Using Video: When it’s powerful, when it’s not (presentation)

Here the slides from my ICAA presentation. Four of the video clips are on YouTube now, linked at the end.

See and download the full gallery on posterous

Hopefully you’ll be able to open the homepage in your browser and then navigate through the slides.

The video clips are not included… I’ve put one of them on YouTube so far but that will take some time.

All the photographs are by me. The title slide was taken by my camera on auto timelapse, with those 2 guys posing in 1 six-second slot. I loved the shot because they symbolize a typical audience — half skeptic and half enthusiastic. The Cyrano de Bergerac shots were taken at the Actors Theatre performance at Schiller Park in Columbus a year or two ago. The Indian Guitar player is a talented guy I ran into at the wonderful IYH at the Cuyahoga National Park.

Here’s the YouTube link. It happens to be Video 5 in the slide deck.

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Tools ‹ Ztoryteller — WordPress

Modern video falls flat in a postmodern world

One reason why video usually fails to motivate people is that its user still holds the Modern flat-earth concept of authoritative messages:

Modernism. Institutions tend to gravitate toward this top-down communications model.

Modernism. Institutions tend to gravitate toward this top-down communications model.

The communication style here is to present an audience with a complete perspective. No questions except rhetorical ones. In preparation for my talk I spent an hour perusing the web for fundraising videos, and every one I found used the same basic approach: tell an audience what to think, and state it formally, authoritatively, in linear fashion.

Today, companies and institutions who want to exert influence effectively through media like video need to recognize that it’s NOT just a stylistic shift that’s required. The fundamental paradigm of communication has shifted from a vertical model to a horizontal one, in which there are no accepted authorities, only opinions and relationships.

Today's reality: institutional and corporate viewpoints can only be shared horizontally

Today's reality: institutional and corporate viewpoints can only be shared horizontally

What I’m trying to show in this diagram is that the relationships an institution can have with the public are essentially horizontal. There is no longer any corporate relationship with a group; there are only individual relationships. Even the most loyal customers will not hesitate to question and criticize every message they receive. And the connections they form are quite informal, vary widely in frequency and intensity, and are often filtered through the contexts of what closer friends may think.

Therefore, it is essential that messages be sensitive, emotionally aware, self-deprecating, and non-judgmental in tone. There may be sacred cows, but there are no sacred people or institutions to be found anywhere on the planet.

Cool Gadget

Here’s an idea whose time may have come. Think Kindle with books AND movies AND music, available from multiple stores, harnessing tens of thousands of aps…

Like a lot of great ideas, it is the next logical step, and yet it’s still a nice surprise!

Concept photo of the rumored Apple Tablet

Concept photo of the rumored Apple Tablet

Starbucks: fighting a land war in Asia

When a person adapts to the times, they’re seen as progressive… becoming more “highly evolved”. When a company whose brand is as highly evolved as Starbucks adapts to the times, they run the risk of appearing shifty. That’s what Starbucks is facing, as has been widely reported in the press and blogosphere. At issue is what the Huffington Post called “going undercover”.

Signage reminiscent of "You've Got Mail" and Fox Books

Signage reminiscent of "You've Got Mail" and Fox Books

It’s amusing, really. It reminds me of the David and Goliath story in You’ve Got Mail … right down to the signage Starbucks put up… does it remind you of that cute “Fox Books coming around the corner” sign, preparing to steamroll its tiny competitor, the “Shop around the corner”?

Starbucks came out today with a fact sheet to try and defuse the controversy, but the original charges still stand: Starbucks has been ham-handed in its approach to this situation. Here are the red flags that strike me:

  • Authentically local stores have described lengthy visits by Starbucks personnel who carried notebooks labeled “Observation”
  • The store right next to the 15th Ave shop has had many of its design details copied by Starbucks: wall colors, light fixtures, similar salvaged wood and framed chalkboards, similar used theatre seats in the serving area
  • Door of the remodeled Starbucks

    Door of the remodeled Starbucks

    The new store sign on the door says it was “inspired by Starbucks”. Is this true? Isn’t it more accurate to say that it was inspired by Smith, and is actually attempting to distance itself from Starbucks by the decor change, by a shift in the technology of drink production, and by the elimination of Starbucks labeling from the equipment and bags of coffee and tea? After all, don’t those bags contain the same coffee and tea that other stores get, with the Starbucks brand? It really does smack of deception.

