Sound Stories #017 – Finding the Hidden Story

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    Perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing corporate storytellers today, is how to tell a consistent narrative, without telling the same tale, over and over again.
    Micah Baro, Creative Director and Content Strategist at Allison + Partners joins us to illuminate how he and his team find the ‘hidden story,’ for their clients. In addition, he explains how it’s possible to harness both live action video and animation in ways that allow you to tell your story in the most creative way possible.

    Allison+Partners http://www.allisonpr.com/
    Epic Content Marketing, by Joe Pulizzi http://www.joepulizzi.com/books/
    Seth’s Blog by Seth Godin http://sethgodin.typepad.com/
    AdWeek: www.adweek.com
    Follow Micah on Instagram: @Micah.gif (https://www.instagram.com/micah.gif/)

    TRANSCRIPTION SOUND STORIES #017

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Hi there, and welcome to another episode of Sound Stories, an inspirational podcast for creative professionals and storytellers who want to improve their lives at home and at work. I’m Stephanie Ciccarelli, your host and co-founder of voices.com. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing corporate storytellers today is how to tell a consistent narrative without telling the same tale over and over again. For brands, this can be a particularly daunting challenge. This is because in an effort to stay on message and showcase consistency, many brands inadvertently closed the door on creativity and new stories.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    If this sounds like your struggle, stay tuned. Joining us today is Micah Baro, creative producer at Allison and Partners. As a passionate producer, Micah has a home storytelling skill, especially when it comes to live action video and animation. Micah irregularly helps his clients take a critical look at what they’re hoping to achieve with their project, and then helps them break new ground on a creative path to success. Welcome, Micah.

    Micah Baro:

    Hey, glad to be here. Thank you so much for having me.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Oh, absolute pleasure. Definitely. To get going here, Micah, I was just wondering … I know that you help your clients get to the next level with their storytelling. Can you walk us through the production process, and where do those first ideas come from?

    Micah Baro:

    Sure. Well, ideally we always want to start with a creative brief. The reason being why is this is where we really see where the message and goals for the client start to materialize. This is where we really have them define their audience. I think those are kind of two of the most important points that we have to make. What’s your message, and who’s your audience? Also using a brief, it makes a client formulate their thoughts into something that’s actually cohesive and concrete. And what I mean by that, it’s in their own words and it’s in writing.

    Micah Baro:

    Then we … and by we, I usually mean me, and a creative director, and one of the client account leads. We take their answers to the brief, then we brainstorm really what’s the best way to tell this story, and actually have it resonate with the audience that’s listed. Also, a lot of times too clients come with base ideas, and they really just want us to execute and maybe just fill the gaps. It really comes from either direction. But ideally, like I said, we always wanted to start with the brief. Because I think that discovery process is truly important in helping take ideas to the next level.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Okay. Now, how does your team take that seed of an idea and find the right path for the brand to achieve their objective?

    Micah Baro:

    The first thing we want to ask too, again, is: who is your audience? Really, that’s kind of not your first question. You’re almost starting off on the wrong foot. I mean, who are you making this for really, and then how do you want them to feel? What’s the emotion you’re trying to draw out and associate your company product or brand with? Then once you kind of define that, your tone and dynamic tends to really follow that. Then if you always use that question as your compass … “Who’s the audience? How do we want them to feel,” throughout all of production, you can never really be too far off target. And then after defining your audience and how we want them to feel, again, you define your message. When you define your message, it comes down to: can you distill it into a single sentence?

    Micah Baro:

    I think if you can’t then you don’t really understand it well enough. Once that message is there, then we can think of style, narrative, script, boards, and everything else that needs to happen to tell the story. But again, defining your audience, how do you want them to feel, and really distilling your message as succinct and concise as possible. After we get the brief done, we typically like to have this interview with the client to have them in their own words describe how they wrote the brief, and why they chose the answers that they did, and things like that. Because those are when the small kind of like nuance details tend to show themselves passing what’s written on the page. A lot of times, that’s kind of where you get this underlying story coming out.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Could you walk us through an example of some work you’ve done, so that we can understand just what that looks like in a practical sense?

    Micah Baro:

    Well, sure. Before I was even at my current job here, when I was working as a freelance producer and with another studio, we worked with a really well known university in our area that was building a brand new hospital. Everything in this hospital was brand new technology. It was cutting edge. Everything was based on science. And they wanted the studio I was with to tell the story of this hospital and everything that was great about it. We had to fill out a brief, and then they invited us to a sidewalk, and while it was still under construction we learned about … on the sidewalk about how big of a role art gardens, open space architecture would play in this healing environment they were building.

