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Secrets To Creating Stories That Connect With Your Audience - An Interview With Kenneth Kebow

Kenneth Kebow with Richard Dreyfuss
Interview with Emmy award winning documentary producer Kenneth Kebow - part 2. Ken shares his secrets to creating stories that connect. You can listen to the interview here:

When you create a video to tell a story, do you sometimes feel like you are shooting in the dark?

Or, because you're not sure what to shoot, you record everything and it makes it hard to edit?

Wouldn't it be great to know the secrets behind creating stories that connect with your audience, every time?

I can remember in my early production days feeling the same way. Sometimes I would shoot too much video, and other times, not enough.

Other times my audio was poor or I didn't have enough light. It was just plain frustrating and I could spend hours in editing trying to fix the mess I had created.

It took making my share of mistakes, getting my education and working with talented mentors to learn how to create stories that connect with your audience.

Here's the good news, it doesn't have to be that way for you!

Today's blog is part two of my interview with Emmy award winning documentary producer, and director Kenneth Kebow as he shares Secrets To Creating Stories That Connect.

Transcript of Episode 26 of Camera Ready With Val Brown

On today's podcast, my guest is Emmy Award winning documentary producer and director, Kenneth Kebow. Ken was here last week to share his production secrets to creating great looking videos on a budget. Today he's going to talk about his process for creating award winning stories that connect.

I’d like to to tell you a little bit about Ken.

Ken is a friend and a colleague and a mentor, and he's been in the television industry for more than 30 years. Some of his clients include Google, American Airlines, Ford, CBS and the United States Marines.

Ken's been honored with a number of awards for his corporate work as well as his documentary work, which includes one on one of the original Disney imagineers, Rolly Crump, and another with Academy Award winner, Richard Dreyfus, in a documentary about Lincoln's second inaugural address. Both are amazing pieces of work, and at the end of today's podcast there will be a link where you can find out how to watch both of them.

On this week's podcast, Ken is going to take us behind the scenes and talk about his process for creating stories that connect. So let's go ahead and get started. Welcome back Ken.

Ken: Thanks for having me back Val, I appreciate it.

Val: I'd like to get started by asking you to briefly summarize the last two or three documentaries you completed in a broad brush stroke. I'd like our listeners to get an idea of the type of work that you've done.

Ken: That’s great Val. Now I'll preface that with saying the word passion and the reason I'll kind of throw that out, at the head end here is I think it's really important that when you pick a topic that you're passionate about it, because documentaries take time. There's a lot of moving pieces and if it's not something you're passionate about, a lot of times you may lose interest and it may never get done. So I've, I've gotten smart over a couple of documentaries then really just take on projects that I really enjoy.

The last couple that I've done, and we're actually doing one called, it's called Conflict, Community and Love. And in a nutshell, it's a story of a young pizza delivery man, 21 years old here in San Diego who was shot and killed by a 13 year old gang member.

And the crux of the story there is the father of the young man who was killed joined forces with the grandfather of the young man who killed him. And they started a foundation to stop kids from killing kids. So in this scenario where usually they would be hatred and, and really nothing that the two men had in common, they were able to create something good out of a horrible situation. Amazing story. And it continues on as Tony, the young man who killed the older gentleman is up for parole this year and the plan is for him to come work at the foundation created in the honor of the gentlemen he murdered. So it's quite a story and we're excited about that.

After that, this is an interesting story too. I did Lincoln's Greatest Speech, and to put a little hook in there for the listeners, it's not the Gettysburg Address, and that's right from Lincoln's own mouth.

He considered the second inaugural address his greatest speech. And I saw a speaker named Ron White, who's a Lincoln scholar, he has written some best sellers on Lincoln speak down at UCSD here in San Diego, and I was mesmerized. He's an incredible speaker, explained it beautifully, and through a series of, contacts and getting him, we did the program together called Lincoln's Greatest Speech. And through some folks that he knew, Richard Dreyfus got involved, who's a huge Lincoln, fan himself and a quite a historian, and we had Richard ultimately read Lincoln's Second Inaugural. So it's a great program if I may say so, about Richard reading this speech and Ron White kind of interpreting it.

