How a Landscape Impacts a Story

Earlier this month, I published my photography portfolio, and opened it with a gallery of my very best landscapes (five of which are featured in this story). I opened with landscapes just like I would most stories these days. Landscapes are one of the most popular photograph subjects you can see online. They also play a critical role in telling a remarkable written story for brands or individuals alike.

Creating hybrid stories that blend the literal word and the visual photo is not the easiest thing to do. When you consider articles and stories, they are often crafted by writers. Or they are published by photographers with few words serving as captions. The two together are rarely deployed well as a seamless rich media story.

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Together, in a hybrid pictorial, photos compliment the written story by illustrating and expanding on it. The written words expand on the pictures by providing details. For example, the caption for the above photo might read, “Another dawn on the Potomac, how I start at least two of my days every week.” We move from a pretty picture to personal story, one that may or may not be about business.

Landscapes are central to both groups of media assets. They set the scene for the story. They provide a sense of context for where events are happening, either from a business perspective or on a personal level. A landscape can allude to historical context, and words can expanded on that story.

Opening Stories with Scenes and Landscapes

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A lot of people introduce stories with pictures of people. If it’s a business story, we see people at work or an individual person, a protagonist. If it’s a personal vacation, we see people at the airport. Perhaps they start their album with a picture of them at the destination. I personally like to introduce stories with landscapes sans people because it provides a sense of place.

Consider movies that take place in far away lands or in future periods. The first Star Wars movie opened with spacescape. This year’s critically acclaimed Fury Road started with the below epic desolated wasteland. National Geographic stories start with an epic landscape photo. Plays open with the a set scene, and then the actors walk onto the stage.

Fury Road Opening Scene

Instead of another dry story about a woman or man in their office changing the world for their customers, open up the story with an epic sunrise or sunset pic at the office building. Or take a great architecture shot inside the building. If the building is lame, wait until late afternoon and the sun comes in the windows almost horizontally, take an office pic then with no people in it. Set the scene.

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If it is a vacation, set the scene with an opening shot of the place you are landing. Then put yourself in it. The above shot of Half Moon Bay was how I opened my Facebook sharing of our family vacation to Hawaii this year. We stopped first in California.

When I told the story of the Trans-Jordan Landfill for Audi, I opened it with a sunrise picture over the landfill. When I filed stories with the Huffington Post and with Triple Pundit on Africa (see header image) I suggested opening them with landscapes. In both cases the stories feature landscapes very early on to provide a sense of place.

The Pacific Ocean at Night

The same tool also provides a great way to close the story. By closing with the scene you are providing a cue, the visual fade to black. The above photo is from our last night in Hawaii this year. It’s the beach in Kona. I often think of it as the closing scene to our vacation.

It’s just my personal preferred method of storytelling. Every story works better with context. And a landscape or cityscape is one of the best ways to provide that context.

What do you think of the use of scenes in the narrative context?

Why Data Driven Content Fails Alone

Have you read any recent content marketing articles? Today’s articles feature shiny objects to distribute content through (hi, Snapchat and Periscope) and platitudes about impact. Largely trend pieces with statistics, they fail to help marketers grow and become better. Worse, the new account-based marketing trend — which is just hyper-targeted data-driven content marketing — focuses on precision provided by analytics, but not the technique used to create niche content.

To be clear, a marketer’s job is to connect with and compel people; usually, but not always, their customers. To do that, content needs to tell a good story.

In many ways, trends like social media tools and data analysis provide new powers for marketing, much like an electric drill works better than a hand crank. So we have a bunch of marketers walking around with power tools drilling holes in a wall hoping they hit the right spot. Even though they have data and the latest networks, they miss the mark more often than not. They don’t understand the wall and its dimensions. As a result, marketers destroy the wall.

What we have is a data problem. Too much focus on data and trends, not enough on creating compelling content.

To be crystal clear with this post: Data and trends in content marketing are nice. They inform creativity. They do not replace creativity.

Impact Requires a Story

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Results in communications are contingent on compelling stakeholder groups — by groups of ten, by the thousands, or entire market segments. Regardless of where the content lies in a company’s user experience, it needs to impact someone’s journey. That is true of the consumer, that is true of the business stakeholder.

Why else would someone act? Buying is an emotional decision. If your content doesn’t create positive emotion for someone — even if it is just allaying fears — then you have a problem.

I love media and how it empowers us to communicate with each other. What I find most interesting is how people use those media forms to connect, and the outcomes these connections create. Why was that Periscope video successful? How did that article help someone come decide to engage with the “build your own” tool on your site? Why did that series of personal case studies increased conversions of your software product?

