When we watch cSigning a Checkharacters on the screen, why do they make us laugh or cry? And why does one story make us want to support a charity or social cause? It turns out compelling human stories trigger a chemical response in our brains. Neuroscientist Dr. Paul Zak has been studying the neurochemical oxytocin for years, and learned that humans have a chemical response similar to animals when we find another human trust-worthy: a spike in our oxytocin makes us feel connected to another human being. Even when watching the human on a screen, this response is triggered—what Dr. Zak calls the golden rule response: “if you treat me well, in most cases my brain will synthesize oxytocin and this will motivate me to treat you well in return.”

Most recently, Dr. Zak conducted a study with several short films from St. Jude’s Hospital. When viewers connected with the characters in a short film about a father whose young son is dying of cancer, they had an increase in cortisol and oxytocin. That chemical boost ran parallel to feelings of empathy with the characters, which was increased when there was a strong “narrative arc”—a powerful dramatic rise and climax to the real people story line.

This doesn’t come as a big surprise to those of us working in nonprofit direct response and impact story-telling. We know that to get donors to give and communities to care, we have to tell powerful stories. We know that viewers must connect emotionally with our characters, just as they would with characters in a fiction film. We do this through not just their words and images, but through lighting techniques, music scoring and the pacing of our edits. But building empathy isn’t enough. We have to create a dramatic arc that builds to a climax. We have to create suspense around some kind of obstacle that the characters must overcome, whether it is in their past or present. And our viewers have to relate to that obstacle, even if it is not precisely the same for them.

This is why pre-interviewing potential characters is so essential for documentary-style stories based on real people. Before they go on camera, we need to understand what will be compelling, what will not be relatable, and what will build suspense for our viewers.  And now it turns out that what we’re also doing is triggering those chemical responses in the brain that will make our subjects and their story connect to the brains of our viewers.  In the case of nonprofit storytelling, we need those chemical responses to be strong, because we are usually looking for a response that extends to well after the video ends: we want a viewer to get involved in a cause, donate money, write to their elected officials, or change some previous behavior (stop smoking, lose weight, etc). So it turns out that all these years I thought I was an English major-turned-filmmaker, it turns out that I’m in the neuroscience business: triggering a brain response that helps people act on the golden rule, and do great things for others and the world.

Amy DeLouise is a director and producer who tells real people stories to help viewers connect with causes and take action.

Sky at Sunset In philanthropy, the saying is that people give to people, not causes. Connecting at the level of hearts and minds has always been critical to building long-term relationships with donors, and also with grassroots supporters. And the best way to do that is through storytelling.  Now that YouTube, Vimeo, and other Web 2.0 tools are giving so many nonprofits a “channel” for their stories, personal narrative is being rediscovered.  But to tell a compelling story requires critical elements.

What makes a compelling story about mission?

1.       Focus on outcomes. Everyone loves a success story. Reality TV is filled with them: obese person becomes thinner, aspiring chef wins the prize, talented singer gets a record deal.  Think of the success stories in your organization, but instead of listing them as bullet-points, express them through anecdotal stories.

2.       Focus on people. The people who make it happen and the people whose lives are changed. Who are the people who made a difference in students lives? What are those students doing today? Who is the volunteer who went into a community and changed it for the better? What is happening in that neighborhood now? What would have happened to that child without a medical intervention paid for by others? What kind of life does this child have today?  Interview-driven narratives are highly successful at building the case for donors and volunteers.

3.       Show why your organization matters. Somewhere in the narrative, you need to show viewers why your organization made a tangible difference in the outcome.  It wasn’t just random acts of kindness that led to this success. It was your people, your dedication, your/their dollars at work.

4.       Engage viewers in their own narrative. Make sure there is a call to action somewhere in your story, usually at the very end. “How can you make a difference just like Alice did?”  “With just 20 cents per day, you can change the life of a child like Shawn.” “Join us at our XYZ event to make your voice heard.”  Think about what story viewers want to create for themselves after watching yours.

5.       Provide follow-up options. If a viewer is moved by your narrative, they should easily be able to click somewhere next to the video or case study to do something–sign up for the conference, make a donation, become a member.  Despite the tendency to want sheer numbers—hey, our video got 20,000 views!—you really want qualified viewers. And viewers who will ACT once they’ve heard your story. So be sure you provide a way they can engage other than passive viewing. The framework around the video should have clickable links. And if you are participating in Youtube’s nonprofit program, you can embed links to your nonprofit site directly in your video content.

