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Strategic Video for Research-Driven Groups: An Interview with Vern Oakley

Vern Oakley. Credit: Andrew Steinman

“Strategy” and “video”: two terms that still don’t appear together in the same sentence at most research-driven organizations.

While video defines the present and dominates the future of marketing and communications for the rest of the planet, research-driven organizations still too often apply video piecemeal and after-the-fact — as one-off illustrations for new research, with little cohesiveness across the organization’s body of work.

Vern Oakley thinks differently. He founded Tribe Pictures in 1986 to help F1000 companies as well as leading non-profit institutions build their brands and tell their stories through film and video.

Video, Oakley insists, is a strategic initiative — and thinking first about video in the context of your overall strategy, brand story and messaging can bring your organization outsize benefits. Tribe backs that up: Its work has been a part of fundraising efforts that have brought in collectively more than $2 billion for colleges, universities and foundations.

Oakley is also an expert on getting people to tell great stories in business settings. His book, “Leadership in Focus: Bring Out Your Best on Camera,” is a handbook for anyone who wants to be more effective on video. He was kind enough to answer a few questions from me about how research-driven organizations should think about video as a strategic initiative:

Bob Lalasz: First off, what does Tribe Pictures do — what’s it’s mission?

Vern Oakley: Our mission is to humanize companies and their leaders through the power of film. We believe that businesses (and I’m including universities and non-profits in that definition) are one of the key drivers of the world becoming a better place. In the past, our society has relied on religious organizations or government. But now many businesses serve not only as employers but a way to give people purpose. If they’re run ethically, if they hold themselves to high standards and if they effectively communicate that purpose to the outside world, they can help shape society as we move forward.

Tribe Pictures provides a critical tool for businesses in this new purpose-driven environment. We help our clients tell their most powerful, consistent story across different functions of a business — from recruiting or onboarding to mission, vision, values, and investor relations. Purpose told in well-crafted story form creates a cumulative effect over months, weeks, days, years, and decades to inspire people to do with business with those companies.


Bob Lalasz: How do you get clients to make this move from “We need a video” to “We need a video strategy”?

Vern Oakley: Video should always have strategic priority for your organization. But of the 20–30 companies we’ve worked with in the last three years, only two have had a video strategy.

Instead, we find clients are making videos in one division or for one purpose without anything knitting that together with all the other strategic work being done elsewhere in the company. Before you rush to communicate with video, it’s helpful to take that half-step back and ask, “Shouldn’t there be a company narrative relating to an organizational purpose that runs through this?”


Before you rush to communicate with video, it’s helpful to take that half-step back and ask, “Shouldn’t there be a company narrative relating to an organizational purpose that runs through this?”


Bob Lalasz: What are the benefits of having that video strategy?

Vern Oakley: Strategic storytelling creates a persona and brand identity for the company. Look at Apple and Steve Jobs. In 1984, they started with an incredible TV commercial. Over the years they evolved their styles of storytelling, but all of them expressed the company’s ethos and purpose again and again: Revolutionizing the world through making the computer a democratized creative tool for the every(wo)man. That consistency and persistency of story is what really builds a connection among employees, customers and all stakeholders.


Bob Lalasz: Does your work on a strategic level often cause companies to rethink their overall brand story and messaging?

Vern Oakley: I don’t believe that you can impose a brand story; I believe it’s discovered within the DNA. We don’t layer on a solution. We’re more like an archeologist. We’re uncovering the story that is buried beneath jargon, outdated legacy assumptions and, frankly, paper! We’re digging in a little deeper, dusting off the dirt and revealing what actually exists, what’s at the core of the company. And because we’re an outside observer with a storyteller’s eye, we start to see common threads and can knit together those different threads in a way that everybody goes, “Wow, I get it.”


Bob Lalasz: Tell me more about that process. Do you just talk to as many people in the company as possible? What are you doing to get at these narratives?

Vern Oakley: We have a couple of different processes. We do group interviews with people over a lunch or a dinner. We also do research based upon what they’ve been saying about themselves over a period of time. We’ll look at the founder’s statement, we look at where they are in the marketplace, we look at peer reviews, we talk with top leadership. All that information shapes a picture.


