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When I'm Not Leading

Because I suck at life and everything in it and I want to crawl in a hole and die.
Everyone handles the struggle differently, I choose to retreat into a shell. I focus on the negative things happening in life and I let those negative things dominate not only my thoughts, but my life. I make up stories that aren’t happening, but in my head they seem perfectly logical. My brain goes straight to the worst case scenario.

There are things about small business ownership that can be the best parts of my life. After doing this thing for 7 years, I’ve come to really appreciate the good moments of the work. Moments that reward, like telling a great story of good work, or like having someone on the team that is just in the perfect role and loves what they do. It is in these moments that you so clearly see what you do and why you do it. But that steel ball of clarity can quickly turn into the slippery blob of goo.

About 3 years ago, Final 5 decided to shift our focus of work from video production to telling stories. In order to continue funding the business, we stuck pretty tight to the way we had always done business. We continued with our video clientele, and since it’s what we were known for, took in lots of new business focused around that model, but we weren’t evolving as storytellers. In 2015 the decision was made to truly shift our focus. If we were to be the story telling organization we longed to be, we would need a real shift in how we approach business. We still wanted to make film, we just wanted to do other things that complimented the types of stories we were seeing. How do you get organizations you care about to buy a product you had never made before? We decided to donate a couple of different projects to companies with whom we really wanted to work. We spent weeks working on important projects for clients that were interested in our work (and even one that wasn’t). Combine this shift in focus withe the hiring of two new people, and this caused the organization to begin struggling financially, and things have gotten tight. I mean, putting that many resources towards projects that aren’t paying seems like not such a great idea in hindsight, but I took a chance, ya know? We jumped off the cliff. While I was expecting some fall back in revenue, I was in no way prepared for what my actions would produce.

And when the money became a big worry because of a result of my own actions, I began doubting myself, as I often have in the past. I vividly imagine that no one’s ever going to buy our product again, because I can’t even recall the feeling of closing a deal. And this whole madness feeds on itself. Bad thoughts beget bad thoughts and before I know it, I’m in a downward spiral. I’ve forgotten how to talk about our work, how to communicate benefits, and I sure as shit don’t want to pick up the phone or send out an email, “just so I can hear another ‘no.’”

When I take my head out of my ass, I know none of this to be true. I know that I’m in the middle of a script that was written long before I was even alive and that while it’s my choice to fall into it, it’s also my choice to not fall into it, or to see it for what it is and to pull myself out of it. I’ve been practicing mindfulness every morning using a guided meditation app on my phone and it’s really helping me to understand that my thoughts don’t define me, they’re simply thoughts and they can be let go as quickly as they come in.
Final 5 is diversifying its product line, which helps make it easier and more cost effective to work with us. And we’ve got Jen in the project / account manager role, and she’s just killing it, so our process is stronger than it’s ever been, which is allowing us to do better work with less resources. So things are moving forward again. We’ve got some smaller projects coming in, so companies can begin to feel the power of story, and then possibly buy in deeper so we can put more of the weight of final 5 behind the work. It’s a good lesson in resource management, and I’m looking forward to never making that mistake again.
The question is, what is the next mistake I will make and how large of an impact will it have on the organization? And maybe more important, how do I handle it when it comes? I think I’ll be able to see that it’s not a reflection of me, but of my actions. And maybe I can write a new script this time.

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Setting the Table

Setting the Table

Quickly connecting with your audience in order to get to the deeper stories

Your ability as a story teller to Set the Table will be the difference between finding an ok story and finding a great story.

What do we mean by Setting the Table? Well, in short, it’s as if you’re hosting a dinner party. That party ain’t ready until the table’s set, kids. Such is the way with finding stories. You’re not ready to start digging until you’ve done the work to prepare and create the proper atmosphere.