Stories. Content must tell stories or help people envision their own narrative. The media changes, the methods allow for more precision, there are more distractions now, but once you get someone to try your content, it has to compel them.

How Data Helps Storytelling, But Doesn’t Replace It

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Let’s use another analogy: Just because Google Maps can tell you the fastest route, doesn’t mean it can teach you how to drive. Your trip is not guaranteed to be timely, much less safe.

In my mind, data is beautiful. It provides a great deal of research to inform creativity. It points out who the customer is (demographics), what they like, and which media they use. In some cases, it provides insights into their behavior, concerns and interests with a particular brand. What more could a creative want? This information provides the means to create content that moves the stakeholder.

Yet when I am called into situations to analyze why a marketing or communications program isn’t working, I find that the tactics may beed tweaking, the data analysis needs improvement, but generally they are heading in the right direction. No, the problems come down to two primary groups of issues:

1) Lame content: Corporate messages instead of stories, dry style (e.g. it’s safe and uncompelling), antiquated style (for example long text with no rich media), no personal story or connection, no style, etc.
2) Poor distribution: Including lack of email, lack of native ad-spend, non-engaging social media, using the wrong channels, etc.

Poor distribution has always been an issue, and it is becoming an increasingly difficult one. I highly recommend you read Mark Schaefer’s Content Code if this is concerning you.

On the first issue, the actual content continues to be a problem. Style counts for a lot more than you would think. Data can always be used to better steer a communications effort, but the effort must be made. Data alone cannot deliver compelling media.

Storytelling Must Return

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Whether you call it creative, design, writing, PR or marketing, we build narratives with customers. There are many, many useful methods of telling stories that have been discussed, and as many ideas out there (this one 2014 post features 200+ blog article approaches) as there are distribution methods:

  • Some use an advertising approach, using imagery to tell, and words to compel (Think General Electric).
  • Consider the traditional social media approach of first person experiential tales (Gary Vaynerchuk has to be the best at this in our business).
  • There’s third person journalistic storytelling (Adobe does this well across all properties).
  • You have wonky, funny joke telling (Hello, Captain Obvious!).
  • Others provide historical context (National Geographic uses historical storytelling to sell adventures).

These brands use available data to inform their storytelling approach and build something compelling to people. It’s not enough to create targeted brochureware for what they believe people need to hear.

Content really needs to interest and then resolve the stakeholder’s raison d’etre. This is French for reason of being. Why are they investing time? The content better fulfill that reason or the brand will lose the prospective customer. This ethos is at the heart of the current user experience trend driving branding and digital design.

Trends come and go, but corporate and marketing communications [oops, content marketing ;)] always lives and dies based on stakeholder response. Response is the ultimate metric that every manager ultimately judges a communications program by. No response means changes are in store, from the micro to the macro.

That is why it is so necessary to build a compelling story that creates response. This is true regardless of purpose: Launch or customer experience, micro account-based level comms or social network-wide (organic and paid). Marketers better tell a good story that the audience relates with instead of highly targeted noise.

Building Visual Narratives with Photographs

Melissa Farlow and Ami Vitale taught a National Geographic Traveler Seminar on storytelling through photography this past Sunday here in Washington, DC. It was a wide ranging seminar that covered basic tips on photography, storytelling, editing, photographing people, and gear.

Creating stories through photographs requires more than the rule of thirds, or f-stop, ISO, and shutter speed balance. For most of us, photographs are personal, capturing a moment in that we can’t ever recapture. When we show people the beauty of the world, we may care about it more. That being said, technical things do matter in telling a visual story.

Here are my notes from the event. Wherever possible, I tried to illustrate certain points by following them with some of my own photographs.

Basic Tips

Mid-day light is a photographers bane. But avoiding the sunlight can be a good rule to break, too. Shooting into the light can offer fantastic contrasts. High noon offers fantastic light inside, it streams inside. Take advantage of window light.

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Flash can be great, but avoid metering the whole photograph. While this is standard procedure for a pro portrait, telling a story can often best be told using highlights.

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Digital cameras today can pick up the subtlety of gentle light. A singular remote flash and reflector can do more than you might think. Less is more. Take your flash off the camera, it destroys the mood (and trust) with your subject. A remote flash creates much more drama.

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Light creates mood with landscapes. We shoot based on where the sun is. Light drives what the primary subject is, so pay attention. Dusk is a great time to shoot, creating dramatic nightscapes. At night you can use a slow capture on a tripod and the. One cool tip is to use a flashlight to illuminate a subject as you take the slow capture.

