Tribe Pictures CEO Vern Oakley on the As Told By Nomads Podcast

November 17th, 2017 Tribe Pictures

Tribe CEO/Creative Director Vern Oakley was on the As Told By Nomads Podcast recently. To listen go here: https://uydmedia.com/how-to-bring-out-your-best-on-camera-with-vern-oakley/

Choice quote:

“With over $160 billion spent in the U.S. alone on employee training and education, companies clearly need to make changes regarding how their connecting with their employees to make these investments worthwhile,” says ‘business artist’ Vern Oakley, the CEO of corporate video producers Tribe Pictures. “Between the video tsunami that is taking over the way we communicate and the impact we’ve seen our corporate videos have in the areas of human resources, employee retentions, and recruiting, every company should consider a ‘reset’ of their engagement initiatives with some form of video content.”

The conversation includes:

  • How companies like KPMG, Stanley Black and Decker, Hess and Activis have used video to communicate key corporate messages — and the residual impact of these videos
  • The key elements needed in any video to ensure viewers are engaged, from authenticity to clarity and transparency
  • How to effectively turn important facts and figures into a story that people can connect to and retain
  • The biggest mistakes he has seen companies make in communicating through video

Transcript follows:

In a world where very few people embrace their global identity, and seek to understand their neighbors, cross-cultural expert Tayo Rockson, is on a mission to bridge this divide. Each week, he’ll open your mind with insights from some of the global minds in the world. Get ready. Take some notes and learn how to be the best you that you can be.

Tayo Rockson: Welcome everybody to another episode of “As Told By Nomads” and today’s guest is Vern Oakley. Vern is the CEO of Tribe Pictures. And in today’s world, many employees are detached, disenchanted, and disengaged. According to research, fifty-seven percent of employees only complete trainings because they have to. Sixty-nine percent of employees are actively seeking or open to new job offer. And three out of four employees have forgotten some or all of the last mandatory training that they completed. And so Vern, with his new book, “Leadership of Focus: Bringing Out the Best on Camera” is really going into details about how to share the best ways to get the best out of video and how to make sure that your employees and leaders are keeping everyone engaged.

Welcome to the show, Vern.

Vern Oakley: Thanks, Tayo. Looking forward to chatting.

TR: Likewise! The pleasure’s mine. So, why do you give us a little background. What led you down this path? How did you become such an expert on video and really turning that video into something that sparks and boosts engagements?

VO: Well, I started way back in, when I first got out of college, in the television and news industry in Washington D.C. and I got to see how politicians performed and was editing the evening news. Then I moved to New York City and got involved with theater and was studying how to direct performances of actors. And I got invited to be at the Actor’s Studio to study with the renowned film director, Arthur Penn, who had directed “Bonnie and Clyde”. And I spent six years studying how to get really great performances with actors and what those methods were.

And then when I shifted my career into making more business films, I found that the skills that I’d learned in working with actors were kind of appropriate but not quite right. So I took the information that I sort of learned over the years and started applying it to working with real people. And that’s where I sort of developed this system of bringing out the authentic you on camera. And it’s been very successful, you know. People move from being afraid to being pretty good to being very good to being great on camera with just a few times of working together.

Tayo: Oh. Wow. Wow. And then, obviously, working with actors then you started to work at companies like KPMG, Stanley Black and Decker, Hess and Activist. And the reason why I’m bringing this up is because I had mentioned to you earlier that I do work with companies. And I do end up doing a lot of these training sometimes with videos and sometimes with audio workshops. And I’m always curious about how to communicate those key corporate messages, so how do those companies that you’ve worked with end up being able to communicate those key corporate messages and actually leave an impact?

VO: Well that’s a great question, Tayo. Really what companies are looking for, is they’re not looking to make a video. They’re really looking to solve some sort of business challenge. And that challenge could be making sure that the right people come to apply for jobs at their company. That business challenge could be making sure that the culture of two companies are joined together. Really kind of merged and they take the best elements from both the different cultures. That could be to exciting people about investing in the stock.

