About five years ago, my son and I had the opportunity to play with a DJI drone. Since we’re both content creators–Bryan is a sound designer in the video game industry and I’m, well, you know–we’re always looking for projects to work on together.
It didn’t take long to recognize the advantages of drone photography. The gimbal-stabilized, bird’s-eye-view HD video was stunning. Yet, these majestic images also came with a downside because drone cameras don’t record audio. And for good reason. The only sound that a drone-mounted microphone could capture would resemble something akin to a plague of locusts.
Most drone photographers compensate for this limitation with mood-setting music beds, supporting fast-moving footage with hard-driving music, and peaceful panoramas with cinematic soundtracks. But neither storyteller nor sound designer was interested in producing this type of video. We wanted to create something different that used both of our skills. And so we brainstormed ideas.
Since we only had a limited time with the borrowed DJI Phantom 2 Vision Quadcopter (the weekend) and we didn’t trust our fledgling piloting skills (must avoid crowds), we decided to record me doing something that I like to do early in the morning: find a deserted basketball court and shoot baskets.
And thus we had a plan. I would shoot baskets, then write and record some sort of internal monologue. Bryan would fly the drone, design the audio, and assemble the video.
The following is the final version of that collaboration.
“You know, Ron,” one of my friends said recently, “You breakdown story like an engineer.”
While I’d never really thought about it that way before, she’s right. Story is a massively complicated subject that I’ve approached by using the skills that I learned in engineering school.
I was a sophomore engineering student at Merrimack College when the professor stopped in the middle of his Digital Signal Processing lecture and dropped a non sequitur. “Why are you here?”
The students just stared at him.
“Why do you want to be an engineer?” Dr. Develis pressed. “Why did you choose a major with such rigor?”
We still had nuthin‘.
He smiled and decided then let us off the hook. “You’re here to learn just one thing.”
We laughed. Surely, he couldn’t be serious. We had to learn mathematics, physics, circuit theory, and control systems. We’d be taking classes in linear algebra, calculus, differential equations, and electromagnetics–not to mention the religion and philosophy courses required to graduate from an Augustinian school.
He dismissed our protests. “Your four years in Engineering school will teach you one thing: a method to solve problems. You’ll learn how to break big problems into small ones. Then, by solving the small problems, you’ll eventually solve the big ones.”
As we pondered that thought, he then made a disturbing prediction. “And you’ll get so good at it, that some people will hate you for it.”
Although I didn’t believe him at the time, life has proved his grim prophecy to be true. It tends to happen while working on big problems with someone who wants to solve them whole. Unfortunately, all-at-once strategies frequently become a jumbled mess of subjectivity, passion, and emotion–all great things when bringing energy to a problem–but terrible while trying to solve one.
My training forces me to look at problems objectively. First I seek to uncover the root causes to problems. Next I learn as much about them as I can. Finally, I break the big problem into smaller, more manageable ones. The process is ruthlessly sequential and simultaneously infuriating to someone who values action over achievement.
Problem-solving is in my DNA. My work is covered with its fingerprints. For example, The StoryHow™ PitchDeck breaks storytelling into four parts: roles, events, influences, and techniques. The Proverb Effect breaks proverbs down into their base components of function, frame, and finish.
Love me or hate me, I am what I am–a storyteller with a degree in Electrical Engineering.
Photo Credit:United States Office Of War Information, Feininger, Andreas, photographer. Science and research. Mineral prospecting. A ground comparator will reveal the presence of an ore body under the surface of the earth by measuring the total intensity and the plane of polarization of the secondary electro-magnetic field set up by the ore body. These students are using an adjustable coil of copper wire which acts as an electrical transformer, and may be tilted to determine the minimum and maximum intensity of the field. They are conducting an experiment in electronics, taught in the department of geophysics at a famous mining engineering school. They will apply the knowledge they are acquiring to airplane detection and anti-submarine warfare. Colorado School of Mines, Golden, Colorado. Colorado Golden Golden. Jefferson County United States, 1942. Oct. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017696228/.
Our goal at the StoryHow Institute is to be your one-stop resource to help you become a better communicator. We fulfilled our promise in 2019 through publishing 22 articles with much more planned for 2020. Next month, Ron will be releasing a new deck of cards called the Proverb Construction KitTM (finally!). He’s researching two new books and is writing a specialized version of the StoryHow PitchDeckTM.
We look forward to serving your storytelling needs in the new decade.
Sometimes the best way to learn storytelling is to study the works of others. Ron goes card-by-card through the StoryHow(TM) PitchDeck to see how Bill Whittle used Roles, Events, Influences, and Techniques in his storytelling masterpiece, Apollo 11: What We Saw.
While deep neural networks can perform amazing functions, artificial intelligence has a long way to go to match the robustness of human intelligence. Ron Ploof, suggests that the path to achieve such robustness is found through storytelling.
