Chasing the story

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Regular readers of this blog know that I’m very much into storytelling, and almost as much into exploring how different media platforms can be utilized to create projects, story worlds and campaigns where the different parts build on each other, offering a total that is greater than the sum of its parts. Furthermore, how can the interactive nature of many of these platforms be harnessed in the best possible way, to achieve engagement and foster loyalty? And how do we harness this engagement in the long run – how do we grow our long tail to be as long as possible?

These are questions and challenges that differ from one project to the next, from one client to the next, from one target group to the next and from one story to the next.

For me though, it all starts with the story. What is the story we want to tell? What is the story world it is founded in? What are its siblings in the story-verse?

Having been involved in quite a few storytelling ventures, and having over the past few years consulted or evaluated a fairly great number of projects in the multiplatform / transmedia sphere, this is where a lot of them go wrong. Perhaps not totally, 100% wrong, but wrong enough that it matters and severely affects the end result.

This goes for industry clients, who have a difficult time identifying what the real story behind their product, service or innovation is. It goes for documentary filmmakers, who fail to see what stories align naturally with their original story from the film. And it goes for many other producers and creators, who fail in taking a step back and viewing their project from a further distance, seeing the limitations of the story they are currently promoting and working on, while another, adjacent story, would offer bigger, better and bolder opportunities.

So, how can we chase our story more efficiently? Here are three tools for anyone to use, that might put you on the right track – the only thing you need is a willingness to challenge your story as it stands today:

1. Use an audience. You have people around you, whether it is colleagues, partners, family, friends or someone else. Use them as a platform to get some distance to the story you’re trying to tell. Do like this: identify the core issues in the story you’re telling. Formulate them into a three-sentence description – i.e. “The countryside is slowly being depopulated. It’s an accelerating movement and there’s not much anyone is trying to do about it. The people living there have almost given up.”. Then ask your audience what questions or thoughts pop up in their minds. Mirror that against your current narrative and see how well you address those thoughts or answer those questions, and see if there are adjacent stories to your current narrative that would do that better.
2. Use the Internet. We have finally got access to the combined intelligence, knowledge and wisdom of the entire human race, from the ancient Greeks to the intellectuals of today. There is absolutely no need not to take advantage of this. In order not to drown in information though, searches and hashtags should be carefully selected; it is worth it to take a day or two to sift through information related to search terms, just to be able to find the ones that fit your needs best.
3. Use yourself. The most accessible way of doing this is to create a pitch for your project. Write down the elevator pitch of the story you’re writing. Rehearse it, and pitch it in front of a camera. Take a break, have a coffee, and then come back and watch the pitch you just made. If in doubt, have someone else watch it and give a verdict. Your approach should be – would I want to invest 100k in this person’s story? If not – why not? Rinse and repeat.

There are as many unique stories as there are people on this Earth, and probably quite a few more as well. There is therefore no need to settle for a story that doesn’t fit your needs exactly – all you need is to chase it down, pin it down and tell it!

Can we keep up? – reflections from Cartoon 360

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I’ve been attending the Cartoon 360 forum in Barcelona the past couple of days, listening to an taking part in pitches and discussions on a number of animation series with “360” or “transmedia” elements attached. There have been projects of every kind – epic animated films from Russia, series looking to help children and people living in dire circumstances (Scotland), grandmothers-as-secret-agents from Poland and so on.

The scope when it comes to how these are extended over platforms also vary wildly. There are projects that create their full story arch for TV, add a website and an app and feel that is enough, and then there are more creative ones looking into AR, VR, real life events etc, to add to the narrative.

Looking at the discussions and the talks here it is clear that there will be some time before everyone is playing the same ball game on the same pitch with the same goal in mind. It will also take some time to even get everyone involved to change into the requisite playing kit, as many are extremely comfortable in whatever they’re wearing right now.

The challenge is that the audience will not wait – and does not wait – for anyone to change into anything. If no one turns up on the pitch to start playing, our spectators are very used to climbing onto the pitch and start playing themselves. Once that has happened, it will be very difficult to establish any kind of control over the game, and the only solution might be to start a new game on a new pitch somewhere else, and try to get the audience to follow along over there.

I wrote a post a couple of months ago regarding “Five focus areas for successful multiplatform storytelling”. I strongly believe that many of the very established players in the entertainment media  geared towards children could benefit from developing these areas – namely sustainability | fluidity | validation | structure | clear goals.

