This is Part 1 of a 4-part series on Authentic Story Discovery from the Emmy-Award nominated team at TAR Productions. You should read Part 2 once you’re done with this section.
Our Process of Learning & Finding Story
We know that story makes a difference in business. When we’re able to connect with customers we can create a bond that is nearly unbreakable, paying dividends for years. Story can bring more than a simple ROI, yielding a broad range of results from positive word of mouth to sharing and promoting of your brand to friends and social networks.
Here at TAR Productions, we live to tell stories and work with brands that truly believe in their purpose. Often times, it seems some brands are made to tell a story (think Patagonia or Apple) whereas other companies don’t think they have a story to tell at all, or have one that is interesting, at least. For example, we recently talked to a company that makes rock… they thought “What kind of story does a rock company have to tell?!” It’s especially easy for small businesses to get caught in the trap of feeling or thinking like they don’t have a story to tell.
In working with hundreds of companies throughout my career, I can tell you that is simply not true. We all have a story to tell- the engaging part comes in how we tell it. Patagonia has no better a story to tell than a rock company, but it’s in how we unearth the story, no pun intended.
The process of discovery can make or break a story. This is the first step in telling a story and it’s often times overlooked or worse, bypassed altogether. If you want your story to engage and resonate with your audience, then you need to understand them, their problem and the possible solution, and this happens in the discovery phase.
For us it’s not just work, it’s a labor of passion and purpose.
At TAR Productions, we distinguish ourselves from the rest of the industry by following our uniquely developed discovery process. Pretty images and trends are great, but they’ll only get you so far. Storytelling in a problem-solving environment is what creates results.
This is why our work lasts for months and years, not weeks or days. Our process of discovery is specifically designed with purpose, meaning all creative decisions are supported by said purpose. For us it’s not just work, it’s a labor of passion and purpose.
This is part one in a series of posts where we go into detail about our distinctive process and why the stories we tell are successful. Stories don’t appear out of nowhere, they’re found, or discovered. We’re here to unearth them with you.
The best stories solve a business problem, and the following process is how we do just that.
Stories fail when stakeholders (anyone who cares about the outcome of the project) and filmmakers are not aligned on the understanding of the problem. If you’ve been a part of a story that didn’t live up to it’s potential then this part is for you.
Stories are successful when we connect with an audience and solve a problem. But before any project begins we have to understand the problem first. How does story solve a problem? Let’s first define what a problem is.
A company’s problem is not merely to “sell more pants” or, maybe something more in-depth yet ambiguous, “to launch a new product line.” ” These are goals or challenges.
A problem is to make more money, generate more leads, increase signups. A problem is to educate, resonate, entertain, reveal, surprise, customers, and industry, fans or even take advantage of opportunity
Biology tells us that story connects us- a brand to a consumer, a human to another human, or feelings to a cause. Without knowing it, many companies are constantly seeking to build a stronger connection to customers. Some call this brand growth/awareness, some see this as simply as increasing sales.
Questions we may ask ourselves when trying to solve our client’s problem:
- What is going to be the hardest part of this project?
- What are the desired results?
- What is being measured in the success of this project?
We don’t necessarily enter the discovery phase knowing what our client’s problem is either. We usually have goals in mind, for example, to sell more pants, but that doesn’t necessarily define our problem, but rather our challenge. So, we have to ask ourselves, how do we sell more pants? What’s preventing us from making a connection so strong with our targeted audience and what will make us top of mind when they’re looking for pants? How do we get our customer to think of us when they realize the need to buy pants. Or, going one step further, how do we create lust for pants?
Science tells us that when we trust someone (or a company) we make purchasing decisions. Once this trust has been established, we remember facts and figures so much more, and then make rational decisions; i.e. which pants do I purchase?
We, the stakeholders, understand a problem and decide on an appropriate decision through a process called discovery.
When we take a problem-solving approach, we’re mindful of so much more than just a story. We’re considering the outcome that we want our audience to experience- after we’ve established trust, of course.
Tools are tactics, stories are strategic.
Discovery leads us to creative decisions too, such as the look/feel/mood of our final product (more on this in part 4). These findings dictate which tools we use (such as camera and lenses), how we use them and also the pacing of the edit, the tone of the music and even the final length of the film. Tools are tactics, stories are strategic. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which camera you use to tell your story. What matters is how you use your tools and what they allow you to do creatively.
This is what we want our audience to feel when watching our films- do we want to motivate them? Inspire them? Educate them? Make them happy or empower them?
You don’t have to know the answer before a project begins- that’s the beauty of our discovery process. This is what makes discovery interesting, it’s being aware there’s a problem and conquering to find the best manner to solve it.
Testing potential solutions before production is part of discovery, and we do that by framing the problem and solution. Hence, the problem-solving. This is extremely useful when the storyline is complex, ill-defined or unknown. Framing allows us to understand the problem and solution in human-centric ways.
One of the best ways to do this is through storyboarding (more on that later in this series) and brainstorming. Storyboarding provides insight into our story and audience, allowing us to make sure our film flows and reaches our goals. Often times, during production we have a lot of resources and tools on hand with limited time (usually just a few days) and we need to create all the assets needed for our solution. Because the stakes are high, we must be prepared and aware at all times during this step.
WHAT IS DISCOVERY?
