Choose Your Character… and More: Immersive Storytelling in Video Games

Pixelated image of Mario.

Image from: Pixabay

By: Rhiannon Wineland

We all remember Mario, right?

Little plumber with a mustache… overalls… hopping over barrels hurled at him by Donkey Kong… Mario is an iconic video game character. A notable game he stars in is Super Mario 64. The game is simple. You play as Mario and hop into paintings to gather stars in different worlds as you work towards defeating Bowser and saving Princess Peach. While it is a great game, it’s very linear and the player doesn’t get many choices.

But now gamers have choices!

These choices started off small. The Legend of Zelda series, for example, allowed players to rename Link. Eventually, players could choose more detailed dialogue options for him as well. I remember playing Skyward Sword for the first time, for example, and feeling like I could give Link more of a personality. Immediately, I felt morally obligated to choose the nicest options. Was I going to upset this video game character Link was speaking to? Would I break the heart of the character who had a crush on him? This may sound ridiculous, but it made me more anxious while playing the game. I started making sure my dialogue options were as nice as possible.

And games just kept giving me more choices…

I’m not the only one who gets stressed about choices in games! People would reload save points just to redo a conversation in a game because a little conversation can suddenly impact what ending a game gives players! Take the game Detroit: Become Human, for example. The choices will add up and impact other choices. You have the fate of characters in your hands (literally, you’re holding a controller), even characters you think are safe.

In game screenshot of the game Detroit: Become Human

Image from: Rhiannon Wineland

Think about reading the suspenseful part of a really good book…

Your eyes will start to skim the pages looking for a clue to your favorite character’s fate, the pages start flying by until you see it! And then you feel a release of relief. Well, the author of the book is obviously skilled in storytelling and building suspense. In this case, you have no control over what happens to the characters here. It’s written and it’s linear. Choices in video games make the story not-so clear cut. That doesn’t mean the developers and writers aren’t good storytellers at all. It just means they’re making the story more immersive. You’ll feel that anxiety of the protagonist in the game, but now you can decide what happens! What will Connor and the Androids do in Detroit: Become Human? Is Ciri going to live in Witcher 3? And sometimes, the fate of a character is dependent on one small dialogue choice. For example, Geralt’s responses to Ciri in Witcher 3 are what decides if she lives or dies. The player needs to make sure the responses they choose fit a certain mood. Personally, I found myself double checking walkthroughs to make sure she lives!

We’re seeing games do this a lot more now!

The stream I discuss in this section was discussion based. As I streamed, people talked in the chat about their favorite immersive elements in video games. Occasionally, I asked questions or had them specify their answers a bit more. To watch this stream, click HERE. Due to the stream crashing a few times because of system updates and Cyberpunk 2077‘s updates, there are several videos in this collection.

Infographic on the types of immersion elements in video game characters.

Image from: Rhiannon Wineland

Players are loving these immersive elements to the point that it’s unusual to see games without some sort of stake. Let’s use an example that everyone can follow, gamer or not. In 2020, CD Projekt Red released the game Cyberpunk 2077. This game took all these customization elements that most games usually had a bit of and mashed them all together to create what would be a completely immersive experience. The game is in first person point of view so players looking at the world through their eyes. The protagonist is completely customizable with players able to decide on and customize the tiniest of features, their sexuality, background, personality, and love life can be decided on. And it all impacts the game. Your relationships with characters, how you treat Johnny Silverhand (Yes, that’s Keanu Reeves!), and how you navigate the setting decides the ending you get. And there are six endings that you can get. I actually streamed this game, discussed immersive storytelling in video games, and had viewers chime in about what makes them feel immersed in a game.

And you know what’s cool? They all had different answers!

Some talked about the lore of the game, like was there a background to the land, do they talk about the culture of the characters, is this a new, fantasy world, etc. Some just liked tiny decisions like choosing Pokémon to battle with and collect. While I enjoy fast-paced, suspenseful decisions and plot-driven stories, it doesn’t always have to be that way. I’m sure everyone remembers when Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out at the beginning of quarantine in 2020. So many people loved being able to make themselves in the villager customization and design clothes for them. They got to make an island the way they wanted. It was an escape from the scariness that was 2020. It was a happy game that allowed them to be as creative as they wanted.

Screenshot of Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Image from: Rhiannon Wineland

My friend, Holly, is a huge Wizard of Oz and classic Hollywood fan, so she customized her island to fit that theme. She was kind enough to send me a screenshot of her Yellow Brick Road area.

That’s the beauty of video games.

They’re another form of storytelling that allows a gamer to be immersed in a story in a new way. Developers are always looking for new, innovative ways to get gamers involved, and it always seems like a new release is showing a new way to approach a story. Gamers love choices because it allows us to relate more to the characters and do what we want. Humans love control, so this is perfect. But the amazing part is that this means that anyone who plays a game may get a different experience! This makes it fun for gamers to discuss their experiences and see what else the game has to offer story wise! No game is a bad game and no gamer is less valid. We’re all just leveling up together!

Visit Rhiannon’s Own Blog Here:

Anywhere but Here: Escapism in WandaVision and Life

Image of Marvel's Avengers, specifically the character of Wanda.

Image from: Antman 3001

By: Rehann Rheel

Welcome to Westview

Wanda Maximoff calmly walks through a break in the stones that outline what could have been—should have been—a house. Her face is a calm mask that belies the turmoil of emotions she’s feeling inside.