    Micah Baro:

    When you think about hospitals, typically you think of them as sterile. I guess literally a good thing. Figuratively a bad thing. When you think about the art on the walls in hospitals, it looks like it’s ordered from a catalog. Everything is fluorescent, and everything’s kind of dreary. We were actually surprised to find out that they allocated a large part of their budget, and it was something that they thought about from the beginning of creating a hospital that was open, it had a lot of natural light. We kind of asked them why, and they said, “Well, there’s all this solid research that said the environment that you stay in has a direct impact on patient comfort. Like how much pain patients reported, and even would affect the length of a hospital.”

    Micah Baro:

    So, they commissioned artists to kind of make pieces specifically for this hospital. I mean, when they commissioned artists, they did it the right way. For example, they toured the artists around the hospital. They let them choose their canvas and medium, and where they wanted their sculpture installation to go. When you think about this, they’re implementing these beautiful art installations. You can kind of just stumble upon natural light, open air gardens, all in an effort really to make the patient feel more like they were walking … as they described it, through a museum than a hospital. All of this was an effort to aid with the healing process.

    Micah Baro:

    We were doing the sidewalk with our creative director. His name is Darryl Kirchner, and that was the story. We kind of looked at each other and we’re like, “This is what we want to tell.” Not the story of technology, which is kind of what they originally listed in their brief. Like, “Oh, we’re cutting edge. This is the best hospital, and these are the reasons why.” But of art and humanity. It’s funny to me that … I kind of say that now, because I put so much importance on the brief. But what was really important was us getting out there, and talking to the client, and really kind of figuring out what the story was.

    Micah Baro:

    And part of that came from everybody already knew because of this hospital’s reputation, that this was going to be a leader in research, and sciences, and technology. But this was the hidden story that we kind of figured out had legs, and we could know that would create this deeper attachment with the audience, and also something that was a truly unique value proposition that was really in service to the patient. The hospital’s not going to make money from charging people to come in and view their art. This thing was a hospital. This was free. This was one of the things that we thought was this is the right story to tell. This was the unknown story. This was the hidden story. We really, really thought that this was the best story that they could possibly tell.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Wow, I love everything you said about how you walked into this hospital, and you thought, “Well, they want to tell a story about tech.” It’s what they’re known for. They probably want to talk about their latest and greatest pieces of machinery, and tools that the doctors are using. But ultimately when you walked in, it hit you right in the face. It’s like, “This is a place of beauty. A place of healing.” And it’s that underlying … kind of that hidden story that you’re talking about. For so many of our companies and brands out there, it can be really easy to always default to the story we’ve always told. The one that’s on our boiler plate. That sort of thing. When you’re walking in with a set of fresh eyes, it’s probably a bit easier for you to see those stories. But how can we as brands be able to look through new eyes at a story that we’ve told so many different times? How do we find the hidden story?

    Micah Baro:

    Well, it’s hardest to see the picture when you’re in the frame, right? That’s something that we always kind of like to say, and it really just comes with time. For example, you just kind of walk around your job or your own office, for example, and you’ll have small things that will resonate with you. You’ll notice some work that you recently did, or you offer something that you didn’t know you previously offered. Maybe it’s a benefit or something like that that the company offers that you didn’t know. It just resonates with you. You’re like, “Oh, that’s cool.” But you should take inventory of those things. Those things that make you stop for a little while and say, “Oh, that’s neat.” Because I guarantee you if you think that’s neat, there’s hundreds of people out there that also think that’s neat.

    Micah Baro:

    Learn to realize when you actually had those moments. I think that’s how you can train yourself to start looking for stuff that’s usually hidden really in plain view. Once you kind of just learn to be aware, kind of be present, understand what you’re thinking, pay attention to your thoughts … I think that’s how you can kind of build that, “This is where’s the story. This is what I need to talk about.” For example, that neurological story, I think it’s important to point out that it was not easy for us to come up and say to the client, “Hey, this is the story you should be telling, because this is the right story.” But he came from a genuine place, and something that we were inspired by and passionate with. I think when the client sees that … again, you have this relationship with the client. You have equity with them. You have trust. I think building that equity and trust is important to being able to make these suggestions.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    That’s an excellent point. You mentioned relationship, and that people that you’re working with … you build this up over time. Just thinking you approached them, and you must’ve had a certain way you packaged the whole, “Well, you have this vision, but guess what? We see something else.” How is it that you proposed it to them? Did you kind of just present to them, “Have you ever thought of this? Or, “You know what we noticed as soon as we walked in? Oh my goodness.” How did you put it to them so that they were more receptive to a change in direction?

