Think about your average educational documentary film. It features a monotone narrator spewing information you probably won’t remember over a series of stock images that are about as intriguing as watching paint dry. Why is it so boring? Because you’re a passive observer being talked at while facts march past you in seemingly endless succession.
Now think about the best documentary film you’ve ever seen; what made it so different? I’m willing to bet the answer can be distilled into one word: story. I love documentaries and have seen so many that I lost count long ago, but the one thing all of my favorites have in common, no matter how disparate their subjects, is that they didn’t just bombard me with cold, hard facts like any one of a zillion docs I’ve feigned interest in while sitting in a classroom or all fallen asleep to on the couch while “watching” on television. Instead, they told amazing, engaging —and often unexpected —stories.
One of those favorites is the 2011 film Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which focuses on a man named Jiro Ono who is universally regarded as the greatest sushi chef in the world. Jiro owns Sukiyabashi Jiro, a Michelin three-star restaurant with only 10 seats located in a Tokyo subway station. The film also spotlights Jiro’s two sons both of whom are also sushi chefs. His younger son owns a restaurant of his own, while his older son is, according to Japanese tradition, still waiting to succeed his father. This could have been a very dry documentary, which is something the director, David Geib, himself admits.
“Originally, I was going to make a film with a lot of different sushi chefs who all had different styles,” Geib said, “but when I got to Jiro's restaurant, I was not only amazed by how good the sushi was and how much greater it was than any other sushi restaurant I had ever been to, but I also found Jiro to be such a compelling character and such an interesting person. I was also fascinated by the story of his son, who is fifty years old, but still works for his father at the restaurant. So, I thought, ‘Here's a story about a person living in his father's shadow while his father is in a relentless pursuit of perfection.’ It was the makings of a good feature film.”
Good enough in fact that the late film critic Roger Ebert said this in his review:
“While watching it, I found myself drawn into the mystery of this man. Are there any unrealized wishes in his life? Secret diversions? Regrets? If you find an occupation you love and spend your entire life working at it, is that enough? Standing behind his counter, Jiro notices things. Some customers are left-handed, some right-handed. That helps determine where they are seated at his counter. As he serves a perfect piece of sushi, he observes it being eaten. He knows the history of that piece of seafood. He knows his staff has recently started massaging an octopus for 45 minutes and not half an hour, for example. Does he search a customer's eyes for a signal that this change has been an improvement? Half an hour of massage was good enough to win three Michelin stars. You realize the tragedy of Jiro Ono's life is that there are not, and will never be, four stars.”
I believe there are a couple of valuable lesson here for those of us who create learning experiences. First, if you want your audience to engage with your content, it’s crucial to tell them a story. When there’s a story involved, we become emotionally involved in the subject matter. When we’re emotionally involved, we pay attention. And when we pay attention, there’s a much better chance that we’ll actually learn and retain what we’re being taught. And what constitutes a “good story”? Well, in this particular case, one that makes us curious —one that makes us formulate questions we hope will be answered just as Jiro Dreams of Sushi did for Mr. Ebert. Studies have shown that curiosity actually affects our brains in a way that helps us learn better, remember what we learned longer, and enjoy ourselves in the process.
Second, let the story come to you during the research process. True, we’re not creating documentary films, but in order to create a quality learning experience, we have to research our subject before we start writing a script. During the research process, look for the story just like Gelb did during the making of his film. Again, we’re not making documentaries, so the stories we tell will often be much more figurative, but approaching your research with story development as one of your main goals will help you focus in that direction.
Learning experiences don’t have to be like the mind-numbing WWII documentaries that glazed our eyes over in high school history class. They can be interesting, memorable and engaging if we remember that spurring our audience’s curiosity through a well told story is key.
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