Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The last post

Posted in Adam by Adam Westbrook on October 4, 2012

After six years, 520 posts and who knows how many words, this is the last thing I’m going to write on this blog. 

It’s a decision I’ve been thinking about for almost a year and I’ve kept putting it off, partly because I still had things I wanted to figure out and share with you, and also because – believe it or not – this blog does make a bit of money!

But 2o12 has been a year of reflection and contemplation for me and ultimately of heading in new directions. Over the last few years my interests and passions have developed to the point where I now no longer think of myself as a journalist, but more of a producer and publisher. What I write about has gradually shifted from news to storytelling, to cinema to entrepreneurship, and I know that’s not what many of you come here for.

At the same time, how I think about creating stuff has changed and I want to focus my energy on building things that matter: films, magazines, books, businesses and more. Sadly a weekly blog post, and hours spent on Twitter don’t fit into that.

Parting gifts

I’ve spent some time bringing together 20 of my favourite pieces from the last few years and written five brand new ones, and put them all into a one-off collection. If you’re here for the first time and want the highlights this is for you, or if you want an intensive burst of ideas and inspiration in one sitting then I recommend it too. It’s completely free:  you can have the pdf right here, no email address or nuthin’.

Everything I’ve written on here will stay forever, for free. You can select just the video and storytelling posts or the entrepreneurship and creativity posts if you like, or just see what’s popular.

What next?

In a few months I’ll be leaving my life in London behind and seeking some new adventures. I’ll be heading to Paris in January and then to wherever the wind takes me. There is no plan or strategy, just embracing uncertainty, putting faith in having no plan.

I’ve got some bold new projects I want to start, some experiments I want to try and I’ll generally be gettin’ busy gettin’ messy. I’m still insanely passionate about creating insightful, intelligent and thought-provoking factual stories so a lot of my projects will be trying to solve this problem.

I’m also crazy about storytelling structure and visual storytelling and still have loads of questions about it. The response to the Inside the Story project earlier this year was awesome, and I have plans to develop it in early 2013, most likely in magazine form. If you’ve downloaded a free copy of the ebook, then you’ll hear about it later this year. Click here to get a copy if you haven’t already.

I’ll be location independent so I’ll still be working with clients in the UK and elsewhere and I’ll continue to be available for film, motion graphics and writing commissions. Click here to contact me about that. I’m also still consulting and training, and there are still a few spaces left on the next video journalism workshop in November. At the same time, if you’re an organisation committed to creating great narrative experiences anywhere in the world then drop me a line too, maybe we could work together one day.

Thank you

Finally, and most importantly, I want to say a huge thank you to you for reading all this over the years. You can double that thanks if you’ve ever left a comment after a post, triple it if you’ve retweeted, reblogged or shared a post, and quadruple it if you’ve ever bothered to send me an email. Knowing that something I’ve written has inspired another person, given them a new idea, or helped them do something awesome always puts a smile on my face.

After all this time blogging about journalism, what advice can I offer? Well, there’s a spot open for someone to share more new ideas about how journalism can be done better. If that appeals to you, then remember: be positive, not critical, share and inspire and above all be immensely generous.

Blogging is a great way to crystallise your own ideas and get feedback, not to mention a great way to learn, build a platform and a reputation. It worked for me and it was great fun, so go on, get busy writing. Here’s a series I wrote a couple of years back with advice on how to start your own blog.

Keep up!

I have honestly no idea what will happen next in my life but here are some ways you can keep up with whatever the hell does happen.

My Journal: I’ve slowly been building a personal online journal. Is it just another blog? Sort of, although it is really a blogazine, with each article individually designed, as a way for me to practice web design. It’s a 100% personal site, so if you’re interested in me as a person then take a look. Inspired by Robin Sloan’s brilliant tap essay I’m going to be making tributes to people, things, places and stuff that I really love.

My homepage: My main website is still there – it’s the best way to contact me.

Twitter: I’ll still be tweeting and tumblring, although a lot less frequently.

Hotpursuit.co: This is my new publishing venture..it’s just a top co right now, but will develop more in the future. Still you can sign up to the mailing list if you really want.

• • •

And lastly, I’m not stopping this blog because I have lost faith in the future of journalism or the industry. Quite the opposite. In the lifespan of this website we’ve seen journalism hit hard, and its foundations thoroughly shaken. But the last two years have brought an energetic burst of new ideas, platforms and experiments from ordinary people that I’m certain will propel us through to a remarkable new age, where stories are told, ideas are spread and the truth always challenged.

If you ever despair, remember: we are just at the beginning. 