Val: Yeah, I’m going to have to break in because I got to see that the night that you debuted it and Ron was there and I literally had goosebumps watching that piece. It just touched me to my soul and I want to say the same thing about the first documentary that you just talked about, that content is so soul gripping when you think about that.

Ken: Well, thank you Val. Thank you. I really appreciate that. It's always good to hear that you know, what you do resonates with people. With the Lincoln thing that we never expected to have an Academy Award winning actor involved. It goes back to that old thing, I don't want to get too far off track, but don't ever forget to ask. I mean, you know, Richard could have said no, we could have never thought to work with Richard, but he said yes and suddenly, you know, just the credibility of the project, with Ron it is credible enough, but then to have someone like Richard involved… so I would encourage people out there with documentaries don't discount any possibilities. You never know who might be involved.

And the other one we talked about last week, Val was the Whimsical Imagineer, which is a story of Rolly Crump who was an imagineer working with Walt Disney building Disneyland back in the day.

And it resonates with people from nine to 90 and we do a lot of screenings. I've had kids in the front row just staring at Rolly, like he was walking on water because they'd been to Disneyland and people, you know, senior citizens coming up and go, oh, I was there for the first day. And I love this piece for that. And it's a very happy story and people leave feeling good and I think everyone has something to connect to in there. And the biggest payoff is when you can bring a little bit of joy into people's life and um, remind them of happy times.

Val: I know when I first heard about this documentary, one of the things you told me was in that role, he was involved in creating both The Tiki Room and It's A Small World and I was hooked. It's like, oh my gosh, my favorite. Can you tell me really quick and for our listeners too, because I really would like people to go see this documentary that you created. There's a story in there about Rolly and creating It’s A Small World. And when I heard that I was blown away how quickly they were able to put that together.

Ken: You bet. It's a funny story because they were going to the World's Fair back in New York, and that's where It's A Small World first appeared, and it was such a big hit back there when they came back to California Walt wanted to do it for the park and Rolly was able to build and complete that in nine months, which if you've been to It’s A Small World and you know, know about the logistics of construction and all, that is pretty unheard of. I don't think that could happen today. It was a different world with Disney back then and people just took the initiative and ran with it. But yeah, for that to be finished, completed and open for business in mind nine open for business in nine months is pretty unheard of.

Val: Absolutely, what is the one ingredient that you think is essential to creating a documentary?

Ken: You need to have people involved, meaning on camera that are good storytellers. I'm going back to Rolly and the Whimsical Imagineer. When I met Rolly for preproduction, he is probably one of the best storytellers I've ever met. I sat there mesmerized for hours with Rolly and a funny thing about when we actually did the main shoot with Rolly, I pretty much asked three questions in the six hours because his stories were perfect and he would run right into my next question without me asking. So you've got to have a good story. You gotta have a hook and you got to have something you want to convey, but you really have to have people on camera who can express themselves emotionally and clearly and I think if they have a storytelling talent, you can't go wrong.

Val: That’s, that's key and sometimes this is hard to do, especially if you're in a situation where you need to interview someone in a corporate environment and they're the the logical spokesperson and not necessarily the right spokesperson.

Okay. Well, I'm going to ask you a question that's not very fair. We just talked about three, three of your latest projects are three or four. Do you have a favorite?

Ken: I probably do. I like them all for different reasons, but again, I think the joy that the Rolly story has brought to people has really made it fulfilling it’s, you know, there’s a noticeable value. You've done enough of this work Val, when you sit in a packed theater and it's on the big screen, and that happens at these film festivals. People laugh in the right place. People will ask questions afterwards, people come up thoroughly and just wide eyed and say, oh, that's the greatest thing. I love what you've done. You can't trade that for anything. So I would have to say for a lot of reasons, that's probably been my favorite.

Val: It's a happy piece and the thing that I'm taking away from what you're saying here is that it does matter that we care about how our audience is going to receive what we're doing and it's not just point and shoot and get it out there. It’s being thoughtful about how does this connect with the person that I want to communicate this message to? How does this connect with the person that I'm communicating with? And that goes back to what we talked about last week, is spending some time ahead of time to really think about it.

