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“Write what you know”. Those were the words of my college professor many years ago challenging me to dig deep in one of my advance screen writing classes. We had to create a feature length screenplay in just under a semester, with multiple drafts and revisions. For anyone who has written a feature length screenplay, or a book you know how incredibly challenging of a feat this can be. At the start of the process, we had to present our professor with multiple treatments, and in turn he would weigh in on what he felt was the most powerful topic, with the greatest potential.
I remember the experience of the selection process distinctly. I sat in his office, and he very quietly reviewed the five treatments, and put four of them off to the side. He looked to me and said “You have some good ideas here… but I want to talk about this one” as he lifted the fifth treatment and slid it across the desk. Of course, he picked quite possibly the hardest topic out of the lot which was a mind bending, psychological drama loosely based off the events of a recent, and very emotionally breakup I was going through at the time. He told me “This is going to be the most difficult piece to write, but if you can do it, the story has the potential to be great.” To be frank, my response was less than enthusiastic, as I had put in the topic as sort of a filler to meet the five-treatment quota. I expressed this to him that it wasn’t really a topic that I wanted to explore as it all was still pretty fresh. Of course, he challenged me on this for knowingly placing it in the lineup. After hearing me out, he insisted that I pursue this topic, and challenge myself to work through it.
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You see, my professor’s belief was that the most powerful content came from within, so it was imperative as screen writers to “write what you know”. He told me “Digging deep can be a cathartic experience.” While I had my reservations about undertaking this topic, I trucked through it, and walked away with a pretty powerful script in the end, along with some own resolution in the self-discovery process. So this brings me to the topic of this article, which is writing what you know, and channeling your experiences to create content that can be empowering with a strong social impact. I’d like to explore how I applied some of the practices my college professor pushed upon me to write a script that yielded over one million views to date, and resulted in the winning of a communications Telly Award.
In the spring of 2020, one of our clients sought to create a statement video to push a social topic to the forefront of their marketing efforts. This was more than a glossy advert with hollow messaging, but rather a full-throated attempt to story tell, and to shed light on a real life double standard within the fitness community. The creative undertaking was centralized around identifying the problem which is; “women of all shapes, and sizes are not encouraged to take off their shirts while working out”. This runs counter to male social norms in the fitness community, where men are free to, and in some cases encouraged to take off their shirts while exercising. Initially, the client sought to streamline their message with only community generated content of women taking off their shirts, and simply throwing it to the next woman inline with a series of clever editing. It was at that point that our agency proposed injecting a storyline into that concept to strengthen their message, wedging the community generated content into the center of the statement.
"thousands of comments all echoing the same thing, which was how that moment brought them to tears, and it gave the women the courage to take action in their own lives. Mission accomplished."
With a series of drafted scripts, we came together on the idea of a central character leading us into her own journey of self image and discovery. This character’s arc prevails rather quickly to introduce the issue, move to a place of community support, overcome the issue at hand in a public setting, to handshaking to community generated content, and then back to our central character to offer what we like to call a “positive dare”. In a discovery session we deemed it important for our audience to take a direct action to the presented social issue. So with some sharp writing, we had our central character break the 4th wall, and directly call to action the audience. In an explicit fashion, the central character offers a bit of her own courage for the audience by literally, and figuratively extending her hand outwards to the camera. This was the crescendo, or emotional “gut punch” if you will. Needless to say, it had the direct impact we were seeking with hundreds to thousands of comments all echoing the same thing, which was how that moment brought them to tears, and it gave the women the courage to take action in their own lives. Mission accomplished.
Which brings us back to the central topic at hand, that is “writing what you know”. I will always give credit where credit is due. This story would have NEVER come to fruition without the shared experiences of the client’s brand officer (Kelsea Hellyar) and respective owner (Rachael Arruda). As women, they have a shared experience that I as a man will never be able to experience directly. Because of this, their shared experience was brought to the forefront, and thus the core of the idea was born. This social issue struck home with so many women because of that associated stigma, and resonated with our audience because there is an underlining truth to this wide spread experience. So how does a man channel, and write about the plights of a women’s experience? Two words; empathy & relatability.
