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January 2013

Lucas, Scorsese: On the need for visual literacy

Visual_literacyA professional or student in the 21st century needs to have a good degree of multimedia literacy. The term multimedia literacy and visual literacy encompass many things and borrow from many disciplines. However, for at least a generation or more when people speak of the need for multimedia literacy (they may call it different things) they very often focus on the high-tech tools of the day. This is especially true in education. But the tools of the day are for the most part ephemeral. But an understanding of the principles and techniques and "rules" found in the broad field of visual communication are the thing of real and lasting value. Hardware and software are important, of course, but what's of much greater value is the software between one's ears.

Part of multimedia literacy includes a theoretical and practical understanding of the principles and techniques found in graphic design and other forms of visual communication including visual storytelling mediums such as filmmaking or cinema. Media such as video (or call it film, motion pictures, etc.) is extremely powerful. We have known this for at least one hundred years. Motion picture is a valuable tool for telling a story or pitching a product or explaining a process, and so on. And yet visual communication in all its various forms, just like the written word, can be used for good or for bad. Today we find ourselves, however, with a population of adults who are largely ignorant about the power of visual communication and multimedia. Yes, they are surrounded by it, they are using it, and they are certainly influenced by it. But the danger is that people do not know that they are influenced by it, or if they have a suspicion that they are, they are not sure how or to what degree. Now, this influence — many may call it manipulation — can be either good or bad, but there is no denying that marketers, advertisers, governments, etc. are attempting to tell visual stories to create a change in the viewer. Many of these stories may be true and sincere. But whether the intent is good or bad, should not an educated person understand the difference?

Below, in separate interviews, two legendary American filmmakers — George Lucas and Martin Scorsese — are very direct in their assertions that visual literacy is crucial for people in today's world and that it should be both more highly valued by educators and taught in schools.

George Lucas on Teaching Visual Literacy and Communications
George Lucas says that visual communication or multimedia literacy should be an integral part of teaching and learning in schools instead of relegated to the artsy peripheral of formal education. Lucas says that what we typically call "the arts" should also be in the regular communication classes were students learn practical applications of graphics, music, various visual arts, and language to tell a story, to sell an idea, to persuade, to question, and so on. Watch video below.

"It's a different way of teaching in the sense that English classes should broaden themselves...and be renamed communication, it's a communication class. You learn how to write, but you also learn graphics...take graphics out of the art department. Take [the art of] cinema and put it into schools...."
                                                                             — George Lucas

Martin Scorsese on the Importance of Visual Literacy
In this 10 minute interview Scorsese comments on visual literacy, cinematic storytelling, violence in film, and on teaching the story of movies. He begins by recalling his childhood and about being influenced by film and TV and how those mediums led to his discovery of  "a different kind of literacy," that is, visual literacy.

"[Young people] need to know how ideas and emotions are expressed through a visual form. We have to begin to teach younger people how to use this very powerful tool...because we know the image can be so strong, not only for good use, but for bad use. Film is very powerful—images are very powerful—and we need to teach younger people how to use them....or at least how to interpret them." 
                                                                            — Martin Scorsese

H/T to Edutopia. A great resource.

The storytelling imperative: Make them care!

Andrew-Stanton_tedPixar Studios filmmaker Andrew Stanton gave a good TED talk about a year ago where he states that one of the key aims of any good story is that it must make the audience care. "Make me care," he says. If you research the advice of famous directors and screenwriters of today and of years gone by you will find this is a common refrain: You have go to make the audience care. Presentations in all their many forms are never just about transferring information alone. We are emotional beings, like it or not, and to connect and engage people to the degree that they will care enough to listen to you, you have to evoke in them some kind of emotion. The TED talk below is well worth watching; the storytelling lessons in this short talk are many.

On the TED stage Stanton does a great job of getting the audience's attention and engages them immediately with a relevant short story in the form of a joke, a joke that gets a big laugh (strong emotional connection). Then he transitions quickly into the first part of his talk. "Storytelling -- (pauses as audience laughs again) -- is joke telling," Stanton says. " We all love stories. We're born for them. Stories affirm who we are. We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. And nothing does a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories. It can cross the barriers of time, past, present and future, and allow us to experience the similarities between ourselves and through others, real and imagined."

Below I highlight some of the more salient points Stanton makes concerning story.

 • Make the audience care.

