July 15, 2010

Digital storytelling: A tutorial in 10 easy steps

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“Thankful,” a digital story by Sarah Schmidt.


How to create a polished, powerful digital story for yourself or your nonprofit

Target audience: Nonprofits, social change organizations, educators, foundations, individuals. This is part of Creating Media, our ongoing series designed to help nonprofits and other organizations learn how to use and make media.

JD LasicaWith millions of videos floating around on the Web, I’d like to make the case today for a genre that has received far too little attention: digital storytelling.

Digital storytelling is a craft that uses the tools of digital technology to tell stories about our lives. Done properly, storytelling can be a powerful, evocative way of communicating

Let the people your nonprofit is helping tell their own impactful stories.

themes and stories, often touching us in deeper ways than one-dimensional videos that rarely probe beneath the surface of people’s lives. Nonprofits, especially, can use this technique to convey powerful, emotion-filled messages — by letting the people you’re helping tell their own stories.

If you plan to do it yourself, see our Visual story checklist to make sure you follow all the steps involved in creating a compelling story. You may also want to sign up for a digital storytelling workshop (see bottom), which can last from a few hours to a full day or two and generally costs a modest tuition fee. Either way, follow the following steps and you’ll be on your way.

Decide on the story you want to tell

Step 1You probably already have a person or subject in mind. Think small. Focus. Don’t get caught up trying to convey all the aspects of someone’s life — you’re not writing the great American novel, you’re creating what will optimally be a 3- to 5-minute work that recounts a personal tale and reveals a small truth.

KQED Digital Storytelling Initiative

What form should your story take? In their decade of leading workshops, Joe Lambert and Nina Mullen of the Center for Digital Storytelling list these main varieties of digital stories:

The story about someone important. Character stories center on a person who’s touched you in a deep way. Often, these stories reveal as much about the narrator as about the subject of the piece. Memorial stories pay tribute to someone who passed on but left a lasting impression.

The story about an event in your life. Travel stories — stories about a personal journey or passage — can be effective if they result in the narrator being transformed by the experience in some way.

Accomplishment stories about achieving a goal, graduating from school, or winning an honor can easily fit into the framework of the desire-struggle-realization structure of a classic story.

The story about a place in your life. Our sense of place serves as the focal point of a great many profound stories.

The story about what I do. People find value in their work, hobbies, or social commitments and can weave wonderful stories from their experiences in each.

Recovery stories. Sharing the experience of overcoming a tragedy, challenge, or personal obstacle is an archetype that always has the potential to move audiences.

Love stories. We all want to know how someone proposed, met a spouse, experienced the birth of a first child, or came to terms with a parent. Exploring these kinds of relationships helps affirm our own.

Discovery stories. These stories probe how we uncovered a truth or learned how to do something.

Now, choose one type of story that appeals to you or that fits your organization’s mission. Can you think of some individuals your organization can spotlight in a positive way through storytelling?

Gather your materials

Step 2Start collecting memories. The most powerful images are often discovered during a treasure hunt in the family attic. Start gathering old photos, vintage film reels, digital video, flyers, mementos — anything that holds emotional resonance. Don’t think you have to go out and visually capture a story with a camcorder or camera. Use what you have! Older “found materials” usually prove to pack more of an emotional wallop than new footage.

Begin writing your script

Step 3Next, start jotting down ideas. Discuss your ideas with family and friends. Play out a rough story in your head.

Sketch out a script that you’ll soon record with your own voice. Resist the temptation to take the easy way out and create a story with only images and music. People want to hear a personal voice. Don’t be self-conscious about how your voice sounds; we all think we sound odd on tape.

Draft a short script. That’s where many people get bogged down. Get past the fear of committing words to paper. Some tips:

Get personal. Forget everything you’ve been taught about using a dispassionate, authoritative, essay-like voice. This isn’t an essay contest. People want to hear your voice. The story must be told from your point of view.

Write lousy first drafts. Don’t edit as you go. Editing and writing use different parts of the brain. Let it spill out. Get the main elements of your story down on paper, then go back and edit later.