And so, when we determine the business opportunity, then we start to dig deeply into what we want the audience to think or to do or to feel or to buy or buy into. And once you determine this most importance audience – new recruits, potential investors, whoever that is and how you want them to appreciate your company – then we sort of work backwards to find the proof points. And once you find the proof points, then you try to dramatize those in the films that you’re making. And those could be by casting somebody who is just a fabulous employee who people will want to be like. Or, talking about a unique investment opportunity where there’s an expansion possibility into the emerging markets or something like that. And that’s sort of our process.

TR: That’s actually so fascinating to me. Obviously I’m, you know, you see movies where you can understand where different parts of the video are trying to evoke certain types of emotion and sometimes it’s really hard to even picture that in a work environment. Because you’re, maybe you’re doing HR training as a video, maybe it’s diversity and inclusion. And it’s hard to figure out what’s a climax, what’s the biggest point there. It’s hard to just remember things that would actually cause you to say, “Well, that is what I got from that image.” And you’re saying, how you work with companies, you work to find that story and that ultimate big idea and then you work backwards or what’s doing that?

VO: Absolutely, you mentioned a key word, which is “story” and that I believe that the sort of output of the most important strategies is a good story. Because the CEOs that are most effective, you look at Mark Zuckerberg and others like him, they tell a really good story. And they pull you into what the company’s about and what the mission is and what the values are. And that story, whether it’s told by the CEO, or it’s put in the employee’s mouth when we’re videotaping them, really starts to pull people in and attact people because this is the kind of company I want to do business with or this is the company I want to work for, or this is kind of company I want to invest in.

TR: Now, obviously, story’s a big part. Key elements needed in any video to ensure viewers are engaged from authenticity to clarity and transparency are what though? I’m curious because obviously a good video should inspire tribe. A good video is something that you want people to be influenced to take action. Story’s the big idea. Are there any other key elements for a videographers watching right now, or listening, and leaders thinking of hiring people like yourself. Are there key elements that they can work on to make your job easier?

VO: Sure. Well you want people to really, you know, tell a true story and you want the people that are telling a story to be authentic or we won’t believe them. So, that authenticity is something that you’re always looking for and we’re casting for. Because some people, you know, are naturally better on camera and we don’t always have a tremendous amount of time to work with everyone. So, if you have an authentic story that contains the key messages that essential to move that audience, that particularly well described, well chosen audience, that’s the best thing you can do.

TR: Yeah. Yeah. No, I can imagine. Okay, what about figures and facts? These are things, I go to a lot of conferences, go to a lot of “businessy” types of environments you’ve got those charts, those graphs, those elements that show 2000 to 2017. Those things, they’re good, but sometimes you start to see a lot of them, your eyes can sort of glaze over and be like, “Aw. There’s another one. There’s another one.” How do you turn those things into story that people can connect and retain?

VO: Well the main thing you’re trying to do is to personalize those facts and figures because you’re absolutely right. If it’s just a series of facts and figures, I like to say, “Information is important. It leads to understanding, but if you want to move people, you need emotion. And emotion moves people to action.” So, what you’re trying to do is take those facts and figures and create them in an emotional way so that people can relate to them. And that one of the things is, in terms of human beings we try to make sense out of our lives. We try to make sense out of the world. We try to make sense out of the companies that we work for through the stories we hear and the stories we tell. So, when you’re trying to move people, facts and figures can do it, if they’re told in the right way. And that, you know, I think the famous TED talk, by Brené Brown, talks about “story is a data with soul”. So you’re really trying to put some soul with those facts and figures.

TR: Yeah. Yeah. And with, interesting that you bring up Brené Brown, because with Brené Brown is a very, very famous for talking about vulnerability, you know, being authentic and walking through the wilderness, to really show yourself as you are. And the irony of that is that she talks about how, if you be authentic and you’re vulnerable, that actually is courage. And that, that’s something that actually draws people in because then you start to build this tribe of people saying, “Wow, that was me too. I thought I was alone. I thought I was alone.” So, I think it’s interesting that you can connect that, well obviously, connecting those facts and figures to your story, yes.