As a child, Wanda and her brother, Pietro, were trapped under rubble for two days when their house was bombed. Their parents did not survive. That entire time, an unexploded Stark Industries missile sat just feet away, threatening to finish what the first missile had started.

It’s only a bit over 10 years later that Wanda’s twin brother—the person who’s been by her side for literally her entire life, the only person she’s been able to depend on—dies. And a part of her dies with him.

Despite the loss of her brother, Wanda eventually finds happiness. She falls in love with Vision, and though their relationship isn’t easy, it’s a source of strength and joy.

But that happiness doesn’t last. It never lasts. To save the world, Wanda is forced to kill that source of happiness and comfort. She has to kill Vision.

And so she does.

Painting of Marvel's Vision.

Image from: Flickr

Afterwards, Wanda tracks down Vision’s body. She wants to lay him to rest. To mourn him as we all mourn our loved ones. But when she finds him, he’s ripped into pieces, strewn across cold hard surfaces of a lab. Being experimented on as though he were nothing more than a pile of computer parts.

Wanda walks away empty-handed.

Standing in that shell of a house, holding the deed that promises a future that will never come true, Wanda breaks. Her heart-mind-soul fractures. She falls to the ground and releases a heart-wrenching cry of pain as magic and sorrow and rage and loneliness pour out of her in an unstoppable wave, drenching the town in chaos magic, trapping the citizens in a new world, in WandaVision. It’s an alternate reality inspired by all the TV shows that had embraced Wanda with moments of peace ever since she was a child. A place where she’s guaranteed her happy ending.

An escape.

"Escapism" written on a notepad.

Image from: En Bouton

What is Escapism?

Living is stressful. There are so very many things that could go wrong in a given day. To deal with these negative aspects of life, humans have different coping strategies. These coping strategies can vary from doing yoga to venting with your BFF to stress eating an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s in one sitting (not that I’ve ever done that, of course).

Infographic created to expand on vacations connecting to escapism.

Image from: Rehann Rheel

Escapism is one such method of coping. With this particular type of survival mechanism, humans engage in an activity that allows them to repress negative experiences by becoming immersed in an activity (2). There are three parts of escapism that enables this to happen:

  • Task absorption: By being absorbed in an activity, a person enters a “narrowed associative state,” which basically means a person gets tunnel vision. Everything—including our problems—falls away except for the task at hand.
  • Temporary disassociation: Human beings are essentially one of those really complicated puzzles with the itty-bitty puzzle pieces. Those puzzle pieces are comprised of thoughts, emotions, memories, behaviors, etc. You put them together, and you get a human. Escapism allows us to temporarily divide ourselves into those pieces. This means we can ignore a certain aspect, like overwhelming emotions, to focus on something else.
  • Reduced self-evaluation: I don’t know about you, but I can be pretty hard on myself. If I make a mistake, I carry that “failure” with me throughout the day and beat myself up about it. But escapism lessens that self-evaluation—I’m no longer Rehann Who Can’t Remember to Send an Email to Save Her Life, I’m The Boy Who Lived (2).

In creating WandaVision, Wanda is able to experience all three facets of escapism. She ceases to be the Wanda we know from the Avengers movies and instead becomes a character in her own show. She’s wholly focused on playing a character, which allows her to disassociate from the undesirable memories. And since Wanda Maximoff doesn’t exist, Wanda can’t self-evaluate, either.

Oh, the Places We’ll Go

Of course, us regular folks can’t just release a red magical glow that makes our innermost fantasies come alive. But that doesn’t prevent us from being excellent escape artists. We just use different methods.

Binge-watching, video games, and books are probably the most popular methods of escapism. When participating in these activities, the real world falls away and we instead live in the fantasy world somebody created for us. It’s a safe place, usually with guaranteed happy endings and unlimited attempts to fix mistakes. And even if the storyline does lead us to a point of no return, what’s happening isn’t happening to us at all, and so we don’t have to suffer any of the consequences.

Created infographic of suggested "escape songs".

Image from: Rehann Rheel

Binge-watching, video games, and books are certainly effective methods of escapism, but they’re not the only ones. Music, though it doesn’t have a narrative component, can just as effectively remove us from the life we’re living and take us on a journey (3). International travel very literally allows us to escape our lives (1). Sports, religion, gambling, and alcohol consumption are additional ways humans escape from our daily lives—though obviously some methods are more prone to the negative effects of escapism than others (3).

Self-Suppression and Self-Expansion: The Two Escape Hatches

As I mentioned earlier, the general concept of escapism is to take a break from life. But it turns out that some psychologists believe that there are two different types of escapism:

  • Self-Suppression: This is the type of escapism we most often think of, where the focus is suppressing who we are and what we think to escape some sort of emotional turmoil (3). Laying in bed, listening to music at an extremely high volume (been there, done that) might be a form of self-suppression.
  • Self-Expansion: The focus of this “flavor” of escapism isn’t so much leaving who you are behind, but rather focusing on a task that will improve who you are (3). An example of self-expansion would be learning a new language. The world falls away, just as it does when listening to music, but there’s a growth aspect here absent in self-suppression types of escapism.

