Still loving stills, but appreciating the authenticity of video

Stills remain my first love … I even called my company Still Images Inc. when I founded it. But eventually I changed the name to Kindig Omnimedia and then simply Ztories as I perceived that audiences are increasingly media agnostic. All the arrows in the quiver are just tools that serve the storytelling. Note: As I move to Seattle in November, I’ll create a new LLC called either Ztories  or Ztoryteller … which do you like better? Or do you dislike them both? 🙂

But there has been a major shift in the subliminal impact of each medium upon audiences. I got to thinking about this when I responded to a very thoughtful comment by David Patton of Waggener Edstrom on the value of stills in corporate communication, especially presentations.

It seems to me that the perceptions of what’s real or authentic have shifted.  At one time high-resolution stills felt real — photo-journalistic. Then video came to the corporate market, but cameras were clumsy, lots of light was needed, everything was shot with a zoom lens on a contrasty, light-hungry chip… and the end result was that in my view, video had a show-biz air about it, while slide shows felt much more realistic, and therefore much more credible. At least, that’s what I told my clients until they forced me to use video.

Today, with available-light video cameras in most people’s pockets, I would say that video feels as immediate and real as 35mm still pictures ever did. How many people do you know who even shoot with a still camera that big? Only pros and serious amateurs use today’s digital SLRs, and they get higher resolution than large-format (2-1/4 or 4×5) film cameras ever delivered. Most folks shoot with camcorders and tiny duoformat cameras & cell phones. When disgruntled voters rioted in Iran, that’s the kind of imagery that documented it. When we see the world through our friends’ eyes on Facebook, that is the technology formed our perceptions.

In the meantime, the quality of  still cameras has evolved from merely real to sublime. Amazing lenses, timelapse options, and image editing software have now electrified high-end photography with the mediated identity that video once claimed. In most cases, a quality still image can still arrest attention, while digital snapshots and endless hours of unedited video fill our hard drives with too many shots to sort, and too much video to watch. Unless what is unfolding in front of the camera is amazing or surprising — or unless there’s a very creative editorial approach — video may enjoy a claim on credibility but it has lost the fascination it once enjoyed simply because the pictures moved.

And then there’s the “Ken Burns effect”, which once breathed new life into high resolution stills by making them move. That, too, seems to now feel a little over-used and “low-budget”, just as the banal world of video has become. The effect is cool for conveying historical weight, elegance, and clarity of focus. But even Ken Burns uses high def video/film whenever he can.

Compare his use of stills at the beginning and end of this clip

[How Yosemite Got its Name –

with what he did here:

[The Indian Idea of Sacredness –

When he has a choice, Ken is going to use the incredible realism of high definition video or film to tell his story.

And these days, with these cameras, I now prefer cinematic media for that kind of storytelling, as well.

It seems to me, on balance, that well-lit, stable high-def video ought to be the medium of choice whenever a company wants to convey gravitas and photo-realistic credibility; small video cameras with edgier movement and simpler storytelling and lower production values are the best way to deliver documentary style or photo-journalistic impressions.

For dramatic and persuasive storytelling, cinema is still the king of content, and gaining ground. It’s now the only thing (except their Facebook page) that most young people are willing to give their undivided attention to for hours at a time.

But for sheer artistic impact and the crystallization of imagination or reality, still images have regained a lofty place near the center of the visual pantheon.

When you want to tell an audio-visual story about historic events that involves more than dialog and action; when you want to capture the essence of an idea or person, or disturb viewers through visual storytelling, then still images are “still” a great way to go.


Motivation, Hollywood style

Lots of my favorite movies illustrate motivation principles. Runaway Jury, A Civil Action, The Insider,  The Rainmaker, Quiz Show. Among documentaries, An Inconvenient Truth and Sicko.

Runaway Jury explores jury tampering. Near the climax, John Cusack’s character encourages an ex-Marine opposing him on the jury to express his view. He knows that stifling the guy’s opinion will make it stronger. So he eggs the guy on, until he’s left out on a limb and alienated from the rest of the jurors. If Cusack had directly confronted the idea, the opponent would have won the argument. And so it is when we are trying to persuade: if we foster an authentic airing of the issue, we gain power for the idea we are advocating.

