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May 2014

Change & the Art of Small Victories

Jfk.295John F. Kennedy is often reported to have said "The only reason to give a speech is to change the world." Over the years this has been paraphrased by many speaking and training professionals. Not surprisingly, people occasionally mock this kind of statement as being just so much hubris or pomposity. "Surely," they proclaim, "not every presentation or speech is important enough to even make the slightest difference." However, when we say "change the world," we do not mean necessarily to change the world in a monumental, earth-altering, life-changing way. The operative word in that phrase is change. Affecting a change is a necessary condition of an effective speech. "A presentation that doesn’t seek to make change is a waste of time and energy," says business guru Seth Godin.

We do not have to make a speech like Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi, or Churchill, etc. But we do have to think long and hard—before our speech—of just what kind of change we are aiming for with our particular audience. Presentations and talks are usually a mix of information, inspiration, and motivation. To really affect a change we need to do more than just give information. If information were all that was required to make a change, we could send an email or a document for people to read and cancel the talk. A live talk must impact the heart as well as the mind.

The little victories that you win
Making a small difference is reason enough to get out of bed every day. We do not always need—or even want—to make such a grand impact. Often we are just lucky to make a small change, perhaps influencing or making a difference in a few people's lives that day. The speech (or presentation) itself is ephemeral and will soon be forgotten, but if we can make even a tiny influence, we can take satisfaction in that. If your presentation gets people talking—not about you necessarily, but about your idea—then this is at least a small victory. I was reminded of this while researching the legendary filmmaker Billy Wilder. At the end of the documentary Billy Wilder Speaks, Wilder says something relevant to all storytellers, from filmmakers to the guy making a speech at his local business group:

"You tell them something they can take home with them....the kind of film that people see and then go to a drug store to talk about it for half an hour. If you pull that off, it's great." Wilder continues. "It's very gratifying if your have a successful picture and it tells them a little something new that they did not know about it, or it makes them interested in a subject that was strange to them. These are the little victories that you win."

We will not impact everyone in even our greatest presentations. But if we can get enough people talking about the content in the hours or days after our time on stage, that may be enough. That's something. That's a small victory. Maybe we have lit a spark or motivated someone just a little to explore our message more deeply in future. That is change. It may not be a big change, but it is a change...and that is making a difference.


Study the basics: John Lasseter on the secret to success

PixarBallJohn Lasseter is Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios and Principal Creative Advisor, Walt Disney Imagineering. He's a two-time Academy Award-winning director and today oversees all Pixar and Disney films. Not bad for a guy who first learned how to entertain an audience by working part-time as a skipper on the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland during his college days. A few years ago the Disney Pixar Facebook page asked fans to submit questions for Lasseter. The answer here in this two-minute video reply by Lasseter to the question "Any advice for aspiring animation students?" is simple and wise and is relevant for just about any creative person.  

Two-minutes of great advice from the master
In the clip below Lasseter shares his advice. Using our imagination just a little, it's not too hard to see how the spirit and even the letter of what he says is relevant for those outside animation as well.

"Do not forget to study the basics," Lasseter says. A list of some of the basics:
 • Basic drawing (figure drawing, perspective drawing, etc.)
 • Basic design (visual grammar, design process, etc.)
 • Fundamentals of animation (principles of animation, movement, etc.).
 • Film grammar (e.g., learning from staging in live action, etc.)
 • Story/storytelling. Three-act story structure. Creative writing, etc.

As for "design" what Lasseter means to have have a sold level of visual literacy in general and also a real understanding of the myriad visual design principles such as line, shape, space, balance, value, color theory, scale and proportion, focal point, and many, many more fundamentals.

It's like eating your vegetables
"You've got to learn all these basics," Lasseter says, "it's kind of like eating vegetables." Most people, he says, do not want to spend the energy learning the fundamentals and "just want to get on to the more flashy stuff of using all the latest software." The problem is, Lasseter says, the software is ephemeral. "Throughout your career the software will change. It will always evolve and get better." So Lasseter says what is important is to remember this: "Software never makes a movie entertaining. It's what you do with the software that matters." And what you end up doing with software, Lasseter says, you get from drawing upon the knowledge and insights you have obtained by having a solid base in the fundamentals.

"I rely on the basic fundamentals of art, and design, and filmmaking, and animation, and storytelling every single day of my career. It's something that is just a part of you, It's the foundation in which you work, and without won't go anywhere."

Forget the technology
In this piece below, Lasseter says that the technology is amazing and it is getting better all the time. The tools are remarkable. "But!" says Lasseter, "the most important thing is, as you are deciding to learn about computer animation, forget the technology! The technology never entertains an audience—it's what you do with the technology. Therefore, the most important thing to learn is learn the basics...learn the fundamentals...of art...of drawing....color theory....principles of animation..."

Yes indeed. Technology never made a bad story good and no amount of technology will make an ineffective presentation an effective one.

Sharing stories from the heart...about mom

MomThis Sunday, it's Mother's Day, even here in Japan. Nothing is more important than mom. This is what I always say. I don't care how sentimental or saccharine it sounds, the bond and the love between a mother and child is the most precious thing on earth. I am a father to a four-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy. Being a father is my number one job and my number one priority. As a father I'm also learning about the mother-daughter bond as I watch the relationship that my wife and daughter are building. It's beautiful. Yet, the mother-son bond is the one I have the most personal experience with, obviously. For me, my mom is the reason I am the man I am today. My mom passed away in 2010, and think about her everyday. But this quote here gives me inspiration.