I don’t believe that you can impose a brand story; I believe it’s discovered within the DNA. We don’t layer on a solution. We’re more like an archeologist.


Bob Lalasz: How should a research-driven organization choose a video vendor? What are the most important considerations?

Vern Oakley: If you are raising money or raising awareness or driving your mission through to your stakeholders, your smartest move is to create a true partnership with a video agency or a marketing agency.

You also need to judge how experienced they are working with businesses and how gifted they are as storytellers. There’s sort of a split in the video business. A lot of people in video have been trained from a very technical perspective, and they don’t really understand the nuances of business storytelling.

Business storytelling is quite different from other kinds of storytelling, and there isn’t a lot of training in it. If you look at our current university system, in the top 25 film and video schools in the United States, none of them has even a course offering around business storytelling. It’s all around traditional narrative or TV or maybe music video or maybe even TV commercials. So you want to know if they have expertise in telling your story.

Finally, you want someone who is curious. I think curiosity is not valued enough in these selection processes. A company that’s really curious about your business and what you’re doing and is committed to discovering that — all that is going to show up in the way your story gets told.


Bob Lalasz: What about budget? What should a small to medium-sized nonprofit be prepared to spend to get effective work done for a video strategy?

Vern Oakley: Creating a strategy involves really looking at the organization’s story and how it might stream into multiple videos. That could also result in a series of stories and some suggested ways to slice and dice that storytelling so it works on your website, it works for conferences, it works for social and other channels. That kind of thinking and the creation of a plan like that is in the low- to mid- six figures.

A given video itself can be inexpensive or expensive depending on the production requirements. I’m not prescriptive. Some production companies want to do big, powerful, emotionally compelling videos. We love those, but there’s a need and a time and a place for them. Some people want to shoot on an iPhone. The price ranges are just so, so different. But I think if you’re starting to think about a floor for a short quality video, you’re probably in the $25,000 to $30,000 range. And you can get it for less if you’re not looking for business insights and you’re looking for more just production. But a more comprehensive program can run $100,000 to $200,000.


Bob Lalasz: Viral videos — no one will say no to them. What are the frameworks you at Tribe use to discuss distribution with your clients and set reasonable expectations for performance?

Vern Oakley: I’d be careful about seeking viral videos as defined as something that’s going to get 1 million or plus hits. To get that, you’re really trying to do something that may have some trickery in it, some magic, something unexpected. And that may or may not serve your company well in terms of the kind of mission that you have. Not to mention the fact that no one on the planet knows what really makes one video go viral. They might give reasons after the fact. But if anyone tries to sell you on a guaranteed viral video, look somewhere else to spend your money.

I would like to think that every video Tribe makes for its clients is viral — but not viral in the YouTube, 50-million-hits kind of way. It’s viral because it tells a story that connects, that’s personal, and that people may not know and then choose to share with others in the right audience set. That happens because of the way we approach storytelling — which is actually telling a story, making it emotional, having a strategy behind that emotion, intended for a specific audience and intended to have the specific audience to think, do, feel, say, buy, or buy into something very particular. Our videos are very effective and result-oriented for that group of people.


Bob Lalasz: Blair Enns recently said that the vast majority of content (including, presumably, thought leadership) is going to be moving to video in the next couple of years. Agree? Disagree? And why?

Vern Oakley: I agree with a caveat. First, 80 percent of the internet traffic starting next year is going to be video. So having a short video that allows people to enter the rest of your story allows you to build your brand. It’s like putting the right lens on the story so you’re focusing people’s attention in the direction you want to be focused in.

But when video continues to get shorter and shorter, it becomes harder to do true thought leadership in the form. What you can give are incendiary ideas or a tantalizing look into something. Video will become the mechanism to drive people to learn more about things in all of the mediums.


For research-driven data and complex, intricate, domain expertise, I’m not sure video is the right place. I do think video is the right place to sell it and get you to read it.