Write short. You’ll be surprised at how much you can convey with a few words and some key images.

Read your script aloud as you’re fine-tuning it. Eschew big, fancy words (like “eschew”); use plain speech.

Don’t hold back. Be real. You need to reach an emotional depth, and sometimes that can only be achieved by revealing uncomfortable truths. Ultimately, however, it’s up to you to make a profoundly personal decision about what material you want to share — and with whom.

Look for a narrative arc for your story. All stories — even 3-minute gems — have a beginning, middle and end. The beginning tells the premise of your story: it sets up the dramatic tension that should hold throughout the story. The middle outlines conflicts along the way. The end is the destination, revealing a small discovery, revelation, or insight. This is sometimes called the desire-action-realization model. (But not by anyone we know!) Will the guy get the girl? Will the hero prevail? Will the sleuth solve the mystery? With a 3-minute script, you don’t have time to indulge detours. Get to the payoff.

Work on the pace. Many consider pacing to be the true secret of successful storytelling. The rhythm and tempo of a story is what sustains an audience’s interest. Experiment. Lambert writes in Digital Storytelling: “Good stories breathe. They move along generally at an even pace, but once in a while they stop. They take a deep breath and proceed.”

Trust your voice. All of us have our own distinctive style of storytelling. Trust yours.

Read your script to a friend when you think you’ve finished. Very often, your confidant will point out glaring omissions, help firm up the language of a passage, or help you identify your true voice.

Prep your equipment

Step 4You’ll need to purchase or borrow these pieces of equipment:

• A desktop computer or laptop.
• Video software such as Apple iMovie, Adobe Final Cut Pro or Express, Adobe Premiere or another software application designed to help you tell stories.
• A scanner, if you want to include traditional photos in your story and need to digitize them.

Additionally, if you plan to record interviews, you’ll need:

• A recording device: for video, a camcorder; for audio, a portable digital recorder (preferably) or an analog cassette recorder (if you use analog video or audio, you’ll need to convert it to digital).
• A handheld microphone for audio interviews (optional).
• Headphones (optional).

The interview route

If you want to rely on found materials in the attic and add a narrative and musical voice-over, that’s great.

Sometimes, though, you may want to conduct an interview with someone, most likely the subject of your story or her friends or relatives. Or, you may want someone to videotape or interview you. Either way, make sure you practice using your equipment before you sit down for the interview. Begin with some idle conversation. A minute or so after you begin, you may want to stop, rewind and listen to the recording to make sure everything is working properly.

People like to see faces and hear voices. If you have enough photos of the story subject, snippets of an audio interview with the person can often add an interesting counterpoint to your voice-over narrative. Try to find a quiet location, or one that’s appropriate to the subject. If you’re recording video, make sure the lighting is bright enough to see the subject, but not so bright that he or she is washed out, as in direct sunlight.

In some cases, people find that talking into an audio recording device makes them self-conscious. Sometimes a friend can assist by interviewing you about the subject or person your story is about.

If you’re interviewing another person, it’s best to wear headphones while recording. Your headphones will tell you exactly what you’ll hear in the finished recording. Adjust the microphone position for the optimum sound. The best setup typically involves moving the microphone between the questioner and storyteller. Hold it about seven inches from the speaker’s mouth, and use a light touch to avoid the rumbling of mike-handling noise.

Feel free to ask questions spontaneously or to read from a prepared set of questions. Take breaks as needed. Don’t make noise when the storyteller is talking, like, “uh huh?” or “really?” Instead, use visual cues like nodding your head. Make sure the storyteller’s gaze isn’t wandering off in a hundred directions.

If your story depends on your reading from a script while being videotaped, you might consider ponying up for one of the several software programs that will scroll your script down the computer screen like a teleprompter. The ePodcast Producer from Industrial Audio Software is another option.

Create a storyboard

Step 5Professionals have used storyboards for decades to plot out the sequences of events that unfold in a movie, TV show, cartoon or commercial. This is where you’ll plot out your visual materials to make them align with your voice-over. (Some people feel more comfortable plotting out the images first before beginning the script — go with what works for you.)

