The Empathetic Storyteller

Karen Everett April 6, 2010

As a story consultant who has advised on hundreds of documentary films, one of the biggest problems I see and help solve is what I call the "Save-the-Day-My-Way Syndrome". Frankly, I’ve succumbed to this syndrome myself at times. In my zeal to spread the word about my documentary storytelling resources (courses, articles, books), I’ve occasionally turned off potential clients and customers.

Do you know a filmmaker who suffers from a similar self-centric enthusiasm that blinds them to their audience? Are you possibly one of them? If so, take solace in one of my favorite phrases, "If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough." And then, learn from your mistakes.

How? By learning to exercise empathy toward your audience. I invite you to consider these two strategies, or, if you prefer, “spiritual exercises!"

First, if you sense you might have lost sight of your viewer because you’re enamored with your message, ask yourself at every turn, "How would my potential viewer (“customer”) react to this___________ (scene, line of narration, soundbite, etc.)?"

Audiences (and clients) can smell empathy within seconds. I believe that if we work to deliver our gift by putting ourselves continually in the shoes of our end user, we’ll be serving the world with our talents rather than our egos.

Second, if the insidious “Save-the-Day-My-Way-Syndrome” has crept into your well-meaning, socially conscious message to change the status quo, check to see if you’ve structured your documentary solely from one-sided arguments.

If so, I offer a simple strategy to help you get off your unintended rant.

Back in the day, journalistically-sound PBS style documentaries relied on a "voice of God" narrator to referee between multiple viewpoints, creating a semblance of "fair, objective, and balanced" reporting. This usually guaranteed a wide audience.

These days, as partisan and strong POV films dominate niche audiences, more documentaries suffer from a "preaching to the converted" tone. The obvious problem with this, which I believe is essentially a failure of empathy, is that these documentaries don’t get seen by those who might benefit from them the most.

So… here’s the second strategy, to whom I credit PBS producer Jon Else (Eyes on the Prize, The Great Depression, Cadillac Desert), who heads the documentary program where I teach at UC Berkeley. It’s especially effective for students, first-time filmmakers and activists making social issue films with a strong political POV, for example, Crude or The Control Room.

As you cast your lineup of experts to interview, include at least one credible, appealing and articulate defender of your film’s opposite POV. What will this accomplish?

It will create conflict, which grips viewers.

Also, including a credible naysayer gives your film instant credibility, enticing viewers who may disagree with you to keep watching.

And most importantly, when you give voice to the doubts and skepticism within your viewer’s head, you give them the gift of suspending their own beliefs, allowing them to put on hold their "yeah, but’s” long enough to hear your message. With an articulate spokesperson defending their point of view, skeptical viewers will relax and feel secure enough to entertain opposing ideas. This allows you the opportunity to glide past their defended paradigms with novel ideas about how to “save the day."

What’s especially simple about this storytelling tactic is that it usually only requires one credible naysayer to gently seduce your viewer with an empathetic tone.

Karen Everett, owner of New Doc Editing, is a documentary story consultant specializing in applying narrative techniques in ethical ways to films about real-life. Author of Documentary Editing, Everett has taught documentary editing for 18 years at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley. She has directed and produced five award-winning documentaries, including a PBS biography of the late Marlon Riggs. She teaches a popular online e-course for the San Francisco Film Society, Editing the Character Driven Documentary. For a free half-hour story consultation, email her at

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