Netflix and the adaptive sin of impatience

Close-up of eyes with impatient lookImpatience is a sin. When I stand at the Bank of America ATM, waiting and waiting and waiting for the contraption to digest a fistful of checks, steam starts rising from my scalp. As I inch along Route 95 because a lane is closed for repair, but there’s not a workman in sight, catecholamines spurt into my bloodstream. Impatience.  It’s a sin because it’s nasty, it nicks at the soul, and it does no good to anyone.

Netflix logoOr does it? Maybe it does some good. Maybe impatience is adaptive. In this Darwinian world the rule is, famously, adapt or die … or at least watch someone steal your lunch. Why am I thinking these terribly profound thoughts? Why, Netflix, of course. Netflix streaming, to be more precise. Though I am patient enough, or cheap enough, to choose free shipping and wait several days for my Amazon packages to arrive, when I subscribed to Netflix, I couldn’t bear the idea of waiting for DVDs when there was an alternative. Streaming. I point the clicker at my trusty Roku box and, seconds later, I’m watching millions of pixels doing their high definition dance on my 46-inch Samsung screen.

(More about the  ragpicker’s choice of videos you get with Netflix streaming, as opposed to Netflix DVDs, below. For now, the subject is still impatience.)

smart key for a carBecause we Americans will do almost anything to make our lives more convenient, impatience may be transforming into a virtue, at least for entrepreneurs. It takes an eternal seven seconds to reach into your pocket, haul out your car key, insert it into the door lock, twist, pull the door open, slide the key into the ignition and start the car. How tedious! So somebody invents a remote control to unlock the car. Then somebody raises the ante by inventing a “smart key” you can keep in your pocket. Every time you use it, it effectively lengthens your life by seven seconds. Wow!

"Doc Martin" Netflix coverThat’s what I love about Netflix streaming. It’s effortless. Not only are you spared a trip to the video store (remember them?), you don’t have to chart your viewing course a couple of days in advance. Spares wear and tear on executive functions of your brain. Though the instant watch list is dismal when it comes to semi-recent narrative films, there’s a bunch of good docs, like Page One, The Art of the Steal and Theater of War. When my sister-in-law mentions the Brit-com series Doc Martin,  after a few clicks on the remote, my wife and I become mildly addicted.

Frame from "Charlie bit my finger - again!"The adaptive sin of impatience has always pointed the way to online video’s future, and it will continue to do so. Impatience has led to shorter and shorter videos. The YouTube classic, “Charlie bit my finger – again!” viewed by over 423, 000,000 short-attention-span folks (like me), is just 56 seconds long. To sample the conventional wisdom on this subject, google How long should online videos be? and you’ll soon see that nobody advises clients to make long videos. The graph shows a curve as steep as a ski jump of  viewers dropping off after just a minute or so.

Netflix streaming illuminates the future of viewing, but Netflix itself may not be the future of viewing unless they get their act together … and soon. When I search their website for a narrative film I want to see, almost without exception the Netflix gremlins tell me that my film “is not available to watch instantly.” Oh yeah, I can watch it on DVD by clicking on a single button … and upping my monthly bill by $7.99. It’s incredibly annoying, and has caused countless Netflixters to abandon ship. DVDs were developed more than 15 years ago. Those disks still work pretty well, but they’ll soon be a legacy technology.

Impatience rules. I’ve heard that Being Elmo is a charming doc. Let’s see, do I want to check it out right away, or do I want to wait for the mail carrier to arrive a couple of days from now? Seems like a no-brainer. Let’s see how long it takes for the pleasure to arrive in my family room once I put Being Elmo on my Instant Queue. Here, click along with me:

As always, I welcome your comments.

 

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.

Ask me anything (about making online videos)

Camera lens, with photographer in backgroundThe reason I’m asking for your questions is that I have two half-hour TV programs to produce before Christmas … and I just started on them last week. Much easier to clean out the Augean stables than produce a brace of shows in that amount of time! Which means for the next month I won’t have breathing space to think about posting new stuff to Seeing Your Story.

On the other hand, if you have a few questions about making better online videos, just ask them in the Comments section below. I’ll do my best to answer them when I have a moment. That may be helpful to you, and it’ll be easier for me than dreaming up new posts.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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!

Get naked in your online videos!

Before you wonder: what is this, an episode of Bloggers Gone Wild? let me say that by “naked” I don’t mean ripping off your Calvins. I mean revealing yourself online, not covering up who you really are. If I’m going to spend my semi-precious time on your website, show me your stuff, in sharp focus and without wasteful adornment.

Dan Schawbel with MC Hammer
Dan Schawbel with MC Hammer

I thought about this principle while visiting the website of marketing meteor Dan Schawbel. Even his URL is as naked and plain as can be: danschawbel.com. That’s appropriate, because he’s the “personal branding guru” who wants to brand and market you as an individual. (Of course, he’ll be thrilled to market your company, too.) Mainly, he’s marketing himself, using his own name as the brand.

On Dan’s homepage, in keeping with today’s proposition that naked is good, there’s not a frill in sight. If you called it homely, you wouldn’t be wrong. But it’s effective, and that’s what counts.

The homepage overflows with success signifiers, from a blurb by über bizwhiz Tom Peters to the brag stat of having over one million results for his name in Google. (I just checked and got “about 65,800 results” for “Dan Schawbel,” but we’re talking effectiveness, not persnickety stuff like accuracy.)

What really works for me, though, are his two homepage videos. They’re not slick, custom made movies. In fact, the first is borrowed from a local Boston TV show interview. Here’s a half-minute clip of Dan explaining what his company, Millennial Branding, does:

I call his description “naked” because it’s utterly simple. It’s clear. It leaves no mystery in its wake. You can stop watching after this brief explanation, or you can take in the rest of the interview if you want rebranding and think he may be the guy to do it for you.

The other video on his homepage shows him speaking to a group at Time Warner. Just watch a bit, then hit “Pause” and read on …

In nine minutes, Dan will give you clue after clue about personal branding. He’s not slick in his presentation. He’s relaxed and plain-spoken, and this adds to his credibility. As a video professional I don’t admire any of the production values, but if I were looking to rebrand myself, I would definitely consider giving Dan a shout.

Maybe I should.

But what you should do is take to heart the message that nakedness is effective. Dan Schawbel is still in his 20s and he has over 90,000 followers on Twitter. He’s on Inc magazine’s “30 under 30” list and has heavyweight corporations as his clients. Naked videos are surely not his only effective marketing tool, but they’re a powerful one … and they can be one of yours, too.

Too slammed to post!

Camera lens, with photographer in backgroundWork is good, especially paying work. But I’m so slammed with assignments now that I can barely see straight, much less write thoughtful, incisive posts about storytelling in online video.

I’ll get back to blogging as soon as I can fill my lungs again. Meanwhile, if you haven’t read–or at least glanced at–a few of the posts on Seeing Your Story, please check them out.

Thanks! I look forward to being back in touch with you soon.

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.

Enjoy!

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

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