That’s Not What I Meant...or Is It?

As storytellers, perception is key. How your audience perceives your work determines what the story is. By taking the time to identify what assumptions, beliefs, and symbolism are held within your piece, you are constructing a formula for engagement. This formula can harness the elements of story to give your viewers the opportunity to hold both intellectual and emotional space for your story’s characters. But identifying these tenets of your story cannot be done in isolation. You hold one set of viewpoints. Requesting the perspective of others and asking the right questions about your own, without judgment and with open ears, allows you to evaluate your perceptions and consciously choose the messages in the stories you tell. It is not a perfect science, but at the very least, you will encourage your audience to have the same empathetic conversations amongst themselves.

Earlier this year, I flew to Colorado to workshop a documentary piece my company is developing on the impacts of U.S. immigration relations on the next generation. There we were, sitting, circling the connotative meaning of the word “value” and considering how it fit into the logline of the unfolding documentary we had committed the next few days to mapping out. It had already been six hours of investigation, (broken up by lunch and a coffee break), and the two-part question we relentlessly kept coming back to was: “What is the value of a human life, and how do we, as individuals and a society, assign value to each other?”

“Are we assuming the value, based off of individual belief?” one of us at the table asked. “What does the dictionary define value as?” another offered. A quick Google search provided some clarity but still left us with a rather subjective word—

(n.) The regard something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness; people’s judgement of what is important in life.

(v.) to consider to have economic value or to have a high opinion of.

“So assuming by definition value is assigned, we are talking about extrinsic value. But, do we have intrinsic value as people?” one of us prodded further, adding to the already strained mental load we had shouldered in asking the question.

A few hours earlier, confident in our prodding, we had agreed to assume that human life was intrinsically valuable. But now, we had circled back to further explore the implications of outside influencers, such as national and familial pressures. The assumption that human life was intrinsically valuable seemed to create tunnel vision in the scope of our story, when we were more interested in giving the viewer the option to consider this implication themselves. One of us Socratically asked: “What is the physical representation of value?”

“Attention.”

“Sacrifice.”

“Protection.”

“What if the value is merely the relationship between the perceived pleasure we may receive from something or someone?” I asked taking a moment to stand and stretch without losing eye contact with the scribbles blinking on the whiteboard.

“If that’s the case, is fear a reaction to the perception that something of value, something we find pleasurable, is being threatened?” I asked.

This volleying continued for the next hour and a half, the whiteboard filling with colorful arrows organizing our thoughts. Each of us intensely listened and sought to contribute to the structure we were building between the columns of this abstract tenet of value and the actual narratives of the people in this film.

Finally, landing on a hypothesis that could withstand our skepticism, we all breathed a sigh of relief. As we turned off the office lights and prepared for further investigation and research the next day, I could not help but think how invaluable the debate had been. The volley of ideas and conjecture without judgement, without ego, had put us one step closer to actualizing the empathetic lens we hoped to give to this story. Not only did our exchange that day address our individual perceptions of what is valuable and how our perception of value influences our creation of stories, but the space we held for each other to share and discuss our assumptions brought us clarity and improved our ability to communicate essential story elements to our viewers. Elements that hopefully would give our viewers the opportunity to hold that same space for the characters of our story.