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May 2015

In Memory of The Sushi Maestro, Shuichi Inoue

Shu_inoueShuichi Inoue, the "Sushi Maestro," gave a beautiful, heartfelt presentation at TEDxKyoto last year about his passion and dream to spread the innovative approach of his art to the world. Yesterday, tragically, Shuichi's life was cut short by a careless driver on a Japanese freeway. All of us in the TEDxKyoto community are in a state of shock right now. Both Shuichi and I presented in the same session at TEDxKyoto last Fall. I met him in the green room back stage. He was gracious, humble, and all smiles. Shuichi was the nicest guy you could ever meet. I can't believe he's gone. 

I'm sorry that I have no elegant words to describe Shuichi or the pain that we all feel today. All I can do is share one of his last recorded moments below. I hope the whole world can see his TEDxKyoto talk. Please watch the video below. English subtitles are available (thanks to the TEDxKyoto team), so please click the CC button if they do not display automatically.

Japanese culture is deep and wide with many lessons for us all, and Shu was on a mission to share it with a creative spirit and an open, humble heart. The last part of his TEDxKyoto talk above touches on his dream and his optimistic approach to the future. These words are hard to hear today. Our hearts are terribly heavy, but I hope that if you have any interest in Japanese culture and the art of sushi that you'll pass Shu's TEDxKyoto video on to others and share his work and his innovative spirit. Here's a bit of his talk:

"I want to continue on a journey to share Japanese culture to the world through sushi and also hope to use what I have learnt from being exposed to other cultures in evolving sushi further. Sushi has infinite possibilities. With the ingredients that will bring out these possibilities, with Japanese traditions, and other cultures of the world, I will continue my adventure. I hope to shed light on these hidden values, mold them into shape, and deliver them to you. People have yet to realize the possibilities and attractiveness hidden in sushi. It's not only about consuming fresh fish, but being able to experience the crystalization of painstakingly acquired skills and art in one single moment. This moment, I believe, is the greatest luxury one can experience and is essentially, the aesthetics of sushi. I'm lucky to have been born in a well off country like Japan and I'm truly happy I am able to be a sushi chef. I have embarked on a journey to continue to fuse diverse things, challenge Japan and the world, and I hope to continue to shed light on hidden possibilities, shape them, and deliver them to people all over the world."

Here's the video from his website which was shown in the presentation.

Our hearts are with you and your family, Shuichi.

Sushi Maestro web site.


The Key to story structure in two words: Therefore & But

Therefore-but_southparkThere are a ton of storytelling-related books and websites in the cosmos. And there is no shortage of people giving story advice and tips. Much of the advice is helpful, but the enormous volume of information related to writing or telling better stories can be overwhelming. Therefore, when someone credible comes along who offers free, insanely simple yet effective advice for improving one's story, he will find a very large audience indeed. This is exactly what happened just a few years ago, all quite by accident it would seem.

Southpark_DVDIn 2011 Comedy Central began shooting a documentary about the process behind the creation of a typical South Park episode. The short film—"Six Days to Air: The Making of South Park"— focuses on the co-creators and lead writers for the show, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, as they and their team brainstorm ideas, write, rewrite, record dialog, and finally animate one entire show in just six days. The documentary begins as Matt and Trey return from New York City where their first Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon, had just opened to rave reviews. Now back in Colorado, they find themselves with no ideas for the next episode of South Park and with the pressure of producing a show that will air in less than a week. This, they say, is all quite normal for them. The process is intense and the pressure is palpable, but without the crazy deadline, says Trey Parker, the episodes would never get finished. At first, Matt and Trey and a few other writers and producers sit in a room with a large whiteboard and bounce ideas around. Often Usually the ideas are absurd, but if it makes others in the room laugh, then they may be on to something. "For every good idea we get, there are a hundred not so good ones," Matt Stone says. (You can find the Six Days to Air documentary as an extra on the complete 15th Season of South Park DVD.)

Therefore & But
The entire documentary is insightful, but there is one 45-second bit that popped out to anyone who is interested in writing or telling stories. When talking about the frantic rewriting process of their script, Trey reveals his simple rule for rewriting and improving the story. "I call it the rule of replacing ands with either buts or therefores." Trey says that a common trap a lot of writers fall into is describing actions and events in a typical "this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened...." This kind of X and then Y and then Z progression—similar to creating a list of things—is not engaging. This approach to writing (or speaking) is dull and does not generate momentum, let alone sustain it. Therefore, Trey says, "whenever I can go back in the writing and change that to "this happened, therefore this happens. But this happens..." In other words, says, Trey, "Whenever you can replace your 'ands' with 'buts' and 'therefores,' it makes for better writing."

