It’s no longer uncommon to see brands enthusiastically weave documentary-style stories of real people into their video content in recent years. And yet we’ve seen many great briefs die a tragic early death when the concept of “real people” comes up.
Whilst there are many readily-accessible avenues for sourcing media-savvy actors and extras, the question of how to find real people with real stories is a daunting one for even the most seasoned creatives and producers.
The looming questions stack up immediately: Where do I find the people and stories? How do we know what we’re looking for? And of course, I can’t ask my friends and family anymore… where do I go now?
These are the kind of questions we faced with Australia Post on our most recent project with them.
Earlier this year their content marketing team came to us with a sharp and interesting brief - promote online shopping through the stories of real Australians who need the service the most. The potential of the brief got us excited immediately, especially as the charge included finding each story in the first place.
Here’s a little about how the project went down.
Developing criteria for success
First step in finding a good story is defining what we’re looking for. We’re generally guided by two primary needs: What does the brand need? What does the film need?
If the brand loses out to a great character, we haven’t done our job. If it’s all brand and no film, we won’t catch our audience. Often times, a few points of criteria for the character, agreed upon early on, can make a big difference in clarifying this balance and ensuring any potential story will meet everyone’s needs.
There will be criteria specific to the brief - in this case, the presence of a remote location, gender and ethnic diversity, a clear need (not want) for online shopping, and a resulting passion/outlet that it enables.
And there will be criteria more endemic to making a good film - whether the character is well-spoken, personable, willing to share their story, won’t shut down on camera, how far the crew can afford to travel...
These criteria form the basis of our agreement between team and client about how and why we’re making decisions, plus provides the basis for the team we select in the next phase.
Bring together the A-Team
We’ve learned over the years that no single team member has a monopoly over good stories. Instead we turn to a network of story producers who love people, love research, and know what a good narrative looks, sounds, and feels like.
These people are editors, journalists, creatives, filmmakers, producers, and agents engaged in a broad range of subcultures and fields of interest that would be difficult for any one person to canvas. This is the part that sounds like a dark art, and some of it is, but what we look for is leaders or experts in a field that can lead us to a great story. Whether that’s in our own backyard, on the world wide web, or in a more analogue approach of grassroots searching.
Given a solid set of criteria to help guide their search, these producers launch into the world, eyes and ears peeled, reporting back on what they find.
A knack for the niche
Commoner’s passion is, and has always been, for great stories with an element of surprise. This might be a new voice, a new perspective, an untapped sub culture, anything that suggests a story that is exclusive to our clients.
There is this thing about passionate people, in that they tend to gather, organise and usually, put up a facebook group. Groups are far easier to spot than individuals, and the art is in knowing which groups are relevant to every brief. An easy tip is to start with a groups or association that matches your criteria and contact their leaders/organisers for initial leads.
Two of our characters for our Australia Post project came from accessing similar groups, yielding some surprising character options that we wouldn’t have known to look for from the outset. Emily’s story is a great example of this approach, as we were able to quickly make contact with her through the Disability Sport and Recreation.
Cold hard research
There is no avoiding the realities and fruitfulness of desktop research. While most of our research rounds start with a colourful brainstorm, it usually ends with someone slapping the keyboard, heading down each rabbit hole one by one until we reach a dead end and begin again.
This also includes research into the subculture that the character exists in. In bringing Emily’s story to the small screen, we dove into the history and dynamics of competitive swimming for folks with disabilities - learning about the leaders, the terminology and the big events that everyone gets excited about. This kind of research lives on well past the sourcing stage, informing crucial decisions made as each film’s treatment comes together.
Once we have several options for stories and people, we reach out and begin the pre-interview. This is the conversation where we find out more about each character’s story, dig deeper into what makes them tick, and guided by that criteria, discover if they’re a good fit for our objectives.
In addition to questions based on our criteria, we review the story with general storytelling wisdom in mind: Is there a conflict? Is there movement in the way they speak that will give the video a trajectory? Do they have a genuine perspective on their craft/art/occupation that we can dive in on?
Characters in this stage will inevitably fall off the short list, or just get bumped to a different project. We’re ok with that. We always ensure that during this phase we’re honest with our characters about the process and don’t make promises we can’t keep.
Leaning into the risk
To be sure, spending valuable time to find a great story (not just an ok one) does require risk . Real people also come with an inherent risk, and their unpredictability can often threaten to send any client into a spiral of doubt and attempts at precise mitigation.
“But can’t we still use a script?!” is often the battle cry.
We believe great stories have a lasting impact well past their original live date. When made comfortable and allowed to share their story on their own terms, ‘real people’ also come with a kind of incalculable authenticity that, when faithfully represented, glues people.
With scripts thrown to the wind, we thrive on entering each project with equal amounts clarity and uncertainty. That space of uncertainty is often where the richest content lies. And if clients are willing to (strategically) sit in that space, albeit not without precise planning, sharp focus and clear objectives, then the power of the work stands for itself.