4 Lessons on Visual Storytelling from Chai Jing’s Documentary on Smog in China

Do yourself a favour and spend some time to watch Chai Jing’s documentary on the smog in China: Under the Dome (柴静雾霾调查:穹顶之下). I think when future Chinese look back in history, this documentary will be remembered for being one of the reasons for the shift in environmental awareness and consciousness in China. It’s that good and think it’s better than Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (except there should be some mention of renewables besides switching to oil and gas over coal).

Watch the documentary (in Chinese with partial English subtitles):

There are some lessons on communications and storytelling that the green community here can learn from Chai Jing’s documentary. If you find that her presentation is TED-like or reminds you of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, I think this is not a coincidence as it uses common visual storytelling techniques.

One of the good visual storytelling resources is the book Resonate by Nancy Duarte, who was responsible for helping Al Gore in his visual storytelling and presentation for An Inconvenient Truth, and many other companies. Also check out her TED talk on the secret structure of great talks.

Here’s some lessons on visual storytelling from Chai Jing’s presentation:

1) Show what is and what could be

She shows the gap between what is currently happening in China and what is possible (using other countries’ experiences and results). Show the audience the gap between what is and what could be, and the larger the gap, the better. This helps people to wish for the better option and believe in a better alternative.

2) Create emotional contrast

She alternates between emotional and analytical content to create contrast and keep her audience interested. If there’s too much emotional content, it becomes too drama. If there’s too much analytical content, people get bored. Using emotional content helps her to form a relationship with the audience, while analytical content helps add credibility.

3) Tell the hero’s journey

She tells how she began this personal grudge against the smog – from a new mum to speaking to scientists, government officials and businessmen, to understanding what are the problems and solutions, and taking personal actions to report illegal incidents. In a way, she seems to be the hero of the story. But actually she is telling the audience that each of them can be a hero too like her and play a part in solving the problem. The hero is the audience and her journey can be their journey too.

4) Use simple call-to-action

She explains some of the solutions that the government and businesses must adopt in terms of greater transparency and open market competition. But more importantly the most simple call-to-action for individuals is to call the hotline 12369 to report illegal activities. Every one can play a part and they can start immediately by using the hotline. Make it easy for people to take action immediately after the presentation.

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