Tribe CEO Vern Oakley was recently featured on the Bulletproof entrepreneur podcast with Chi Odogwu.
If you’re ready to take your destiny into your own hands, you’ve come to the right place. This is the bulletproof entrepreneur, featuring interviews with the most exciting and amazing entrepreneur …. Here’s your host Chi Odogwu.
Chi Odogwu: Hey everyone, thanks for tuning into the show today. If you love what you hear on today’s episode of the podcast, go to iTunes and leave a review and a comment. It helps other great listeners like yourself find the show. And of course you can always find more episodes of the bulletproof entrepreneur podcast at www.odogwu.com and without further ado, on with the show.
3, 2, 1. Hey everyone, welcome to the show, I have a great guest on the line today, I’m talking to Vern Oakley. Vern is a teacher, speaker, author and filmmaker. He wrote a new book recently titled, Leadership in Focus. Creates films for fortune 500 companies, universities, non governmental organizations and much more. He’s worked with big companies like NYU, Pfizer and many, many more household brand name companies. He’s a master at video story telling and helping leaders connect with their tribe in an authentic and genuine way. I’m pleased to have him on the show today to tell us a little bit about story telling, creating branded content, expert positioning and stimulating action using the awesome power of video.
Chi Odogwu: So, with that said, Vern, welcome to the show.
Vern Oakley: Thank you, what a great introduction. Looking forward to talking to your audience today.
Chi Odogwu: Great Vern, so tell us a little bit about yourself. I know I spoke with you in the pre chat, but tell us a little of how you became, you know, a maestro at video story telling.
Vern Oakley: You know, I kind of stumbled into this, you know, early in my career I was directing theater in New York City. I had done some television news work in Washington DC. I was looking to combine the story telling skills that I’d created in the newsroom with the mastery of acting and emotions in theater. And I got the opportunity to do a film for Canada Dry earlier in my career and it was incredibly successful. I got a standing ovation at a conference it was shown at. And I thought, “Hey this is kind of fun, you know, we get to make films that are created. We get to think of the way that they will be creative. We get to sell them and get to play them for audiences and have them react to it.”
It was a brand new thing to me, I didn’t realize at that point in time that companies were actually making films in the same what that Hollywood did or television did.
Chi Odogwu: Growing up for example, were you that kid that had a camera that was making videos at home? Or you just kind of fell into it while you were learning in college or …
Vern Oakley: Okay. You peaked on my Facebook page, I can tell.
Chi Odogwu: Of course I did.
Vern Oakley: Yeah, no. My parents were kind enough, they bought me a Super 8 camera when I was a kid, so I would take the family movies, you know, when we’d go on vacation or at Christmas or Thanksgiving and, you know, it was always fun to me to try and get real reactions. I mean, I think that was well, it was like I’d like to see my grandmother be surprised or say, “Put that camera down Vern.” Or my sister to start hamming it up. So I liked that interaction between the camera and the individual with me being safely behind it.
Chi Odogwu: Yeah, but you being safely behind the camera. Have you ever experienced being in front of the camera that made you really vulnerable. That you now realize, “That you know what, I know I’m not the best in front of the camera, let me stick to what I know.”
Vern Oakley: Yeah, I have experienced that. There is a tremendous vulnerability in terms of being in front of the camera. And I wouldn’t have been able to write the book about it if I hadn’t experienced it. Because I wanted to have empathy for those leaders and those CEOs that choose to put themselves on camera, choose to share their message with the video medium. It’s a very powerful medium and it can be a little intimidating. The icy glass eye of the lens sometimes, you know, some tribes thinks it sucks the soul out of you.
Chi Odogwu: Where did the origin of the book come from, you’re 30 plus year career?
Vern Oakley: Well, as I said Chi, I started in theater in New York and one of the great experiences, that I had. I had some terrific mentors along the way. I was invited to study at a studio in New York called the Actor’s Studio. And it’s famous for people like Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro and Paul Newman and Ellen Bursten being there. But there’s … And some people know it about the acting. But there’s a small unit called the Playwrights and Directors Unit where filmmakers and playwrights and screenwriters are brought in to share their work in a workshop atmosphere and it’s critiqued by the moderator.