Back to Reality

Researching escapism kind of forced me to do some psychoanalyzing. I find it hard to turn off the TV or put down my book or the Switch controller, especially when I have time-consuming responsibilities to take care of (*cough* this blog post *cough*). But I think I think I usually straddle the line between the adaptive and maladaptive aspects of escapism. I may be reluctant to leave The Night Court and go to work, and I may get uncomfortably close to established deadlines, but I do it. Every time. (With only minor kicking and screaming involved.)

And that’s a large part of what divides “good” escapism from “bad” escapism. Leaving reality for a few hours to put some distance between yourself and your problems can be a healthy coping strategy. Literally possessing an entire town and its people for a few weeks? Very bad coping strategy.

Initially, Wanda doesn’t understand what’s happened, what she’s done. Once she realizes the truth, she first tries to convince herself that she’s not harming anybody. The people in town are happy; she’s helping them, if anything. But escapism isn’t designed to keep our troubles at bay forever. It’s just supposed to be a temporary reprieve.

In the end, Wanda has no choice but to face the truth. In the end, Wanda has to let Vision go all over again.

In the Face of Fear

Intruder breaking into a home.

Image from: Wtop News

By: Rehann Rheel

Frozen in Fear:

I paused where I stood and stared at the form lying on my living room couch. My brain, still slow to process information this early in the morning, slowly ticked off the things it knew I wasn’t seeing. I wasn’t seeing my mom or my aunt, because I could hear them a few yards away, in different rooms. I wasn’t seeing my sister, because she does not have man feet or such holey socks. And I wasn’t seeing some employee of my mother’s that she’d asked to house sit for the night because that didn’t even make any sense. So that meant…what I was seeing was…

An intruder.

In my house.

Sleeping on my couch. 

I had to warn somebody. My sister, my mom, my aunt—and myself, of course—were all in danger. But when I tried to call out, nothing happened. Like whatever neurons connected my brain to my vocal cords didn’t exist. 

Stupid, stupid. 

Plan B, then. Getaway, go to the adults and warn them via the most intense game of charades I’ve ever played. 

I had better success with Plan B. Slowly backing away (because I was afraid that the intruder wasn’t sleeping and that he’d leap up like a ninja the second my back was turned and stab me), I left the living room, then the breakfast nook, and finally reached the kitchen where my aunt was pondering wooden pieces on the ground; wooden pieces I knew must be from the door the intruder came through. 

When there was finally a wall between me and the intruder, I got some control of my vocal cords back. Enough to rasp, “Look! Look!” as I gesticulated at the living room.

The concept of “fight or flight” is thrown around a lot—in TV, books, anything. But what I did that day—at least at first—was neither fight nor flight: it was freeze. 

The Science of Fear:

Fear is a not-so-dear friend of mine. You see, I am an easily startled person, and can hardly make it a day without being scared by some unexpected sound or presence. But despite my frenemy status with fear, I don’t actually know how it works. Turns out, fear is an extremely complicated, multi-step process that happens in less than a second.

First, comes the object of fear. Maybe it’s a speeding car or a murder hornet or just a strand of hair you thought was a spider because you forgot that you dyed your hair a darker color. When faced with this object, the eyes and/or ears send the sights or sounds directly to the amygdala, the part of the brain involved in processing emotions. The amygdala looks at the information it’s been given and sounds the alarm, sending a distress signal to the hypothalamus. (Harvard Health, 2020).

So, next, the hypothalamus takes charge. The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that talks to all the rest of the body via the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system has two very important parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The former is what lights a fire under our feet, so to speak, and triggers the fight or flight response (Harvard Health, 2020).



Labeled view of brain.

Image from: The University of Queensland

Fight or Flight:

The term “fight or flight” has been in use since the 1920s (fight or fight or flapper, anyone?). It describes the reactions we exhibit when faced with a threat—perceived or real (Schmidt et al., 2008).

“Accurately or not, if you assess the immediately menacing force as something you potentially have the power to defeat, you go into fight mode. In such instances, the hormones released by your sympathetic nervous system—especially adrenaline—prime you to do battle and, hopefully, triumph over the hostile entity,” said Leon F Seltzer, Ph.D. (Seltzer, 2015).

However, if you take a look at the threat you’re facing and realize that there’s no way you’d ever make it out of that particular battle scratch-free, the body wants to flee (Seltzer, 2015).

Fear response model.

Image from: The Royal Society

…Or Freeze:

Okay, so both fight and flight make biological sense. But what about freeze? How can a (seemingly) total loss of bodily control when faced with some foe be beneficial? Turns out, it is. Because sometimes, a person can find themselves in a situation where they know they can’t overpower the object of their fear, but neither can they outrun it. That’s when the freeze response kicks in (Schmidt et al., 2008).

Let’s say that—heaven forbid—you’re being attacked. It’s too late to run, and your assailant is stronger than you. In this situation, the freeze response can help you to escape the physical, mental, and emotional pain you’d be otherwise experiencing. And this disassociation can actually preserve your sanity. In such a situation, some of the chemicals our bodies secrete, like endorphins, can act as a kind of painkiller. Also, it’s possible that if an attacker—be it human or animal—feels that their victim isn’t playing along, they might just get bored and stop the attack altogether (Seltzer, 2015).

