My quickest script writing session ever!

A few weeks ago, I was approached by a colleague to collaborate on a quickie corporate video. Even before the first meeting with the client, we could feel the deadline approaching like a tropical storm. So speed was key. But we couldn’t compromise production values.

Initial client meetings can be nebulous. You listen to what the client wants from the video, you ask questions to narrow the options and focus the goals, but you often leave that meeting with a yellow pad full of vague possible approaches, to be sorted through later. We couldn’t afford that.

By the time this gathering was drawing to a close, we had defined the audience and purpose: it would be shown internally to employees around the world and would introduce them to the company’s commitment to philanthropy. We knew the length—no more than two and a half minutes—and some of the key elements. It was Friday. We agreed that I would start writing the script on Monday.

And then the scriptwriting muse whispered in my ear: “No, write a draft now, immediately, before leaving the building.” “Seriously?” I answered, “I’ve never done that. I need time to contemplate.” “No, you don’t. No thinking needed … just write.”

Giving the muse the benefit of the doubt (which you should almost always do) I asked one member of the client’s team to stay, because she knew the content and I sure didn’t. Luckily for me, she agreed. I took a script template from a handy folder on my MacBook Pro and jumped right in. She was on the other side of the conference room table, so we started a Skype screen sharing session to be on the same page—literally.

BTW, if you’d like to download my tried-and-true script template to use on your own videos, right-click here. One of the options that pop up should allow you to download the file.

We’d agreed that there should be about 45 seconds of narration in this video. The rest of the time would be filled with pre-existing interview bites from philanthropic projects around the world. We didn’t know yet what these would be, so as the client and I crafted voiceover copy line by line, we simply filled in a bunch of scenes with the words “[insert sound bite(s)]”

The point is that after only a half hour or forty-five minutes we had a complete first draft script, albeit with holes for interview bites. The client had contributed facts and company messages, and I had contributed script-writing experience and savvy.  The cool thing was that the client could take this instant script and distribute it to her colleagues right away for comments and approvals.

Amazingly, the narration in the final script turned out to be really close to the draft we had cobbled together in well under an hour.

If you’d like to look at that first draft, right-click here. One of the options that pop up should allow you to download the file. (I’ve changed names and identifying features, so that you won’t be able to tell who the client was.)

Oh, I almost forgot to mention: knocking out the first draft this way was really fun!

Corporate videos and the craft of listening

Yeah, this is the author's ear.Just like shooting or editing, listening is a craft.

I know because I had to learn the hard way.

It wasn’t until I’d been in the television end of the biz for many years that I first jumped into the corporate end. And I hadn’t yet learned to listen—really listen.

Thumbnail pic from "Oil Rigs" Nat Geo TV showYou see, when you’re producing a TV show, it’s crucial to make sure as much of your vision survives into the final program as possible. If necessary, you rassle with the executive producer—maybe even hide a few things from him or her—because it’s you who know the territory best. (Of course, sometimes the EP does have a valid point or two that will enhance your vision!)

At the end of a long run mostly working at TV stations, I took the freelance plunge and soon landed a corporate gig. I understood the assignment (or thought I did) and as usual, promoted my concepts in everything I was writing.

Somehow, the client wasn’t getting it. My glorious vision wasn’t selling. Not long after, I found myself holding my terminal paycheck and looking for another gig. It wasn’t until much later that I realized I had been the one who wasn’t getting it. I hadn’t heard what the client wanted … because I hadn’t been listening.

But hey, I’m nothing if not educable, and once I learned the craft of listening, the world of corporate video was much more welcoming. The learning curve wasn’t steep—it was mostly a shift in attitude.

Now I take notes. Like crazy. At client meetings I type away without looking at the keyboard. Typos be damned—the important thing is to stay engaged in the conversation. I try to catch the nuances of what the client wants. If clients don’t yet know what they want, I take down every relevant thing they say and later help them figure it out. Naturally, I don’t just listen passively. I ask for clarifications. I make suggestions (and pay close attention to how they’re received).

After many a non-broadcast project, I can say definitively that listening works. Clients—no surprise—like it. And the path to an approved script or a finished project is much, much smoother.