I like the idea suggested by Matt Whiting in his paragraph about transparency: compromise by calling it “15th Ave. Coffee and Tea: your Neighborhood Starbucks.” And I would add, don’t give the appearance of deception by removing Starbucks logos from the coffee and tea bags. Take away the branding shell game, and then Starbucks is simply updating its store decor, which now becomes a virtue and a sign of sensitivity to the wishes of its customers.

So I agree with the sentiments of those who feel that the new Starbucks experiment is a good idea … a realization that the goal of being truly accessible, local and organic implies a fresh approach. Maybe even a new “unbranded” brand if it can be done without getting sneaky.

But here’s the rub: I’ve never seen a high-value brand maintain its value long-term after scaling upThe Limited gave way to Express which lost its upscale standing to a host of small competitors. Abercrombie needs its Hollister foil to keep its brand value high… Nordstrom has developed great customer service as its hedgehog concept, but it’s engaged in one of those Asian land wars now, too. (A big part of this is simply the plate tectonics of aging demo groups, too.)

Upscale panache downscales in perceived quality and value when it goes mainstream, and Starbucks has lasted longer than most. Starbucks is 1000 times more substantive than Beanie Babies, but there might be more of a similarity in the trajectory of those two brands than we care to admit. Ultimately we’re dealing with the law of supply and demand. Supply increases, demand drops. That’s why every city that has a community at its core can support 6 local one-up coffee shops better than it can support half a dozen Starbucks stores. Maybe that’s why Jim Collins writes, “Great companies do not necessarily have innovation as a central part of their vision or strategy.”

In my own industry, video production, I’ve seen lots of fads and lots of factories. I’ve seen them grow and gain market share, and prosper — for a while — by cranking out special effects and creative approaches that are markedly similar from project to project. I’ve seen these shops build their staff around specialties: camera guys, editors, 3D animators. They buy a gizmo; it cost a lot; so by golly, they’re going to use it. Creativity gets redefined from what works to what’s au courant. Remember morphs? Spins? Marquee Effects? Page turns? Remember Cranston/Csuri Productions, which lasted 7 years doing slick network animations when you could charge $1000/second for cranking them out? Yes, some of these skills require some specialization, but when you bring devotees into a room to decide on the approach, each fights for his own specialty. And the result might be efficient and it may even be truly creative … But in my experience it’s not a creativity that is harnessed to the customer’s needs, but to the production company’s internal dynamic of “the state of the art”.

Actually I think the YouTube phenomenon is a backlash against such slick communication-by-committee. It’s not that people don’t like good production values. YouTube video quality is getting better and better. What got lost was the truly unexpected, the honestly authentic, expressions of individuality; and everyone loves to see that when it happens. Along with the lower cost of entry, I think the desire for authenticity is the biggest reason why today’s best work is done by small shops and by agencies such as The Martin Agency which delegate lots of creative power to individuals in a horizontal, non-specialized community of thinkers.

Starbucks is a great company which may succeed as it adds food, alcohol, and more neighborhood individuality to its impressive quality brand. If it can keep providing health care costs for its part-time workers (and if good health care coverage remains in short supply), I think the company can continue to retain great people who attract loyal customers. (John Moore has much wisdom to offer as an observer of Starbucks.)

On the other hand, the difficulty of truly scaling creativity makes Vizzini’s joke relevant, it seems to me. A big company can compete because of economies of scale, and a small 3-store chain can compete because it has no scale. All its decisions are individual. One good, in-touch entrepreneur can feel what needs to happen in a neighborhood … and the individuality of such a person can out-maneuver an army of junior managers carrying “Observation” notebooks.

So while I agree that Starbucks “gets it” that unique, neighborhood stores are what people want, and wise in its desire to deliver a truly local experience store by store, I also sympathize with those who were offended by their execution of the plan.

Imitation is not creation, and hiding a brand does not change its fundamental identity. Those are classic blunders, along with fighting a land war in Asia.

Silence, secrets, and pain

I’m a happy man. I often tell my wife I’m the luckiest man in the world. But like anyone who is human I have had to learn something about carrying pain. By the way, a great movie on that is Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. Watch it for Rod Steiger’s masterful portrayal of a Tzadik who is trying to raise his son through silence, to carry pain in silence.

I am prompted to write these things  by the compelling and gut-wrenching article yesterday by Penelope Trunk (her pen name). As a Tweeter, she is better than anyone I know at writing a story — beginning, middle, and end — in one 140-character kernel. There’s a world of wit that I can learn from her. And as a blogger, she grabs me by the ears and gets me to look into her eyes as she narrates her struggles, laughs, business adventures… and yes, the salacious details of her personal life. She lives the dictum, “it’s all business … and it’s all personal.”