"So it goes without saying, when confronted with the topic of taking one’s shirt off, this resonated with me enough to be able to empathize on one hand, and be able to relate on some level on the other hand. "
I’ll never be able to experience the applied pressure, or feel the misogyny of taking off a shirt in a public setting, but I can empathize, and relate to this issue of self-image. As a child, I had my own struggles regarding weight, bullying, and the insecurities of taking off my shirt in a public setting, namely at pool gatherings. Both my male and female peers would poke fun of my weight, calling me the “Pillsbury doughboy”, and quite literally poking my stomach while making the “woo-hoo” sound. They’d also partake in singing songs about my weight on the school yard during recess. I won’t divulge into the specifics, but it was pretty cruel to say the least. So it goes without saying, when confronted with the topic of taking one’s shirt off, this resonated with me enough to be able to empathize on one hand, and be able to relate on some level on the other hand. This brought me to the point that I could blend both my own personal experiences, while empathizing of what it might feel like, along with the guidance of the producer’s shared experience to be able to “write what I know”.
Everyone has had those issues of self-image at one point in time, or another. When I wrote the script along with the producer, I thought mainly about two defining images. The first image was standing in front of a mirror, and squishing your stomach around. We’ve all done it, and that’s really what struck home for me. That said, it’s only a moment that is passing in time, and the self-realization that we are more than our humanly bodies comes to light rather quickly uplifted by the sense of community support. The second image was extending a hand outward to the camera, passing along that shared confidence. That of course was the arc, that we all share in this insecurity, or stigma, but together we can rise above it. Not only that, but our own bravery can inspire others to take part in a shared courage, passing along a torch to a whole new generation of women.
While the idea of taking off your shirt in a public setting amidst working out might only pertain to women, stigmas regarding self-image in general clearly transcends gender. So it was extremely gratifying, and emotional to see thousands, upon thousands of women respond to the piece with such a positive response. In a way, it was strange to reflect on a man writing about women social injustices without them knowing I wrote a good portion of the narrative. I felt a little bit of imposter syndrome at times, but with Kelsea (the producer) steering the ship, I had to remind myself of my own experiences that helped craft the story. Had the audience known, would they responded similarly? Tough to say, but I think that really solidifies the point that if you truly write from your heart, the experience should blend almost seamlessly. This is what “authenticity” is all about.
It goes without saying, the video exploded. Now sitting well over 1 million views, and an engagement / click rate shooting through the roof, the video has truly been transformative to the respective brand. Knowing how well it was performing in the early days at the point of launch, we sent it out for the 42nd annual Telly Awards, and we took home Bronze in the new category of “Branding – Social Impact”. A modest, but respectable achievement, especially considering how many people worldwide entered into that respective category. This solidified the film’s placehold as a social impact topic, and put both the client and our agency on the map for making emotional content that matters. The client even went as far to capitalize off the video’s success to create an entire clothing line off the branded IP, titling it the “ I Am Free” collection. To this date, it has been the client’s most successful video with the highest amount of views, and engagement.
Writing what you know, and writing with heart can be a very powerful, and rewarding experience. As my college professor challenged me all those years ago, so too has his words and approach had a significant impact on my own future writings. I think in general, especially in the bureaucracy of corporate affairs, we are afraid to go to a place where it might feel uncomfortable, but that’s what makes us human. If we do not take the time to channel the plights of our own self being, then we rob ourselves of telling the truly powerful stories that make us who we are. So take the time to really channel your past experiences, and don’t be afraid to dig deep. At Capion Studio we truly have a passion for telling stories with heart. If you want to create a story with that powerful “gut punch” for you next digital campaign, make sure to visit us on our main page found at www.capionstudio.com. As always thank you for tuning, until the next article, take care and stay creative!