GreenShield logoThis long preamble brings me to a recent project, a short video for JN Phillips Auto Glass. It’s a company with more than 40 locations, and a very good reputation. I was invited to write and produce the video by Dick Weisberg of B/R Creative, JN Phillips’ agency. Dick and I have collaborated happily before, notably on a circus video. The purpose of this video was to let people know about GreenShield, the company’s windshield recycling program. (I always enjoy projects that have an environmental or socially redeeming purpose, and this was to prove no exception.)

Handwritten notesTyped notesFrom the first phone conversation with Dick I took notes. Ditto at meetings and on conference calls. Notes are a solid foundation on which to organize a project, because you can look at them and know what facts, messages and people are important to include.

Close-up of script page

You know how frustrating it is when you feel someone isn’t listening to you. Clients are just like you. But if you incorporate as many of the client’s wishes as possible into every draft of an outline,  treatment or script, the client will feel listened to. As you’re writing a draft, you’ll see when a client’s desires (like wanting seven minutes of content squeezed into a three minute web video) won’t enhance the video. Since you’re the one with production experience, and the client knows you’re not fighting their ideas, chances are they’ll go along with most of your suggestions.

On the GreenShield project, a writer who knows the JN Phillips brand inside and out did some rewrites on my prose, to make sure it was 100% aligned with their messages. Then I took her version and cut it down, because web videos lose a huge percentage of viewers if they’re too long. In any case, everyone on the project—client, agency and production people—got along really well, and JN Phillips is very happy with the result.

See for yourself. As you watch, pay attention to the video’s host, Josh Rosenfield. He’s not professional talent—he’s the guy who’s actually in charge of the GreenShield program. Awesome job by a first-timer!


Six things I learned on my last TV show

In November, Powderhouse, a hot production company where I’d produced some TV shows a while back, called me and asked if I’d like to produce a quickie series of shows for Plum, a “multi-platform lifestyle network.” By “quickie,” I mean really rapid-fire — the first shoot day would be after I’d put in only 5 days on the job.

I said yes, and the whirlwind revved up. Welcome, Ron, to “Masters of Innovation,” a series about cutting-edge technology and how it’s going to affect our lives.

Even if you’re a veteran of the biz, you can learn a lot on any new assignment, especially if the calendar pages are flipping by so fast there’s no time for mistakes. Here are six things I learned — or re-learned — from about two months on the series. I’m telling you about them because they’ll be relevant if you want to make better online videos.

1) Every member of the team is key. Of course the host is key, because he or she is so visible — every instant of performance is subject to scrutiny. Fortunately, Jim Brasher loved the subject of the shows and really came through for us. But my point here is that  Steve Barker, the assistant editor, was also totally crucial; if he hadn’t performed way beyond his job description, we all would have been in trouble.

2) Organize, then organize some more. In video production, things will go wrong — a missed flight, an equipment breakdown. Since some things are beyond your control, it’s important to have everything you can control be nailed down properly. Do you have all of tomorrow’s interviewees’ cellphone numbers as well as their office numbers? Does your sound recordist know the best place to park? Luckily, associate producer Jessie Ward was even more compulsive about these details than I was.

closeup of my story notes3) Never lose sight of the story. Before each day’s shoot I made sure to list all the story elements I wanted to capture on tape. While filming, I kept consulting this crib sheet and scribbling more notes about things I wanted to shoot.

Tod Machover demoing "Chandelier"4) They’re called movies because they move. This may seem obvious, but it’s not. On “Masters of Innovation,” Jim interviewed a whole bunch of people, many of whom did demos — showing him everything from snake-like robots to iPad apps. When we started editing, we saw that there was often too much static talking before they dove into the action of the demo. That was boring. So, we moved the demos as close to the top of the story as we could. A lot of the palaver just disappeared. Much more fun to watch!

Close-up of small soccer-playing robot5) Remember the close-ups. I say this, because we didn’t, at least not on Day One. Sure, we shot some close-ups, but we were constantly rushing and we didn’t get enough, and the editors found their hands tied by this shortfall. Mercifully, we were able to go back and film the missing shots … and we made sure to get plenty from then on.

