Complete Guide to Authentic Story Discovery Part 2

telling authentic stories

This is Part 2 in a 4-part series on Authentic Story Discovery from your Emmy-Award nominated friends at TAR Productions. In Part 1 we talked about our Problem-Solving approach to story. You should read that post before this one.


Pre Production Research

If you?re familiar with ethnography, some of the research we do as part of our discovery process might ring a bell. Ethnography is an approach to communication and anthropology that seeks to best understand how people live their daily lives by researchers becoming part of the in-group, observing, taking notes, and asking open ended questions that are non-directive. This is something that we heavily value during the discovery phase.

Ethnographers seek to understand people in their natural setting to truly understand their attitudes, beliefs and culture which is so much of our driving force throughout our discovery process. Ethnography has proven to be successful and has been implemented into corporate and business settings to better solve and understand problems and find solutions.

Research during the discovery phase is paramount. On any given project we have several research options we can take and depending on the specific situation, some make more sense to pursue than others.

The discovery process is fluid, one that moves congruously and swiftly as many channels are developing at the same time and overlap. We never know where discovery will take us (remember we already removed all predispositions on what possible solutions could look like, as we discussed in Part 1), but our curious nature never fails us and in result, we end up with the required information to solve our problem through the methods outlined below.

There are various types of research we perform. While not every type is appropriate on all projects, here?s a breakdown of what we usually do.

types of research authentic stories


Interview Stakeholders

A stakeholder is anyone who has a say about what goes into the project and cares about the outcome of said project. We?ll have more tips on interview techniques about conducting pre interviews and interviews in part 4.

Domain Research

Our clients will always be the experts in their space, however, with collaboration and a clearly defined guiding principle we can better accomplish goals as a unit. This means getting up to speed as quickly as possible and learning their product lineup or service from the inside out. Essentially, we work like sponges and aim to become experts in our client?s space as much as possible. When we?re viewed as an asset or extension of our client?s team, we can better position ourselves for success.

During this step, we review collected data with stakeholders and refine our findings. Sometimes our findings are deemed insignificant, and other times, revealing. This is what discovery is all about- figuring out what we don?t know.


Past Work & Work Already Started

Reviewing previous efforts let us know what works and what doesn?t work. Are there any takeaways from these findings? What failed and why?

Oftentimes, brand identity and style guides are overlooked but are valuable pieces that are helpful for us to create matching or supporting assets.. The look/feel/mood of our films should be on brand and relevant to the target audience. A great deal of parallel work is done during brand creation and voice, so naturally this is important information to review and consider.

We also look to see how customers, employees and users are onboarded. What does this process entail? When was the last time this was overhauled? These questions and findings can spark an idea or provide insight into company culture and behavior.

user research authentic story

User Research

This is one of the most important research methods we implore on projects. Our research i similar to the ethnographic approach to communication/anthropology where we talk to customers about their experience,opinions and life. Of course, to perform this with any kind of confidence we have to do domain research first.

We create a set of initial questions to ask that provide concrete data that?s comparable on a user-to-user basis allowing us to identify trends or patterns. It?s important that when talking to users we don?t sound scripted or are constantly looking down at our notes. In order to get true answers we have to know our questions and ask them conversationally. Remember, story leads us, so it?s not uncommon for us to deviate when asking follow up questions to go deeper- this is a good thing. This is another trait of ethnographic research.

Finally, when talking to users, we challenge assumptions and think that?s ok especially when given vague answers. ?Works great,? and ?Yes, I love Product X? are too vague for us to get any kind of clear support or story direction. We have to know what is great about the product and why a client may love it so much. From here we can expand and further allow the story to continue to lead us.

Suggestions on an action or behavior give us the opportunity to ask ?why? while exploring the deeper meaning and potentially revealing valuable insight. This is where we find our story, this is how we get users to identify what exactly they like or love.

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PHP office coffee shop authentic story
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PHP Office coffee shop authentic story


Talking to stakeholders and customers provide unique insight into a company and/or its products/services, but what about our unique experience trying it? We can?t ethically stand behind a story we share without experiencing ?it for ourselves. This is where we once again implement an ethnographic approach to our research. By immersing ourselves and becoming part of the environment, we are much more able to understand our users and stakeholders.

We love to do this in a natural environment. For example, Peter Harsch Prosthetics (PHP) told us their office was more like a coffee shop than a medical office. Prosthetics was something we had no prior experience with so ?this was hard for us to grasp initially. How could a medical office feel more like a coffee shop? We had to experience this for ourselves to understand.

So we hung out at PHP for a few hours at a time and observed. We showed up at different times of the day, on different days of the week looking for patterns or anomalies. We didn?t just sit there and act as a fly on the wall. We participated and blended in with the group. Again, this might right a bell to those familiar with ethnographic research.

Within a few hours, we could see what they meant about the office being more like a coffee shop. We learned that these patients are more like family. We learned their jargon, got insight into military life, struggles of life with half a limb, and made friends with them.

