Last Week Tonight: Sponsored Content

It’s been wryly observed that people are tuning in more to comedy shows for news. Well, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight is a great example and this segment on “Sponsored Content” is especially pertinent for us communications and media professionals (Video NSFW – language).

Let’s call Sponsored Content what it truly is: monetizing one’s integrity and credibility. It especially becomes a problem when it is deceptive, pervasive and wantonly permissive.

In the words of John Oliver:

“The integrity of local news is crucially important, and there is real harm for everyone if that integrity is damaged.”

First Impressions From Our First Mentoring Session

I recently volunteered as a mentor with the Halogen Foundation and was paired with these two amazing young people: Joel and Steven

We had our first session together and enjoyed a really great time over dinner. On my way home, I found myself being rather contemplative and as I reflected on what we discussed, several themes emerged. I’m jotting them down here for posterity:  

Young people are amazing

I’ve always loved this exhortation: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young but be an example…” It’s always been a good reminder to me that there is a lot more to young people than what we give them credit for (every generation is guilty of this). I wished I was as thoughtful and tenacious as these two when I was their age! Already, they are mindful enough to pursue great internships and part time jobs while having the self-awareness and grit to pick themselves up from the tough times they found themselves in. Their stories were truly invigorating and inspiring! 

There is victory in loss

We shared stories of losses and struggles; especially how we were trying to pick ourselves back up from difficult situations. Counterintuitively, these stories actually resolved our grit and determination; encouraging us and making us excited to witness what awaits on the other side as we press on through our current hardships. It took me back to one my favorite speeches on screen: 

Or, if you prefer, the text that inspired the words of the screenplay (emphasis mine):  

“And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

Risk transparency

Our conversations readily leaned into transparency but at one point, I volunteered a particularly personal perspective that we had not discussed before. It immediately became an important pivotal moment that opened up an entirely new area of conversation and redefined how we understood one another. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to share that view, but I risked it. I am now glad I did and that they both responded well to it!  

Be comfortable with questions as answers

For me, mentoring and coaching is less about providing The Answer™ but more about providing a safe space for mentees to explore their way into their own answers. So, as I reflect on the conversation flow over dinner, I want to remind myself to keep asking more thoughtful, probing questions as my responses to them; instead of just jumping in straight with my view, opinion, or experience. 

Serendipity plays a greater role than we realize

It’s a sober reminder to realize how much of life is beyond our direct ability to control it, despite everything we can do (and need to do) to influence outcomes or to prepare as much as possible. I was reminded about this when I recounted my journey-to-date: how serendipitous my career path has often been, for example. Many of my achievements have been thanks to the support of loved ones and friends around me; mentors and hiring managers who took chances on me; and sometimes just being at the right place and at the right time. So whether that’s thanks to coincidence, luck, privilege, the universe or an act of God, humility and gratefulness seem to be the best responses to life as we know it. 

One more quick point about serendipity: As our trio marveled at how well our life stories and outlooks clicked together (especially with that particularly personal perspective I alluded to earlier), we wondered whether the Halogen folks had matched our profiles so expertly, or… as life would have it, the three of us lucked out to have this mentoring journey together! However it happened, I am glad the three of us found each other in this group. 

I’m grateful for this opportunity and look forward to the inspiring mentoring journey ahead!

Pixar’s 22 Rules Of Storytelling

Back in 2011, then-Pixar story artist Emma Coats tweeted a series of guidelines she learned from her more experienced colleagues on how to create appealing stories.

Having rediscovered them again recently, 10 years later, it’s remarkable how so many of them still hold up – underscoring the fundamental nature of great storytelling! As a corporate storyteller, I might also add that some of these apply to telling one’s company narrative as well, especially the ones highlighted in bold:

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  14. 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.
  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
  21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
  22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Which ones spoke to you? Which ones do you think could be co-opted in building one’s company narrative?