Pros shoot sequences


If you want to understand visual storytelling, watching TV is one of the best places to start.

It’s research, honest.

If you start watching with an analytical eye, particularly during news segments, you’ll see some of the techniques that the professionals use to engage the audience and tell a story. One of the most important is the principal of shooting sequences.

When we’re new to visual storytelling, we tend to see the camera view (or slideshow, or website, or piece of paper) as an essentially static “stage” on which to present our vision. That’s understandable, but it makes for boring and one-dimensional results.

Good video journalists shoot sequences using patterns such as the Five Shot Sequence, which is explained in detail in this great slideshare deck. That gives you a systematic approach to telling the story in an engaging way, without forgetting essential context.

I’d recommend using the five shot sequence, or something like it, every time you shoot video. It’s also worth thinking about how you can apply the same principals to other forms of visual storytelling (e.g. presentations).

Remember: pros shoot sequences.


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Response rate: the elephant in the room

noun_14049“What’s the sample size?”, you might get asked. Or sometimes (wrongly), “What proportion of customers did you speak to?”. Or even “What’s your margin of error?”.

Important questions, to be sure, but often misleading ones unless you also address the elephant in the room: what was the response rate?

Low response rates are the dirty little secret of the vast majority of quantitative customer insight studies.

As we march boldly into the age of “realtime” high volume customer insight via IVR, SMS or mobile, the issue of low response rates is a body that’s becoming increasingly difficult to hide under the rug.

Why response rate matters

It’s too simplistic to say that response rates are directly correlated with nonresponse bias1, which is what we’re really interested in, but good practice would be to look for response rates well over 50%. Academics are often encouraged to analyse the potential for response bias when their response rates fall below 80%.

The uncomfortable truth is that we mostly don’t know what impact nonresponse bias has on our survey findings. This contrasts with the margin of error, or confidence interval, which allows us to know how precise our survey findings are.

How to assess nonresponse bias

It can be very difficult to assess how much nonresponse bias you’re dealing with. For a start, its impact varies from question to question. Darrell Huff gives the example of a survey asking “How much do you like responding to surveys?”. Nonresponse bias for that question would be huge, but it wouldn’t necessarily be such a problem for the other questions on the same survey. Nonresponse bias is a problem when likelihood of responding is correlated with the substance of the question.

There are established approaches2 to assessing nonresponse bias. A good starting point for a customer survey would be:

  • Log and report reasons for non participation (e.g. incorrect numbers, too busy, etc.)
  • Compare the make-up of the sample and the population
  • Consider following up some nonresponders using an alternative method (e.g. telephone interviews) to analyse any differences
  • Validation against external data (e.g. behavioural data such as sales or complaints)

How to reduce nonresponse bias

Increasing response rate is the first priority. You need to overcome any reluctance to take part (“active nonresponse”), but more importantly “passive nonresponse” from customers who simply can’t be bothered. We find the most effective methods are:

  • Consider interviews rather than self-completion surveys
  • Introduce the survey (and why it matters to you) in advance
  • Communicate results and actions from previous surveys
  • Send at least one reminder
  • Time the arrival of the survey to suit the customer
  • Design the survey to be easy and pleasant for the customer

Whatever your response rate is, please don’t brush the issue under the carpet. If you care about the robustness of your survey report your response rate, and do your best to assess what impact nonresponse bias is having on your results.

1. This article gives a good explanation of why.

2. This article is a good example.

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Audacity and leadership

noun_219178Three things happened this week that  reminded me how important audacity is.

1) Johnny Sexton kicked a game-winning drop goal in Paris, taking the responsibility on his own shoulders rather than asking his tired forwards to gain another few yards.

2) The Philadelphia Eagles won their first ever Super Bowl, thanks in part to this incredible decision by head coach Doug Pederson on 4th down.

3) SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy had a successful test launch, watched live by over 2 million people. Elon Musk has made commercial spaceflight a reality, through huge personal investment, but estimated (in public at least) only a 50% chance of success.

What can we learn from these stories? Firstly, that there are times when you need to be bold. Secondly, though all three are team achievements, the crucial ingredient for an audacious win is an individual taking responsibility. Leadership, in other words.