Have you ever been taken advantage of? Have you ever been cheated, lied to, or deceived? At some point in our lives, someone uses our trust against us and we’re disappointed, hurt, and left somewhat jaded. Ron returns to his audio storytelling roots tell the story of being scammed and the lessons that he’s learned through the experiences
Six UC Irvine journalism professors shared their ideas about writing and storytelling at the Center for Storytelling’s inaugural event. At one point, professor Miles Corwin said, “I never met a great storyteller that wasn’t a big reader.” Each panel member then supported his statement by telling anecdotal backstories of their love for reading.
But something about Professor Corwin’s statement bothered me. My storytelling interests began at the knee of a my grandfather–a Boston cab driver with a sixth grade education. I can’t recall a single instance of him reading a book. A newspaper, maybe. A book? Never.
I wrestled with the notion for a couple of weeks before finding an answer in a fifty-year-old memory. “Do you like to cook?” I asked my grandmother as she pulled something wonderful out of the kitchen oven.
She looked at me quizzically. “I’m not a cook. I’m a baker,” she said, before explaining how most people are one or the other, but rarely both. My grade school brain couldn’t comprehend the difference. To me, cooking was the act of applying heat to food, but she told me that cooks use intuition while bakers use knowledge. Bakers rely on details and when they get it right, amazing cakes, cookies, and croissants emerged from their ovens. When they get it wrong, breads don’t rise, cookies crumble, and brownies become bricks.
That memory convinced me. Storytellers are cooks and writers are bakers.
Storytellers cook because they lean on gut instincts to guide their actions. Writers bake because it take years to master the intricacies of grammar, word choice, and building large vocabularies. Writers love language while storytellers don’t even need it, as proven to me once by Park Howell who told a story using only caveman grunts.
If you just laughed it’s because you get it. Park’s story has nothing to do with language and everything to do with the human condition.
Storytellers and writers speak to different parts of the human brain. Storytellers speak to our instinctive systems while writers speak to our cognitive ones. Storytellers communicate with mechanisms that execute below the level of consciousness while writers communicate with the systems above it. Storytellers trigger the fast/reactive parts of the brain while writers trigger the slow/cognitive ones. Storytellers study the human condition, while writers spend years learning ways to represent it linguistically.
So, while I disagree with Professor Corwin about the connection between storytellers and reading, I do think that we agree on something more important. The best communicators are double-threats. They combine storytelling with writing to speak to both parts of the human brain: the instinctive and emotional part AND the cognitive and logical part.
Storytelling is a craft that must be practiced. Before I started teaching storytelling, I was telling stories on Griddlecakes Radio, my fourteen year old podcast. Well, today I go back to my roots and practice my craft in a story about being scammed and learning from the experiences.
Feel free to click on the arrow to stream or the three dots to download Griddlesode S14-002.
Professor Barry Siegel opened the event by describing the organization’s vision: to demystify the activity of writing and help the local community tell their stories. The Center for Storytelling has lofty goals, including raising $500,000 and building a Storytelling Lab, complete with recording technology and member-access to storytelling experts.
Siegel then joined a panel with five other colleagues to share their thoughts on both storytelling and writing. I’ve attempted to capture much of their storytelling wisdom.
“Anyone who says that they love writing, probably isn’t a good writer.” Amy W.
“Writers are oddballs. Social outcasts.” Hector
“Writers are shy egomaniacs.” Miles ← the line of the day!
“I never met a great storyteller that wasn’t a big reader.” Miles
“If you steal from enough writers, you’ll develop your own style.” Hector
On becoming a better writer:
“You learn the most about writing by reading.” Barry
“To write you need nerve, will, and discipline.” Barry
“To be a storyteller, you must read stories like a writer.” Miles
“Read the masters.” Hector
“If you want to learn how to write a crime novel, read a good one and a bad one. You’ll learn more about structure from the bad one because good novels hide the mechanization.” Miles Hector pointed to The Gettysburg Address as his benchmark for great writing: It’s short (265 words), powerful, and to the point.
“Writing is a messy process that starts with flinging mud. Your first draft will be mud.” Barry
“It’s better to rely on excess in the first draft.” Hector
“Don’t start writing too soon.” Miles in response to question about writer’s block
Research…“If you don’t pay in the front end, you’ll pay in the backend.” Miles
“Have a schedule. I write a thousand words a day. No more. No less.” Miles
“Be boring so that your subject can be interesting.” Amy W
“When interviewing a survivor, remember that they were a normal person first.” Hector
“Interviewers are like therapists that tell the world what they hear.” Hector
“Interviewing is like dating. It’s accelerated levels of intimacy.” Erica
On the impact of writing:
“When you’re reading The Silence of the Lambs and your heart starts pounding, remember that a writer did that to you.” Amy W
“People read to know what happens.” Hector
“Look for moments that become scenes.” Erica
“People make stories interesting.” Miles
“People’s motivation must be on every page.” Hector
“Story begins with a world that you are interested in.” Erica
“Writing a story is a marathon. First you need to run around the block.” Hector
“Know your ending.” Hector