Discovery is a process that allows the filmmaking team and the stakeholders to get on the same page. Discovery builds the foundation for understanding the problem, creates clarity around the objectives and considers the constraints involved.
Yes, it’s intangible but also an incredibly valuable benefit for any relationship or project, which inherently makes this process rather rigorous. When beginning a new project with a client, we must sometimes admit that we aren’t experts in their field while still acting like a sponge and soaking up as much knowledge as we possibly can.
For us, it’s okay if we’re initially wrong during the discovery process because learning is part of the exploration process. Being wrong during discovery is ultimately better than going through the effort, time, and expense of making a film only to find out you were wrong from the beginning or got started on the wrong foot during production, which in return affects the entire project.
Similar to doctors and lawyers who are continuous learners, the discovery phase is also an ongoing process in that we’re often learning throughout the course of a project. We all want to be continuous learners; ask yourself, do you ever stop learning about your industry? For filmmakers, continuous learning is part of our job descriptions. In filmmaking, you have to be prepared for anything. Having a solid foundation makes us proactive instead of reactive when it matters most, out on location or on set. So yes, discovery is constant and continual, just like medicine and law is filled with continuous learning and is constantly practiced.
Discovery also helps prioritize. On any given project there are a number of things we can do, and on the other hand, several things we can’t do. The process of discovery let’s us plan goals efficiently, helps us see what’s possible considering restraints (available locations, characters, number shoot days) and allows us to budget accordingly.
Knowing what’s available and what’s already been done is helpful too. Analyzing past efforts can reveal findings that make us more efficient during our research phase.
Truth be told, discovery is more of a mindset rather than a phase. By nature, curious people and never truly stop discovering. Throughout any project, we’re constantly peeling back the layers and seeing where our story takes us. We want to know seemingly simple things, such as why something has “always been done this way.” It’s our job to challenge assumptions and remove predispositions. Being curious and asking simple questions can lead us to discover new elements and characters that change the course of our story altogether. This is what we call problem-solving.
Projects can be in the works for several months and knowing how to lead and inspire the team all comes back to wondering why we are doing this to begin with. Discovery let’s us do just that and the impact this can have on how a production goes is significant.
During the discovery process we like to define a guiding principle for each project- a simple yet profound statement that reminds us why we’re embarking on this journey. We get there by asking a series of questions with stakeholders, customers and others involved. A guiding principle should directly support our problem-solving efforts. Once all this data has been collected we ask ourselves the following:
- Why does this story need to be told?
- What kind of impact will it have on the audience/community/company?
- How is this company changing the landscape?
While these all seem generic and overarching, the hidden gems lie in the answers we receive. We’re looking for how someone responds and we uncover unique details or attributes from there. This is what I meant earlier when I mentioned peeling back the layers and being curious.
At TAR Productions, we have a Guiding Principle that reminds us what we do and why we’re doing it. Filmmaking can be challenging and can take us to the brink of wanting to stop or give up. For example, when a project takes us to a jungle filled with mosquitos or a desolated beach in a third world country, (and we are cursing ourselves for getting into this situation) we remind ourselves of our own guiding principle:
Story leads us.
In everything we do, we follow the story, wherever it takes us. We know the impact a project can create will be better off when we give it our best effort. And sometimes that’s all we need to remind ourselves to keep going, and pushing further.
In order to understand the problem we have to learn about the space: the audience, customers, or users. We can’t connect with the intended audience if we feel and act like outsiders, so immersing ourselves is par for the course. How can we fully understand the problem without putting ourselves in the targeted audience’s shoes? Learning how something feels and experiencing the problem / product gives us unique insight and perspective.
Letting go of predispositions of what a solution could or should look like is an early prerequisite we must always be mindful of. It’s easy to assume what the “right” solution is based on trends and jumping to conclusions, but this can limit creativity and opportunities. We don’t yet know what characters or locations are available to us or where our story can take us. Letting our process guide us is the best way to a natural and authentic solution.
This is how we are guided to a unified solution. We take into account our unique, albeit outsider, perspective, our experience and findings from customers and stakeholders alike. Even if we end up with a story that is conventional, we take with us the confidence that our discovery process was useful and that we didn’t have a lack of imagination.
LONG TERM RELATIONSHIP & RETAINERS
Although discovery is an intangible benefit, it’s an asset that doesn’t extinguish or become invalid at the end of a project or short film. Discovery yields another benefit; the ability to quickly execute and refine the content we create together. This is especially beneficial on projects that are long term with multiple or undefined deliverables, for example, if we partner with a company on a retainer basis.
We can let content percolate and build upon initial success allowing us, and our client, to create additional leverage in a flexible and fluid manner. This constant flow of learning increases our team’s understanding of the product and how it fits into the world and the speed in which we’re able to do this in. We can continuously improve our films while growing a library of content. We can act quickly and create more profitable solutions without much lead time while increasing the quantity of content.
If our problem is to increase brand awareness, this is a great solution.
It’s easy to see why and how this approach is valuable for the long term and better than hiring a new team or an inexpensive one that doesn’t have the same understanding.
We may not be making world changing films but they do matter to someone, and that’s who we make films for, someONE, not everyone or anyone. Whoever our targeted audience is deserves our best effort and following this process is how we arrive at that solution.
In Part two, we’ll go in depth in our pre production research reviewing the different options before coming up with creative and how we define our audience.