    Micah Baro:

    It was really in the moment. One thing that we kind of do is if you want to have buy-in for an idea, a lot of times the best way to do it is to have them invest it in the decision themselves. We kind of thought with them … and they almost gave us kind of like a story. They were kind of talking to us about how all this art was great, and how they wanted it to be a part in the film. Then we’re like, “No, it should be actually the entire film. It should just only be about this.” That was the whole kind of genesis of it starting is we, again, kind of just took this idea that we had and applied it to a thought that they had.

    Micah Baro:

    As long as we can make that connection, they’re instantly sold off on the idea because they have equity in it. It’s part of something that they were already thinking about. If you can at least articulate that, and bring it up in the moment, and just be passionate about it, that works. Once we had that foundation laid, we said, “Hey, this is great. This is what we kind of want to talk about.” We’re going to sit down, kind of write out how we want this to transpire on screen, and we gave them just a quick paragraph writeup about how this is going to … the story arc and the narrative is going to go. They signed off on that, and then we kind of figured out these are the people we want to talk to, and then created the piece. That was really the way that we were able to do it was, again, being passionate about the idea of bringing it up in the moment, getting the initial sign off, and coming back with something a little bit more baked.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    It always works out better when you’re focusing on the customer, right? When the hospital decided to focus on just the experience and the overall kind of sensory, the art, the beauty, everything like that that helps people to heal faster, shortens their hospital stay, creates more of a sense of wonder, then that’s really what those future patients want to see, isn’t it? They want to know that they’re going to be taken care of. That it’s a place where they feel comfortable. It’s really all about them and not about the technology, not about the sterile environment or all of the money that went into making this a great place.

    Micah Baro:

    It really is. You mentioned the audience, who was in this case the patient. The patient expects when they go to the hospital that they’re there to get the best treatment possible. That’s an old story to them. That’s something that they’ve heard. What you just said was the new story, the untold story. As storytellers, we want to tell these new stories because that’s what people want to hear. Nobody wants to be told the same thing over and over again. That’s why we thought it was so important to focus on this, was because this was the untold story … a story that was unique to them. I can’t think of any other one that I’ve ever been to that looks close as in terms of being as beautiful in space, and filled with natural light, and inviting and warm is this hospital does.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Well, it’s the humanity, right? They’ve hit the nail on the head. I imagine that got them more customers, more patients coming into their hospital too. Just to kind of pivot a bit, do you think this approach can be applied to stories in other mediums as well? For instance, I know your team works on animation projects too. Do you have an example from that line of work?

    Micah Baro:

    Yeah. Well, I think … I love animation, and I think one of the greatest things about animation is that you can tell stories that would be really difficult to tell using live action. With animation, you really have a blank canvas. The art styles are infinite. You can use metaphors, transitions, timing of actions can be different. For example, you can show a character moving across the screen in half a second in a highly stylized animation frame, and it would look epic. You try to do that in live action, and the person looks like they’re just speed walking through the frame, and it just might look really corny. I think that’s why animation so great of a medium is, again, you can tell these stories that would be really difficult to visually tell in live action.

    Micah Baro:

    What we had … for example, for this was we had a client that supplied tuition insurance. Our creative director for animation at the time, his name is Fabian Molina, knew that animation was the route to take to tell this story. He came up with this beautiful watercolor animation style, and we knew that was the right style almost instantly, because insurance is really preparing you for the worst. Using a soft art style was our way to tell this tale of disaster without being so blunt. We got to use metaphors like lightning and rain clouds instead of speaking directly about mental illness. That was one example.

    Micah Baro:

    I think what was really important with that is we were really able to keep the heart and the seriousness of the message, but still soften the blow a little bit. I think, again, that’s one of the benefits of the animation again is telling the story in a way that you wouldn’t be able to tell in live action. It was funny, because there’s also a little bit of serendipity involved since the client told us that … after we showed her the art style and the style frame, she was like, “Wow. I’m a hobby watercolor painter.” She instantly fell in love with the art style that we came up with, so I’m sure that helped us a little bit.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Well, that’s wonderful. Do you have any other advice for storytellers out there who want to improve?

