Adam Westbrook: Want to be a Digital Storyteller? Just do it

Do you want to tell digital stories that touch people? As a journalist, in marketing or education, or as a personal publishing project?

I know that many people do, and that’s why I got quite excited about a beautiful digital book that I came across last week, Inside the Story. In it, 24 master digital storytellers share one piece of advice each, and the result is a thought-provoking and inspiring reference for all digital storytellers.

Not only that, all proceeds of the book go to Kiva, which empowers people around the world with micro loans. You can only buy it until Thursday May 24 (GBP 3.50) so act now to get your copy!

The whole thing was the idea of Adam Westbrook, a freelance multimedia producer who creates digital stories for commercial and non-profit organisations, and is also a lecturer and blogger based in London.

Adam sent hundreds of emails over a period of months getting the best film-makers, journalists and designers to contribute. (That’s him above, interviewing a soldier in Iraq.) And he agreed to share some tips on producing great digital stories.

Inside the Story 1 edited by Adam Westbrook

Adam, why and how did you produce Inside the Story?

It was inspired by a project by Seth Godin – an ebook created collaboratively. I wanted to make something similar for the growing number of film-makers, multimedia journalists and photographers out there telling stories. There isn’t much storytelling guidance on the web and I know from my blog it’s something people are interested in. And I wanted a big ambitious collaborative project to work on and to raise money for charity.

I handpicked 24 of my favourite digital storytellers and asked them to each share one piece of hard-won advice. The result is a unique ready-reference for storytellers.

How much has it raised?

It’s been far more successful than I had imagined. I had a target of roughly $1,500 but after two weeks we’d raised more than double. I’m hoping we’ll reach $4,000 by the deadline of May 25.

You use storytelling to help commercial and non-profit organisations share their ideas with the world. Why is it so powerful? Can it replace traditional marketing?

Storytelling is powerful because it is such a fundamental part of human life. We are wired to respond to well-told stories and it’s what we’ve been doing for thousands of years. Organisations using stories isn’t anything new. What’s really changed recently is the ability of organisations to bypass publishers and publish their own material.

Meanwhile, mass-market advertising is on a slow decline to irrelevance, giving way to authentic, targeted ads to niche communities.

What can small businesses or marketers learn from journalistic storytellers?

The key word is authenticity. Audiences are skeptical of commercials and advertising these days and don’t respond to it. Journalists are good at telling real authentic stories. Everyone has a story — even the smallest small business owner — and it is that story which customers respond to now. Here’s a story example:

What makes a compelling digital story?

  • First and foremost, a good story has a strong character at its heart
  • Secondly they have to be striving to achieve something
  • Surprise is another element that makes stories compelling
  • Ultimately they have to say something about the world itself
  • The best stories have meaning behind them.

What do you do if you have no experience? Get training? Go out with your iPhone? Find great storytellers to follow on Twitter?

All of those except training – skip that. Instead, watch lots of great web docs, follow the contributors to Inside the Story on Twitter and most importantly, start making stuff now. Your first few films or pieces will disappoint you, that is a given, but the important thing is to not give up.

What’s the minimum equipment needed to get started?

A camera (an iPhone will do just fine) and something to edit the media with. Finally you need a way to publish your stories so a website/blog and Vimeo account are useful too. Beyond that, get a tripod and good audio equipment.

And the basics in terms of skills?

Most of all you need to be curious, interested in people, and willing to experiment. Everything else you can learn, but being able to edit video doesn’t mean much if you aren’t able to go out and find stories.

Can you suggest any tools or resources?

As well as the book, I also write a lot about digital storytelling on my blog. Vimeo’s Video School is another excellent, more technical, resource. In terms of images I recommend GIMP 2.6 as a free alternative to Photoshop and Audacity for free editing software. There is lots of open source software for multimedia producers out there, so explore.

Who are some brilliant digital storytellers to learn from?

The best ones in my opinion have all written for Inside the Story! Brian Storm and MediaStorm in general are one of the best story houses I know; the Bombay Flying Club, Claudio Von Planta, Duckrabbit and California Is A Place have all made knockout multimedia, and any beginner should check out their work in depth.


You write a lot about entrepreneurial journalism. How easy or difficult is it for journalists to monetise their work?

Entrepreneurial Journalism is rising in popularity in response to the declining number of jobs in the industry, plus the ease and affordability of self-publishing. That doesn’t make it easy to make actual money, however.

The best advice on this front is to come up with something that helps people — whatever you do, it has to be valuable to other people for them to pay for it; be extremely generous and build up a community around your work, and then look for lots of different ways to monetise it (products, subscriptions, events etc). But know you’re swimming against the tide of conventional wisdom — expect lots of resistance, but don’t give up.

How did you get into journalism and why are you doing what you’re doing?

My background is in radio journalism — I spent several years as a reporter working all over the UK. I quit my job in 2009 to pursue all the exciting opportunities to publish on the web, and although it’s not been easy, I haven’t looked back. These days I focus on various video and publishing projects, as well as teaching video journalism at Kingston University in London, making films for various organisations and training.

What do you have coming up?

Once Inside the Story is wrapped up I’ll be taking a short break. After that I’ll be doing another big publishing project of some kind – possibly a documentary. I’m also writing a screenplay and have a few other film projects in the pipeline.
Inside the Story edited by Adam Westbrook

From Inside the Story

Let your characters be who they are. Don’t warp words or force talking points — nonprofits have made enough of those videos, and they never work.

– Amy Marquis, a full-time editor on National Parks Magazine, and founder and editor of The Digital Naturalist, a blog dedicated to video, film, and multimedia with a cause.

When you’re building a digital story, the best hack/shortcut to greatness is simple: put your best bit first.

– Amy O’Leary, New York Times journalist.

You have to be clear…that the story is not the promotional message of the business.

Sergio Acosta, a web designer and co-founder of Designing Stories.

The way to connect your story to people, to make them care, is to think about how it might illuminate something that is true for everyone, that is, a universal idea or universal truth that helps us better understand ourselves and each other.

Bob Sacha, multimedia producer, documentary director/cameraman, editor, photographer and teacher based in New York.

A story is only as good as the person telling it. Period. Whether it’s fact or fiction, dynamic people and characters bring stories to life.

– Drea Cooper, film-maker and one half of the team behind the popular California Is A Place series, which portrays the people of the Golden State.
Let’s help Adam get that $4,000 and more by the deadline of May 24. Buy the book now and know that you’re helping Kiva as well as getting advice form the best. 

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  • http://www.lizwilson.me/ Liz Wilson

    Hi duckrabbit. Thanks for that – great to have your take on training/no training. I can also personally relate to what you say about training giving confidence. Maybe different ways suit different people?

  • duckrabbit

    Good piece. But totally disagree with Adam about skipping training. Training is about empowering people to do. Good training gives people confidence and lack of confidence is generally what holds them back.

    Good training can save you a lot of time. Most importantly it can save you from getting so frustrated you give up.

    A good mentor is equally important. Someone who can guide you.