I suppose like a lot of folks I was both moved and squeamish at the utterly naked self-revealment of Penelope’s yesterday post. It brought laughter, and it brought tears. It brought sympathy, and it brought empathy for a lot of things that I can only imagine… It also makes me and many of us appreciate that she’s willing to help us cross that bridge to understanding of the dark regions that are destroying so many souls and dragging down so many social institutions. Of course these are the most important issues facing our culture, and of course we are all powerless to do much about them… but it somehow feels helpful to both acknowledge what’s in the dark, and smile at the optimistic, celebratory way she lives with her loves and her children, in spite of the pain she is carrying.

As a fellow blogger, her candor confronts me with the obvious question: Am I willing to be that open about my life? Yes and no. Yes, I am open about all the abuses, rapes, flings, or affairs in my life. All the times I’ve been drunk, hit someone, or wrecked the car. And the fact is I’m lucky. There are none. Not even fantasies. I long ago made a covenant with my eyes, I never drink more than a single glass of beer or wine, and I don’t even look at porn (other than one month when I took home a buddy’s Playboy when I was 15, and pretty much memorized it before I threw it out and never went down that path again).

I have had a significant business failure. I promise you’ll hear more about it.

But also, No, I am not going to blog about my intimate moments.  Not because I have anything to hide, but because they are mine and my wife’s alone. They are not secret; they are understood by anyone who shares that level of intimacy with one person; and if I did share them it wouldn’t help someone who craves intimacy to find it.

Naturally, that means my personal reflections will never be as interesting as Penelope’s. Nor will I ever be nearly as helpful as she is in healing those with damage in their past.

That doesn’t make me feel righteous, nor does it make me feel distance from Penelope (although it does make me feel a little envious of her blog stats). I so very much appreciate her candor, and through the printed word I feel like we would be (just) friends if we could have a conversation at a restaurant… I’d have to say the emotional connection I feel toward someone like Penelope is more than I feel with so very many of the friends I’ve grown up with in religious circles. Why is that? Why does a person who has so much pain in their soul, and so much distance from “proper” lifestyles — and yet so much laughter in her heart — feel like more of a buddy than folks I know well, who acknowledge the same moral code and spiritual values as I do… at least on paper?

I think that the reason goes back to the one college class I did take (see previous post). I took a class at Ohio State on small group communication, and as the term paper for the class I did research on the issue of self-revealment. I went to a number of AA meetings, and took note of where people sat and what they said. People who were willing to reveal themselves tended to sit up front, while folks who were just listening sat in the back. Breakthroughs occurred when someone in the back would stand up and tell their story for the first time. I concluded that the folks who were helped by AA were the ones who were willing to reveal themselves; and the more self-revealing they did, the more they grew and became a help to others.

Most of my religious friends don’t pour out their souls. They play it close to the vest. Not me. I make them uncomfortable by being way more open than they are willing to be. It lets them look down at me for having visible foibles; and it makes me discouraged to be in their presence, as I realize that with their limited self-awareness, they are unable to appreciate the strength it takes to reveal one’s faults. Far easier to imagine oneself as whole and healthy.

So when I see self-revealment and nakedness, especially about pain and failure, I am drawn to it like a fly on paper. I appreciate it, and I savor the honesty and humor that really makes people like Penelope … people who are carrying pain in silence most of the time … truly delightful to know and appreciate and share a cold beer with.

Here’s one of my favorite poems, by Edgar Lee Masters:

I have known the silence of the stars and of the sea,
And the silence of the city when it pauses,
And the silence of a man and a maid,
And the silence of the sick
When their eyes roam about the room.
And I ask: For the depths,
Of what use is language?
A beast of the field moans a few times
When death takes its young.
And we are voiceless in the presence of realities —
We cannot speak.

A curious boy asks an old soldier
Sitting in front of the grocery store,
“How did you lose your leg?”
And the old soldier is struck with silence,
Or his mind flies away
Because he cannot concentrate it on Gettysburg.
It comes back jocosely
And he says, “A bear bit it off.”
And the boy wonders, while the old soldier
Dumbly, feebly lives over
The flashes of guns, the thunder of cannon,
The shrieks of the slain,
And himself lying on the ground,
And the hospital surgeons, the knives,
And the long days in bed.
But if he could describe it all
He would be an artist.
But if he were an artist there would be deeper wounds
Which he could not describe.