6) Stock footage and stills can save your story. Maybe you can be too rich or too thin, but you can never have too much B-roll. The lifeblood of video storytelling is B-roll, but sometimes there’s just not much to shoot, or you don’t have time or budget to shoot enough. That’s where stock footage and stills can make the difference between dull and delightful. On “Masters of Innovation,” we had a minuscule budget for stock, but some of the labs where we shot had produced their own videos and photos. We begged them for every bit of relevant footage, and bought a few shots where there was no other option. I could hardly believe how much of a difference adding this material made. On your next shoot, maybe the folks you’re filming have snapshots, videos or graphics they’ll let you use. (Make sure they have the rights to whatever they give you. You don’t want to use pirated stuff!)

I hope I’ve piqued your curiosity about the shows themselves. You can watch any of the four episodes of “Masters of Innovation” online if you click on the title screen below.

“Resonate” resonates for online video

Nancy Duarte, head of Duarte DesignWhen we hang out with true experts, and have an open mind, we can learn a lot from them. Nancy Duarte is a bona fide expert in the field of presentations, with a bio that includes working with clients ranging from Adobe to Google, Al Gore to TED. She writes that a couple of years ago, “I set out to uncover how story applies to presentations,” and the result is a book with the catchy title Resonate.

I’m drawn addictively to the word “story,” and the attractive book seemed like a present begging to be opened. The cover promised: “Present visual stories that transform audiences.” Wary as I have become of promises to transform, I started reading greedily.

At first I was disappointed. My initial impression was that the opening chapters seemed too influenced by the corporate world. Do I really believe that “A business is usually founded because someone came up with a clear vision of the world in the future as an improved place.” Really? Sometimes businesses make the world better, of course, but has news of the greed-induced Great Recession not reached Mountain View, CA, home of Duarte Design? It seemed overblown to talk about addressing an audience at a company meeting in these terms: “You are not the hero who will save the audience; the audience is your hero.” Really? Odysseus was a hero, Aung San Suu Kyi is a hero.

But I got over it, and riffling through the book now I see that Duarte’s examples and intent focus at least as much on people who are improving the world versus improving the bottom line. (Not that there’s anything essentially wrong with improving the bottom line.) And with or without heroes, I found a lot of value in these pages because of the advice she gives about storytelling.

For those of you determined to make better online videos, what’s most valuable in Resonate is the linking of Duarte’s astute analysis of what makes a great presentation to killer examples of actual presentations. Those examples are not all videos, but that doesn’t matter at all.

Best of all, she’s posted some of these examples online, as Extended Web Content. Some of these presentations are truly inspired and inspiring, and I encourage you to click on all of them. Ideally, you’ll have her book in hand, and you’ll look at the extended web content when you come to the page it connects to. But you’ll absorb something valuable from many of them even without owning Resonate.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream …” speech is among them. And there’s a bonus: on her blog, Duarte recently posted an analysis of this speech that’s pretty darn brilliant. I’ll embed her video here, so you can watch it at your leisure:

Your comments, as always, are welcome.

Storytelling + reinvention just 11 bucks?!

Last night, I registered for something called the Reinvention Summit. I gave them my Visa card number and they charged me just 11 dollars and 11 cents for the privilege. I’m not sure what life-changing benefits for me as a storyteller lie behind that lofty title, but for the price of a Kobe beef burger at my local diner, it’s not exactly risky business.

That’s why I wanted you to know about it. You can judge for yourself if it’ll be worthwhile for your needs as a maker of online videos.

The Reinvention Summit is the offspring of a team led by Michael Margolis, founder and president of Get Storied, an enterprise devoted to the storytelling needs of innovators, entrepreneurs and other folks. The Summit describes itself in these terms:

Reinvention is the new storyline. We believe narrative is a key to re-storying possibilities. That’s why we’re gathering a new tribe of storytellers: change-makers, marketers, creatives, innovators, and entrepreneurs — anyone who sees storytelling as fundamental to their work and mission. Help us re-frame the conversation.

There’s no need for me to go into detail about who the scheduled speakers are and the resources that will be available to you if you register. You can get all that, and lots more, from their website.