Bob Lalasz: Tribe has a very diverse client base. How do you get up to speed on a client’s expertise, particularly in science or research? How important is domain expertise to getting effective video done for these clients?

Vern Oakley: If you’re not curious, you’re not in the ballgame here. I made three brand films for Bell Labs over a 15-year period. And I just have to say, I was totally fascinated with these scientists. I considered them rock stars. I interviewed Dennis Ritchie, who invented C+ programming. But I knew in the video, all people were going to experience about Dennis was 30 seconds at most.

My skillset doesn’t have to do with domain expertise in terms of quantum physics. My expertise is in taking the complex and simplifying it and making it accessible, digestible, and compelling. So one of the questions that I ask when I’m talking to people at very complicated scientific organizations or non-profits or corporations is: “Pretend we’re at a cocktail party and you’re talking to somebody who knows nothing about your business. How would you explain what you do?” And if it’s so complicated that the average person can’t understand it, we have a problem. We have to figure out how to tell the story in a way that that’s compelling, and so it brings them into the story.

We’re making videos that are two minutes, three minutes, five minutes, maybe 10 max. We’re not getting down into true deep thought leadership where domain expertise is so crucial. We’re giving people the trailer, so to speak, in motion picture terms. What we produce brings them into the story, make them want to read the whitepaper, hear the speech, read the data.


Bob Lalasz: It doesn’t sound like you think video is the best medium for these long arguments that need time to build in force.

Vern Oakley: I don’t think video is. I hate to say it. I do think you can do it in a podcast or a radio show or a white paper. I tend to think that video is something where you want truly “moving pictures.” If you’re going to make a movie out of an interesting scientific experiment, you would really want to fictionalize it, you want characters, or you can make a documentary about it. For research-driven data and complex, intricate, domain expertise, I’m not sure video is the right place. I do think video is the right place to sell it and get you to read it.

TED Talks — and I happen to love them — are at that intersection of idea and the ability to sell it. The ability to tell a story and give the audience human, personal anecdotes that show your vulnerability as a researcher or your expertise or your humanity. Look at all the research that Brené Brown did and how brilliant her TED Talks are. But she wasn’t talking about the research; she was talking about the outcomes implied by the research.


It’s not having a mask on as “I’m an important scientist, listen to me.” It’s more like, “Oh my gosh, I love this. This is the data, we couldn’t believe when we found it. We made some mistakes. We kept at it. We ended up with something really exciting.”


Bob Lalasz: Last question: Your book, Leadership in Focus, is among other things a playbook on how to be authentic in front of the camera. And you really stress the importance of authenticity both for leadership and also for being in front of the camera. It’s this core value that translates to success in both domains.

Researchers and scientists typically think more about expertise than authenticity because expertise is what their culture rewards. So when you’re working with subject matter experts, how do you get them to start to value authenticity on camera and stop worrying so much about looking so much like an expert and how they’ll look to their peers?

Vern Oakley: Expertise and authenticity can and must coexist to create true impact. If you look at classic storytelling, the way that we come to related to characters is because they’re human. Like us. Not because they know something we do not. We have a sort of an archetype of the nerdy, expert scientist, and we certainly can fall in love with those people. If they reveal the humanity beneath that expertise. Films and literature are full of examples of that.

It’s just owning that and not having a mask on as “I’m an important scientist, listen to me.” It’s more like, “Oh my gosh, I love this. This is the data, we couldn’t believe when we found it. We made some mistakes. We kept at it. We ended up with something really exciting, etc.” And so it’s being honest with your audience and sharing your passion for the expertise, whether it’s wrapped around numbers or findings or whatever.


Bob Lalasz: How do you get at that passion as a filmmaker?

Vern Oakley: What’s hard about putting researchers and scientists on camera is that they’re so smart they get ahead of themselves before the pixels hit the lens. When they say something they realize is incorrect or they fumbled, they start self-editing.

You have to create a relationship with them so they can relax and just be real and have a conversation with you. Get them out of their head and into their hearts. There are a lot of techniques, like getting them to walk and talk — that recalibrates the brain and they become less aware of their self-censor. Once you get the self-censor out of the way, then it becomes really interesting.