Communicators - get on, not under, the digital bus
As museums have been radically changing the way they tell stories and engage with their audiences, so too have museum staff had to radically change the way they work. I’ve been investigating the ways that communicators can increase their digital skills to be more integral to their museum’s digital engagement strategy. As the apparently mythological quote of Darwin says, ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.’ Be a survivor!
This blog will give you a quick run down on how communication skills can be applied to the digital medium and what skills a communicator can develop – using my own professional development as a case study.
I’ve worked at the Australian Museum for 15 years and my primary role was to write or edit exhibition text. Over the last four years, though, I’ve been applying my text editing skills more and more to digital editing and I’ve found that many of these skills translate quite well. For the last few years, I’ve been creating short films for our exhibitions and website, text for the web and mobile apps and text and films for interactives.
What I’d like to focus on here is the creation of short films as this job shares many similarities with image and text storytelling. So if you’re a ‘professional communicator’ and you’re interested in trying your hand at film editing, the job isn’t so different to what you’re used to.
As communicators, our job is to:
- tell a story
- be succinct and compelling
- use language creatively
- often put the main idea first
- collaborate with curators or content experts
- ensure images and text are strategically juxtaposed and working well together.
The digital communicator has to do all of these things too. It’s just the mode of delivery that’s different.
Some examples of my work that highlight the similarities in storytelling are here:
Videos like these are where I began with digital storytelling. I had a lot of control over the narrative and the images and it felt very much like my normal job.
There were some very obvious differences, though.
- As the visuals drive the narrative, films like this show rather than tell. I could let the images tell the story instead of relying on the text. I could play on the fact that images have much more pulling power than text.
- I could evoke an emotional response with music
- I had to be even more succinct than ever before as reading is more difficult on screen and the visuals need to move frequently. I found myself stripping text back to its very bare bones.
- Stories can be linear, which does make things quite a bit easier than editing flexible text for other mediums.
As time has gone on, though, I’ve had to produce different types of clips that are not so easy to control. One of the hardest has been producing interviews. The challenges there have been different again. With interviews, you don’t always have the luxury of just using nice, high res images and clear music. You have to:
- create the necessary digital assets yourself. And this has its own challenges – technically as well as in terms of a storyline. I’ve had a very big learning curve over the last few years, learning how to use cameras and editing software, figuring out where in the museum to shoot where there is decent light and where it’s not too noisy.
- work without a tight story as you don’t know what an interviewee is going to say or how they are going to say it. Are they going to be good on camera? Do they speak well? Most content experts are not good ‘talent’. In fact, most of us aren’t great speakers. And especially when you’re speaking off the cuff.
- roughly storyboard the film. Let the interviewee know the questions and the concept ahead of time so they can practice.
- script the intro and conclusion so they’re at least succinct and using appropriate intonation, the middle can fall apart a little!
- cover over’ errors or continuity problems in sound or video.
Some examples that highlight these differences are here:
Researching and Preserving the Scott Collection
What extra skills do you need?
Apart from getting your head around the challenges listed above, you will need to invest and be trained in some editing software such as Adobe Premiere Pro or Final Cut Pro. The interfaces of these programs are very intuitive and they’re easy to use. It’s also a good idea to learn some very basic aspects of Adobe Photoshop. Both of these programs are easy to learn. While they are professional programs, they are not beyond the amateur.
Cameras are becoming more and more fool-proof and getting usable footage isn’t that hard. HD video cameras can give anyone broadcast quality – even though you don’t really need it! Most have automatic functions and are ‘point-and-shoot’ capable. Most people have used a camera in the past and are fairly familiar with the ways they're used. And there are plenty of websites and books on how to frame a shot or footage.
So, to finish, this journey of change has been very interesting and exciting for me. I’ve had the pleasure of working with the museum’s collection and the NSW State Library’s. It’s been a fun way of broadening my skills and if you’re interested in doing something similar, it’s not as difficult as you might think. Museums are getting more and more digitally focused and all of us will have to get on the bandwagon to keep our skills current. And engagement is not necessarily about the medium, it’s about a good story. Storytellers are in a unique position to make some technical adjustments to their skillset and get on, not under, the digital bus.