I think this quote captures it well:

“If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it in port forever.”

Thomas Aquinas

Organisations tend to become risk-averse as they grow. One of the crucial skills of a leader is to accept the responsibility to make bold calls from time to time, otherwise the real danger is that you end up moored forever in port.

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Why do we forget the storyteller?

noun_21051We talk about storytelling a lot.

There is, unquestionably, a lot of hype around storytelling at the moment. It’s fair to be a bit sceptical. Is it just another fad?

Not in my view. I believe stories are tightly bound up with the way we humans think. They always have been and always will be the most effective way to persuade nearly anybody of nearly anything.

Something I’ve noticed is that, just as I’ve done in those few paragraphs, people often slide between talking about stories and talking about storytelling.

Stories are powerful because of their structure, because of their ability to touch our emotions, and because of the patterns we recognise in them. But most of all, stories are powerful because they are told.

This week is National Storytelling Week, an annual celebration of the art of oral storytelling. The power of telling stories is something that good leaders tend to intuitively know, but it’s something we often forget when it comes to using “storytelling” techniques in other areas such as research and insight.

What does a good storyteller do? Amongst other things:

    • They’re vulnerable, willing to share their own emotions
    • They understand the truth at the heart of the story they’re telling
    • They’ve found a way to bring that truth to life with a “gleaming detail”1

If you want to tell compelling stories, put away the keyboard for a while and start talking.


1 “Gleaming detail” is a phrase from Bobette Buster’s excellent book “Do Story



Editing as storytelling

It’s said that “writing is rewriting”1. In the same way, you could argue that filmmaking is editing.

Editing is a laborious, highly skilled, largely invisible process. Those of us outside the industry rarely get to see how important editors are.

That’s why I enjoyed this Youtube video essay so much:

I think there are several important lessons from the essay that we can apply to storytelling in general:

  • No one gets it right first time. I tell people on our Storytelling workshop to get used to the idea of shitty first drafts2. A good story will evolve as it is being put together.
  • The lone genius is a myth. Star Wars may have been George Lucas’ vision, but he relied on a team to realise it alongside him. The editors role was crucial, including creating key elements of the story in the edit.
  • Order is important “Scenes” derive their power in part from their order and context. Don’t just stick with the order in which you discovered your story, or the order in which a customer told you it, think about the most effective order for your audience.
  • Less is more Editing isn’t just about ruthless cutting, but pruning to the essentials is always a good starting point.

It’s surprising just how much more powerful a well edited story can be, and how rarely that opportunity is properly used in business storytelling. Take the time with your next story and you might have the next Star Wars!

1. Incidentally, I looked up that “writing is rewriting” quote. Apparently it’s been said a lot. I found quotes, amongst others, from…

Hemmingway: “The only kind of writing is rewriting.”

Truman Capote: “Good writing is rewriting.”

E.B. White: “The best writing is rewriting.”

Roald Dahl: “Good writing is essentially rewriting.”

Robert Graves: “There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.”

Michael Crichton: “Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten.”

2 “Oh, we’re great at those“, someone once replied.

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The Creation of Meaning

noun_1144514Lev Kuleshov was a Soviet filmmaker of the early 20th Century, one of the thinkers behind the Soviet montage theory of film making.

This argues that films work because of editing. The content of each shot is important, but it is the way shots are juxtaposed and strung together in sequences that allows a filmmaker to convey powerful emotional and intellectual ideas. Yes, even Michael Bay.

Kuleshov is remembered in the “Kuleshov Effect“, an interesting example of the montage theory. By pairing a neutral expression with, in turn, an empty plate, a dead child, and a beautiful woman, Kuleshov showed that an audience’s reading of the actor’s face was strongly dependent on the shot it was edited together with. They “saw” the actor expressing three different emotions, but actually the same footage was used in all three cases. You can watch the video to see how it works.

I think the Kuleshov effect is profoundly important when businesses are talking to customers and employees. The meaning for the audience is created by the juxtaposition of the organisation’s content with the surrounding “shots” that create context for it.

