Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Inside the Story: designing good stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Story design like a pro

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

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

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

Another peek inside Inside the Story

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

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

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

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

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

You can learn anything, and why you should

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 6, 2012

It was late on a Friday night and we were all drunk. 

My flatmate Rob picked up some juggling balls and offered me a challenge. “I bet I can teach you to juggle in 10 minutes” he said.

I remember trying to learn how to juggle when I was about 12 years old: a short lived experience full of frustration and ultimately failure. But now seemed as good a time as any to try again.

Over the next 10 minutes, Rob showed me the basic technique, starting with one ball, then two, and finally three. When the 10 minutes were up, I had managed to juggle all three balls about once or maybe twice before I dropped them – but I got the general technique.

Then something interesting happened. As everyone else went to bed, I stayed up and kept practicing. I tried juggling the three balls, and dropped them. Then I picked them up, and tried again. I practiced this over and over and over – until four in the morning. Silently throwing the balls up in the air, dropping them, picking them back up.

As I was doing it, I could almost feel my brain making new connections. Arm movements which seemed awkward an hour before were beginning to feel more natural. Soon I could juggle for two rotations, and then three, before dropping the balls.

II

This was the moment I realised something: I absolutely love learning new things. And I realised that learning something new is as simple as picking up the technique, and then working at it, silently, humbly, unflinchingly, until it sticks. They say your brain is like a muscle – you can train it new habits and build strength by regular repetition.

Of course, most people give up before then. Learning French seems pretty romantic until you factor in the hours of repeating irregular verbs over and over in your head. Every boy dreams of becoming a footballer, until it comes to the moment he has to practice hundreds of penalty kicks over and over in the rain. Everyone signs up to a new gym membership after Christmas with dreams of toning up, until they realise this involves dozens of painful press-ups, over and over again.

III

I’ve decided to make 2012 a year where I learn relentlessly with machine-line procedure: first I study the key points and then I practice, putting in the repetitive legwork until the muscle is strong. I won’t ever make it to Malcolm Gladwell good, but good enough. So far this year, I’ve been teaching myself some new web design skills: HTML 5, CSS3 and Jquery, building on my French, and hopefully a new musical instrument too.

This attitude to learning is essential in this modern world where technology seems to continually create new platforms, new workflows and new disciplines. In 2010 I taught myself how to animate motion graphics following this idea, something which soon became a source of income.

How to learn anything

So what’s the best way to learn? Luckily for us journalists, producers and publishers access to knowledge we need is pretty easy. But there are things you can do make it easier on yourself.

.01 Find free or cheap resources:  if you need video skills, hit the Vimeo Video School. Anything code related, tap up the Code Academy. You can even learn how to code your own iPhone app at Stanford University – for free! For everything in between I highly recommend Lynda.com*. They’ve got a huge range of courses on design, coding and other key software, and a month subscription costs $25 (£16).

.02 Learn on a need-to-know basis: you need to be smart about this sort of learning. There are no exams, no coursework: you decide the curriculum. So don’t waste your time learning something if it’s not going to be useful to you. What I mean is, if you want to learn how to make small styling adjustments to your WordPress blog, there’s no need to delve in to the history, syntax and ins and outs of  CSS. Just get what you need.

.03 Allocate regular practice time: this is where the legwork comes in – the regular practice, the bit where you create those grey matter connections. Depending on how intense you want to make it, somewhere between an hour a day and an hour a week will do it. Keeping motivation going is tough though, which is where the next tip is the killer…

.04 Give yourself a project: quite simply, the best way to learn something new is to turn your learning into an exciting creative project. In the education world it’s called experiential, or work-based learning, and experts are sure that people learn better when they’re excited by a particular goal. I haven’t been learning HTML step-by-step in factory fashion. Instead, I challenged myself to redesign my personal website from scratch and learnt on the job.

At the heart of all this, is the belief that there is nothing you can’t learn, regardless of age, income, background or education. Director David Mamet puts it well:

“…you get someone who knows how to take a picture, or you learn to how take a picture; you get someone who knows how to light or you learn how to light. There’s no magic to it. Some people will be able to do some tasks better than others – depending upon the degree of their technical mastery and their aptitude for the task. Just like playing the piano. Anybody can learn how to play the piano…There’s almost no-one who can’t learn to play the piano…The same thing is true of cinematography and sound mixing. Just technical skills.”

Finally, an important note about learning. Too often, we use education as a procrastination tool. Someone who wants to make a documentary (or says they want to) will go out and buy a big book about documentary making for beginners. What they should do instead is pick up a camera and start filming. Learning is best done by  doing.

Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr said “An expert is a person who has made every possible mistake within his or her field”. And nobody made any mistakes while reading a book.

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