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June 2014

George Takei's bold story at TEDxKyoto

14233212279_a06eb850d3_zGeorge Takei knows how to tell a great story. In this case, a true story of his life. The famed Star Trek actor, activist, and social media star was in town recently to give a remarkable talk as part of a very special TEDxKyoto event. I was invited to watch the rehearsal just before the live event, so I arrived early and grabbed a front row seat. George did not give a speech in the traditional sense. There was no lectern, no notes, no teleprompter. George obviously was reciting the speech from memory—his live version was exactly the same as in the rehearsal—but the speech did not seem memorized. That is, when I was listening I was not aware that he was giving a speech or a prepared talk, I was just lost in the narrative flow of his story.

George begins his talk right away with a kind of prelude that touches on a few themes that will actually be touched on in his talk. "I'm a veteran of the Starship Enterprise," George begins with a smile. "I soared through the galaxy driving a huge starship with a crew made up of people from all over this world—many different races, many different cultures, many different heritages. All working together. And our mission was to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one had gone before."

The audience got a kick out of his Star Trek references, but this little prelude transitioned well to his story which begins for real at about the one-minute mark. "I am the grandson of immigrants from Japan who came to American boldly going to a strange new world," he begins. Watch the talk below.

George uses a visual language by describing events with contrasts, juxtapositions, and irony. For example:

"I could see the the barbed wire fence and sentry tower outside my schoolhouse window as I recited the words 'with liberty and Justice for all.'"

What's your story?
We always hear that this is the era of telling your story. "The world needs to hear your story," our friends keep telling us. But this raises the question—a question I hear perhaps more than any  other: How can I tell my story and not bore the audience? The answer is actually quite simple. Your story is really their story. Often we find ourselves in a situation where the audience members have diverse backgrounds and specialties. In this case "Your story is really their story" means that your contents (events, experiences, lessons, and how you arrange them — the plot in other words) must illuminate universal themes such as justice and fairness, over coming great odds, sacrifice & reward, a person's struggles with societal pressures, and dozens of others. All the universal themes, of course, involve a goal and obstacles and conflicts that must be dealt with and that lead to a change. While the theme or themes must be something that the audience can relate to, the specific details of your talk do not need to be something your audience has ever experienced personally. The audience is hearing your contents for the first time, but the themes that your contents illustrates are familiar and therefore easy to grasp. In the case of George's talk, most people who listen are not themselves Japanese-Americans who experienced internment, but all can sympathize with his experiences and can empathize with the hardships and the struggles, and in the end be inspired by the lessons he learned and shared with his audience.

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George Takei on the center stage at TEDxKyoto earlier this month.

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It was an honor to meet George back stage in Kyoto after his wonderful talk. Pictured here with George and his husband Brad on my right, and US diplomat Patrick Linehan and his husband Emerson on my left.

A similar but different must-see presentation by George
I really like the way they put this interview with George together by mixing in images from his past and historic images to give a visual amplification to his narrative. This video is from a new series, according to their website, "that shares LGBT celebrities' personal stories of struggle and success." But like all good stories, his story is really our story. The "plot" if you will are the facts of his life—internment as a child, discrimination, hiding his true self, etc.—but the themes appeal to all because they are universal: over coming the odds, struggling with fears and doubts, finally breaking on through, and so on. In other words, you do not need to be LGBT or Japanese-American to relate very well to the struggles George is talking about.



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George Takei's talk is nicely agumented with the insertion of vintage visuals.

Thanks to TEDxKyoto for hosting the event and for the photos above. More photos from the event available here.

Related talk: Patrick Linehan's "Embracing Different" TEDxKyoto presentation.


Story structure, simplicity, & hacking away at the unessential

Students1For a lot of us, the reality is not that we have too few ideas, it's that we have too many. This may not sound like a problem, but it becomes problematic when we get bogged down in analysis paralysis and feel unable to choose, and harder still to simplify. Reducing and simplifying in an honest way—a way that makes a message clear and memorable—is one of the hardest things for professionals to do. I am reminded of the old Bruce Lee saying: "It's not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential." This is one of the secrets to mastery in general, and hacking away is indeed what we must do to identify the essence of our message and to build strong stories. As a follow up to the last piece of Billy Wider, allow me to share again some Wilder wisdom and apply the lesson to speech making or presenting.