This is not easy, because giving strength to the opponent can damage us, too. With The Insider and The Rainmaker, the heroes can’t win until they allow themselves to be sacrificial victims. There’s something attractive about a person who is willing to risk everything for his beliefs. That’s what these movies illustrate.

In A Civil Action, the hero never actually wins. He loses because the powerful attorney played by Robert Duvall conspires to keep the truth from reaching the jury.

And with Quiz Show, there are no heroes. Television wins, and continues to control the dialog process by holding contrary views off the air. The “communication cataclysm” that has now hit the PR/advertising world is a direct result of the failure of that kind of media power, and the ascendancy of audience power in its place.

In the documentary realm, lots of major films tend not to be good motivators.

Think back to Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”. Though I loved the film and agreed with it, many of my conservative friends (yes, I try to get along with Cs and Ls!) just laughed it off. I believe the reasons are two-fold: (1) by letting the director make the movie into a personal crusade, Al made it easy for conservatives to dismiss. (2) When the facts were flowing, contrary ideas were ignored or even ridiculed.

If Al had stripped out the intimate personal reflections, and instead brought in other authorities to champion his ideas, he would have sidestepped the personality issue. And if he had aired and then rebutted the contrary “evidence” with facts and logic, his movie would have packed a lot more truth, and been a lot more inconvenient to his opponents.

Michael Moore tends to make similar mistakes. In my view Sicko worked the best of any of his movies to date, because he kept his own personality out of the first half of the film. By then, the audience was bonding to those heroes of 9/11 who couldn’t get health insurance. But then the humorous stunts, the in-your-face trips to France and Cuba, ate away at the persuasive capital he had built . I didn’t mind… but my hunch is many viewers were offended. The approach dishonored the audience. Is anyone watching Sicko now, during the current health care debate? I doubt it — even though it has a lot of good things to say.

To motivate with integrity, make even one-way presentations feel like a dialog!

Appreciating the Audience

The most important part of successful communication is to appreciate the audience. Hillman Curtis styles it, “Eat the Audience”. It means to know, to have empathy for. It also means to honor, or value their perspective, their biases, and their preferences. And it means to understand and have emotional intelligence regarding how our own perspectives as storytellers and filmmakers on behalf of a business or institution contrast with that of their audience. Perhaps it’s merely a gap in awareness or knowledge. The institution or company knows something the audience doesn’t know.

But more likely, there are subtle differences of viewpoint or experience. Or significant differences of values and beliefs, or the entire cultural point of reference. Whatever the source of the difference, it is the communicator’s task to do the bridge-building, and that means starting where the audience is, honoring their current place and viewpoint, and then providing a framework for movement that is acceptable and relevant to them. If they like the framework we have provided, they will choose to take a step toward us… we cannot and should not try to manipulate their response, either in terms of feelings or conclusions.

In this real-life example, I was tasked first with helping build a bridge to Ohio Wesleyan alumni. It is a given that the alumni love their school, and are interested in meeting its new President and expressing their views on how to best preserve the institution. The client had three communication objectives: reassure the audience that the school is effective in changing the lives of contemporary students; set out a vision of three aspirational objectives for the school; and build a shared emotional touchpoint for future fundraising conversations. It was not a fundraising video, per se; and it was used as part of a conversation, not a presentation in the more traditional sense.

