Five Resolutions to Take You from Tongue-Tied Tripod to Strong Storyteller

With the New Year upon us, the world is awash with new resolutions. Beyond the obvious targets–losing weight, quitting smoking, learning something new–what are some of the less vocalized, yet very important resolutions?

And what about the storyteller? What are the bad habits we could resolve to leave behind when our devices update to 2016?

It's pretty special the amount of folks we get to interact with on a yearly basis. Between workshops, Muse, and the blog–that's a wide variety of perspectives that we get to hear from. To develop a set of resolutions for the storyteller we went back and looked at all of these interactions.

We looked for the common themes, questions, and challenges that so many of us struggle with.

From all of this we have what we believe are the top 5 bad habits of the storyteller. These gnarly things seem to sneak up on us, one way or another, and erode the foundation of our story.

Let’s not just resolve to get better, let’s know how we’re going to do it, and why.

These bad habits take away our ability for our stories to connect with audiences. These bad habits prevent that smooth relationship with clients that we’ve all dreamed about.

And perhaps most harmful–these bad habits kill our passion for the work.

Here are five New Year’s resolutions for the storyteller.


1. I will no longer be seduced by the glitter.

What it means for the storyteller:

Storytellers are no less social than any of the other creatures of the world. In fact, we work in a very social medium.

So naturally, we become interested when a friend begins to use a new toy, such as a drone. And when we see the resulting gorgeous shots, we get excited.

But often that interest and excitement can get the better of us.

Story is forgotten and the shiny new toys become the focus. It happened with DSLRs and shallow depth-of-field, it happened with sliders, and it’s surely happening with drones today.

Why it’s worth fighting for:

At its core, story is about sharing an experience. With story, we offer our viewers the ability to connect, learn, and experience something new. Creating such deep connection, intentional meaning, and worthwhile experiences in story is admittedly difficult. Good storytelling isn’t easy, and often when we become challenged by it, we start to look for easy outs. We seek out tricks to make it look cool, rather than put in the hard work to tell a really great story.

No amount of glitter will make up for a fuzzy, disconnected, or poorly communicated story. Focus on the foundation first–then add the shine.

How to make it happen:

Before you go out on a shoot, look at your shooting approach. Ask yourself whether your tools and decisions are helping to communicate your story, or whether they’re simply an attempt to make up for the lack of one.

Kow what you want to say before you try to speak. Push yourself to consider what each portion of your story is trying to express FIRST, then look at how to best convey that meaning to your audience.


2. I pledge to never be a tripod.

What it means for the storyteller:

Let’s face it—none of us want to be button-pushers. We don’t want to be told where to go, what to shoot, which soundtrack to use, who we should interview, and on and on. Sure, creative collaboration is awesome, but all too often the collaborative part is dropped, and we simply start executing on what is being asked of us.

To be a tripod is to become a tool that stands static, unquestioning, and simply gets the shot as instructed.

Why it's worth fighting for:

Feeling fulfilled creatively starts when we are able to explore, expand, and contribute. None of that happens for the tripod. The less we’re a tripod, the more we’ll fall in love with the work—and the dividends newfound or re-ignited infatuation are ever-important things like growth and development.

More than that though, there is a reason tripods are cheap. They’re expendable. Replaceable. Once you develop your perspective and get away from being a tripod—this is when everything you create begins to be valued.

You’re only as valuable as your perspective.

Your thinking is the one thing that should be constantly assessed, upgraded, and improved upon.

How to make it happen:

We allow ourselves to become a tripod in a number of ways. The first is education, our thinking, our understanding of the concepts, and how elements come together to achieve a given result.

Imagine you were out on a shoot and a family member came along to help. He didn’t know anything about filmmaking, storytelling, or any of that. If you wanted to have him feel involved and give him something to do, the first place you’d send him is behind the tripod.

We need to have something valuable to say if we expect others to value what we’re saying. And that starts with a solid understanding of the fundamentals within our industry and genre. Learning, of course, is far more than remembering a list of facts or theories. If we really want to contribute, we need to push deeper and work on being able to create, evaluate, and analyze—those are the deepest levels of knowledge.

There are great online resources available that don’t just offer learning, but also the ability to put the ideas into practice. If the budget is tight, get in the habit of picking up a book.

Mark Zuckerberg’s 2015 New Year’s resolution was to read a new book every other week. That's a solid commitment to developing your perspective.

Ask yourself–what do I see here that nobody else would? That is the true sign of perspective and deeper understanding

3. I resolve to always set the proper expectations.

What it means for the storyteller:

It’s absolutely critical that, whether we work with clients or our own team, we take the time to they can expect now, next, and throughout the process. Setting strong expectations means laying out everything that needs to happen, as well as designating who is responsible for each step, and a scheduled timeline throughout.

Why it’s worth fighting for:

The number one way we, as creatives, get ourselves into trouble is by failing to set expectations. Long lists of feedback, not being creatively valued, conflict amongst the team or with the client, and even consistently poor budgets–these are all symptoms of setting poor expectations.