Telling and hearing stories is our oldest human instinct. Web 2.0 just makes it easier to share.

Amy DeLouise helps nonprofits tell their stories, strategize about their futures, and influence the world around them.

2014-ElonAfter 5 college tours in 3 days, I can tell you a lot about the best and worst of college marketing. We took our oldest on his first round of tours, and as a video and multimedia producer, I was particularly intrigued by the use (or lack) of audio-visual storytelling. One school got high marks for its all-visuals slide show supporting a dynamic speaker. He knew his material well, had gone to the school himself, and delivered lots of insightful anecdotes. He gave us some stats, too, but understood that those are easily found on websites and print materials, so he  focused on painting a vivid picture of the undergraduate student experience.

At another elite school—which shall remain nameless—the presentation couldn’t have been more different. The speaker said “uh” every other word. He held on a single slide for more than 3 minutes at a time–deadly! And each slide contained text in a poor layout so that while it was very large, it was still hard to read. Of the two videos he showed, one was a fun “trying to be viral” piece focused entirely on one athlete in one very popular (nationally recognized team) sport. It was cute. But the fact that it was 50% of the content shown conveyed the message that this particular team is central to the college culture, and maybe that was the intent. The other video we saw was supposed to be more all-encompassing about the university, but clearly had no script other than “get a bunch of students to talk to the camera and edit it all together as quickly as you can.” This video was filled with poor quality shots–blown out lighting, sound you couldn’t hear– along with a terrible “corporate” repetitive music bed that made it hard to follow. The editing was poor quality, too, and a last freeze frame was on the wrong field, resulting in a weird blur on a student’s face. What this show conveyed was “we’re such a great place that we don’t really have to invest in this video because you’ll probably want to come here anyway.” Mission accomplished.

The school that impressed my son the most likely did so in part because of its emotional, effective and high quality admissions video:

The #Elon video is effective for many reasons—I won’t bore you with a film lecture—but one of them is the original music being performed by students and the thoughtful edit sequences and camera setups. This is not just a mash-up blizzard of images of the school, but a story well told, and it had its intended effect on one prospective applicant. What it told his mom is this: we respect the story enough to approach filmmaking (and its various crafts of writing, directing, editing, music composition, etc.) with creativity and professionalism, just like any other academic discipline.

A school we didn’t see, but might on our next jog north, could be University of Rochester, which took a very different but equally compelling approach to an original music composition, with this well-made admissions rap video:

My take away from this experience is this: if you are marketing yourself, whether to prospective students, customers or donors, how you tell your story matters. A well-planned and executed project—whether a speech with slides, a rap video or a documentary-style piece—will convey your passion. A poor one undermines your message.


For mission-driven nonprofits, telling stories–obstacles to overcome, successes won–can be one of the best ways to show people you are delivering on the mission.  Human stories compels viewers and listeners in a way that other communications just don’t.   But if you’ve ever had to interview someone–whether for a podcast, video or audio program–you know that drawing out the best story can be difficult.

So I’m pleased to announce my new course on Lynda.com–taught with my good friend and colleague Rich Harrington– called the Art of the Video Interview (we also cover audio-only interviews).   We’ve put our years of experience into this practical course, and cover everything from location scouting and interview preparation, to how to build rapport with interviewees, what equipment to use for audio-only interviews, getting the best interview out of difficult subjects–people who are subject matter experts, young children, couples. And finally, we address all the things that will help you prepare for a better edit–including how to minimize narration and using transcripts effectively for workflow.  We had a lot of fun putting together this course, so I hope you enjoy it!


1. Start With a Talking Head—Start your viewer’s experience with some words from your CEO or other corporate leader, preferably speaking directly into the camera, and not looking as comfortable as s/he would like.  Not!

