Telling Difficult Stories in a Positive Way

Truly there is nothing more compelling than real life. Even the greatest actor working from the greatest script can’t match reality for dramatic impact. This makes the testimonial approach one of the most powerful and effective storytelling methods out there. (It also happens to be incredibly cost-effective, but we won’t dwell on that for the moment.)

Testimonial commercials, web videos or radio spots are ideal for a variety of marketing segments — particularly health care and the nonprofit sector. So, how does one tell an effective story in a short amount of time? Well, there are several keys to unlocking this equation, the first of which is finding the best story before you start recording.

Preproduction: Getting the Best Stories

As I mentioned in a previous post about shooting health care commercials, while it can be effective, the testimonial approach does carry with it certain burdens, including the need for the client to do a fair amount of preproduction work selecting the stories to be told. You’ll want to have more than you’ll need — ideally double the amount. So, if your media schedule requires four spots, get at least eight stories in the can.

You also need to figure out the narrative arc of each story. This means:

  • Pre-interviewing your subjects to find out exactly what their story is.
  • Identifying the core element of each story, tailoring your interview questions to highlight this.
  • Reaching a resolution in some form of a happy ending — and you doing it within your allotted time.

Pre-interviews will also help you weed out subjects who may be, shall we say, less than ideal on camera or on tape. After all, no matter how compelling the story, if it is unintelligible or delivered without emotion, it is effectively useless.

The Interview

Real people make mistakes. They start sentences and trail off. They mumble. They look at the camera instead of the interviewer. Plan on spending at least 45 minutes to an hour with each subject, if not more. (You will end up throwing away 90 percent of the material you shoot, but now that we’re shooting digital, this isn’t the issue it was back in the day of expensive film processing and transfer.)

Use this time to get your subject comfortable with what is a very unnatural situation. Let them know that it’s not live TV and that it’s ok to make mistakes. Most important, give them time to tell their stories. And if they begin to tear up or have a silent emotional “moment,” for heaven’s sake, LET THEM DO IT. I once had an AE ruin an interview by handing a subject a tissue as she began to cry. While her instincts were noble, her actions wasted what could have been a truly magical moment. By the way, this goes double for camera operators and sound men. Before you begin rolling, they should know in no uncertain terms that they do not stop recording until you say so.

The Edit

Once you have all your material, you now need to cut it down to a reasonable size. For TV and/or radio, I would recommend sticking with the 60-second format. Testimonials rarely work in 30-second increments. For web videos, try to stay under 3 ½ minutes. If your story requires more than that, consider splitting it up into multiple videos.

When piecing your story together, I highly recommend using the actual video footage or audio files rather than simply relying on a transcript. This is because words that may appear compelling on paper may be less than compelling if they’re mumbled or otherwise obscured. For video, I like to get low-res files with timecode that I can dump into iMovie and edit together a rough cut. This can be used for internal and client approval and then sent off to the editor as a guide for the final edit.

As mentioned earlier, regardless of how emotionally harrowing the story, try to find a positive note upon which to end. And try to have this come relatively early in your story. You don’t want to spend 80 percent of your video focusing on the drug-infested streets of a big-city neighborhood; one or two compelling anecdotes should be enough to set the scene. Plus, whether it’s health care or a nonprofit, you want to emphasize the positive outcome of whatever service you are marketing. This goes back to that old advertising maxim, “Sell the sizzle, not the steak,” meaning to concentrate on benefits rather than features or backstory.

Music can be very helpful here. Nothing can elevate a positive ending to a story like the perfect music cue. Of course to make this work with precision, you’ll need to invest in an original score. But if you don’t have the budget for that, at least put aside enough for a decent library music search and have your postproduction audio editor put his/her skills to use getting it as close to perfect as possible.

The importance of ending on a positive note is especially true in the nonprofit world, because people want to feel as if their donations will actually make a difference. By telling positive stories, you show that they do.

Your story arc should go something like this for a 3-minute video:

  • Exposition/struggle — 45 seconds to 1 minute
  • Transformation — 45 seconds to 1 minute
  • Resolution/Happy ending — 1 minute to 1 ½ minutes

Obviously, this is just a rough guide. Some stories require more time to tell, some less. But you must steel yourself and become an emotionless surgeon in the editing phase, cutting out everything that doesn’t advance the story. As I said, most of your material will end up on the proverbial cutting-room floor — including some very good stuff. Though you might consider using this as social media content later.

The bottom line is, real-life stories told by those who experienced them can be extremely effective marketing tools. But they require extra work beforehand and an ability to separate core content from extraneous material. Once you understand this, you’ll realize that a testimonial video or radio spot can be as or more effective than a scripted spot costing two or three times as much.