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Bad weather and clouds create drama. Embrace it as an opportunity. You can get a rain jacket for your camera, and also bring a shammy. Morning shots allow for additional drama with fog, mist, frozen breath, and the light quality.

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Motion with people may actually work with slower shutter speeds, particular when there is fire, water and smoke present. Panning works and creates a different take on action. Blurs add motion if it is done right. Take some time and shoot for a while. Experiment. This is true for long exposures, too.

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Look for layers: Back drops, foreground, people, buildings, trees, light can all add layers. Water creates mirroring and mood. Think about the rule of thirds differently. Are there layers in the thirds? Change your perspective, get high, get low on the ground.

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Don’t shoot constantly. Give people time to stop posing, and take more natural images. Be there for a while and become a part of the scene. Allow people to come to their natural rhythm and be themselves.

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Moments matter. Try to capture people together because relationships make for great contrast on camera. Animals and people together can show you some great natural shots. If you are aware you can capture moments as they happen.

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Telling Simple Stories

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With photographs you can tell a complete story. Photograph one person, and show their life. By taking photos over time, you can tell a complete story. This applies to any subject, even a forest or a landscape. Seasons and time show different aspects of a person or a place. That tells a simple complete story.

Elements include a story opener, sense of place, portraits, moments, details for context, and a mystery or a surprise. You want closure to end the story.

Putting photographs together to tell a narrative is extremely difficult. Singular shots are easy, but a visual story is very difficult. This is what separates great photographers. Photo journalists help people imagine how important a story is.

When you read a story in a newspaper you only get one angle. A photo journalist goes further to show more elements.

You provide a sense of place, a picture a landscape that opens up the whole scene. You can provide a sweeping view or be in the middle of it.

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Portraits can be tight and up close, or you can provide context with a sense of place. That helps tell the story. Portraits can be more. They help us relate to people.

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Pay attention to little details, they make a huge difference. Showing a bunch of hands together can show more unity than a group of people. Feet and hands can tell a lot.

Storytelling moments are probably the most important part of a story. You have to show people’s moods. Capture emotion. For example, joy in dire straits is powerful. Humor is so important, because it allows people seeing the story relate to the people no matter what the situation.

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Quiet images make as much of an impact as a busy one. There are always quiet moments that contrast action. Together you have a powerful story.

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Ending your story has a traditional cliche, people walking away or leaving. But it can also be a moment. If you go early and stay late, you capture moments that can serve the end of a story; the closing of a door, the room emptying (or just beginning to fill) or a nicely layered image. The classic window shot can work well as a closure. Dusk also offers a great opportunity to take shots that empty stories.

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If you would like an example of a complete story told in this fashion, I applied the National Geographic story rubric to my xPotomac post on Monday.

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Transmedia: Multichannel Storytelling Transcends Platforms

“Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story” (Henry Jenkins, 2006)
Star Wars Media Universe

Who doesn’t like a great entertaining story? Now imagine a story told throughout your daily experience across diverse media types.

While not a new phenomena, transmedia storytelling challenges conventional siloed storytelling by transcending singular form to engage users. Die hard Star Wars or Star Trek fans can testify the many extensions of their narrative story in multiple media forms extend their stories beyond film. The Star Wars experience transcends so many media types and producers that Lucasfilm employs a story cop to make sure elements don’t contradict each other.

Of course, the greatest modern transmedia hit to date was Lost. Both Hollywood and Madison Avenue alike look at transmedia as an undeveloped source of entertainment and marketing engagement.

Continue reading “Transmedia: Multichannel Storytelling Transcends Platforms”

Copycats: The Oral Tradition of Blogging

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Image by waterloo

Ever notice how bloggers seem to repeat each other? Sometimes the echo chamber sparks veiled rumors of plagiarism, or at other times great discourse ensues, riffing off the same theme, each with their own take. This copycat syndrome seems to repeat itself through the years, a mostly unintentional repetition of the same story and memes. It’s almost as if bloggers have reverted their conversations to the epic oral storytelling era of legends like Beowulf and the Odyssey.

Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy is one of the most fascinating books about the evolution of storytelling, from the epic tradition of repetitive storytelling by bards and nomads to the impact of the written word. Before the written word, repetitive storytelling was necessary to ensure information was captured and maintained by societies. With the written word, memories could be kept in books and in libraries.