SOLUTION: If you have to put in your CEO, try using snippets from him or her during a recent speech. These can be used to “voiceover” parts of your video so you are not spending a lot of time looking at someone’s head. Here’s an example in a USDA video

ANOTHER SOLUTION: If you’re leadership are really brave, and you’ve got a good writing team either in-house or with your production agency (and that’s a big if!), you could try what IBM successfully did with its Mainframe marketing launch. They spoofed The Office using their actual Vice President of Worldwide Sales. It’s still one of my favorite corporate vids of all time, and it garnered enough industry and mainstream press to skyrocket sales. As an added bonus, by showing the company’s hipper side, the video improved IBM’s employment brand, with increased high quality applications to jobs in the mainframe unit.

2. Avoid a Unifying Concept.  If you really want to confuse your viewer, be sure to include 4 or 5 or 6 or even more main ideas in your video. Not!  Three ideas is plenty. One is even better. A written script is essential (even when there is no voiceover), to map out the framing and delivery of your Main Idea.

SOLUTION: Here’s a great video from Facebook that starts with the concept of the Chair. The images are stark, beautifully composed, and devoid of the generic “b-roll” flavor of most corporate videos.

3. Make a Music Video – Everyone wants to use their favorite song as the score to their video. No problem! Except that you need to purchase the music “sync rights” and know how to direct and edit a music video—which is harder than it looks. Aside from choreographing every movement and person to a specific beat, you need to convey content that is relevant to your message.

SOLUTION: If you have a motivated staff person with the time to map out every move, then shooting your own music lip sync video can let everyone in the organization participate and have fun—which might in of itself achieve your communications goals. Here’s a really cute (although sometimes odd and sad) lip sync video by a retirement home that I think succeeds in showing they have spirit and might be a fun place to hang out

ANOTHER SOLUTION: If you have more complex goals to accomplish—like a training program—they you may need a professional team to help you map out the shoot and edit. This safety training piece I produced for a children’s hospital took quite a few weeks of planning, in order to tie in with a full training program. We shot a lot of it against green screen so as to include the maximum number of people without interfering with patients in the hospital. And yes we licensed the music for the correct usage rights.

Thanks for taking the time to consider three things to avoid when you make your next corporate video!

thumbsdowniconIf failing finals is an indicator, then they are. In my county—with some of the highest-ranking schools in the nation—we just learned this shocking data  : 61% of our high schoolers failed Algebra 1, 62% failed geometry and 57% failed Algebra 2.  Wow. The thinking goes that since these are the “on-grade-level kids” (aka “losers” in our lovely system), they are less motivated to study than their “above grade level” peers, and therefore more likely to fail. But look at the  stats we are presented with for these supposedly more motivated kids taking honors courses: Geometry: 36% fail; Algebra 2: 30% fail. Seriously?

Here’s my worry:  too much relying on testing, which feeds into kids getting branded as certain types of students, which leads to their loss of self-confidence, which is then fed by not receiving the best possible teaching.

On a personal level, we got a little dose of this with our high schooler.  One semester, his (young and inexperienced) math teacher refused to take questions in class because she couldn’t do this and still get through all the to-be-tested material.  A previously favorite subject suddenly became a world of lost confidence. We were lucky enough to be able to work with a tutor, who answered questions and offered the missing support.  And the result was our student did just fine.  But while he was struggling, the guidance office–where we were already signing up for the next year’s classes–was already ready to demote him to the dreaded “on grade level,”  suggesting he couldn’t hack math. Fast forward to a new math teacher in the next semester who was more experienced and fielded questions in class, and voila, test scores improved.

How many other kids is this happening to every day? Probably plenty.

At a national education conference, I interviewed Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy . He shared his theory about how kids get branded as certain types of students and what we can do about it.  You can watch his video answer to my questions here…

Khan’s ideas have been revolutionary in changing the school systems that have adopted his platform.  One of the many changes his method has brought about is the “flipped classroom”—that is, where teachers let kids work on material in advance, often using technology to access tools and materials. With the outcomes of this work (Khan can provide metrics), teachers learn what their students’ strengths and weaknesses are BEFORE they plan their lessons, then plan and teach accordingly.  Children who need more work in a particular skill can then continue to do that work both inside and outside the classroom. That way, more students gain mastery of the material, the teacher becomes a guide rather than someone spouting facts, and students learn strategies they need to overcome challenges in the subject matter.

Wouldn’t it be great if my county could get on board with this new approach to helping children succeed as lifelong learners?!

