Monday, May 20, 2013

Applying Pixar's story telling rules to report writing and insight generation

I stumbled across Pixar's 22 rules of story telling the other day and was struck by how similar they are to the way we (at EthOS) have to think in order to disentangle insights from everyday, sometimes mundane events.

I have listed their rules below and will add my take under whichever points resonate with a particular way in which we work. Don't rely on the below as the only way to reframe the ordinary as extraordinary or to disentangle insights. We use GT (I will write this up in a new post soon) too.

Here goes:
  • You admire a character for trying more than for their successes. This is all about coping strategy. How does your participant cope with all sorts of issues in their lives?
  • You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different. Look at this from a participant perspective. They will only share what they want to share. How do you unravel and explore locked down values and beliefs they can't readily explain or rationalise. Or, another way of putting this is that, participants can only respond to questions they are capable of answering. How do you make a breakthrough?
  • Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite. This is a great point when applied to writing reports. You think you know your themes and insights? Go to bed, wake up and re-read everything afresh. If nothing new comes to you then you're doing something wrong.
  • Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___. This is too literal but do try to think in terms of thinking frameworks. I'll give you an example; many years a go we conducted NPD ethnography's for a brand of bleach. After our successful debrief, and over dinner that evening, a junior client said to me: You gave a great debrief about bleach, but it wasn't about our bleach. It was innovation ideas about any bleach... A framework to set their particular brand within an overall context would have helped a great deal.
  • Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free. This applies to cutting together your insight films. It's a brutal process. You can't include everything. And you have limited time to convey captured events by theme. Stick to around half a dozen themes and 3 minute films to keep your report/presentation/workshop punchy, memorable and useable.
  • What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal? This is all about moderation. Ask banal questions and get banal answers. Push them (when appropriate) and get interesting snippets to further develop. Don't keep everything nice all the time. One of the problems around any kind of qualitative research is that it's a financial transaction and they (participants) want to do their very best and look their very best for you. 
  • Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front. I have more or less finished my presentation/report before much of the data has even come in. Why? Sounds really crazy... because it's a bunch of hypothese and a thinking framework which I must first set up in order to even make sense of the entries that come in. I throw them at my report and decide on amendments, changes and improvements. So my presentation isn't created at the end of the process, it's something that is alive and changes throughout the process. 
  • Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time. Not sure how this applies... Any ideas?
  • When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up. Here is something I talk about all the time. Look at the captured events and write down what isn't happening, what might have happened and even what nearly happened. See how much new thinking comes to you.
  • Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it. Don't not use your own personal experiences as a sounding board for the ideas you are exploring. You need to identify/empathise with people's experiences and realities before you can properly convey them. Same as anthropologists in the field.
  • Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone. This point reminded me of how important writing down your thoughts is. Even if you can't think of anything to write about a particular footage, photo, audio or text entry. Just start writing and I guarantee you, the act of writing will open the taps of your creative juices. See? I just wrote 'open the taps of your creative juices'. How creative is that?
  • Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself. A critical rule. It's never, ever about your first idea.   No matter how excited you are about it and how excited the client gets about it. Keep thinking (and writing).
  • Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likeable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience. Or give your participants beliefs and values which are embedded in their past life experiences. Don't just cluster together a bunch of entries in the hope of making up a fully rounded set of insights.
  • Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it. One way of applying this rule to what we do is think in terms of a set of codes and rules which define your participants/their behaviours and reactions. Or perhaps a cultural backdrop which defines the codes and rules. 
  • If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations. This is self explanatory. Become each and every one of your participants. What would you have done, thought, felt, said, etc.? Compare and use it to develop your ideas.
  • What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against. A wonderful point. What are the risks participants are weighing up each time they do something, anything, no matter how trivial. Our coping with risks define everything we do but rarely become part of our narratives.
  • No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later. In other words, go to bed and wake up to re-read/rewrite with fresh eyes. Unless it's your last day before the debrief in which case you are stuffed.
  • You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining. I don't understand, can't apply this rule. Any thoughts anyone?
  • Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating. Not a direct application but do try to understand people's everyday lives as one huge coping strategy. Especially if you are having problems disentangling nuggets to build on.
  • Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like? This is an interesting idea. Redesign your thinking framework as often as you like, if it helps to unlock interesting ideas.
  • You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way? When writing your report, you must set up the characters up front so that your report isn't simply a series of clustered events. Events need to sit in an overall context.  
  • What’s the essence of your story? Most economical way of telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there. I always create two presentations. One which is a quick start version, and a more detailed, appendix style, document, which I start from the outset. I present from the quick start version and selectively add detail from the appendix version based on what clients want to drill down into. This is my way of running a half day insight workshop. It works best when you have films to show.
To close, I want to add another extremely important method for extracting insight from sequences of video. View at least 4 times. Ideally more. Each time you do, write down what you see. But be careful not to describe what is happening - think about motivations and intentions. So if you saw someone looking for a product on a shelf, you need to break it down into sequences which will lead you to make notes (perhaps) about benchmarking and  and reference pointing. More in another post.



  1. Hi! Here is my 2 cents on this one: "You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining". I think ethnographic writing - whether a report or a full on monography - is about memory, recall, and narration. So, it's testing our hability to recall, analyse and, to some level, interpret. It's a 'rebuilding' exercise - we create a story that, we hope, reflects the reality (perceived or not) of the people we observed. The more fuss that's put into this narrative exercise, the more likely it is to move away from the field. If the goal of the exercise falls into the spectrum of anthropology (generalization, comparison, theorisation), then that's fine. But if the goal is to depict a story, then I think it's better not to fuss about too much and stick to the facts (backed up with good theory, of course).

  2. Thanks for this Catherine - I needed to clarify up fornt that my data is primarily video. So memory doesn't really come into it. Viewing the footage again and again with different biases, mental tools and filters is what helps to loosen up the nuggets that we take and transform into building blocks.

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