A storyboard is simply a place to plan out a visual story on two levels: 1) Time — What happens in what order? and 2) Interaction — How does the voiceover and music work with the images or video?

The easiest way to begin this process is with a small stack of index cards. Take each visual element that you plan to use and lay it out on your desk or kitchen table. Next, place a single index card below each image. On the index cards, jot down the main words that you’ll be reading aloud as the image appears in the story; make sure that you give each element a chance to breathe rather than rushing through them in an effort to pack in more imagery.

Or, use this Storyboard page and print out several copies.

A good rule of thumb is to use no more than 15 images and no more than two minutes of video. As a general rule, four to six seconds is the ideal time for an image to appear on screen, though feel free to linger longer on a few key images. A handful of good images makes a more powerful story than a scattershot of random photos that fail to connect to the narration. If you get stalled writing your script, try jotting down thoughts on an index card next to an image and let the cards serve as your script. Just write one true thing, and the rest of the words will flow.

I highly recommend looking at successful short works to get a sense of the rhythm, pace and economy of scale involved in digital storytelling; often you’ll be surprised by how few images are needed to convey a story.

Digitize your media

Step 6You can begin this process earlier, but be aware that the production work involved in creating a short personal story can take many hours. Set aside enough time to do it right.

If you’re using old photos, you’ll need a flatbed scanner. Scan them and save them to a single folder on your computer. If you’re using digital photos, make sure they’re in JPEG format. If you have old 16-mm film footage, you’ll probably need to send it to a shop that specializes in converting analog film to digital video.

if you’re using more recent photos, chances are they’re already in digital form — great!

Keep in mind that your video will be horizontal in form, so crop accordingly. Don’t distort vertical photos into horizontal ones, but realize that strong vertical shapes will appear with lots of black on both sides. Don’t reduce the size of the image to the size your movie will appear: You generally want them in the 720×540-pixel range; the details will be lost if you reduce them much further. But don’t sweat the dimensions too much: Today all video-editing programs will shrink images down to their proper dimensions.

Record a voice-over

Step 7You may decide that the microphone built into your laptop or desktop computer will suffice for recording your narration (at least, that’s what I do). If you want a more polished production, the Center for Digital Storytelling recommends:

• A 4-channel mixer.
• A condenser microphone (Shure, AKG).
• A boom microphone stand.
• An aspiration guard — a light covering over the microphone to prevent letters like p’s from popping (optional).
• A microphone cable.
• A stereo-phono to stereo-mini cable.

The Center for Digital Storytelling recommends that you record your voice-over at the same quality level that you record your musical soundtrack: 16-bit, 44 kHz.

Many software programs are available to capture audio from an external sound source like a microphone. On a PC, these include the built-in Sound Recorder software, audio shareware and several professional-level audio- and video-production software packages. The free, open-source program Audacity can capture sound from either a computer’s built-in mike or an external microphone.

Above all, speak slowly in a conversational voice. Don’t make it sound like you’re reading from a script!

Add music

Step 8Very often, you’ll want to include music. (Think of the background music in Ken Burns’ PBS specials.) Choose music that evokes the rhythm and pace of your story. For many people, this is the easiest part of the process. Most of us have soundtracks running in our heads that reflect the mood of the story we want to convey. The most effective tracks are often instrumental: classical, ambient, folk or jazz, with no vocals.

Next, go out and grab the music in digital form: Use a high-quality mp3 file or rip a track from a favorite CD with one of the dozens of free CD-ripper programs on the market. If you’re recording a friend performing original music, even better. Next, import the track into your video-editing program. If you’re working in iMovie, when you import the mp3, you’ll see it as an audio clip at the bottom of your timeline.

Consider copyright

If you plan on publishing your work to the Web, you may not want to include the entire track of a song in your story. You may want to use podsafe music (and, no, the fact that you’re not making money from your story makes no difference under copyright laws) — see Socialbrite’s Free Music Directory for a wide selection of music that won’t get you into trouble with the copyright cops.