If your child brings home artwork you want to reprint on a mug, or a poetry series you may want to publish some day, think again. Your county school system may own the copyright. At least that’s what a new proposal by the Prince George’s County, Maryland Board of Education would do. Approved by a vote of 8 to 1 last month, this rule says that the school board owns work done by the school system’s staff and students–even if it’s done on their own time. The school system says it is only trying to protect its interest in digital apps developed by teachers on school-owned iPads. 

Even so, I find this proposal a major over-reach.

It’s not unusual for universities to have policies of sharing in the intellectual property developed by faculty members, particularly patented inventions, drugs and medical discoveries. To me it seems odd, though, to take this practice into the K-12 educational environment, where teachers don’t get susbstantial income from grants or publications as do their colleagues in higher ed. And if a teacher does develop a great educational app for their class and sells it (and one would expect there would be development and marketing costs associated with that), why shouldn’t they reap the benefits?

It’s even stranger to suggest that work done by students–whether in school or at home–would somehow belong to the school system. Particularly when it is a public education system paid for by those very families!

At the very least, the whole proposal seems antithetical to the mission and values of an educational system–to encourage creative and  Innovative thinking.  Maybe I’m missing something here. What do you think?  Feel free to post comments here and also email your thoughts to the PG County Board of Ed board.comments@pgcps.org  and the Superintendent of schools superintendent@pgcps.org.

Red Berries - IMG_4552 sHere’s an equation for you: Tanking economy + overpriced colleges + online education = more college dropouts. Today, thousands of college-aged students are opting out, or dropping out of college.  And with heroes like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, who can blame them? The “UnCollege” experience, as outlined in Alex William’s recent New York Times article, allows these students to conduct self-directed learning over the internet, and on the job.  A love of learning should be the outcome of any educational program, so I’ve no issue with the do-it-yourselfers. Maybe sitting in lecture classes makes you stupid, unable to seek knowledge in more interactive and personal ways. I’m also for on-the-job learning. I did that myself, jumping into TV production right out of college and getting my School of Hard Knocks MBA by launching and managing three small businesses starting at age 23.

But I’m also torn about the idea of missing out on college. For me, the experience was so much more than classes. It was learning how to get along with roommates, having out-of-class debates with professors, and lasting experiences and friendships through extra-curriculars. Not to mention a great network of people to know after graduation. Even if the internet had been around back then (computers were in their infancy–by my junior year we could play Pong), I’m not sure I would have had the skills and knowledge to search the web properly, or make a rational plan for acquiring the things I needed to know. Not that my college course selection didn’t have a certain randomness to it. Along with social pressures not unlike today’s, what with choosing classes that your friends liked.

Watching my kids manage technology, I’m in awe of this digital native generation that knows its way around these devices and the internet. Maybe they can self-educate.  Oh, wait. They are playing another round of Madden instead of doing their homework. Maybe not.

The problem is, faced with all this technology, many schools aren’t helping kids make choices. My high schooler is typical in that his school bans the use of iPhones, laptops and the like during class time. Shouldn’t his teachers be embracing these technologies and integrating them into the classroom? Isn’t the Smart Board so, um, yesterday?

So I’m worried about a generation of digital natives without filters or true internet research skills, who then opt for self-teaching instead of college.  What strategies do they really know to determine what’s good and bad information? Can they make productive plans about what knowledge to acquire about which subjects? Do they understand who is behind the information they see? Do they have the basic cultural competencies to have decent conversations about books and films and ideas?  Maybe more than I realize.  They certainly know enough to be cheating in record numbers. I just watched a one-hour documentary “Faking the Grade” that taught me ways to cheat in school I hadn’t even considered—though the technologies involved are often ones I use all the time to make videos.

So this all makes me wonder: Can the do-it-yourselfers get the same benefits as those who go to college? Are they more self-directed as learners? Maybe these kids don’t feel the pressure to cheat as much as the ones trying to get into/succeed in college? Or maybe they just cheat in different ways? 

I’ve no answers, only questions. Interested to hear your thoughts.

