A free educational resource, using news reports & documentaries to stimulate visual storytelling debate & analysis
- This article is part of a series of linked articles See Through News used to train its volunteer citizen journalists in how to create high quality video reports on zero budget.
- Our Global Reporter Intensive Training (GRIT) programme is designed for complete novices of all ages. Trainees require no more than a smartphone and internet access.
- GRIT is suitable for self-study or for use in groups, and like all See Through News resources are open source and free to use (but please acknowledge See Through News if you do).
Here’ our suggested sequence to read these GRIT articles:
- GRIT User’s Guide: an overview of the course and how you can use it
- How To Tell Video Stories: (this article) visual storytelling basics
- Free Carbon Drawdown Activisation Resources: some ideas to stimulate your ideas
- How To Plan A Video: for video, as for life, good preparation saves time and frustration
- How To Shoot A Video: 3 Rules: Basics for acquiring good images and sound
- How To Edit A Video: 5 Steps: Basics for clear visual storytelling
Now to some storytelling basics. We’ll start with a couple of games. If you’re doing GRIT as a group, we recommend actually playing them.
If you’re in a rush or don’t have enough people, they’re still useful thought experiments.
Broken Telephone: a fun game to learn what makes a good and bad story
All stories are different, but all stories are the same.
Before we address video storytelling, here’s a fun game to illustrate this apparent contradiction.
The first games based on a common children’s game that goes by many names, but is known in the Commonwealth by the unpolitically-correct name of ‘Chinese Whispers’, in North America as ‘Broken Telephone’, in France as ‘Arab Telephone’ and in Poland as ‘Deaf Telephone’.
But this version relies not on whispering, but on our human instinct ‘not to let facts get in the way of a good story’.
At a party, or in the classroom, it’s always a hoot, and always gets to the heart of what makes a good story. Here’s how it works:
- Divide into groups of four people, A, B, C & D. Give everyone a minute to think of a funny thing that happened to them recently.
- Split the groups into pairs, A&B, C&D.
- Each person tells their partner their story. Ask them to keep it tight, say a maximum of 5 minutes.
- Now swap partners, pairing A & C, B & D.
- Ask each person to tell their new partner the story they just heard. Not to repeat their own story, but to pass on the fresh one their previous partner told them. Set the same time limit.
- Swap partners again, pairing A & D, B & C.
- Again, ask each person to tell their new partner the story they just heard. Now each person is hearing the story they originally told, but repeated back to them via two other people.
This is always entertaining. The version you hear always ‘gets things wrong’, but that’s not the point of this game.
Instead of correcting the factual inaccuracies of the version you heard and insisting your version is the ‘true’ one, take a step back and compare your original version with the twice-recycled one.
The ‘Broken Telephone’ version is nearly always a better story. Why?
The Postcard Game: a fun game to learn how to tell a story
We’ll get to video making very soon, but first, another storytelling game.
Broken Telephone throws light on how we instinctively ‘improve’ story content. This one highlights the critical role structure plays in storytelling; not just the things we say, but the order in which we say them.
- Get any group of people to remember a story. If not everybody is familiar with the same story, tell or read them any story, so that everyone has the same starting point. As an example, let’s take another ubiquitous story, The Tortoise and the Hare – or as the Native Americans know it, The Hummingbird and the Crane.
- Give them each the same number of blank postcard-size pieces of paper. 3 cards for younger children/ simple stories, no more than 6 for adults/complex stories.
- Ask them to pick the most critical parts of the story, and draw a picture of the story at that stage on each postcard. Tell them this is not a drawing competition, and it doesn’t matter how good or bad their drawings are, only that each snapshot includes all the relevant details of the story at the point they’ve chosen. For example, the first postcard could show Happy Hare sprinting ahead of Quiet Tortoise at the Start Line, the second could show Hare sleeping by the road with Tortoise in the distance, and the third Tortoise inching across the Finish Line, with desperate Hare just behind.
- Now get them to compare postcards. Have they chosen the same moments in the story? Have they included the same key elements in their postcard sketches?
In most cases, their postcards will be almost identical in content. This is because we all instinctively understand the ‘grammar’ of a good story. Remembering those snapshots, the storytelling journey milestones, is how our brains tend to store information.
What do these games have to do with making a video?
Later in this series, in our article about video editing, we explain the process of visual storytelling using the metaphor of cooking.
This free online course, created by veteran news broadcasters, turns you from a consumer of delicious video content to a creator of delicious content. We take you from the restaurant table into the kitchen, and training you to be a chef.
The difference between consumers and creators is how hard they think about the process, and how much practice and experience they have at it.
All dishes start with a recipe, consisting of ingredients and instructions. The first game is about the ingredients, the second about the instructions. Content and structure.
Choosing what things to say, and what order to say them in, is the key to all storytelling, including making engaging, compelling videos.