This clip is the first minute of a 10-minute alumni video. I chose to begin with an iconic timelapse of the Ohio Wesleyan campus, accompanied by a student a capella version of a classic Madonna song, “Like a Prayer”. Since most of the alumni in the audience are Boomers, this song delivers a familiar and emotional memory touchpoint with their youth. The next images are static institutional affirmations by famous OWU alumni — Norman Vincent Peale, Branch Rickey — and a cornerstone quote from the Gospels. These paving stones, cornerstones and pillars become the visual framework for contemporary student expressions of what they appreciate about Ohio Wesleyan. These student expressions (rather than alumni testimonials) are vitally important, because unless the institution is effective in changing the lives of contemporary students, it will not be seen as a good investment by even the most loyal of alumni. Notice the third interviewee, Jesika Keener. She says that Ohio Wesleyan has become her home: a statement that surely resonates with the alumni audience. A slight editorial change to that comment makes a big difference as we repurpose the same creative elements for an entirely different audience — prospective students:

Though sharing the same basic interview and shooting budget, there are a number of important editorial differences between the two approaches … and these flow from an appreciation of each audience. Jesika now leads the interviews, but we leave out the home reference, because incoming freshmen are more interested in getting away from home than finding one. It’ll take them a couple of years before the college they pick, whatever it is, feels like home to them.

Then, the music: instead of a familiar piece performed by OWU students, I chose a very fresh song by up-and-coming artist Jamie K: Dare to Dream. Instead of making the institution the frame of reference, which is an emotional connection with alumni, I changed the editorial emphasis to “what I was looking for” … small school, diversity, specific subject areas, etc. Instead of quoting profs on what they like about the school, I let students share what they like about professors — especially the personal relationships with profs. No emotional connection with the school is assumed. All we wish to do here is to establish a credible testimony by students who may or may not resonate with the viewers. It’s up to each audience member to decide if they “fit” that authentic brand.

Finally, there’s a big difference in pacing. The Boomer piece has 21 cuts and 4 interview clips in the first minute, while the Millennial piece has 34 cuts and 10 interview bytes by 7 interviewees in about the same period of time.

It is an appreciation and honoring of the audience that leads to approaches that are authentic in both cases, but decidedly different because the audiences are different.

There’s no debate: there are lots of advertising strategies that work

I once had a gig teaching debate and classical rhetoric to high school students. The neat thing about policy debate is that you have to see and present both sides of every issue. Not just grasp both sides: see both sides, believe both sides.

You can’t debate effectively if you’re just a cynical mouthpiece for something you don’t believe in. Winning requires adopting the framework, the paradigm, and articulating its strengths: the impacts of its methodologies, the power of its logic. In policy debate, you don’t have the luxury of deciding you are right, and then always claiming the high ground on the basis of correctness. You have to learn to invoke reason and internal logic, not authority. You also have to develop enough emotional strength — poise — to admit the weaknesses of your own favorite arguments, and to honor the strengths of your opponent’s substantiated claims.

Even when you continue to disagree, there is no authenticity in your own perspective if you lack the breadth of mind to see and admire much of your opponent’s point of view. It’s hard for kids, and after watching the bias of lots of parents while judging these debates, I began to conclude it’s nearly impossible for adults to learn these skills. But for the kids, it’s really cool to watch as, through this unnatural process, they morph into maturity. Not all debaters get it, but it’s really awesome to see young people awake to the ways in which an approach they want to hate might be superior to their preferred position.

This morning was a good reprise of that way of thinking, as I introduced myself to several different flavors of advertising agency. In the past, many of the agenices I’ve worked with seemed to prefer control of the ideas they espouse to authenticity and true persuasive clout. They wanted to put words into people’s mouths, rather than let them speak their mind and heart. But agencies are maturing with the rest of our culture, and I see a number of winning strategies working.

Whenever artists or creatives get together, they love to espouse the theories of their art. Every creative firm — or university, political party or musical genre for that matter — has its own ethos, paradigm, worldview. So as creative guns looking for an army, it’s important to realize there are lots of different ways we could be used in battle.

At one agency, I stated how impressed I am with their focus on marketing metrics. For them, communication is a scientific challenge, not an artistic adventure. In this view, it’s irresponsible to throw money at a communications problem without knowing precisely how the effort is changing perceptions and behavior. They are the Einstein who says “God does not roll dice” to the Niels Bohr-like creative innovators. [Bohr theorized, based on the work of Heisenberg, that you can’t look at an electron without losing track of its energy level and direction. Time proved Bohr right and Einstein wrong]. For this agency, to be professional means to decide ahead of time where our audience is, what will move them, and then introduce the persuasion vectors needed to effect that precise change. It strikes some of us as mechanistic, but the fact is a lot of valid results can be achieved in this way. And I love the precision of numbers, even if I sometimes doubt their accuracy.