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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.

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: a huge thankyou

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 20, 2012

I’ve been looking forward to this one since January. 

Yesterday I had the distinct pleasure of wiring $4339.99 to Kiva, the developing world entrepreneurship charity. That’s the total sales raised from shifting nearly 1,000 copies of Inside the Story: A Masterclass in Digital Storytelling from the People who do it Best. It’s an  astonishing amount of money for a brilliant charity.

E-junkie, who handled all the book sales, confirms nearly 1,000 sales

If you’re wondering why the final figure isn’t a round number, remember Paypal and Google Checkout both take a fee per transaction. Each sale therefore raised between £3.12 and £3.15, depending on exchange rates.

The final amount, ready to go to Kiva

The money is now with Kiva, who estimate that every dollar donated (as opposed to loaned) generates ten dollars in loans – so we could effectively have created more than $40,000 for a brilliant charity. If you haven’t caught up with what Kiva do, then check them out here.

I’m personally astonished by the final amount we’ve raised. I had tentatively hoped we would make about $2,000 or maybe $2,500 tops. But to hit nearly $4,500 is just mind-blowing, so thank you if you bought the book, and thank you again if you encouraged others to buy it by blogging or tweeting about it.

I’d also like to thank the 25 brilliant contributors who gave time and effort into making the book happen. The charitable fundraising aside, the response from readers has been fantastic; I’ve had emails from people all over the world who say its inspired them to up their storytelling game in a big way.

What next?

Some of you have asked why the book was only on sale for a temporary period. It’s a logistical thing, mainly: there isn’t a convenient way to set up transactions so the money goes to Kiva as soon as the book is bought, and so I have to look after sales and make a one-off donation. That, plus dealing with customer service emails takes up a lot of time, which I don’t have.

However, Inside the Story will return this summer, and will be permanently available, either for free, or with an optional donation. If you would like to know when that happens, then signup to the mailing list here.

On being generous

I’ve also been asked why I did the project in the first place. Why put so much effort into something like this, without any reward for me? This isn’t how entrepreneurial journalism is supposed to work, surely!

Well, I had my own motivations. I had the idea for the book last year so for one, I just wanted to start and finish it. I felt there isn’t a book like it out there and that people would find it really useful. Completing an ambitious project like this builds momentum to start new projects. It was also a fantastic learning opportunity. In order to make the book happen I had to teach myself Adobe InDesign, HTML, CSS and some Javascript, plus build on my online publishing experience. I’ve learned a lot about digital publishing in the last few months, skills which will feed into my next projects.

It also gave me the opportunity to get in touch with some of my favourite storytellers, journalists and film makers and collaborate with them.

But above all, it’s practicing a fundamental pillar of online publishing and enterprise: you must be generous. If you want to build an audience or a community around what you do and what you love you have to be willing to give away a huge amount, willingly, happily without want for immediate reward.

You have to be willing to share what you learn, give away your best secrets and skills, bring others along on the journey with you. That’s why I’ve spent several hours writing a new blog post every week for the last five years, which I give away for free, with no advertising and no fees attached. It’s why I always try to respond to emails from readers, give interviews and help with student dissertations.

As well as demonstrating you know what you’re talking about, it also builds trust and grows attention – two things in hot demand.

Note that generosity doesn’t include tossing off short lazy blog posts, or poor quality podcasts every so often. Real generosity is crafting something of exceptional quality, like Inside the Story, or even Everything Is A Remix, and then giving it away for free.

So, if you’re stuck about what to do next, and where to go from here, try being unashamedly generous. Give away free advice on Twitter, offer your filmmaking or writing skills for free for a day; hey, you could even publish an ebook.

Think about what you know, what you’re good at, and what you love spending your time doing, and then ask how that can be put to good use helping other people. 

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: 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.

Inside the Story and where are you?

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

A few weeks after announcing it, I’m excited to reveal more about the storytelling book project I’m working on at the moment.

It now has a title: Inside The Story: a masterclass in digital storytelling from the people who do it best – and a website. It’s been tested in most browsers (and will look a bit different in some) so do let me know if you spot any problems.

UPDATE: there’s now a Facebook page for you to get involved in too – click here to take a look

Some of the best multimedia storytellers out there are currently working hard on their contributions for the book, and we’re going to begin layout next week.

So far, I can promise you will learn about how to structure and pace stories from award winning film makers Claudio Von Planta and the Bombay Flying Club, how to make people engage with complex issues from Catherine Orr, who helped create Coal: A Love Story, and practical advice on coming up with innovative ideas from Andrew DeVigal, Multimedia Editor at the New York Times and photojournalist Jonah Kessel.