Later that year in 2011, Trey and Matt surprised a “Storytelling Strategies” class at NYU as part of a mtvU series and offered up story advice, once again explaining the "Replacing ands with therefores and buts" story structure tip. Watch the 6-min clip below.

Get More:

Here's the transcript from the key part of the video above where Trey Parker explains their simple but oh so effective rewriting tip.

"Each individual scene has to work as a funny sketch. You don’t want to have one scene and go ‘well, what was the point of that scene?’ So we found out this rule that maybe you guys have all heard before, but it took us a long time to learn it. But we can take these beats, which are basically the beats of your outline. And if the words ‘and then’ belong between those beats… you’re f****d. Basically. You got something pretty boring. What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down is either the word 'Therefore' or 'but,' right? So what I’m saying is that you come up with an idea and it’s like ‘okay, this happens’ and then ‘THIS happens.’ No no no. It should be ‘this happens’ and THEREFORE ‘this happens.’ BUT ‘this happens’ THEREFORE ‘this happens.’ … And sometimes we will literally write it out to make sure we’re doing it. We’ll have our beats and we’ll say okay ‘this happens’ but ‘then this happens’ and that affects this and that does to that and that’s why you get a show that feels okay." 

But, there's more...
Right, I'm sure you've got it, but here's one more explanation of the Trey Parker story tip. Below is a wonderful video essay by Tony Zhou where he explains how important Buts and Therefores are in creating a tight, well structured story. As Tony says, as much as possible, we want to avoid the dreaded "and then, and then, and then..." Tony also touches on Alfred Hitchcock's story structure technique called "Meanwhile, back at the ranch." This is where you have two (or more) things going in parallel. When you reach the peak of one then you can move to the other. You see this in films a lot. Tony Zhou is a remarkable video essayist. Checkout all of his video essays. He's a great teacher.

F for Fake (1973) - How to Structure a Video Essay
from Tony Zhou on Vimeo.

I first came across this therefore/but story structure tip in a great screenwriting book called Screenwriting 101 by Film Crit Hulk! This is one of the freshest screenwriting books I have ever read (and there are a gazillion screenwriting books). In the book, Hulk talks for a couple of pages about the Trey Parker and Matt Stone simple tip of changing ands to therefores and buts. After reading this I went out and purchased the South Park season 15 DVD just so I could get the documentaries which are included as extras. It was worth it.

Remember, there are no panaceas, but looking again at your writing—or your presentation structure—and going back and changing your 'and then' to a 'but' or 'therefore' can make a huge difference as you continue to tighten your story, giving it tension and momentum.

Norm Macdonald: A profile of authenticity on stage

Last Friday, viewers of David Letterman's Late Show witnessed one of the finest, heartfelt monologues ever on American late-night TV, by an emotional Norm Macdonald. A few years ago, I wrote a piece called We don't seek your perfection, only your authenticity, featuring a TED talk by Brene Brown. Brown says in her book The Gifts of Imperfection that, "Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection." What Norm Macdonald did in his final appearance on the Late Show was beautiful, honest, and as authentic as it gets on stage. Comedian Rob Schneider called Macdonald's performance "...comic perfection and grace." I don't want to give anything away, but if you have eight minutes, please watch the monologue below.

I've long been a fan of Norm Macdonald. He's always seemed to be the most genuine of standup comedians. He never became a household name, though he is certainly successful by any definition. The comedian from Ottawa may best be known for his five years as an SNL cast member and anchor for Weekend Update. Clearly the standup community respect and admire him. As with standup, so it is in life: the most genuine and the most authentic people are the ones who touch us the most and are the ones we remember.

Thank you, Norm, for showing us how it's done.

B.B. King (1925–2015): Incomparable Bluesman, Masterful Storyteller

One of the greatest storytellers of our time has died. B.B. King passed away today in Las Vegas. The legendary blues musician was 89. Please allow me to quote from This excerpt is from a post I wrote ten years ago called Presentation, blues, and tapping into your creative soul:

B.B. King is a legend. No one does it like he does. He's not flashy and he doesn't try to impress with speed or technique. That's not what it's about. That's not what the blues is about. It's about telling a story and making a connection in a way that can not be duplicated by anyone else. If you are being true to yourself and the audience, if you are authentic, how could it possibly be duplicated?