It’s important to note that the freeze response is a little different from the concept of “tonic immobility,” which is something demonstrated by animals in the wild when they play dead. Playing dead often means “motor and vocal inhibition,” but these two characteristics aren’t necessarily tied to the freeze response (Schmidt et al., 2008).

It’s also important to note that the freeze response isn’t a passive state, or the failure to act. Instead, it’s more like the information gathering stage of fear. The senses take in the situation, the brain develops a plan, and the body prepares to act on that plan in various ways like increasing muscle tone and suppressing pain (Roelofs, 2017).

In addition, studies have shown that people might be predisposed to the freeze response. A study published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry found that, “The majority of items that were more highly associated with freeze included those focused on cognitive symptoms of anxiety (e.g., confusion, unreality, detached, concentration, inner shakiness) as well as fear of losing control” (Schmidt et al., 2008). This is supported by numerous fear studies involving rats; those with a genetic predisposition to anxiety were significantly more prone to freezing than non-anxious rats (Roelofs, 2017).

In the Face of Rheel Fear:

Thankfully, that day with the guy on the couch ended without anybody being harmed. All four of us escaped the house while the intruder continued to slumber, and he only stirred when the cops woke him up (Talk about a rude awakening). But the “what ifs” still sneak up on me, even 12 years later. What if my hesitation put my life at risk? What if my hesitation put my family’s lives at risk? 

Betsy Huggett, director of the Diane Peppler Resource Center, went through a similar dilemma. A trained soldier, Betsy was confident that she knew what to do when the base’s sirens went off. However, instead of going to the station as she’d trained to do, she ran. “My training failed me,” she thought at first. “But what I really felt was that I failed. I didn’t feel like my training failed; I failed” (Huggett, 2019). 

But we didn’t fail. I didn’t fail. Freezing is part of the natural human reaction, just like fight and flight. It serves a purpose, just like fight and flight. And it has its pros and cons, just like fight and flight. If the intruder had been a light sleeper, too much sound or movement could have awakened him, and then the story I tell as an ice breaker might have had a much more sobering ending. 

Still, I have to admit that, if I ever find myself in a similar situation again, I hope I draw the Flight card, so I can get me and mine the heck out of Dodge.

Reclaiming Her Life: How a Tragic Loss Sparked an Inner Purpose to Combat Teen Drug Abuse

Reclaiming My Life book cover.

Early in my young adult life, I had encountered a tragic event that an average teenager should never have to face. A tragic event that no one should ever have to face. At the young age of 18, my beloved cousin Robert had passed away from a drug overdose. There is not a word in the English dictionary that could have expressed the grief and sorrow that my family felt and I could not emphasize enough that no person should ever have to experience that kind of pain. With that pain; however, a glimmer of hope did surface.

In this post, I want to highlight a hero that emerged from Rob’s passing, my Aunt, Tammy Lofink. She was faced with the worst fear that any parent could have, and even worse, the lingering grief and suffering that became a permanent mark on her life. Despite this, Tammy was able to use her grief as motivation. She found purpose in becoming an activist for teen drug addiction and planned on making it a goal in her life to combat this crisis.

In 2015, one year after the passing of Rob, Tammy formed the organization Rising Above Addiction. This is a nonprofit organization based in Carroll County, Maryland. Their primary goal is to focus on the community by hosting countless charity events that bring people together, educate them on the dangers of drug abuse, and raise money to help those in need. Over the years, they have hosted events such as softball games, barbeques, Running and Riding for Recovery, golf tournaments, and the event that kicked off this organization, sky diving events. With each event, a tighter bond connects each community member. More importantly, it presents an opportunity for inclusion for those struggling with drug addiction.

Rising Above Addiction Organization Logo

This organization brings those individuals together and lets them know that they are not alone in their battles. Tammy quotes on this inclusion as she states in her book, “we recognize that when someone is under the influence of drugs, they are not always capable of making the decision to get help. The goal is that after detox, individuals make the decision to stay in treatment. My mission and my vision are to make treatment available to all who are ready”. That mission and vision only continued to grow as she has gone on to open two sober homes (Reclaiming My Life and Keeping My Serenity). In these sober homes, “a group of men or a group of women share a same-gender house in hopes of re-entry into the community as productive members”. These homes offer a chance at rehabilitation and a chance to achieve a normal life that the evils of drugs had taken away.

As I have consistently mentioned throughout this post, she has also written a book that has truly forwarded her movement on combating drug addiction. Tammy Lofink, with Sylvia Blair editing, wrote the book Reclaiming My Life. This book presents a captivating journey that my Aunt has taken through life, especially when detailing Robert and his constant battle with drug abuse. She does not hold back as each page, each word holds such an impactful meaning of love. I want to specifically point out how she connects herself to Robert throughout the book. It offers a great parallel between individuals, adding to her struggle in trying to save him and highlighting Rob as this overarching angel that has guided her throughout her countless efforts to make sure no parent ever has to go through what she did. With the goal in mind to find inner peace in her tragedy and to help others find comfort in their situations regarding addiction, she was able to communicate her story and offering a chance for others to get the help they need with addiction.

Whether it was through her words on paper or her actions assembling an organization that allows those a second chance, Tammy was able to make the difference and I feel has solidified herself as a hero in every sense of the word. When I envision effective communication methods, my Aunt ultimately displayed this in the face of adversity. Her words have been able to start a movement in Maryland by helping those who truly need it. Even more commendable, she was able to bring light to Rob and his passing. Her book, her organization, the countless lives she was able to save by giving them a second chance in the fight against drug addiction, everything was for him and in his spirit.