The greatest story commandment of all says Stanton is: "Make me care. Please—emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically — just make me care." But how to make the audience care? This is the most fundamental question of all. There is no single answer, but all the story tips Stanton touches on in his talk go some of the way toward answering this important question. Obviously one important aspect is having empathy for your audience and trying to craft your story and design your content always with the audience in mind.

• Make a promise from the beginning.
Very early on you need to get the audience to believe that this story is going to go somewhere, that this will be worth their time. "A well told promise," says Stanton, " is like a pebble being pulled back in a slingshot and propels you forward through the story to the end."

• Make 'em work for it.
You don't have to beat people over the head with your message, nor do you need to always make your message painfully obvious. This is not about being vague or unclear, but it is about letting the audience work on their own a little to figure things out. "... the audience actually wants to work for their meal," Stanton says. "They just don't want to know that they're doing that. That's your job as a storyteller, is to hide the fact that you're making them work for their meal. We're born problem solvers. We're compelled to deduce and to deduct, because that's what we do in real life. It's this well-organized absence of information that draws us in." As Stanton says, don't give them 4, give them 2+2 and let them figure it out.

• Story is about change. No change, no story.
"We're all learning all the time. And that's why change is fundamental in story," says Stanton. "If things go static, stories die, because life is never static." Anytime we get on a stage to speak we are talking about change. I think of change in two ways. First, the content of every good presentation or story addresses a change or some kind. Second, an effective presentation or a story told well will create a change in the audience. Sometimes this can be a big change and sometimes it is quite small. Too often, though, the only change the presenter creates in the audience is the change from wakefulness to sleep.

Construct anticipation in your story.
In a great story (or presentation) the audience wants to know what happens next. And more than that, Stanton says, the audience will want to know how it all concludes. In an explanatory narrative a series of actions can establish a narrative flow, and even though this may lack the high degree of tension that you can get with a protagonist struggling with a complication, the sense of journey that is created is something close to anticipation of what comes next. Stanton quotes British playwright, William Archer: "Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty."

• Have a clear theme.
"A strong theme is always running through a well-told story," Stanton says. The theme is often not stated directly in the story but it is the essence or the core idea at the root of the story. Robert McKee refers to this core idea as the "Controlling Idea." If you have a clear sense of your theme or controlling idea, this keeps you from trying to throw too many ideas into one story. For example, McKee says in the book Story that the controlling idea of the movie Groundhog Day is "Happiness fills our lives when we learn to love unconditionally."

• Stimulate a sense of wonder
"The best stories infuse wonder," Stanton says. Everything depends on the context of the presentation, but in most cases a good presentation is a mix of logic, data, emotion, and inspiration. We are usually OK with the logic and data part, but fail on the emotional and inspirational end. Certainly leaders and educators need to infuse a bit of wonder into their talks that inspire people to make a change. A good presentation should not end when the speaker sits down or the class comes to an end.

• Look inside yourself
Where do you find material for storytelling? Draw from your experiences and look inside yourself. Stanton said that this was the first story lesson he ever learned. "Use what you know. Draw from it. It doesn't always mean plot or fact. It means capturing a truth from your experiencing it, expressing values you personally feel deep down in your core."

13 Great Books to Help You Succeed, Create, & Communicate

6a00dRecently I read legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa's autobiography. One of the many things from his book that resonated with me was his strong belief that voracious reading was a key to his creativity. "I've forgotten who it was that said creation is memory," Kurosawa said. "My own experiences and the various things I have read remain in my memory and become the basis upon which I create something new. I couldn’t do it out of nothing. For this reason, since the time I was a young man I have always kept a notebook handy when I read a book…. I have stacks and stacks of these notebooks, and when I go off to write a script, these are what I read. Somewhere they always provide me with a point of breakthrough." Kurosawa's advice to aspiring filmmakers is that they must first become solid screenwriters, and to do this he said, "You must read thoroughly, to the point where you can grasp all these things." Kurosawa was a film director, but he was foremost a storyteller. Now, you may not aspire to make movies, but if you are trying to do good creative work of any kind, the ability to identify and share your ideas through different communication channels in ways that connect and engage is key. In other words, you are a storyteller too.

Below are thirteen books—most of them quite new—that I have read recently which may appeal to professionals and students who desire making a bigger splash in the world or in their local communities by sharing their ideas with more clarity and lasting impact. It is not an exhaustive list, but it's a start.

(1) The Impact Equation: Are You Making Things Happen or Just Making Noise?