But, why is it then that you feel like a lot of companies don’t do that? You know, I mean, it feels like a lot of companies have a cookie cutter approach to several trainings. It even goes down to the monotone narrator, where it’s like, “duh duh duh duh duh. Da duh da duh dah”. And it has all those olden days type of music, like the elevator type music where you just feel like, “oh my, I’m about to just sleep for this two hours.” Why is there [crosstalk 00:10:10]? Why? I’m just asking why because this is your world! I’m curious.

VO: Well, you want me to solve the problems of all the corporate video world in this call?

TR: I mean, no! I’m curious as to your hypothesis because you … sometimes the biggest culprits of this are the biggest companies in the world. It’s not like they don’t have the money to fund this. So that leads me to believe that obviously, one, maybe the importance is not there. They just think it’s something to just check off. Right? It’s not … there’s no connection to the idea that video can engage listeners, can engage employees. So I’m trying to figure what that disconnect is.

VO: Sure, Tayo. I think you’re absolutely right. You know, because there are just … I like to say, “Listen, I’m so tired of seeing boring corporate videos.” And you described them very well with the elevator music and the ‘blah blah blah’ narrator. So, I believe that there’s a couple reasons that this happened. Is that, people see it as a project or as an opportunity where they have to go into a conference and be on camera. That’s not what it’s about. You need to change your mindset. It’s sort of like, you know, if you were doing a music video, you wouldn’t think it was just about the shoot. You would think, it’s about the way of promoting your album.

TR: Yeah.

VO: So, you gotta think about it as a marketer. You gotta think about, “It’s not being in the room with the director. It’s the director getting a performance out of me that they’re going to share with 25,000 employees”. So if you start to think about, “Hey, this interview that I’m doing is going to be for the 25,000 employees”, maybe you’d give it a little more time. A little more thought. Maybe you’d be a little more entertaining.

TR: Yeah.

VO: And the other part is, I believe, that there’s been sort of a force shield put around these companies. And they think when people walk through the door of their company, somehow they change into a different corporate human being as opposed to the human being that just binge watched “Game of Thrones” over the weekend. You know. And so, they’re not holding themselves to the same standards as Netflix or Amazon or all the fabulous videos in the social media feeds. And so, they have this perception that, “Hey, we’re in corporate land.” And that’s not true. People are showing up and giving you their time in exchange for their salary and their benefits but they’re human beings who need to be treated like human beings and talked to like human beings. Not like corporate citizens.

TR: Yeah. Yeah. That is so true. I think once you learn how to talk to people like they are people, you definitely get that engagement, that connection. Because people feel like you’re not talking at them, you’re talking to them. But it is so interesting to see the difficulty that happens when people get on camera. I’ve done this a lot, obviously not as much as you. You’re a veteran film maker, a legend of the game. But, me, as I started my career with media. I’ve done video as well as audio and spoken on stages. It’s interesting sometimes how some nerves come once you know the camera’s on. All of a sudden, you freeze up, you forget what you were going to say. You worry about the tone in your voice and just before people say, “Action!”, you’re like uncomfortable. So what are strategies that people can really … what strategies, rather, can you offer to help us relax and be our best authentic self in front of the camera so it doesn’t come across as inauthentic?

VO: Sure, I think that if you think about it in terms of talking to the audience that I reference, you know, your 25,000 employees. Your hundred and fifty best investors. The people who might come and work at your company. Not just in the general terms that I’m describing, but you actually think of somebody and you put that person in your mind. You know, your neighbor’s kid who might want to come work for you or that particular broker at one of the brokerage houses you might be selling the stock to, and try to imagine that single person. That always helps you.

Other thing, we are human creatures and we live in these bodies. And these bodies give us a lot of really good signals. So, one thing that you’ll notice is when you’re not feeling totally comfortable on camera is, you’ll stop to breathe.

TR: Yes. So true.

You know and that, all great athletes and all great performers actually know that breath really helps to control the body and helps you to relax. So, if I see somebody who’s nervous I say, “Hey. Let’s just stop for a second. You know, take a couple deep breaths.” And that gets them right back into their essential self.

