Telling a good (Pando Days) story
Pando Days Creative Producer Lyn Goldfarb shares her thoughts on what a good Pando Days story looks like and how to tell it. An Academy Award nominee in documentary filmmaking with two Emmys and a Peabody, Lyn offers advice from a lifetime of storytelling experience.
PANDO: Hi, Lyn! Pando Days projects are powering their way forward this fall toward premiere presentations in early December. They’ll all be wanting to put their best foot forward and tell a great story about the work they’re doing to help implement LA County’s sustainability goals. What advice do you have?
LYN: The Pando projects are incredibly ambitious in their design and scope. I really applaud the professors and students for their vision and their expectations. But, sometimes less may be more for the purposes of a presentation.
TV certainly forces you into a less is more approach, with the time constraints you always have to work under. But could you explain a bit more?
What I mean is that it is better to produce a more defined, more doable presentation that showcases the work – but also conveys the essence and importance of the project – than trying to get everything in.
Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead”?
Exactly. Working under time constraints is hard – but the constraints also help you craft a strong presentation that gets your audience excited about your work and the possibilities of continuing beyond the semester.
A strong presentation is a strong story: accessible, understandable, approachable and visual, with people wanting more.
When people hear the word “story,” it’s easy to immediately think of fiction. But you’ve made a career in non-fiction. Are the rules the same – and, in fact, what are the rules if you wanted to spell them out in terms that might help the Pando Days teams?
A good story has a beginning, middle and end, whether it’s a fiction story or a non-fiction documentary. I also believe this story structure is applicable to Pando Days projects.
Let’s break it down, then. What should the beginning highlight?
The beginning is a statement of the problem you are trying to address. As an audience, we need to understand what it is. While you may utilize data and charts, it is also great to use other visuals, where possible — photos, footage, drawings. Today, there are so many options. Students can take photos or footage illustrating the problem, or you can easily download visuals from online sources.
And, the middle?
The middle is the essence of the story. In Pando’s case, it is the project. How are you going to address and tackle the problem? What is the scope of your project, what do you hope to accomplish, and how will you do it? I would urge that the teams consider visuals at this time as well.
You talk about the “essence” of the project. Finding it is sometimes a lot easier said than done…
It is! This is often the most difficult part, for any storyteller – professional or not. You can see all the possibilities but then you are faced with reality.
And, what is that reality?
The reality in Pando Days is that the project needs to be accomplished in one semester and shared in a 10-minute presentation.
Teams that are overwhelmed with good ideas will likely have to narrow expectations and focus on concrete deliverables that can get accomplished within the time frame. There will always be another semester, or the possibilities of securing support to continue the project.
That is important to remember. Pando Days is the beginning and not the end of these projects.
Speaking of, what advice do you have about the end, the conclusion of the story?
It’s important to remember that the end of any story is the conclusion of the story you set out to tell. It sounds obvious but if you don’t remember this, your story will have just stopped, not wrapped up and ended.
You could also frame your conclusion as a proof of concept.
In one semester, you’re not going to be able to save the world, or even accomplish the big picture sustainability objectives.
Exactly. But you are doing incredible work towards these goals by way of your project – which delivers in the end a kind of “proof” that the project was warranted.
What did you accomplish? How do we see and understand the accomplishment in the presentation? Do we see prototypes or drawings, maps or physical manifestations? Can you articulate the accomplishment, no matter how narrow or broad it is. Crucially, what are the next steps? Is this a project that another class will take on? Have you developed community connections or involved stakeholders who can carry on the project? Are any of your students inspired/motivated to continue the work? Can we help you with networks and connections to continue the work? Specifically, what might further support enable you to do?
Back on the storytelling front, filmmakers often talk about “finding the story” – and that it’s hard sometimes to actually do. What does it mean to find the story, and what, in fact, have you actually been looking for when you say that you’ve “found” it?
When I first have an idea for a film, I do the research so I know the landscape I am searching through and why I am committed to this subject. But it doesn’t mean I have found the story.
Continued research, spending time with the subject, understanding the environment that the subjects live in, conducting interviews and realizing what people are actually saying — this is the foundation of storytelling.
“Finding the story” takes time – time with the subject, time with the actual people, time in sorting and editing, time in constructing and reconstructing… But given that Pando Days teams only have a semester to find their story, how do you break this down into smaller elements?
There are many interpretations of the basic blocks of storytelling, but I believe these five are applicable to Pando projects; Characters, Setting, Plot, Conflict, and Resolution.
Characters can be people, wildlife, plants or the environment; the Setting is the location or environment, whether now or in the future; the Plot is the problem you are trying to address, including background and specifics of how you will tell the story; Conflict articulates the obstacles you face, whether environmental, political, internal or financial; and the Resolution is the realization of your goals, vision and what you are able to accomplish.
But there are additional elements that should be considered such as stakeholders and community involvement – and because these are ongoing problems and concerns, an expression of what comes next.
So, what kind of materials do you need to flesh a story out? Is there something like a check-list you keep in the back of your mind?
Visuals, visuals, visuals. Before and after images which will provide the context of where the project takes place. Materials which help engage and excite the audience. And, I also think it’s important to personalize the story as much as possible.
How might a Pando Days team personalize the story it’s telling?
Don’t be afraid to get up close, to ask questions – and to be vulnerable yourself.
Pando Days teams are filled with students who are learning and passionate. Who are they and why are they involved – including their goals and expectations?
You’ve now visited a couple of team projects on the ground – and I know you’re open to visiting more, as teams might request. What advice have you given that might be applicable to everyone working on a Pando Days project this year?
First off, I am very impressed with the team projects I have visited. And as an outsider looking in, I hope I was able to provide a useful perspective.
Probably the most important advice is to be clear about what you are able to accomplish by the time of the December premieres, and to realize that visual images of the work will be critically important to your audience understanding the project.
Sometimes, we don’t think about this until the end, but before and after pictures, as well as images of the locations, help clarify the problem that you are trying to address. These visuals can often provide a better understanding of the maps or renderings many will be providing.
So, now you have the thread of a story, and you have all this visual stuff – but you still have to put it all together. Any words of wisdom regarding the architectural or structural principles of storytelling that you use to make it work?
Earlier, I had talked about a beginning, middle and end, but in a story, it doesn’t have to be chronological. A story can also start with the most dramatic part and then tell the story through backstory. Some Pando Days projects could do this very effectively.
Pando Days presentations typically aren’t videos – they’re usually narrated slide presentations. Does the advice you’re giving hold true for presentations like this?
I definitely believe this is the case.