Impactby Chris Brogan and Julien Smith
Your ideas can change the world, at least in a small way (and sometimes in a very big way). In the author's own words, this book is "about getting a larger audience to see and act upon your ideas and learning how to build a community around that experience to take it all to an even higher level." We are all "media creators" they say and this book is about helping you get a larger audience to engage with and how to build a community to move your ideas forward. Really good presentation and communication tips in here as well.

(2) To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others
 Dan_pinkby Daniel Pink
The author of A Whole New Mind and Drive hits the nail on the head (again) with this one. No matter what our profession, most of us are in the business of selling our ideas. As with his other books Pink touches just a bit on the science of his advice and offers practical examples and strategies. There is even a chapter on pitching and the six successors of the elevator pitch and how and when to deploy them.

(3) The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly?
Seth_godinby Seth Godin
If you need a little inspiration and motivation, this may be the book for you. If you are already a fan of Seth Godin and have read all his other books and follow his blog, there may not be too much new (but still worth it for SG fans). If you are not so familair with Seth's work, then I think you may find this book especially valuable. There is no (longer) comfort in conformity and playing safe. A good, quick, inspiring read. (A video by Seth on the book.)

(4) Mastery
by Robert Greene
MasterThis is going to be a classic. Greene did a lot of background research on this, as with his other books (like The 48 laws of Power),
and yet it is a real pleasure to read. Greene looks at several famously successful historical figures and outlines what it is they did to achieve mastery. Greene even gets into communication, offering advice on non-verbal communication and how to read people, etc. I loved the "7 Deadly Realities": Envy, Conformism, Rigidity, Self-obsessiveness, Laziness, Flightiness, and Passive aggression. At the end the author offers Strategies for Attaining Mastery. Really good stuff.

(5) Business Model You: A One-Page Method For Reinventing Your Career
by Timothy Clark , Alexander Osterwalder, Yves Pigneur
Biz-model-youThis is a beautifully designed book, as was Business Model Generation (from last year's list). If you are going to make an impact, then you have got to know clearly what you're all about, what your values and strengths are that you're offering the world. This book uses a one-page tool to help you draw your own personal business model, helping you to identify your value proposition, your market, etc. The examples from real people in the book were very valuable. (Here is a video of the book on Amazon).

(6) Make Your Idea Matter: Stand Out with a Better Story
by Bernadette Jiwa
Idea_matterThis is a small book and a good, quick read. Jiwa is a brand specialist and focuses on communication and storytelling in that context. However, even if you are not a marketer or in business at all, I think there are good lessons in here for those people who are trying to get their own story down and clearly communicate it with the world in a way that shows your clear differentiation. One of the chapters includes the "Nine Elements of the Perfect Pitch." A very enjoyable, quick read. Here is a video of Jiwa talking on the subject of the book at TEDxPerth.

(7) HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations
Harvard_nancyby Nancy Duarte
You may already have Nancy's other great books such as Resonate and Slide:ology, but this one has the Harvard Business Review reputation behind it. So if you have a boss who needs more convincing, and you think the HBR name will help sell the ideas, then this book is a good fit. The layout is actually quite simple and straight forward, and the advice and tips are sound, of course. The book covers everything from preparation to delivery.

(8) 100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People
by Susan Weinschenk
100_thingsLike her earlier book (100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People), Weinschenk, a behavioral psychologist, covers each principle and its related practical advice in 2-3 pages. Therefore, although the tips are good and well explained, you will not get great depth with each principle. Still, most people will not be bothered by this. The book is well designed and very easy to scan at a glance. I do not know the author but I was happy to endorse the book when it was published last spring. The "100 things" fall under categories such as "How people think and learn," "How to grab and hold people's attention," "How to motivate people to take action," and six other sections.

(9) The Elements of Graphic Design (Second Edition)
Graphic_designby Alex W. White
I loved the first edition of this book when it was published about 7-8 years ago. This second edition (2011) is similar but with even better examples. The book is perfect for the non-designer who would like to become more design mindful about how to communicate well with graphics, but pros may enjoy the work as well. The material focuses on space, unity, page architecture, and there is a good discussion on type. A great introduction without being dumbed down in anyway. The principles can be applied for the most part to multimedia displays as well. The e-book version is OK, but the hardcopy book is much more beautiful and easy to navigate.

(10) Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story
Storyproofby Kendall Haven
We all know that storytelling is powerfully effective if done well, but is there any evidence that story helps people learn material better or convince an audience to take action, and so on? The author, according to his website, "presents the first-ever proof that 'story structure' is an information delivery system powerhouse, evolutionarily hardwired into human brains." Haven, a senior research scientist turned story-teller and story-engineer, has done a load of background research and gives ample evidence to support the idea that story structure is very effective, not just for fiction or the movies, but in education and business as well. Not always the most exciting read, but there is a ton of good material in this relatively small book. I will be turning to this book often in future.

