than 150 people have joined the Future of News Meetup Group I created in 2009, and in 2010 we’ll be meeting every month to thrash out new, positive, tangible ideas on what the news landscape will look like.

If you’re in London, make sure you sign up and get involved. If you’re not in London, then create your own for your area!

10. Be audacious

2009 was a rough year. And the signs are 2010 won’t be any easier, especially if you’re a journalist. But make a decision now not to get battered around by the waves of the economic storm. Your future doesn’t have to be shaped by events around you, just you, your ideas, and whether you’re prepared to turn them into reality.

“If you don’t find what you’re looking for, be it, create it.”

S. Dawns

Whatever your resolutions and goals are for next year, make them audacious. Make them big and make them exciting. If they don’t excite you or scare you a little bit, what hope do you have of making them happen?

And a final resolution for you….keep reading this blog!  It’s been great to have all your comments and feedback in 2009; there will be lots more practical advice about multimedia journalism in 2010, including two ebooks before February.  To make sure you don’t miss out, use the form to the right to subscribe to future posts.

Whatever you have planned for 2010, I hope it’s awesome. Happy New Year!

6×6: storytelling

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 21, 2009

6x6 advice for multimedia journalists

The third in a series of 6 blogs, each with 6 tips for the next generation of freelance multimedia journalists.

storytelling

A lot of the focus for multimedia journalists and digital journalists has been on the new technology: using Twitter, learning Flash. But there’s a danger that in the rush to learn new skills, we forgot (or never learn) the oldest ones. And there is no skill older, or more important, than storytelling.

Maybe you think it’s something you can’t learn; it comes naturally. You might think it’s something with no rules: each story is different. True, but there is a science to storytelling as well as an art: here are 6 secrets.

01. who’s your character?

Every story needs a character. Lord of the Rings has dozens, but your short doc or audio slideshow might only have one. Either way, they need to be compelling, and they need to be embarking on a journey. And we need to like them or be fascinated by them, because we’re going to follow their journey: and we want our audience to follow it too.

No matter what your story, it needs a character. In old-media land this is known crudely as the “case study”. (Think how many TV news reports start with a case study!). But they are crucial because they humanise what might actually be a general issue. Making a doc about homelessness?  You best make sure it stars a homeless person.

Beware though the difference between Character and Characterization. Robert McKee in his excellent book Story tells us the latter is the outward description of a person-their personality, age, height, what clothes they wear; but character is the true essence of the person in the story. That true character is only revealed when their journey puts them under increased pressures.

The decisions we all make under pressure are the ones which reveal our true character.

02. the narrative arc

The next thing you want to do is find your story’s narrative arc. Remember I mentioned your character’s journey? Well that’s your narrative arc.

It starts with what Hollywood screenwriters call “The Incident Incident.” It’s the moment which instills in your character a desire to achieve a seemingly insurmountable goal/object of desire. It sets them on a mission – a quest.

This mission must challenge them in increasingly difficult ways (and never decreasingly), rising to a climax to which the audience can imagine no other. Writing in the Digital Journalist, Ken Kobre sums it up:

“Besides a beginning, middle and end, a good story has a memorable protagonist who surmounts obstacles en route to achieving a goal that we care about.”

Stories work better with a real play-off of positive and negative charges. Something good happens, and then something bad. Then something even better than before, and then something even worse than before. Robert McKee describes a second device, called “gap of expectation”: that’s where your character’s expectations of an event are blown apart by reality.

03. Oi! Where’s the conflict?

You’re making a film about that homeless person on a mission to get his life back on track. The first thing he wants to do is get some money for a small flat. He asks the council. They give him the money. The end.

Lame story.

Why? Because there is no conflict! I hate conflict in real life, but in storytelling it’s essential. There must be forces opposing your character and their mission. And sparks must fly. McKee lists three types of conflict:

  1. Inner conflict: your character is in conflict with themselves (Kramer vs Kramer)
  2. Personal: your character’s in conflict with people around them (Casablanca)
  3. Extrapersonal: your character’s on conflict with something massive (Independence Day)

04. climax!

Traditionally stories end in a climax. The ever increasing ups and downs culminate in either an ultimate high (happy ending) or ultimate low (sad ending). Either way, the key word is “ultimate”. In Hollywood-land the ending must be so climatic they cannot possibly imagine another way of doing it.

In the real world it is not always the way, but you should have half a mind on how your story is going to end. Crucially if they’ve been set off on a quest, they should finish it for better or worse. The ending should still be “absolute and irreversible”.

05. use tried and tested storytelling techniques

There are lots of little storytelling devices you can use to add some sparkle to your work.

  • Book-ending: returning the character/place/event which opened your piece, at the end, is a nice way to sum up what’s changed. It can add a bit of emotional punch too.
  • Narrative hook: opening the piece with an enticing, unexplained event, interview, image to suck the viewers right in
  • Get the crayons out: popular in internet memes everywhere, getting people to write something down and hold it up to the camera is very effective (just check out SOTM if you need proof); I know of a very experienced reporter who took crayons and paper to a refugee camp and got children to draw the terrible things they’d seen: another great device.

06. stories are everywhere!

These guidelines are really used by authors, and screen writers – people who create stories from scratch. As journalists we aren’t making up stories (hopefully not, anyway) – but we should have our eyes and ears open to these elements in the real world to heighten the sense of story for our audience.

And most of all – remember stories are everywhere! I have never been more inspired than by reading Cory Tennis’ advice to one floundering journalism graduate, unable to get work:

“And then, with the irony that cloaks us against utter nihilism, we think, if only we were living in more interesting times! And that is the confounding thing about it, isn’t it? That we stand on the nodal point of a great, creaking, crunching change in historical direction, at the beginning of cataclysmic planetary collapse, at the dying of civilization, at the rising of new empires, at our own meltdown, as a million stories bloom out of the earth like wildflowers in the spring and we think, gee, uh, if only there were some good stories to tell.”

The best way to learn the craft of storytelling, is to get out there and tell some.

The final word:

“A storyteller is a life poet, an artist who transforms day-to-day living, inner life and outer life, dream and actuality into a poem whose rhyme scheme is events rather than words – a two-hour metaphor that says: Life is like this! Therefore a story must be abstract from life to discover its essences, but must not become an abstraction that loses all sense of a life-as-lived. A story must be like life, but not so verbatim that it has no depth or meaning beyond anyone in the street.”

Robert McKee Story.

Next: the creative entrepreneur!