And that most of the time, in terms of the kinds of work that we do, we’re the friendly folks. We’re not Mike Wallace in 60 Minutes. We’re not any of the people that are on the morning talks shows that are trying to get you about things. We’re trying to really pull out the essence of who you are or as I like to say, we’re trying to remove the mask. So the more comfortable you are, and making sure that you’re comfortable in the surroundings, that’s really key.

In Hollywood, we call them sort of, actors who are director proof, because they’re just so good and they know the script, even if the director is kind of a putz. They can still do a good performance. What we’re trying to do is get our people to be so good on camera that, no matter who’s interviewing them, they can be great. And so, it’s speaking from the heart. It’s having your body relaxed and it’s being clear about your message.

TR: Yeah. Yeah. That is, it’s fascinating. And it’s so, making sure that you’re clear about your message, making sure that you breathe, making sure that you realize that you’re talking to someone, and those type of things, they sort of calm you down.

It’s a little bit similar … because you know I do a lot of speaking and sometimes when I go on stages, I remember especially, I had a few big events this year and I was very, very nervous. Very, very nervous because the audience was big and it was lot of people. And I remember having to tell myself, “Who is this for? Who is this for? Who are you talking to? Who will be the person that will benefit from this? How would you feel if that person came here to hear one thing and feel inspired and they couldn’t hear it, because you know, you froze up and stuff like that.” And it sort of just, you know, helped me out, because I remember, okay, I was talking to one person and then it was many of those type of people. And that, I obviously, seemed qualified because I got to the position here and that sort of calmed me down. I reminded myself that I knew exactly what I was talking about so that there was no possibility of me losing that. Then, it’s just, you know, diffusing the environment.

So it sounds like it’s the same thing on camera, if you’re a CEO talking, you got to be a CEO for a reason. You have all these things to say, because you know what to say, and that’s why you were picked to say it. So it’s just a matter of you realizing that, if you want to bring out the best leader or inspire them to be best leader, think about talking to them in a one-to-one interview.

VO: You know that’s a good advice. I totally agree. Although, speaking on stage is a little different than being on camera. The whole concept of feeling like you want to share your knowledge rather than, you know, tell people what they have to know, is really a crucial mind shift.

TR: Yeah. Yeah. I guess the reason why I brought up the speaking on stage, is because sometimes, when you speak, at least when I speak sometimes, it’s usually from a point of view to inspire someone to take action. To do something. Right? It’s more like, because I talk a lot more about communicating across cultures and how and what they can do to do that. It’s almost in the same setting as I’m doing my diversity and inclusion training. Where I’m like, “Don’t, you know. Be careful of this. Be mindful of that.” And so, I always think about that. Maybe they have a good way to lead.

It reminds of, what’s his name, late Steve Jobs, his graduation speech at Stanford. I think his thing was just to empower them to really connect the dots, looking backwards, and really just, you know, stay foolish and dream. And you know, but to me, maybe just that’s slight bit of correlation, but I definitely understand how the mind shift shift is a little different with cameras and lights are on there. So. But. Okay.

And then obviously, “Leadership of Focus”. This is your book. It’s described as a comprehensive, entertaining guide for learners who will realize that it’s not just what you say on camera as important as how you say it. So, what is this book about? Who is this book for? And where can people find it?

VO: Sure. Well, we’re on Amazon and in bookstores around the country. I did want to say, that in this next week or so, we worked out a deal with the publisher. So if you’re, you know, listeners are hearing this before, I think, the end of October, we are putting a special on for 99 cents for the eBook. The premise of the book, is really, that in today’s society, with social media and millennials demanding transparency, one of the greatest currencies that any leader can have – college president, you know, leader of the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, CEO – is authenticity.

However, because of the way we get the information we get – on our phones, on our computers, and tablets, televisions – that the leader has to translate that authenticity to being authentic on camera. And that’s a little bit of a different twist on that. And this book is about, you know, not only authenticity and leadership, but bringing that forward to being authentic on camera.