Ken: And you know what, Val? It took me awhile to learn that. I've done documentaries for a long time and I think I got pretty caught up in just because I love this subject and I'm passionate about it, the rest of the world is too. And that's not necessarily the case. And I think over the last five, 10 years I've gotten better at getting outside of myself and my passion for whatever I'm doing and really taking a look at okay, I like this, this will sustain me to finish it, but when I'm done will anyone else care? So I think I'm getting a little bit better at looking at a topic and say, well, I like it. So that's step number one, but will people enjoy it when it's done?

Val: Absolutely, and I think that goes for anything that you produce and when you are creating a video and you are responsible for the content and the outcome. You are producer, you are producing something that you're asking people to watch. Whether it's online in their home, whether it's a Facebook Live, or whether it's a longer piece that you do about your business and it really is incumbent upon you to take a minute and once again, going back to some of the things we've talked about, be really clear about the purpose for what you're doing, and in the case of the Rolly Crump piece. not only did you engage and entertain, but there was a lot of information in that video as well too. So just, you know, taking that minute to think about what do I really want to do here? And then planning it out and, and documentaries do take a lot more thought. Well, I'd like to shift this slightly. We talked a little bit about some of the things that you've learned. What are some of the biggest challenges that you've encountered in telling stories that connect?

Ken: From a more logistical side, Rollie took eight years to complete. The production was about two years and I have nothing but the most wonderful things to say about Disney legal because they've been incredibly helpful. Licensing the footage from Disney took about six years.

Val: Wow.

Ken: Yeah, it was, it was quite a struggle, but you know, I talk to kids a lot and students and I say, you know, it really brought up the three p's that are so important. Persistence, professionalism and patience. I'm not even a little fish in Disney's pond. I mean, you know, it's Disney. It's amazing they even paid any attention to me at all over that time, but I got to give them credit when it got accepted to the Newport Beach Film Festival, which was the first film festival, within three weeks, everything was done and taken care of, so it was great.

But that was a challenge and I wanted to be very patient and professional. I never raised a fuss and it worked out, but sometimes when things get outside of your control like that, things that you need to tell the story, start on those sooner rather than later and don't get upset if things don't go as quickly as you think. That was a challenge and I'm glad it all worked out, but the, the beautiful flip side of that, and I just was up at Disney last Friday to talk about some stuff, is that we have a great relationship now. I think they appreciated that. I understood that they've got much bigger fish to fry than me and I appreciate that when they needed to jump and get it done, they did. So it led to a great relationship where now I can call or text.

But when you think about a project, you got to start considering stuff like this - isthere copyrighted material? And in the Disney case I had to have that stuff to tell the story as best as possible. It is good to get on that early and start looking for who's going to be the person to talk to. What's it going to cost you a what sort of licensing agreement. There's a lot of variables when you're dealing with outside copywriting imagery that you want to find out about and get moving on quickly.

And, I want to warn people, and everyone says this, but just because it's on the Internet or under Google Images doesn't mean you can use it. You got to be careful, most things that are worthwhile are copyrighted and I would really stick to the letter of the law because if you ever do something and you want to get it out there for public consumption or even if people purchase it, have all your copyright ducks in a row or you could get yourself into trouble.

Val: Sage advice, and I think we may take an entire episode in the future just to talk about copyright because it's so important. And I'd love your three P's. Persistence, professionalism, patience. Yeah. I'm also looking for advice when you're working on a script for a story Ken, what's your process?

Ken: It's, you know, documentaries are a different beast Val, and I think everyone does it differently and people asked me that a lot, but my documentaries kind of come together in the editing room. Rolly’s made up of about 12, two and a half to three minute segments, each has a beginning, a middle and an end and usually deal with an attraction he did or something he did for Disney. That was never the plan when I shot this, but it became very evident in the editing room that that's the best way to tell the story even though I never thought about it that way. So I'm kind of a firm believer in gathering all the information, all the people, everything that will possibly make it the best story possible. I see a lot of my projects really come together in the edit room.