What makes a good story
To make the transition from restaurant diner to master chef, you need to learn ‘the rules’. We can all know whether we like a certain dish or not. It takes a chef to know exactly why, and repeat the things that make them good, and avoid the things that make them bad.
The basics are the same: content and sequence. Ingredients and instructions. Elements and sequence.
The Broken Telephone Game reveals what happens when each human link in the chain adapts, moulds, tweaks, trims and embellishes your original raw material. This is the magical human alchemy that ‘makes a good story’.
Pay attention to the bits that were discarded. Why did what seemed so important to you turn out not to be essential, after all?
Note too the bits that have been added. They may not be ‘true’, but why were they added? How do they make it ‘a better story’?
The Postcard Game exposes the structure behind the story. To shift our metaphor from the kitchen to the building site, a good story is a functional building. Without assembling the building materials in the right sequence, you’re left with a heap of building materials, exactly how you started. And not much use to anyone.
Try swapping your postcard in a different order, and see if you can tell the story that way. A real master storyteller might just be able to do that, and come up with a satisfactory yarn which starts with Tortoise winning a race, and ends with Hare beating him off the start line in the next one. But you can see the challenge…
Humans are natural born storytellers. We tell stories all the time – playground jokes, bar-room anecdotes, family dinner table stories about the day we had at work/school/home.
But if you train yourself to be conscious of how and why we tell stories:
- You’ll get better at telling stories
- You’ll get better at spotting truth and lies in other people’s stories
Both are critical skills in the See Through Goal of Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown by Helping the Inactive Become Active.
Everyone’s a critic
Whether you’re telling true stories or making them up, learning how to analyse what does and doesn’t work is the foundation of good storytelling. Journalists and Hollywood directors use the same basic tools. The only difference is that one tells the truth, the other ‘the truth’. Ethical reporters and Fake News disseminators use the same tricks; one is based on verifiable, objective evidence, the other not.
The next section lists links to a few examples of video journalism, or presentation, as subjects for discussion and analysis. They happen to come from See Through News and STN Founder Robert Stern’s previous career as a news journalist/broadcaster, but could be from anywhere.
These videos are not presented as perfect models of outstanding journalism, but as subjects for analysis for their qualities and flaws. You might also get an answer to any questions you have about them, but the key point is that, while storytelling tends to follow certain rules, there are no ‘perfect’ stories, or binary Right/Wrong ways of telling them.
Everyone’s different, everyone’s a critic. Part of the skill of a storyteller is to understanding their audience, and to adapt their story and the way they tell it, to appeal to most of them most of the time.
How to watch these videos
Here’s our suggestion for how to use these videos to stimulate constructive debate and analytical thinking.
- First time, just watch: no note-taking, just absorb with eyes and ears, and experience the story in real time, as normal. At the end, however, write down a brief summary of what the video was about. If you’re in a group, read them out to each other, compare conclusions, and see if you all heard the same story.
- Second time, take notes: now watch the video again, this time with pencil and paper. Jot down the different ‘elements’ being used for each video, e.g. interview with experts/interview with ordinary people/reporter talking to camera/pictures only/pictures with narration/music/ graphics/captions etc.. Then compare notes, and come up with a list the common ‘elements’ that make up any video report.
- Think of questions you’d ask the reporter. Not about the video’s subject matter, but about how they made it. Why did they choose this story? Why did they film these particular activities and interview these particular people? Why did they structure the report in a certain way? Why did they not do something else that seems more obviously better to you? Ask your questions in the Comments below the YouTube video, and Robert can answer them.
- Discuss and write down the pluses and minuses of the report, as you se them. Was it too long? Was the language too hard to understand? Was the message unclear? Was the content not interesting? Was it for a different audience? These are all key questions every good journalist constantly asks themself about every story they tell.
These tasks are designed to stimulate critical thinking, analysis, and constant questioning. This is essential for any journalist, and benefits most areas of human endeavour.
If you like a video, can you pinpoint what you like about it? If you don’t, can you identify the precise thing that irked, confused or bored you?
There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers, and everyone’s individual reaction is valid, but asking these questions is the first step on the path to better storytelling.
Look for other news reports online, from local news, national news, international news, and repeat the process above.
Do you start to see any recurring pattern in the elements used, and how the stories are structured?
See Through News Projects
- How To Live Without Plastic: John & Bruce (2021, 3min)
- How to Live Without Plastic: Bread & Water (2021, 3min)
- How To Live Without Plastic: Finchley, London (2022, 3min)
- Vox Pox Project: Frome – The Good (2022, 2min)
- Vox Pox Project: Frome – The Bad (2022, 2min)
- Vox Pox Project: Frome – The Nuanced (2022, 2min)
- Get Out Soon (2022, 5min)
- Finchley Superheroes (2022, 7min)
- Wiltshire’s Crappest Plaque (2021, 4min)
TV news reports
These are conventional news reports, from mid-90s China. The subject matter may be ancient history now, and the technology used to make it long obsolete, but the basic ingredients of a news report remain unchanged.