One urgent note, though: the $11. Early Bird registration ends November 10 at 8pm EDT.

I’ll leave you, for now, with a video in which Michael describes the Summit. You’re welcome to crit this vid on your own as an example of the art of online storytelling.

The rake, the iPod, and the Creative Covenant

leaf rake and some leavesYesterday afternoon, fleeing from the emails I desperately needed to write, I traded my MacBook Pro for a rake. I figured that an hour of piling up backyard leaves and bagging them would recharge me for the cyber tasks at hand.

That lead to a meditation about what I’ll call our Creative Covenant, our “contract” with the people who watch our online videos. Would you like to peek under the hood of my meditation? OK, here goes …

Soon after starting my chore, I thought: why don’t I grab my new blue iPod Shuffle and listen to “This American Life” or “Radiolab” while I work? I set down the rake and headed toward the house … and then stopped. I didn’t want any media intrusions. I didn’t want that autumn afternoon to be invaded by recorded words or music.

With my ears deliberately unwired, I heard my neighborhood’s audio track afresh. Not that there was anything glorious to hear: a distant leaf blower, a contractor’s Bobcat beeping in reverse, the sound of desiccated oak leaves scraping against each other. But buoyed on the rhythm of raking, I began daydreaming. Gradually, the reverie focused itself and I imagined writing a Seeing Your Story post about not wearing the iPod.

At first, I hadn’t the slightest idea about the point my post would make. But because my limited brainpower wasn’t focused on a podcast, I was able to sense that something was on my mind.

Enveloping myself in media would have stanched the musing, and I wouldn’t be writing this post now.

My new blue iPod ShuffleIt’s taken a full day for the inchoate thought to become conscious. Only at lunch with my brother-in-law (thanks, Lawrence!) did it pop in a way I could articulate: Any media, from a magazine article to an mp3 song to an online video, narrows the angle of our awareness. I hadn’t realized it when I picked up the rake, but I didn’t want Ira Glass or Jad Abumrad, talented as they are, to colonize my mind.

But that’s exactly what we do when people click the Play button on our videos. They’re inviting us to take over billions (?) of circuits in their brains. In exchange for what? I think we owe them something. I believe we have an obligation to give them an experience with some value to it, be it garden-fresh information or wacky entertainment. I’ll call that tacit agreement our Creative Covenant.

Now that I’m aware of it, I suppose I have to sign on to it. You, too! So, don’t just upload videos. Upload good videos. However you define “good.”

That’s all I have to say on the subject, at least for the moment. Anyhow, I’ve had enough of writing for now. In fact, I’m ready to relax and have my mind colonized. I’m choosing to enter into a Creative Covenant with OK Go, a contract with a duration of only three minutes and thirty-six seconds. I invite you to join me by clicking on the Play button below.

Your comments, as always, are welcome!

Aristotle & your online video

Yesterday, I watched a video online that reminded me of Aristotle. No, not the guy with the big yacht who put the “O” in “Jackie O.” The other guy, who spouted tons of wisdom and even taught Alexander the Great a trick or two. This Athenian social media maven came up with the phrase that’s usually rendered in English as “Well begun is half done.”

His message: Don’t begin your online video with stuff that’s gonna drive away the very people you’re trying to reach in the first few seconds!

Got it? Now, here’s the “tease” of the video I watched yesterday, the opening 15 seconds of a two-minute piece by the very worthy organization Save the Children. Be forewarned–some images are hard to take …

The heavy artillery of the first shot doesn’t get to me, but the flies on the baby’s face are heartbreaking. Human psychology (mine at least) being what it is, a feeling of disgust at the flies trumps empathy for the child. If you came across this video on your own, would you continue watching?

Lottery of Life "wheel of fortunes"It’s a shame, because the later parts of the video are far from a turnoff. They introduce a very cool–very imaginative and very worthwhile–Save the Children project called The Lottery of Life.

You can “play” the Lottery of Life on its own website. You spin a wheel of fortune to get a chance to start your life over in a location chosen by chance. For me, the wheel stopped in India, and I learned I would have a 39% chance of growing up illiterate … that there’s a lot of child labor … and a huge number of child marriages. (Glad I was born in Manhattan!)