(11) Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence
by Lisa Cron
WiredAlthough this may seem like a book only for writers, it isn't. The principles can be applied to the world of public speaking and presentation as well. The book is simple and well organized and a very quick read. Each of the twelve chapters is organized around different key storytelling and cognitive principles. For example, in chapter 7, Courting Conflict, the Agent of Change, the "Cognitive Secret" is the brain is wired to strongly resist change, even good change. The "Story Secret" is that story is all about change, which results from unavoidable conflict.

(12) Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction
by Jack Hart
Story_craftJack Hart is a journalist and expert in applying storytelling principles to news stories and non-fiction in general. Yes, this material is great for writers but I found his principles, examples, and insights to fit very well with the art of storytelling in the context of oral presentation as well. His example stories are short and yet real page-turners, which just illustrates that he knows how to tell true stories in ways that blend facts and emotion in a very engaging way. From my highlights page: "So, at its most basic, a story begins with a character who wants something, struggles to overcome barriers that stand in the way of achieving it, and moves through a series of actions—the actual story structure—to overcome them." Many lessons in this book.

(13) APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur-How to Publish a Book
by Guy Kawasaki, Shawn Welch
APEIf you're going to spread your ideas far and wide, then you may consider publishing a book or two on your subject. Finding a publisher can be tricky...or impossible. But who says you need a traditional publisher to publish a book? The aim of APE is to help people take control of their writing careers. The idea behind APE is simple: filling the roles of Author, Publisher and Entrepreneur can get results that rival traditional publishing (and make more money for the author as well). At 300 pages APE really is a of step-by-step guide that provides tactical advice and practical inspiration. Before you read APE, you may really enjoy Be the Monkey - Ebooks and Self-Publishing: A Dialog Between Authors Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath. This book only cost about a buck and is a funny and enlightening read, especially if you are a published author with a traditional publisher. Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath are successful novelists who have walked away from huge advances from traditional publishers to go indie (self-publish).

And many more...
If you have a book that has been particularly helpful for you recently, please feel free to share your tip below in the comments section or send me a note. A book I am in the middle of now is Steve Martin's Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life (2008). I am loving this book. The performing lessons for presenters are many and the book is quite inspiring as well for anyone who is having a tough time "making it." A wonderful read.


Visual presentation lessons from Alfred Hitchcock

Following up on the post below on the lessons from the world of film editing, let's take a look at a short interview with one of the world's great filmmakers, Alfred Hitchcock. Perhaps because Hitchcock began his career working in silent films, the visual mattered more than anything else in his films. "Throughout his career, Hitchcock continued to believe in cinema as a visual medium," says curator Mark Duguid. "For him, dialogue and sound should remain secondary to the image in telling the story." Hitchcock said that silent pictures were the purest form of cinema. "When we tell a story in cinema," Hitchcock is quoted in François Truffaut's book on the filmmaker,  "we should resort to dialogue only when it's impossible to do otherwise. I always try first to tell a story in the cinematic way, through a succession of shots and bits of film in between." There are lessons and inspiration to be found in Hitchcock's unique visual style. In the clip below he touches on editing (or cutting, which he prefers to call assembly or montage) and outlines three fundamental approaches to using images in film. "Montage," according to Hitchcock's definition, "means the assembly of pieces of film which [when] moved in rapid suggestion before the eye creates an idea."

Hitchcock says that cutting (film editing) should not be thought of in terms of "cutting" but rather in terms more like "assembly" or "Mosaic."  Mosaic is assembling something to create a whole that is bigger. In this sense visual storytelling is 1+1=3 (or some other number greater than two). The sum of the pieces you assemble will be bigger - more emotional or more impressive or more memorable, etc. - than the mere total of the individual pieces. Below is a summary of the three approaches touched on by Hitchcock in the clip.

(1) Juxtoposing images in rapid succession

Many people think of cutting, Hitchcock says, as a series of frames following a subject a long a path with a closeup or two thrown in. Hitchcock refers to
D. W. Griffith who was a pioneer in the effective use of film editing a hundred years ago. Hitchcock says that editing (montage) goes much deeper than that. He refers to the shower scene in Psycho as an example of what he calls a more cinematic approach to assembling visual content.