In an interview recorded in Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood's Golden Age at the American Film Institute, Wilder is asked how he came up with the idea for the script Sunset Boulevard. Wilder answered that it was an idea they thought up and held in their heads five years before beginning to write the script. Then Wilder elaborates (emphasis mine):

“There is no such thing as somebody sitting down and saying, ‘Now, all right, I’m going to make a new picture.’ Not at all. You have ideas stashed away, dozens of them–good, bad, or indifferent. Then you pull them out of your memory, out of your drawer, you combine them… People think when it comes to a screenplay you start with absolutely nothing. But the trouble is that you have a million ideas and you have to condense them into a thousand ideas, and you have to condense those into three hundred ideas to get it under one hat, as it were. In other words, you start with too much, not with nothing, and it can go in every kind of direction. Every possible avenue is open. They you have to dramatize it—it is as simple as that—by omitting, by simplifying, by finding a clean theme that leads someplace.”

The need for solid structure
The last line above—omitting, simplifying, finding a clean theme (message) that leads someplace—is at the heart of designing a compelling narrative. Having a clear structure makes it easier to simplify your content in a way that moves the material forward. The audience need not be aware of your structure, but without it you could not have crafted a compelling narrative that goes someplace. While describing the plot points in the hit film "Some Like it Hot" Billy Wilder stresses the importance of structure.

"[Story] needs...architectural structure, which is completely forgotten once you see the movie. We have to put those pillars in or that beautiful ceiling is going to come crashing down."

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It's the message, not techniques or effects

Special effects, including remarkable camera angles, call too much attention to themselves in many films today. Wilder felt the same in his time. Once you start thinking "I wonder how they did that?" or "What awesome camera work!" and so on, then you are pulled out of the story and are thinking about effects and techniques rather than the story. "Nobody will say, ‘This is a great screenwriter because he always has the camera angles.’ Just have good characters and good scenes and something that plays,” Wilder says.

In a similar way, nobody will say this is a great presenter because he is a master at using PowerPoint or Keynote, or Prezi, etc. I have said it 'till I am blue in the face, but I will say it again: It is not the tools and digital techniques and effects that make you a better storyteller. This is true whether we are talking about writing or speaking. Tools can help, especially tools that amplify our ability to tell visual stories, but the greatest tools in the world will not make a bad idea great or turn an inauthentic presenter into an authentic one.

Multimedia—if you use it—comes last
Multimedia is wonderful. I love it. But my approach to preparation is pretty old school. This week, for example, students are making presentations where they share their ideas—their proposed solutions—to real world problems of their choosing. They are using slideware and video, etc., but before they ever began to organize slides, and other multimedia, they first organized their ideas and their approach around a very basic structure. And they did so without using any tech.

It's a very simple framework where they contrast the "ideal" with the way things really are today. Then they state the problems which contribute to this reality and offer up solutions or their "big idea" worth sharing. In the end they offer up a "next step" or an action for the audience to take. Through a process of brainstorming and discussion they end up with sketches or storyboards so that they can run through the basics of their argument or storyline in front of everyone. The sketches are very crude and basic, but that is fine. These sketches serve as storyboards that help the audience understand, and they help the presenter take the audience on a little journey. After the storyboard pitch, other students offer suggestions to improve the structure. When we feel like the basic structure makes sense then the student can go off on his own and dig deeper for evidence, examples, data, and so on and put together a compelling, engaging talk—using multimedia for visual support—based on the fundamental structure worked out in their storyboard pitch. Here are a few pics of students pitching their rough storyboard ideas last week, and one pic from a student who is presenting the final product today.

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Students pitch their solutions to specific real-world economic and social problems in Japan and get feedback from the audience before they start designing the details of their actual presentations.

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Here the student is making the actual presentation, having pitched her storyboard ideas last week. Her talk followed a basic structure of Ideal world, Reality, Problem (cause of the reality), Solutions (her ideas with evidence and support), and finally a Next Step or action for the audience, something to do or to ponder, etc. A different audience would not be aware of the structure underneath, but the structure was very helpful for the student presenter in crafting ideas, designing visuals, and building the narrative flow of the talk.