I would also add a sixth area – collaboration. When looking at the pitches here and listening to the discussions around them it feels like many are enticed by the possibilities available in the “new media” world. Then, when it comes to bringing the possibilities in touch with ones own projects, it quickly starts to feel very complicated and perhaps not worth the effort. The key thing is that it is definitely worth it – we just need to find collaborators that can complement the skills and the content we bring to the table. What would take me hours upon hours and a lot of Googling and swearing to program, my coder-brother can fix in minutes, and the same goes for AR solutions, social media campaigning etc.

At the same time, these are exciting times to tell stories. The possibilities open to us as storytellers are of a magnitude no one else have ever experienced. The dangers of going astray are apparent, but the maps showing us safe areas and preferred roads to traverse are becoming more and more detailed by the day. It’s going to be a fun ride!

Lean content creation – together with the audience

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I’ve been fascinated by the lean development principles for quite some time. It is something that feels very right, very modern and very effective, even if the principles and the way of working might take some time getting used to and embracing – more or less time, depending on what kind of company you’re working for and what field you’re active in. Still, viable principles for creating great products and services that can reach a customer base.

What I’ve been thinking about, however, is how these notions of lean development could be brought into the content creation business. It’s a field that for a long time – and to quite an extent still – is crowded by creators, producers, writers, ”gurus” that come up with an idea, develop it (alone or together with someone else), produce it (again, alone or together with a company for instance) and realese it. Be it a book, a podcast, a documentary, a tv series, a blog or something else, the traditional way of going about it is to have the content originate somewhere, and then be placed in the hands of a smaller or bigger producing entity that releases it unto an audience when it’s ready.

A friend of mine wrote a blog post the other day on how they’ve – successfully – implemented the lean principles at the office he runs, and the ten steps lined up in the post makes perfect sense for a group of people working together towards a common goal.

Now, why could not these principles be transferable to the creation of content together with an audience? ”Make everything scale” is the first point on the list, and that would, in my mind, be an obvious principle to adhere to when it comes to a story or a story world you’ve created. If it’s possible to scale it will make room for the audience, for other creators, for new possibilities, for new media platforms… for just about anything your story would need.

The following points – ”Allow people to scale” and ”Leave your ego at the door” – would in a creator-plus-audience setting be just that – the letting go of control of the stories and world you’ve created, in favor of letting them grow with the help of the nurturing cares of a multiheaded audience, working together with the creator to create something bigger and better and more engaging and exciting.

And looking at the other points Jonas makes, they all make sense too, in such a setting. These are:

  • No ones owns their work (but how do I monetize? you cry out. As do I! But I believe we would need to think creatively about that as well – if you have a sizeable audience, selling the story to them is only one way to make a living out of the thing you’ve created. There are many, many others.)
  • Leaders don’t tell people what to do (here slight nudges might come in handy though, as well as some goals for the process on a whole and on a more direct leve, the story/stories)
  • Automate whenever you can. (Rhymes very well with the interconnected world we live in today, even if a creative process leaves less to automation than others.)
  • Be ready to kill your darlings. (In the same vein as the leaving your ego at the door-point, once we’ve let the audience in on working with us, our darlings will not necessarily be anyone else’s darlings)
  • Get a feedback loop going, Make your processes and goals clear and visible and No silos. (All point towards more transparency, more openness, an increased readiness to accept the views of others as being as viable as your own, even if you would be the original creator of the original idea).

Now, content will of course – for the foreseeable future – still follow along the traditional lines outlined at the beginning of this post. The creator creates, the audience receives. But the ones that get these points, the ones that feel that working lean in an audience-engaged contest… these creators, they will reap rewards that will make everyone else stand up and take notice.

Note – researching this post I found that others unsurprisingly are thinking along similar tracks. Check for instance out Ian Lamont’s posts on the same topic over here.

On the importance of long term thinking

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Over the past few years I’ve been involved in quite a few different storytelling projects. Some of them have been in the corporate field – helping companies tell the stories of the products, projects or people in ways that reflect the values and principles of said company. Increasingly I’ve also been happy to try to encourage a recognition of the fact that we all need to think long-term to cope with the pace and demands of today’s world.

Most people are in agreement today that storytelling is an integral part of any company’s identity. The craft and skill – and even art – of telling an engaging and informative story is more in demand today than ever before. The platforms used vary with the targets groups we want to reach and with the stories we want to tell, but the story (or stories) are at the heart of what we try to achieve.

I read an article the other day where the script writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely talked about their work with the world and the story arcs of Marvel, in connection with the latest Captain America movie. In it, they talk about long-term storytelling and about how the different parts of the Marvel universe necessarily affect each other – and do so in a positive, organic, sometimes unintentional way, that gives rise to new stories that are utterly believable and engaging.

The same goes for corporate storytelling today. In order to have an audience to pay attention to a brand message we need a strong story. But in order for the audience to fully immerse themselves in what the company, brand, product or service is about, we need interconnected stories that support each other and build over the long run.