Edit your story

Step 9Make sure you have all the elements of your story in your video-editing program. If you haven’t done so already, import all images, video, your voice-over and musical elements.

Next, bring the images or videos down into the timeline to match the layout of your storyboard.

It’s time to create an initial rough cut before adding transitions or special effects. The draft version gives you an overview of your project and spotlights areas where images or video are insufficient to carry the story.

Next, add titles to the beginning and end of your story. You may also want to overlay text onto an image or video. Avoid the urge to get too jazzy with typefaces or colors: Use a straightforward typeface that’s easy to read; sans serifs usually work best on the Web.

Now comes the hard part: adding transitions — a simple cross-dissolve generally is effective — and altering the length of each visual element to make sure it corresponds properly with the voice-over. Often, storytellers find that the “Ken Burns effect” on a Mac is a good way to add visual interest to an image, panning across and zooming into a photo to highlight an expression or important element.

The music is the last element to add (you may want to mute it until you’re ready to tackle the soundtrack, usually by unchecking a small box in the timeline next to the music clip). When you’re ready to add music, iMovie’s controls easily let you adjust the volume to reduce the music volume during the voiceover. It’s generally best to fade the music to a low level but not to drop it out completely for the sake of continuity.

Expect to spend a few hours editing your story to get it just right. Don’t overproduce: The spontaneity and directness of the initial drafts can get lost with too much polishing.

Share your story

Step 10Almost finished! Now you need to produce your video in its final form. In iMovie, you can burn a DVD by launching iDVD. If you want to publish your story to the Web in iMovie or Final Cut, choose Export > Expert Settings, click the Share button and choose Export: Movie to MPEG-4. Want top-quality video? Choose to export in the H.264 codec and encode at a bitrate of 3800 kbps.

When you’ve finished compressing the final file, publish it to a video hosting site like YouTube or Vimeo.

You’re done!



Storyboard page (Word doc)

Digital storytelling: From soup to nuts

Center for Digital Storytelling (image above; see site for workshop schedule)

• Daniel Meadows’s Photobus site in the UK has some excellent and much more detailed guides to making digital stories using different kinds of software and equipment. There are tutorials here about writing your script, how to make digital stories using iMovie and an Adobe Premiere Pro tutorial.

• KQED Digital Storytelling Initiative’s The Art, Skill, Craft, and Magic of Digital Storytelling: A How-Come, How-To Guide

• Adobe tutorials on storyboards and Kids’ Club tutorials and lesson plans

Current TV production resources

• The late Dana Atchley’s Next Exit

• Nonprofits can also purchase DVDs from Bay Area Video Coalition‘s Interactive Learning Series, which cover Flash MX, digital storytelling and video preservation techniques. All of the videos are available at a discount on TechSoup Stock.

J.D. Lasica gave the keynote address at the 2004 Digital Storytelling Festival in Sedona, Ariz.


JD Lasica, founder and former editor of Socialbrite, is co-founder of Cruiseable. Contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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12 thoughts on “Digital storytelling: A tutorial in 10 easy steps

    • Thanks much, Shai. I dusted off and reworked a piece I originally wrote a couple of years ago. We'll have an accompanying tutorial early next week by a pioneer in the digital storytelling movement. Quite a month we're having! – jd

  1. This post is soooo helpful and soooo robust, I'm doused in gratitude for stumbling upon it. I especially love how you've sculpted the tips to meet anyone exactly where they at — whether they're a complete novice or advanced storyteller.

    Thanks for laying it all out like this. GOOD LUCK with your upcoming ventures and adventures — looking forward to the accompanying tutorial.

  2. I was at a stand still for about two weeks, trying to figure out how to treat over 20 short videos. Thanks for the tips. I now can do it on my own!

  3. Yes neat set of steps. One thing I would recommend adding would be editing the length of still photos and video clips to fit in with the appropriate changes in the voice over. This way the stills and photos add emphasis to the important parts of the story contained in the voice.

  4. Thanks for writing such a great article and including the resources! I like the piece so much I’ve added it to my curated content on business storytelling, which also gets broadcast on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. You can view it here at http://www.scoop.it/t/just-story-it