One man's creativity in an airport "all by myself"

Have you ever found yourself alone in an airport with a lot of time to kill? For most of us this is a rather dismal experience. But for others, such alone time is a nice respite and a bit freedom to be creative and just see what happens. Last week, Richard Dunn, a lighting designer in corporate entertainment who is originally from Canada, was heading back to his current home in Georgia from Las Vegas. But after volunteering to get bumped off his 11:00pm flight home, he found himself with seven hours to kill before the next flight out at 6:00am the next day. So what to do?

Many people would have headed back to the Las Vegas strip or taken a nap, but Dunn says in this CBC audio interview that he looked around and saw the airport as an empty movie set. He had his iPhone so why not make a movie? So he sat down to brainstorm some ideas and at first pondered making a movie related to travel. But that idea did not grab him, so then he Googled songs about being alone and bingo! It hit him. “And then our dear Canadian sister started streaming in my headphones, 'All By Myself' and I thought ‘that’s it, that’s pure movie gold!’”

As you watch the 5-min video below, keep in mind that he was all alone and had no one holding the camera. His only equipment in the airport was his iPhone, iPad (for the music), a PC case with a long handle, a ruler, and some luggage tape that a staff member gave him earlier in the evening. Once back home, he edited the clips in Final Cut on his MacBook. No special lenses, just a regular iPhone.

All by myself from Richard Dunn on Vimeo.

Limitations stimulate creativity
The budget for this home movie of sorts was essentially zero, yet this amateur production made by one person alone is far more interesting than the majority of professionally made music videos costing loads of cash. In the comments section of Vimeo, Richard Dunn touches on how he did those shots:

"I had a person behind a ticket counter give me a roll of luggage tape before she left. I then used a wheel chair that had a tall pole on the back of it and taped my iPhone to that. Then I would put it on the moving walkway for a dolly shot. I also used the extended handle on my computer bag and taped the iPhone to my handle. I would tuck different stuff under the bag to get the right angle. For the escalator shot I had to sprint up the steps after I got my shot so the computer bag didn't hit the top and fall back down. Quite fun!"

I always tell people, including students, that they are not limited by technology. There are always cooler, more powerful and more expensive tools available. But so what? You are lucky enough to have a smart phone. And with this ubiquitous device you can still do quality presentations of all types, including short vignette or slice of life videos like this one above. Students always ask me where they can get good photos or video for presentations. I tell them to get their ideas clear and their story structure down first. Brainstorm, get organized, then sketch out what visuals you will need (if any). In most cases they can shoot all the photos or video footage they need themselves using their smart phone and a bit of editing.

One thing that makes Dunn's video seem so good, even though it is shot with a phone, is that he did not use a lot of transitions and effects. Novices will almost always use a dozen or more transitions and effects in such a video, almost all of them cheesy. Dunn kept things simple and focused on getting good material and then keeping the editing simple stylistically, though it was not doubt a lot of work to get the lip-synching perfect and build tension as the song progressed.

Resonating a shared theme
Everyone can relate to feeling lonely or being alone, even being alone in an airport. Many of us have probably fantasized of making our own music video parody of some kind. In the CBC interview Dunn says that he was laughing to himself when thinking of different scenes that the airport interior was offering up, but he figured he was just tired and suspected that what he thought was hysterical was probably not really that funny to others. Dunn had no intention to even post this publicly; it was just a video that maybe his wife would get a kick out. Well, some 72 hours since posting it is already at 3 million views on Vimeo. In the CBC interview he said he was shocked when the views went over 30,000, about 29,999 more than he ever expected. I wonder how he is feeling now?

What makes this fun little video piece work is that it is not about ego. Dunn never intended this to be seen outside his family and a few friends. This was just for a laugh. These humble intentions lend an air of authenticity to it, and yet he took the care to make it as good as possible. Even though he is in almost every shot, it is not about him. This resonates because, like any good story, it is not about the characters, it is about the viewers. Almost everyone who views this will be touched and amused. If you can make someone have a good laugh, or touch them in some other positive way emotionally, I'd call that a pretty good day. A lot of people have had a good heartfelt laugh thanks to Dunn's burst of creativity one night last week in the Las Vegas airport. Let's home Celine Dion is one of them.

UPDATE: Ms. Dion does indeed have a sense of humor. And in the two days since I posted this, Dunn's video has been seen another 9 million times—now over 12 million. Remarkable.

