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February 2013

To This Day: A powerful narrative in transformation

In Will Eisner’s wonderful book Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, Graphic Narrative is defined as “…a generic description of any narrative that employs image to transmit and idea. Film and comics both engage in graphic narrative.” Other forms of digital storytelling meet this definition, too, such as this example below which is a beautifully written and powerfully delivered poem by Canadian poet and writer Shane Koyczan. Koyczan teamed up with a host of volunteer animators to produce a seven-minute visual narrative called To This Day. It's a fantastic project. It's a great piece as an audio track, but with the help of animators it became something even more powerful. It has been up for a short time but the evocative, provocative video has received millions of views already.  Watch it on YouYube.

Can the audience relate?

This graphic narrative is something virtually everyone can relate to at some level. Even if one were fortunate enough to have never been bullied in any way at school, surely no one has escape childhood without witnessing the cruel hand of bullying in the classroom and elsewhere or verbal abuse at home. This video resonates with so many because virtually everyone can share what the storyteller had the courage to share here. Koyczan's message is an important one to hear and to share.

“An Audience is always interested in experiences of someone with whom they can relate. There is something very private that occurs within the reader [or listener/viewer] while he ‘shares’ the actor’s experience. The operative word is ‘share,’ because the inner feelings of the protagonist are understandable to the reader who would have similar emotions under the same circumstances.”

                    — Will Eisner in
Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative

To This Day on Vimeo

On the power of speech & telling your own story

Mtfuji-pic-from-GarrLast week I was in the beautiful city of Wellington, New Zealand for Webstock 2013. While working out of my room in the Museum Hotel late one night I received an email from Nick White. Nick had been one of the participants in the first series of seminars I ran in Wellington in 2008. I remembered Nick for his enthusiasm for public speaking as well as his love of mountain running, interests that we share. I had not heard from him for five years, so just in case I did not recall his name, Nick sent me a scan of the note I had written in his PZ book so many years ealier (above). Since I last saw Nick he went through quite an ordeal to say the least. In his email to me he shared the news of his  battle with cancer, and sent me a link to his Ignite talk from 2011. I watched his talk on YouTube immediately and was blown away by his presentation. There are several inspiring elements to Nick's talk, including the delivery itself. My favorite line is from his surgeon, Swee Tan: "Life's a bugger, but we're going for cure." Nick's story of battling cancer, losing his speech, and then working hard to get it back...and then runnning The Goat as planned is truly an inspiring tale of hope, belief, and rugged determination.

Watch Nick's talk in HD on Youtube below. (What is Ignite?)

Preparing analog
The Ignite formula for presentations is 20 slides with each slide advancing automatically every 15 seconds. "I planned the presso very, very carefully, changing and redrafting it many times, thinking about the mood of the story," Nick said. "The constraints of the format actually helped by forcing me to make tough decisions on what was crucial and non-crucial to the story." Nick told me he worked hard to simplify his talk and used techniques from presentation zen as well as using a lot of helpful advice from Olivia Mitchell, a fantastic presentation coach based in Wellington.

Above: A rough sketch Nick drew showing the flow of his talk before he ever made a slide.

Above: One of the rough drafts Nick sketched of how his visuals would actually appear once he had his story down. A good tip is to make rough sketches of the kind of visuals you want *before* you go searching for images.

A story has exposition, conflict, and resolution. Basic yet important stuff. A story, however, is often as much about a journey of change in one's inner world as it is in the physical world. In this case Nick shows us both. Story is transformation, and this story is a remarkable one. Please share Nick White's presentation if you can. It just may help someone who could use a little inspiration right now.

• Contact Nick White on Twitter: @outwardnick
• Nick's website Outward Looking

Lessons in engagement from Flight of the Conchords

EngageWhat makes some of the best speeches or presentations so memorable is not that they are perfect or slick, or overly polished, but that they are human. And to be human is to be imperfect. This is why so many of us are attracted to live musical performances. Studio recordings are fine, but there is a visceral human element that one gets from a live performnce. I loved what Dave Grohl said about this in his 2012 Grammy speech

"...the human element of music is what's important. Singing into a microphone and learning to play an instrument and learning to do your craft, that's the most important thing for people to do... It's not about being perfect, it's not about sounding absolutely correct, it's not about what goes on in a computer. It's about what goes on in here [your heart] and what goes on in here [your head]."