Many people can play good technique. With study, technique is not too difficult for many people. Computers, for example, can play "perfect technique." But even with perfect technique, computer-generated blues would lack substance and would seem empty. It would seem empty because there is no "feel" to it. To me "feel" is that kind of perfectly imperfect human quality that conveys emotion and the spontaneity of the time. That one moment in time that can not be repeated the same way again. And that's beautiful.

Five hundred years from now—a thousand years from now—they will still be playing B.B. King songs and paying tributes. B.B. King masterfully told stories with his songs, but rather than link to one of his legendary hits here, please take a look at this short video featuring B.B. King sharing a story from his younger days, with another legend Buddy Guy. It's beautiful.

The Thrill is Gone
Here's B.B. King from 1993 storytelling through one of his classics. Put the headphones on and crank up the volume. It's wonderful. As Jimi Hendrix said, "Blues is easy to play, but hard to feel." Is there anyone who played and sang more evocatively than B.B. King? He was the true master of communicating feelings.

Long live the King.

Shokunin Kishitsu & The five elements of true mastery


A few years ago, I dined in Tokyo with a friend who was here in Japan on business from California. My friend is the CEO of a multi-billion dollar tech company with offices worldwide, including in Japan. He's someone I greatly admire and look up to for advice, wisdom, and inspiration. He's a powerful leader, a successful business person, and a nice guy to boot. So when he said that he was absolutely shocked that I had not seen the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi, I felt ashamed of my failing and placed an order for the DVD immediately on Amazon. "I can't believe you have not seen this movie!" he said. "I must have seen it 5-6 times by now and there's always something to learn." Here it is a few months later and in that time I too have seen the movie 5-6 times. My friend was right, there are many valuable lessons in this documentary. I recommend the movie to anyone who is interested in a beautiful visual narrative that is a mix of innovation insights and inspiration.

Shokunin Kishitsu
Shokunin kishitsu (職人気質) translates roughly as the “craftsman spirit." The movie, in spite of its title, is not about sushi, it's really about how to be a master shokunin, how to become truly great as a master craftsman. Yes, if you like sushi—and beautiful cinematography of sushi—then you'll not be disappointed. But even if you have zero interest in sushi, you will be motivated and inspired by this film. The film is not perfect, of course. For example, the narrative could use more objectivity and a more critical eye. There are surely more downsides to Jiro's approach (not to mention the issue of over fishing which is touched only very superficially). Yet, on the whole, it's a wonderful documentary. No matter your job or your dreams, there may be a valuable lesson or two in this gem of a film that will help you in your pursuit of mastery. Checkout the trailer below for the feel of the film.

Five elements of Mastery
There are many lessons from the film, but I will focus here on five main points that the film makes early on. Food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto speaks of what makes Jiro a true master at his art. "He sets the standard for self-discipline," Yamamoto says. "He is always looking ahead. He's never satisfied with his work. He's always trying to find ways to make the sushi better, or to improve his skills. Even now, that's what he thinks about all day, every day."   

What does any of these points below have to do with presentation? Well, public speaking, including presentation given with the aid of multimedia, is an art. It may be a big aspect of your life and career, or it may play a very minor role. But the art of presentation, and the art of communication in general, is something worthy of an obsessive pursuit of excellence. No matter how good you are today, you can get better.

Below are the five attributes, according to Yamamoto, that are found in any great chef. Think about how you—or your team—can apply these to your own work (art).

1. Majime (真面目). A true master is serious about the art. He or she strives for the highest level possible always. The commitment to hard work is strong. The level of dedication is constant. As Jiro's older son says in the film, "We're not trying to be exclusive or elite. The techniques we use are no big secret. It's just about making an effort and repeating the same thing every day." Their approach may be simple but their dedication and execution is what sets them apart.

2. Kojoshin (向上心). Always aspire to improve oneself and one's work. There is an old Zen adage that says once you think you have arrived, you have already begun your descent. One must never think they "have arrived." One of the shokunin at the fish market touches on this theme in the film while searching for the perfect fish. "...Just when you think you know it all, you realize that you're just fooling yourself," he says. One must always try to improve. "I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit, says Jiro. "There is always a yearning to achieve more."