The moderator I had for several years was an American director named Arthur Penn who did Bonny and Clyde, among a lot of different films. And that I always thought he was one of the smartest, most insightful directors that I got to study with. He passed away a few years ago, right before I started the book. And in his obituary, it mentioned that one of the things, in addition to directing early television and multiple features, was that he directed John F. Kennedy’s rehearsal before going on stage to debate with Richard Nixon in the Nixon and Kennedy debates.
And at that point in time, I sort of realized that the many acting teachers that and directing teachers that I had, had shared their knowledge. I twas passed down, you know. Two of my teachers studied with the world renowned, sort of considered the father of modern acting, Stanislavsky in Russia. So these were ways of teaching, ways of being, ways of encouraging performance that were shared with me and I said, “Well, I bet ya somebody’s already done this. I bet ya somebody’s already shared this way of being in front of the camera with non-professional.”
And it’s easy to Google that, easy to look on Amazon and no one had written a book about it. And I thought that, part of what I had to do is to give back the knowledge that had been so generously given to me.
Chi Odogwu: That’s amazing. And as you mentioned, the story of your mentor, Arthur Penn, mentoring Kennedy in the Kennedy versus Nixon debates. I remember reading somewhere in the book that, that was kind of like, the first time this strategy had been brought to the political arena. Because up until then nobody had actually used that. And then from there people started following it in business and in the corporate and the non-profit sector.
So those lessons learned from your mentor. You take that and you distill that to write this book. Now in that particular story, it says that when people were listening on radio, Nixon sounded like he did better, but when you watched in on TV Kennedy did way better because he came across as a confident speaker, he came across as his own very natural … He came across like a real human being.
So the battle has always been there between audio and visual, you know, across time. So how does one know where to, you know, play to their strengths if you’re going to become an expert and authority in the public space?
Vern Oakley: You know, that’s a great summation of that lesson and it’s a journey. I mean, this is what I talk about. A lot of people are very hard on themselves and very judgemental and think, “Hey I wasn’t good or … ” And just like, hey give yourself a break, you’re learning a new skill. If you were skiing down the mountain, you wouldn’t get upset if you fell down a few times the first 10 or 15 times you went down.
So whether, you know, you are really good in the audio area, you know, in doing podcast or radio, or whether you’re very good at the video area, is something you kind of discover over time. I personally like the podcast area a lot more than I like the video area, because I don’t like being on cameras as much. So I’ve discovered that about myself, even though I wrote a book about it.
And that what you start to realize, whether it’s in the audio area or the video area. When you’re communicating, we as viewers look at three things, both consciously and unconsciously. We’re really looking at the, you know, your facial expressions and whether they match. The thing in the Nixon Kennedy debates is Nixon was kind of sweaty and looked kind of smarmy and like maybe he was a crook, even though he claimed that he, “I’m not a crook.” And that when you marry that with your vocal intonations, where your positive and you’re excited versus, you know, if you said something, you know, “Hey, you know, I really, really love my wife.” Nobody’s gonna believe that. You need that excitement because, “I do love my wife and what a special person she is.”
And so you have your facial expression and your body language and the words that you’re actually using and the timber of your voice. So on video you gotta make all of those work.
Chi Odogwu: Yeah.
Vern Oakley: And if you can make all of those work, you can become a really confident, capable or maybe even a star in the video medium.
Chi Odogwu: So what are the strategies to help someone unlock their true selves as they come in front of the camera? I know you’ve done this a lot with helping CEOs, but for young people that are transitioning from the job markets to the … They’re becoming entrepreneurs in the video space, like we have a lot of YouTube celebrities and YouTube stars. How can they start embracing that skill and developing their true selves on camera?
Vern Oakley: It’s a great question. One of the things that is apparent to me is that this younger generation has been around cameras so much more, just because the price of cameras has decreased. It’s not like when I was a kid with a Super 8 camera and my parents got three free rolls of film and I shot them all up and they said, “Hey slow down, you know, that costs us money every time you develop them.”