The Lottery of Life is social networked up to its eyeballs, because Save the Children wants to spread the world about improving the lot of kids around the world.

My point today is not about the planet’s children, who are, of course, way more important than your videos and mine. It’s simply that we should all pay attention to Aristotle and jump start our videos with scenes that’ll attract folks, not repel them. ‘Nuff said about that. Now you can watch the whole two-minute video below, or simply pop over to The Lottery of Life and spin the wheel!

Your comments, as always, are welcome!

Learn online video storytelling from the master – Ira Glass!

Still too crazy-busy to spend much time blogging, so I decided to turn this post over to a guest auteur, one of the master storytellers of our age, Ira Glass. He needs no introduction, so I won’t introduce him. I’ll simply siphon his 4-part, 17-minute presentation off YouTube and hand it over to you in 4 player windows. The rest is up to you. He’s brilliant, so savor the experience. And while you’re at it, take notes and ponder how his insights apply to your productions.


Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

That’s all, folks! Your comments and questions are always welcome.

3 tips from the Old Spice Man for your next online video!

Isaiah Mustafa is the man of the hour. Or he was last week, when nearly a quadrillion people watched his commercials and dozens of quickie videos he and Old Spice’s genius team cranked out.

In case you’ve been off the grid hiking the entire Pacific Crest Trail lately, here’s what one of the most brilliant spots in the history of commercials looks like:

What’s to say? Writers, directors and actors are all tearing up their union cards and becoming game wardens; why go on when you’ll never reach this level of creative cool?!

Despair not. If you make online videos, Isaiah has 3 tips for you that will turbo-charge your next production.

The first is simple: Dare to be different, but keep the core.

A men’s fragrance ad “should” feature an average dude who has no luck with the women until he splashes on the product. Presto, he’s surrounded by beautiful females. You’ve seen variations on this theme a thousand times.

The Old Spice Man catches a cake.What you haven’t seen from the cologne crowd is a guy who would be insufferable were he not self-mocking … said guy log-rolling, walking on water, catching a birthday cake (not difficult for a former NFL wide receiver), jumping gracefully into a hot tub, etc. The deal is that the creative team pared the theme down to its very core–this incredible man uses Old Spice body wash–then took it to crazy heights.

Second tip: Polish your script ’til the shine hurts your eyes.

Catch this prose:

“Hello ladies. How are you? Fantastic! Does your man look like me? No. Can he smell like me? Yes.”

We’re barely 6 seconds into a 30-second spot and already a full commercial’s worth of message has rattled your eardrums: Your man can be an incredible hunk if you get him the long and wide product I’m holding in my hand.

Now, your video may be about fighting terrorists, baking cupcakes or maintaining oral hygiene. You may have constraints where Mr. Mustafa has freedom. Granted. But no matter what, if you’re working from a script, spend all the time you need to get the words right. Read it out loud to yourself, and revise until you like what you’re hearing.

Tip #3: Remember, your on-camera talent is a minor deity.

Maybe not so minor in Old Spice Man’s case, but that’s not the point. Whenever you put someone on camera to be a spokesperson for your company or group, make sure to do right by the talent. It may be the CFO of your corporation, it may be the pastor of your church, it may be a hired actor. Whoever it is, that’s the point person your audience is relating to.

If you’re working with someone whose charisma has gone missing, do the best you can to eke out an acceptable performance. Don’t stint on this. When all else fails, you can cover most of their standups with B-roll (shots of what the talent is talking about).

And if you’re filming someone the camera loves, exploit the hell out of their performance. That’s what Old Spice did with Isaiah Mustafa.

I’ll leave you with one of the quickie videos from last week. You can find more on YouTube’s Old Spice Channel. This one’s a response to a tweet from TV journalist George Stephanopoulos:

Hey Old Spice Man — Political question: President’s lost some female support. How does WH get those women voters back?

To make a remarkable online video, break the rules!

I love rules! Following them can keep you productive, appreciated and safe. But sometimes you want to go beyond being “productive,” and create something that flat-out expresses who you are, even if other people don’t appreciate your efforts and you cross the yellow line of safety. Sometimes you need to break the rules. That’s unusual in the jittery corporate world, so it’s worth casting our eye on a rare example of this wild breed.