I am blessed to be able to have such a strong and dedicated member of my family. Even more, I am extremely grateful for having the chance to write about and pass along her accomplishments. In concluding this post, I felt it would be fitting to speak in the words of my Aunt, the way I feel she would end it just like she does in her book:

“For you, Because of you, and In Memory of You”.

Top Skills for an Interviewer

At some point we have all been in an interview as the interviewee. Perhaps you were interviewed for a job or for an article or a newspaper. Some interviews are great, you connect with the interviewer and feel as though you have gotten our point across. Other interviews fall short. You may feel as though you and the interviewer are speaking different language and you may leave the interview wondering what you could have done better. I have been interviewed more times than I have conducted an interview. In an effort to push through my comfort zone, I would like to become an interviewer. Watching those with this skill set conduct an interview is much like watching a great painter paint.

Lets break down the interview structure; the one-one-one conversation. The whole crux of an interview is to gain information about the respondent and their point of view in a manner that they feel comfortable enough to surrender their true thoughts. This holds true while interviewing a candidate for a hiring position, conducting a journalistic interview of your favorite writer, and when moderating a focus group for market research. The interviewee has information that you need for yourself or that needs disseminated to a larger audience. Your task as the interviewer is to get the information out, the truthful, usable information.

The Interviewers To-do List:

  1. Punctuality: Once the interview appointment is scheduled the interviewer should be ready to start at the agreed upon time. Do not be fashionably late.
  2. Prepare the Interviewee: Let the person or persons know what to expect. This could be the order of operations if there is a group being interviewed vs. a single person or simply how long the interview will take. Knowing what will happen will make the person being interviewed more comfortable.
  3. Environment: Select a location that will limit distractions. If the interview is over the phone or Internet, be sure to select a quiet place. The environment can have a negative impact on the interview. Dogs barking or doors slamming can be a detraction.
  4. Prepare Notes: You want to be prepared with questions to ask and notes on the background research you have done on the person and subject matter. These notes are to help you prepare and for reference if you need them but relying on notes to heavily can make you seem unprepared. You want to ask insightful questions about their vision, ideas, and goals. These questions are to be open-ended, but no so open or vague that the interviewer does not know how to answer. For instance, “Tell me about yourself” is very vague. Here’s a great question I was asked at my graduate entrance interview, “Can you tell us why you have selected Chatham University’s Master of Professional Writing program?”. As a person I usually choke when I am asked to speak about myself, it is not my favorite topic. But when asked about a program of study I find it easy to put words together. I can put a purpose to it.
  5. Let go of Your Ego: Even though the interview is a one-on-one conversation, the interview is about the interviewee, not you. As the interviewer, when you speak encourage the other person to talk about their story or experience. The words you use should always be taking the interview further, diving deeper into questions to gain more insight or information.
  6. Be a Good Listener: Practicing active listening will help you know when to dive deeper into a question or take the questioning in a different direction. Listening will also show that you are genuinely interested. There is no need to take notes during the interview, just listen. Asking the interviewee if they mind the interview being recorded will provide a method of going back and allow you to listen instead of taking notes. While they are speaking this is their chance to get the point across. Their answer to a question may help you select which question to ask next.
  7. Not-So-Awkward Pause: No one wants the uncomfortable pause but taking a slight pause rather than interjecting with the next question too quickly can allow time for the responder to add more information. Use the silence to draw out more information. Maybe they will add more info on the question or offer information on a new idea.
  8. Close the Interview: Too short of an interview may show your disinterest as an interviewer and too long of an interviewer may result in diminishing returns in the quality of information gained. Once you have finished with your questions, be sure to ask the interviewee if there is anything they would like to add; you may be surprised that they will offer information you did not think to ask about. Finally, be sure to thank your interviewee and be sure to help them exit the interview as you

Conducting an interview involves critical reasoning skills and imaginative thinking skills. Be aware of the details without losing sight of the big picture. Much like any other form of communication or writing, the more you are an interviewer, the better you will be.

10,000 Hours, or One Golden Hour?

10,000 Hours

Outlier: A person, situation, or thing that is different from others (Gladwell, M). In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell tells us that with the perfect combination of time and opportunity people can be successful. The magic number is 10,000 hours. If someone can put in 10,000 hours worth of practice at a given task, then he can become a master. Bill Gates and the Beatles are both outliers; they put in 10,000 hours, and they are considered masters in their field. Better than the rest and known for their success. In a time of crisis PR professionals don’t have 10,000 hours to work with, they have mere minutes.

The Golden Hour

PR Professionals have a mere sixty minutes to handle a crisis. This one hour can make or break a company if handled incorrectly. In this time PR should notify news media, social media, internal publics, external publics, and lawyers. With technology at our fingertips, we demand information immediately following a crisis.

Court of Law vs. Court of Public Opinion

A PR professional must make an important decision when crisis arises, will the organization be scrutinized under the court of law or under the court of public opinion? We all know that under the court of law we are ‘innocent until proven guilty;’ however, in the court of public opinion, we are ‘guilty until proven innocent.’