Mitt Romney’s now infamous comment at last night’s debate  has opened a new line into our nation’s ongoing discussion about affirmative action. When he was Governor of Massachusetts, Romney says he had to reach outside the usual application process to ensure that men weren’t the only ones applying for his cabinet positions. Luckily, he was in a state ranked first among all 50 in higher education attainment, where more than 50% of the population hold at least a 2-year degree (Lumina Foundation, 2010). So with a little outreach, the Governor easily found plenty of qualified female applicants. If he’d been governor of Alabama, though, his task would have been much more difficult, since that state’s percentage of folks with any college is only 31%. And if he’d been leading a state with a large Hispanic population, that number would also be low. According to the 2010 Census, just 19 percent of Latinos between 25 and 64 years old had at least a two-year college degree. For whites, the figure is 43 percent.

One of the keys to our economic success as a nation has been ensuring that All Americans, including newer immigrants and women, get access to higher education. My own all-girls school was founded by a woman, Jesse Moon Holton, who was a leader in educating young women, and  created the best school motto I’ve ever heard “I shall find a way or make one.”  That motto reminds me daily of brave little MalalaYousafzai of Pakistan, who risked her life just to go to school. Thankfully we don’t live in a society where extremists mount school buses to shoot kids trying to get an education.

But we do put far too many obstacles in the way of people who want this path to economic inclusion.  As a society, we should do everything possible—affirmative action in higher education, The Dream Act,  funding early childhood education (and yes, a few bucks to Big Bird)–to ensure that every corporate CEO and government leader who wants to hire talent has available to her binders full of qualified and well-educated African-Americans, Hispanics and women of all ethnicities ready and able to succeed.

Concentric circles of leadershipThe Sullivan vs. Dragas battle at UVA is a classic case of nonprofit versus corporate leadership styles. UVA president Teresa Sullivan’s approach–getting to know the university’s key constituencies–is best suited to nonprofits, in which shouting “Follow Me!” rarely gets you more than a sore throat. But Helen Dragas, Chair of UVA’s Board of Visitors, is known for her no-nonsense business style. She expected the newly minted (18 months IS recent in NST–Nonprofit Standard Time) university president  to “stop listening and lead.” (If you haven’t been following, the Chronicle of Higher Ed helpfully summarizes the battle here.) Particularly in a university setting, where you have power centers including tenured faculty who frankly don’t have to follow anyone thank you very much, as well as a constant stream of new students and important donors, Sullivan’s style of taking the time to “listen and learn” before launching major change initiatives will likely win the day.

This battle comes at an interesting time. As nonprofits have been moving steadily to adopt a “more corporate” model of governance, corporations have been embracing social sector models of getting things done. (And hey, after the Wall Street meltdown, my money is on the nonprofit sector so to speak.) In her recent letter to shareholders, Calvert Investments CEO Barbara Krumsiek (disclaimer–Barbara and I know one another through a nonprofit board) noted the increase of sustainability proposals at shareholder meetings, and the implementation by more than 400 business sector CEOs of the United Nation’s Women’s Empowerment Principles, which were adapted from Calvert’s own Women’s Principles in 2010. In their new white paper subtitled “Is Your Board Prepared?”, Ernst & Young point out that social and environmental issues accounted for 40% of shareholder proposals on corporate proxy ballots last year–up one-third from 2010.

That trend away from business models to social sector models is addressed by Jim Collins in his recent monograph “Good to Great in the Social Sectors,” a follow-up to his famed book on high-functioning businesses. In the new book he questions the implementation of business practices in the social sector, saying”we must reject the idea…thgat the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become ‘more like a business.'”  In fact, the metrics for success in a mission-based operation are very different than those in the for-profit. Delivery on the mission is primary. Lowering cost-per-delivery, while essential to good accounting, is not a measurement of success. Neither is efficiency in certain areas. Sometimes nonprofits need to spend a lot of time listening to their “customers” in order to deliver better services, and this listening is often done by social workers or nurses or pastors–professional listeners, but not folks in a marketing setting. The way they may evolve a solution to a particular customer problem may not be the most cost-efficient delivery of service, but it might create the best outcomes in the community served.

The same can be said of effective nonprofit leadership styles. Someone who understands how to harness the different concentric circles of supporters–from staff to donors to volunteers (and students and faculty, in the case of an educational institution) are going to be more successful in moving a strategic plan forward to get the mission accomplished.

So my bet is on Sullivan. What about yours?