We can?t ethically stand behind a story we share without experiencing it for ourselves.

Bilateral, A.K. What does this mean? We had no idea either before hanging out at the PHP office for a bit. Our prior research on prosthetists didn?t reveal what this mean, and the patients were tossing around terms like this constantly.

A bilateral, A.K. is an double amputee above the knee, hence A.K. Once we figured this out we were able to grasp so much more on the conversation. We were no longer outsiders, we were another person to laugh with, and, sometimes, were made fun of. That?s what a family does, right?

Although we didn?t experience getting a prosthetic fit, we experienced what life was like at their office, and these patients spend a great deal of time there and it?s a huge part of their life. This activity alone lead us to many important creative decisions in their final film- which was incredibly effective, landing them a huge contract with a foreign government.


biker authentic story


Space and Competitors

Evaluating the space and competition gives insight into how a company are uniquely positioned and what storytelling assets we can take advantage of. The key to identifying this is taking a holistic and unbiased view of everything.

We often hear something along the lines of ?our product is the best/highest quality/fastest/etc.? And while we have no reason to doubt this claim, we need to be able to explain this to ?the target customer with an engaging story. We need to know ?how we can back this up, or what makes this true, and our outside perspective allows us to do this in relation to our guiding principle and solving of our problem.


The Big Picture

Throughout the discovery process, we meet and talk to a lof of different people. Our intuition and guiding principle leads us ?on deciding who would make a good character on ?camera and who plays an important role in our storytelling. But we have to step back and ask how all this fits into the bigger picture.

Taking notes and identifying themes we can analyze and complete our discovery process. We ask questions such as:

  • Does everything make sense?
  • What needs more clarity?
  • Does our view of the problem and solution differ than our clients?
  • What are the customers saying about the product or service and how does that change things (if any)?

By looking at the big picture, we?re constantly asking ourselves who would be a good fit on camera and in interviews. We don?t buy into the stereotypical notion that the CEO has to be on camera because she is the CEO. Sometimes CEOs aren?t charismatic on the camera, sometimes the target audience doesn’t care who the CEO is or feel it?s important she is shown.

There are situation where this does make sense, but the point is we follow the story and come to these conclusions based on our research.

Problem solution authentic story

Going back to solving our problem, what needs to be included and what can be included. What limitations do we have in terms of locations, scheduling and budget?

Our process allows us to consider the worldview or frame of mind for our targeted customers and how this fits into their lifestyle. The discovery process is done to yield insights allowing us to create something natural and appreciated by the target audience. Creating something that represents the target group and ?it?s culture that won?t be viewed as cliche or selling out can?t be overstated.



Knowing who our intended audience is helps us define what?s appropriate for a final film. This step is usually one of the first talking points we have with stakeholders. It?s an important discussion that leads us to talking to the right users and space.

We find that most brands or organizations don?t know their customers as well as they think they do. This is challenging as many companies don?t want to leave anyone out, but this actually creates ?an adverse affect.

In Part 1, we mentioned that stories are successful when we solve a problem. Being specific about the problem and the personas that represent the audience create success.


exploration discovery authentic story

?College educated, 24-39 years old, male and female, middle class? is not knowing your customer. It?s semi descriptive but it doesn?t help us identify or solve the problem.

For example, Patagonia should know the following about it?s customers:

  • What do they do for fun?
  • Why are they motivated to support environmentally friendly goods?
  • Who do they look up to? Athletes? Activists? Groups? People who are just like them, i.e. Average Joe?
  • What objections do they have about your brand?
  • What are your competitors doing that your customer like?
  • Why would a customer continue to buy from you?
  • If a scandal were to happen, how would your customers react?

Answering these questions provides insight needed to move in the right direction and conduct appropriate research. Understanding who the audience is, what they believe and how they see the world is the first step in creating empathy and influence. This is also referred to as personas.


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mobile phone movie watcher
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movie theater authentic story[/column]

Finally, we have to consider how the audience is watching this. Viewing something on a 40? screen at a movie theater is different than a mobile phone with a screen measured in inches. The former suggests mixing in 5.1 surround sound where the latter could mean small earbud headphones at best, or possibly with the sound off altogether.

This leads to many story-driven critical decisions. Some say sound is 50% of a film, other suggest it is more important.

These are just a sample of the considerations we make during the initial discovery phase and how we develop our story. There isn?t a set formula that works for every situation other than allowing your creativity to further your discovery process. It might sounds obvious or cliche, but it?s the truth, and easier said than done.

When we feel we?ve done an extensive amount of research and good enough to move to the building phase of our story, it?s important to remember that we don?t expect to be domain experts at this point. What?s important is that we have more insight than when we did when we started and documented the process in a manner that shows this growth and understanding. Our initial ideas and perspective are still valid. The arc we arrived at can be similar to the final story arc in the film.

Knowing the space and audience provide us the qualitative and quantitative data we need in order to creating a story that supports empathy and influence. In part three we?ll review how we build a story and what we do with all this data we?ve collected.

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