Yes, a great 30 second spot is a great 30 second spot, but if they grow from a common story world, the next image, blog post, article, video, billboard or interview will build on the story from that brilliant ad, or at the very least enhance the strength of the story world they all have in common.

Think not of the people you want to reach, think of the people you want them to reach. And think not of the people you want to reach tomorrow, think of the people you want to reach a year from now.

Dancing on the point of a needle – the art of stitching stories together

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Recently I’ve been involved in evaluating and consulting on a number of projects touching on transmedia storytelling as well as virtual reality and generally striving to explore new territories and new ways of telling stories and reaching people.

A discussion I had with one of the projects led to an analogy that feels truer the more I think about it; it made sense in the context of that discussion, and it holds true for other projects as well. See, we’re a lot like handicraft artists ourselves – and in a sense, even seamstresses and tailors.

Anyone can sew. All you need are the required tools and materials – much like a storyteller. If you have a needle – or a computer, a camera, a sound recorder, or even just a pen or a mouth – and some thread – the story you want to tell – you can begin.

Everyone is not necessarily good at sewing, and talent does come into the picture. But just as with storytelling – and especially with regards to the tools we’re using – one does become better with practice. We might be looking to just mend something while sewing – that is, enhance a message or add to something already existing – but more challenging and more rewarding is to start with a blank canvas and with a picture of the finished, beautiful tapestry clear in our mind. That story is the one we want to tell. Our craft and our skill is to physically create something that resembles and reflects this vision as closely as possibly.

We choose the material, the colors and the pattern. We put our needle to the canvas and punch through, trying to keep to our original plan and pattern as closely as we can

But here we, as content creators and storytellers, start to differ from the traditional seamstress, even on an analogy-basis. The seamstress does not have a great big audience standing behind her, especially not an audience that have needles and tools of their own and look decidedly eager to have a go at our creation themselves.

This is where we need to develop a new skill – that of planning for audience engagement, how we would want them to interact, what we will do with said interaction. Do we want to make sure our new collaborators and co-creators follow our original plan for our creation, supporting it as closely as possible? Or are we comfortable with letting them choose on their own and follow their own visions. And are we in that case prepared to embrace this new creation with as much fervor as we did our original one?

What we need to do – as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts – is to be prepared to relinquish control. By letting the audience in on our creation it can become bigger and more beautiful than we could have imagined ourselves. It might even be some of our co-creators show up without needles or thread, preferring some other kinds of tools; spray paint, glue and mosaics, you name it. And if it enhances our creation – why not?

Then again we might want to keep some control over our creation. In that case we’d need to put aside a part of our canvas and direct our audience there, allowing them freedom within certain borders, while keeping it a part of the whole of the creation. This does carry the risk of trying to harness the creative power of the engaged audience – if they do engage, and if they do involve themselves creatively, the piece of canvas set aside for them might quickly start to feel too narrow. This could see us facing co-creators that have put up their own canvases and gone off in their own direction.

What we choose to do and how we choose to approach our craft is up to us. But what reach and what impact we can hope to achieve… that’s where we’d need to take our audience, our co-creators into account.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to make the good sh*t (and profit in the long run)

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I read a recent post today, a post that told some uncomfortable truths about where media is heading, why, and what there is to be done about it (which is not much, at least not if the media industry is continuing down the road it is at the moment). Joshua Topolsky, of The Verge and Vox Media fame, is of the opinion that all of us in the content business are facing a pretty severe challenge:

Your problem is that you make shit. A lot of shit. Cheap shit. And no one cares about you or your cheap shit. And an increasingly aware, connected, and mutable audience is onto your cheap shit. They don’t want your cheap shit. They want the good shit. And they will go to find it somewhere. Hell, they’ll even pay for it.

Indeed. Huzzah! I wanted to shout as I read on. There are more good points in that post, so please head over to Medium and read it at your leisure.

But then what? If this is the case – that we are making crap shit when we should be making the good shit – where does that leave us? Well, firsto f all it depends quite a lot on who ”us” is. In a sense, it’s anyone trying to reach other people with stories, no matter what platform, and arguably is trying to make a living of some kind out of ut. This in turn is something that will not go away. People will tell stories and other people will want to hear those stories – sometimes they’ll even be willing to pay to hear them.

Storytelling and media therefore definitely have a future. It’s just going to be a future that is nothing like what we know now.

So how do we cope? Here are three things – the factors – that I believe will be crucial for each and every one of us in the content business. I believe these three things will make or break any one of us. Try it out – look to yourself. Do they apply, and how?