So the younger generation’s been around cameras and they’re a bit more used to it. So it has to do with familiarity. The other things in terms of being authentic on camera is that there can be a tendency to sort of pull a mask over yourself, as I like to say. Because you’re trying to project somebody who is confident or somebody who is capable. And one of the things that is sort of a tip that we all know intuitively. If you’re watching feature films, one of my favorite parts to watch is on the extras where they always have the bloopers. And when you notice how actors do bloopers, it’s like a secret key to help everyone else. If they just sluff it off, they just laugh, they just realize they’re having a good time and they’ll do another take.
So, this perfectionistic tendency that so many of us have. I know I have it. If we can avoid that and just laugh at these moments and just go … And experience and feel and if possible say out loud, what’s there so you are connected to your inner Chi, sorry little pun there, that and as you connect to that and bring that forward, the lens is a magnificent instrument for capturing that.
So, the other thing I like to say, and this is, sounds so simplistic, but it is so true. Is people forget to breathe.
Chi Odogwu: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Say a little bit about that ’cause, I know I suffer from that problem quite a bit, even talking on audio.
Vern Oakley: Well, there’s a famous quote from Abraham Maslow that, “Fear is just excitement without the breath.” So what we’re talking about is people being afraid of being on camera. And so if you start to breathe, you know, and you realize, “Hey this is really exciting.” It’s like if you change your mental attitude, the way you’re viewing it as something playful. So I like to try and make the set fun. Because it’s a little bit intimidating, you know, would you come on to one of the sets that we have and there’s a number lights and 10 technicians around and the sound person’s putting the microphone on.
So one thing, and I realize it’s not that way for all your listeners, because maybe they’re just recording off of their computer. Maybe they’re just recording off of their iPhone. But what you see on YouTube and YouTube stars out there, which is a great model, is that they’re having fun. So having fun and making sure you breathe are, I think, the two biggest things you can do to be authentic.
Chi Odogwu: And as you were talking about that, I remember that, I think the fear actually comes from insecurities that people have, that people might judge them for not being perfect or not being good enough. And that reminded me of one of the stories in the book. The King’s Speech, by King George and his voice coach, I wanna say Lionel, I forget his last name.
Vern Oakley: Yes. Lionel.
Chi Odogwu: Yeah, so I remember in that speech and I also remember, I think it was in the movie too, that when the voice coach asked him that, “You know, you gave a great speech, but you still stammered, why did you stammer on your Ws or something like that.” And the King was like, “You know, I had to let people know that it’s still me, you know, it’s still George that everybody knows is a stammerer and a stutterer in the UK.
So how can people embrace their insecurities and their flaws to help them magnify the connection to people to their audience?
Vern Oakley: Yeah, so that’s a deep and complicated subject and I’ll try and simplify it. So, I’ll just take a crack at it from my own personal point of view. I can be insecure, I can think I’m not having a good day, I can be uptight and that I like to say those are all emotions. So if we can just recognize that emotions are just like clouds in the sky. They just kind of float by. You know, and in five minutes, you know, the sun may break through.
So you don’t have to internalize that emotion, you don’t have to accept that emotion and embrace it. You just have to acknowledge that, that’s what you’re feeling in that moment. And that the more you’re connected between that’s what I’m feeling in that moment and, you know, you can even say, “Hey, I’m feeling a little insecure.” All of a sudden that’s an authentic moment on camera, right?
Chi Odogwu: Yup.
Vern Oakley: You know, so and then if you’re working with a good director, they’ll help you. Or if you’re just on your own and the audience sees you going, “Hey I’m a little insecure at this moment, I don’t think my hair looks good.” You know, people gravitate and want to see real moments. That’s what touches us. That’s the connectivity that happens and that vulnerability that you’re expressing endears people to you, as opposed to the perfection that we think people will want to see.
Chi Odogwu: That’s very interesting. You just mentioned the director, so what’s the role of having someone, having a team in production? I know you work with a lot of CEOs and executives. So what’s the role of having a good team, a good director, a good script writer, a good production team supporting the person in front of the camera giving the talk?
Vern Oakley: It just makes everyone’s life easier because everyone has a role and responsibility. So the director’s role and responsibility is to make sure that the talent is performing, connecting, looks good. The director of photography’s role is to make sure that the lighting looks good. The script may have been written by us or somebody at the company or even the person who’s going on camera.