PR Outliers

Johnson and Johnson

Most of you are probably familiar with the Johnson and Johnson crisis of 1982. Someone (still unknown) laced tylenol with cyanide and killed seven people in the Chicago area. Johnson and Johnson is still studied in books now because of the way they masterfully handled the situation.


In 2007, Jetblue left passengers stranded on a runway due to snow. Even though the crisis was due to weather, Jetblue took full responsibility for the incident and promised to take future steps to prevent future problems.


After the owner of the Clippers, Donald Sterling, was recorded making racist comments the commissioner of the NBA, Adam Silver, took quick action against him.

After the incident the NBA went on to create a “We Are One” ad.

Future Recommendations

  • Assess your risks before they happen.
  • Create a crisis plan (framework, teams and responsibilities, key messaging, procedures, internal and external contact lists, checklists).
  • Designate a spokesperson.
  • Create a sense of “we-ness” among internal publics (employees, management, interns, retirees, stakeholders).
  • Get information out fast, but always be accurate.
  • Never reveal assumptions to the media.
  • A crisis is interesting. Make it uninteresting by continuously providing information to the public.
  • Know your key message, and keep reiterating it to your audience.
  • Never turn a problem into a crisis. Fix the problem, but don’t make it bigger than it needs to be.

Crafting a Pitch, Selling a Story

A pitch is a brief message to an editor written with the purpose of selling your story. Sometimes called a query letter or proposal, the pitch is an art form in itself, a gateway to getting an editor to read your work and ultimately to having it published.

A pitch is necessary whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, creative or business prose.

A pitch is a brief message to an editor written with the purpose of selling your story. Sometimes called a query letter or proposal, the pitch is an art form in itself, a gateway to getting an editor to read your work and ultimately to having it published.

A pitch is necessary whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, creative or business prose—anytime you need to approach a publication from the outside. It bears some resemblance to a cover letter for a job but is much more specific to the piece of work at hand. No longer than 3-4 concise paragraphs, the pitch must make a strong positive impression in a limited number of words.

Steps to crafting a winning pitch:

  1. Understand the outlet. Before you set pen to paper or finger to keyboard to write your pitch, your first task is getting to know the publication. Understand its mission and tone, what genres of stories or articles it publishes, any authorship or word count requirements, etc. Luckily, these are often spelled out quite clearly on publication websites, usually in an area called “submission requirements.”Know that you must tailor your writing to an outlet’s editorial specifications. These might include whether the editor prefers to receive pitches with or without finished articles attached. Ideally, you would become familiar with these requirements not only before you write your pitch but also before you write the story itself.
  2. Entice and educate. As you begin your pitch letter, your first challenge is to entice the reader. This is the “hook” you’ve heard about before—the sentence or two that reels the reader in. It should contain the central idea of your story and be presented as a snappy lead. You should then inform the editor how you plan to flesh out the story from this extremely compelling beginning, with specifics on what you’ll include.This part of the pitch also works to convince the editor that your story is a good fit for his or her publication and audience. It’s important to demonstrate that you “get” the editorial vision and want to write for this publication specifically. For this reason, you should never use a template or an one-size-fits-all pitch.
  3. Establish your credentials. Next you need to prove you’re the one to write this story. Start with a brief 1-2 sentence bio. Then let the editor know how much research or writing you’ve done so far (including a word count of anything you’ve written) and what you plan to do to deliver a successful finished piece.You might also include how long you’ve been writing, any particular expertise you have in this subject area, a couple examples of your most recent pitch-worthy publications, and a link to your writing portfolio.
  4. Make it easy. Finally, the cardinal rule of pitching is to make a busy editor’s job easier, not harder. Mention anything additional you can provide, such as photographs or sidebars, and be sure to include everything he or she needs to be able to say yes to your story.

The challenge is to achieve all this in 3-4 short paragraphs that exude confidence, not desperation. You’re much more likely to receive a response if the editor can read the professionalism in your pitch and gain an impression of you as a talented and reliable writer with whom he or she wants to work.


How to Tell Your Tale: Writing your Story for a Grant Proposal

Before You Start

In order to capture the attention of grant makers you need to tell a story that tugs at their emotional side. There are three tips to tell a successful story: 1) tell a story within a story, 2) every story needs a protagonist, 3) show you audience what the future could look like.

Your Story Template

A quick and easy tip to make sure you haven’t left out any important part is to follow this template: Tell how you connect personally with the cause (your story)-> tell about the current conditions of the issue your trying to get funding for->tell what has to happen to fix the current conditions->state how you can fix the problem->end with telling people how they can help… “the ask.” Now, I’ll show you how to use this in a real example. Say you are asking for funding to get after-school programs in your area for troubled youth. Here’s how to fit that in the template above: Tell how you personally connect with this issue->tell about the problems children are going through->state what kinds of things help people in this situation->explain the solution of after-school programs->tell your audience that funding is needed in order to help children lead safer, fuller, happier lives.

What is and What Could be

It is necessary that while writing your grant proposal story you create an outline of “what is” and “what could be.” This helps your audience realize what the status quo is, and why it needs to change. It evokes an emotional response, which is what you want because response means action.

