Visual storytelling: learning the ropes

When I was doing my master’s in journalism (magazine track), we were taught to build a story — have a hook to pull people in at the outset, sprinkle interesting details throughout, show and not tell, have a surprise element close to the end, round it out with a conclusion that triggered an emotion: contentment, shock, awe, thought, despair, hope, laughter, tears…you get the drift. Not once during those two years had I envisioned taking those narrative skills, scrunching them up, and using them to produce two-minute stories for the Web!

Well, okay, once. When I interned for NBC11…but my “dream” to become a news broadcaster shriveled and died a young death within a week.

In-depth coverage in a two-minute segment is a myth

I realized that the medium didn’t allow me to explore the story…all we did was uncover the facts, include a snippet about what, how, when, and where but never really got a chance to get into the why. It irked me. But I figured while I’m here, might as well make the most of this experience. I learned how to interview for camera (ask the same question five different ways to get that 12-second sound byte just right), log tapes, write a script for the anchor (“Cut to the chase. This is not long form journalism, Mansi,” I would hear Marianne say), and watch an entire day’s shoot fizzle away on the 6 p.m. news in two, maybe three, minutes. Where was the time to build a story and substantiate it with details?

Switching gears — from print to online

For five years after the internship experience, I stayed true to narrative journalism but then last July I decided to switch gears. Not so much in job titles (from being a writer at San José State University to becoming the university writer/editor at Santa Clara University) as in job description. The Web had grown really fast and I wanted my piece of the action. As much as I enjoyed being the primary writer for the alumni magazine, I wanted to expand my skill sets and master the art of 21st century storytelling. I had written articles on being wired 24/7 and about the news industry being in transition, so I knew full well that the audience’s shrinking attention spans would make my journey ahead “virtually” exciting.

A month into my new job I was asked to project manage a visual story about the Northern California Innocence Project based at SCU. I was very comfortable researching the topic, identifying potential interviewees (“but make sure they look good on camera!”), scheduling interviews, and drafting a storyline. But it surprised me that when it came to the nuts and bolts: drafting storyboards, picking out stills, and talking about SOTs, what should have been gobbledygook, actually made sense! The NBC11 experience was coming in handy.

Creating a video story

We (the videographer, his assistant, and I) had two half-day shoots: one with the program director and the student and another with the exonerated victim. The interviews were nothing like my interviews for print pieces — they were much shorter, the questions elicited more bigger-picture-view answers than intricate details, and I found myself paying attention to stuttering and excessive ummms. Thing is, I already knew what I wanted these folks to say even before I met them.

But when you have just two minutes to whet someone’s appetite while also giving them enough information that they walk away from the story feeling “enlightened,” knowing what you want at the outset, helps. A lot.

After the shoots were done, I selected some photos and then in came the transcripts. Now I could put together what we would in narrative journalism call “the bare bones structure of the story.” Except, in this case, it was the story.

Once I’d put the best quotes in sequence, I sent them over to the videographer who combined the video shots and the stills to create our visual masterpiece. Well, the first draft of it, really. I realized that “writing” a video and seeing a video are two different things…let me explain. What may look like a good order of events on paper may not necessarily make sense when you hear the voice intonations, look at the visuals accompanying the voice overs, and see parts that would “look” better together. The story thread notwithstanding.

So, began a second round, this time I was asking the videographer to move the visuals around, add captions that helped move the story forward, and improve the sound quality. Once we were all satisfied with the structure, the visuals, and the sound bytes, next came the packaging: selecting the one still from the video that would invoke interest, drafting a title that summarized what the video was about, and creating a credits slide. Our web marketing guy put all the elements together in a flash file, compressed the video to less than 10MB, and hit the publish button. It went live this morning.

To see the video in context of the university website, with the title and credits slide, visit the SCU homepage and click on the Jesuit philosophy tab in the media player window. It’s called “Promoting Social Justice.”

Takeaways

Couple of things I learned during this process:

  • Skills you’ve acquired in the past never go “waste.”
  • Visual storytelling is so much more difficult than narrative writing despite (and especially because of) the visual aids.
  • You can’t compare visual storytelling to long-form journalism; it’s like comparing apples to oranges.
  • You can’t tell the whole story in two minutes, but the visual piece can be a good lead-in for the more detailed written piece.

It’s tough and I have new-found appreciation for those who produce bite-sized stories for mass consumption. Although narrative journalism will always have a special place in my heart, I can see myself warming up to its short-form high-def cousin.

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