So one of the roles that the director has to perform is to make sure this script is actually communicating and that the director has to make sure … Like we were discussing earlier, that the words, the voice and the body language all align. Because those are the most important moments that will actually be in the film. Those are the real genuine moments. If the voice, you know, is fine but it doesn’t align with the body and vocal intonation. Probably gonna do a different take.
The other key crew members are the sound person, you know, they have to make sure the audio’s really good. Sometimes people hit their chest when they’re talking, hit the microphone or reach up. So life becomes a little simpler and a little more professional when you have a crew there to help you. And I like to say, the director is sort of the mirror. The director is the person who has to tell the truth to the person who is coming on camera. So they have to be, you know, they have to be as clean and pure in the moment so they can speak truth to someone in a gentle and kind way and ask for something else.
Particularly, you know, with CEOs, you know, sometimes CEOs can be intimating to employees whose careers they may hold in their hands.
Chi Odogwu: Yeah, that’s true, that’s very true. And in your experience in what, 30 years of doing this business. Are communicators born or ar they made? Are there naturally gifted people. Take for example there’s a saying that says, “The camera loves this person.” I actually recall watching a documentary, I don’t know if you’ve seen it yet, but it’s pretty good. It’s the guy that played the second James Bond, George Lazenby, right after Sean Connery. And up until getting the role of James Bond, he had never acted in front of a camera in his life. He kind of scammed his way up until he got to the director and the producer and they had no choice but to go with him because they had already made the choice.
So what I’m trying to ask you is, in your experience, are people naturally gifted at being excellent communicators in front of the camera or can they train themselves to become better in as much as they’re not necessarily going to be movie stars?
Vern Oakley: In my experience, what I’ve observed is, that the camera loves certain people and you don’t really know it until you put the camera on them. And it’s pretty incredible and that’s why Hollywood has something called the screen test. Because, you know, they would bring out a number of, you know, very talented and attractive men and women and they actually had to put them in front of the camera to see if they sort of, had that magic.
That’s kind of a different thing for most regular people. It is the thing that sort of distinguishes the movie stars. You can see it, you know, on the big screen. But for most people that are getting in front of the camera, it’s something you really can learn and you get better at with practice. And that, I like to think about it, if you really desire to get better on it; in any field, you’re gonna observe what you did the last time. Just like football players look at game tapes.
So you want to understand and not be harshly judgemental, but just look at it as, “Hey I didn’t do this the way I wanted to do this, I’m gonna do this differently next time.” And that process of experimentation, trial and error, getting up and doing it again and again, is really, really helpful. And what you start to realize is that many of the stars in Hollywood got to be so good at it, that they would actually tell people what director they wanted to work with, what lighting person they wanted to work with and how they wanted the lights actually to be set up for them. Because they knew what side they looked best from.
Chi Odogwu: That’s really interesting. And as we start to wind down the show, I have a couple of wrapping up questions for you. So we’ve talked a little bit about producing a great video for people to consume. But on the other side we’re also going to talk about, you know, the person that’s going to consume the video. The audience or the tribe. How important is it for a communicator to know and understand their audience before creating a particular message that’ll hit home with their audience and resonate with that person?
Vern Oakley: I think you’ve hit upon, you know, as we’re wrapping up, the most important thing. Is you really have to understand your audience. I don’t care whether you’re making Game of Thrones or you’re making a corporate video or you’re making a film on Kickstarter or you’re making the latest Star Wars. You need to understand and respect your audience. You need to entertain your audience. You need to tell them a story that is intriguing and surprising to them and you need to give them the kind of experience that keeps them watching the whole time.
And so for entertainment, it’s certainly a different story than what we’re doing in corporate video, but when we understand an audience, whether it’s someone who’s applying to a college, or it’s a potential recruit for one of our corporate clients. If we understand the kinds of music they listen to, the kinds of things that they respond to, the kind of truth that they’re seeking in this video and what stage of the buying cycle they’re in. We can then make a video that is good for them and I don’t like to sell people things. I like to entertain them and bring them into a story and educate them. And people don’t like to be sold things these days. So, it’s a different way of looking at it, but it all starts, as you suggest, with the audience.
Chi Odogwu: Yeah, I think I’ve heard somewhere that education is the new selling of that. If you’re not able to educate and entertain your audience, you’re not going to get much out of the relationship, because that’s the only way that people respond these days is by getting educated and entertained.