How to do it

Take the example from above; a grant proposal to get funding for after-school programs for troubled youth. Here’s how you could outline your ideas with the ‘what is’ and ‘what could be’ theory: What is…Children with behavioral problems inside and outside of school, such as; poor schoolwork, school absences, irritability, and aggressiveness. What could be…Emotionally supportive environment for these children to help lessen these problems. What is…families that do not know how to deal with the child and their behavioral issues. What could be…Meetings at the end of every month with the parents to educate them on what they could do at home for their child’s emotional needs when not at the program. The blissful ending…Give children fuller, happier lives. These are only a few of the examples of ‘what is’ and what could be.’ You can make your list longer and then incorporate them into your story.

The Protagonist vs. Antagonist   

Any good story has a good guy and a bad guy. People crave to see good overcome evil, because the antagonist gives the audience one shared goal to work to overcome together. So, let’s take the example above and find the protagonist and the antagonist to incorporate into the story. The protagonist, or good, is the after-school program and happy children from it. The antagonist, or bad, is the issues these children are facing. So, by showing this the audience can decide to take action against the bad in the story.

The Ask

Be straightforward with your audience. You need to give them concrete numbers for how much money you are looking for and what it will break down to cover. Do not go around the issue if you feel uncomfortable asking for money. By putting a dollar amount to ask it allows your audience and grant makers to outline what it will be used for and is evidence for how you will address the issue at hand. Here’s an example for the ask for a grant maker:

“I estimate my need to get this project up and running for one year to be about 51,000 dollars. This would cover the cost of four one-hour after school programs at two elementary schools and two middle schools. Included in this is the cost to provide one mental health counselor at each program. Also, included in this is one-week’s worth of summer training for the other volunteers of this program. Additionally, it would cover books, crafts, toys, and snacks for each program. Lastly, it would provide one start of the year education program for teachers, staff, and faculty to get acquainted with the new program and know how to manage these children in their own classrooms. It is my hope to raise 20,000 dollars through other funders, so I am asking you to consider covering the remaining 31,000 dollars. I greatly look forward to hearing from you and in the meantime would love if you could send application guidelines or any other information that could be of use.”

After the Story

If you feel comfortable enough you can take your story and turn it into a video to use on other funding websites. You can take all of this information and pair it with visuals and statistics so that you are able to target both an audience’s emotional appeal and logical appeal. Since a video can be easily shared among social networking sites, although it may not reach the right audience first, it can make it to them at some point.

Building Community to Build Money: How to Crowdfund Effectively

What is Crowdfunding?

Simply put, crowdfunding is raising small amounts of money by a large amount of  people for a project, and it is all done online.  This may be a simple concept, but doing this successfully is not so simple. I want to provide you with the necessary steps for a crowdfunding campaign and provide effective examples so you can reach your crowdfunding goals.

“Crowdfunding isn’t about collecting money. It’s about making something happen with a crowd of people who believe in something. Normal people, not rich people with a lot of power, just people like you and me.” -Jozefien Daelemans (Editor-in-Chief, Charlie Magazine)

Crowdfunding is all about your ability to create a community of peers that believe in your idea. It is about putting yourself out there and believing in your own ability and getting others to believe in it as well. Confidence is key.

You Need to Crowdfund, Now What?

Choose a Platform

There are many different crowdfunding platforms. Do research and choose the site that best fits within your project’s category. Different platforms will fit better with different types of projects.

Some Common Platforms

GoFundMe: Personal or professional projects

Kickstarter: Creative projects

Indiegogo: For artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, and humanitarians

CircleUp: Companies looking for backers

YouCaring: Personal expenses

CrowdRise: Emphasis on global citizenship and the influence of social media

Use Multiple Channels 

Once you’ve chosen a platform you will need to market yourself. Utilize social media and connect your campaign to different social networking sites. Encourage friends and family to share your campaign.

Set a Realistic Goal

Just remember S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-frame) when coming up with your goals and objectives. Your project should have specific objectives that relate back to a broader goal in mind. You should relay this information to your audience.

For example: A goal could be to provide after-school reading programs in elementary schools. To obtain that goal one objective would be to improve the reading level of 100% of the children in the program which will be judged on a weekly basis. The goal is very broad, while the objective provides a narrow framework of what this goal will achieve.

Money Explanation

Your audience will need to know what there money will be used for. It is a good idea to break down the project for them with different costs for each part. Let them know the ‘what’, the ‘how much’, and the ‘why.’

For example…

What: After-school reading program

How much?: $5,000

Why: One-hour of free after-school programs provided each day of the 180-day calendar year

Put Together a Video

This should be the more emotional aspect to your campaign. It should have a visual aspect and can include music as well. You should mix emotion with facts. The video should end with your pitch to the audience. Tell them what your project is and ask for their financial help. To be able to crowdfund it is imperative that you feel comfortable asking people for money, sometimes that is easier said than done. Tell your audience how their donation will help you reach your goal. A video can be easily made for free by using apps on your phone or laptop!

Make it Personal

Usually when taking on a project there is a personal reason that pushes you to do so. Be real with your funders. Tell them about yourself, by doing so you give your campaign a voice and add a human element. By telling about your dream, other people might have a connection with you or share the same dream or passion, this will help you get their support.

Provide Perks

You might hope that your funders will just give from the heart, but they may be expecting something in return from you. Give them a small gift or promise them something if your project happens.