In recent times, digital media has created a massive influx of information — for example, the amount of business data is doubling every 1.2 years — much of it user generated. This has occurred in context with a decline in traditional journalism. There’s so much information that it is being processed in shorter sound bites, and increasingly on smaller screens. News and intelligence is often referred these days. People are having a harder time processing the amount of data in their lives as well as discerning quality, relying more and more on their social networks for information they can trust.

In the social ecosphere, we are regressing towards an oral-based retelling of the same story, perhaps simply so we can retain it. Notice that the repetitiveness happens with new wrinkles or different colors over the years. It’s back to the tribe and its bards and nomads for data. The only difference is it happens digitally.

Need evidence of the impact on original stories? Consider Rich Becker’s Fresh Content Project, and examination of the communications content marketplace. Rich found that the most popular content was not quality-based original pieces, rather it was recycled stories retold by the most popular voices. Bloggers producing the most original content were by far not the most popular ones.

Maybe the reasons are simple. In an oral culture, there are only so many stories a culture can retain. Or as Gini Dietrich states, maybe it’s because everyone is taking the easy way out, and as Danny brown intimated bloggers are crafting their work to be injected into the social network referral machine. Maybe the echo chamber really did run out of content, and there is nothing more to say about social media. Whatever reasons we debate, the cause seems ingrained in who we are as a species, and how we process overloads of data, whether oral or digitally recorded.

While it is likely that much of the repetition and echo is not Machiavellian in intent, there are those that game the system. Like all villains, they leave their tell-tale signs of plagiarism — no links, an unwillingness to shine credit on others in their content, and a consistent positioning of self as the oracle of all knowledge. There’s not much to say about that other than to comment on their blog and ask the necessary questions. But more often than not, it’s unintentional, the echo reverberating through the chamber.

What can be scary about this repetition is that the “good referred stories” may not be grounded in reality. And that’s when whole sectors are led by their digital bards off the proverbial cliff. Unlike the oral era, data is still being recorded. Perhaps we will find a new way of retention, verification and access that will empower more forward thinking stories. One can only hope.

What do you think of the echo chamber, and the repetition of the same old same old on the blogosphere?

Four Storytelling Methods

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Image by Gaelic Arts

Moving from marketing to an entertaining delivery of useful information creates a much higher likelihood of successful communications between an organization and its stakeholders. Like gamification, storytelling entertains the online reader/viewer/listener, earning their interest. Compelling stories convert dry boring content into worthwhile time expenditures.

Success assumes a few of things: 1) That the storyteller understands what compels its stakeholders; 2) the information presented in the story is useful; and 3) the return on investment for an organization is asked for in a tasteful manner. Meeting those three fundamental building blocks empowers an organization to make storytelling work.

There are many approaches towards storytelling. Personification, third person storytelling, embedded journalism, and metaphors are just four ways to enliven content. Here’s a deeper look:

Personification: The old blogging method of personal storytelling can drive great interest. Well executed, the person and their audience can share experiences together (Example: Beth’s Blog). People want to understand how attending that event made you feel, or how that new technology changed your perspective. By sharing an event, an idea, or reflection, we identify with or at least imagine commonality about conceptual material, and content becomes interesting. There are certainly dangers to personification, including nihilism, over-reliance on opining, and personal branding that negatively impacts the organization.

Third Person Storytelling: This gets back to the basic elements of storytelling a la the original oral tradition of tales like Beowulf and the Odyssey. Third person storytelling is really good for causes and consumer facing companies that resolve problems. Showing how people’s lives have become better or enriched as a result of touching an organization is powerful. For many organizations, this is told via case studies, but there is nothing wrong with enlivening a story by weaving narrative elements into it or discussing trends (Example: Shel Israel).

Embedded Journalism: This approach seeks to provide a journalistic view into an organization or related external events and happenings. Similar to trade reporting, embedded journalism relies on facts, the ability to answer the 5 Ws in any good story (who, what, when, etc.), pyramid style structure, and a general tone that instills objective view points (Example: Invisible People). Of course this is the weakness of embedded journalism: By acting as a member of the Fifth Estate, companies and nonprofits immediately are suspected for pushing their wares and solutions. This means fact telling and objectivism has to be held to a higher standard.

Metaphors: Infusing metaphors into content empowers people to more easily imagine data and hard concepts. By using common metaphors that almost everyone has experienced, the ability to identify with the concepts behind a story become much more personalized. The long journey to successful metaphorical writing can involve wrong turns, potholes and flat tires, over-complication of storytelling route (plot), and more. But with practice, this can become one of the most powerful methods of communicating complicated concepts (example: Copyblogger).

What are some of your favorite storytelling methods?

Article first published as How Storytelling Betters Content on Technorati.