UPDATE 2: Now over 15.5 million as the hits finally begin to die down.

Link to original video on Vimeo.


10 Storytelling tips from Billy Wilder

BillyWilderBilly Wilder (1906–2002) was the first person to win an Academy Award as producer, director and screenwriter for the same film. The film The Apartment (1960) stared Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray and is certainly in my top-10 favorite movies of all time. There is something quite special about Wilder's films. There's a simplicity, clarity, and naturalness that is above all else engaging and human. Even today Wilder is a hero to many filmmakers both young and old. In a 1999 interview with NPR, filmmaker Cameron Crowe talks about his admiration for Wilder's work. It is this bit from Crowe that I find most interesting (emphasis mine):

"...if you talk to many screenwriters or film students, they’re still studying Billy Wilder. And what is it that makes a guy still relevant after more than 50 years of filmmaking? And what you find are values, you know, that people are going to experience over the holiday when they see a movie like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which isn’t, of course, Billy Wilder, but it’s simple, clear, soulful, funny storytelling. And I believe Billy Wilder is the king."
— Cameron Crowe

What makes Wilder and his films still relevant today, suggest Crowe, are themes of deeply human values and "simple, clear, soulful, funny storytelling."  This has relevance beyond writing and fiction, of course. There are many different ways to connect and share your message with an audience, but the storytelling principles noted by Crowe of simplicity, clarity, soulfulness, and humor—backed by authenticity and a respect for your audience—will take you far.

In 1999 Crowe wrote a book called Conversations with Wilder where the legendary and elusive Billy Wilder talks extensively about his life and work. It's gold. In the back of the book Crowe includes a list of ten screenwriting tips by Wilder. This list has now been shared by thousands over the years. "There’s no better film school really than listening to what Billy Wilder says," Crowe said in the 1999 NPR interview. You may not be interested in writing a novel or a screenplay, but the lessons can be applied to the work of anyone who is in the business of story and storytelling, and that certainly includes public speakers and presenters of all types.

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10 Storytelling/Screen Writing Tips From Billy Wilder
The tips here were for screen writers and filmmakers, but with a little imagination, it's not hard to see how Wilder's advice can help us too. After all, Wilder is talking about storytelling, and storytelling—that is, telling true stories— is what we are doing. After each tip by Wilder (in bold) I offer my own thoughts on how the tip relates to the world of presentations. I hope at least some of these tips will stimulate you to find your own applications of the wisdom.

(1) The audience is fickle. You try to prepare the best you can for an audience. But in the end, audiences are unpredictable. What works one night falls flat the next night (ask a comedian). But we need not eat our liver over this. All we can do is prepare the best we can. A presentation is not about us. Even if we are telling "our story," we must think long and hard during preparation how our story is really their story. If our story has a universal theme with an important lesson or some other contribution then it has a shot at resonating. Yes, audiences are fickle, but the old axiom is true: Know your audience.

(2) Grab 'em by the throat and never let 'em go. Don't waste time at the beginning with formalities or filler talk. Start with a bang. A hook. Get their attention and then sustain that interest with variety, unexpectedness built upon structure that is taking them some place. We remember the beginning and the ending the most—don't waste those important opening minutes. At the end of the documentary Billy Wilder Speaks, Wilder warned against being timid when he says, only half jokingly, "You have to use both knees to kick them in the balls.” Start strong.

(3) Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
Make sure the arc of change is clear. This one may not seem as directly relevant unless your narrative has a clear protagonist, but one thing we can take from this tip is this: Make sure the arc of change in your talk is clear and it is meaningful. Whether you are talking about a customer or a person in history or yourself, the series of actions you unfold for your audience—actions often involving a conflict to overcome—must illuminate a clear arc of change.