For example….Small donations will receive a T-shirt and large donations will receive a tote filled with small gifts. Or promise large donors that their name will be put on a bench as a sign of acknowledgement once the project is fulfilled. Be creative, and provide follow up thank you letters once your project is able to get started.

Don’t Forget About the Ask

I mentioned this above if you decide to make a video, but you cannot forget to provide a written ask to your audience as well. Remind them you need their financial help.

For example…’With one donation you are allowing us to move one step forward to provide children the help they need to improve their reading skills and have better confidence in the classroom. Our goal is set at $20,000 to cover program cost, volunteers, and resources. Every little bit helps!’

Remember…Raising Money is Just the Beginning

A crowdfunding campaign is like a part-time job. You need to be in constant communication with your publics, even if you have raised enough money for your project. The individuals that helped to fund it will want to know how it’s going and what is happening along the way. Don’t forget who got you to where you are. A successful first project can lead you to further success in your endeavors.

Sharing is Caring: The Power of Storytelling in Non Profit Campaigns

A Future of Sharing

How would you feel if I told you that sharing something as personal as your health and sicknesses on social media could someday help track the spread of disease? You might say that’s a little crazy, but would you do it if it meant keeping others healthy? Would you want others to do it if it meant keeping you healthy? Patrick Tucker thinks that soon the CDC will use our ever-posting social media habit to determine where illnesses are and where they’ll spread next, making Minority Report a thing of the present.

Although we’re not yet there, some health non-profit organizations have utilized this same idea of sharing personalized stories during campaigns, so people can talk about personal experiences and connect with others to spread information about certain diseases.

March of Dimes: Share Your Story

The campaign, ShareYourStory, by March of Dimes brings to life a safe online community in which the “neighbors” are families who all share in one particular struggle: a sick newborn. Members of this virtual “neighborhood” are able to share the struggle  they are having, offer and receive support, and spread information.

“ShareYourStory is home to all of us who have not had that picture-perfect pregnancy, who struggle with little ones in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or forever hold their child in their heart. It is where I found hope for the future,” said community member Lauren Wilson, from Hawaii.

The shareyourstory campaign easily connects to social media platforms so that they can be circulated to an even wider array of people. By using avatars and enabling videos and stories, the campaign to improve the health of babies becomes human, personalized, local, and gives the families a way to see the faces of the people that they connect with on a daily basis. The dedicated website,, brings families to a blog forum where they can post and react to others’ posts. Yesterday, for example, twenty members posted and commented on each others’ stories, questions, and messages.

The Power of Storytelling

Stories are so powerful because they withstand the tests of time. They spread from person to person, community to community, through families and friends; they change, but what is at the heart of a good story remains the same. By using storytelling as the main mode of communication in a campaign, organizations are able to tap in to human emotions and create common bonds.

Each campaign uses the very powerful tool of empathy. This is something that needs to be employed more in our health systems in order for patients and physicians to have a strong trusting relationship. Now, don’t confuse sympathy with empathy. Where sympathy leads to disconnect, empathy drives connection by staying out of judgement and communicating to a person that he or she is not alone. The problem with sympathy is that it always tries to show people the “good” in something bad. Health care providers need to be able to deter sympathy and understand this difference.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it” ” -Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird.

If physicians can step in to their patients’ shoes, then they can start treating patients as individuals instead of just another number. Interacting with patients not only helps create bonds, but allows physicians and healthcare providers to learn about individuals on a personal level. When a patient sees that their physician cares for them as a fellow human, it allows space for open dialogue between patients and physicians which leads to better, personalized care.

American Diabetes Association’s campaign, This is Diabetes, uses the hashtag #thisisdiabetes, to encourage individuals or friends and family to post their own video of a personal story and struggle they deal with from the disease. What this campaign encourages is spreading awareness about parts of the disease that many people would not be aware of otherwise and what kinds of crippling effects diabetes has on other aspects of a person’s health and the other lives that disease touches.

The National Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Society‘s, Together We Are Stronger Campaign uses similar tactics to inspire individuals living with MS to share their story through video and offer insights. It connects people together with different ways of dealing with the disease, educating people on the disease, and coming up with new ideas for a cure.

‘Empathetic Storytelling’

I call these campaigns  ‘empathetic storytelling,’ since they connect humans on a common health issue and provide support. They reverse the negative connotation that comes with the idea of spreading disease. Instead they spread information about a disease through words and symbols. By spreading words, instead of sicknesses, the information that is shared and reshared can help the listeners prevent their own risk of developing a disease, or even find a treatment.

Recommendations for Empathetic Storytelling For Health & Nonprofit Campaigns:

  • Utilize multiple channels and social media networks
  • Appeal to emotion, but don’t go too far (Think about the dog shelter commercials, how many times do you change the channel as soon as you see a sad dog come on your screen?)
  • Stories don’t always have to be sad, share some hope for the future
  • Mix words, pictures, and videos
  • Share your own story, this connects you to your audience
  • Create a powerful hashtag
  • Provide useful information (an audience needs to know about the cause in order to participate in the campaign)
  • Be cohesive and consistent, all the channels or networks you utilize should include the same information, hashtags, and look (branding, colors, etc.)
  • Try to stay away from medical jargon, in a health campaign it may be easy to use scientific words, stop and think about your intended audience (what is their knowledge, or lack thereof, on the topic)