Of course you prepare well and practice. You have a plan. But when it's live things will change as you adapt to the dynamics of the moment and the unique audience before you. As Charlie Parker once said:

        “Master your instrument, Master the music, and then forget
             all that bullshit and just play.” — Charlie Parker

Going analog on stage and the art of storytelling
 All this week I am in Wellington, New Zealnd so I am reminded of a couple of  musicians from Wellington, Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, otherwise known as the Grammy-winning duo Flight of the Conchords. Flight of the Conchords bill themselves as "Formerly New Zealand's fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo a-capella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo." In the clips below what stands out is their naturalness, their self-deprecating nature, their body language, and their ability to simply and without complication engage with their audience as they paint pictures with their lyrics and subtle humor and use their guitars and wit to make visceral connections.

A story about a simple conversation
People are attracted to story. Watch Jemaine and Bret below keep an audience engaged and following their words even when it's a story "about nothing" at all really.

Business Time

Business Time was made into a slicker music video, but this simple analog version below is better. The facial expressions are priceless and go along way toward amplifying the message. It's also a good example of why sometimes visuals are not needed — going completely naked sans slides forces you to use just your words, your nonverbal language, and in this case the music. In a sense, then, *they* are the visuals.

Talkin' about the issues
OK, this one below is a bit weird and perhaps not "politically correct" for some, but if you liked the first two clips you may find this song enjoyable as well. The absurdity of the lyrics are an evocative juxtaposition to the light, upbeat pop riff underlying their words. I just love the simplicity and subtlety of their off-beat and slightly awkward humor and I envy their ability to connect with a live audience.

To live is to have a story to tell

“But how could you live and have no story to tell?” This quote from Fyodor Dostoevsky's White Nights (1848) was sent in by a reader today. Life by its very nature is a struggle, a journey on a road with ups and downs and more conflict than we like to admit. But this is life, this is drama. "Conflict, struggle, overcoming obstacles, both inside and outside, are the primary ingredients in all drama," says Syd Fields in Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. "All drama is conflict. Without conflict, you have no action; without action, you have no character; without character, you have no story; and without story, you have no screenplay." To live is to have a story to tell. Whether you decide to share your story (stories) with others is another matter.

The directness and clarity of the Dostoevsky line reminded me of some of the advice that you might hear from screenwriting guru Robert McKee. The clip below features actor Brian Cox playing the Robert McKee character giving feedback to a writer's question (played by Nicolas Cage) in the Oscar-winning movie Adaptation. It's worth seeing (or seeing again if you are familiar with it).

A takeaway line: "If you write a screenplay without conflict or crisis, you'll bore your audience to tears." We can apply the spirit of this to the world of multimedia presentations as well. You do not have to create material to rival Citizen Kane, but your message can be communicated much better if you identify the conflict and the journey to resolve the conflict while making it clear why your audience should care.

A beautiful story told without a single word

Wonderful lessons in visual storytelling can come from anywhere. Good films, even animated shorts, are rich in storytelling lessons. Below is an animated short by Disney called Paperman which visually merges the simplicity and expressive feel of traditional 2-D sketches with the power of computer-generated imagery (CGI). Visually I find this treatment refreshing somehow. CG animation today is amazing, of course, and with two small children at home I think I've seen every Pixar or Dreamworks film a million times by now. This new film with its less photorealistic imagery is simple and easy on the eyes, and yet it has a depth and richness that never gets in the way or reminds you that you are watching animated drawings. Technical innovations aside, this six-minute film is also a good example of basic storytelling techniques such as creating a specific small world with a clear setting and a sympathetic character that takes us on a small journey of rising intensity, and so on. The short is also a reminder of the power of the visual to tell a story as the film has no dialog (though the audio effects and musical score are excellent). Watch it here or below. (Be sure to choose the HD setting on Youtube.)

Here you can find three short video clips with the film's director John Kahrs discussing the inspiration of the story and the innovative technology behind the making of the Academy Award nominated film.

H/T Thibaud Godet