OK, since it's Mother's Day, I want to point to two clips below which are beautiful examples of two men paying tribute to their moms by speaking from the heart. The first one is of Kevin Durant who won the NBA MVP Award last week. The clip features the highlights from his speech. Near the end Durant shares a story from his childhood that is particularly touching.


"Genuine, spontaneous, and authentic." These are the terms often used to describe late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson. Ferguson ad-libs much of his material and often goes off script (not that there is much of a solid script to begin with). His approach is unique among the late-night talk show hosts. His approach may not be for everyone, but his dry wit and authentic, down-to-earth style is engaging. Ferguson is my personal favorite. In this second clip below, Ferguson eschews his normal monologue and instead talks about his mother who had just recently passed away.


Here's a bit from me. Below is a 6-min segment from a longer talk I gave at TEDxKyoto in 2012. In this story, which I  also shared at Webstock 2013 in New Zealand, I talk about our two-month-old daughter meeting my mom for the first time, just days before my mother passed away. (Here I share a little more about my mom and what it was like to be with her in her final moments).


Storyboarding & the art of finding your story

Storyroom Storyboarding as we know it may have been pioneered by filmmakers and animators, but we can use many of the same concepts in the development of other forms of storytelling including keynote presentations or short-form presentations such as those made at TED or at conferences, pecha kucha nights, and so so. The storyboard process allows you to flesh out themes and look for patterns as you apply your creativity toward presenting your content in a structured yet engaging way. Storyboarding is a great way to begin to visualize the story of your content.

What can Pixar teach us about storyboarding?
Ever since Pixar made it big with Toy Story in 1995, they have been generous in sharing the "secrets" of their story design and their story process for the world to see. Even if you are not interested in becoming an animator or a filmmaker, the lessons and inspiration one can get from studying the Pixar methods can be a huge help in your work. This 4-minute clip below illustrates a great example of the storyboard process. And if you remember seeing A Bugs Life, the clip will be all that more enjoyable. Joe Ranft, who died in a automobile accident in 2005 during the making of Cars (the film is dedicated to his memory) was the Head of Story in A Bugs Life and also did the voice of Heimlich. At the end of the clip Joe demonstrates the pitching process. Joe was not only super smart and creative, he was a master storyteller and hysterically funny.


In this next clip below, you see the great Joe Ranft storyboard the classic army men sequence from Toy Story. Amazing stuff.


It goes back to Walt Disney
Walt_disneyThis video below is a wonderful introduction to storyboarding with clips from Walt Disney and others. A great storyboard artist is a great communicator (not necessarily a great illustrator/animator). Walt Disney developed the use of storyboards in the 1920s. Storyboards allow film makers to see a blueprint of the movie before going into production. You tack them (your sketches/ideas in visual form) up on the wall so you can see the entire sequence, flow, continuity, etc. Storyboards are an effective, inexpensive way to develop the story. You can "board it up" on the wall and see if it works. Because ideas can be changed easily and quickly, storyboarding works. The key is to put down in your storyboards the minimum amount of information that gives a dynamic and quick read of the content (and the emotions) of the sequence.

A good storyboard artist is a good storyteller. The drawings do not have to be pretty, but they must have the meaning and the feelings behind the idea. A good storyboard artist is a good pitchman. Walt Disney, they say, was an amazing pitchman/storyboard artist. Walt's great ability was his passion and vision behind the pitch. The storyboard pitch is one of the great performance arts developed in the 20th century at Disney (yet no one ever gets to see it). The use of storyboards is one of the reasons Walt Disney's early films were so remarkable; the practice was soon copied.

"At our studio we don't write our stories, we draw them." 
— Walt Disney

With storyboarding you tell the story in the simple form (storyboard reels) before entering the more complex form. The storyboard lets the whole team in on what's going on with the production. The storyboard is "an expensive writing tool, but an inexpensive production tool." The storyboard can cut out a lot of unnecessary work. Storyboards allow you to see what is not working (and toss the bits out that don't work).

"If I can make things work on paper, then I can make them work on the set."Kevin Costner

Applying the concepts
Can you visualize your presentation like a comic? No, not literally perhaps — but something like the sequential flow of a comic or rough sketches in storyboard form. You can do this on a whiteboard, but one of the best analog ways is with sticky notes (Post its) on a wall on in a notebook.

In Presentation Zen 2nd Edition I outline an analog approach to preparing digital presentation visuals. Near the end of the process is when we really start thinking about what visuals we'll want to use. This is the time when I start making very rough sketches of how I want the slides to look. It is a form of storyboarding. I use sticky notes in my own sketchbook. The advantage is I can get the flow and structure down before I ever make slides. Below is a sample of just eight slides from a much larger set. (Click images for larger view.)

Sketchbook    8_slides_order

Suggested reading
From Word to Image: Storyboarding and the Filmmaking Process
by Marcie Begleiter
Directing the Story: Professional Storytelling and Storyboarding Techniques for Live Action and Animation by Francis Glebas
Cinematic Storytelling: The 100 Most Powerful Film Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know by Jennifer Van Sijll