3. Seiketsukan (清潔感). Cleanliness, freshness. "If the restaurant doesn't feel clean, the food isn't going to taste good," Yamamoto says. One can not prepare and perform well if the environment is cluttered, messy, or dirty. Some people say that a disorganized work space is liberating. I am not in that camp. For me at least, a dirty, cluttered office decreases my creativity and increases my anxiety. I am not a neat freak by any means, but when my office is cluttered, my mind is cluttered too (and often vice versa). This article touches on this issue outside the kitchen (A Tidy Office Space is the Key to Creative Thinking.)

4. Ganko (頑固). Stubbornness, obstinacy. The fourth attribute is...Impatience, Yamamoto says. "They are better leaders than collaborators. They're stubborn and insist on having it their way." Jiro is an individualist in pursuit of excellence rather than a team player in search of consensus. This does not mean he does not rely on his team or listen to them, but his team is hand picked and trained by him. In the end it is his vision and his responsibility.

5. Jyonetsu (情熱). Passion, enthusiasm. From the very first moments of the film: "Once you decide on your must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That's the secret of success...and is the key to being regarded honorably." No passion, no art.

Your work, your art
The spirit of the shokunin is the pursuit of perfection. The pursuit is hard and the journey long, never ending in fact. But you love what you do in spite of the hardships. The work is not at all about the money. "Shokunin try to get the highest quality fish and apply their technique to it," Jiro's oldest son says. "We don't care about money. All I want to do is make better sushi." 

Seth_godinRemember that the shokunin lessons here are not only for chefs or artists such as painters, musicians, dancers, etc. In the book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? famed business guru Seth Godin makes the case that many dedicated professionals are doing art: “Art isn't only a painting. Art is anything that's creative, passionate, and personal. And great art resonates with the viewer, not only with the creator." An artist, says Godin, "is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo. And an artists takes it personally." You must throw yourself into it, suggest, Godin, "Art is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another.”

"I'll continue to climb, trying to reach the top...but no one knows where the top is." — Jiro Ono

The final few lines from the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi sum up the lessons from the master shokunin.

look ahead and above yourself.
Always try...
to improve on yourself.
Always strive to elevate your craft.
That's what he taught me.

Star Wars VII trailer: Storytelling & the invisible structure

Trailer_picThe Star Wars storytelling universe has always provided many lessons for storytellers of all kinds. Over the years I've often referenced characters from the series or story advice from George Lucas (here, and here, and here, for example). Obviously we are all very excited about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, coming to theatres this December. On April 16, the second trailer to Star Wars VII was released and was viewed a staggering 88 million times in the first 24 hours. When the trailer was shown live to the audience at the Star Wars Celebration event that day in California, the crowd went nuts, according to Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy. "When Harrison [Han Solo] and Chewie come on screen and he says 'Chewie, we're home!' and the entire room of almost eight thousand people just leapt to their feet and roared, I mean I can't think of anything I've ever been to—other than a rock concert—that felt quite like that." I also got a big kick out of the trailer and have seen it now dozens of times. One reason the trailer is so good, I think, is because it is laid over a clear organizational structure. So yes, even a 2-minute movie trailer can teach us a thing or two about organizing and presenting information. I'll deconstruct the trailer just a bit below, but first take a look at the trailer if you have not seen it yet (and once more even if you have).

The art of tapping emotions

Shortly after the trailer was released this month, the internet was abuzz with this clip below of Catholic priest and Star Wars über fan Father Roderick who decided to film his reaction to watching the much-anticipated clip for the first time. His reaction is beautiful, heartfelt, and honest. When we see authentic joy like this, we can't help but feel that joy ourselves. Emotions, good or bad, are contagious (see mirror neurons). I have shown this clip to two classes of Japanese college students, and both classes were filled with uproarious laughter of delight as they were moved by the pure childlike joy of Fr. Roderick.