My output

When I look at my content objectively, impassionately, what do I see? Do I find that people engage with what I do? Do they comment, do they contact in return, do they create something of themselves, do they debate in forums… do they even call me up personally? If I find them interacting and engaging – in what manner are they doing that in that case? Can I observe that they are engaging less with my content and more with other peoples’ content? Why?

My own engagement

If I focus on telling the absolute truth – am I actually really interested in the people that do engage? I mean not as ”audience”, as someone to broadcast to and tell stories to, but instead as fellow humans and perhaps more than that? Am I honestly and genuinely interested? Do I have plans for how to keep them engaged that don’t sound desperate?

My tenacity

Would I do this even if I didn’t get paid as much as I am today? Can I see myself doing this five, ten years from now? Do I still feel the best is yet to come from me? Do I get thrill and flutters in my stomach when an email arrives or a comment is writter or the phone rings? Am I excited?

If I can answer truthfully on all these questions, and find that the sum total of our answers add up to a whole that I feel has a place in the world I want to live in, then I believe I stand a chance.

If I don’t… well, the media business perhaps simply isn’t the right one for me.

On the future of media and audiences

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I’ve never been labeled a ”futurologist” before, but last week I was. I had been invited to talk on a panel at MIPTV under this banner. Three of us – me, Eric Scherer from France Television and Bill Baggelaar, SVP of Tech production and Post-production at Sony – were tasked with commenting on the trends for the future that IHS’ Principal Analyst Paul Gray had talked about in his presentation just before us.

My role was that of a producer and creator (and developer and strategist and…), basically coming from the content production side a bit more than my two co-panelists. And while Paul’s presentation was interesting – touching on everything from VR and AR to the ”democratization of video” – I still felt that the greatest changes for anyone in the media business are in the core of what we’re trying to tell, how we’re trying to tell it, whom we’re trying to reach and how.

Firstly, as a producer and content creator, I think one of the main things we’re facing right now with regards to making our craft profitable (or more profitable) is that it is about finding new connections – or discovering the ones that are already there and how we can make use of them. We need to think creatively ow we can knit together active, creative audiences with brands, publishers, networks, companies and organizations, using stories and content as our thread and the – for each case – most suitable media platforms as our canvas.

I believe – as I’ve also recently read in a couple of articles – that we’re moving into an age where the best merchants, the ones making the biggest impacts on markets, are also the best storytellers – not necessarily the best producers or manufacturers. It will increasingly be about the ones that can reach an audience with their stories, stories that are crafted to resonate with the audience and foster engagement and thereby loyalty.

SecondIy, thinking back on the different future trends Paul Gray talked about, from the democratization of video to the fragmentation of content everywhere, there is a fundamental need for each and everyone of us in the creative industries to start to listen a lot more. We – everyone in the business – need to reshape our way of thinking about audiences.

As a comparison, anyone who has children probably know the situation when you need to get something done quickly, and you basically order your kids around? It might work, but you’ll be upset, they’ll be upset and it’ll be no fun for anyone involved. If we listen to them, know what their life is like from their point of view and can factor that in to what needs to be done, we’ll have a much easier time. And while this might work well with your children, the same methods can have an even greater impact on an audience you’re trying to reach. Respect and attention!

Thirdly, I liked what Sky’s Jeremy Darroch said in a panel the day before – “If content is the tennis ball, technology is the top spin that we put on it to make it bounce a bit higher”. It’s a quote that’s been used before, but it’s no less true for all that.

Ultimately though, what I feel all technology innovations in media are helping us do, is move into a new kind of storytelling. If the majority of stories told over the past hundred years or so, probably much longer, have been based on the classical Hero’s Journey – protagonist’s world is upheaved, protagonist needs to go on some kind of journey to evolve and become a better hero… Today, with the connected society we’re seeing, with the technological possibilities available to us, we’re looking at a shift towards a “Collective Journey” instead. These are stories and narratives made possible by the technology today, and see us as a collective that face the challenges, take the risks, reap the benefits. We are uniquely individual, but the total of our collective is more than the sum of its parts.

I feel this is a momentous shift in how we approach storytelling and storycrafting, and the content development needs to move with this.

Fourthly, the question was asked during the panel if we feel there is a certain need for broadcasters to go down the ATAWAD road – AnyTimeAnyWhereAnyDevice – and I absolutely do, as long as it is based on sound research. For me it’s quite simple – if you know whom you’re trying to reach, you need to know where they are. If they are everywhere at any time on any device – you definitely need to consider being there too. If not, someone else will be.

The future is always notoriously difficult to predict. One thing we can be sure of is that it will never be 100% alike what we envision it to become. But right now, the possibilities are there for this to be quite an interesting ride…