There are 2 ways to Set the Table. One is to be incredibly charming and quick witted (like we so often are) and another, more likely way, is to create a strategy around meeting new people and making them feel comfortable…and then to practice. We’ve developed a strategy and a set of exercises that, while they may not make us more likable (any more than we already are, anyways), they do help us break through natural barriers and create comfort quickly, to allow us to get to the real story beneath the surface.

What’s involved in Setting the Table?

The act of setting the table will vary for you and your context, but we break it down into 3 primary tools:

Bringing Gifts — This is super critical and it defines the first few minutes of meeting someone. Bring along something to help break the ice, we recommend coffee, lunch, swag, or just a general surprise.

Providing Comfort — What’s the environment you’re chatting in? Are the seats comfortable? Is there water and/or natural light? How about privacy?

Asking the Right Questions — Don’t ever dive right into it. Ask questions about the person as though they’re just as critical as the questions regarding the story, often times they are. And don’t end the personal questions and say “ok, let’s get started.” You’re giving up all of the connection making magic that the personal questions provide.

A story from the field

The Linemen

When we first started working with DTE, we didn’t realize the challenge we were facing with a field crew that had been there upwards of 25 years and had seen “video crews” come and go. The answers were stiff, they were hesitant, and they were not very compelling.

Determined to create a deeper sense of rapport, we showed up on Day 2 with a new approach. “Can we bring lunch?” We spent an hour of our time having lunch and just chatting. The investment in getting to know them was worth the cost of the turkey sandwich as we turned the cameras on and already had a feel for their lives, their families, and their passions. They began sharing things they never would have shared before. At the end of the project, one lineman approached us and said “I like having you guys out here. We’ve had other camera crews out and they railroad us. They spend 20 minutes telling us what to say and then they take off. You guys listen to us and get our good stories — we appreciate that.”

Exercise

Now, it’s your turn

Use this guide to help you set the table before your next interview, client meeting, or presentation:

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Leading in the Face of Uncertainty

“It feels like I have to move a glacier 100 miles and I can only push it 1/4 inch per day.” 6 months before I said this I had decided to shift the intent of Final 5’s work from video production to story telling. And believe me when I say that 3 years ago, NO ONE knew what I was talking about. “Stories? I don’t get it…”
It was lonely, and I was struggling. I opened up to my friend and mentor, Tom Brennan, who asked me the question, “have you ever read Dr King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail?” He didn’t say anything else, but I immediately bought it and read through it in a day. It’s so incredibly inspiring. It was written as a response to to a public statement issued by eight white religious leaders of the South who felt King’s acts were untimely. Imprisoned for his beliefs, friends and allies turning their backs, and King has the strength, courage, and conviction to pen one of the greatest examples of the human spirit ever written, from a jail cell in the deep south.
The book completely shifted my thinking and I turned it into a battle cry, “it’s my job to move the story glacier 100 miles, and I’m doing 1/4 inch per day.” On his birthday, I’m grateful for his leadership and fearlessness in the face of what must have felt like certain failure.

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Work That Matters... And Pays

 Photo Credit: Marvin Shaouni

Photo Credit: Marvin Shaouni

Work that matters is not only difficult to identify, but it’s difficult to obtain. I’ve made many mistakes and lost important relationships in my journey to tell stories of work that matters. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for the United Way of Southeast Michigan. Working together with them to find and share the story of Much Love (pictured) was my first real experience telling the story of work that matters, and it’s become part of the fabric of who I am. There’s nothing outrageous or ground breaking about doing work that matters. People do it every day, all over the world. And we, like so many others (including you, probably), like helping people. And we like helping people who help people. That seems pretty simple. What isn’t simple is how you choose to help people who help people. What happens when work that matters can’t afford you?

“We’ll do it for free.”

Final 5 has long been viewed as an organization that required a large investment to engage. We are the ones you call when the project has to be perfect, or when you’re ready for world class. In the past, it takes a significant amount of time for us to find and share those kind of stories. With that comes a pretty significant price tag, as well as a large time investment from our clients. It quickly became clear to us that work that matters doesn’t always come with that checkbook or available schedule.