That’s why it’s so jarring when businesses get their tone wrong, notably when they’re responding to a PR crisis. Think of the United Airlines incident in April this year, when Dr Dao was filmed being violently dragged off an aeroplane. Oscar Munoz’s initial reaction was universally panned for what Jimmy Kimmel called “sanitized, say-nothing, take-no-responsibility, corporate BS speak“. Quite.

What I found fascinating was this interview with Munoz, in which he reflects

That first response was insensitive beyond belief. It did not represent how I felt.”

What? If that’s true, it strikes me as remarkable. If Munoz had used his feelings to communicate in a natural and human way, the whole incident would have been much less of a crisis for United.

The content of your communication is less important than the meaning it creates from juxtaposition with its context. Sanitised, say-nothing, corporate BS wouldn’t be anywhere near as damaging if it wasn’t, effectively, cut together in a montage with a customer being concussed and having two teeth knocked out.

It’s not what you say, it’s what your reaction shows me about you.

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Fully understanding employee engagement


I’ve been speaking today at a joint event with Avensure on the subject of Employee Engagement.

In my talk I covered why engagement is so important, how to go about measuring it, and a case study of one of our clients who has done a great job of building a culture of engagement.

I also spent quite a bit of time defining engagement, which can mean a lot of different things to different people.

Cause, effect, or something else?

I argue that to use the concept of engagement properly, it’s essential to understand and measure the state itself as distinct from the culture and management practices that cause engagement and the beneficial staff behaviours that result from engagement.
Employee Engagement Avensure SMALLER 2
You need to know the causes of engagement (so that you can improve) and you need to know the outcomes (so that you can prove it’s worth improving), but it’s a mistake to mix those three things together in the measurement or analysis. Be clear about what you’re measuring, and why.

Engaged with…what?

The other subtlety of measuring engagement is that you can be engaged with your job, but not to your employer, and vice versa. Both types of engagement are important, but they can have very different causes and effects. If you love what you do, but hate your employer, what’s to stop you leaving to do the same job somewhere else? We’d expect role engagement to correlate less well to retention than organisational engagement.

On the other hand, you might get on great with your manager and colleagues, but not feel inspired by your role. Employees can be satisfied and engaged with the organisation, but reluctant to fully engage with doing the best possible job for customers. Role engagement can correlate better with productivity and customer quality.

Most jobs have some element of drudgery and some opportunities for self-expression and challenge. It’s those challenges that make roles engaging for the right people, so the importance of organisational engagement is greater for businesses with employees who have limited opportunity for self-expression. If you can’t make them love their job, you can at least make them love you.

A complex picture

To understand the full importance of employee engagement, you need to understand it in all its messy glory. That means having clear, separate, measures of:

  • The causes of engagement
  • Role engagement
  • Organisational engagement
  • The effects of engagement

Put all those together and you have the basis for a sophisticated understanding of your people, and a clear way forward if you choose to invest in building a culture of engagement.

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Stories & science; belief and knowledge

noun_1011170We talk about Storytelling a lot at TLF.

Finding ways to tell better, more compelling, more persuasive stories is essential if you want to achieve difficult, long term, goals such as culture change or improved Customer Experience.

Good stories touch people emotionally, link their day to day decisions with an outcome that means something to them, and persuade them to make change happen.

Stories are deceiving

But stories can also be dangerous. We find narratives so compelling that we rush to invent stories to explain any fact, statistic, or research finding. Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls this the “Narrative Fallacy”, and data science expert Kaiser Fung reserves a whole category of posts on his blog for what he calls “Story Time“.

Our ability to weave simple explanations for complex, often random, series of events means that the stories we tell ourselves have a feel of inevitability, in hindsight. As Daniel Kahneman suggests in the classic “Thinking, Fast and Slow“:

“…the ultimate test of an explanation is whether it would have made the event predictable in advance.”

So, if making up stories to account for the data we have is flawed, how do we make sense of the world? Science.

Science (a word derived from the Latin scire, “to know”), has developed over centuries as a systematic method for learning about the world. The scientific method is designed to minimise the impact of our cognitive biases, such as making up stories or only noticing things which confirm our beliefs.

Rigorous analysis is the only way to learn robust truths about the world. Every time you (or someone else) come up with an explanation, challenge yourself by asking how you know. If your story is robust, you should have been expecting the finding before you saw it.