To do so we’ll cross the ocean and travel to the hills near Lyon, France. Only a click away, of course.  Today, we’re putting a video from Artprice under the Seeing Your Story microscope to find out how it works. It shouldn’t work, because it stomps several sacred rules of online video-making all to hell. But it does work–at least it did for my wife and me. We watched it through to the end, all 23 minutes and 46 seconds of it.

I like putting images in these posts, to tempt your eye. So here’s Artprice’s video player. But I’m not going to make it work–yet–because I want you to finish reading before you watch the video. (Psssst, the real video player is near the bottom of this post.)

Image of Artprice's video player

Artprice bills itself as “the world leader in art price information,” with millions of works of art, and much more, listed in their monster database. Assuming you’re interested in art and are a potential customer, how should they beguile you into signing up, at least for a free trial?  With a short, punchy video, right? In this case, wrong.

Before you look at their video, here’s a list of some rules and how they broke them:

  • RULE 1: Keep it short. This video introduction is not 2 minutes long, as it “should” be. As I mentioned, it’s almost 24 minutes long!
  • RULE 2: Hit the viewers right off the starting block.  Vive la France! This video begins with lyrical shots and minor-key music.  The first human voice doesn’t pop in for fully 51 seconds. And even then it’s as nebulous as only a French voiceover can be: “The story of Artprice is above all a human adventure, an extraordinary artistic adventure.” Wow!
  • RULE 3: Keep it simple. Are you kidding? This is from the land of Descartes, Sartre and Foucault.
  • RULE 4: Avoid long interview shots. And if you must have long interview bites, cover them with lively shots of what they’re talking about. Not here, though. Yes, some shots are covered, but other talking heads keep on yakking.
  • RULE 5: If you’re marketing something, have a call to action. Especially at the end of your video.  Artprice, in its contrarian way, concludes its show with a bite from the boss: “I believe we are at the beginning of an extraordinary story that will stretch right across the 21st century.” This is followed by self-conscious video snapshots of staffers. “So who needs a call to action?” they seem to be saying.

And yet, Artprice is un grand success, with over a half million daily page views.  It’s impossible to say how much of the traffic is due to the video, but I believe this rule-busting production has some positive clout. Please watch as much of the video as you’d like, then read on and see if you agree with my conclusions. When you click on the player, it will open their webpage in a new window.

Image of Artprice video player, to be clicked on

Here’s why I think the video works, in spite of breaking so many rules. Do you agree with me? Do you feel differently?

  • The Artprice video recognizes its community and plays to them. Since visitors to their website are interested in art, they’re surely used to strolling through museums and galleries. They’re more interested in experiencing works of art/movies/videos than getting through them as quickly as possible.
  • All the cues in the video reach out to this audience. The setting nails this from the opening shots. The building that is the HQ of Artprice is itself a work of art–a controversial work of art, for that matter. It’s a staggeringly original building, and it establishes the artistic authority of Artprice.
  • Every sound bite reinforces Artprice’s seriousness and credibility–and there are lots of lengthy bites.
  • All the staffers interviewed look like characters in a French movie. Depending on your POV on French cinema, this is either charming or pretentious, but what they have to say is pretty impressive: Artprice has compiled over 100 terabytes of information, including dope on more than 115 million works of art, etc., etc.
  • The music and the elegant dolly shots make the whole production feel more like a feature film than a corporate video. I’d say this is a plus for an art-loving crowd.

Camera lens, with photographer in backgroundAt this point you probably think I’m going to recommend you break the rules when you make your next online video. But I won’t–just the opposite. I think you should follow the 5 rules near the top of this post, and you’ll have a better chance of crafting a successful video. However, if you have a lot of self-confidence and some skill to back it up, and you have a vision that refuses to be bound by the rulebook, by all means go for it. Contrary to the cliché, rules aren’t meant to be broken, but in your case, maybe they are. Good luck!

P.S. When you make your next rule-obeying or rule-breaking online video, let me know about it. Thanks!