Lessons from a trailer
Trailers often follow the traditional three-act structure of traditional storytelling. Act I provides the setting, and the set-up or premise. Act II reveals a bit of the conflict including the element which the hero must struggle. Act III of a trailer usually is an upbeat, dynamic mix of climax elements, characters, chaos, rich sounds, etc. that hint of the excitement in the film without ever giving the story away. In the six-minute video presentation below, Father Roderick does an excellent job of deconstructing the trailer and hints at some lessons that we can apply to our own presentation or storytelling projects. As Father Roderick notes, the latest Star Wars trailer is not just a collection of random cool images. Instead, he says, "there is a very deliberate structure and narrative to this trailer—that's why it's so good." He breaks the trailer down not into the three parts of exposition/conflict/resolution, but instead he looks at how the structure of the 2-minute visual narrative takes us from the familiar to the new, from the new to the familiar, and then home. Father Roderick's presentation and delivery are excellent and well worth a look. Following the video I highlight some of his points and add some of my own.

ACT I: Setting. (Familiar, but a new time)
Familiar elements such an X-wing fighter and a Star Destroyer. While they are familiar, they have crashed a long time ago, suggesting the passage of some time. The planet looks like the familiar Tatooine, but it's not (there must be many planets with harsh desert climates in the galaxy. Why not?).

This scene pans to pull off a beautiful slow reveal. The novice presenter is similar to the novice writer in that both will tend to reveal too much too quickly. A slow reveal spurs questions, questions create tension, and tension is a key element of the conflict. Though this scene is only a few seconds long, the slow pan brings us in, then surprises us. "Oh wow!" is the usual reaction to this bit.

Darth Vader's mask is again a familiar element but it's burnt, a relic from another era. We even hear the faint sound of Vader's breathing. What could this mean?
R2-D2 and what appears to be Luke Skywalker. Luke's bionic hand lacks skin and the scene is unsettling. It feels familiar, but clearly great changes have taken place. These are new times. All of this stimulates our curiosity and makes want to know what this is all about.

The passing of the lightsaber, symbolic of transition from the old to a new mission and a new generation (remember than Luke received what appears to be the same lightsaber from Obi-wan Kenobi). 

ACT II: Conflict (New, but also familiar)
Introducing the new characters, new protagonists, new antagonists, and elements of a new conflict. These are familiar archetypes and the familiar age-old battle of the little guy standing up to the powerful. Father Roderick calls it the old David and Goliath battle. Weak vs. the powerful, the oppressed vs. the oppressor, the rebels vs. the empire.

Familiar X-wing fighters but with slight modifications.

Again, a familiar element of a pilot in an X-wing fighter, but it's a new character.

Rey, Finn, and BB-8. Young, small, fragile vs. powerful explosion and TIE Starfighters in pursuit. Great example of contrast.

An antagonistic force. Kylo Ren, the force that will try to prevent our heroes from reaching their objective.

Another projection of the power that our heroes are up against. An amazing shot with great visual contrast.

Another example of great Contrast. A close up of Rey. A lone, young individual is a stark contrast to the preceding images of the evil power of a menacing army. A wonderful juxtaposition.

Rey's image is contrasted again with the projection of power from the Empire in the form of a battle scene.

A threatening, chrome trooper. All slick, clean, and menacing.

A great contrast from the chrome trooper scene. The grimy insides of the Falcon, and the tiny, innocent looking BB-8.

An important symbolic image. Rey reaching out to Finn. How will the weak beat the powerful? Fr. Roderick speculates that it is the force of friendship that helps them defeat the enemy. While the Empire is based on fear, the resistance is based on something far stronger.

Classic David vs Goliath. The Falcon vs. massive Star Destroyer (with a TIE fighter on its tail).

ACT III: Climax (New, yes, but don't worry, we're coming home.)
Returning home. While the prequels were often sterile and filled with soulless CGI, coming home here can also mean that the movie will a return to the original, more lifelike, imperfect, grimy world, symbolized by the Falcon.

Talk about saving the best for last. Just as you think the trailer is over as the screen fades to black, they hit you with this. "Chewie, we're home." This reminds me of Steve Jobs's "One more thing." Not only is it the climax, it is also a clear theme to the trailer. That is, this is a new Star Wars, but it's also the old Star Wars that the fan base so dearly loves. Take a look at this compilation of fan reactions to this last scene. Clearly the fan reaction is positive, to say the least.

When viewers are at their peak excitement—bam! The familiar Star Wars logo and music.

While most trailers today are filled with so much detail from the story that you often feel deflated, feeling that you now have no reason to go see the film, this Star Wars trailer shows great restraint. Although it's based on a clear structure and builds excitement with each clip, it leaves the audience both satisfied *and* desperately yearning to see more. A quintessential teaser. December can't get here fast enough.