Science to learn, stories to teach

Should we give up on storytelling, given that we’re so prone to be misled by it?

Absolutely not. Once we have learned a fundamental truth about the world (through science), we need to communicate that insight to other people. We need to get their attention, persuade them to believe us, and convince them to change what they do.

Too often, in society and in organisations, we see arguments won by people with a simple story over those trying to explain a much more complicated truth. If we want to learn about the world, and use that knowledge to make better decisions, we need to learn to tell better stories with a firm foundation of science at their heart.

On my Data Presentation and Infographics workshop I use this graphic to summarise what I believe the job of a information designer to be:

We need the care and objectivity of a scientist to learn important truths, the flair of a graphic designer to engage people’s attention, and the craft of a storyteller to communicate and persuade people to change.


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Design is calculating

shapesI’ve been reading a brilliant book called “Shape”, by George Stiny.

One of the arguments that Stiny makes is that when we design with shapes we do a kind of “visual calculating”. It’s very different from the kind of calculating that we do with numbers, but it has a validity of its own.

As one of the blurbs on the back says,

“…Stiny’s book shows us that even the simplest shape is both ambiguous and perfectly clear.”

—Jonathan Cagan

This ambiguity means, for example, that I can add a square to a square and end up with four triangles, rotate the triangles and create a square with a cross through it. That kind of visual play is easy to see, hard to explain in words, and impossible to fully describe in numbers.

I think, by analogy, something similar applies to experience design. It is the emotional heart of a customer experience which matters. Great experiences aren’t made by processes or rules (terrible ones often are), they’re a creative act of design that happens when you interact with customers and empathise deeply with what they want.

It’s almost impossible to describe this process in words or numbers, but we know it when we experience it as customers. That doesn’t mean it lacks rigour, just that it’s a different kind of logic than our models are able to capture. As Stiny says, it’s always personal.

“Seeing and saying what I see are always personal. There are no rote results, whether I copy what I see or call this something else—descriptions don’t count. My eyes have only their own way of knowing. That’s a good reason to calculate, and it’s why calculating works in design.”

—George Stiny

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Empathy in Customer Experience

empathyI often talk about how important empathy is, but I realised the other day that I was using it in two different ways:

1) Empathy as a tool to inform the design of customer experiences

2) Building empathy at the front line as an essential output of insight

Let’s look at both of those in a bit more detail.

Empathy for design

To design good experiences you need to blend a deep understanding of customers with the skills, informed by psychology, to shape the way they feel. Getting that understanding requires in-depth qualitative research to get inside the heads of individual customers, helping you to see the world the way they see it.

When you understand why people behave the way they do, think the way they think, and (most importantly) feel they way they feel, you can design experiences that deliver the feelings you want to create in customers.

Design, to quote from Jon Kolko’s excellent book Well Designed is…

“…a creative process built on a platform of empathy.”

Empathy is a tool you can use to design better experiences.

Empathy at the front line

Improving the customer experience sometimes means making systematic changes to products or processes, but more often it’s a question of changing (or improving the consistency of) decision making at the front line.

Those decisions are driven by two things: your culture (or “service climate”), and the extent to which your people understand customers. If you can help your people empathise with customers, to understand why they’re acting, thinking, and feeling the way they are, then they’re much more likely to make good decisions for customers.

I’m sure we can all think of a topical example of what it looks like when front line staff are totally lacking in empathy.

The best way to build empathy is to bring customers to life with storytelling research communication. Using real customer stories, hearing their voices, seeing their faces, is much more powerful than abstract communication about mean scores and percentages.

Empathy at the front line is necessary to support good decisions.

Two kinds of empathy?

Are these two types of empathy fundamentally different? Not really. The truth is we are all experience designers. The decisions we make, whether grounded in empathy for the customer or making life easy for ourselves, collectively create the customer experience.

You can draw up a vision for the customer journey of the future, grounded in a deep understanding of customers, but if you fail to engage your colleagues at the front line it will never make a difference to customers.

To design effective experiences you need to start by gaining empathy for customers, but you also need to build empathy throughout your organisation.

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