At another agency, I commented on how refreshing it is to see a shop that lives or dies on the strength of its creative product. For this group, metrics aren’t in place to drive the campaign car… they’re just the GPS.  The creative team does the driving, as far off the roadmap as the clients will let them stray, and they use more intuition and artistry than science to evaluate the messages they create.

There is strength and power in each approach, and I can argue for or work on a team with either strategy.

And both teams can win. Both approaches are capable of recognizing the character basis of an authentic brand. Both approaches can move opinion, can improve sales or attract new customers. Both approaches can tell stories, deliver great creative, and frankly both approaches can completely miss the mark through any number of purely human foibles.

For me, the ideal approach involves a synthesis of both traditional camps, and that’s a balance that’s mighty tough to achieve. No one person can hit that balance. Only an eclectic team that brings multiple personality types to the process … and listens carefully before acting.

If the balance is struck, it won’t just be that creative and research learned to play nice together. From the top down, such an organization would have to make the toughest quantum leap of all: down to a lower orbit, from speaker to listener, from driver to passenger. In that climate, everything is tougher: writing, teaching, parenting, governing. Thomas Friedman is right: the world is flatter than ever….

Still, there are lots of winning strategies, so as long as we can either focus on great creative, or put the destination ahead of the fun along the way, those of us who create in the world of ideas will be able to find a niche.

The Three M’s of Motivation – part 1: Cross the Moat

ICAA_2009_Huge.010As part of my ICAA presentation on “Using Video: When it’s powerful, when it’s not”, I first talked about how we think and what motivates us. To set it up I used a clip of a little boy who I had interviewed. I asked him, “If you could change the world, what would you change?” His reply melts your heart: “I would change my bad behaviors. Because I want to get out of here quick”.

For each of us, the world is experienced through the self, and even global concerns are felt through our personal pain and experience. So my point was that all we can ever expect from any audience is to view what we present through the prism of their personal experience, values, and pain.

Therefore when we approach any audience we wish to motivate, the first point we must realize is that there is a moat between us — a major chasm in most cases. To communicate effectively, we must cross that moat, and we cannot do that by asking the audience to build the bridge, to see our viewpoint. We must cross the divide ourselves. As an example I showed this short clip from a Cedarville admissions video I did a few years ago:

For prospective students to a conservative Christian college, it was important to show empathy toward those who may be getting family pressure to attend… and who are wondering whether they’ll learn to love a school that might not be their first choice. This sort of honest doubt is not often seen in college videos, where the conventional wisdom seems to say, “always put your best foot forward.”

Here’s another example from a video we produced for Limited Brands. In this case, a worker slips up a bit when he says he doesn’t care how much they take out of his pay for the United Way. Well, he doesn’t care as long as it’s not too much, right? This humorous slip, including his embarrassed question as to whether it will be edited out, adds a refreshing degree of candor and helps break the ice that is always in the back of our listener’s minds: what can I afford to give? Where does giving become unfair to my own family?

Again, we’re building a bridge to the audience’s side of the moat by acknowledging that we understand their concerns. We’re giving them permission to worry about their own needs, instead of adopting a tone that attempts to shame them into giving. Just before this point in the video, the Chairman, Les Wexner, has very congenially asked for “their fair share”, and promised that he and the leadership of the business are doing that. But it would be easy for an audience member to discount the example of a wealthy boss. It’s not so easy to discount the sacrifice of a fellow worker… which is why these kinds of bridge-building statements are so important to authenticity, and therefore to successful motivation.

Picasso on Van Gogh

Picasso on Van Gogh:
“There are painters who transform the sun into a yellow spot, but there are others who, thanks to their art and intelligence, transform a yellow spot into the sun.”

Van Gogh on Kindig:

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.