On the other hand, setting strong expectations helps retain clients and team members, encourage happier and healthier relationships, and increase the value in our creative.

How to make it happen:

Setting proper expectations starts by making sure we really understand the destination. We do this by making sure we understand our client’s goals, as well as our own.

So often we suffer from what we call the Purpose Paradox. We know that the client has a goal in mind—that’s why they hired us. And we have our own list of goals for their piece. We often assume that because we are all working on this project together that our goals are far more aligned than they often are.

The goal is the action that happens as a result of our audience interacting with the content we create.

To do this, start by making sure you’re totally aligned on what the goal for any piece is. Does the client want more app downloads? Are they trying to get a ton of views? Are they looking for people to be inspired and connect with their brand?

Once you’re on the same page there, lay out all the steps–every, single, one–that helps you get from where you’re at to that goal. The oversimplified version is to break the filmmaking process down into pre-production, production, and post. And then within each of these, break it down into smaller steps. Add timelines, who is responsible for what, and steps to get creative approved.

If you take the time to go through this exercise and then communicate it to your client, you’ll quickly find that they value your contributions more, they listen to your creative, they have less input, and everything is smoother—all because they know what’s been done and what to expect moving forward.


4. I will avoid, at all cost, the expected and the easy.

What it means for the storyteller:

Consider the wedding filmmaker who shows up in the morning and starts shooting the dress hanging from the window, the rings on a table, and the shoes in some snazzy location. All of these things are both easy for the filmmaker to do and they are expected by our audience.

And it’s common across all genres of filmmaking. The easy and expected shots that we get just because.

Why it’s worth fighting for:

I’m somebody who really wants to create stories that say something, that are an emotional experience, and that are remembered. And I don’t think I’m alone in wanting these things—in fact I’ve met numerous people from across the globe who share those same desires.

If we want the right budgets, if we want to be valued creatively, and if we want to do work that we love and that we’re proud of, well then we need to go beyond the easy and expected.

Remarkable storytelling ain’t easy. And easy storytelling is rarely remarkable.

How to make it happen:

To break this bad habit we need to put a new one in its place. Begin the practice of always asking, Why? If there was one question that could be responsible for so much of Stillmotion and Muse’s growth, that would be it.

Why am I shooting this? Why am I standing here? Using the light this way? Choosing this lens? Now, if you don’t have all the answers, don’t get discouraged.

The power isn’t in the answers—the power lies in asking the questions.

Simply taking the time to ask the question and consider it helps you get into state of deeper introspection with your storytelling. Things won’t change overnight, but you will start to think more and more about the reasons behind the decisions you don’t understand.

And as humans, when we have a question we don’t know the answer to, we’re driven to find the answer.

Whether that’s reading a book, joining an online course, or just figuring it out for ourselves—the act of asking the questions about our decisions is incredibly powerful.

Ask, Why? Not knowing the answer is not a bad thing. It’s the conflict that sparks the journey towards the answer.

5. I resolve to always put story first.

What it means for the storyteller:

I thought we’d leave the biggest resolution until near the ending. It seemed fitting for proper story structure.

Putting story first really means making decisions that are strong and relevant. Strong decisions that best serve our story.

It means, for example, choosing who we interview purely based on who is the strongest for the story we’re telling. And relevant means that our decisions are fitting for the purpose of that piece. The passionate and quirky CEO may be a strong character for your film, but if the purpose of the piece is to show that everybody has an equal voice, perhaps he isn’t the most relevant choice.

Why it’s worth fighting for:

Building strong stories really starts with making 1 million story first decisions. Every decision we make does one of two things: it either adds to the story, or it takes away from it.

It’s common at the start of a project for everybody to have a love fest for story. We all care about it, value it, and we’re determined to tell a strong story. And then our focus on story slowly starts to fall away.

It’s a process that we call Story Erosion. Perhaps the client needs to have somebody interviewed because they’ll look bad if that person isn’t included. Or we choose to shoot in a certain location because it’s where most people shoot—it’s the easy choice. And one by one, every decision that isn’t made with this story in mind slowly starts to erode at our story’s foundation.

What we end up with is a commercial, or a montage, or something that’s a blend of a bunch of different ideas and directions all rolled into one. But one thing is for sure—it’s far from the story we set out to make.

How to make it happen:

Making story first decisions really means bringing all of these resolutions into practice together.

We need to set proper expectations so that we can be granted the time and space to understand the goals and get a clear vision of the story that will deliver the desired result.

This already paves the way for a valuing of our perspective. We can get away from being a tripod when we actually take the time to understand story, understand our client, their goals, and thoughtfully crafting something that brings all of those together.

If we’ve set expectations and taken the time to present a powerful perspective, then we’ve also set ourselves up to avoid the glitter, and to avoid the expected and the easy. After all, we often chase all of these things because we don’t have something deeper that we’re after.

When you have a sharp focus on the story it’s far harder to depart from that for the shiny drone shot, or the expected dress shot.

There you have it.

Five resolutions that take you from tripod to storyteller. They’re far from easy. For many of us, they will be the journey of our career.