Our initial solution was to use revenue generating work to fund work that matters. So we began offering our services pro bono to companies we were passionate about and that we wanted to work with. You already know how this story ends, don’t you? The work didn’t matter as much, both to the client with no skin in the game, and to us (I’m ashamed to say) who sometimes had the attitude of “What do they want??? They’re getting it for free!” We lost total control. Deadlines slipped, quality suffered, things came crashing down, feelings were hurt, and relationships suffered. I work very hard to rebuild those things, but you know how that goes. Once you’ve harmed a relationship, it’s never really the same. So that… didn’t… work.

It’s us, not you

At the same time this was going on we were pretty flush with revenue generating projects. So Final 5 was hiring a new project manager to help refine the process, and working with new and different vendors to help drive our work in new directions. We learned a ton (with more to go) and got to be really good at our core competency — finding stories, designing stories, and telling stories. And we got good at it in better ways, it was like the whole thing was feeding on itself as our process improved and the roles of people on the team became clearer. Suddenly, things that were headaches and things that would fall through the cracks were no longer doing so. Profits began to increase as it took less work to accomplish what we needed done.

So how can we tell stories that matter? We know we can’t charge full rate and we know we can’t give it away. But if we truly understand our own growth, our growing list of resource and our improved process, then there is an opportunity to accomplish both objectives: getting paid and telling stories that matter. In this way I believe we can reach those organizations who have struggled so greatly to find and share their stories because they’re strapped for time and cash. So we’re taking a leap and banking on the fact that while we might make less per project, we’ll have so much more fun doing so.

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Start With Good Tape

Editing and crafting a story that sticks

Good Tape will help you to create a piece that allows you to focus your impact around the moments that make you laugh, cry, or feel inspired. I don’t mean lead with it, I mean start with it. Find it, choose it, and build around it.

So…what is Good Tape and what is Bad Tape?

Simply stated:

“Good Tape” is the part of the story that your audience wants to listen to.

This often looks and feels like:

“Bad Tape” is the opposite of that. It’s the stuff people don’t care or want to hear much about.

This often looks like…

Good stories are built from good tape.

So how do we identify Good Tape?

In the midst of crafting our stories, we have to rely on (and work at) our senses, these will help us distinguish between good tape and bad tape.

Good tape might make you laugh, it might give you chills, might make you want to cry. You will observe that you have been paying attention and that you know what is being said.

Bad tape has you losing focus, it makes you tired or bored, it’s confusing, or it feels robotic. Often times you can find good tape by understanding what it is not. “I zoned out there,” is something you’ll hear around our offices.

Next time you are writing, editing, or crafting a story, find your best piece of tape and start with that. Then begin building narrative around it.

A story from the field

Detroit’s Tax Foreclosure Crisis

During the 2015 tax foreclosure crisis in Detroit, we spent a week at Cobo Hall sharing the stories of residents who were at risk of losing their homes. One woman we met was Toia — a lifelong Detroiter who had inherited her grandmother’s home along with $10,000 of tax debt. We spent the day with her as she waited alongside thousands of other residents in an effort to save her home from the tax auction. Over the course of 5 hours we captured a lot of “good tape,” but one moment stood out in particular —during which Toia described the difference between a house and a home: “A house is just a structure. But a home is where you have love and compassion and family and Thanksgiving dinners and arguments and fights — that’s a home, you know? A house can be anything — this building right here is a house for about 5 hours.” That emotional moment hit us in the gut and ended up serving as the foundation for the rest of the story. You can watch the final video here:

Exercise

Now, it’s your turn

Use this exercise to help you identify Good Tape while you’re crafting your next story:

Once you have identified the Good Tape, you can start to build a narrative around those moments. Keep in mind that this exercise is one that you should return to throughout the story crafting phase. You can cycle through it over and over again until you’ve distilled your story down to its most essential and compelling parts.

Hat tip to Alex Blumberg of Start Up Podcast for the guidance on Good Tape. Hear his thoughts here.

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