There is the silence of a great hatred,
And the silence of a great love,
And the silence of an embittered friendship.
There is the silence of a spiritual crisis,
Through which your soul, exquisitely tortured,
Comes with visions not to be uttered
Into a realm of higher life.
There is the silence of defeat.
There is the silence of those unjustly punished;
And the silence of the dying whose hand
Suddenly grips yours.
There is the silence between father and son,
When the father cannot explain his life,
Even though he be misunderstood for it.

There is the silence that comes between husband and wife.
There is the silence of those who have failed;
And the vast silence that covers
Broken nations and vanquished leaders.
There is the silence of Lincoln,
Thinking of the poverty of his youth.
And the silence of Napoleon
After Waterloo.
And the silence of Jeanne d’Arc
Saying amid the flames, “Blessed Jesus” —
Revealing in two words all sorrows, all hope.
And there is the silence of age,
Too full of wisdom for the tongue to utter it
In words intelligible to those who have not lived
The great range of life.

And there is the silence of the dead.
If we who are in life cannot speak
Of profound experiences,
Why do you marvel that the dead
Do not tell you of death?
Their silence shall be interpreted
As we approach them.

For me, I’ll have to ask your forgiveness for being silent about some things as a blogger. I pledge that I won’t keep any secrets — anything you need to know, or that would discredit me if you knew it. But I also choose to be silent about those things that would, in my case, simply detract from the privacy and intimacy that I need to function as a healthy person in relationship with others. And yet, I am appreciative of those who have the experience and can find the voice to express those things, or the pain that comes with the lack of those things. Thank you, Penelope, and if you ever want to converse privately, write to me.

Colleges and pay

An interesting statistical exercise appeared in the New York Times and came to me via a tweet from @danschawbel: Do Elite Colleges Produce the Best-Paid Graduates?

The article engaged me on several levels. As a marketing/influence consultant who primarily works with colleges in recent years, it was interesting to see the value of liberal arts pursuits asserting themselves by mid-career, while more practical how-to subjects like engineering, computer science, and nursing skew the figures in the first few years after graduation.

I don’t see Denison or Cedarville on the list, but Kenyon, known for its writers, is well down the pack, along with Ohio Wesleyan, known for its teachers, journalists, and community activitists. No shame there. And both outperform Ohio State at the crass monetary level of mid-career, but trail OSU at the start. Here, I’m guessing the difference is that a lot of the kids at Kenyon and OWU go on to grad school, or go into fields like journalism or science where the starting salaries are small and it takes a good while to hit stride economically.

Looking over the whole list makes me think that what the figures really show is the importance of geography and family background to success. Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Outliers, provides a much clearer insight into these figures than anything that might be happening at the colleges themselves.

I was also interested on a personal level in which school had the highest starting salary on the chart: Harvey Mudd. (or perhaps MIT — they look close)

Salary Stats by School

Salary Stats by School

Why? Because my oldest daughter went to Harvey Mudd and, while she worked outside the home, did well as an engineer and then quality control manager for a national food industry company.

For her, Harvey Mudd was a good fit and an incredibly difficult challenge. It took everything she had to keep up with the fire hose of math and memorization that she faced when she got there… especially since her high school didn’t have AP math and science courses to get her up to speed with most of her classmates.

Em+Boys2009a

Now that she works full-time with her rising generation, she’s dragging down those mid-career averages… but she’s doing a lot more to make the world a better place than when she was improving ice cream production…

Finally, I found the article interesting because it calls into relief my own career/education choices. For reasons that seem silly now, I chose to jump off the college-prep to college train I was on after high school, and pursue a career as a typesetter> printer> photographer> producer> consultant. While it’s true that without a degree or any formal training I’ve been able through a lot of hard work to single-handedly generate $200k to $250k of cash flow each year, it’s hard to shake the feeling that life would have been easier if I had some collegiate coattails to open certain doors and meet specific “education requirements”.

Of course, one advantage I’ve had is the freedom to be a generalist. One nice thing about being a storyteller is that I get to see all the things I’m glad I don’t have to do every day of my life. Doctor. Lawyer. Engineer on One Gizmo. Marketing Manager for One Product. Professor of One Subject. Musician who plays Their Music or My Music. Having a project-oriented focus fits my temperament better than any of the specialties I’ve seen … and it’s allowed me to see much of the world, and grapple with many of the toughest problems that companies and institutions are facing. So I’m not complaining… just wishing I’d taken a few years out at the beginning to pursue a liberal arts track.