You want to have an outline. Of course you want to have points you're hitting on. You wouldn't have certain people you're talking to about specific things, but I, I think part of the passion of mine is really not knowing what's going to come out of it all until you sit down with all the pieces in front of you.

Val: It sounds like you gather your ingredients and say yes, these are tasty ingredients and you know you would like to cook with and when you get into the kitchen it's like, “Huh, I think I'm going to try a little bit of this and that” fits with my mantra that I've lived by out in the field is I would rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

Ken: Great Advice. Great Advice.

Val: And the thing about it is too, with the time that you're investing to be out in the field, you may not use it in this project but may be something that you can use in a future video. So I start thinking about them as assets that I went out and took the time to get that beautiful sunset. Well, it didn't work in this video, but I have it as an asset to use in future projects.

Ken: I think that's great advice, Val, because like you said, better to have it and not need it and when you're on a shoot with a crew of people and all your gear, it doesn't take much longer to get a couple of different sound bites, a couple of different visuals because everyone's there and you're already set up to do it. And it may not be right for that project you're shooting that day, but like you said, I can guarantee you maybe a year out, you'll go, I got that person saying that and it's perfect this time, so I'm a huge advocate of getting way more than you need, even if you don't have a place for it because chances are sometime down the road it will come in handy.

Val: Well, in this vein then, what are some of your key ingredients? It's sort of like in your kitchen, you have staples in your kitchen. What are some of the key ingredients that need to be present in a video that connects with viewers?

Ken: I think you need to emotionally connect. That's a given and I think your story is key on that. I'd say in the last three or four years, I've been working with a gentleman who's done a lot of sound work is it's amazing how much emotional connection you can make with a sound. You know, your lighting and your framing and all that wants to convey a certain message. But again, and I think we talked about this last week, sound is often overlooked and I think incredibly important. I mean, you could change a piece of music behind a piece and completely change the emotional connection. In a lot of my work now I'm using sound effects. I'm using things that I wouldn't have used in the past. I just finished a promo yesterday, for a person who who's very well known in the triathlon world and as we put together her program, you know, there's, there's feet running in the background, there's people cheering as she crosses the finish line with still photos.

There's so many layers of what you could do with sound and those all add to the emotional content. So I guess I'm in a phase of my career now. We're really looking at what sound can do to connect with an audience and convey an emotion. And I think it's, um, kind of a little bit of a missing ingredient in a lot of things. And I think the value is really there when you take the time and effort to do it.

So I would encourage people out there, and think about those pieces of sound. And on a very simple level, Val, let's say we're shooting someone making a widget, well it comes to life when you can hear the sound of the machines moving, the people in the factory talking.

If you just have video of it with no sound, oh, that's nice, but it just, it adds a whole other level to have involvement and it's an easy thing to do. Record the sound while you're there and it's amazing what a difference that makes in people's connection to a product. Actual sound.

Val: Absolutely. In storytelling, it's such a key piece. If you think about listening to something on the radio or one of your favorite podcasts that incorporate natural sound, it takes you there. It does, it draws you in. And because there is so much video on the Internet, I've heard some staggering numbers about how many hours of videos uploaded to YouTube every day, what’s going to make your video stand out? How is your video going to connect and keep people engaged? So that's a really good tip, that’s another writer downer.

Ken: It is. And I'll tell you a real quick story about, again going back to the Rolly show, but it's, it's probably more present in my mind. There's a scene there and everyone works differently, but we interviewed him at Disneyland during operating hours and on Main Street, and I think most people have been there, will there's a kind of a little cable car truck type thing that rings the bell when it goes up and down the street and then in the middle of Rolly’s thing, that bell rings in the background and

Val: I can hear it now,(laughs)

Ken: It takes me back to Disneyland when I was a kid and so there. And I'm sure other people have experienced that too. So here's a little, nothing bell that wasn't planned, but it's there. And that emotional connection to that scene of Rolly is enhanced tremendously. So they're not always planned, but you know these, as Rolly would say these happy accidents, really can make a huge difference in someone's connection to a project or even just as a single scene in the project.