(2) Orchestration of images to create compelling contrasts
This approach looks at the pieces of assembly as soft notes and loud notes and the multiplicity of the variations. The key here is contrast. The example Hitchcock uses is from the second murder in Psycho. Here various compelling medium shots are contrasted suddenly and unexpectedly with an extreme closeup — the equivalent to going from a series of soft notes to a sudden loud note. The effect in this case was shock, but the technique of dramatic variation of size of an image could be used to achieve other desired emotions in the audience as well.

3) Choice of visual can dramatically change meaning
Hitchcock calls this "pure cinema." The power of an image to evoke meaning. No words are necessary. Meaning can be changed dramatically depending on what image you choose to use (or not use).

Keynote slide, image from iStockphoto.

Note: Many storytellers of all sorts including presentation professionals have referred to the lessons from Hitchcock over the years. Nancy Duarte, for example, touches on a few lessons in her book Resonate. And Michael Moesslang has written a whole book (in German) called So würde Hitchcock präsentieren.

The secret to storytelling is in the editing

Cutting_edgePresentation lessons abound in the cinematic arts. Many producers and directors will tell you that what can really make or break a film is the editing. You have probably never heard the names of even some of the most prominent Hollywood editors, even though their work is absolutely crucial to the success of your favorite films. This week I took some time to watch (twice) a documentary called The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Making. Although it is a film about the role of editing in filmmaking, the lessons and principles are applicable to other creative work such as writing, and storytelling of all kinds, including presentations.(Watch a short clip from The Cutting Edge below.)

"Murder your darlings"
Arthur Quiller-Couch's famous advice that we should murder our darlings suggests that we be very careful examining those bits of our story that we love the most. Our attachment to a line or a scene or a clever visual treatment may blind us to the fact that its inclusion, no matter how cool or impressive it may be, does not help the overall message. Objectivity is key, and this is why it is useful to remind ourselves to think like an editor. Because a film editor is not usually involved in all the things that lead up to finally getting the footage in the can (casting, storyboards, weeks/months of shooting, etc.) she maintains the most objectivity and can focus on making the story flow and use her gut too to manipulate shots for emotional effects.

"You don't need what you don't need"
Akira_kurosawa_amazonIn his autobiography, Something Like An Autobiography, legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa spoke briefly on the editing process and the lessons from his mentor Kajirō Yamamoto. "Yama-san in the editing room," Kurosawa wrote, "was a bona-fide mass murderer." It's difficult for us to dispose of pieces that we worked so hard on, but the value of a bit's worth—whether it's in film or literature or multimedia presentations, or even writing software for that matter—should not be measured merely in terms of the labor we put into it. The only question in measuring its value is: from the point of view of the audience, does it work in support of the story? Below is an excerpt from Kurosawa's autobiography on the difficulty of cutting what you worked so hard to create:

"I even thought on occasion if we were going to cut so much, why did we have to shoot it all in the first place? I, too, had labored painfully to shoot the film, so it was hard for me to scrap my own work." Kurokawa goes on to say, "When you are shooting, of course, you film only what you believe is necessary. But very often you realize only after having shot it that you didn’t need it after all. You don’t need what you don’t need. Yet human nature wants to place value on things in direct proportion to the amount of labor that went into making them. In film editing, this natural inclination is the most dangerous of all attitudes. The art of the cinema has been called an art of time, but time used to no purpose cannot be called anything but wasted time. The most important requirement for editing is objectivity. No matter how much difficulty you had in obtaining a particular shot, the audience will never know. If it is not interesting, it simply isn’t interesting. You may have been full of enthusiasm during the filming of a particular shot, but if that enthusiasm doesn’t show on the screen, you must be objective enough to cut it."

It's about the story
"At the end of the day," says Hollywood film editor Zach Staenberg, "all this stuff [filmmaking process/editing] has to work to tell a story. If you're not telling a story, it doesn't matter how much razzle dazzle there is. It's not about the tools, it's about the story." Every frame matters and the inclusion or exclusion of the little things makes a difference. "The difference between a few frames was a scary shark and a big floating turd," says Steven Spielberg in The Cutting Edge documentary. Spielberg also admitted that it was very hard for him to let go of as many frames of the mechanical shark in the final cut of Jaws as he ultimately did because he had worked so hard to get the shots. Thankfully he listened to his editor Verna Fields. Editors are the unsung heros of film, but if we take a closer look even those of us outside of film can learn valuable lessons from their creative work. Whatever the medium, the key in storytelling is cutting the extraneous and the superfluous, keeping in only what helps tell your story.