Stop Telling Your Whole Story — And Other Tips From The Video Trenches

Creating videos teaches us several lessons about effective storytelling. Here are six of the most important.

“You’re not like me,” the man said. “I can see that you are stronger and smarter and will not make the same bad choices that I did when I was your age.” 

I was 20 feet away standing next to a video camera, with headphones on, when I heard these words between an inmate and his teenage son. They had forgotten that they were wearing wireless microphones and that we were filming. Choking back tears, I stared at this improbable reunion inside a maximum-security prison. They were dancing together, actually, to the song “Dance With My Father” by Luther Vandross, and the boy’s face was inches away from his father’s. He was staring intently into his eyes, listening to every word. In the background was the song:

If I could get another chance, Another walk, Another dance with him, I’d play a song that would never end, How I’d love love love, To dance with my father again. 

We were filming this on behalf of Hope House, a nonprofit that reconnects children with their incarcerated fathers through camp programs inside maximum-security prisons. Hope House had applied to Stone Soup Films for a free video that would help its donors understand the importance of their work and to convince more prisons to adopt the program.

Since 2008, Stone Soup Films has made nearly 100 of these films on behalf of nonprofits that otherwise could not afford this critical marketing tool. So, if your organization is accepted, you get a communications strategy, a completed professional short documentary about your program, and a distribution consult. But what you won’t get is editorial control. And here’s why.

Often the people running the organization lack the proper distance to understand which story will resonate the best. You are not your target audience. You are already hooked. Stories should be geared towards engaging those people who are not yet emotionally invested in your work. Get a fresh perspective from an outsider when you are thinking of which stories to select.

Better to show, not tell. You may have so many reasons why your idea is far superior to others. And you want to tell everyone all of those facts. But it is far more effective to show it. For example, running a children’s camp inside a maximum security prison just sounds like a bad idea, no matter that x number of children participated and x number of prisons have adopted the program. Showing the powerful positive influence and love that a father can have, even one who will never be released from prison, engenders a far more powerful and lasting impression.

The shorter the better. Truly. Stop telling your whole story. Our films rarely exceed 5 minutes and we have found that a series of targeted 1-2 minute shorts can be even more effective. The idea is to whet the appetite of the stakeholder and leave them wanting more – hopefully to explore your website in depth or approach the staff for a site visit.

Be faithful to the truth. Your audience is smart. Avoid the temptation to imply that the child of a drug addict who is headed to Harvard is the example of a program’s success. It is far more effective and interesting to show a typical client and the transformation that has occurred since they came into contact with your organization.

Go deep rather than wide. Think about when you go to a party. Is it more enjoyable to chat a little bit with a lot of people or have a longer more meaningful conversation with one or two? We believe that an in-depth story, even if it doesn’t encompass every aspect of your program, has a stronger impact on the viewer.

Combat misperceptions. This may be the most important characteristic of an effective film. In the Hope House story, it was important for us to address – and bat down – audience concerns about children spending time in contact with inmates. Take time to understand and research why people do NOT support you or what they have gotten wrong about your program. What is the biggest frustration you have about what people think about your issue? Addressing those issues in your storytelling gives you a chance to show your strengths and opens the door to the truth. Oh, and Hope House? After they showed the film to a conference of wardens, the entire state of California adopted their prison camp program.