Storytelling

My dad is a storyteller. Ever since he was a kid, nearly everything he did was about telling a story. Whether it was writing, preaching, composing, producing, editing, or just telling my brother and I a made up tale as we went to bed at night.

There are two sets of guidelines that he always talks about when it came to communicating a message for a client. The first of which I’m just going to gloss over as a humorous, but true, choice clients need to make when it comes to their project: “You can have it good, fast, or cheap. Pick two.”

The second is more for the creative process. Once you identify your target audience you are then faced with how to tell the story. To help guide your first steps, you should be able to answer three questions:

  1. What do you want your audience to know?
  2. What do you want your audience to feel?
  3. What do you want your audience to do?

For most clients, the first goal is to tell people about themselves. Get the word out. Let potential customers know who they are and what they are all about. So, as it follows, the first step is usually figuring out what it is about the company/individual/group that is most important for their target audience to know.

It’s easy to go overboard and try to cram as much information in as possible even to the point of putting in too much. I have sat through WAY too many reports at conferences that spent more energy on making sure every last little thing was included without thinking about whether or not anyone really cares what the stuffed animals did on their trip around to all of the lighthouses on Lake Ontario… I kid you not!

When giving a presentation, creating a website, producing a video, or designing materials for a project think about what’s really important to the target audience and what can be left out. If you had to narrow it down to your top 3-5 points that are vital for people to know about what it is your are selling/doing/presenting, what would they be? Are those things only interesting to you or do they go to the core of what you are trying to say?

Once you have your main points down, it’s time to focus on presentation. How do you get the audience engaged in your subject? Sure, you could just list your 3-5 points and be done with it. But what you are saying would have to be pretty compelling on its own for people to actually latch onto it without a little bit of flare. Information alone is all well and good, and important, but what do you want viewers/customers to feel as they learn?

A presentation or video or website is more than just a vehicle for delivering information to an audience. It is an opportunity for the audience to participate in the experience of what you are all about. Dry facts, figures, and reports don’t get very far. Choose your words so that you can convey those reports in a way that is interesting, that tells a story, that makes connections.

Posture your message in a way that visually or aurally leads the audience to a place where they are emotionally involved in what you are trying to say. Think about how colors, images, organization, musical selection, layout, tone of voice, all play a part in how the user/viewer/audience member receives the subject matter. If it’s a report, is the chairperson necessarilly the best choice for giving it. If it’s a video, don’t go overboard with effects that may do more to distract than to entice. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. You may have a lawn mower, but does that make you a landscape architect?

Think of all the websites that you’ve gone to and immediately clicked away from because they had a terrible color scheme and you couldn’t find anything and there was annoying, tinny music playing that you remember hearing on those awful little electronic keyboards that ran off a tiny watch battery when you were a kid and you just can’t seem to find out how to turn the thing off! The information might’ve been good, but if it wasn’t presented in an interesting way or you were unable to become engaged with it the quality of the information doesn’t really matter. And then think about the websites or commercials or films that have just the right combination of elements to make you laugh, cry, afraid, or inspired. Why? How do those elements help enhance your experience?

The final part is the “so what” factor. Now that your audience knows what you want them to know and feels how you want them to feel, what next? Once again, information for information’s sake is fine and presenting it in a way that moves the audience is even better. But then what?

It can be a fairly simple question to answer with a very “duh” response but it’s one that you need to deal with in order to be successful. Now that you’ve told everyone about yourself/your service/your product what do you want them to do? Hire you? Use your service? Buy your product? Well, yeah!

More than just a sales pitch it should be an invitation to the viewer to come along for the journey – assuming they aren’t already bored by the information or put off by the presentation. By the time you get to the third question your message should be focussed on your main points, it should be communicated in a way that touches the audience, and it should ultimately compell them to act in some way. When it’s done right, the second the screen fades to black or when the last word is read, the audience will have no choice but to take the next step.

I know there are a lot of photographers out there. So how does this relate to us? Well, all of our images are meant to tell stories. What are you trying to say with your photo? Is it to convey beauty? Report about what happened? Offer a new perspective? What emotions do you want to draw out of your viewers? Nostalgia? Love? Desperation? Anxiety? Hope? Wonder? What do you want your viewers to do next? Buy a print? Keep coming back for more? Tell their friends about it? Get involved in the cause/issue that you are reporting on? Or simply be inspired.

The subject(s) of our photo tells the viewer a who/what/when/where/why/how. The way the image is shot, the framing, the processing, the expression on a subject’s face, the contrasts and commonalities shown, and the presentation of the end result all play a role in evoking an emotional response in the viewer. If you want them to purchace a print you need to make it available. If you want them to join a cause, tell them how. Whatever that next steop may be, tie all of the pieces together so that the story of the image and the means of telling it work together to reach that end.

With all of that said, just do what you love. If you images speak to you, what more can you ask?

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Comments:
  • Jason- really an inspirational post. Made me think ( and that’s a task sometimes…)

    April 29, 2008 at 9:15 am

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