Five tips for better storytelling from documentary films

In communications, we talk a lot about storytelling. It’s a very powerful technique to share ideas and motivate people. As a writer, I love a good story, and in my experience some of the best stories are true.

We’re big documentary fans in our house, and our favourite documentarian is Ken Burns. If you’re not familiar with Ken Burns, he’s an American filmmaker who focuses on US history. My first introduction to Ken Burns was his amazing Civil War documentary–still my favourite.

So far this summer, we’ve watched Baseball and Thomas Jefferson. As I was watching the episodes, I started thinking about what makes Ken Burns’ documentaries so interesting, thought-provoking and inspiring. I came up with five answers.

  1. Start with real, human stories – Documentaries can be dry and factual. In Ken Burns’ world, they are very human. The Civil War and Baseball are sprinkled with little vignettes about real people–lots of regular people that aren’t featured in history books. They make the battles, the games, the events, the history tangible and understandable.
  2. Draw on original source materials – The research conducted by Burns and his team is phenomenal. Ancient archival footage, grainy photographs and historic documents make the stories come alive. A highlight for me was seeing Thomas Jefferson’s original editing notes on one of the drafts of the Declaration of Independence.
  3. Supplement with multimedia – I’m continually impressed with the music in Ken Burns’ documentaries. It supports the theme and becomes part of the story, as much as the visuals and interviews. Sound is obviously an important part of video. But even if you’re not working in video, think about how you can supplement your message through design, graphics, photos or other media to help communicate clearly and impactfully to your audience.
  4. Use experts – Experts are a fixture in documentaries, and in Ken Burns’ productions they definitely play a major role alongside regular people (see real, human stories above). Experts impart facts, add context and legitimize your message. Be careful in selecting experts. Make sure they’re qualified and add to the overall message you’re trying to share.
  5. Have a theme or a message – A theme that emerges across all of the documentaries I’ve watched by Ken Burns is race. He has a very specific agenda and works to illuminate America’s history of racism. His work is not just about storytelling. It’s storytelling with a purpose. Think about what you’re trying to communicate and what you want people to do. Make sure you’re making that case throughout your communication.

Burns’ documentaries are amazing productions of research, archives, facts, materials, people and storytelling. Even if we don’t have large teams and months (years, in the case of his upcoming series on the Vietnam War) to prepare our communications, we can still apply some of these tips to many different types of stories. The result can help to make our messages more powerful and persuasive.


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