Telling Stories: A Personal Reflection

As we near the end of the semester and our class, I thought I would share my own reflections on a topic that we covered previously on my own storytelling experience and journey.

The Republic of Singapore Navy has traditionally produced a commercial every few years or so as part of our recruitment campaign. Whilst the early commercials were largely recruitment-focused, we moved towards producing commercials that sought to inform the general public about what the Navy does (similar to a corporate video). This was in response to a common feedback that while most people knew about the existence of the Navy, they did not quite know exactly what it is that the Navy does. An example of this ‘revamped’ recruitment video is shown below.

The ‘Our Everyday is Defending Yours’ commercial sought to show how the Navy is closely intertwined with the everyday lives of Singaporeans, in ways that people may not often realize. This was done with a technique known as cross-cutting where alternate scenes were matched between a ‘civilian’ scene with a ‘military’ setting.

When it came for us to produce a new commercial in 2018 however, my team decided that we would take a different approach to telling the Navy’s story. Having already produced two commercials that portrayed the ‘corporate’ image of the Navy, we felt that it was now necessary to tell the stories of the people within the Navy, to add a personal touch to the organization. This, we felt, would allow the viewer to relate to the personal stories that we told and that resonance, in turn, would encourage and motivate the viewer to consider a career with the Navy. We decided to roll out four stories, each representing a specific career scheme within the Navy. The challenge that we subsequently faced was to ensure that the four stories would be accurately representative of the kinds of qualities that we wanted to see in our prospective recruits, and cover a broad enough spectrum of narratives to counter and debunk some of the myths and misconceptions that people might have. We reached out to the larger Navy, casting as wide a net as possible to elicit some of these stories from the ground. We then shortlisted the stories to a more manageable number before conducting further in-depth interviews to get a better sense of the details. From there, we narrowed it down to four stories, and started the process of storyboarding and film production. The process of storyboarding was not easy because of the fact that we had to ‘squeeze’ as much as possible within a 60-second window. We wanted to keep the videos short, so that they could be pushed out on various social media platforms, as well as on traditional media. As we have also learnt in class, people generally have rather short attention spans and short videos are thus often preferred. We thus needed to ensure that the essence of the story could be adequately, and accurately, captured within the 60 second time frame to achieve our intended aims. These were the end products.

What we wanted to tell with Sam’s story was that sometimes ordinary people can be capable of extraordinary achievements when given the right opportunities, and with the right attitude. Sam came from very humble beginnings, and went on to become the first foreign student to top his cohort at the United States Naval Academy, and be awarded the Singapore National Youth Achievement Award (Gold) by the President of Singapore for his service to the community.
What we wanted to tell with Ganasekar’s story was that even though life sometimes deals you a rough start and a challenging deck of cards, you have the ability to shape your own future depending on how you choose to play the hand. Despite dropping out of school twice, Ganasekar subsequently completed the equivalent of his associate degree (with a perfect GPA of 4.0) and went on to attain his Bachelor’s with Honours from the National University of Singapore at the age of 42. His is a story of personal redemption and grit, and serves as an inspiration for youths to never give up. This video was picked up by a local newspaper who ran a feature on his story.
What we wanted to tell with Zhi Wei’s story was the importance of family ties and how that relates to the Navy Family Spirit. Inspired by his father who served as a sailor with the Merchant Navy, Zhi Wei joined the Navy and served as an Engineer with the pioneer crew of the newly launched Littoral Mission Vessel. Just like how his father was a pioneer in his generation, this pioneering spirit has led Zhi Wei to push new boundaries in new capabilities towards a new future. Just as we have been inspired by the generations before us, we hope that our servicemen and women will serve as an inspiration to the generations to come. Fun Fact: the elderly gentleman that plays Zhi Wei’s father near the end of the video is Zhi Wei’s actual father.
What we wanted to do with Rice’s story was to debunk certain myths about joining as a Naval Diver, an elite corps with the Navy (think: Navy SEALS). Most people often have the impression that you need to be extremely fit in order to even stand a chance but the truth is that in this job, attitude matters more than aptitude because the latter can be honed with progressive training. Enlisted as a non-swimmer (a Diver that cannot swim?? Unimaginable!), Rice was put out of course for failing to meet the physical requirements but he never gave up, and trained on his own and with his peers and asked for a second shot, which he got and which he passed. He is trained today as an elite diver that is capable of undertaking missions from both air, land and sea. Fun Fact: Unlike the other videos, the ‘script’ for this video is a recitation of the Naval Diver’s Creed which we felt perfectly conveyed the ethos and spirit of what it means to be an elite Diver.

All the stories were developed in close consultation with the actual individuals which we also sought to feature in the videos instead of using actors. This required a close partnership between the Navy, the creative agency as well as the film production company so that we could tell their stories in an interesting, engaging way without compromising on the integrity and accuracy of the stories. Authenticity thus served as a guiding principle in the development and production of the stories and this was something that we wanted to convey to the viewers as well (as indicated by the ‘Based on a True story’ line that appears at the start of every video).

This storytelling journey and experience has been an amazing one for me personally. The entire process from start to finish was not easy, and involved many late nights (the Diver shoot was done at 1 a.m. so that we could get the lighting right) and a lot of brainstorming as to how best to tell and present the stories. They were eventually rolled out and positively received on various social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. If I could summarize this entire storytelling process, it would probably be: (1) Be clear about the narratives you want to tell, (2) Be exhaustive in your search for those narratives, (3) Never compromise on authenticity and (4) Lead with the Heart, and not the Mind.

Note: All opinions and perspectives above are mine and do not reflect that of the Navy 🙂

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