TR: Yeah. Yeah. Ladies and gentlemen, Seth Godin described the book this way. He says, “Every business major takes a writing course, but that’s not our future. Instead, everyone with something to say is going to need to say it on camera. And Vern Oakley’s cash – crash course, rather – is a great place to start.”

And then, to your point earlier about today’s environment, Pamela Slim, who is the author of “Body of Work” says, “If you don’t know how to communicate authentically on camera, your brand, reputation and impact will suffer. Vern Oakley is the perfect guide to bringing film mastery to change makers, leaders and entrepreneurs.” I know a lot of you listeners are change makers or aspiring change makers. A lot of you definitely communicate across cultures and you live in different backgrounds, so learning the art of communicating through video is definitely a skill that’s needed in today’s world. And to Vern’s point, as we continue to move into this digital age, it is becoming the best way to make relationships. We have Instagram, making thought leaders almost everyday. Before that, it was Vine and now there’s YouTube.

So, yeah, definitely being able to communicate is something you should, you should definitely check out. We’ll make sure we’ll put that in the show notes and I do appreciate you offering that discount of 99 cents.

Question for you, this is more towards the fun side of the film elements of your career. So, I’m a film buff, you know, a movie buff. I love going to see movies. And I’m curious what your role was when you were, I guess you’re still in the film industry. When you were in the industry, what was the most exciting thing for you to see once you yelled “Action!”?

VO: Wow. You know, I, you know, started my career in the theater and then moved into film. And that, I’d say the most exciting to me is to see a scene that is so well acted, that in the moment, on the set, you know, the whole crew is there, sort of so moved and they are watching this, these two humans interact in a way that’s making them cry or laugh. And that, if you look from their point of view back to the crew, the crew is trying not to sniffle or trying to hold their laughs in, so they don’t ruin the take. And I just think that’s magical.

TR: Yeah. Yeah. Which actor or actress did you think was the best at evoking that emotion?

VO: Well, this memory came up to me because there’s a scene in my feature film Columbia Tri-Star released, “A Modern Affair”, where Stanley Tucci is having this moment where his mistress has come and told him she’s pregnant. And, that was Stanley Tucci and Mary Jo Salerno. And I gotta tell you, there was not a dry eye in any member of the crew. It was just such a moving and touching thing about two human beings that were trying to connect and really couldn’t and how they missed this opportunity to really be with one another.

TR: Ah, no. That’s amazing. It’s a, another thing that I always think about, Blade Runner came out, not too much fanfare unfortunately. But, Ryan Gosling, the actor, the main actor there. They always talk about his ability to act sometimes without talking. Whether it’s “Drive” or other movies. And that’s something that you were talking about with, when you can evoke emotions on camera, where people can see from your facial expressions. And they can really feel something, or they can see from your actions, or just a subtle shift in how you change your expression or your body language. And I’m curious, is that something that you direct for? Do you just tell an actor, actress, “Hey, you know, don’t say words but, make me feel something.”

VO: Well, what you just described would be results directing, which I try not to do. In that, what we’re trying to do in working with actors, you know, is you know, I gotta tell you, great actors are some of the smartest human beings I’ve met and I’ve met a lot of smart human beings. Because they understand story. They understand human emotion and they understand how to move their bodies. And they understand how we connect as human beings. And so, in that moment that you’re describing what you’re looking for is a variety of takes that you can put together in the editing room that craft the performance precisely the way you need it to be for the theme of the movie.

TR: Okay. Okay. That’s good. It’s alright. I’m a geek and this is like one of my few opportunities to talk to someone like you. So, I have these separate questions. The last one here has to do with a lot of consecrators. I have a lot [inaudible 00:25:25] who are very eager about creating video careers. Right? You’ve done this yourself, you have a company that does this. It’s called Tribe Pictures.