    Micah Baro:

    Yeah. There’s this unspoken truth that I think people should know. I think it’s really apparent. But again, it’s kind of this unspoken truth. It’s that your audience really doesn’t care about what you’re trying to sell. They really only care about themselves, and if what you’re talking about … is this a benefit for me? Good content really is about creating interesting information that your customers can actually value and it helps them, so they actually pay attention.

    Micah Baro:

    I think that’s really important. It’s kind of working from that standpoint that regardless of what you do, you’re not really going to be relevant to the client unless you’re making something that’s interesting specifically to them. Again, defining your audience and your message, so that you can formulate in a way that will actually get them to pay attention. If you really want to improve, a previous mentor told me to sharpen the saw. What he meant by that is essentially keep on working to improve your skillset. He’s like, “You use your tools every day, whether that’s your thinking mind, or you’re typing emails, or whatever that is.” And to make sure that you stay at the top of your chosen field, you need to sharpen those tools that you use every day.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Sharpening the saw. I really like that. What are the sort of things that you do that help you to keep that saw sharp?

    Micah Baro:

    Totally. One thing I always like to do is I like to read. Reading … whatever form it may be, I think that’s a really important thing to do. I mean, books are a great resource. The internet is a great resource. What I’m reading is always about my chosen field, about different publications that are related to the type of work that we’re doing. I like to do that. I also view kind of new videos as in terms of advertising and commercials to see what really resonates with me, and to also kind of spot trends.

    Micah Baro:

    Also, the other thing I like to do is just talk to people about what is really inspiring them. For example, if I wanted to talk to … I guess millennials in my office, good thing is working in the type of company, there’s a bunch of them. They all like to think that they’re super hip. I get to talk to them, and see what inspires them, and see what they’re looking at. Because I don’t think if it was for that, I might be left behind, and out in the dark, and not on top of what is the current meme or something along those lines. I think that’s really important to, again, read from established sources that have really made a name for itself and has proven success. I think that’s really important. Then again, talking to the people that you’re trying to communicate with through whatever medium that you’re going, so you’re never too far off from them. I think those two are the most important things.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    I was going to say you’re in a really hip city too in San Francisco. There’s no doubt all kinds of creative people, and events, and different literature for you to come across to. I’m glad that you mentioned just the various ways that you’re finding tools to become inspired by. But if there was a blog or maybe a magazine that you regularly read, or a book that you’re reading now, what would that be? Would it inspire us too?

    Micah Baro:

    Yeah. A book that I’ve read that I really actually like is Epic Content Marketing by Joe Pulizzi. I think that’s a really great book. Also, another blog it’s called Seth Blog. It’s Seth Godin. He has a really great blog. And then Adweek, that’s another one that I really look at. Those are kind of bookmarked, and those are ones that I read as in terms of blogs. I think Adweek use a great publication. But as in terms of a book to read, I think Epic Content Marketing by Joe Pulizzi. I think that’s a really good place to kind of start and build your foundations from.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    That’s awesome. Seth’s blog is really great. I believe it’s just one or two sentences on each post, and it just gives you a little bit to go and to be inspired by. For those of us who don’t like to read an awful lot, definitely check out Seth’s Blog too. Well, thank you so much, Micah. Is there anything that you’d like to say that I haven’t asked you about yet?

    Micah Baro:

    The one thing I do want to say is that … find a personal project that’s kind of within your chosen field and choose to pursue that. For example, one thing that I do to try to keep myself sharp is, again, past reading is I just like to go out and take photos. I don’t really publish them anywhere other than kind of social media, but that’s important to me to make sure that I’m kind of keeping up with my visual aesthetic, and making sure that I’m not falling too far behind. It’s a way for you to kind of just also keep your skills up there, and find something that you enjoy about your work, and kind of do that on your own. I think that’s really important to have a hobby or passion outside of your chosen field that keeps you interested in what you’re doing. I’d say if there was one thing to say, that would be another piece of advice.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Fantastic. If we want to learn more about you, Micah, and what you do, and certainly both Allison and Partners, where can we go and do that?

    Micah Baro:

    Check out allisonpr.com. That is the website for the company that I work for. You can see kind of case studies, our capabilities, all the stuff that we’ve done before, the brands we’ve worked with. Then also if you wanted to check me out on Instagram, you can check out my Instagram portfolio at micah.gif. That’s M-I-C-A-H dot G-I-F.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Thank you for tuning in. If you haven’t already done, I’d like to invite you to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, as well as give us a rating. We love hearing from you and gathering your feedback. Once again, I’m your host Stephanie Ciccarelli. I hope you can join us for our next Sound Stories podcast.

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