And that’s the just the beginning! Every day I work on the book the more convinced I am it’s going to be a really useful resource for anyone who wants to be better at storytelling on the web. And all the money goes towards Kiva, the developing world entrepreneurship charity.

If you’re even in the slightest bit excited by the book, please put your name in the email box at the bottom of the preview page. No spam, I promise, but a note in advance of the book being launched. And most importantly please share it with everyone who could benefit from it!

In a mission to learn as much along the way as possible I’ve designed the web site myself in HTML5 and I’ll post some lessons I’ve learned as a novice web designer in a future post.

So that link again: Inside The Story.

Over to you

I write a lot on here about the need for more starters, initiators, entrepreneurs and storytellers who are committed to quality over quantity. And I know there are lots of you out there, I just don’t know who you are.

Quite often I get offers of work which for one reason or another I am unable to take up, and my list of people to recommend is actually quite short.

So I want to build a database, if you like, of excellent multimedia producers, filmmakers, directors, photographers, web designers, who I might potentially collaborate with on an exciting online project or be able to recommend to clients. I might also be able to hook you up with other collaborators.

No guarantees on either of those, of course, but if you’re interested in collaborating with others then please drop me an email with a line or two about yourself and a link to your best work.

I should stress I’m only interested in working with people committed to investing time in ambitious, high quality work. If you’re about quick hits and talking heads, that’s fine, but not what I’m looking for. The email address is adam [at] adamwestbrook.co.uk.

In the UK or Europe (for direct collaboration)

  • Film makers
  • Photographers
  • Researchers

And anywhere in the world (where we could collaborate remotely)

  • web designers
  • graphic designers
  • interactive designers
  • motion graphics animators
  • infographic and data journalists

I’m looking forward to hearing from you!

The most important part of your online video stories

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on January 30, 2012

What’s the most important thing to consider when making online video?

Is it having a high end DSLR camera with a prime lens? Afterall, if your pictures look pretty and slightly out of focus more people will watch it, right? Nope.

Is it having a really compelling character on a journey we can all relate to? That’s super important – but it’s not the most important thing.

Is it having a rhino suspended upside down from a helicopter? Nope, it’s not even that!

So what’s the most important thing to consider when making online video?

It’s the first ten seconds.

That’s how long you have to win your viewers over. As I mentioned in this article for journalism.co.uk last week, statistics suggest around 20% of people click on from a video after just 10 seconds.

According to Visible Measures, that means if your video gets 1 million views, 200,000 of them didn’t watch past the first ten seconds.

It’s a harsh fact but people are fickle; weeks and months of work, and thousands of dollars invested in a video all stand on the first 10 seconds.

It amazes me then, just how care-free some big publishers are with their first 10 seconds of video.

For example, in a non scientific test, I had a look at some leading online news organisations. The Financial Times, Telegraph Newspaper and CNN all blow their first 10 seconds showing me a pre-roll advert. No thanks guys.

The Guardian loses 4 seconds on its branding ident, even though Guardian videos are not shareable (and so you’ll likely only ever watch it on the Guardian website). That gives them just 6 seconds to make me interested.

So who gets it? Good.is get it – they don’t mess around with branding at the start of their videos and crack straight in. Not always, but usually with a good hookline.

Phos photos, the producers of Last Minutes with Oden get it. In the first 10 seconds they tell us the title, introduce the main character and he says something interesting.

Eliot Rausch/PhosPictures

The exceptions to the rule are the longer, cinematic pieces – for example those produced by MediaStorm: the first 10 seconds still matter, but they’re able to take a slower approach, easing you in & setting the scene. In this case we’re watching for the story, and the opening of Act I is a good place for storytelling nuance.

Getting the first ten seconds right is not easy. Looking back over pieces I’ve produced in the past, I’ve blown the first 10 seconds on all sorts of nonsense. I’m trying to make more active decisions though, and in this short film I recently directed for Kingston University, I used the first 10 seconds to tell a bizarre anecdote that doesn’t fit with what the audience expects, as a way of piquing interest.

Kingston University/Adam Westbrook

So what should you use the first ten seconds for?

  • To show your most arresting images
  • To use your strongest soundbite
  • To surprise your audience
  • To raise a question in the mind of your viewer, setting up “the big reveal
  • To get straight into the story

It is not the place for idents, adverts, cliches, weak pictures, hackneyed introductions, or anything waffly.

This advice has nothing to do with creating good documentaries or crafting engaging narratives – but none of those things matter if you blow your first 10 seconds.

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.

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.