(4) Know where you're going.
Story takes you some place. Have you ever listened to a speech and wondered where the heck it was going? It is not enough that you know where this presentation is headed, the audience needs to feel that the parts are connected and that everything that is included is included because it is necessary. Too many presenters—and writers for that matter—get bogged down in back stories or details about minor—or even irrelevant—points and momentum dies as the audience begins scratching their collective heads in confusion or boredom. What is included must be included for a good reason. Remember the dramatic principle Chekhov's Gun:  "Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there." —Anton Chekhov

(5) The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
A plot point is an event that propels the action in a new direction. A typical three-act film may have two major plot points. The first plot point comes at the end of Act I and takes us in a new direction in Act II. The second plot point signifies the end of Act II and gives the story momentum for Act III. One takeaway for presenters, however, is that we must have a very clear structure that is the framework of our talk, but that framework does not necessarily have to be clear to the audience. Our events, which may be in essence similar to plot points in a drama, are certainly events that get the audiences attention, pique their curiosity, surprise them, make them question and want to know more, etc. But the audience is not aware of the structure or that it is a "plot point" or an attempt to engage and propel the story forward. The audience is too busy listening and yearning to know what comes next.

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(6) If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
Again, wonderful advice for a screen writer, but what about us? In drama, the third act (usually) is the climatic conclusion. Our conclusion in many ways is the most important part. People remember the beginning and ending the most. The ending should be the pay off. But a lot of speakers have great difficulty with the ending. One reason for this is they prepare speeches or presentations in the typical linear outline method in slideware. They spend a lot of time filling the talk with data, facts, and often unconnected opinions and events to beef up their talk without really considering first where their destination was in the first place. When this happens you get a rather weak beginning followed by a lot of stuff in the middle and concluding with a weak little ramble at the end. The presenter has problems with the ending because he never set down the foundation of the talk at the beginning.

(7) A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They'll love you forever.
Treat your audience with respect and don't try to beat them over the head with your message. The best storytellers, no matter the genre, craft the material so that the audience can be an active participant in figuring things out. No one wants to be lectured to or fed conclusions all the time. Treat the audience as intelligent participants in this journey. Whenever possible show them, don't just tell them. And of course, in the classroom or training room, participants should be doing not just watching or listening. (Ernst Lubitsch was Billy Wilder's mentor.)

(8) In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they're seeing.
This one is related to number (7). When possible, show don't just tell. And when telling, be careful not to describe what they are seeing. Design visuals so that it is obvious. With quantitative displays, for example, it is useful and a very good practice to explain the vertical and horizontal axis and set up the audience for the visual display that you are about to show them. If it is a good graph the data will be easy to see and the data will be clear. You then can focus on talking about the consequences of the data, the meaning in context. What are the opposing arguments or different interpretations of the same data, etc. Too often audiences are just trying to figure out what they are seeing while the presenter rambles on or moves on to another point, leaving the audience behind.

(9) The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
Think about how you can introduce an event near the end that really gathers you some momentum. This is a twist, something unexpected that increases the tempo for the last part of your talk. When they say go out on a bang, they ain't kidding. So in the preparation stage, what can you include in the structure of your talk—an event or a revelation or an unexpected finding, etc.—that spins the talk in a new direction and sets the stage for a compelling ending or conclusion?

(10) The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then — that's it. Don’t hang around.
Two things we can take from this. (1) Momentum is always important, but the beats or the tempo must really build, especially at the end. It builds to such a degree that your ending is engaging and obvious. And then (2) it is time to be done. One of the worst things you can do is to go over your allotted time or to linger, repeating the same message long after it was understood. This old chestnut by Franklin D. Roosevelt is a good reminder:  “Be sincere, Be brief, Be seated.”

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Bonus Tips
Here are a couple of more tips I gleaned from researching the great Billy Wilder.

• Don't be boring.

Another "rule" from Billy Wilder is not on the list, perhaps because it is implied, but it is simply this: Don't be boring. A simple guideline but it's indeed very hard to achieve. "I have ten commandments," Wilder said. "The first nine are, thou shalt not bore. The tenth is, thou shalt have right of final cut."

• The more complicated the story, the simpler the visuals
In this last one I am paraphrasing Wilder from one of his interviews in the Billy Wilder Speaks documentary. If your story is rather simple then "you can be ornate" or be a bit more complex with the visual treatment. But if the story is quite complicated then Wilder suggests a very simple approach to the use of visuals. This obviously is an approach that translates well to a lot of presentation situations as well. Certainly when showing quantitative displays, especially complex ones, you want to remove any extraneous material and keep the visuals simple and clear.

Bonus II
Here is a 4-min cut from the classic The Apartment. At the end you will see an important plot point. It's a wonderful film. See it on DVD if you get a chance.