- Rural China (1996, 4min)
- Military Business (1996, 4min)
- Ethnic Minority Villager (1996, 2min)
- The Shanghai Bund (1996, 4min)
Being audio-visual, video works on both your eyes and your ears. A good test of any visual storytelling is how much of the story you can understand either blindfold (i.e. ears only), or without any audio cues (i.e. with the sound muted, or in this case in a language you don’t speak).
Ukuleles for Peace (2009, 9min)
UK-China Challenge – Ep 4 (2003, 5min)
UK-China Challenge – Ep 2 (2003, 5min)
Longer videos (10min+)
Longer durations give more opportunities to tell more complex stories, or intercut different narratives, but still using the same basic elements/ingredients.
Arctic Outdoor Preschool (2006, 23min)
Three Gorges Dam Special (1997, 25min)
The Mongolian Navy: all at sea (2000, 25min)
Sir’s Happy Little Greenhouse World (2006, 20min)
The Budapest Children’s Railway (2008, 20min)
Chessboxing: you saw it here first (2011, 14min)
Storytelling for ears and eyes
When most people think about telling a story via a video, they tend to focus on the pictures, often to the detriment of the sound. Most bad videos on YouTube are bad because they sound terrible, rather than look bad.
Maybe this is because more of our brain is devoted to processing images than sounds. Maybe it’s because we call them videos, and not audio-videos. Whatever the reason, making a good video requires equal attention to eyes and ears.
It’s helpful to focus on one at at time, in order to better understand how they combine to be greater than their parts.
Here are a couple of See Through News projects, one audio, one visual, that focus on one element while still telling the same story – Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown by Helping the Inactive Become Active.
Our podcast and our drawing competition are directed at different audiences, and use different media and techniques, but once you remove the particular ear-tricks and eye-tricks they use to attract attention and engage interest, there’s the same story underneath.
For Your Ears Only
Like all radio/podcasts, our podcast The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories, from See Through News, tells stories for ears only. There’s a lot that can be done with words, the human voice, actuality, music and sound effects, and each series uses a different balance of these elements, in what we think is appropriate for a particular fictionalised true story.
Despite their apparently diverse subject matter, they all share same underlying story – how and why we prefer convenient lies to inconvenient truths.
- Series 1: The Story of Ganbaatar – the only qualified deep-sea navigator in Mongolia
- Series 2: Betrayed – A Tale of Christmas Spiritual Pollution
- Series 3: Life on the Edge – Taiwan, China, America and the Moment I Realised Mrs. Wang Was Mostly Guessing What Her Husband Said
- Series 4: The Quiet Revolutionary – the heroic role played in a plot to assassinate the King by someone you’ve all heard of
- Series 5: A Classical Chinese Dirty Joke, Told Thrice
For your Eyes Only
The See Through News Superhero & Supervillain Drawing Competition, as the name suggests, is a purely visual medium.
The ‘competition’ uses eye-tricks tells the same underlying story as the podcast, to a different audience – how and why humans tend to prefer attractive lies to unpleasant truths.
The full gallery of entrants is available on the Facebook Group, and the tricks behind the methodology are revealed in the short film Finchley Superheroes, made as part of another See Through News project, 1 Sunday Morning, 4 Films, a ‘unique experiment in community filmmaking’.
What’s the point?
Why does See Through News, with a goal of measurably reducing carbon, spend so much time concerned about storytelling, and finding different ways of telling the same carbon-reducing story?
- fact-based news reports based on original research
- humorous ways of explaining the latest AI technology
- models of sustainability dressed up as TV entertainment
- reviews of star-studded Hollywood movies
- fairy-tale explanations of cutting-edge AI designed for 6-year-olds
It’s because the first half of our Goal, ‘Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown’, is all about physics, numbers and science. This is what will mitigate the worst effects of human-induced climate change on human civilisation.
But if facts and science were all it took, we wouldn’t be in this mess. We’ve known about the science of the Greenhouse Effect for more than a century, about the reality of it for half a century, and all along have had the technological tools to wean ourselves from our unfortunate fossil fuel addiction.
So why haven’t we? That’s more complicated, because humans are complicated, and that’s why we need the second half of our Goal ‘…by Helping the Inactive Become Active’.
That requires a huge and rapid change in government regulation and human behaviour. We fear change, and vested interests who benefit from the status quo (we call the The Three-Headed Beasts) spend a lot of money, and command a lot of eyeballs, to postpone our abandonment of fossil fuels.
The Three-Headed Beasts have the advantages of money and power, but suffer from the huge disadvantage of telling lies.
Better science, research and technology isn’t enough on its own. We also need to tell better stories.