Vern Oakley: That’s true for me.
Chi Odogwu: And my second to last question before I let you go make some awesome movies for people is, what gets you excited to come to work every day?
Vern Oakley: Well, what gets me excited to come to work everyday is the fact that when I look at government and business and religion in the state of the planet. I really think that business is going to be a huge part of the solution. And so, if we can have businesses that are conscious that want to do good within the world in providing jobs and treating the environment well and having authentic leaders. That kind of business is going to make a huge impact. And I feel like we are story tellers for the next generation of planetary leaders.
Vern Oakley: And so when we’re working with a company that has those kind of values and I am the designated story teller. It’s just amazing. It’s such a rich and rewarding career.
Chi Odogwu: So a lot of listeners are mid-career, early career people, that are trying to strike out on their on and make it in the world. And many would want to follow your footsteps. So how can people learn to become better visual story tellers? Kind of like, what you did to get to where you are?
Vern Oakley: Well there’s a few things that I did. I didn’t go to film school, so … But I took a number of workshops with people who I considered some of the best in the industry. And that allowed me to get into the workforce, but take a week off and study with somebody like Vilmos Zsigmond who shot Close Encounters of the Third Kind or László Kovács who shot Ghostbusters. So I got to study with people who I considered artists and people that I would want to do things that were like them.
Vern Oakley: So I always found enriching myself with that. Other things is, I’m constantly reading and learning. Whether it’s subscribing to the Harvard Business Review, the one about how business stories are told or subscribing to American Cinematographer to see how the latest visual techniques and movies were shot. So I’m kind of jogging between, you know, left brain and right brain, business and art and how to combine those.
Other thing is, I just never give up. And I also found early on, that at least in the film business, I found people to be very generous and when ever I tried to connect with somebody, no matter at what level it is in a human way, in a respectful way. Most of them have said, “Yes, I will talk to you.” So I reached out to an editor of Ordinary People, which is one of my favorite sort of, human dramas and won the Oscar back in its time. And the gentleman gave me a couple hours of his time to talk to me about how his career would go.
So I think, that generosity of spirit and talking to people and always setting your sights really high. Because we, the world, needs really gifted, powerful story tellers who’ve set their sights very high. The world doesn’t need a lot of mediocre filmmakers. There’s just too many people out there doing it that way.
Chi Odogwu: That’s fantastic. And my friend, with that said, we’ve reached the end of the show. So, before I let you go, where can people learn more about you and get the book, Leadership in Focus?
Vern Oakley: Well, we’ve put a dedicated website up, called vernoakley.com and there’s information about filmmaking and there’s some articles there and a direct link to Amazon to connect through there. So I think that’s the best way.
Chi Odogwu: And are you active on social media, Twitter, Instagram. Do you have Instagram stories or snaps?
Vern Oakley: I’m active on Instagram and Twitter and Linkedin. So people can connect with me on any of those.
Chi Odogwu: Great, great. And that said, it’s been a pleasure talking to you for the last 45 minutes Vern. I wish you continued success in your journey as an entrepreneur, as a story teller, as a business man, as and author, speaker, teacher and we look forward to seeing, maybe, you crossing over from not just telling corporate stories but telling us, you know, some stories for the audience …
Vern Oakley: Well, I don’t know what medium I’m gonna use, but, you know, I love all the new technologies and virtual reality. We just finished stuff in there, we’re doing personalized videos, interactive. The story telling medium is changing so much and I’m so excited to be making craft in this particular time frame.
Chi Odogwu: Yeah. And are you going to make a video of the book?
Vern Oakley: You know, that’s … We’ve been think about that. You know, you know, we just might do that.
Chi Odogwu: Yeah, I’m thinking it would be a great addition to the package, but that’s just one guy. Because I really enjoyed it and I think having a visual story to support your expertise would also be good. So, something to think about.
Vern Oakley: Thank you, I appreciate it Chi.
Chi Odogwu: Hey everyone, thanks for tuning in to the show today. If you loved what you heard on today’s episode of the podcast, go to iTunes and leave a review and a comment. It helps other great listeners like yourself find the show. And of course, you can always find more episodes of the Bulletproof Entrepreneur podcast at