Val: All right. I love that. Those little details are what makes a difference in a video and I'm wondering what you might be able to share with our listeners about getting really clear about your story before you hit record so that you can make sure that you get some of these details. Do you have a framework that you use or a process that you'd be willing to share?

Ken: You bet, I think it's really important to do your research before you meet or talk to anybody. You go in there and a lot of these people you may be working with have been interviewed a lot of times and asked the same questions over and over, so know your material.

If you go in and it's evident to that person that you’ve studied what they've done and what they've taught and what they've learned, they'll open up a lot more and take you a lot more seriously. And you’re not just someone who's, you know, who’s there on a whim. Show them you've taken your time. They're giving you their time. Show you've taken your time to really research whatever the topic is and ask a question and going back to something we talked about last week, that preinterview maybe a recorder an audio recorder, but no cameras, no lights in, a very comfortable place for your subject.

That's invaluable. I can't stress that enough because number one, you're building rapport, you're making the person feel comfortable, you're letting them know a little bit about what's going to happen when you bring in cameras, but most importantly, I've got some of the best stuff for questions from that they would say in those pre-interviews that I never had on a piece of paper.

Val: I agree and that goes to something we talked about last week about every story needs to have a beginning, middle, and an end. Yes, and when you can talk to somebody ahead of time, it allows you to ask the right questions when you're there and another thing that I found by doing my research ahead of time when I go in to talk to someone, it does create a level of respect because you're not coming in as a complete novice. No, you don't always have time to do that.

Ken: And just so people know, face to face is preferred because there's a lot of benefit there, but if people, people are busy and if it's a corporate setting, with CEOs and CFOs and all that, and they don't have a lot of time, even an email saying here's what I want to ask you. What are your thoughts on these? So you can hear what they think and what they have to say before you do the actual interview is huge. Just taking a little bit of time to show you're interested in what they have to say is huge. So if face to face doesn't work, there's a lot of other options to kind of create that rapport and get a better idea of what they like to talk about in addition to what you'd like to ask them.

Val: I love that and that's really basic to human communication and what that does is it creates a conversation versus that stilted interview, very good. Well, Ken, is there anything I should've asked you about creating stories that connect that I didn’t?

Ken: Well, I would encourage people, especially if they're interested in documentary, is to do one. Maybe your grandfather fought in World War II and has these incredible stories. Maybe, you know, your grandmother did something amazing that she doesn't talk about much. I think, let's record people's experiences and let's, let's make that for our families and it doesn't need to, you know, go on broadcast or on Netflix or Amazon. I remember years ago, my grandpa and old Scotsman, I brought him into a place I was working and had him sing five or six pub songs back in the early 1900s that they used to sing over in London. And it's the most wonderful thing.

Of course I shared it with all the family and, and here's my grandpa who unfortunately passed away now in his late eighties, early nineties singing this pub songs. And it's priceless and it's, it's ours. And it doesn't mean a lot to anyone else, but anyone in the family just loves it. So I encourage people, document these moments, document the people you know and love everyone. But I would just encourage people find something you're passionate about, make a little project about it. And you just never know where it's going to lead.

Val: I love that idea because it allows you to really focus on the creative process and you're getting experience using all these different skills and then translate those to the everyday videos that all of us are doing today for our businesses.

Ken I want to thank you so much for coming here for the last two episodes and sharing, and I'm wondering if people would like to see more of your work. Where can they go?

Ken: Thanks Val. It's really been fun, you do a great interview and I appreciate you taking the time to, to interview me. It's

Val: Okay. Thanks so much Ken. All right. That's all for today. Hope you enjoyed this interview with Ken Kebow. And if you missed part one, I will put a link in the show notes. Until then, remember by getting clear about who your audience is, making sure you're passionate about your topic and exhibiting the three p's, persistence, professionalism, and patience, you can create stories that connect every time.

Val Brown is an Emmy Award winning television producer, story, visual and personal brand consultant, coach, and speaker. She consults and coaches high performing business professionals and entrepreneurs looking to up their game and increase their confidence and credibility on camera. Val teaches you how to use your story to support your brand in video and photos. 

p.s. I’d love to connect on social media and hear your questions and concerns about being in front of the camera.

Twitter: @valbrown08


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