Given today’s world where you’ve got the Netflix, you’ve got the so many channels. Back in the day, there wasn’t as many channels. That’s why “Dallas” and ‘Who shot JR’ episode could be, could garner so many millions of views. Same thing with “Baywatch” and things like that. But now that you have all these interesting platforms where people can go, and then also you have Netflix and Amazon and HBO GO, what is the best way for an aspiring director or aspiring producer or aspiring videographer to actually build a career? Would you say it’s through creating a body of work through the free platforms out there? And then, going to like I don’t know, Atlanta or Hollywood, or can they do it from their own room?

VO: I would say, that there’s two traditional paths that people take. And one is to be makers, and to actually you know, make more and more videos and you get your own YouTube channel and now you can become a social influencer and that’s a really exciting path.

The other is a little bit more of a traditional path. It takes perhaps a little bit longer, but you get to be mentored and trained by people who are so good. So you kind of become in the system and maybe you start as a Production Assistant. You decide whether you’re just in sort of the editing portion or the production portion or the camera portion. You work your way up from a PA to an assistant camera or to an associate producer or an assistant editor. And those people can help you to grow and mentor you over time. People … because the tools have become so cheap, you know, and there’s a need for instant gratification, some of the people become sort of competent at the tools but not really star performing in terms of the stories they’re telling or the insights they’re providing, but there’s those exceptions.
And so, they’re kind of two different approaches and I think you gotta look inside yourself and say, “Who am I? And how do I want to move my career forward?”Yeah.

TR: Well said, well said! I couldn’t have said it better. We’re talking to the illustrious Vern Oakley. He’s the CEO of TriPictures and his book, “Leadership in Focus: Bringing Out Your Best On Camera” is out now. And it’s going to be going out at a special discount for the rest of October. We’ll make sure to put that in the show notes. Throughout the interview, we’ve been talking about the best ways to get companies to use video to communicate to key corporate messages. And also, he’s been gracious enough to share some of his acting in Hollywood experiences.

The last question here that I normally have is my mission statement. So my mission statement is use your difference to make a difference. This is the reason why I created this podcast, it’s the foundation of everything. And I get thought leaders like yourself from different parts of the world to talk about the best ways to really go about building the next set of global leaders. And I believe that we are uniquely skilled at something and we all have a difference that we can use to make an impact. Especially given the climate we have in the world right now, a lot of people’s differences are used as hindrances. So I want to celebrate that. So how do you, Vern, use your difference to make a difference?

VO: Well the way we like to say it, is we want to tell the stories that help to really connect us. To help to humanize the leaders that we’re serving. Help to humanize the companies that they lead, to help make the world a better place and I tend to feel that you know, we have a lot of different institutions that lead. And in government, and companies, and religions and NGOs. But I like to work with companies because I believe if people can go out there and earn a living and support themselves and support their families, it is such a rich and powerful feeling and that helping those companies that employee you know hundreds of millions of people is really gratifying.

And so that’s our mission.

TR: Yeah, I mean, if you come to think about it, we work for most of our lives. You know, to go to school and work. How sad of a reality does it become if you can’t go to work and feel, you know, motivated? If you feel detached, you feel disenchanted and disengaged. That’s a very, very psychological, you know, that’s a negative thing that can impact you psychologically. You know, the work that you do obviously does a good job of making sure that you can tweak that mentality to, from disengagement to engagement, and really promoting the authenticity of making people bring their full selves to work. So that’s a tall order that you have there but you know it’s an admirable goal that you have.

VO: Well we can chat and do it every day because it’s fun and it’s meaningful and you know, it’s new every day.

TR: Yeah. Yeah. What can I do to find you, Vern?

VO: Well we have a website for the book, which is VernOakley.com, and if people are interested in sort of seeing some examples of the corporate videos we do, that’s TribePictures.com.

TR: TribePictures.com, VernOakley.com. We’ll make sure to put that in the show notes. And once again, I can’t thank you enough. Thank you for being gracious enough to share stories as well as the importance of using video today. And as I always say, ladies and gentlemen, you have the ability to change the world. So, till next week, use your difference to make a difference.

You’ve just been listening to the “As Told By Nomads” podcast. For more ways to reach out to Tayo and to use your difference to make a difference, head over to

www.tayorockson.com.